New York City & Paris to Sandisfield, Massachusetts
To get to celebrated author Courtney Maum’s, and her filmmaker husband Diego Ongaro’s, Berkshire home, you drive out of the hustle and bustle of Northampton, along windy country roads, over a river and through the woods. The home sits at the end of a gravel drive lined with several cottages and a small donkey, llama and camel farm. Courtney met Diego while living in France in her early twenties. After half a decade living and working in Paris, the couple decided to move to Brooklyn to further their careers and join the hustle of the American creative community. Once they arrived, however, they found they had underestimated the cost of living in the busy metropolis, and were soon frustrated that they couldn’t afford to participate in much of New York’s famed culture. They didn’t want to return to Paris with their tails between their legs, but they simply couldn’t afford Brooklyn anymore. Binge-watching HGTV convinced them that they could carry a mortgage in the countryside for less than what they were paying in rent. On a weekend stay in the Berkshires, they decided to tour a few real estate listings. When they first laid eyes on their log cabin home, they fell instantly in love. The house needed a ton of work but it had an outbuilding for their home office, the price was right, they could hear the quiet rush of the river that ran beside it, and it had more space than they could have ever hoped for. It wasn’t easy for two freelancers to get financing, but as soon as they found a way to buy the place, they immediately jumped in with both feet. They loved the quiet desolation they found living rurally. They got into the rhythm of working from home and balancing freelance work with their own personal projects. It wasn’t until the birth of their daughter Gabriela, that they started to realize that being located 30 minutes from the grocery store and preschool was going to be a hindrance to the family’s daily existence. Both Courtney and Diego juggled parenthood with busy freelance schedules that required a lot of travel. In 2014, Courtney’s first novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, was released to rave reviews. She now needed to make more frequent trips outside of Sandisfied for readings and tours. A few months after Urban Exodus toured Courtney and Diego’s home, they made the difficult choice to sell their house and move further South to the small town of Norfolk, Connecticut where their daughter goes to school. Although they loved their home and the community they had found in Sandisfield, the endless time they spent in their cars had become too much of a burden. Now they live closer to the village center and are still a couple hours’ drive away from New York City for the occasional meeting or job. They have a pond now, instead of a lake, and frogs instead of donkeys, and a historical library where Courtney works almost every day. It’s a little bit more ‘town’ but still very ‘country’, and it’s proven to be the perfect balance for their family right now. (Click here to jump to her interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
When my husband Diego and I first started thinking about moving to the woods, we were living in Brooklyn, but we only survived Brooklyn for a year. Before that, we’d been in France. Diego is French and I lived in Paris for five years—that’s where we met. We moved to Brooklyn thinking we’d replicate this very fulfilling, easy life with lots of friends and leisure time that we had had in Paris, but we were a very naïve, young married couple: when we got to Brooklyn, nobody wanted to come all the way out to Windsor Terrace for dinner parties—they wanted to be out and about. Diego’s English was terrible at the time, and he found the noise in all the bars and restaurants really difficult to take. He couldn’t understand anyone over the constant din, and he didn’t get the New York sense of humor. What was worse, we were totally broke. What passed for monthly income in Paris was a heavy spending weekend in NYC. We were really getting miserable—if we couldn’t even afford to take part in the city’s arts and culture, what was the point of being artists in NYC? We decided to move somewhere that was a drivable distance from Manhattan, but nurturing and inspiring, where we could hear each other talk.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Actually buying the house was very difficult because we were, and are both freelancers. (Diego is a director and film editor). Banks aren’t very generous in loan giving to the self-employed. At first everything was exciting and new. Even the setbacks felt like challenges that we could surmount. I suppose our first wake-up call was when we were told in April that we should have already purchased “cords” for the coming winter, and that all the local loggers were sold out of firewood. We joke all the time now about the “Winter is Coming” thing, but getting a house winterized in the Berkshires is no freaking joke. We had no idea.
What surprised you most about living rurally? Did it meet your expectations?
What surprised me the most was what I most loved about it. All of the sudden, we had our European social life back. We were invited to these raucous, lingering dinner parties—nobody double booked because there wasn’t a single other thing to do, and people were really passionate about food and entertainment. That was wonderful. It was so relaxing. I stopped feeling cynical all the time, and rushed.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
We live in a particularly rural town in an already rural region. There is no coffee shop to walk to when you want to take a break or procrastinate, and the closest grocery store is a 30 minute drive. For years I didn’t mind this because I really love the isolation, having nothing other to do than to really get down to my creative work, but I’ll admit that now that we have a toddler, having to drive 30 minutes for everything is getting a little tough. Like, the idea of take out food is completely impossible here. It just isn’t an option. What’s great about that is that we can go entire weeks without handing cash to anyone for food, or for a service. But I do miss ethnic food for starters and all of the everything that’s available right outside your apartment door in an urban setting.
Another thing that was tough at first was that we didn’t make any friends our age. When we first got to the Berkshires, we only socialized with empty-nesters and people in their sixties who were intrigued by our arrival. The people in our age group had their own lives going, or they just didn’t care. I loved the intergenerational mixing at first because it didn’t happen where I’d lived before. But after about two years of hanging out with much older people, I remember thinking, is this it? Are we never going to hang out with fertile people again?
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
I go back when I need to. Because of the work I do for branding agencies and because of my love and ties to New York’s literary scene, I’m at a point where I’ll say to Diego, I need to go in. Can you watch the baby for a couple days? He goes to a lot of film festivals—we do our thing, we support each other when we need that urban jolt. As for living full time in a city? I wouldn’t rule it out. I’d even look forward to it. But it would have to be temporary. At heart, I am someone who needs solitude and dirt and space.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
Everything. Really everything. I feel so fully myself. I love that I live somewhere where I can get weird and feral and really involved in my work without having to shake myself out of a certain mood to meet someone for tapas or something. I feel so fortunate to have a creative retreat as my home. In fact, I never apply for writing residencies because I feel like I live in one. The beauty, the quiet and the space here is integral to me. It’s important that it’s beautiful. We spend a LOT of time in the car!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Make sure that you have a job that you can do remotely that will support you for at least a year. Finding sustaining work in the countryside is very, very hard. I tried to start a branding agency here in the beginning with some friends and everyone wanted to pay us in raw milk and chickens. You can’t put those in your checking account. You really will need some spare cash, more than just the downpayment on a house and such, because there are so many surprises that come from having a country home. Snow plowing is an example. I completely overlooked the fact that snow was going to fall here relentlessly for five months and that I was either going to have to save up to pay someone to deal with it or do it myself.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
From my love of life, I’d say. I love people. I love observing them. I love to travel. I love coming home.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since moving away from the city?
It improved. I learned to experiment. I became more forgiving of myself. And I think that my writing got funnier. That being said, I really owe the jumpstart of my career to New York City—there was a period a while back when I was working half the week for a NY branding company while my husband was filming a movie for three months in Afghanistan. To justify the rent that I was paying in the East Village (and the insane commute back and forth to Massachusetts) I made a promise to myself that I would go to one reading series for each night I was in NY and introduce myself (like, real hand shaking) to one person at each event. I was very religious about this, and was able to build up a literary community that I didn’t have living out in the woods. Having that floating urban network helped me so incredibly. It just got me excited and involved in my work again, and I’m very grateful for New York and its literary denizens for that.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence? How does it compare to the day to day in the city?
I wake up at about 6:30 in the morning and try to write for an hour. Then I get my daughter’s lunch packed and her breakfast ready. I wake her up (we’re super lucky right now in that she’s a long sleeper, but who knows what will have changed by the time that this goes to print), and get her dressed, give her breakfast, and then my husband takes over the reins. He takes her to day care in the morning (a 45 minute drive there and back), so I’ll keep writing until maybe 11, at which point I will still be in whatever I slept in with unbrushed teeth and will feel pretty grody, so I’ll try to do some exercise—put on music and dance or go for a run along this abandoned highway near our house. I’ll shower, eat a lunch of leftovers quickly with my husband (we’re always busy and work like crazy while our daughter is at daycare). In the afternoons, I concentrate on naming work for branding agencies and cosmetic companies and return emails until 4pm when I leave to pick our daughter up. I try hard to have all work done so that when she comes back, we can all just enjoy each other. I take her to see our neighbor’s donkeys, camels, llamas and horses almost every day when we get home. We cook food, play music, have friends over for drinks—except for the camel and donkey visits, our weekdays are very similar to a lot of people our age working from home in the city. Right now I don’t have time to go hiking in the woods or anything during work days, but we do do that on the weekends. At weekends, we do outdoorsy stuff (hiking, kayaking, picnics, swimming) and a lot of social stuff. I love to have people over. Thankfully Gabriela is a great sleeper so we can still have parties!
However, even if I’m doing these very mundane ordinary things, I’m doing them against the backdrop of a spectacular landscape. We live on a river and it is always rushing, rushing as I write.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
You know, I haven’t changed that much. I tried gardening. I was terrible at it. Ditto for canning. I never baked. I still don’t. I haven’t turned into some kind of pioneer mom. But I have gotten more open and eager to socially connect with people, all kinds of people, in person. I’ve become better at sharing, and asking for help. Before, I was very proud and tried to do everything alone. We really know our neighbors. The entire street. In the city I never talked to anyone—you just never knew, in a tactical sense, whether or not to befriend someone. That sounds cold hearted but that was how it was. Here, we really need each other. If we’re away and the temperature drops, our neighbors will turn our heat up so our pipes don’t burst. Yes, there is technology for that, but I prefer using people. Investing in relationships. In social webs.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
My entire home! When I’m really stuck I go running. When I need to recharge: our hammock under these oak leaves.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
I haven’t heard a lot of misperceptions. I think people tend to idealize life in the country; idealize the idea of having smaller knit communities. Although life in the country can be tough, a lot of those ideals can prove true if you put yourself out there, work to get to know people, work hard to get them to know you. Our postmaster Amy calls me when I have important mail, for example. She is amazing. She’s read all the books by writers in our town but she complains about Simon Winchester because he writes a book a year. “He writes too much!” she says.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
The feature film I co-wrote with my husband “Bob and the Trees” is wrapping up its festival run. I have a new novel to finish, and once that’s done I’ll probably focus on naming work and relax a little bit. I’d like to travel—there are a lot of places I haven’t seen yet. I’ve never been to South America. Lisbon. Mexico City. Southern Spain. Clearly I’m eager to get away to places that are a little warmer than here. And I’d like to make another human, maybe! We shall see!