‘We still enjoy design – but it is not only about that anymore,’ says a couple who quit the city

Byron Bay, Australia – On a path to greater self-sufficiency and freedom, moving away from the city seemed like the natural next step for Uscha and Barny. Attracted by the beach and the creative community, they settled in Byron Bay, where they have opened a shop. Surrounded by stunning natural landscape, and plenty of wild animals, they have found the ideal place to raise their son and explore alternative ways of living and working.

What made you want to leave the city?
USCHA VAN BANNING: It was meant to be. From the moment I moved to Australia, Barny always wanted us to live here. I’m a real city girl. I never thought I would move to the countryside. But then I never thought that I would move to Australia either [laughs].

BARNY CARTER: I grew up in Melbourne, but I have always been a nature person at heart, so it was a natural move. In Byron Bay we are surrounded by untouched nature. The lifestyle is completely different. It’s more about living than working. I feel in a city you are just stuck in traffic and deadlines until the end of the day. Even though we had our own business it was very hard to get out of that. Here it is a lot easier to go at your own pace.

UVB: We wanted to feel more connected. You are so detached in the city and feel very reliant on the system. Here we go to the supermarket, yes, but we buy most produce from local farmers and small family shops. Of course, you still have to make money and pay your taxes. You can’t run away from all those things, but the balance is totally different. We can hear the ocean from our house. If you look out from our back garden, you see palm trees and lush vegetation.
BC: In Melbourne I would struggle to get out of bed, now I go for a surf at 6.00. It’s great to do something physical and get this influx of nature in the morning. That boosts me for the whole day. It’s priceless.

Why Byron Bay?
BC: I think it’s one of the most beautiful locations in Australia. The climate is amazing, we’ve got pristine beaches, and you see dolphins and whales. There is beautiful greenery, lush tropical forests, and sharp mountains that are covered in mist at the end of the day.
UVB: It’s really kitsch [laughs].
BC: It is also known for being a very creative town, and is home to businesses that are more ethically minded. People who come here don’t want to be stuck in the mainstream; they are all doing their own thing.
UVB: For Australia it’s really multi-cultural. It definitely attracts people that care about the environment and want to live a more sustainable life. 

Uscha, you said you wanted to get out of the system. Can you describe what that means to you?
UVB: In a city it is really hard to escape this career thinking. It feels a bit robotic, like the ‘Truman Show’, almost. You bump into a friend and ask them how they are, and they go, ‘busy’. That’s what people say to each other. With what, exactly? You can always come up with a list of things that you have to do. I’m a master in it. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. I mean, we’re not camping in the bush totally off grid, but there is less pressure to make a lot of money. You realise you don’t need that much. It’s liberating. It gives you a lot of extra time to enjoy life. It opens your eyes and allows you to appreciate things that you would have missed before. 

Do you feel a greater sense of freedom here?
UVB: Yes, on various levels. In Amsterdam I always felt my clothes very quickly looked old or I couldn’t walk out the door without mascara. People like to judge each other. You have less of that in Australia, but when you move away from the city that totally drops away. Most of the time we haven’t even showered [laughs]. You just wear the same things. Friends like you for what you are, unlike in the city where you have all these layers that make up your identity. On the other hand we still have our business. That can be challenging because it’s all about image now. You have to sell a story.

How has the move affected your business?
UVB: Having enough work is definitely a big challenge when you move away from the city. It is quite competitive. I think some people feel a bit threatened by us here. You have to reassure them that you’re not going to steal their customers. In the city you don’t really have that. Even on our street in Melbourne we saw a lot of shops opening that were similar to ours. We thought it was positive. It attracts more people and you feel we can all share the cake. You have to work a little bit harder to get to people’s hearts. Once you’re in you're in, that sort of thing. But we definitely feel that we have to prove ourselves a bit more in this small community.

Can you tell me about your new shop?
BC: We recently opened a space as part of a collective. We want to be part of the creative community. Now we are part of a pop-up in a new commercial/residential precinct called the Habitat, with a mix of local homeware businesses. It's a new exciting development with a strong environmental focus.

What’s the plan for the Melbourne shop?
BC: We’ll keep it running for the foreseeable future. We have a new manager that we're very excited about and we also have our old home upstairs that we renovated with our own hands. It allows others to experience our philosophy on living through Airbnb. Everything has purpose and is handmade with natural materials. We think there's a great opportunity to create a space in Byron Bay as well. When people experience our space they truly understand the benefits of simple living.

What’s your living situation here?
UVB: We’re renting at the moment, but our dream is to build something ourselves. I’m a cabinetmaker and in Holland I used to do interior architecture. Barny worked in the film industry for ten years as an art director, and he’s quite handy as well. We want to build a little structure where we can live, something small. We don’t need a big house. Around here you spend most of your time outside anyway. You’re always fighting animals like termites in your house, so you’d rather have it small. It’s less of a hassle.

Has your relationship to nature changed?
UVB: It’s funny… I’m allergic to wasps and bees. Every summer in Holland I had to worry about not getting stung and carry an EpiPen (used to administer medication to someone experiencing anaphylaxis) with me. Now we live in Australia and everything is poisonous. In Melbourne you have the odd spider here and there, but we are in serious bush. There are lot of really poisonous snakes, spiders and even poisonous snails. But I don’t carry my EpiPen around anymore. Here, I could die from anything, like everybody else. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just what it is. Being closer to nature makes you less afraid of it. In the city you’re a stranger to all of this and every little piece of nature is scary.

My priorities have shifted, now I also enjoy doing nothing and just ‘‘being’’

Do you feel moving here has had an impact on your health?
UVB: I do feel healthier. Just the air you breathe makes a big difference. I notice whenever I am in the city now, and it makes me feel a bit toxic. I am surprised that it happened so quickly. I feel a lot calmer mentally, too. My life used to be about design, and I was constantly feeding myself with images, stimulating my senses with content. It was also a way of numbing other feelings in me. I still enjoy design, but it is not only about that anymore. Even though it’s my passion and it still excites me, my priorities have shifted. Now I also enjoy doing nothing and just ‘being’. It’s funny because I used to feel suffocated after spending a few days in the countryside, thinking, ‘take me out of here, there’s nothing here’. Now it’s the opposite.

Do you find it easier to combine parenthood and work in Byron Bay?
BC: The approach to daycare is so different here. In Melbourne daycare runs until 18.00 or 19.00 and you’re happy if you find a place where you can leave them as long as possible. Here they close at 17.00 and everybody’s gone by then. People pick up their kids and go to the beach to be together as a family. The whole town is out and about. You realise that this is actually much more important.

Do you feel you can bring something new to Byron Bay?
UVB: To be honest I feel like I still have a lot to learn. Even with growing vegetables in our garden – these basic things are not easy. You think you can harvest your broccoli and a day later it’s all gone, because an animal has eaten it. Often I feel like a city girl that still needs to learn a lot, getting a heart attack mistaking a stick for a snake.

Living in the countryside and growing your own food is a romantic idea, but it can be really hard work.
UVB: Definitely. We are growing beans, and I think we have three that didn’t get eaten. You appreciate food a lot more, just having our little veggie garden here, that’s for sure. Still, it feels good. Everything is so convenient in the city, but it’s a very fragile system. It’s quite scary to think what would happen if it fails. You start to realise, ‘shit, I don’t know anything. What happens if I can’t buy my food in the shop?’ The week we moved here there was a typhoon. It was very windy and raining heavily for days. We didn’t have electricity and everything got flooded around Byron Bay. It’s pitch black, there’s nothing. It’s a really unsettling feeling. You go, ‘oh no, I only have 2% battery left on my phone. What are we going to do?’ [laughs].

I think more and more people are aspiring to live in a way that gives them a greater connection to nature.
UVB: You definitely see it more – with the tiny houses movement for example. People are searching for more freedom. You’re almost forced to if you don’t have family that can financially support you. If you want to have a certain lifestyle you can either buy in the city and work your ass off for the rest of your life, or you can move to a depressing suburb. Two bad options. Why not opt for the total opposite and go on a new adventure? 

What would be your advice for somebody wanting to move out of the city?
UVB: Just do it. Often people overthink things. It doesn’t matter how much you prepare yourself, you are never going to be prepared. It’s like having a child. It’s absolutely not easy, but there’s not a second that we feel that we want to go back. It only makes us stronger.


This is an edited version of the piece originally featured in City Quitters. You can purchase a copy here.

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