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The places we’ve lived: our pros/cons of city, suburbs & countryside

While building a personal business at *faircompanies, as well as helping launch and grow a successful YouTube channel, I have explored some of the trends of the century as a family, from geographic arbitrage and teleworking to exploring urban, rural, and suburban ways of living. What did we enjoy and what didn’t? Here is my account of the experience.

One of our goals at *faircompanies is to connect with people from all walks of life and in every possible age or situation, with any level (or no) income. Yet Everyone featured in Kirsten’s videos makes the cut as hosts: all of them are great for who they are and what they do, most times in a skillful, unique, alluring way.

Their living quarters—and often live-work setups—represent a part of who they are, and, in that sense, they live in life-changing homes. Sometimes, when somebody recognizes Kirsten (or even me) at the market or somewhere near our current home, they ask us about our favorite video or home, the best town we’ve seen, the place we’ve lived or envisioned living that gets closer to perfection, etc.

July 2004, atop a Waverly Place tenement near Washington Square Park, Manhattan

Our response is sincere and, I presume, very similar (though Kirsten should answer on her own): to us, the sense of “home” comes with the family unit and, as long as we can guarantee a comfortable setup for us all that is (and feels) safe, cozy, and next to the places (be that gardens or stores) to provide some healthy food that isn’t uber-expensive, we can survive anywhere. We even tried to explain this idea on a video at least once, under the title “Our definition of “home,” place, & belonging (documentary).”

Some questions can feel a little reductionist: “Is living in the countryside better than living in a city?” “What are the advantages of living a comfortable suburban life versus the congestion, hyper-competition, noise, and pollution of cities?” (As if most successful suburbs—that is, those near cities where people want to live—weren’t clogged by most of the issues prosperous cities face, minus some of the charms of cities).

However, I wish I had to answer a question nobody asked me: what are the tradeoffs of having experiences in different places over the years? The biggest caveat of exposing our family to different places is the lack of continuity required to plan for a thriving edible garden capable of becoming a part of “home.”

What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in different places over the years? I’ll try to get to that.

Home and belonging

Of course, with home comes the sense of belonging. But again, to us, “belonging” has a multiplicity that can’t be located in one single town, geography, climate, or constellation of friends. I was raised in a small apartment near Barcelona, the middle one of three siblings, and the periurban landscape of post-industrial Barcelona became my “home,” though I remained connected to the two small villages where my ancestors came from, me being only a first generation urbanite. “Home,” to me, wasn’t limited to the apartment where I had my room and interacted with my family.

As my parents became more economically secure, they bought a house outside Barcelona from where they ended up moving out once they became empty nesters, so the place where the family reunions took place turned out to be what Americans call “suburban”: a middle-class development outside a small town in the wine region of Penedès, Catalonia, not far from a beachfront that morphed from your yesteryear weekend getaway community into a mix of retired couples and commuters trading distance to the city for more space: a predictable story.

Kirsten grew up in a comparatively well-off suburb of San Francisco (not as much when she was growing up, right before the first tech frenzy with the first riches of the dawn of personal computing), though, when I met her, she had been living for years in the city: first in San Francisco, where she moved after college, working for TV (first, as an intern, learning to edit manually in the wee hours, the only moment where the edit cabins were accessible).

Kirsten was living and working as a TV producer in New York when I met her in Barcelona back in 2004. She really liked the energy of the Catalan city; at that time, I was living in a rented apartment with its charms: it was a little mansard near the cathedral, close enough to the place I was working (Passeig de Gràcia) and at the gates of the Old City. We’d walk everywhere, go get some books and movies at the Public Library, go to the movies or some play nearby, go to the park. The city was a window to the expansive, fulfilling lifestyle we sought before settling to form a family.

Life without a car (for real)

I didn’t own a car back then and barely used any transportation since I could walk to work, to the store, and the rest of my activities. I would take the train during the weekend to see my parents, a mere one hour; they live 5 kilometers away from the nearest train station, l’Arboç, and that trip from their house to the station would be the only relation with a car I’d have for some months. Some other times, of course, I’d rent or borrow a car to do a trip to the Pyrenees or somewhere else with friends, albeit rarely.

When young and watching movies or reading, say, Kerouac’s On The Road, I could feel like anyone else that the car driven by Dean Moriarty was a symbol of freedom and the promise of individualism. Though living in the city with no car didn’t feel unaccomplished. We are at the other end of the mass car culture sung by the beats in the 50s and what felt liberating then can feel oppressive now. I have learned to love car trips because, for years, I only drove a car for pleasure, never to commute and get stuck in traffic. That’s the difference.

Back in 2004, I was in my mid-late twenties; I worked as a journalist for a small house with technical publications and wrote a monthly column (sic), the technology one, for Playboy Spain. My salary wasn’t bad for my age and city, though I dedicated more than the recommended limit of 30% of one’s income to my rental. I had preferred to live in an enchanting little abode, dedicating over 40% of my monthly salary to rent and food.

That said, I managed to save enough for a down payment to buy an apartment nearby not much later. It was a place near El Born so small that current building codes in the city wouldn’t allow it to be built legally nowadays. When it was built in the late nineteenth century, apartments—two per floor on a five-story building—had shared latrines; to me, however, it was like a castle. And that’s how I jokingly called it, and Kirsten, too, when she visited from New York. The Castle.

In retrospect, I lived a half-satisfactory, indolent life of an urban unconscious epicurean, capable of buying quality clothes, making a nice trip once a year, and covering the cumulative little expenses of a fulfilling urban life with time and pocket money to pay the coffees, cinema and concert tickets, public transportation fares, and the occasional restaurant meal. Kirsten visited two or three times from New York; by that time, we had begun speculating about living together, and I encouraged her to move into the 38m2 “castle,” my 409 sq-ft apartment near Palau de la Música.

When Nico met Kirsten

Back then, video freelancing still had some legacy technology strings attached: video cameras were bulky and used tapes, whereas digital video editing, if rapidly improving, was still a tedious and erratic trade. Hard drives were still bulky, expensive, and comparatively very small. They were so heavy that Kirsten experienced an Odyssey to fly from NYC to Barcelona with her Power Mac from 2005 and a couple of gigantic LaCie external HDDs, 8 GB of capacity each or so.

The apartment was minuscule, but we loved our life there: I was still working at the office, and Kirsten could work at home, do some edits for New York producers, and send them by postal mail. Those days, we almost felt like pioneers, profiting from the vibrancy of a city while Kirsten was making it work remotely, back when nobody talked yet about geographic arbitrage. I’d come from work on Fridays, sometimes a little annoyed by the stress of some office quarrel, and we’d dream about a better life and world at the table of a minuscule restaurant near the Gothic church of Santa Maria del Mar that later disappeared. They cooked three or four dishes, but it was enough for us.

Early morning exposure. Behind my Edvard-Munch-esque portrait by Kirsten in early morning, July 25th 2004, the Empire State Building; Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” song would show up much later (2009)

When we began talking about starting our own digital project—remember, this is B.YT., the era Before YouTube as an income strategy—I decided to quit my job, so the apartment, which only had two living spaces, one of which was a bedroom, became too small for us. So we rented it and bought a much bigger one in the Gothic Quarter, about 10 minutes away by foot. It felt like a blessing: it had a terrace as big as the apartment itself, exposed old wooden beams, and the patina and charm of the old city.

The area was noisy and grimy, getting packed with people partying on the weekend, and most adjacent apartments were shared due to their size and comparatively low rental price, though at that stage in life, we didn’t care much about some of these caveats, or about the fact that there wasn’t an elevator, not to talk about the lack of parking in the area for a car we didn’t have.

New York and Barcelona

From the vantage point of middle age, we consider ourselves fortunate, having lived in New York City when it was still possible to rent a shared apartment at a decent rate and then renting, and even buying, our own rundown places in Barcelona right before some people began to consider the city center as too crowded by low-quality encounters with the commoditized human experience of mass tourism.

In the summer of 2004, I visited Kirsten in New York a little before I bought the tiny apartment as a personal equity strategy. She lived with roommates in the top apartment of a charming Village tenement in Waverly Street, a calm and lovely area near Washington Square Park.

Don’t get me wrong: Kirsten was working hard back then as a freelance TV producer, and her perception of the city wasn’t that of a yuppy or a flanêur going from restaurant to restaurant, on the contrary. She did have a gym card she used and did go out on the weekends with her roommates, though the city was a part of her persona: she loved to walk around it, bike (despite the dangers), take the metro, and “running out” on random errands. The last place where she had worked in an office, Oxygen Media, was nearby in the already renovated Chelsea Market, and at her age, it felt just fine to live in the city that defined TV back then.

We were young and not married yet. We had no children, decent salaries, and little to no debt. Vibrant cities can be unbeatable during the transition from formative years to career beginnings and consolidation, even if interesting places within expensive cities are comparatively hard places to live. During my first two-week trip to New York to see Kirsten in the urban context where she was living, we managed to move around Manhattan quite a bit, and as outings, who knows why, we decided to go among all places to Ellis Island. It was great.

We also got invited to somebody’s home outside the city, but what I remember dearly was my morning walk to a little café on Gay Street called Joe’s, a place like the ones I had seen in magazines and movies: real smell of good coffee and pastries, a bench outside shared by people reading the newspaper or talking casually, and passersby walking the dog or heading to work. To make the scenario more real, there was a speakeasy not far from there. Art Spiegelman had published another comic book. I was reading the review in the Sunday Times, and I loved it.

Flying over a microprocessor, landing in a city of single-family houses

The second week of my first trip to New York to see Kirsten experienced a turnabout: Kirsten called her family in California and got excited about seeing them—and (uh oh) introducing her boyfriend from Spain to them. What could I say? “California” is a word that holds some charm in pop culture’s collective unconscious, so the cheap flight to San Jose the morning after sounded like the right call. It was my first trip across North America, and the rural regularity of the Midwest looked like microchip transistors from afar.

It was also my first vantage point from where to observe the Great American Experiment post-World War II: the hollowing out of dense urban life in favor of suburbia and single-family zoning, something that became clear as the plane crossed the Rockies, entered the high desert landscape of Northern Nevada, passed the snow-capped Sierras, and descended into the Bay Area. The coast-to-coast trip I had read about in predictable literature and cinema, from the Beats in the 50s to the adventures depicted by New Journalism in the 60s, I had done with the technological non-place detachment of our era. The commoditized, “liquid” modernity.

Flying over the Bay Area, I could see the aspect and organization of a giant suburban megacity the same way a scientist would peek at the colorful parts of a cell on a petri dish: the landscape was dominated by single-family housing as long as one could see, and I rapidly familiarized with the shape of the San Francisco Bay, the high rises of San Francisco and Oakland, and the verdant suburbs of Silicon Valley. Unlike in New York City, in San Jose, we rented a car just after landing, as it didn’t even cross our mind to imagine our stay in any other way: we had entered another type of civilization, one that has defined a vast part of Americans during the last decades.

I liked it, though in a different way. We traveled by car to Sonoma, where Kirsten’s parents had recently moved after selling their house in the Bay Area, and stayed at a family friend’s house in Palo Alto. From my urban European perspective of that time, everything was comfortable and extremely wide, as if spacetime was warping differently in California. Over the years, I would come to see that car-centric urbanism was a pervasive reality in the US only I had seen, on my first visit, one of the privileged areas of such a model, blessed by year-round mild weather, wealthy, and capable of keeping public infrastructure in shape.

Urbanism perception and stages in life

At our age back then and still unmarried, our thoughts were not on sought-after school districts for children or trying to build equity by buying a home, and vibrant urban cores felt more compelling for our overall living experience. That said, we had consciously chosen to try Barcelona instead of New York (or, say, London) because we profited from the vibrancy and high standards while spending much less money. Conversely, when we married in 2006, and our first daughter was married in 2007, it felt natural to stay in Barcelona.

Only a few things started to change as our stage in life evolved as well. With one kid and soon another, our routines changed, and we spent more time at home, at the park, and profiting from any moment to get things done or rest a bit. Suddenly, the noisy, vibrant area of the city felt a little out of touch with our schedule and goals, so when our third kid was born in 2012, we moved to a part of the city where the parks were less crowded, and schools had better ratings. Was it the right move? What were the tradeoffs for us and our children? The new area was objectively less “charming.” But we were not looking for an Instagram-friendly life.

In Southern Europe, the 2007 global recession had morphed into a sovereign debt crisis fueled by investors shortening the most debt-exposed countries in the European Union, and hence making it more expensive for countries like Spain to finance themselves; pre-Brexit, the Financial Times commentators talked about Grexit and the fate of the PIGS (or PIIGS, including Ireland). At street level, unemployment had risen in Spain, and a housing bubble had popped. We saw it as an opportunity to buy a fixer-upper apartment somewhere calmer in the city.

Our life-stage predictability changed a bit when we decided to sell the apartment we had bought in the upper part of the city and move to France for a while; from 2013 to 2016 or so, the city experienced constant demonstrations regarding the tensions between a then-thriving Catalonian nationalism movement seeking independence and the central government, and we were a bit tired of the monothematic environment: all the bright minds of our generation in the area were dedicating their days to a fight we didn’t want to be a part of, so we moved.

Life in a gentle small town: Fontainebleau

We had lived in a city until then and owned no car. To soften our children’s transition into a new school system, a new culture, and a different Romance language (they were speaking Catalan, English, and Spanish back then but knew no French), we chose to move into a much smaller, gentler environment that could soften our landing.

Even if a bit loose, we had the germ of a plan. Kirsten began searching for “the right little town.” The things we were looking for: a bilingual school in English-French; a relatively cosmopolitan place, which meant that little town would need to be near Paris or other big cities, and wouldn’t be cheap; and a place where we could find a house to rent. That’s how we landed in Fontainebleau, one hour South of Paris, after renting a “meulière” stone townhouse with a “jardin clos” sheltered by big, deciduous trees.

Without thinking much about it, we had ended up in our mid-thirties in a spacious home (too spacious and too expensive to heat, we would soon learn) and an inefficient old car —the one I had dreamed of having as a family car.

Back then, *faircompanies had become our professional task. Kirsten’s YouTube channel was already a source of income, even if we maintained other sources and had become financially secure (or secure enough not to think too much about month-to-month expenses). Our daily routines were already on our personal projects, and “geographical arbitrage” was already a thing people talked about in the winter of 2015-2016.

Living in a small European town wasn’t doing so in a suburb, though we drove our car at least twice a week; some stores we wanted to go to were now too far, and Paris seemed like a trip, so we didn’t go to the city as much as we had planned: we were too exhausted trying to give our family a foot into the new world (and rainier climate) we inhabited. Parks didn’t feel as easy and filled with kids playing pickup soccer as the nice parks in upper Barcelona, and people spent more time indoors. But culture, food, and people, in general, felt much like our city acquaintances in the US and Barcelona, and soon our children—and us—made new friends, some of whom were also American or from other countries. Some of them gladly called themselves “expats,” though we took the time to learn French and try to blend in, which didn’t always work smoothly.

Three school years passed before we decided to go back to the city; now that we felt our kids had absorbed the language, we decided to move to Paris the next school year. Friends of ours invited us over to spend the Spring school vacation (in France, two weeks total) on the Atlantic island of Bele Île (a favorite for Sarah Bernhardt), where we saw first-hand how Parisians had taken over chic, windy respite areas of the coast of Bretagne and Nouvelle-Aquitaine to the South, from Saint-Malo to the North to Cap Ferret to the South.

Back in the city: from a tiny balcony in Paris

So when we moved into Paris “intra-muros” in the summer of 2018 before flying to California like every summer, we left behind some good friends in Fontainebleau we still keep, and the “European village” life we had experienced as a family until then. We had one summer to think about the things we’d miss in the town where Napoleon had fled after the Waterloo debacle.

If Barcelona had felt intense and hyper-competitive at times, in Paris I experienced the aggressive drive and harshness—and inflated prices—of world cities. It was something familiar to Kirsten, who had lived in Manhattan for a few years, though new to me. Paris was dense, beautiful, and very, very Darwinistic; people drove aggressively, and there was little patience with those lost somewhere in the mammoth metro network, not to talk about the feeling of being back to the realm of commoditized mass tourism.

That said, our place felt right. It was a 2-floor, relatively small 2-bedroom apartment in a 5-story Haussmannian apartment on a calm, mostly pedestrian street with a charming round fountain garden in the middle; the entrance was on the third floor, and there was no elevator, like the apartment we had bought in Barcelona after the tiny “castle.” Our kids went to school nearby, and we walked again to do most errands, or, at most, we took the metro or used Vélib, the city’s bike-sharing program.

It was a time in which I read a big chunk of nineteenth-century French literature, whose authors were obsessed with provincial arriviste young characters trying to make it in Paris. I found in those books the streets and landmarks of the city we were living, and it happened again when I went through the Lost Generation mentions of the city (like Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”) and then the post-war American authors who found, once more, a respite in the city.


More than in Barcelona or any other place I’ve been, every walk led to a reference that clicked. Our street? It was mentioned by Patrick Modiano and used in some movies due to its late-nineteenth-century looks. The place I went to buy this or that? A beloved author, a musician, a painter, you name it, had lived there. Plaques were everywhere; obviously, everyone was too busy or indolent to care or even to know who that person referenced was.

Paris was expensive and, at times, oppressive. It was difficult to rent and almost impossible to buy a place big enough to host comfortably a family of five, so we resigned ourselves to making it a temporary affair with a city we liked as a scenario, or almost a “psychogeography,” a concept coined by French philosopher Guy Debord to describe the crossed references between a place and the stories, real and fictional, that happened there. Of course, dense cities like Paris, Barcelona, or New York condense a fascinating tapestry of cross-references, blending personal experience, high culture, and pop culture in exciting ways.

As renters, there was a limit to home improvement and customization. We would learn the hard way that anything can be used against your rent deposit when you decide to leave an apartment on good terms. On one of our Spring trips to visit my parents in Penedès, we stumbled upon a fixer-upper for sale in a picturesque town. We called the owner, who had placed the ad himself, and thought it was time for such a project, even if we were living in France and traveling to the US every summer.

The house put us in touch with a more rural environment, one that felt less connected than the relatively median town of Fontainebleau (population 15,000). The village had a 12th-century castle and one meandering street going from the first cluster of homes downhill to the ones closest to the medieval fortress. The place was closed to traffic and invited people to slow down, with its streets of paved stone and views to a water reservoir surrounded by a natural park, and hence protected Mediterranean forests instead of, say, the non-places of today’s hyper-connected world in which we actively participate.

Then, the pandemic hit, and we had not yet finished with the work. It was a moment in which cities, especially very dense ones, were ill-equipped to offer the required equilibrium to a family of five. We made it work, though, and we visited our country home in Catalonia, still in the works, when we could do so; it made special sense then. Dwell did a story on the house not long ago, though they used pictures that precede the arrival of our uncountable artifacts. Here’s the video we did on this “neo-rural” adventure.

Feeling like the characters of Camus’ The Plague

Even in hard, strange times, the city always showed its charm. We liked that aspect of Paris so much that when Google offered Kirsten to sponsor one of her videos, we thought we could use the opportunity to perform a little homage to our city of adoption, even if it had always felt a bit temporary or precarious.

The video, called “In search of lost books: an odyssey across Paris,” wasn’t meant to be a viral, but we didn’t care much about it: at least, we thought, those who watched the promotion would also watch a part of our experience—and life—in the city. We knew we’d live sooner or later, and it felt right to offer ourselves a treat.

As our daughters and son grew up, we found a new challenge in the City of Light: the better integrated with the French school system they became, the more difficult it would be to study in Spain or the United States. When Inés, our oldest daughter, advanced in the Lycée system, she asked if she could “one day” go to school—and to college—in an “anglophone” country (she used that word). It was “her” language and culture, or at least she felt that way.

In the summer of 2022, a mere two years after, however, we moved, for the first time in our life as a family, to an English-speaking, suburban (and therefore, spacious, car-reliant, and very poor in “psychogeography,” or less dense in experiences and cross-references, if we want) environment.

However, adapting to suburban life can feel easy —if one can or is willing to afford a well-off suburb with excellent schools, properly maintained equipment, a community packed with resourceful people, safety, and a tolerable traffic environment. With all the caveats, our transition to a more suburban environment in the US was smooth and felt not only easy but natural to us —and to our three children, who have spent over two months a year in California since they were born.

Age’s vantage points

In many ways, the geographic arbitrage has been over for us for years now: who in their right mind would try geographic arbitrage in a place as expensive and hyper-competitive as Paris? Or who would try to make more bang for one’s buck when coming to the US by settling in the gentler areas of the San Francisco Bay Area? To us, only some things have to do with purchasing power and looking for lifestyle choices such as geographic arbitrage. Sometimes, living near things people want to be exposed to and exposing their family can be the best possible non-tangible investment, if sometimes difficult to quantify.

We’ve also noticed that our kids grow more mature, and we get older with them. One of the best feelings one can experience is realizing that, like air plants, some can thrive by using their roots to connect with whichever environment they live in.

In some moments, cities can feel they have something unbeatable, a “psychogeography” that enriches our lives and a compelling way of showing us how much nicer it can be to do several errands in a day by walking around instead of driving or taking long trips. However, sometimes, having more space at home can feel liberating for a family with two teenage daughters and one pre-teen boy.

There may be a moment in life for every sort of setup. Being able to choose feels like a liberation, even if moving can feel as alienating as living permanently somewhere where one doesn’t want to be. American urbanists talking about the lack of a “missing middle” in town housing—a gentler, denser type of urbanism in between high-rises and single-family housing—, have a point to make.

We’ve spent the best moments in places denser than suburbs but not as dense and hyper-competitive as the expensive city centers of successful cities. Though, of course, now it’s talking my middle-aged self, not the youngster living in a rundown attic of Barcelona’s Old City twenty years ago.