Day Eight, or A Three Hour Tour [*thunder cracks*], A Three Hour Tour:
It was Thursday, tour day, and I was allowed to spend the morning away from tedious gardening and on the farmeress’ herb garden tour…in the hopes that I might learn something about herbs, thereby developing a greater appreciation for them of course. What was supposed to be a two hour tour, though, became a 3½ hour tour as the watchless farmeress explained herb upon herb. I took notes, but in the back of my mind I knew that I would never remember what these particular herbs looked like, or how they are called in English, and so this information was already obsolete for me. Though she was quite knowledgeable (did I mention before that she’s written two books on herbs and has had several TV appearances on Austrian national television?), her knowledge was sadly lost on me.
However, I was admittedly distracted during the tour by one ever-strengthening thought that had begun to creep in: I want to go home. I was lonely, and I missed my friends and my family. I’d only been on the farm for one week, but it had seemed like an entire summer. I missed people and I missed indoor plumbing and I missed email and I missed church and I missed beds I didn’t have to check for spiders and I missed the general connectedness I felt while in Graz. And it’s not like I was having a bad experience—it had stretched me, but I didn’t regret coming for one moment. But the biggest shocker for me was the realization that, for the first time in my life, I was suffering from “real” homesickness—the I-want-to-go-home brand of homesickness. In the past 8 or so years, I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve started over in many new places, and people everywhere will ask if I am ever homesick. And I’ve always replied, “Not really.” Not really, because given the chance to settle in or make new friends I was fine. For the first time in my life, I found myself longing for home.
Though my homesickness was both strong and personally alarming, I had two main reasons why going home was out of the question:
- I committed myself to the farm for a month. Although I was technically free to leave at any time, if I left after only one week, they family would be out 3 weeks’ help. This is their livelihood I’d be messing with.
- I had no money. It’s not the most upright of reasons, but the truth of the matter was that I was neither earning nor spending money on the farm, so the longer I stuck it out, the longer I could have absolutely no expenses.
Day Nine, or Alms for the Poor:
One of the reasons this particular farm had stood out to me in the booklet was because the blurb mentioned that helpers would be assigned to the milking of the cows. But there were no cows on the farm when I arrived—rather, the cows stayed for the summer months on the Alm, or the alpine pasture. From May to September, the cows live on a mountainside and graze out in the fresh green mountain pastures. They are cared for by the Sennerin, which is literally translated as “dairymaid” but entails much more than that. These are two terms that will come up a lot in the coming weeks, so let’s review:
- Alm: Alpine pasture. In Tyrol, the family had a low Alm and a high Alm about a half an hour from the farm. Picture a mountain range. Now picture a particular mountain in this range. Imagine driving a ways up this mountain and finding a nice alpine hut with Milka-looking cows (though not purple in color) grazing all around: this is the low Alm. The high Alm was similar, but with a smaller hut, a steeper mountainside, and just below the treeline.
- Sennerin: The Sennerin (or Senner, if male) is the dairyhand out on the Alm. The job description sounds rustically romantic: driving the cows from the farm to the Alm in late May (think cattle drive—no trucks involved!) and remaining with them on the Alm until September. The Sennerin lives alone in an alpine hut (sometimes without electricity or running water), caring for the cows—this includes milking, making butter, and making cheese. Once a week the farmer would come with provisions—for both the Sennerin and the cows!
So when the farmer was ready to make a trip up to the Alm to bring more hay to the Sennerin, I jumped at the opportunity to go! I really wanted to see the cows, the Alm sounded intriguing, and it would be a good distraction from my homesickness.
By the time we reached the low Alm, it really did feel like we were in the middle of nowhere. I had no cell phone reception, and the roads had long since ceased to be paved. The sun was already about to dip behind the mountains, and it gave a lovely Heidi-esque enchantment to the place. I was nearly giddy to be up in the Tyrolean mountains for the first time since my arrival, and I romped around taking pictures of cows and mountain sunsets. The Sennerin was an amazingly congenial person who patiently answered my barrage of questions such as “So how does one become a Sennerin? Do you get lonely? What time do you have to wake up to milk the cows?” (Incidentally, she’s a children’s nurse who gets to take unpaid vacation every year to be a Sennerin in the summers, she doesn’t get lonely because there’s enough work to keep her busy and people are always stopping by, and the cows can wait as late as 7 am unless the milk truck is coming or the butter needs to be made.)
Just before we left to go back to the farm, the Sennerin extended an invitation to me: Next week they’re driving the cows from the low Alm to the high Alm, and would I like to help? Cow herding?! Are you kidding?! I tried to play off my excitement as calmly as possible, but, really, I think she saw right through me.
Day Ten, or The Hills are Alive…With the Sound of a Tyrolean Marching Band?:
It took me 10 days, but I finally stopped calling the hay harvest (Heuernte) the “hay duck” (Heuente)! (As you can see, the word for duck, Ente, is dangerously close to the word for harvest, Ernte. Although I’ve known both of these words for quite awhile, when suddenly faced with both ducks and harvests in the same place and context, I’d started to say things like, “Did you see the harvests playing in the water this morning before we went out for the hay duck?” It was problematic…)
A couple from around Vienna was staying in the guest apartment, and we’d seen each other in passing for the past several days. Over the course of our short interactions, we’d started to become friends, and they offered to take me into the village for a music festival that evening. All I knew was that Brandenberg was having a music festival with what I assumed would be local folk music. We found the festival tent and sat outside with some drinks, waiting for the festival to begin. Scores of people were milling around or heading to and fro in the traditional Tyrolean dress; and I must say that even after all this time in Austria, I still find it hard not to openly stare at Lederhosen and Dirndls! There’s something about having a nation so small and relatively homogenous that a national traditional dress can exist that fascinates me. In the I-want-to-stare-at-you-shamelessly kind of way. (Coming from a culture where I have no traditional dress to wear to weddings and such, it has the appeal of both local pride and getting to dress in “costume”—what’s not to love?)
I asked if my companions would be embarrassed if I took photos, and thankfully they were tourist-minded themselves! The festival began with a small parade down the street—small as in two blocks long—by a throng of traditionally dressed musicians playing…marching band music? Seriously? The first song hit my ears with a bit of disappointment. This certainly wasn’t the kind of music from the last festival! The next couple songs revealed a musical trend, and my new friends weren’t all that thrilled with it either: we decided to opt for ice cream sundaes rather than another all-night party with a marching band!