I spent the morning out in the herb garden collecting blossoms for herbal tea. Around noon, the farmer called me in for lunch. I sat down at the table across from him, and he picked up a pitcher of milk that had been sitting out for two days since collecting it on the Alm.
“Want some Sauermilch [sour/curdled milk]?” he asked, extending the pitcher of chunky milk in my direction. “It’s really good.”
I looked at his mug of Sauermilch, and that’s indeed what it was: sour, curdled milk. “No thanks,” I replied as politely and unalarmed as I could. Inwardly I was feeling disgusted—he drinks curdled milk?! Without knowing the German words for “curdled” or “chunky” or “lumpy,” I tried to explain that I’d never tried milk that looks like that, and is he sure it hasn’t gone bad?
The farmer explained that the whole milk from the Alm had been sitting out for two days, which had produced some really great Sauermilch. He then emphasized this point by swigging his Sauermilch with gusto. He showed me his mug and indicated how schön the lumpiness was and how there was still liquid swimming up around the curdled parts and how good that is for you…but he failed to mention exactly how it’s good for you… “You know it’s still good,” he explained, “by the nice appearance of the Sauermilch. It hasn’t gone bad until you see mold forming on the top.”
Again, I declined. I couldn’t bring myself to drink curdled milk, no matter what old farmer wisdom says…
I spent the rest of the afternoon continuing to pluck blossoms from the herb garden. I’d learned from my time on the farm that I am NOT a gardener, however collecting the blossoms was garden work I could handle—I got to pick pretty flowers and I enjoyed watching the bees!
Mama Said…: Since I’d been on the farm, I’d learned more and more old sayings and beliefs about your health. Most of these seemed distinctly Austrian and foreign to me, since I’d not grown up hearing such things. Some of them I’ve mentioned before, like the Austrian belief that you should always, always, always wear a scarf when you are sick. (This means summer or winter, indoors or out, and even to bed!) Sometimes it makes me shake my head: The Austrians occasionally wonder that I’m so backward for not knowing these basic things, and I have to wonder where in the world they got these crazy ideas in the first place. So in the interest of bolstering intercultural awareness, I will share with you these old pieces of wisdom I learned on the farm:
- Your body can’t absorb the vitamins in carrots if you eat them raw. You need to have some sort of oil or fat with the carrots in order to get all the nutrients! (I’ve since learned that this idea exists in Hungary too.)
- It’s unhealthy to drink cold milk straight from the fridge: it’s bad for your stomach. Nevermind that there’s a whole nation of Americans raised on cold milk…even that will eventually lead to problems, of course. Yes, we will be a whole nation with stomach problems, just you wait and see.
- You shouldn’t eat raw tomatoes in the wintertime. The coldness of the tomato is a shock to your system and that’s unhealthy. Tomatoes are too cold to be winter food unless they’re cooked—so this means no salad with tomatoes in the wintertime either.
- Sauermilch—the curdled milk that’s been sitting out for days but has not yet grown mold—is good for you. The jury is still out on why…
- You can’t eat honey plain—your body can’t digest it. So when eating honey with bread and butter, you must use your knife to mix the honey together with the butter.
- Working with a cell phone in your pocket will make you tired.
- No need for bug spray on an organic farm—just rub yourself with grass, and this will keep the mosquitoes away. (Either I chose the wrong grasses, or this just didn’t work for me…)
Day Twenty-Three, or The Anticlimax:
It was my last day of work on the farm. I was grateful to have finally reached this point, and it was this thought that kept me going through another day of blossom picking. It was a rather anticlimactic end: picking blossoms until noon, breaking for lunch, and then more blossom picking until the evening and cleaning up my room.
I cleaned, I packed, and I got to a good stopping point for the evening. The farmer and the daughter came up later that evening to say goodbye, since they’d be gone the following day when I left. The farmer asked how my stay had been, and I told him how glad I was to be there and how I had learned a lot, and I thanked him for having me. He said that if I was ever in the area again, I should look them up. I still found it difficult to understand the farmer’s dialect, so when he said I was a hard worker, I nearly missed it. I didn’t quite follow everything he was saying, and it only registered after he was done talking. I realized that for him to say I was good to have around and comment on my hard work was quite a compliment—this coming from the taciturn and hard-working farmer himself! I didn’t have my wits about me enough to deny the compliment in typical Austrian fashion, so I thanked him and expressed my gratitude for the experience on the farm. Both the farmer and the daughter extended their hands, and we shook on our farewells.
Day Twenty-Four, or ‘So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye!’:
Because I was so excited about going home, I could hardly sleep. Having tossed and turned all night, I resigned myself to no more sleep and got up before 6 to finish cleaning the guest apartment where I’d spent my last week. When I went down for my last Tyrolean farmer breakfast at 8:30, the farmeress had already been up and about since the early morning hours as well. Shortly before noon she drove me to the train station, where she also expressed her sincere thanks to have such a good helper on the farm. She’d loaded me up with “payment” for my services—herbal teas, herb salt, a few other organic products, and some homemade schnapps—and I was now carrying more home than I’d arrived with. Again, a few slightly awkward but genuine thanks and goodbyes were exchanged, and I found myself on the platform, waiting for my train.
It was over. I was going home. I’d been without email or Internet for nearly a month (which nearly killed me at first), with barely any contact to the outside world. It felt somehow surreal to sit on the train in grubby farm clothes and know that I’d soon be back to life as usual back home in Graz and that all of this would step back from reality and become a memory. An experience. This prompted me to reflect on my experience…
- Would I do it again? Well, yes, but not alone. Next time I would definitely go with friends! And I would probably choose a farm where I got to work less in the field and more with farm animals...
- Do I like farming? Not gardening. I knew that going in, but I thought that on a farm setting it would be different. Despite the rigors of the hay harvest, I did really appreciate it. The time on the Alm was invaluable, and I really liked learning about and working with the cows.
- What did I learn? Aside from practical life skills like harvesting hay or driving cows or churning butter, I do now have a much greater appreciation for organic products. Not because they’re trendy and healthy, but because you know where the food is coming from and I better understand the labor that goes into producing that food. Having been a part of that process, I can really appreciate and stand behind organic products…though I still can’t afford them. I also learned that I could never be a farmer or a farmer’s wife. It’s clear that the family I worked for thrived on their livelihood, but I couldn’t. For them, the work is an unending challenge that brings a sense of satisfaction; for me, a lifetime of that work would quickly become a burden. To be a farmer, you also have to be committed to one place—the farm—and stay there. If you know me at all, that’s clearly not in my nature!
- How did I change? For one thing, I had to learn rather quickly to get used to or work in harmony with things that buzz, fly, or crawl. I also learned the value of manual labor and hard work—we could see the results of our efforts on the farm and in the products we produced (like tea), which was really cool. And whenever I felt like I didn’t like my job, I reminded myself that it was not about me—I was contributing to the farmers’ livelihood. I expanded my horizons. From New York City to a Tyrolean mountain farm…there’s just so much to life! So many different lifestyles in so many different places, each important in their own ways, and I’ve been privy to it! I feel more well-rounded to be in touch with my agrarian side, and this ironically taught me just how much of a city person I really am!
- Would I recommend WWOOFing to others? Yes, I would most certainly recommend it. And who knows, I may even do it again. But now I know more what to expect, exactly what questions to ask of a family when choosing a farm, and how farm life works. It’s a learning experience on many levels, and everyone should have the opportunity to stretch themselves and learn what life is like when you have to work for the most basic of human necessities: food, shelter, etc. For most of history, people have lived a lifestyle that demands hard work with the land and the livestock, and this is still the case today in many places in the world. It’s easy to completely overlook or avoid this fact in our society, and I think we modern city and suburb people should have the chance to learn what that means on a personal level.
To sum it up the way Mom put it: Granddad would be proud.