In Praise of CouchSurfing: Part Three

October 17, 2010

From bunk beds to storage rooms, the great adventure of sleep continues. While CouchSurfing hosts continue to provide the majority of my sleeping surfaces, I have occasionally ventured outside of cost-free shelter. Most notably, I was welcomed back to the world of monetary exchange on the train ride from Brussels to Prague where, for three digits worth of Euros, I inherited a white sleeper-car blanket decorated with a black hair of unmistakable origin. Needless to say, my belief in “getting what you pay for” was initially crippled by CouchSurfing and ultimately killed via EuroRail. Based on my personal experiences with the kindness of strangers and the cold cut of the tourist industry, you can now find me shopping exclusively from the top of the “free” shelf.

As a result of standing on my tip toes, I was able to reach Bruck, my sixth CouchSurfing host, in Innsbruck, Austria. Despite the impersonal nature of internet communication, Bruck managed to bring the romance back by meeting us at the train station.

Bruck's Flower Hat

As promised in our last online exchange, she was the one in the flowered hat, smiling and waving as if welcoming her children back from their first summer at camp. Her own kids, however, were on holiday with their dad, leaving Whitney and I to slumber party in vacant bunk beds.

Soon after arrival to Bruck’s apartment, the cooking commenced almost immediately with the slicing of pumpkins. Strangely enough, we found ourselves carving edible portions rather than scary faces. Contrary to popular American belief, there is a lot more in store for pumpkins than the wrinkled demise of front porch decay. While ‘Swallowing Pumpkins’ doesn’t quite have the same ring, my stomach was the only thing smashing vegetables that evening.

The adventures, however, didn’t stop in the kitchen. From the comforts of her living room, Bruck introduced us to the art of story-telling. As a social worker by day, and a professional story-teller by night […and weekends], Bruck has a mental inventory of traditional folktales by the hundreds. With gigs varying from weddings and birthday parties to retirement homes and campfire gatherings, most of Bruck’s freelance work takes place inside a snow, wind, and water-proof tent that she hand stitched on the floor of her apartment. She does not exactly fill auditoriums nor does she aspire to. Bruck is simply a humble, modern-day hero straightening out the mess that Disney has made of traditional stories. Needless to say, Whitney and I were thrilled to receive a private performance.

Story Telling Tools

From the modest stage of her bed, Bruck began her story by sprinkling a handful of tiny gold stars on top of our heads. “This,” she insisted, “helps everyone listen.” The magic continued when Bruck unfolded her antique wooden sewing kit, revealing a dozen or so swaths of cloth. Each colorful piece of fabric held small bottles of fragrances which she uses to further activate the senses at varying points in her stories.

[Sidenote: I am currently typing this post on a train from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Zagreb, Croatia where there is a passenger to my left clipping her fingernails from her seat. The revolting nature of this distraction merits an equivalent interruption in this post.]

Together, the scents, colors, and gold stars work to set the mood for each particular fairytale. Just moments before its telling, Bruck individually selects a story depending on the demographics, personalities, and overall feeling of the audience. Whitney and I must have exuded something special to receive a story about goats and childbirth that evening.

Despite a night filled with story time and bunk beds, Whitney and I somehow managed to pull on our

Back to Bunk Beds

adult pants the next morning in order to join Bruck for a day of work on her friend’s farm. The mission? Wood piling. After six hours of willing labor, Whitney and I had organized thousands of logs into two expansive woodpiles that covered barn walls and filled a stairwell alcove. Under Bruck’s guidance, we were becoming the Renaissance women that our liberal arts colleges could only dream of producing.

Never, in all of my wildest traveling fantasies, did I imagine I would spend a day piling wood on a farm tucked away in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. Then again, I also never expected to have my twenty-fourth birthday ushered in by an Austrian mother and child singing ‘Happy Birthday’…but that happened too. With sore arms and a big smile, I woke up on September 5th to find Bruck and her son holding a homemade birthday cake with candles. Wishes came true one after the other for the rest of the day, starting with ice cream for breakfast and ending with a bottle of wine on a cobble-stoned street. In between, I spent most of the day hoisting my [nearly] quarter-of-a-century self up and down an eye-poppingly beautiful stretch of the Alps. As if marching over waterfalls and through moss-covered forests wasn’t enough of a birthday present, Bruck gave me yet another once-a-year gift by indulging me with conversations about historical feminism in the age of matriarchy (I told you wishes were coming true).

View from the Alm

Our final destination that day was Juifen Alm – a farm and restaurant owned by two of Bruck’s female friends. By the books, ‘alm’ is a German word used to describe the high ground in mountainous regions where farmers take their cows to graze during the summer months.  It is not uncommon, however, to find alms that also function as a restaurant for trekkers [or sledders] looking to cool off [or warm up] depending on the time of year. Juifen Alm operates exactly in this fashion. However, in the heavily Catholic and highly traditional Tyrol region of Austria, it is extremely rare for two women to own and operate a business where the winters are cold and the farm equipment is archaic. Throw in the fact that these two women are romantically involved, and you have yourself a progressive little establishment. During our visit, Whitney and I were not only lucky enough to meet these ladies, but we also had the opportunity to talk to them at great length.

Over a hearty lunch of fried cheese and stinging nettle casserole, we learned that Juifen operates with an average staff of four, making the work hard and the days long. Surprisingly, winter is the high season on the alm, and even standing room can be hard to come by in the restaurant.

Lunch at Juifen Alm

Keeping in mind that, on a farm, humans are not the only mouths to be fed, the work tends to pile as high as the snow over the holidays. It is at this point in the conversation that the bells and whistles of opportunity began to sound. Unbeknownst to Whitney and I, Bruck had already informed her friends that we were looking for temporary work; and, given our recent performance with the woodpiles, we had proven ourselves to be reliable work-horses. Somewhere between talk of Judith Butler and The L Word, the verbal tides turned to hourly wages and job responsibilities. Before we knew it, we were old friends and pending employees of Juifen Alm.

Whitney and I will return to Innsbruck on December 6th where we plan to wash, serve, and cook our way through the holiday season. On Christmas and New Years Eve, you will find us holed up in the snowy Alps, speaking broken German with a small handful of co-workers. Three to four hours of work per day earns us room and board, with hourly wages for every hour of additional work. Since busy days are known to include twelve hours on the clock, we may even be able to earn back a molehill of our mountain’s worth of travel spending. More importantly, I will earn a notch in my service-industry belt – an accessory that may come in handy when stumbling back Stateside jarred and jobless in January. Most importantly, time at the alm will provide the perfect bookend to what will end up as a six-month adventure. Staying stationary for the last month should give my thoughts enough time to catch up to my body. At this point, thirty nights of sleep in the same location seems like enough to give me bed sores. On the other hand, a little bedtime consistency may be just what I need to start dreaming of life back home. Until then, my head will be hitting pillows in at least five more countries.

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