Mid-Apocalypse in Mid-August

Two cats in a window
Hester and Ginevra safely enjoying the view from my bedroom window.

The recommendations are posted over and over and over again every day in all social media channels: wear a mask, maintain distance from other people, wash/disinfect your hands after touching anything, avoid crowds. Stay at home. Be constantly on guard. Be suspicious of everyone.

Since I started walking up to the village to do my own shopping again in June, I have a consistent ritual. After emptying the trash I have carried up in my trolley, I sit down on a bench at the edge of the village, put disinfectant on my hands, smoke a cigarette, then put on my mask and continue up the hill to the shops. In the village everyone wears a mask and keeps a distance, and it feels right, it feels respectful. People only enter the tobacco/hardware shop one at a time, while the rest of us spread out in a long line down the street, waiting and wearing our masks. Maintaining a distance inside the tiny supermarket is a bit tricky, but we have all been practicing and we are getting better at staying out of one another’s way.

Well-meaning people post daily on social media that this is how it works now, that we have to get used to it, that this is the “new normal”.


There is nothing remotely “normal” about this, and even though there is no end in sight, everything in me rebels against normalizing this situation. It is no more normal than increasingly rising temperatures or more and more extreme weather phenomena or the extreme imbalances in the distribution of wealth and consumption of resources. Nothing is normal, nothing is right, and pretending that it is in order to “save the economy” will only lead to more of the same. Every reasonable person knows this, but now we are all busy following the recommendations: wear a mask, maintain distance from other people, wash/disinfect your hands after touching anything, avoid crowds. Stay at home. Be constantly on guard. Be suspicious of everyone. It feels like such hard work, how can we even think about anything else? This constant vigilance is exhausting. Yet meanwhile the whole world is falling apart all around us. It is the middle of August and it seems we are in the midst of an apocalypse that was on nobody’s film list.

All the European governments that were so eager to open up their borders to allow tourists to come in to “save the economy” are now busy blaming one another for not having the virus sufficiently under control, imposing new restrictions and regulations every day that no one can keep up with, especially not if they are already traveling. Business or holidays are not the only reasons why people travel, but when do we reach the point of being able to stop focusing all of our attention on daily new restrictions to start questioning the destructiveness of the tourism industry? When do we reach the tipping point of insisting that whole national economies cannot be dependent on this destructive industry and there have to be alternatives?

Trying to at least marginally keep up with current developments, one thing that seriously concerns me is that everything I have read about the long-term aftereffects of the virus for people who have “recovered” reminds me strongly of Christopher’s experiences with Mollarets Meningitis. The thought of thousands and thousands of people all over the world struggling like that sets off all kinds of alarms ringing in my head. That cannot be an individual struggle. What kinds of changes have to be made in societies around the world to accommodate the needs of all these people? How do we have to change our ideas of what “work” means? What kinds of health services need to be prioritized? And who can raise these kinds of demands and insist on these changes, when we are all just busy fiddling with our masks, washing our hands, and staying away from other people?

Earlier this year I had planned to visit Linz the last two weeks of May, taking a ferry from Barcelona to Italy, then a night train from Italy up to Austria to be in Linz for AMRO and staying a week longer to go to the amazing concert that was planned to celebrate Christopher’s thirtieth birthday. None of that happened, of course. Nobody was going anywhere in May.

Now I want to visit Austria in September, but traveling by ferry and train that far seems so daunting at this time that I have resigned myself to flying. I had decided to avoid flying at least within Europe several years ago, not only for ecological reasons, but also because I found myself increasingly suspicious of the way the whole security circus of airports trains us to meekly follow arcane instructions and to view other people as being potentially dangerous. This is not getting better now. Yet how can we distinguish at this point between what keeps us (relatively) safe and what just keeps us busy? And this too is exhausting.

When quarantine started in March and everything shut down, a friend remarked that maintaining distance must be easier for me, because I am naturally more reserved and accustomed to more distanced forms of social interaction in Austria. I admitted that I found the more effusive and affectionate forms of social interaction here quite challenging and confusing when I first came to Calafou, but I was just beginning to learn to enjoy it when we suddenly had to stop, and that just felt unfair. It is a relief that we no longer have to be quite so careful within the community now, but sometimes that just seems to highlight how unnatural and uncomfortable social interaction has become everywhere outside Calafou. And that makes me feel very, very reluctant to go anywhere outside Calafou, even though I recognize that I really, really need to go out.

But why would I want to go out, to go anywhere else other than where I am now? Everything outside feels wrong, but here inside I am content in my four little rooms that feel like me – not the me enmeshed in and weighed down by a long shared history that is gone now, but the me that has been shaped by that history and is just me now.

And during the hot weeks of August I have learned something else from the women of Calafou. Since I was a teenager, I have always worn loose-fitting clothes to try to hide my square bony shoulders and my scrawny, freakishly long arms. It was such a deeply ingrained habit that I was no longer even conscious of it, until I started following the example of the women here and started wearing sleeveless t-shirts, uninhibitedly displaying my shoulders and arms. With that, I finally realized that I actually feel more comfortable now in my scarred and wrinkled aging body than I have ever felt in my life. Of course that fits perfectly with my experience that being an old woman is far more enjoyable than being a younger woman ever was. It is tempting to think that I would like to go back and tell my younger self that at the age of sixty-two I would finally get to experience what it feels like to actually enjoy my own physical presence, but that would imply regret, and I don’t want to regret anything. I just want to enjoy this surprising new experience now. When I get dressed in the morning and see my reflection in the mirror, my daily motto is another wonderful line from the fantastic Anna “Squalloscope” Kohlweis: “I’m aging as an act of rebellion”

When I wrote to the community to formally request extending my stay in Calafou for another year, I also said that one of my personal goals is to explore what other roles might be possible for me. I don’t want to just be the old woman who listens to everyone’s stories and bakes sweets to cheer everybody up. From the reactions I have heard to that, it appears that all the women of the community understood and thought it was funny, but it seems that most of the men were generally a bit mystified by the remark. I think that’s funny too, but I don’t feel motivated to try to explain it right now. I hope it might become a bit clearer when I find other roles for myself.

Mosaic by June Lawlor with a gold spiral winding through different shades of red.
The mosaic that June made now hangs above my kitchen in Calafou.

To begin with, I am looking for other role models – and finding delightful inspiration. Although I left so much behind in Linz , and absolutely needed to do so, at some point I realized that June Lawlor has accompanied me to Calafou. I am grateful to her daughters Sara, Kate and Emily for sharing her with me, because her spirit inspires and strengthens me.

Earlier this week I started seeing posts on social media commemoratig the 84th birthday of Margaret Hamilton. Most of them were accompanied by the iconic picture of her standing next to the stack of her hand-written code in 1969, but my favorite post included a picture of her Lego figure and a picture of her today along with the picture from 1969. Seeing the expression of joyful, determined intelligence on her face, framed by long gray hair, I melted into a little puddle of admiration. As wonderful as she was in 1969, it appears that she is even better now, and that inspires me too.


Another inspiration is Angela Davis. Although I have admired her since I was quite young, at that time I felt both awed and terrified by her courage. As she has been so frequently quoted more recently, pictures of both the young Angela Davis and Angela Davis today often show up in my social media feeds, and the character inscribed in her face now evokes hope and determination in me.

There are many more, of course, but there seems to be a pattern that intelligent young women become the most interesting and inspiring older women. Can I follow that pattern too?

So here I am now, a year after I wrote to the community of Calafou that I want to do something useful with the freedom I have, and in the midst of a global crisis I find myself even more privileged. And the question remains: What can I do with that?

The one thing I absolutely don’t want to do is to simply resign myself to a “new normal” of just being careful and baking sweets to cheer everybody up a bit.

But in the meantime I promised to bake a vegan cake for a friend arriving this evening.

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Being Human in Calafou

Throughout the more than twenty years that I worked as a translator, I translated and read so many books and articles and wise and insightful words about how to make a better society. Utopian aspirations and alternative communities have fascinated me since I was a child, and I still love to read speculative fiction that imagines different kinds of worlds and how they could work.

I’m good at theory.

Humans, though, living, breathing, feeling human beings are more complicated. Being human is a messy, contradictory, and confusing business. How comprehensive and complex does the best theory have to be, so that the erratic, unexpected, apparently inexplicable behavior of actual human beings doesn’t mess it up?

A year ago Patrick and I decided to trade places. Re-reading so many email exchanges that took place around this time last year, I recognize so many abstract theories that I had in my mind at that time, but my experiences in Calafou turned out to be quite different.

Aerial view of Calafou
The post-industrial, post-capitalist colony of Calafou as seen from above

When I came to visit last August, the community agreed to let me stay for a kind of residency for one year. That year has passed surprisingly quickly. During the first six months of my stay in Calafou, I experienced a sense of exhilarating freedom. In many ways it felt selfish and completely self-indulgent. How do you focus on being part of a community when you are just enjoying yourself that much? Admittedly, winter in Calafou was not entirely enjoyable, but I still felt pleased with myself that I managed to cope.

At the start of the new year, a friend did an “oracle”, a rune reading with me. The results were surprising, but also intriguing and encouraging. Having “passed the test” of winter, I found myself looking forward to spring, to being involved in public events in Calafou, to traveling, to exploring and learning more and more.

And then the whole world fell apart.

Events canceled, movement restricted, borders closed, states of emergency declared: fear and uncertainty spreading as rapidly and virulently as the coronavirus itself. While Austrian politicians were smugly asserting that the situation there would not be a dire as in Spain, I could not imagine feeling safer anywhere else other than where I was, here in Calafou. So I stayed here, and we remained isolated together, twenty humans, five dogs and four cats.

In so many ways, we found ourselves in an extremely privileged position. We all have our separate living spaces where we can retreat, but the grounds are spacious enough that we could also meet outside with enough distance between us, and could still move around freely within Calafou while we were essentially cut off from the outside world.

Of course we weren’t entirely cut off. We all have phones and computers and good internet connections, so news from the outside world continued to trickle in. But mediated news is different from personal contact, as so many intelligent analyses of the psychological effects of confinement during the pandemic have so often explained.

As we all tried to find our own ways of coping with our fears about what was happening, our worries about loved ones in different places, sometimes just with the inevitable boredom of being stuck with only the same twenty people, five dogs and four cats, all the theories I know about communities often seemed less than helpful.

Being human, we all have different personalities and different histories and all the emotional baggage that comes with them, along with certain learned behaviors rooted in our respective socialization.

Some of those learned behaviors include the strategy, typically associated with male socialization, of sublimating emotions by keeping busy doing things – things like building and repair work with tools that require skill and concentration, which tend to make a lot of noise. Other learned behaviors, typically associated with female socialization, include endless introspection and self-reflection or focusing on the needs of others almost to the exclusion of anything else or to the point of exhaustion. Some personalities need protocols and instructions and proven methods for dealing with all situations. Some personalities just need to scream or sob uncontrollably sometimes, others need a target to project their intense emotions onto. Not all of these behaviors and needs are always compatible.

Twenty humans, five dogs and four cats forming a viable community capable of agency is not a simple or straightforward undertaking even in the best of circumstances. And forced confinement due to a global pandemic can hardly be considered an ideal situation. Questions about how to live together well, how to make collective decisions, how to accommodate different needs have been the subject of ongoing reflections and discussions for centuries. No one can get it right on the first or even second or third or nth try. It has to be an ongoing process. But the process has to go on.

Since Christopher just managed to get himself on probably the very last flight to Vienna from the UK, he spent the months of confinement isolated in Vienna in his tiny flat with one window that opens up almost directly into the living room of his neighbor across the street. Since he had all his musical equipment there, however, he avoided losing his mind by producing the pandemic EP “All Roads Less Travelled”, which he released on his uncelebrated 30th birthday the end of May. It includes the song “Kin”, which ends with messages of encouragement in 38 or 39 languages, including contributions from Calafou in some of the other languages spoken here. It also includes the first recording of my sons, who both inherited their father’s musical talent, together in collaboration:

Every time I listen to it, I feel it expresses exactly how I feel right now too: I don’t know what to do, but we need to do something.

While the pandemic is not over yet, it has become almost a commonplace to point out that it certainly does not affect everyone equally. All the documentation of the spread of the virus clearly maps out the effects of racism, discrimination, inequality, oppression, and exploitation – in short, the effects of capitalism. All the autocrats, wannabe-dictators and fascists are already getting their ducks in a row. More than anything else, strong communities of solidarity are needed now.

Can Calafou be that kind of community?

During these past months, I have been so deeply touched by the personal stories that people here have shared with me in different ways, and my affection for this community has grown stronger and stronger. We are all human beings (and some other beings) with all of our flaws and failures, all of our blind spots and unreasonable desires, all of our kindness, generosity and humor. I believe all of that opens up spaces of possibility.

During these eleven months in Calafou, I have learned so much, but most of all I have learned that I still have so much more to learn that I think I will have to live for a very, very long time to be able to even begin to take it all in. My feeling now is that there is still more that I need to learn here.

Old woman looking out a window and smoking, seen from the back.
Looking out the window smoking and thinking. I have been doing a lot of that.

Writing to the community to formally request an extension of my “residency” in Calafou for another year was so much harder than deciding last year to come here. With all that has happened within the space of this past year, especially during the first half of the year 2020, I feel I am filled with so many questions, doubts, fears, uncertainties. But that is what the whole world is filled with now, here and everywhere else.

I am grateful that we cannot know what the future may bring. Whatever it is, I doubt that it will be good or enjoyable. For now, though, I just want to continue being human in Calafou.

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Excursion to an Alien World

Calafou has been described as giving the impression of a post-apocalyptic scene, and post-capitalist is one of the self-descriptions. As I have been living in Calafou since the end of last August, this has become so normal that it can feel quite jarring to go to other places and find that they are still pre-apocalyptic and apparently haven’t got the memo yet that capitalism is dying. When I stepped out of a train last Monday evening and found myself in the midst of a brightly illuminated shopping mall, I felt I had landed uncomfortably on the wrong planet.

Yet every time I go outside Calafou, I have the feeling that I am still astonished to realize that I am now actually living in Spain. How did this happen? How did I get here? How can I possibly be this lucky and why isn’t everyone, everywhere?

Since this is the first time I have left Calafou for longer than a day or gone farther than some of the surrounding towns since I arrived, most of what I have learned about Spain admittedly comes from stories that other people in Calafou have told me about where they come from. I have learned, for instance, that butter comes from Asturias, and from the pictures on the packages and photos I’ve seen, it seems that Asturias looks most like Austria, but with a wild Atlantic coastline like Ireland. Obviously that is high on my list of places I want to visit. I have learned more about food that is typical for Valencia, because my guardian angel is an excellent cook who feeds me well, and that is where he comes from. I have learned that Ibiza is not just an Austrian joke, but a place where families live and teenagers grow up before they set out to take on the whole world. I have learned that Galicia is not only a place in the east that exists now solely in sad memories of overwhelming loss, but also a place in the west – at least one, maybe more, since two people from the alleged Galicia in the west don’t seem to come from the same place at all when I listen to their stories.

And I have learned that Málaga is not just a flavor of ice cream traditionally popular in Austria, but also a city in the south of Spain – which is where I am this week.

Since I am visiting Austrian friends who have become involved in their neighborhood’s resistance against gentrification, I spent one afternoon helping to clear away trash and make a small stone path in a derelict corner of land that is to become a community garden. After meeting people who live here and want to stay here and not be forced out by rising housing costs, the next day I decided to go and join the tourists to see what their perception of this city might be. That turned out to be a rather unsettling experience.

This corner is to become a neighborhood community garden …

Since there seem to be so many older British tourists here, presumably seeking a bit of warmth and sunshine on the Costa del Sol, it was easy for me to mingle among them and become another recipient of the professional attentiveness of the many young people employed in the tourist industry at every level. As they politely addressed me in English, however, I also had the impression that they quickly put me into the right box: senior English-speaking female tourist, but obviously solo and not wearing the sensible haircut usually favored by gray-haired women, therefore someone who would insist on at least a little independence and not want to be overly coddled (unlike the hysterical women who had to be rescued from the top deck of the sightseeing boat when the waves got a bit higher). They always found exactly the right tone.

In contrast to meeting people from the neighborhood where my friends live and at Casa Invisible, from the perspective of a tourist Málaga seems very distant, unreachable. It could be anywhere and it doesn’t really matter. As a tourist I didn’t need to speak or even understand a word of Spanish. What difference does it make whether I just read the article about Málaga on Wikipedia and look at the pictures or look out the window of a bus as the same stories are recounted by a recorded voice? There is no “experience” of real people living in a real place, no sense of what their lives might be like here.

… which will definitely not be found on this map.

Wikipedia lists the “tourism industry” as one of the main sources of income here, and as a tourist I found myself continually “welcomed”, assured that Málaga is a friendly city always happy to receive tourists. Tourists bring and spend lots of money, of course (I certainly did), and tourism creates jobs. These are always the main arguments for promoting tourism. But does this industry actually produce anything other than more and more wasteful consumption? Travel is supposed to be educational, but do tourists really learn anything in the sameness of tourist locations? Tourist areas are widely known to be more expensive than non-tourist areas, which is actually the point, but what does that mean for people whose neighborhoods are taken over by tourism? Nobody earns enough in the tourism industry to be able to live in tourist locations.

The pattern is meanwhile familiar and well documented: quaint old buildings that have fallen into disrepair are bought by international investors, expensively renovated and then offered as accommodation on AirBNB, a highly lucrative arrangement for the new property owners, but this causes the costs of housing to rise until those who had previously lived in the area can no longer afford it. As new areas are made “safe” for tourists, sanitized, homogenized, filled with global chain stores and restaurants, there is less and less space left for the messiness of everyday life.

At the end of the day, I felt exhausted, overwhelmed by the input of information and “special offers” to spend more money and more money, here and here and here, and even the attentiveness of tourism employees always checking whether I might need anything. And I felt a bit ashamed of myself for so easily becoming part of the problem.

At one level, it would be easy to tell myself that, after helping with the new community garden again this afternoon, tomorrow I will return to Calafou and the relief of living in a post-capitalist world, but if I am honest, that is not the whole story, of course. It is my personal choice to live in Calafou, but my experience as a tourist reminds me that it is indeed a choice. At any time I can just get on a train to some random place to enjoy the luxury of being a senior solo tourist receiving all the attentiveness that hard-working, poorly paid employees in the tourism industry regularly give to people like me.

If the availability of choices is the epitome of privilege, I cannot escape being implicated in so much that is wrong with this world simply by choosing to live in Calafou. Questioning myself like this is not comfortable, but I am nevertheless very grateful to be able to take a week off from feeling constantly cold. Sitting here in the sunshine on a rooftop terrace, I’ll call this a learning experience and see what I can do with what I have learned when I return to the life I have chosen.

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Take Nothing for Granted

When I was explaining last summer why I wanted to come and live in Calafou, I said I had grown distrustful of the ease of things like central gas heating supplied by the city. I said I wanted to know where the warmth comes from.

I got what I wished for.

When my flat here is warm – or at least tolerably warm – it is because I made it warm myself, and there is something deeply satisfying about that. I know where the warmth comes from, because two, three, sometimes four times a day I go down to pick up another bag full of wood and carry it back up to my flat. I know where the wood is, because I helped to put it there.

Our dwindling supply of wood with the top floor of the living quarters visible in the back.

When the first day of community work to prepare wood for the winter was announced a few months ago, I initially felt a bit doubtful about the slightly Monty-Python-esque wood chopping crew that assembled on a Sunday morning after an exuberant party the night before. Although this crew included only two people capable of even lifting the heavy ax, only one able to swing it down hard enough to actually chop through a block of wood (at least on the third try), no one else seemed to be worried.

The wood (or anything else that comes from outside) has to be carried up this steep little path with three tree stump steps at the top …

Everyone cheerfully assured me that “the machines” would be coming soon, and then it would be much easier to chop all the wood. And indeed “the machines”, which turned out to be only one machine, but a very powerful and efficient one, arrived a few weeks later. Working continuously together in teams for several days, we chopped all the wood to be ready for burning and stacked it to fill the wood pile up to the roof of the shed and all along the whole wall. As I was sitting down briefly for a short cigarette break, I found the sight of all that wood quite satisfying, but someone else glumly remarked, “Yeah, that will last about a month.” I assumed that was meant to be ironic, but it turned out to be correct.

… then through this passage that is dark and gloomy even in the brightest sunshine …

By the end of December we had to buy more wood, which was delivered the first days of January by a tractor pulling an enormous trailer full of wood. This wood was already chopped, but it still had to be carried up the hill and stacked.

When I go down to fill up my wood bag, I pick out each piece of wood carefully for my little estufa. And as the huge pile of wood begins to dwindle again, I know there will be more work to do soon. I know where the warmth comes from now, and I will never take warmth for granted again.

… then up this steep path full of rocks and roots with three high steps at the end …

The other source of warmth that I have for other rooms is a gas heater that contains its own canister of gas, the same as the canister of gas that runs my gas stove. When the canister is empty, I have to coordinate with other people to drive to the next town, where we exchange the empty canisters for full ones. These full canisters then have to be carried up to the living quarters. I have done that in various combinations – three people carrying two canisters, two people carrying one together – but once I even managed to carry a full canister up to the third floor by myself. It took me some time, and I just wanted to curl up in my arm chair and not move for the rest of the evening when I was finished, but I managed to do it.

… then along this path with more rocks and roots …

So I know it can be done, and I know I can do it myself, but in the meantime I have had enough experience carrying full canisters of gas that I have no desire to do it again any sooner than absolutely necessary. That means I use the gas heater very, very sparingly. I know where that warmth comes from too, and it is certainly not to be taken for granted either.

… then up these steps …

A discussion I frequently have with myself (and my cats) is whether or not it is wasteful to heat two rooms, when I can only be in one room at a time. Of course, heating only the front room with my estufa makes it absolutely not enticing to do anything on the computer in the other room, when it is noticeably colder.

… then up these steps …

This may at least partly explain the obvious lack of blog posts and emails on my part, in case anyone else was wondering why I seem to have disappeared. When I’m not gathering wood or doing any of the other tasks that require going outside, I’m usually just wrapped in a blanket in the most comfortable arm chair in the world in front of the fire.

…. then along here to the bridge and back to my door (on the right, where Ginevra is sitting on her shelf looking out the window).

Spending the holidays in Calafou was quite different from holidays in Austria, but I’m happy that I stayed here. Although there were lights and decorations and Christmas music in the village, my visits there were brief enough that I barely noticed – although I did offer my sympathy to the nice young man who works in the grocery store, when he pointed out the Christmas music to me and said with some exasperation, “You hear what I have to put up with all day?” There was none of that here in Calafou, which was really quite a relief, although it meant that I completely missed sending any Christmas parcels this year. Apparently my international family came to a telepathic agreement that no one would send Christmas parcels this year, though, so I didn’t feel so bad.

The weekend before Christmas became quite emotional with saying good-bye to everyone leaving to spend the holidays with family and friends “outside”, but was immediately followed by an equally emotional welcoming of the people returning to Calafou especially for the holidays, including my delightful next door neighbor. There were enormous quantities of delicious food (and no scarcity of alcohol and cigarettes to accompany it), laughter, stories, and a wonderful feeling of warmth that had nothing to do with the temperatures outside. A friend did an “oracle” for me with runes, which turned out to be a bit surprising, but also surprisingly calming and reassuring.

This was also the first time in eight years that I was actually looking forward to New Year’s Eve. I had already been instructed that we must eat exactly twelve grapes at midnight and that it was absolutely necessary to get it right. That wasn’t quite as easy as I imagined, but I did my best to contribute to ensuring good fortune for all in the coming year. As we all hugged each other and wished one another a happy new year (without the Blue Danube Waltz playing in the background!), it just felt so right, so good. At some point during the day, I realized that I was feeling uneasy about the laundry still hanging on the clothes lines downstairs, and then I noticed that Austrian Twitter was discussing why it is that even the most modern, enlightened, otherwise non-superstitious people still feel a sense of dread about laundry hanging up over New Year’s Eve. Since it obviously wasn’t just me, I gave up and wrote to an internal channel to request that people should please take their laundry down before evening. There were a few questions, and one friend brought her underwear up to dry more quickly on a chair in front of my fire, but when we went down to the party in the evening and I saw that all the laundry was gone from the clothes lines, I felt deeply touched. I live now in a community that is willing and able to accommodate all kinds of different superstitions and irrational fears, and I think that means something.

By the end of December, however, I was also ready to concede that winter in Calafou really is as absolutely awful as everyone warned me it would be. When a friend sent me holiday greetings from the snowy Alps, I felt a wave of longing wash over me, and all I could think about was how much I miss snow. The cold here is so insidious, because it is a damp cold that creeps in everywhere. There came a point where I was beginning to feel a bit desperate, because the cold seemed to be coming from inside my body, as though every one of my internal organs was just radiating this hard, damp coldness. I felt as though I could put on twelve more layers of clothes but still not feel warm with the cold coming from inside.

During all the years I was self-employed, the time between Christmas and New Year was the only time I could be sick. Since everything shuts down and no one is working, I could just disappear into my bed for a few days without it being noticed. Apparently my body didn’t get the memo that this habit can be abandoned now, because I developed a bad cold on the weekend when I felt so chilled. I decided to ignore it, because I didn’t want to miss out on any of the festivities during the coming week, the New Year’s Eve party and the birthday celebrations that followed. Ignoring it didn’t make the cold go away, but the celebrations were absolutely worth it, so I have no regrets, even though I continued to feel weaker and increasingly miserable in the days that followed.

When the new wood was delivered, I was worried that there weren’t enough people here, so I went down to help, but I was so useless I could barely load logs into a wheelbarrow, let alone drag the wheelbarrow up the hill. At some point the others sent me up to make hot tea for everyone, while they apparently held a brief consultation and agreed that it was perhaps time for me to see a doctor. I decided to take it as a good sign that everyone noticed that it is definitely not normal for me to be that wimpy and useless when there is work to be done, so the next day I set out with my guardian angel as my chauffeur, my guide, and my non-English-speaking translator to become acquainted with the Catalan health care system. I have always been very appreciative of the Austrian health care system, but I was impressed that the Catalan system is even better. By the end of the day I had been diagnosed with bronchitis and duly supplied with antibiotics and various supplementary prescriptions, in addition to the generous supply of healthy herbal teas I had from the other inhabitants of Calafou. So by the end of the following week I was essentially back to normal again and able to carry my wood upstairs without having to stop to catch my breath.

Of course here too, nothing should be taken for granted. As far as health care is concerned, there is much that we could lose if neoliberal and right-wing governments in Europe succeed in pushing through their agendas, leaving us with terrible and terribly expensive US-style heath care. It is worth fighting to at least keep what we have.

And as far as being sick is concerned, the conventional idea of just staying in bed and drinking lots of tea doesn’t quite work if the bed is in a cold room and wood is needed from outside to at least heat the front room. And since I have a bottle for pee next to the dry toilet, which regularly has to be carried out to the forest to be emptied, drinking a lot of tea means it has to be emptied more often, so it becomes a question of finding the right balance.

Take nothing for granted.

Before Patrick left me here last summer, he promised me that in case I changed my mind or became unhappy or felt I had made a mistake in coming to live in Calafou, I should just let him know and he would come straight back to fetch me. When we spoke after the holidays and he heard that I had been so ill, his first question was whether I wanted him to come and get me. I was touched that he offered, but I still have no desire to accept that offer. On the contrary, I have the feeling that – like the mosquitoes in summer – this is a kind of initiation too. I feel as though I have passed some kind of test now, and it feels good.

So while I have learned that being able to easily go up and down to fetch my own wood is also not to be taken granted, it is very satisfying to be able to do it again now. At the evaluation assembly in December I was amused to hear that apparently several people noted with some surprise that for a 61-year-old gray-haired woman, I am actually much stronger than I look. That is certainly a reputation I want to keep, and now I look forward to taking part in community work again.

Despite the awfulness of winter, despite the lack of snow, even with all the effort that just making day-to-day life requires, I am still convinced that I made the right decision and that I am exactly where I want to be, among people that I want to be with – people who kindly feed me and bring me more tea and still make me feel valued and appreciated, even when I feel completely useless.

But sometimes it is perhaps good to be reminded that nothing, really nothing should be taken for granted.

Every time I have to get up for more wood, Ginevra and Hester take over the chair. Their favorite strategy is to curl up together looking so absolutely adorable that I couldn’t possibly disturb them to reclaim the chair for myself.
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Keep the Fire Burning

When Christopher asked me to do something for him recently, I promised to try to get around to it as soon as possible, but I told him that my main preoccupation at the moment is trying to keep the fire burning. Christopher responded, “Hahahaha”, but then a few minutes later: “That’s not a metaphor, is it?”

No, it is not a metaphor. It seems that my primary preoccupation since early November has been literally trying to keep the fire in my estufa, my little wood-burning stove burning. After it took most of October to get it ready, my lovely little estufa finally went into operation on 7 November. On the same day, my wonderful neighbor, who has really become my guardian angel (but not only mine apparently), found the perfect gas oven for me on a website for buying and selling used things (the Spanish equivalent of willhaben in Austria), and another generous neighbor drove with me to the outskirts of Barcelona to pick it up. My kitchen is now complete.

When I started using my estufa, at first it seemed a bit difficult to get a fire going, but that eventually worked using pine cones and twigs and starting with smaller pieces of wood. Another neighbor kindly explained to me in detail (but in such beautifully eloquent English that I almost forgot to pay attention to what he was saying) how to start the fire and then turn it down, once it is burning well. I tried that, but within five minutes first the glass window went black and then the fire went out. Then another neighbor came in to check that the pipes were working correctly and showed me how to turn it down once the fire is burning well. I tried that, but within five minutes the glass window went black and the fire went out. Then another neighbor explained to me (also in English) how to turn it down once the fire is burning well, so I tried that, but within five minutes the glass window went black and the fire went out …

In other words, it was becoming increasingly apparent that there was a certain discrepancy between the way my estufa was supposed to work and the way it actually did work. This did not really surprise me, since I figured there was probably a reason why I found it in the back of a collection point for scrap metal under a broken birdcage. I expected that it would be necessary to enter into a more intense relationship with my estufa, in order to convince it that it is loved again, and I was happy to choose each and every piece of wood carefully and personally, in order to find exactly the right wood to feed it. It was beginning to feel a bit frustrating, though, that no matter what I fed it, my estufa still seemed too weak to be able to burn even slightly bigger pieces of wood.

Then my guardian angel invited me for lunch one day, and when I explained the situation to him, he immediately identified the problem as being in the way the pipe was inserted into the chimney. He said that if it is too close to the back wall, then the air doesn’t circulate enough for the fire to get stronger, and promptly announced that his husband would come up later to fix it for me. And that is exactly what happened, so now everything is perfect. In fact, I now have the warmest flat in the building, which makes my place a popular place to meet. What more could I wish for?

In the meantime, the neighbor below me has also started heating with a similar estufa, so my cats are quite content with new warm spots on the floor. When I saw that Ginevra had discovered the first one, she looked so unusually relaxed that I even checked to make sure she was still breathing. As winter approaches, we share the warmth and all is good.

With all the material preparations for winter, November caught me emotionally unprepared this year. When I found myself feeling increasingly miserable about being such a negligent surrogate granny this year, because I haven’t even managed to obtain postcards for Amy’s granddaughters, let alone find and mail a present for Evelyn’s sixth birthday, the loneliness of Amy’s birthday felt even more oppressive. I still remember the day of her birth so well, and I told her that story every year for forty years, from her first to her forty-first birthday. Since she died two months before her forty-second birthday, though, I have been alone with that story ever since.

I don’t know why the loss of Amy suddenly felt so much closer, so much heavier here this year, but at some point I saw messages starting to appear about doing some kind of ritual the first weekend in November. Despite missing most, if not all, of the details, I stated my interest in taking part, thinking that I know enough about rituals in general that I should be able to figure it out.

Many people were away that weekend, but those still here gathered outside around a bonfire in the evening. Two pieces of our newly chopped wood were placed under a tree, and then candles, pictures and mementos started appearing there. When I saw that, I ran back upstairs to get three candles, one for Amy, one for Peter, one for everyone else to share, and grabbed the bottle of Amaretto that I had brought with me from Linz, even though I had no idea why. As people shared food and stories about their loved ones, someone asked me my sister’s name. And suddenly everyone was drinking a sip of Amaretto “To Amy!” Sitting there among these wonderful people, sharing food and drink and stories, I felt my heavy heart growing lighter and lighter.

Ten days after Amy’s birthday is the anniversary of Peter’s death. Following the unexpected experience of the first weekend of November, I thought it would probably be a better idea to prepare myself somehow for 13 November. I didn’t really want to announce the significance of the date to anyone or call too much attention to it. I thought about taking a walk in the forest, taking a candle and maybe the picture of Peter with me, but I didn’t really feel like getting lost in the forest by myself (regardless of how fitting that would be for remembering someone from the Hütmannsberger family). Finally, I realized that all I really wanted to do was simply talk about Peter: story-telling as an act of remembrance. In the end, another kind person came by that evening just to sit here and listen to me talk about Peter. The stories I needed to tell were not just amusing anecdotes, although there are certainly plenty of those, but also about so many of the ups and downs of our life together, why it was important for us to be together, even though we both had doubts sometimes. Simply being able to tell stories about Peter to remember him felt healing, calming.

When Amy was included in the circle of remembered loved ones, I think perhaps something finally shifted for me. Those who were remembered that evening all died in different ways, whether of old age, illness, or suicide like Amy, but the details of how they died are not what matters. All that matters is that they are remembered now with love. Perhaps in a similar way, remembering Peter reminded me that we were never an ideal romantic couple, that our relationship was never just about the two of us, but about the space we were able to make together, the way we could gather people together. Once upon a time I had a partner in life, now I don’t. But what really matters remains the same.

Many, many years ago, November was my favorite month, but now it has been so hard for so long. Being in a different place, being as completely happy as I am now didn’t change that as I had hoped at some level. The feeling that remains now at the end of November, however, is a sense of generosity. The fact that it is now beautifully warm in my flat and that I can start baking again is due to the practical generosity of so many people who have shared so many different skills and knowledges with me to make that possible. The sense of peace that I feel now at the end of this sad month is due to the emotional generosity of so many people who have shared food and drink and celebrations and work and stories and laughter.

Keep the fire burning and share the warmth.

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As Winter Approaches

Various people had warned me about winter in Calafou, but I figured that since I am accustomed to Austrian winters, I would be able to cope. I think I’m beginning to see the point, but I still expect that I can cope.

First of all, for the last few weeks it has been noticeably warmer outside than inside, which suggests to me that this building was not necessarily originally constructed for cold weather – or maybe the original owners just didn’t put much effort or money into the construction of workers’ quarters. Either way, staying reasonably warm clearly requires a bit more effort. The first response is obviously to increase layers of clothing, but I came prepared for that. Leaving the door open to let in warmer air would sometimes seem to make sense, but that plan is still complicated by Maula, the feline warrior queen, who still strenuously objects to the presence of Ginevra and Hester. We have developed a few more regular routines so that Ginevra can spend at least a little time exploring outside, but Maula still keeps coming up with astonishingly cunning attack strategies. One day when I was sitting outside drinking tea with a neighbor, both of us watching for Maula as Ginevra was happily smelling all the plants, Maula managed to sneak into my flat and attack Hester, who was peacefully sleeping on the pillow on my bed in the back. Not only was I not happy about having to clean up a large puddle of cat piss under my bed, but I just felt thoroughly frustrated. Hester doesn’t even go outside. She poses no threat or even a mild challenge to Maula’s dominance. What is the point of attacking Hester?

In the meantime, I have a bolt on the door to lock it from the inside and a latch to keep it closed when I am outside. I have also rearranged the plants and barricaded the neighbors’ door so that Maula can’t hide there. I keep a squirt bottle full of water next to the door, and other people helpfully try to distract Maula with food, if Ginevra is outside. All of this helps, but just leaving the door open unguarded to let warmer air in is still not an option.

At one level, I genuinely sympathize with this feline psychopath. There are various places where she can go inside, if she wants to, and people make sure she is fed (usually a plastic container of dry food outside), but she essentially has no human of her own, no warm soft places especially prepared for her. Of course she resents the pampered Austrian princess and her fat, fluffy companion, who have their own human exclusively devoted to them, a human who gives them nice soft food every morning, lots of blankets and soft places (with heating pads and hot water bottles as needed), and even acts as a luxurious lounge for them to stretch out on in front of the heater in the evening. What kind of behavior is that for an anarchist colony? I understand that, but as the human responsible for Ginevra and Hester, I won’t let Maula annihilate them just to prove a point. As intelligent as she is, I keep hoping that Maula will eventually get bored and find something else to hunt.

Hester and Ginevra in one of their many soft places, this one next to my seat in front of the computer.

Next step in preparing for winter: heaters. A few weeks ago I was rather disconcerted to learn that the wood-burning stove that Patrick left for me, which my neighbor had attached to the chimney (I had already planned to ask someone else to check that for me, though, before starting to use it) had to be returned to the community flat downstairs, because the stove there was about to be reclaimed and taken away by its owner. The resolution of this confusing situation was that I ended up buying a new estufa at an astonishing junkyard in another village, where I spotted it in the back under a broken birdcage. After transporting it back to the workshop in Calafou (in a way that was definitely not in compliance with any kind of traffic safety regulations), I have been learning more about the broad range of skills that people here have. People have helped me clean it, disassemble it, repair it, put it back together, and get it moved upstairs into my flat. Now it just needs one more special piece of pipe to be delivered to the local hardware store, then it can be attached to the chimney – which may or may not be a more complicated process. I suspect it probably will be, since all the pipes fell out of the wall when a friend and I disconnected the other stove to take it downstairs. More to learn about pipes and chimneys.

Behind this hole in the wall, there is a chimney. I hope.

In the meantime, I have a gas heater complete with its own bottle of gas, which I can drag back and forth between the bedroom in the morning and the front room in the evening. The flame in front and the smell of gas sometimes make me feel a little bit nervous about it, so I try not to leave it running longer than absolutely necessary. In the evenings Ginevra likes to stretch out on the rug in front of it, as though in adoration of the flame, but a friend suggested that she is probably just getting high on the gas. In any case, we will soon have a lovely antique, refurbished and working wood-burning stove. And I have already ordered a special measuring device to ensure that neither humans nor felines are in danger of asphyxiation once it goes into operation.

One of the things I am enjoying most, however, is that a friend who is gradually assuming responsibility as the main system administrator for the server here invited me to assist her. So far, my “assistance” mainly consists of watching what she is doing in a shared shell session, but as I watch her type in commands, I realize that I recognize them, understand them, that I can read and understand the output of those commands. And with that recognition I find I can recall other commands and configurations. These are things I once knew, and – surprisingly – they are not lost now. As this understanding grows, I feel as though I am recovering parts of myself that I thought were lost forever when Peter died.

Sitting together with our computers either upstairs in her flat or downstairs in mine always feels so calm and encouraging. It is very different from the explosions of emotional fireworks that always accompanied everything Peter and I did together on computers, but it is also a reminder that this has always also been me, that it was never just Peter and me, but also me with my own approach, my own way of learning, my own pleasure in understanding processes and figuring out how things work. This is a me that existed both before Peter and alongside Peter, and that me still exists.

Again and again, different aspects of my life in Calafou remind me of my life in Innsbruck so long ago. From trying to figure out how to sensibly, safely and efficiently generate warmth in an otherwise thoroughly cozy and soothing space to the pots and pans and cutlery left from Innsbruck that Patrick originally brought here with him, to the feeling of being safe and free here, I find myself reminded again and again that once upon a time there was a me before I met Peter. Reconnecting with those old bits and pieces of me to weave a new whole that also – but not only – includes my life with Peter feels surprisingly healing. I had not even been aware of needing that before.

One more thing that has to be included in preparations for winter is that I need to make sure I always have a generous supply of chocolate on hand. That can be arranged.

My new stove just waiting to be connected.
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Invisible Idiots De-worming Death in October

There was a certain period when our children were little, when I would be waiting impatiently for Peter to come home so I could run to a meeting, and as I ran out the door I told Peter, “There is an invisible idiot on the second shelf in the kitchen.” This provided Peter with the information he would need about where to find a pacifier when it was time to put the boys to bed, but without reminding them of the pacifier, so they wouldn’t ask for it before bedtime, because we had reached the point where pacifiers were only used for going to sleep.

The code name “invisible idiot” for a pacifier came from an article I had read about advances in machine translations. The article described an example of running the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” through a machine translation, which came out as “invisible idiot”. At the time, I thought it was an impressive achievement, even if not entirely accurate, which also assured me that I would not be made redundant as a human translator any time soon.

That was over twenty years ago, and advances in machine translations are even more impressive since then, but in the six weeks I have been living in Calafou now, as I have been using machine translations quite extensively, I find myself frequently reminded of the invisible idiot. Often I look at the translation of message exchanges, and I imagine that at some level this statement probably makes sense to a machine, and it may create an interesting meaning of its own, but it is probably not exactly what a human meant.

Since I avoid using Google services wherever possible, I have been using primarily the open source alternatives DeepL for Spanish to German translations and Apertium for Catalan to English. Since Apertium can switch between Catalan and Spanish, this is also useful for mixed-language exchanges. If all else fails, an odd Romanian site with a nineties-style interface can usually decipher the most confusing messages. On my phone I couldn’t get the mobile version of DeepL from F-Droid to work, so I ended up with a commercial application, which frequently annoys me when I’m trying to paste a text and accidentally click on an ad. When it is right, this app is very, very good, so it annoys me to have to admit that a commercial app can be that good, but when it is wrong, it is very, very far off, which can result in unpleasant surprises. When it translated a comment last night as a seriously questionable sexual innuendo, I decided to wait for the electricity to come back on and check it on one of the desktop apps, because that is certainly not the way people communicate here. Of course that also raises the question of what is going on in the background that would lead a machine to read a sexual innuendo into a simple remark. If machine translations improve through machine learning, what exactly has this machine been learning?

As I am also working hard on learning Spanish (I have currently reached the communication skills level of a two-year-old), sometimes the mistakes in the machine translations provide me with useful clues about how Spanish works. The most frequent confusion arises from an inability to distinguish between he, she and it, which tells me that it must be the same word in Spanish, when a person’s gender keeps unexpectedly switching from one sentence to the next. I have also learned that machine translations can be confused by proper names. When I see messages with mysterious references to fleas, frames, sweets, etc., it is usually a sign that I need to check the original message for people’s names that I recognize in between the other words. Since it is also often confusing for humans that one of the dogs here is named Muerte, I can’t fault the machine translations for not recognizing this word as someone’s name, but it is still amusing to be informed that “Death will be de-wormed the end of October.” I should probably be more appreciative that the machine translation was able to help me with the word for “de-wormed”, which was the only one in that sentence I didn’t understand. In light of my extensive involvement in the past years with discourses relating to death, however, I still feel that this is simply a wonderful statement: Death will be de-wormed the end of October.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, and apart from the recurrent problems with proper names and third person singular pronouns, machine translations generally seem to work better for email messages. When confusion arises there, it usually seems to involve references to spaces, practices or groups that are specific to Calafou. As I learn more and more about how things work here, these riddles become easier and easier to solve. I see this as confirming the expectation that people tend to write more formally (or at least in complete sentences using conventional grammar) in email, and I find myself wondering how this might relate to the widespread opinion that email is falling out of favor, especially with young people. I have seen that opinion expressed so often, and I still have reservations about it, but now I’m curious about a possible connection.

Also unsurprisingly, probably, the machine translations seem to find short messages posted to the Calafou Riot channels more challenging. For me, still struggling to keep up and figure out what is going on, sometimes this can be frustrating, but sometimes it is simply hilarious. One thing I have learned, as I am gradually able to identify who the various nicks belong to, is that it is sometimes more useful to simply imagine the person’s voice in my head in order to understand what they are saying. I don’t need machine translations in order to understand voices that have meanwhile become more familiar. And I find myself drawn deeper and deeper into questions about how communication really works.

When someone reached down to pet Ginevra recently, addressing her as “guapa”, my mind “translated” that to the familiar situation of someone reaching down to pet her in Austria and calling her “Du Hübsche” (roughly: “You pretty thing, you”). The same gesture, the same gentle tone told me what “guapa” means better than any dictionary or machine translation ever could. I’m learning that there is a level where humor can still be understood, even when you don’t get the joke because you don’t understand the words. And it is not (only) words that convey kindness, generosity and understanding.

As I was wrestling with machine translations of the Calafou wiki in an attempt to rewrite confusing (not only to me) instructions, somewhere on the periphery of my attention I noticed a friend in Linz posting about special local baked goods at the farmers’ market in Linz, which ended with a picture and the satisfied statement, “Owa an Bauankropfm hob i nu kriagt” (roughly: “But I still got a farmer’s doughnut”, i.e. after everything else was gone). Since it made me smile, the statement caught my attention, so on a whim I decided to see what a machine translation might be able to do with it. Not much. DeepL was at least able to identify the language as German, but the translation “Owa to Bauankropfm lifted i nu kriagt” is hardly useful, since the only two translated words are incorrect.

Somehow I found this exercise strangely comforting. As a human, I was able to recognize that this is simply a phonetic representation of the way people normally speak to one another in Linz. It is an entirely prosaic and unimportant, yet thoroughly familiar expression of satisfaction, and the familiarity of it has an emotional effect. It occurred to me then that this is essentially the same kind of thing I am reading on the Riot channels, which machine translations are unable to explain to me in any even minimally coherent way. It’s not the literal meaning of the words, but the feeling they convey that matters. Realizing this makes it easier to read/listen to the sense rather than the meaning of the words. It makes expressions I don’t understand somehow feel more familiar, because the people who use them – in their own language, in their own personal modes of expression – are becoming familiar to me.

Language has been my life for as long as I can remember. Words, spoken words, written words, playing with words, finding new words, different words, so many words – words in all their many forms and myriad meanings have always fascinated and preoccupied me. It is an unexpected gift in this late phase of my life that I now have a new opportunity to learn to find meaning behind, beyond, between the words.

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An Austrian Princess in an Anarchist Colony

As someone remarked one day, it is quite impressive how all the animals in Calafou have strong, unique personalities and are members of the community on their own, apart from the humans associated with them. The information for visitors on the Calafou website is certainly to be taken seriously, when visitors are strongly urged not to bring animals with them.

So how are Ginevra and Hester coping as new arrivals in the collective?

First of all, as I keep reminding myself, my feline companions did not volunteer for this mission. It was my decision to take them with me, although it was not a decision I made lightly, especially since they are no longer relatively adaptable kittens, but stately matrons of eight years of age. Cats are notoriously territorial and more attached (according to the wisdom of the Internet) to their familiar environment than to their human companions. However, since their familiar environment was scheduled for major revision with Patrick’s plan of “de-museumizing” the flat, along the introduction of Patrick’s dog V as a permanent resident, rather than just an annoying long-term visitor (from the cats’ point of view; I loved having V with us), I figured they would be better off with me, since they are certainly quite fixed on me and regularly evoke brokenhearted pity among their caretakers whenever I’m gone.

Preparing Ginevra and Hester to relocate from Austria to Spain turned out to be one of the most challenging (and expensive) aspects of the plan, but we were fortunate enough to have wonderfully supportive and encouraging vets (a mother-daughter team of vets) in Linz. The first time Dominik and I took them in the car for the first preparation visit with the vets, it was already clear that this would not be a simple undertaking. Normally quiet little Hester panics whenever she thinks she is trapped, expressed as a siren-like wail that sounds like “I’M TRAAAAAPPPPPED!! I’M TRAAAAAAAPPPPED!!” While it is a useful signal if I happen to close a cupboard door while she is still inside, ten solid minutes of this siren wail all the way from Urfahr to Froschberg did not bode well for a 20-hour drive to Spain.

Internet cats to the rescue: there is certainly a plethora of helpful tips for long-distance travel with cats on the Internet, as I found as soon as I started searching. A few of them are actually even useful. My next step was to buy a large transport box and set it up with the flaps open in my bedroom, where the cats happily adopted it as a satisfactory place to nap and play.

Ginevra and Hester happily accepted the new bed before they knew what it was for.

The next step was to buy harnesses and leashes for them to practice going outside in the garden. Ginevra was initially skeptical, but soon became curious and interested in exploring the garden more extensively. Hester wanted none of it. The first time we tried the harness, she managed to wiggle out of it within seconds of recognizing what was restraining her. More Internet research suggested a full-body vest with Velcro fasteners for fluffy escape artists, so I took another trip to the pet supply shop, where I found a pink one for small dogs. Hester was not enthusiastic, but it was effective. When I took her down to the garden, though, she was so appalled by all that open space that she tried to hide under the mat of the transport box, which I didn’t even realize was detachable until then.

This is the pattern that has now been maintained for a month. On the drive from Linz to Calafou (which took us 24 hours and 15 minutes) I attached their leashes whenever we stopped for a break, so that they could safely leave the transport box to explore the car, eat a bit or drink some water and use the litter box (on the floor under the transport box). Ginevra was keen to explore everything, so I had to watch her closely to make sure she didn’t get tangled up with her leash, but Hester sometimes just flopped down in front of the opening and refused to leave her meanwhile familiar box. When we arrived in Calafou, Hester wasn’t interested in leaving the box, while Ginevra was ready to run straight off into the forest. Since it was already dark when we arrived, though, I quickly closed off all escape routes and only let her explore the interior to begin with.

We have been in Calafou for two weeks now, and some of the things I worried about most turned out to be complete non-issues. The cats have no problem at all with wood shavings in their litter box (the same used for the dry toilets for humans) rather than the specially processed (and expensive) litter box sand they had in Linz, so that is one more expense I can cross off my list. They are quite enthusiastic about the most readily available Spanish brands of cat food, so I obviously didn’t need to bring a whole box of their usual cat food. Hester has settled in well surprisingly quickly. She is happy with the three rooms I have more or less finished. Although she keeps looking for shelves she can jump on, she is also happy to stretch out and roll around on the rugs and chase her toys up and down the hallway. She is also quite happy with the fourth room, which needs more intensive sorting and cleaning work, because for now it is filled with boxes and rags and nice corners for hiding in. More recently she has even become brave enough to take a few steps outside the front door in the evenings, although even the slightest noise sends her running to hide again. Since our new home has become her safe space, she seems altogether quite content, my timid, quiet Hester.

The doors are a bit flimsy here for sustained balancing.

And Ginevra? Ginevra is certainly quite keen on exploring the new surroundings, so I have to keep a close eye on her when the door is open. As she keeps trying all the doors on our floor, I have to keep reminding her where we live and that she can’t just walk into other people’s and animals’ homes as she pleases. A few days ago, she found the courage to cross the bridge from the second floor balcony, where we live, to the larger courtyard on the other side and was clearly exhilarated to see how far she could go. Running off straight into the forest is still not an option, however.

Occasionally we also have unexpected visitors, especially since I initially made the mistake of putting the cat food in the front room across from the door, so it looked like an invitation to other companion species who happened to be passing by. There is a large elderly dog in the community, who has been quite ill and recently had an operation, so that he has to wear a plastic cone around his head. When this large, dark, shaggy creature wandered into our hallway the other day, Hester was so shocked she even forgot to hide. I found her frozen on top of a box looking like an Internet meme with a “WTF!?!” look on her face. In general, however, the dogs are not a problem, but the other three cats in the community pose something of a quandary. While Hester immediately hides from other cats, if they come in or linger around the door, Ginevra tries to assert her authority and appears thoroughly flummoxed when it doesn’t work.

When another dominant female cat came in through the window to share Hester and Ginevra’s breakfast, Ginevra hissed at her, but when Maula just hissed back, Ginevra had no idea what to do with that. It occurred to me then that she has never been challenged before. Even V recognized that Ginevra ran the place the first time Patrick brought him, and even though Ginevra always had a very low opinion of V, she seemed to take it for granted that he went to such lengths to try to please her – from abject groveling to his best “good dog” pose (at least the humans seem to like it) to bringing her highly inappropriate gifts or trying (and failing) to imitate her behavior. In Calafou, however, she finds herself in the alienating situation of being an Austrian princess in an anarchist colony. The dogs ignore her, the humans are friendly enough, but don’t immediately stop whatever they are doing to admire her, and the other cats simply refuse to recognize her status, which she has never had to assert before.

This puts something of a damper on her urge to explore. First she bravely skips across the bridge to claim the courtyard and then these other cats show up and claim it as a common area. For a princess like Ginevra, this is a wholly alien concept, but clearly no one takes her affrontedness seriously.

So much to explore!

What is a princess to do?

As if the inter-species politics of Calafou were not already enough of a predicament, Ginevra now has her recurring problem with ear mites again. This has always been her weak spot and the cause of frequent house calls from our vet in Linz. The most prominent indication that she has a problem with ear mites again has always been that she starts hissing at Hester, as though Hester were a dangerous intruder. When Hester just sits there patiently, looking a bit sad and hurt, it is obviously a one-sided problem, but it calls for separation.

When I woke up the other morning to the noise of Ginevra hissing and growling at Hester under my bed, the next thing I realized is that it is not that simple to separate the cats within four rooms connected by windows with no glass in them and all with doors that don’t close properly. I decided to regard that as an opportunity to learn more about how the rooms work, and Ginevra apparently decided to take the same approach.

Since Wednesday was a Catalan public holiday, another sympathetic member of the community warned me that an emergency visit to a vet would be prohibitively expensive, but he managed to find a pharmacy in another village, where he was able to get the right kind of drops for me to give Ginevra. Under the circumstances, however, I wasn’t entirely sure whether Ginevra really had ear mites again, or whether she might just be bullying Hester out of frustration at the whole situation. With the help of several other members of the collective, a visit to the veterinary clinic in the next slightly larger village was organized this morning.

On a side note, that was not entirely simple either. Although much communication within the community takes place in passing or during working together, much is also discussed through online channels, which gives me a chance to try to catch up on some of the details. I found one website that provides a reasonable machine translation from Spanish to German and another for Catalan to English. Most of the time, however, I have to paste each message into both sites and put the pieces together myself. It is usually when my attention is thus engaged that various companion species randomly wander in and out.

The vet in the next village turned out to be an enchanting young woman who was eager to practice speaking English, but she also confirmed that Ginevra does have ear mites and I need to keep putting these drops in her ears for ten days.

In Linz I didn’t have to do that myself, because the vet came to our house to do it for me. In Calafou that is not an option. So in the DIY spirit of the collective, I have spent the afternoon watching videos on the Internet about how to “make a kitty burrito” to put drops in a cat’s ears. I could do without the typical USian cuteness of those videos, but I think I’ve got the idea now. We will have to try it this evening.

We really didn’t need the ear mite problem now, but I am determined to help Ginevra get rid of this irritation so that she can focus on her main task in our new life here.

This Austrian princess has to learn how to be a communard now – or at least an anarchist princess.

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Being in Calafou

My arms and feet are covered in bruises, scrapes, and an insane number of mosquito bites, but I am so happy I don’t even care. And I can’t even remember the last time I felt this free and unconstrained.

As I had imagined, this is one of Ginevra’s new favorite spots
I haven’t finished yet, but I have at least started rearranging the front room.

Just over a week ago I arrived in Calafou to stay, but sometimes it feels as though I have always been here, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now. I spent the first days sorting, cleaning, shifting, sorting, cleaning, turning this space, where Patrick has been living for the past two years, into my space. And I feel continually surprised that it is actually working. This is my space now, and it feels like me – not my whole history, but just me now.

Very pleased with my cozy workroom now

When I had done as much as I could do by myself, my astonishingly energetic neighbor came in to give me a hand. We got stuck for a while trying to find a way to make the initially unstable shelves stand up straight and stable on the crooked floor, but in the end we were almost competing to see who could come up with the most “creative” solution. The shelves are standing quite reliably in my cozy new workroom now, providing space for computer books above and sewing supplies below.

Along the way my neighbor showed me where to deposit various things I don’t need and find other things I might need instead. Wandering through the various spaces of the colony with him, it struck me that Calafou really is a paradise for people like me, who can’t bear to throw things away that look like they “might be useful” at some point. This place is filled with things that “might be useful”. That feels inspiring, motivating, and it keeps my imagination working at full speed. It occurred to me the other day that I could make a little shelf for the back of the door, where the cats could sit and keep an eye on everything through the window when the door is closed. And then I realized that if I come up with a feasible plan for this shelf, I know where to find pieces of wood to build it and where to find tools to mount it. Suddenly anything is possible! My first project, though, has been to make nice curtains for that large window in the door, and between Calafou and the little ferreteria in the village up the hill, I managed to obtain everything I needed to make new curtains in my lovely workroom.

New curtains that let in more light

In the meantime, I have also been added to the relevant communication channels for the community, so with the help of DeepL I can now be informed about where more hands are needed. Some people seem to find my enthusiasm for cleaning rather amusing, but I have been having a wonderful time helping to prepare the guest house for a large group arriving soon from Toulouse.

The biggest hurdle, of course, is my inability to speak Spanish. I find I understand more and more every day, and it fascinates me to just sit and listen to conversations, even though I can only just barely follow them and miss a lot of details, and to observe the different personalities of the people speaking. Even people who barely speak English kindly make an effort to communicate with me, and everyone is very encouraging whenever I try to string a few words together that might possibly be intelligible at some level. I’m working on it, but learning to speak Spanish will obviously be a long and ongoing process.

As a result of this, however, I also can’t talk about myself, and I am surprised at how much of a relief that feels like. Without a story, without all the baggage of my whole history, I am just Aileen, just getting on with things and trying to participate in the community with actions rather than words. This feels like a new experience, an unexpected experience, but one that I am deeply grateful for.

Every day is filled with new discoveries of how things work, where to put things, where to find things, along with getting to know new people in a completely new way.

Just being in Calafou is good.

Ginevra’s other favorite spot, which is why we will eventually need a shelf on the back of the door.
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Leaving Things Behind

Now that I have returned to Linz from Calafou, where the collective agreed to let me stay and even gave me a very generous warm welcome, it’s time to pack, because I will be returning to Calafou to stay in just over a week.

It is in many ways a great relief to know I don’t have to pack up everything, only the things I really want or need, because I can leave Patrick to deal with the rest. Yet as I go through the flat considering what to take, everything I touch is charged with memories, and sometimes it feels hard to let go.

When I was a child, one of the things I loved about visiting the Shanahans was that their house was full of such Nice Things. They had elegant wine glasses, real china, linen tablecloths, pretty glass objects, beautiful original paintings. That was quite different from the sturdy plastic tableware we had, because it was more practical in a household with small children – in addition to being modern and popular in the sixties – or posters stuck on the wall with tape and tacks. I dreamed that one day, when I was grown up, I would have Nice Things too. Even in my most austere ascetic phase (because that was the form my teenage rebellion took), Nice Things always remained my greatest “temptation”. Having Nice Things still feels like an achievement to me to this day, but there are so many things in this household now that I seriously will not need in Calafou. But will they mean anything to Patrick when he starts “de-museumizing” the flat? The set of delicate English tea cups that Mr. and Mrs. Sanderson gave us as a wedding present have always only been used on special occasions. Will they remain special? The set of wine glasses that my mother-in-law etched for us: there are only three left now, so I put them carefully away in the back of the cupboard. Will there be any left the next time I come back to Linz? The four plates I use every day now look a bit old and some of them are a bit chipped, but once upon a time they were elegant and modern, and it gave me great satisfaction when I was able to buy them with my first salary in Innsbruck. Will they mean anything to anyone else, or will they just look like old plates left over from the eighties?

I need to get a kettle for the gas cooker in Calafou, so there is no point in taking the electric kettle I have in Linz. As I pushed it aside, though, I remembered when Amy went out and bought it for me when she was visiting in Linz. Peter and I had changed the plug on our electric kettle from England ourselves, and Amy was appalled by how hazardous it looked, so she went out specifically to buy me a shiny new, non-hazardous kettle. But these are only my memories attached to the electric kettle. Without my memories it is simply a very sturdy, perfectly ordinary electric kettle.

A kettle covered with memories.

This is why I’m stuck. This is why it will do me good to leave and focus solely on what I am doing in the here and now. I think I have been living too long alone with too many memories. They stick to everything that surrounds me. Amy, Peter, my father, my sons’ childhood, my own past in different places … But it is not the Nice Things that matter, and other things can also be nice, handmade things, makeshift things, experimental things. And I hope these other things can help me make room in my heart for new memories.

I am grateful to Patrick for taking over this project, but I’m afraid he has a lot of work ahead of him.

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