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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