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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