This is it! This is it. I’d been working on finding this very spot in my mind’s eye for months and here it was—finally. It’s perfect. They will love it.
It’s raining. My feet disappear into a thick, rich brownie that is the driveway, while the last vestiges of snow cling for dear life in the meadows. There’s not a soul around. The mountains are enveloped in a puffy woolen skirt, clouds swirling around the base in a hula hoop of mist. Even though I can’t see jack, I know it’s the place. It’s exactly what I’ve imagined. I turn back toward the farm and look down. Shit. My expensive hand-made boots are covered in soupy earth. Why did I wear these up here!? Should have worn muck boots. The farm has been closed since November. Despite this, it looks cozier than where I am standing, next to my rental Audi in the pouring rain. The farm waits quietly.
It will take another month for spring to happen up here. When it does, the young farm family will drive their dairy cows up from the village, open the shutters, make the feather beds and let their daughter and “Minzle the cat” out to play for the next 5 months. I can see the future already; how it looks in summer. Windows open. Red-checked curtains starched and tied back invitingly. Long wooden benches and tables beckoning for cozy camaraderie. My guests will sample fresh cheese made right here, cured meats, cold beer and farm bread from the Bregenzerwald. Surrounded by 6,000 ft mountain peaks, electric-green grass, fattened milk cows, a sparkling stream and one tiny road meandering by. This timeless refuge is a place you’d never find on your own. And, WE have a private invitation.
Months ago, I’d promised my boss with resounding positivity that I would find something for our American guests. One of the core tenets of our travel company is a “home-hosted lunch” with a local family. An authentic experience with real people in a non-commercial, non-tourist setting. This is not so easy to find in wealthy western Europe. And, not so easy when you don’t know a soul. My European colleagues all said, yeah, good luck with that in a tone that meant, you’ll never find anything. Good luck, you optimistic American, always flying by the seat of your pants, believing in fairytales.
Do Americans really believe their hopes and dreams have the power to shape destiny, or are we just incredibly naive? Current quantum physics research suggests that if we hold an idea in our mind and imagine ourselves already engaged in that activity and feel it emotionally, eventually that form materializes out of the quantum field, seemingly out of thin air. You just don’t know when or how it will appear. I am a believer. My dreams do come true. I’m a daughter of the American Revolution, after all.
Over the winter, I researched from the States; studied maps, websites, bike routes and guide books to get a sense of place. I sent messages to the respective tourist offices—in German of course. I even contacted the local newspaper, wondering if I should take out an ad. They all said the same thing…this-or-that restaurant is really nice, but the idea of interacting with locals in an intimate home setting was too unusual. No luck there. So, I just kept fantasizing, knowing the joy our guests would feel in the Austrian Alps with our new host friends. I just kept feeling this place, not knowing how it would find me.
Fast forward to April. Getting to Bregenzerwald requires extra travel logistics, but I had convinced Corporate we should spend a day in this region—away from our normal route around the lake. Now it was time to deliver the goods I had promised.
I’m checking the bike route for this new day. The route is easy, on a paved path with perfect signage. The ride is diverse with sections through meadows and tiny villages, killer views along the mountainside where at one point I have to dismount and portage my bike across the remnants of a winter avalanche that still has the bike path buried under half-frozen rubble; then rolling again through fragrant pine forests and along a glacial river. Everything is going smoothly so far. My research has prepared me well, but there’s a tight knot in my stomach. I still need to find this home-hosted place. My boss will be here in a couple weeks to check my work and give the green light before the bike tour season officially begins and guests start arriving at Lake Constance.
I need a miracle. I need some serious trail magic right now, I say out loud while pedaling around Bezau, through downtown and its side streets until I realize it’s getting late. I have no sign from the universe, no clues to follow and I’m hungry. Okay, it’s time to regroup and review my notes. There’s got to be someone, something here, I tell myself only half believing it. How about a Wienerschnitzel and a beer…you’ll feel better, I tell my ego consolingly. I stop at the best restaurant in town. It’s one of the places the tourist office wanted me to bring my groups. The beer comes and disappears in seconds. This is a good start. I order another one. The Schnitzel arrives. It sucks. I’m devastated. It must be a sign! The sucky Schnitzel blasts my hopes into a fiery tailspin. The lunch is expensive and lackluster and I leave depressed. Not because of the Schnitzel (that’s only half the reason), but because I’m at a dead end and the day isn’t getting longer. I have one hour to find what I’m looking for…and I don’t even know if it exists.
A calm voice appears in my head and says, relax. Get on your bike and go this way. There’s a cool wooden clog factory you’ve always wanted to visit. Follow the sign to Devich. Check it out, see what happens. Don’t worry, let it go. And so, I go and end up buying a pair of super-chic black wooden clog boots. You can only get them here. They are unique, hand-made and super comfortable. This boosts my morale. I stuff my new clog boots into the panniers on my bike bag and take off again.
Five seconds later, I’m passing a lovely old farmhouse on a sharp corner next to a Schnapps distiller and a woolen textile factory. There’s a chalkboard on the side of the house with words like marmalade, fresh eggs, honey, schnapps, cheese. This catches my eye and I get that feeling. I stop and go back to look at the sign again, and knock on the front door. I ring the bell a few times. No one home. I can hear movement and noise in the attached barn, so I check it out. A young farmer is moving calves around in separate pens. I peer into the barn from the street and ask if anyone is home. He tells me (bent over a calf helping it into its pen) that his wife Sarah is at a cheesemaking recertification and she’ll be back later. I tell him who I am and what I want in less than 3 minutes. He gives me her cell number and says to call. Praise St. Christopher, Patron Saint of travelers and tour guides! I leave jubilant. I have a solid lead.
The next day I call Sarah. I tell her my story, what I’m looking for and she agrees to meet me in a couple days after she talks to her husband. She’s nice and positive on the phone and does me the courtesy of speaking in high German, rather than her thick Vorarlberg dialect. Ask anyone in Austria who has the most difficult accent to understand and it’s always a Vorarlberger. I’m so relieved that Sarah is open-minded to something different. This is half the battle.
A few days later, on my way back up to the Bregenzerwald mountains, I stop at a good bakery and pick up a carrot cake. I haven’t had breakfast yet and it’s simply good manners to bring something, at least that’s how I was raised in the country. These are my kind of people and I feel totally at home here.
Sarah greets me at the door, baby in arm. Anna is 15 months and not in the mood to share her mother with a stranger. Her mother puts on coffee and we sit down to chat in the parlor, an old wooden room on the front of the farmhouse. She apologizes profusely for the conditions and I scan the room thinking, yeah right, there are a few toys on the floor, but otherwise everything is über-tidy and typically Austrian. Sarah is a tall, healthy, pretty young woman. Her eyes sparkle, she’s totally relaxed, laughs easily and instantly “gets” it. My future hostess tells me she’s married to the farmer, but she’s the cheese-maker and cook. “People from the village know I bake good cakes, so they show up at my mountain hut in summer.” Inside, I want to scream and holler for joy. She’s my girl. Sarah is going to wow the pants off my guests.
She tells me there’s only one problem. “A problem,” I ask? Sarah tells me she would love to host us, but she can’t do it here at the farm in town because they’re leaving soon to go up into the high meadows for the next 5 months with the baby and Minzle the cat. By the way, Minzle is a chubby, lovable tiger muffin. The sweetest, most precious feline you can imagine. She sits in my lap the entire time. “Does Minzle like it up at the mountain farm,” I ask? Sarah says Minzle knows when they start packing exactly what’s going on…she looks forward to her alpine playground. Living on a tight corner in town next to a Schnapps distiller is no place for a tiger cat.
Ahh ah, I see. “So, I guess that means if we want you to make us lunch in your home, we need to bike another 10km uphill. Scheisse! That won’t work—ever.” Again, my hopes shrink into an ice-cube tray in the far corner of the freezer in my mind. What to do? Ground zero. Sarah quickly responds by pitching the idea of making the effort to visit the alpine farm, but I’m resistant to using the company van and a taxi. More logistics back and forth, blah, blah, blah.
Sarah is totally understanding. Before I leave, she says, “if you have time why don’t you just drive up there and check it out first. Maybe seeing it will change your mind. Here are the directions. You’ll find it. And by the way, do you have any other shoes with you?”