The interesting people you meet when you work in a mountain hut

Since mid-February I have been working in a mountain hut 2147 meter high in the Austrian Alps. When I brainstormed about writing a blogpost about my stay here, I came quite quickly to the conclusion that I wanted to write about the people. Their characters shape my days and make this place so unique. Not only are my colleagues a very (internationally) varied group of people, they also make guests come back again and again.

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In the far distance you can see the Franz-Senn Hütte

 

But the people you find here are interesting for another reason. It is quite a radical decision to spend multiple months working in a mountain hut that is spatially secluded from civilisation. To get here you need to drive for half an hour from the nearest village and then still ski for three hours or sit in a cableway for some time. The people you are surrounded with are limited to your colleagues and guests. When you have a day off your options are limited to skiing, taking a walk, sleeping, calling, reading and chilling with guests. You might think that I am not enjoying myself here. Quite the contrary, but these challenges made me wonder what drives people to choose for this kind of life.

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This is Magdalena. Magdalena is 4 years old and the daughter of the couple in charge of the hut, ‘Beate and Thomas Fankhauser’. Her hair appears to be made of shiny gold. She loves candy and has the cutest presence on this hut. She doesn’t talk that much to me – I am working on that -, but seeing her walking and running around is a treat already.

Horst

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Horst is the 73-year-old legend of the Frans-Senn Hütte. He ran this hut for 40 years together with his wife Klara, whose parents ran the hut before that. Horst impersonates an important wisdom. People that are impressive don’t stress their achievements. Their acts speak for themselves.

 

Horst climbed three 8000 m high mountains in the Himalayas successfully and survived 4 avalanches, but will only talk about those experiences when you ask him. For the three successful climbs he paid a high price. He almost died himself once and lost two friends on the mountain during one of his climbs. At the time his children were very young and he decided to quit for at least a decade before he climbed his last 8000’er when his oldest son had turned 15.

 

About all these experiences Horst talks bluntly, but modestly. He is sceptical about attempts to control nature and modest about his ability to forecast weather and estimate avalanche danger, despite his lifelong experience with mountaineering.

 

However, what is most impressive about Horst is his charisma based on kindness, modesty and humour. He is one of those people that are kind and warm because they are in a good place themselves. Moreover, he gets along with pretty much everyone. Believe me, his smile will make you smile too.

 

Another fun fact : when Horst was young he lived in the Netherlands for a few months. He even had a dutch girlfriend!

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Klara’s life story is fully intertwined with the Franz Senn Hütte. Although she grew up in a different hut, she spent the rest of her life in or close to the hut. Its where she met her husband, Horst. Its where she raised her three children. And the hut is the place where she now spends time with her grandchildren. With some people you have the feeling that they are a walking history book. And I mean that positively! Klara is such a person. She knows so much about the history of the hut itself, but also of all the mountain guides active in Austria, and the different type of guests that come to the hut. (She likes Dutch guests). That makes it fascinating to talk to her. Her sharpness, leadership and intelligence inspires me. Moreover, she makes the nicest pizzas!

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When you ask Dambar how he is, he always says “super”. When he asks you how you are, or how it is going, he will say ‘Super oder?’. He is from Nepal. His German mixed with English shows an endless positivity, of which I still have to find the source.

 

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In another life Angelika would have been a comedian, or in her own words “maybe just crazy”. You should see her during the process of preparing a käseknödelsuppe. Her expressive faces provide her colleagues with endless joy. When people ask her on a birthday party what she does ‘beruflich’, she answers that she ‘cleans’ for a living. Yes, she likes shocking people! She studied ecology at university, graduated with good grades, but decided then that she better liked working with her hands. People were a little surprised then, but after some years had nothing left to do but to accept her decision. The coolest job she ever had was being a receptionist at a small art gallery with two photos. No one came to visit, so she could spend the whole day reading, sleeping, calling, and studying, while receiving 8 euros an hour. Oh yeah… a glass of red wine can be found in her close proximity during dinner, as well as stories about her travels to Nepal, Asia, and Latin America.

 

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This is Jan. He comes from Slovakia. In another life he was a famous lab scientist. He has Einstein like eyes, which you might see if you look at this picture long enough. His hair seems to have exploded during an important discovery of electricity that I may or may not have witnessed. The name Jan therefore now no longer stands for the average normal Dutch guy, but for an epic breakfast partner in crime. (He turns the disgusting sticking marmalade salami plates into butterflowery smelling ones). #respect. Typical for Jan are his work ethic and his wide-open eyes when you ask him a question or when someone tells a good joke. Also, he is epic at cutting wood and making fires that last the whole day and warm the hearts (and backs) of every guest in our ‘Stube’.

 

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On the left here you see Laco, who is also from Slovakia. His favourite sentence is ‘whop chiep chiep’, which is to express some kind of secret message that has something to do with ‘his Schatze’ and sexy dancing. Or with dancing in bikini’s in the snow when it is warm outside – which is to say 4 degrees -. Not that anyone has done that, so far.

 

Obviously, he likes cutting onions with ski goggles on so that he can get right back to skiing when he is finished with the onions. The thing is I have not yet caught him skiing, but I am convinced that is because of his legendary skill and speed. I just wasn’t quick enough. As you can see, Horst liked this scene as well. To which Laco responded: “If you are a photographer, then I am a celebrity, right?”.

 

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Miriam is my roommate. She can enjoy a little quiet sometimes, like me. Our favourite activity together is cutting apfelstrudel into pieces when it comes right from the oven in the morning. There is always some delicious crust left over on the baking tray (sorrynotsorry). She likes knitting, listening to music, and is a psychology student from Bayern in southeast Germany. Her English and Spanish are impeccable. Writing this text, I realised how difficult it is to write about her, because there is nothing ‘outrageous’ to be told. She is just incredibly charming, funny, and a great person to go a little crazy with behind the bar.

 

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Steffen comes from a little town in Western Germany nearby an already little town called Bielefeld. So the question he has to answer all the time is how he comes to work on a mountain hut. You are wondering it too right? Well, he worked in a bank before, but needed a new challenge. The rest is history. Even though he had no experience with working in hospitality before coming, he is now nailing it. Bringing the soups to all our guests, cross country skiing up the mountain multiple times in the blink of an eye, being a chess master, he does it as if it is nothing to him.

In the morning Steffen and I run breakfast together and are supervising the eggs of our guests in the egg cooker. Our jokes include the ‘Eiermaffia’, ‘Eiermama’ and ‘Eierpapa’ and much much more. He loves telling stories of guest asking remarkable questions and of him giving even more remarkable answers. There is one thing I am sure about with Steffen: in 10 years he has ran a marathon and is still just as funny, if not funnier, as he is today.

 

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This is Mario together with Klara. Mario is your go to person for solid advice on ski-touren and to order a beer. Mario literally loooves ski-tours. In his breaks during the day he goes – guess what ?– to make a skitour. But what is a ski-tour? It is climbing a mountain but then on ski’s. The advantage of that is that you can ski back to the hut and don’t have to descend by foot. Most people come to the hut for those weird tours.

In a few weeks, Mario goes on holiday for a week to to go, – yeah right – make skitours for a whole week. Is there then anything else to know about Mario? Yes, he gives great to ask advice on skitours – or did I already say that? – , gives skiing lessons, understands me when I speak Dutch to him – omg yes – and would like to become a ‘bergführer’ one day. Pretty ‘bergbegeisterd’ I would say.

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Last but not least, Matthias is the oldest son of Beate und Thomas. He just started going to school in the village in the valley so he is only here during the weekends. Matias likes helping out around the kitchen. On the picture he is helping Angelika preparing the soup for dinner, but you might also find him doing the dishes for a few minutes in the afternoon. The moment you bring a plate, he jumps up to place it into the dishwasher with an enthusiasm, curiosity, and commitment that I believe you can only find in children. We also call him the ‘junior chef’.

When I see Matthias walking around here at the hut, he makes me wonder. Where are he and his sisters in ten, twenty years? What is expected of them, not outspokenly but implicitly, but also what joys and experiences will their unique childhood bring them?

 

Conclusion

That was it already! I hope you got an impression of the wonderful people that surround me here!

All photos by Vera Vrijmoeth

 

P.S. As you might understand I wasn’t able to make a portrait of all the people working for or affiliated with the hut. This says nothing about the people that were not mentioned. My aim was mainly to shed some light on the interesting aspects of the kind and inspiring people here that you might not (fully) see when you visit for a day or two.  I hope and wish that despite it being far from “complete” reading this article was interesting to you! 

 

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I chased my passions into confusion — a 25-year-old looks back

We are proud and honoured to present this article by our guest blogger Joshua James Parfitt. After travelling the world, studying multiple subjects, daring to follow his passions, he reflects on what he has learned.  

 

“[…] and the esteemed doctor, after twenty years, finally refined his precise technique for putting in the needles […]”

 

Twenty years. Twenty years! I panicked to myself, sitting at the back of my introductory class to a BSc in Acupuncture, at London South Bank University. The idea of helping people kindled an inner purpose, but the reality that I’d be perfecting finger movements for twenty years before I was any good sounded utterly depressing. Besides, I could barely hold a spoon without spilling my breakfast onto my eyebrows.

 

The betrayal was like buying a house, only to find that the front door opened straight onto a bombsite. I can’t wait that long to start saving the world, I decided. I backed out of the tuition fees and loans. I freed myself from this cruel trap of time. Free!

 

That was the late summer of 2013. To put those London-plane-leafed days into context, I had, earlier that summer, dropped out of my second year of university. I was studying music, but I had had an internal argument with the university system: it wasn’t teaching me the things I thought I needed. Sure, I could explain the dynamic relationship of music across the Atlantic triangular trade route, but put me in front of an audience and I’d seize up.

 

It felt like university was discouraging my dreams. I came thinking that the only conceivable vision of success in music/poetry was to be the guy, on stage, surrounded by the enchanted audience. Looking back, I could have made a more discerning choice of degree programme. But at the time, I was terrified that I’d be wasting a whole year of life (I only had one year of study left) and be no closer to living my passion with poetry.

 

After finishing my second-year exams, I braved an encounter with a university careers councillor. “I don’t think I like university. I want to be a poet, and this isn’t helping me. I’m thinking I should quit…” Her reply came quick and cold: “If you already knew you wanted to be a poet, you wouldn’t be here asking me.”

 

It was strange advice, in hindsight, for it baited my fledgling confidence into carelessness. It felt like a challenge. I dropped out immediately.

 

I quite enjoy reviewing these memories now, from the serene plateaus of 25, but at the time a misjudged afternoon plan felt akin to realising you’ve married the wrong person. I was incredibly dedicated to finding success, and worked some ridiculous hours doing so, but I was also racked with guilt that if I didn’t invest enough time and effort I was doomed to never make it.

 

The poetry experience ended up becoming a repeating prophecy for the better part of three years. The cycles began an ended in a predictable fashion: become amazingly fascinated by something; buy all of the books; make a huge commitment; become terrified I’ll never make it; run away; repeat. This happened with hip-hop music,  gardening, martial arts, and sustainability. All within three years.

 

Contrary to supermarkets, the abundance of choice is paralyzing. Once a decision is made, our hearts go through a perplexing carnival of joy, jealousy, anxiety, assurance and regret. That’s not always an easy thing to listen to. It’s an incredible privilege to have choice, of course, but it doesn’t guarantee contentment.

 

I speak to many people now who complain about their jobs, or say: “This isn’t what I want to do.” I’ve known office robots who saw the light and cycled half-way around the world to make sandals from used tires. My grandma passed me a story of some ‘hipster’ who quit the city to carve spoons in the woods. (“Hey! This reminds me of you,” she said.) One of my own parents has a regular corporate job, and yet dreams of fishing trips and kayaking to remote islands for a spot of camping. The arguments for a working life filled with passion and adventure are compelling and drove me to pursue it, sometimes to my own detriment.

Yet I want to tell you why you should not expect to only and continuously be passionate about your line of work. Don’t simply follow your passion.

 

There, I said it. Let the ripples settle.

 

 

Not that I’m a scrooge-type character revelling in the misery wrought by telling a child, “Santa ain’t real, kiddo”, but ‘following your passion’ seems to have become our generation’s ideal, upon who’s altar we sacrifice books, workshops and careers. It’s great advice, in theory, but I don’t believe it works until you’ve calibrated your ideas correctly.

 

The calibration I experienced happened whilst I was in Indonesia.

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Finding myself on a mountain top somewhere in Indonesia

Traveling down the cliché-paved path of twenty-somethings going off to find themselves, I won a scholarship to study in Indonesia for a year in 2015 (languages were a skill, but not a passion of mine). Throughout my year there I covered all my essentials for revelation: Motorbike, check; volcanoes, check; spicy food, check. And yet, by the end of the adventurous year was in no way clearer about my career. I couldn’t travel forever. I had gone through more cycles of becoming a bamboo craftsman and a sustainable product designer. (Yes, I very nearly applied to do a new BSc in the UK.) Still I was left none the wiser.

 

I thought I found an ancient hint in the carvings at the 9th century temple of Prambanan, in Yogyakarta, but when my grandma told me that her village church was about the same age I was struck by a peculiar desire to see if the bible had anything to say about work.

 

And there, I opened up the bible. Many people reading this may be of no religious denomination, and I was not a believer at the time, but there are many interesting nuggets of wisdom very relevant for our secular world. The bible still finds itself in many popular proverbs and sayings—such as: can a leopard change its spots; an eye for an eye; pride comes before a fall; wolves in sheep’s clothing; and money is the root of all evil—but most interestingly the bible is behind our modern interpretation of the word ‘talent’.

 

There is a particular parable in the gospel according to Saint Matthew called The Parable of the Talents. It talks about a ‘talent’ as a kind of weight, and indeed if you look up the etymology of ‘talent’ you will find something along the lines of ‘a large sum of money’ or ‘a weight’.

 

Our modern interpretation of talent is largely due to the Christian theologian John Calvin.

 

In the 16th century, Calvin reinterpreted the Parable of the Talents, rehousing ‘talent’ from its original meaning to mean a ‘gift from God’—a person’s ‘calling’ or ‘natural ability’. Why is this significant? Well, in the parable, a master puts three servants in charge of his goods. He divides up the talents: five talents to one servant, two talents to another, and the final servant gets one talent. To cut a long story short, the servants who use their talents—no matter how many they have—win.

 

What I took from this is that we are not created equally in terms of the talents we have. We are often told that we can be anything we want, so long as we try, but I think this parable is saying that we just may not have as many talents (or the same talents) as an accomplished acupuncturist. But that doesn’t’ matter, because we are all ‘good at something’. It might be boring—like tidying our room, or remembering things—but if we can use that talent—as a cleaner, or a secretary— for something we love, then we’re onto something.

 

When I realised that and I considered using my talents to do something of value to other people, however mundane, a huge weight was lifted off. Its about the difference between being passionate about our line of work and being passionate about what our work achieves. Our accomplished acupuncturist surely needs a cleaner, and a secretary, to help patients through his own talent of precision. It doesn’t have to be me putting the needles in, so to speak. There are myriad ways that one’s particular skills could be a vital service for an acupuncturist.

 

I think that the famous poet Kahlil Gibran, in his book The Prophet, understood how we glamourise certain lines of work over others. In his chapter entitled Work he writes:

 

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.

And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”

 

Gibran’s answer is that: “But I say, not in sleep but in the overwakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass”. I think you’d need a good few talents to decipher than one. Perhaps, to make it easier to understand, I’ll turn to a song by reggae singer Chronixx, who croons in Legend that:

 

On the ocean of fame / I’m an unknown sailor / I’m the percussionist playing with The Wailers / The one with the shaker / The mover and shaker / My name wasn’t on the front of the paper / But me no cater / Much more than the worker / The work is greater

 

I suppose this last line is the crux of my musing. It hit me when I applied for an internship with a renewable energy company Indonesia and they asked me to write success stories for them. But surely the one designing the technology and making the world a better place has the best job! my heart told me. I must go back and study renewable energy. “You have no background in engineering, but you speak Indonesian and can write in English,” they replied. It broke, and angered, me.

 

For the record, I struggled interviewing people. It’s awkward. I’m terribly fussy and a perfectionist when it comes to writing, but at that moment in time I was the only one who could do it. I cannot say if I have talent, but when my stories attracted new donors, and even a documentary film crew, I started seeing the importance of my work. The ‘talent’ might well be a pain in the arse. You might hate it. But if it’s in service of something greater that is important, then it could be your blessing.

 

Though I am currently passionate about the environment and envious of accomplished researchers traversing the tropics in search of frogs, there’s bound to be someone who’ll need me to speak Indonesian and write in English for them—most likely at home, boo hoo. But the better I am at these two skills, the better I will be able to help the environment for others to enjoy.

 

I’m the man who cooks the food / And feeds the street people in the afternoon / I’m the lady with the broom / Sweeping the halls of your sons pre-school / I’m the soldier who’s up all night / Making sure everything’s alright / And if you ask me I’m quite fine / Being an ordinary person doing what’s right

 

Either way, I’m glad I don’t have to stick a needle in anyone. I just found rice on my forehead as it is.

Pictures Joshua James Parfitt
Want to read more articles written by Joshua? Check out his website  

 

Elections in Kenya – Why you didn’t hear about it in the Netherlands

On the 8th of August 2017, elections took place in Kenya. After weeks  of campaigning, every conversation on the street concerned with the coming elections, Kenyans finally went to the polling stations to vote for either the governing party – Jubilee –   or the opposition party – NASA – and elect (among others) their president.

 

During those weeks I was interning with ILEPA, an organisation in the Kenyan town Narok that works towards enhancement and empowerment of Maasai.

 

A few days before the elections, my internship partner Stella and I left Kenya and travelled to Tanzania for ‘safety purposes’. We took these measures because of previous violent elections. In 2007, widespread violence erupted on the street between among others Kenya’s largest tribes, the Luo and Kikuyu tribe. 1200 Kenyans were killed and more than half a million displaced. In Kenya, voting behaviour is heavily influenced by ethnicity – which of the 42 Kenyan tribes you belong to – , where Kikuyu vote for the party in government and Luo for the opposition party.

 

Collince, our Kenyan partner in learning and internship partner, left for his hometown Kisumu  to vote. Because of my research in Kenya, my proximity to Kenya and because Kisumu had been one of the violence hotspots in 2007, I was checking the news and situation in Kenya every day.

 

What surprised me most during those weeks was the relative lack of coverage of the election by Western news-outlets. Despite a number of serious events in Kisumu and in the informal settlements of Nairobi – at least 37 Kenyans were killed* – , there was barely any Western news-coverage of the elections. BBC World published only one article per day. In contrast to the most well covered elections in the world, the US elections, this felt absurd.

 

On the 1st of September, almost one month after the Election Day, the Supreme Court annulled the victory of Jubilee leader Uhuru Kenyatta as president-elect. Again, I experienced this quite intensely because I was driving towards the Kenyan border with friends to enter Kenya after weeks in Tanzania. A few weeks later in the Netherlands, I discovered that few people had even heard of the annulment.

 

The experience brought nuance to my preconceptions about what was happening in ‘Africa’. Instead of the regular perspectives that we get spoon-fed on the world – American elections, Europe, etc. – I got acquainted with alternative perspectives and knowledge forms. I came to understand that we often do not get informed about happenings in other (non-dominant) areas of the world, such as the Kenyan elections, simply because they rank lower in terms of importance for news outlets.

 

I had never experienced an International Relations ‘insight’ so distinctly: the hierarchy of news reflected the larger power play between states, continents and elites, which determined which stories were told and which ones were not. Not surprisingly, journalism could be perceived as ‘objective’, whereas it is most certainly subjective. Power is then expressed in the ability to present the subjective as objective or the political as apolitical. Our distance to the African continent combined with our own ‘power’ as a Western nation had translated into a particular (lack of) news.

 

*Al Jazeera

Picture Vera Vrijmoeth

 

UCU Field Course: Looking back on 3 months in East Africa

As some of you might know, I spent my summer in East Africa, more specifically Tanzania and Kenya. With 28 fellow students and two partners in learning, local students, we travelled through different livelihoods in Kenya and Tanzania.

 

These included informal settlements in Nairobi, a wildlife reserve, a homestay in a Maasai community, farmland in USA River and fisheries on the Tanzanian shore. In the last 6 weeks, we interned in pairs with a local organisation, either in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. With this article I would like to look back on the experience. What did it teach me? Also, how did the program potentially contribute to the local communities?

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View of homes right next to the road on our way from Nairobi to Kimana, Kenya

Throughout the journey I experienced major differences between myself and others in terms of living standards, cultural beliefs, upbringing, education, and conceptions of normality. In our classes we had discussions on how to deal with privilege and how to learn from others, rather than assuming that our own beliefs were superior.

 

We were challenged to put our ideas on hold for a moment, step into someone else’s shoes, and to start a conversation without placing anyone – including yourself – on a scale from Western to non-Western, rich to poor, civilised to uncivilised, and educated to uneducated.

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My host family, who own a small-scale farm in USA River, Tanzania

In that way, the field course helped me get to know and establish connections with local Kenyans and Tanzanians based on mutual respect and dignity. Without the course I would have never been able to overcome the barrier created by my own guilt, privilege, and the history of my country as a colonizer. It helped me stay close to being a student, someone open and eager to learn. For some fleeting moments I could escape from being a European tourist visiting ‘Africa’.

 

After meeting inspiring local people, proud of their own country, taking responsibility for its progress, showing both optimism of spirit as well as realism, the question that came up in class was: so what now? What can I do? And what should I do? It was very humbling to realise that you might not be the one with the solution and that local people do not need you or count on your help per se.

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Kids in the village Mambo in the Usambara Mountains, Tanzania

Furthermore, many problems were multifaceted and almost impossible to solve. These included issues such as wildlife management and the livelihoods of indigenous communities, sustainable fishing and the livelihoods of fishermen, and sanitation in informal settlements. Moreover, we came to understand that there is not one solution and that each solution creates another problem. This is hard to accept after years of Western education that constantly teaches you to search for a problem and then come up with a solution.

 

Still there was something we could do. We all realised that there were so many stories that were left untold and injustices that persisted that we now had seen and knew about. In the end, those insights carried weight and responsibility with them, which motivated many of us to attempt to apply them in some form in the future.

 

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UCU students snapping pictures of elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. We all had a love-hate relationship with the bus that was so comfortable, but also reinstated our position as a privileged tourist.

All pictures in this article were taken by Vera Vrijmoeth.