Between TikTok and the Cowshed
Between TikTok and the cowshed, mountaineering and village festivals: We talked to a group of friends from the Villgratental valley about their youth in the mountains. The photographer Maidje Meergans captured moments from their everyday life.
On a rainy summer’s day, Victoria, or Vici to her friends, Corinna and Laura are sitting at the kitchen table talking about their childhood and youth in East Tyrol. Katharina, Vici’s younger sister, isn’t here. She’s currently completing an internship in the hospitality industry in Salzburg. The three remaining friends are sitting at a wooden table, which Vici and Katharina’s father made himself. “He’s a carpenter, so actually everything that is made of wood here was made by our dad,” the 19-year-old explains. Besides the table, he also made the chairs, the wooden panelling on the wall, chests of drawers and cupboards.
The Kohlerhof has been owned by the Senfter family since 1701. Vici explains: “We’re the Kohler family. Old farms have names that are passed down through the generations. Corinna’s house, for example, is called ‘Gisser Haus’.” 17-year-old Corinna lives just two houses down. Like Vici’s family, her parents run a farm and keep cattle. The parents of 16-year-old Laura are the only ones who don’t work in farming. The Kohlerhof is the hub of the “Viergratla”. That’s what the girls call themselves – it’s a combination of the word “vier” (which means “four” in German) and “Gratla”, which is an abbreviation used to describe people from the village of Innervillgraten.
The East Tyrolean municipality of Innervillgraten is only 15 minutes away from Sillian. On the way there, you swerve up winding roads, passing gorges and waterfalls. You drive past lush green fields and in between see farmhouses made out of wood which has almost turned black in places from being exposed to centuries of sunlight. The village is surrounded by mountains that seem to shield the valley. Every now and then, you’ll hear and see a tractor or a moped. Only about 900 people live there.
We have been friends since the day we were born.
If you ask the girls how long they’ve been friends, all three of them will reply at once: “Since the day we were born.” Despite all their closeness, the girls couldn’t be more different. Vici’s mum calls her the “guardian” of the house. “She’s like our mum, always looking after all of us and making sure nothing happens,” says Corinna. Yet, she’s actually the calmest of the group and Corinna the most quick-witted. “Corinna always knows exactly what she wants, and she’ll soon tell us if something isn’t right. She doesn’t think twice,” Laura explains. “Yes, I’m quite direct,” says Corinna, and Victoria, who’s sitting next to her, starts laughing out loud. Laura, meanwhile, is the comedian of the group. “She’s our cheerleader, who’s always in a good mood,” says Vici. The girls keep smiling knowingly at each other as they describe each other. It’s obvious that there are secrets in this group that they’ll never let us in on.
Embracing adventures amidst metres of snow
Growing up on a farm involves hard work – from childhood onwards. “Since we were small, we’ve been taken to the fields or the stables,” says Corinna. Mowing, mucking out, milking, and housekeeping. “I’ll basically do whatever needs to be done,” Vici explains. For Laura, who also often helps out the Senfter family, things were no different at her parents’ boarding house. The girls never felt it was a burden. “The fact that we had to help out at home right from the start is actually an advantage,” says Vici. “We learnt to be good at manual work at a young age and we became quite independent.”
This has often come in handy for the girls. “We always have loads of snow in winter – so much snow that the roads are constantly being closed off and sometimes you can’t go to school,” says the 19-year-old. On one day like that, the group hiked to the Senfter family’s mountain hut. “But we didn’t have a sledge with us or anything to get back down there in a reasonably safe way.” They found big old hay sledges in the attic of the mountain hut. “But the sledges didn’t have seats because they were actually designed to transport hay. So we built a seat with any materials we could get our hands on.” The girls were also lucky on the way down after that. “We just shot down because the ground was so icy,” she says.
No parents, no fear
Through many of the girls’ stories, it becomes clear how independent they are. They did their first hike on their own five years ago. Laura, the youngest of the group, was only eleven years old back then. “Even on steep slopes, all four of us move very confidently,” she says, and Laura adds: “It’s part of who we are. We’ve been hiking since we were little kids, so we’re used to it.”
It’s part and parcel of such activities that things sometimes go wrong. Only last week, the engine of Victoria’s motorbike suddenly failed when she was out riding, so she had to drive downhill in neutral. “And suddenly Laura jumped onto the path and I tried to swerve and fell. This is what happened,” says the 19-year-old, pointing to her left knee, which is scratched and bruised in two places. It’s important to note that Laura is also the name of one of the Senfter family’s eight cows – the girls know all their names.
Love must wait
Hiking, motorcycling, music, air rifle shooting – the girls in the group have a lot of hobbies. They proudly explain that they’ve also been making silent films for ten years. “Rote Rosen” (“Red Roses” in English) is one example. Katharina, who edits the films, used the song of the same name by Hildegard Knef as background music. The film consists of two parts and tells the story of a couple, played by Laura and Katharina, getting to know each other.
There’s nothing going on with the boys in the valley. Really nothing at all. I’m related to most of them, and the rest are silly.
The girls have more experience with dating than you’d expect in a village with 900 inhabitants. “But there’s nothing going on with the boys from Innervillgraten,” Laura says and rolls her eyes. “Really nothing at all. I’m related to most of them, and the rest are silly,” she adds extremely seriously, while Vici hides her face behind her hands and Corinna laughs out loud. “You tend to meet boys at the village dances,” Vici says. Every weekend there are country youth dances in Innervillgraten or one of the neighbouring villages. “There’s sometimes a bit of kissing. But I don’t think any of us have really been properly in love yet.”
Unbreakable bonds: sticking together no matter what
What all three girls really love about their home is the feeling of community. It becomes obvious that the girls are really there for each other when they tell the story of Vici and Katharina’s grandma Anna – who they all called Nannile – passing away last year. Vici explains: “My grandma had a stroke and when we realised that she was dying, we brought her home.” Every night, she would get up to move and shift her grandma around in the bed. She was just 18 years old at the time “I didn’t mind doing that. I cared more about helping her. And what I really appreciate about you guys,” she suddenly says to the group, “is that you’re always there when it matters.” Corinna nods, “Yes, that’s true. When Nannile passed away, Laura came straight home from her holidays.” The 16-year-old says, “I wanted to go back home right away. She was like a third grandma to me.”
When you hear the girls’ stories about their childhood and youth, you suddenly begin to regret not having grown up in a small community in East Tyrol as well.
The bells of the local church soon start chiming. You can actually see them through the small windows in the Senfter family’s kitchen. Victoria explains: “It’s a tradition here to ring the bells when a storm is coming. People used to believe that this would prevent things taking a turn for the worse, and today many think it has something to do with the sound of the bells.”
The girls run to the front door. Crowded together, they look at the church through the rain. Family, independence, and tradition – all of that’s important in Innervillgraten. And when you hear the girls’ stories about their childhood and youth, you suddenly begin to regret not having grown up in a small community in East Tyrol as well.