WFH in Tirol (Working from Hut)
When Covid-19 restrictions made life in the city hard to take, our author grabbed his laptop and headed for the hills to set up his very own home office in a mountain hut. Here's how he got on.
As starts go, it's not exactly great – I'm lost. I may not be Robinson Crusoe (back home in Munich, where I live, I often call on Google Maps to guide me to my favourite restaurant), but surely it can't be that hard to find a hut in the mountains. Right? Wrong.
I pull out my phone for help, but it seems I am in one of those few parts of the world as yet unscanned and uncharted by Google. Again and again the app tells me to turn off onto hiking paths – a sure way to annoy the locals considering I am in a car. I haven't driven for years – bikes, trains and the odd electric scooter are the best way to get around in Munich.
Now, after several years of car abstinence, I find myself in about the most awkward driving terrain you can imagine: steep, narrow, bumpy, hard to navigate. It's a nightmare. I already know that I will be super-late for my meeting with the lady I am renting the hut from. I shout expletives at the ever-cheerful Google Maps lady telling me what to do. Go to Tirol, they said. You'll have a great time, they said. Right now I'm not so sure.
Rewind several months and I am sitting at home in Munich. Like the rest of the people working at my company, the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020 meant switching almost immediately to working from home. In my job as a graphic designer it doesn't really matter where I am – I can work from anywhere so long as I have a decent internet connection and a power supply. A few video calls a day are all the contact I needed with clients and colleagues. The first few weeks were pleasantly relaxing – getting up later than usual, commuting from the bed to the desk, taking a long shower after lunch.
But, as the weeks turned into months, I – like many others – longed to get out of the city. Everything that makes Munich so great – restaurants, bars, museums, etc. – was closed. We weren't even allowed to visit friends. So I decided to grab the bull by the horns and head for the hills. It didn't take me long to settle on Tirol as my home from home. I have always loved the mountains (though more to look at than to climb), so it seemed to me that there could be no better place to spend a week (or maybe more) far from the city with its bad vibes and rampant virus. My destination was to be a hut in the Wildschönau region of Tirol. High in the mountains, far away from civilisation – the perfect place to focus, concentrate, crank up the productivity.
"It's like living in the middle of a postcard," comments Alexis, who is used to the cityscape of Munich.
The internet site www.almliesl.com put me in touch with the owner of the hut, Maria Moser. A few weeks and one stressful car journey later we met at the building 1,100 metres above sea level. I am not a total newcomer to this kind of thing – I have rented a few Airbnb's in my time – so I thought I knew what to expect: a quick greeting, here's the key, the coffee machine works like this, you can find the internet password here. I have even had a few situations where there is no human contact at all – the key is picked up from a code-secure box, with a brief information sheet sent over by e-mail.
With Maria Moser, however, things could hardly be more different. Or, I should say, with "Moser Maria". Here in Wildschönau, she tells me, the surname comes before the first name – family is more important than the individual.
Maria Moser works on the family farm and rents out the family's mountain hut. A friendly, welcoming woman full of energy and elan.
Maria is a friendly lady with a firm handshake and a warm, genuine smile. She radiates positive energy and good vibes – a welcome contrast to the grumpy faces I encounter every day in Munich on my way to work. First, she tells me, we have to drink a glass of schnapps – it's tradition here, no questions. Then she shows me the way to the hut, which is located a little further up the mountain from where Maria and her family live and can be accessed only on foot or by tractor (I breathe a sigh of relief when I find out I don't have to drive my rental vehicle up the steep and bumpy trail).
Our author's home office in the mountains can only be reached on foot or by tractor.
My alarm goes off at seven o'clock sharp. I open my eyes and wonder for a few seconds where the hell I am. That was one of the best, deepest sleeps I have had in years. Back home in Munich the rush hour starts early, with all the standard beeping and shouting echoing its way up to my flat from the street below. Here, on the other hand, birdsong is the only thing I can hear as the cool mountain air drifts in through the open window – oh, and the odd moo or two from the cows grazing outside. I hit snooze and snuggle back under the heavy blanket.
My day starts a little later than usual, but the routine is the same: check my mails, make a few calls, see which deadlines I have to meet. The internet connection is surprisingly good. Every now and then I allow my eyes to drift from my laptop towards the mountain vista outside. I feel like I am living in the middle of a picture postcard. A few hours of productive work larer, I am starting to get hungry. In Munich I would order lunch and have it delivered to the office. I guess that's not an option up here. The nearest supermarket is a 45-minute drive away (maybe more with my navigation skills). I am going to have to cook something. But there's no food in the house. The supermarket it is, then.
I start walking down the hill to Maria's house, where my car is parked. She sees me coming and invites me into the kitchen. As we chat away she tells me about her work on the farm, her daughter Babsi and the neighbour who recently passed away. We both speak, at least in theory, the same language, German, but her Tirolean accent is strong and interspersed with dialectal words I have never heard in my life. "Do. You. Understand. What. I. Am. Saying?" she says to me at one point – I guess the blank look on my face must have given the game away.
There's no food-delivery service up here. Time for a snack with homemade bread, cheese, butter, etc.
I tell her about my shopping plans, but she insists on giving me a packed lunch – bread, dried bacon, milk, eggs, butter and a chunk of cheese big enough to feed a family. Everything, she tells me, comes either from her own farm or from the neighbour's farm. I like the thought that up here in the mountains supermarkets aren't the main source of food, let alone the bright-jacketed delivery riders so ubiquitous in big cities. I head back to the hut and make myself a couple of sandwiches. The fresh air, hearty lunch and previous day's schnapps have all left me unusually tired, so I decide to call it a day. After all, there's nothing on my to-do list that can't wait until tomorrow.
I am woken in the middle of the night by a strange scratching sound in the kitchen. An intruder, up here in the mountains? Unlikely. It is pitch black – something we never get in the city. I suddenly notice that the peace and quiet here in the hut also has a spooky side. I guess that's one of the good things about city life – there's always someone around if you need help.
I pull the blanket up over my head and hope that it's just a bad dream. But then it starts up again: scratch, scratch, scratch. I listen for a while. Surely no human could possibly produce such a quiet but persistent noise. Maybe it's a mouse foraging for leftovers in my rubbish bin?
Now, I am not exactly a big fan of mice. In fact, I can't stand them. So you can imagine how much courage it took for me to get out of bed and go and see what was going on in the kitchen. I poke my head around the door, but all is quiet. I head back to bed – and the scratching begins again.
The next morning I am late for my Zoom call – an important presentation for a client. I was already nervous, having decided yesterday afternoon to leave things as they are rather than making a final few changes. When the meeting finally starts, my screen freezes. For a brief moment I hope they are all transfixed by what I have to say, but I soon realise it is due to the glitchy internet. I grab my mobile phone and try to set up a hotspot, but there is no connection. Great. What a stupid idea to work from a hut, I tell myself.
I step out onto the balcony to calm down. As I gaze across the forests and meadows, the sun breaks through the mist and warms my face. I close my eyes for a few seconds. Heaven! I decide to make myself a cup of coffee and then present the project by e-mail. Maybe it's better that way – the connection on the Zoom call was so bad that I only understood a couple of questions the client wanted to ask. The first: Why do we have such a low ceiling in our office? The second: Is that really a crucifix on the wall?
During my daily schnapps with Maria, she is curious to know what I do all day in front of the computer. I find it surprisingly hard to give her a good answer: I talk about advertising, content marketing and journalism, about homepages and magazines, about my clients and super-tight deadlines. At some point I have the impression I have lost her. I guess it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise – we live in two totally different worlds. Maria has spent all her life here in the valley. Once or twice she has been to my city, Munich, to visit an old friend in a care home. That's more or less it.
From her perspective, I understand why it is hard to relate to the stress and strain of my working life. I tell her about hundreds of different fonts, each slightly different from the next, but she doesn't seem too impressed. Maria has worked on the family farm her whole life. She is no stranger herself to back pain, but in her case it comes not from sitting in front of the computer but instead from cleaning out the stables. While I worry about getting the colour saturation in a photo just right, she has other things on her mind.
Whenever we talk, Maria's husband Johann sits with us. Unlike Maria, he almost never says a word. At some point he lays his hand gently on her leg and says: "You know, I think Alexis does something with drawing."
"What do you do all day in front of the computer?" asks Maria. Alexis finds it harder than he expected to find a clear answer.
Snap! In the middle of the night the trap does its job. Poor mouse. A few hours earlier I had been at Maria's place to ask for her advice on how to combat my mouse problem. I was about to leave again when she handed me a glass of schnapps and invited me to sit down. A couple of drinks later I was on my way home with a mousetrap in hand. I had asked Maria if she had one which didn't kill the mouse but trapped it inside. She looked at me as if I was mad.
The rest of the night was nice and peaceful, so I was up bright and early in the morning and after a productive morning I called it a day at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Nice.
The most important lesson learned by Alexis during his week in Tirol? It's not the end of the world if something takes a day or two longer.
I decide to go for a walk to the Schönangeralm. This hut and dairy, famous for its tangy cheese, is run by a guy also called Johann. The more people I meet here, the more I have the impression that almost everyone is called Maria or Johann.
White beard, white hair, white hat – Johann looks like he has just come out of an advert promoting 'delicious cheese from the beautiful Tirol'. If I had to cast someone to play that kind of role, Johann would be my first choice. "Let me serve these customers here," he says to me, "then we can go over to my kitchen. I've got some cheese over there and a bottle of schnapps I made myself." Sounds like an offer I can't refuse.
Johann runs the Schönangeralm dairy, where he produces delicious tangy cheese.
Peace and quiet? Alexis found it harder to focus on his work than he had imagined.
There's no chance of an early start today. As soon as my alarm goes off, I hit the snooze button and crawl back under the blanket. It's my last day in Wildschönau. Normally I start the working day with a little more elan, but the last few days my productivity has been on a downward trend. When I first had the idea of WFH (working from hut), I thought it would be a way to get away from the distractions of the city and focus 100% on the task in hand. Guess I was wrong.
Is it the landscape that is distracting me? Or the physical distance from my clients in Munich, which somehow manifests itself in a mental distancing from the world of work? Or maybe I have simply learned to relax and take things a little less seriously. Maybe it isn't the end of the world if a client gets the documents he needs a day later than planned. It's not exactly the end of the world.
As he heads back to Munich, one question is on Alexis Zurflüh's mind – how to preserve the serenity and calm he has discovered in Tirol.
Today I am invited to lunch with Babsi, Maria's daughter. She has her own hut in the mountains, where she spends the summer months together with her husband, children and a herd of 60 cows. I am greeted upon my arrival by the unmistakeable smell of 'Käsespätzle' – a traditional pasta-like dish with lots of melted cheese. After lunch she shows me around the hut and farmyard. Babsi knows each and every cow by name and even has a story or anecdote to go with each one. I soon realise that Babsi works a lot more than me (and I would consider myself a workaholic), yet she seems far less stressed. I envy her – and Johann, and the other Johann, and Maria.
They all work to the rythmn of nature. They can see what they produce on the farm and in the fields. They can hold it in their hands. They want to do their work as well as they can – not so they can be praised in a Zoom call, but because that is the way it is done and that is the only way they would want to do it. They know their work has a purpose – something I cannot always claim.
Lunchtime has turned into late afternoon. It is time for me to say goodbye to Babsi, Johann and Maria. One more schnapps? Not today – I've got a long drive ahead of me.
As I speed back along the motorway to Munich, I have time to reflect on my week in Tirol. The time in the mountains has had a more profound impact on me than I had expected. Will I be able to maintain some of the serenity I found in the Alps when I get back home to Munich? What can I change about my own work to experience the same pride and satisfaction I saw on the faces of Maria, Johann and Babsi? Or am I thinking too small? Do I need to take a much more radical step?
Babsi asked me if I would like to come back next summer and work on the farm. Could I really give up the day job, at least for a while? I don't know. These are things I will have to think about in the coming months. But one thing I do know is that I am looking forward to getting back to my flat in Munich – and spending a night without mice.