We arrived in Austria, dragging. Transition days are hard on us. There’s the physical work of packing up, carrying our backpacks, and pulling the “rollies” up and down stairs, up and into crowded buses or down into subways, and into the air terminal. But more than that, I think the stress of standing in line, the worry about whether everything was packed, are the passports and tickets where I placed them, and the constant concern about safety in transit, make these days the most exhausting.
We landed at the Vienna International Airport at 11:30pm.
The nearby Moxy Hotel was a fun spot for a late arrival and early departure from the Vienna Airport. They lived up to their name with hip, modern conveniences, like soft lights from under the bed that come on when you step on the floor, and the edgy, trendy murals all over the place. The WIFI, advertised as “crazy-fast,” was a welcome relief to the weak and spotty connection of the cafes we had tried to use in Berlin.
The young wait staff were super-helpful when I needed some help with getting my phone connected to Google map services offline and with the car rental agency. A young, energetic Hungarian, (Andi, short for Andria) was eager to straighten out our car rental conundrum when she found out that the parent company was located in Budapest but had no local agency at the airport. She enthusiastically took them on over the phone and had a van in front of the hotel to take us to the rental agency within 15 minutes. Soon, we were speeding off in a new, candy-apple red Suzuki Swift, south on the E59 highway towards Graz.
Rebecca had arranged with her former colleague, Scott, who had been principal at the Exploring New Horizons school at Camp Loma Mar in Santa Cruz County, to visit his family and see their project, an educational organic community farm in St. Nikolai, in the south-east of Austria, near the Slovenian border.
Scott Klein, the principal at Camp Loma Mar, had met his future wife, Ulli, in Berkely, California. Ulli had been studying law in Berkeley and ended up taking on the master gardener position at the outdoor school. Some of Rebecca’s former sixth-grade and high school students may remember Scott and Ulli from Camp Loma Mar. Scott was known as “Principal Burl,” in those days.
Later, Scott and Ulli left Camp Loma Mar to manage a farm in Mendocino County that would bring interns out to experience life on a small, sustainable organic farm. Now, they have moved to Uli’s homeland of Austria, bought a 20 acre farm, and reincarnated the idea of a sustainable farm in Southern Austria.
We arrived on a day that was planned as a jazz festival at the Harkamp Hotel. The Hotel looks like it could be a private winery nestled on a ridge overlooking the Napa valley. This concert is a regional event that features the wine of winemaker Wolfgang Kindlhofer, the food of Chef Heintz Harkamp and the jazz talent of a touring jazz group.
Scott had arranged for us to join them at the jazz concert then stay in the hotel. We were to meet them at the festival as soon as we could make it south from Vienna.
By the time we found a spot to park the car a half kilometer down the hill from the hotel, (apparently, the St. Nicolai community only sees this many cars here once a year) the brunch had already started and the musicians were setting up. Harkamp Hotel commands a spectacular view of the valley below, and the jazz group was on a small stage, right at the overlook, and guests could watch the performance while enjoying the vista beyond.
(Rebecca’s notes in italics)
We hadn’t eaten all day. My stomach grumbled. Scott waved to us and we made our way between the tables to them. His parents reminded me of the Skurnicks, a couple I used to babysit for when I was in high school. I liked them immediately.
Scott took us to the buffet. On the way, he introduced us to Elizabeth Harkamp, the owner of the hotel. We also met the head chef, Heintz Harkamp and the winemaker Wolfgang Kindlhofer.
The buffet was amazing! I filled my plate with tasty looking dishes, cheeses, salads, grilled vegetables, krouts of various kinds, a morel mushroom soup and maybe one of barley. We sat back down and instantly, my wine glass was filled!
We sat with Ulli and Scott, and his parents, Jeanne and Alan, while their two daughters came and went, as if they owned the place. This is their sometimes playground when they climb up the 1km steep hill from the Kleine Farm in valley below.
Scott is a forty-something who abandoned a college football career to embrace alternative farming in the 90’s. His deep, pensive eyes and kindly expression give you the impression that you are the only one around, even though we are surrounded by hundreds here at this wine/brunch/jazz event. His dreadlocks and much darker skin make him look out of place among the fair-skinned, more affluent Austrians sipping wine and listening to jazz. But everyone that passes our table stops and greets Ulli and Scott as if they are local celebrities.
They had moved to Austria in 2011, bought an abandoned farm, and spent the last seven years getting to really know the locals, rehabilitating the farm and its buildings, and starting their Austrian version of a CSA, (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. Klein means “small” in German, so the logo on their website and sign above the entrance to the barn is a play on words with their last name and the idea of a small operation, local owner.
“When we told everyone about the idea of a community sustained farm, they all said it wouldn’t work,” Scott told me. He said that people told them that they couldn’t possibly compete with the big, industrialized farms. “Now, there are dozens of community farms around.”
Scott’s mother and father (Jeanne and Alan) were visiting from Youngstown, Ohio. She’s a retired school principal and he pioneered computer programming back in the FORTRAN days.
“Who would have guessed when Scott was growing up that he’d be an alternative farmer in Austria?” I ask Jeanne.
“Oh, I’m not totally surprised,” she said, “he’s always been able to do whatever he puts his mind to.”
Our conversation was very lively, but the music had started. Woody, Scott, and Ulli kept chatting until a man at the next table told us to stop. We sat quietly until intermission. Then we talked some more.
We got up to get a better look at the view. This Harkamp Weingarten sits on the ridge of a small mountain so it has a lovely vista–we walked up to where they have built a small modern chapel so they can have weddings up here.
We sat and looked at the view and talked about family logistics, where their kids go to school and how they have slowly been putting down roots in this country.
Scott told me that he is such an “outlier” to the community, that he has been given a “pass” here, that he is accepted as an unusual character: an interesting addition to the community. (By outlier, I figure he’s referring to a mixed race couple, a American transplant diving into German language and centuries-old Austrian traditional systems.) From what I can see, Scott, Ulli, and their two girls are not only accepted, they are cherished and have become integral parts of this community in just over seven years.
The band was finished and it was time to go see their farm. Scott, Woody and I walked down the hill, Scott showing his friend’s enterprise along the ridge road, a small farm stand left open to the public where there are displayed eggs, oil, vinegar and other bottled goods for sale–you take what you want and leave the money in a locked box attached to the wall.
We picked apples as we walked and sampled the different varieties. Cutting across a grassy switchback, we ended up at the top of their farm which stretched below us. They have about 10 acres of land for farming and about 10 acres of woodland. In the forest, there is a small pond and cabin.
It is what my dad would have called an “truck farm.” They farm it as a community farm, supplying locals with fresh, organic seasonal vegetables, (or as what we call CSA in California), now it is an idea that has spread here in Austria because of them.
We walked around their land–saw kale and cabbages under netting to keep a kind of moth at bay, saw 60 kinds of tomatoes in a greenhouse tent, apples, peppers, turnips, every food you’d need.
There were chickens and sheep and two lovely dogs–there’s a pond and a forest to the west. When they bought this farm, it had been abandoned for over 10 years. There are old buildings on it–small barns and drying sheds, cold cellars. There is even a cool structure to dry corn that is maybe 20 feet tall and built with slatted sides.
We crossed the road from the wood lot over to one of the storage buildings where they display and sell to people who come during the day for vegetables during the day. A woman was just driving away in her Mercedes van. Scott showed us the many cellars and bins where they store and dry vegetables.
We had a lovely walk about the place then went inside to the cozy, low ceiling house. The living room had huge beams. The girls played quietly and we talked to Alan and Jeanne and Scott and Ulli.
The discussion with Ulli and Scott and his parents turned to some of the challenges the US is going through now. People are being so divided, voting against their own interests and ignoring the global climate crisis. Here in Europe, it seems so clear that the US is straying from its position of being a global leader and off on some “me-first” charade and ignoring its allies.
Some of the problems seem far away, here in this idyllic, agrarian community in the mountains. I feel a sense of nostalgia for human kindness and community, the warmth of our home back in Winters. Part of me wants to stay and wrap ourselves in this loving community and home. But we know we must move on. We part with the sense that we are all integrally connected and that we are all working for a greater purpose, somehow. Jeanne and Alan gave us a ride back up the hill to the Harkamp Hotel.
We enjoyed the lovely view of the sunset and the vista down the hill, looking at St. Nikolai lights below.
We enjoyed a bountiful spread for breakfast at the hotel the next morning. Then we packed up the Swift and stopped at the Kleine Farm for a quick farewell. We agreed to try to meet in Slovenia in the spring. Grateful for such a full and bountiful experience, and loaded up with a full bag of fruit and vegetables, we headed west to the Lake District. On to Hallstatt.