Forum Holitorium

Month: September, 2014

The End of the Valley


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There are several ends to the Großarl Valley south of Salzburg, Austria, the first of which is pictured here, after which point cars should no longer pass. We kept going on foot, passing an enclosure of red deer, several fishermen and a waterlogged Kneipp cure facility. We knew we had arrived at the next end of the valley when we reached a sign that read “Ende.” A trail started going up toward the peak in the picture above, but we had come far enough in the rain and weren’t interested in hiking up to the next end of the valley. Satisfied, we turned around and retraced our steps.

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They led back past the Kreealm waterfall, one of the many falls decorating the south side of the valley. The sound of the rush of water calms me without fail. It amazes me how tolerant I am of such loudness – a rare exception. The clouds began to nibble on the trees, adding to the magical atmosphere.

Everything we saw was filtered through a fine mist of rain that occasionally strengthened to a downpour. Yes, it rained the whole weekend long. Nestled in the heart of the valley, I had the impression that the sun was forever a stranger to these parts. Years ago, shortly after coming to Austria, I took the train from Graz to Vienna, still so impressed by the scenery that I stared out the window nearly the whole way. It struck me how green the Alps are, that same velvety green I had foolishly thought Ireland and Scotland held a monopoly on. The Alps haven’t lost their green at all in the past ten years. If anything, the nearly constant rainfall this year intensifies it. My amateur photography skills do it little justice.

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Sunday we crossed to the other side of the valley to go to a Frühschoppen. Früh means early, and a Schoppen is a half pint of beer, so as you might imagine, this festival allows you to start consuming alcohol quite early in the day. Which we didn’t. We had been lured to the festival by a flyer stating that sheep would be shorn, an event TC had never experienced in person and which I last saw years ago while conducting interviews with farmers in Rhône-Alpes. Amused by the barn cat annoying the cheese, meat, and schnapps vendors by trying to steal some of their local sausage for sale, we waited patiently in the rain for the sheep shearing to begin while most other people had already gone inside to drink their beer, eat their lunch, and listen to the oompah band. There were two older Swiss women and a random Austrian with a battery powered dancing hat also standing next to the barn, presumably fellow sheep enthusiasts. After an hour in the rain – 30 minutes after the shearing was supposed to begin – we gave up and left. Perhaps the sheep to be shorn were part of the flock that disappeared behind the cloud below.

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Despite the lack of shearing action, we had plenty of opportunities to admire shaggy fleece growers. These mountain sheep grazed right next to our apartment.

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Our landlady said that sheep fleece is only worth a few cents and is mainly used for house insulation. She keeps sheep for the free lawnmower service and for meat. Even long, long ago when I still ate meat, I don’t think I ever had mutton. But not so long ago, when I regularly ate dairy products, I loved a good sheep cheese or sheep milk yogurt. Sadly, those days seem to be history. I made an important, shocking discovery in April: I can no longer eat dairy products and feel healthy.

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What an irony of fate. The valley was full not just of sheep but of cows too – both the ubiquitous Fleckvieh and the Holsteins that pepper the landscape of my native Wisconsin. No more cheese for me. At the recommendation of my doctor, I tried going without dairy for two weeks in April in the hope of relieving severe allergy problems (a torrentially runny nose and an itchy skin rash on my stomach). Within two days of cutting out dairy, my nasal congestion stopped and the rash started healing. It was as if someone had turned off a tap of running water. I had known in an abstract way that dairy encourages mucus production, but it was still shocking to experience it on my own body and realize how much better I felt without it. How long had I been contributing to my own discomfort? It gave me pause that such a small change could have an enormous impact on my well-being. No antihistimines, no Neti pot, no ointments, just different food choices. Could this innocent looking young steer and his kind really wreak that much havoc on my body?

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On several occasions, I tried reintroducing dairy – to little avail. Within a day or two, my nose ran, my rash came back and my digestion was miserable. What puzzles me is that butter doesn’t bother me. Though butter mostly contains fat, there are enough milk proteins in unclarified butter that could trigger an allergic response. Food allergies arise when your body overreacts to protein and affect the mucus membranes, skin, and digestive tract. My reaction was clearly an allergic one and not a sign of lactose intolerance, which only affects digestion.

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Initially I was crushed to figure out that I shouldn’t be eating dairy products anymore. Though I have never enjoyed drinking milk straight, I have always consumed mass quantities of yogurt and cheese and have been known to say there is no life without cheese. My previous diet was heavily dependent on milk products for protein and fat. That has radically changed. I now try to eat beans or lentils every day and have upped the amount of nuts and eggs I eat. I am still tinkering and fretting about how to get enough calcium, but I can confirm that there IS life without cheese. At first, I was sad about no longer being able to eat some of my favorite dishes: gnocchi with ricotta, palak paneer, pizza, grilled Halloumi. But the good news is that there are so many different dishes waiting to be discovered and prepared – and that when you can’t eat most things on the menu anymore when you go out, you save a lot of money by cooking at home. If you or someone you know has problems with allergies, I highly recommend cutting out all dairy for at least two weeks and seeing if the symptoms improve. It’s a cheap experiment with no side effects that might reward you greatly.

We discovered that the Mur River, our local river, starts just on the other side of the peak at the end of the Großarl Valley. As we headed back to Graz, we took the slower, scenic route that followed the course of the Mur from the westernmost reaches of Styria back to the city. We stopped for a stroll and coffee in the town of Murau, home to around 2,000 inhabitants, a large brewery, and the statue of Murna. According to the city’s homepage, the lightening bolt in the river goddess’s hand symbolizes energy (hydroelectric, I presume) and hops grow around her body.

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Our watery weekend is now over. Hope you are staying warm and dry!

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A September Confession, or the Cinnamon Sweater Saga

The nuts are in jail again. Walnuts and a lone horse chestnut. You know what to do with walnuts; the horse chestnut is not for show but will be made into laundry detergent by TC according to his special recipe. We have three sources of walnuts this year, one of which has been providing quite large specimens that are easier to crack. Speaking of walnuts, the head and tip of the snout of the terrifying wooly beastie living on our couch that was surprised and captured on film below are made of wool hand dyed with walnut hulls. The cinnamon color will look good on TC, who has been waiting patiently for a sweater for nearly a year now.

The Cinnamon Sweater Saga

At a market in the fair Styrian town of Stainz, we oohed and aahed at the silky alpaca and soft merino wares in beautiful shades that would look good on everyone but me. TC found the cinnamon wool to his liking and we bought the whole lot of it. I started in on the tightly gauged pattern a few weeks later. After finishing the back and making a few calculations, my heart sank: there would not be enough yarn.

There followed months of agonizing, procrastinating, feeling guilty about not having knit TC another sweater when nearly all his old ones were falling apart. Then one day, I had the idea to make a sweater at a looser gauge and in the round. I remeasured and cast on and made it all the way up to the armholes before the record player slowed down and came to a halt. No, the way forward did not require electricity, just a little bit of courage and simple math. And important decision making.

Pattern or improvisation? Sleeves knit in the round or flat? Sleeves separate and sewed in or joined to the body and finished as a raglan in the round?

More procrastination, an even guiltier conscience that I was not clothing my husband properly when I actually have the ability to, and lots of other finished projects. Having survived a few knitting catastrophes (nearly finished items that turned out wrong and needing to be put out of their misery or repaired), I decided it was time to either frog or finish up what I had started so as to make room for new projects that I hope will have less tormented trajectories. Fortified by reading excerpts from Elizabeth Zimmerman books, I picked up the cinnamon sweater again last night, started to count and figured out how many stitches to start out with on the sleeves (48) and how many I will need where the sleeve connects to the body (64) – which naturally took far less time than expected. No calculus involved here.

The saga is ongoing, and only the fates know how it will end, but since the fates in the German-speaking world (i.e. the Norns) spend a fair share of their time knitting, I am betting on a happy ending. Keep your fingers crossed.

As a counterpoint to the aforementioned Zimmerman style raglan based on the percentage system, I am making wild and crazy beet colored nether garments (see the snout of the wooly beast) as described in The Knitter’s Almanac in the September chapter. Related to the much more common German nieder, meaning lower, nether is a lovely sounding old English word that has mostly fallen out of favor and been replaced by the more prosaic “under.” We’ll need wild and wooly clothing to brave the cold rainy peaks of Hohe Tauern National Park, where we hope to escape the beady eyes of the hungry deer chomping away on the foliage outside the window.

Happy knitting and nut collecting!