I decided that kids and tangibles were not for me sometime in my globetrotting 30s, because my character (and dreams) were more linked to whimsy and possession-free existence.
But the universe had other plans, and here I am, somewhere around 38 (again), curating and maintaining a 300-year-old guest house in Pettneu am Alberg, Tirol, Austria.
wayward cats breaking in, hedgehogs residing in the garden, an underground Yahtzee ring, a boatload of attaching young men calling me Great aunt Tashie (as I bake them fresh pies made with apples from the garden tree while wearing a pink button-up sweater to complete the fantasy), an elderly neighbor who watches way too much porn, and a parade of travelers coming through, bringing their worlds to me.
My journey from tough girl boss to tough lady boss has been a journey in and of itself. I’m sitting on my mother’s throne in the kitchen right now, thinking over the last four years with no interruptions other than periodic gusts of wind, a humming dishwasher, and Janis Joplin on the speaker kindling that wicked fire.
My last talk with my mother, which took place in late 2017 after I announced that I was quitting my job as a Jägermeister-guzzling waitress in the Alps to pursue a career as a writer in a third-world nation, was about my ambitions. She was curious about the direction my life was taking, and I admitted that I wasn’t sure, but that with my background in banking, stand-up comedy, travel writing, waitressing, and 43 countries visited, I was pleased.
My first visitor arrived six weeks later, two weeks after her funeral, and my previous experiences collided in an unexpected direction. “This” is a warm and friendly place with a lemongrass and sandalwood scent, an inn full of oddities, stories, and (I hope) a pleasant blend of my mother’s and my dreams, as well as our family’s ski racing past.
It’s a work in progress that will take a lifetime to complete.
The first visitor was a Japanese-American woman from Germany who arrived with her kid and awarded me two stars for accuracy because she “didn’t imagine it would be this wonderful.” In my defense, the listing’s shell had only been up for twelve minutes when she booked, giving me no time to grieve.
The worry I had every time I received notification of a new review was almost crippling at first because walking around your house knowing that people are criticizing you is confronting. (In a small Alpine community, this is a chore best left to the neighbors watching out their windows.)
I’ve taken precautions to ensure that I don’t wake up with a foul attitude, such as creating a photo wall on the stairwell dedicated to people and memories I cherish, to remind me of what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and who I’m doing it for. (To hide my sleepy visage, I also wear a leopard-print onesie as a breakfast uniform.) These strategies appear to work because here I am, 200+ fantastic reviews later, with only three of them being three stars.
My mother was concerned about the course of my life. I expressed my uncertainty, but with my background in banking, stand-up comedy, travel writing, waitressing, and 43 countries traveled, I told her that I was happy as long as I was continually moving forward.
To avoid any unpleasant surprises on either side, I spend much too much time and effort assessing my visitors to ensure that they are a suitable fit for the property. I don’t want drunk and disrespectful buffoons clomping about the home giving me attitude after seven years working the Alpine après-ski scene. I also need to carefully determine who they are traveling with, as well as their heights, because so many of the rooms have glass showers, but some of them have somewhat higher ceilings… We’ll call it “constrained” space.
I had a family from Australia, my home nation, on one occasion. The woman told me her first morning at breakfast that the clear shower made her feel uneasy. (I was surprised because she was traveling with her boyfriend, who I assumed had already seen her gifts.) I apologized profusely and offered them a room with a separate shower, although this was usual in old Tirolean houses.
She came down later in the day after shifting rooms and said they were going to the Wellness, the local municipal sauna. Apart from me wanted to warn her it was a naked setting, and she’d be seeing a lot more wing-wangs than she would in a clear shower in her room above, but it was beyond my jurisdiction, and I was too amused.
“Have a good time,” I said.
Each new guest seems like my first after my thorough screening. I wait for them to arrive and offer them a cup of tea, coffee, or schnapps while they check in. This may not appear to be ideal hospitality, but it does provide me with a glimpse into their personality. Maybe it’s the way I phrase it because I do lower my voice a little and throw in a little sass with the offer. If they take the schnapps and come into the kitchen to talk, it’s a good sign that they want to socialize. They’ll be more restrained if they decline all offers and only check in for a few minutes.
This first rite swiftly developed into informing them of the inn’s taboo words. “Trump,” “Hitler,” “Mexit,” “Brexit,” “Covid,” and “schnapps,” which I put in for good measure, are among them. A schnapps must be eaten if any of these profane phrases are said. Naturally, this has backfired on occasion, and I frequently have guests arrive home, peek their head around the kitchen door, and remark, “did someone say schnapps?” in a low, sly voice, as their hand extends from behind, delivering a fresh bottle of the delicious, sweet nectar. It’s no surprise that I’ve stopped drinking in the winter. (Mostly.)
When guests arrive, I tell them that they are free to be as social or as quiet as they want — after all, it is their vacation — but that I am always ready for advice, a cup of tea, or a game of Yahtzee. Every morning, I check on their dietary needs while I prepare breakfast — generally muesli with Greek yogurt and berries, followed by scrambled fresh farm eggs with feta cheese, cream, and chives. Cheese and meats are the customary breakfast fare around here, but I am a great believer in a hot meal.
My approach to the house is informed by my personal experiences, as well as locations that have tickled my fancy around the globe. I’ve always found that a hostel with a private room is the most in tune with my personality, so that’s what I do here.
It’s virtually an art form to judge people’s tastes. Some people enjoy a wild apres-ski, while others are complete teetotallers. The vast majority of my guests have been wonderful, and we often say our goodbyes with tears in our eyes, knowing that our special interaction was only a fleeting moment, unlikely to be repeated as time passes and interaction is reduced to Facebook likes of their wedding photos and soon-to-arrive munchkins.
This is one of the reasons I get the warm fuzzies when I see repeat customers. I would have had a lot more if it hadn’t been for the rough past few years (I’m not going to explain what they were like because that would take a schnapps).
Return guests are excellent in terms of validation but return helpers take it to a whole other level. The volunteers can come and go for a few weeks or stay for the entire season. I pay them a minimum wage and provide housing and food for them. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Maiju was a Finnish house guest whom I requested to return indefinitely, which she did for a season before crossing the border into Thailand overland. Gabby is a lawyer I knew from my banking days in Zurich who now runs a women’s center for Syrian refugees in Athens. Jadeja is a lovely German girl I met in a Mandalay hostel.
I call them “minions” and “retrievers” (which is a story within itself), but they are so much more. They are technically here to assist me with breakfast, rooms, and snowy shoveling, but they are much more than that – they are my support system, respite, and friends.
During the winter, which spans from December to April, the days are hectic with many ebbs and flows. Occasionally, visitors would inquire as to what I did during the day. “I just sat there, and it was great,” I remark, my eyes brightening. I watched as the house cleaned itself, emails were answered, shopping was completed, paperwork was organized, and check-ins were completed. My legs simply drove themselves to the gym in the end. “It’s all a little bit like a magic flute.”
Because something usually goes wrong in an old house, it probably comes as no surprise that I’ve had to learn a new skill set. When a light went out or the heating spluttered, I used to freak out, but now I know where to look for fuses and who to call. Even a lightbulb can be replaced by myself.
It can be difficult to live in a village in which tradition abounds but familiarity is one-sided. I’ve been forced to accept their point of view, even though I disagree with them on occasion. I could have spared myself a lot of effort if I could have known four years ago that all I needed to do was be efficient at snow shoveling and have nice flowers out in the summer. Thankfully, I’ve nearly learned the local dialect (it’s almost like learning Queen’s English and then moving to the Scottish Highlands) and can now eat at the regular tables at local restaurants without feeling like an imposter. But it’s hard work, and while it’s not my chosen profession, it has its own set of distinct and unexpected pleasures.
Keep an eye out for more stories about the damaged plumbing and the missing Mexicans.