As I stepped off the plane onto Austrian soil, I had very little knowledge of what I was jumping into. I had spent my flight in a jitter of nerves, face pressed against the window as I was graced with my first views of the Alps. They looked so steep… and they were snowcapped! I was delighted to be seeing mountains. For the last few weeks, whenever I had been speaking to someone I had been unable to stop myself from bursting out with ‘I’m going to live in the mountains!’
Invariably the conversation that followed was…
‘What will you be doing?’
‘I’ll be living in the mountains, volunteering with the European Wilderness Society.’
I didn’t know much more than that, but it was okay, because I’d be living in the mountains. Mountains are perhaps my happy place. I love to see them, to climb them, the view from the top. They are reminders of the beauty of our planet, the power of nature, and the age of the Earth. Being able to see mountains in the distance makes me feel calm; I can look at a mountain and my own problems seem smaller.
And when I stepped off the plane, dizzy with elation over the mountain views, my jaw dropped. I turned full circle, and everywhere, there were mountains. Steep, jagged snowcapped mountains, gentle mountains, mountains close, mountains fading into the distance. I trailed my fingertips over everything in the airport… Austrian doorway, Austrian window, Austrian railing. If I could have found a patch of bare earth I’d have pressed my hands into the earth itself. This was my new life, and for the moment all my nerves fell away and nothing else mattered but the view. I would be living amongst these giants in the landscape.
Finding a rhythm
Of course the nerves came back, and for a week my nails suffered as I ripped at them. I’m a shy, quiet person, and sometimes the smallest encounter can leave me tongue-tied and grasping for words in a brain that screams ‘run away’. Paradoxically I have moved away from home to another country by myself, that speaks a language I don’t know, and I worry about meeting new people. But my biggest concern was What if they don’t like me?
My second biggest concern was What if it’s too cold? Because winter temperatures reach the minus twenties (Celsius!) and I’m bad enough with cold that this actually worries me six months into the future.
I hadn’t thought much beyond that, which was why when I met my new boss Max at the airport, I was mountain-drunk and not ready to say hello. But regardless he drove me back from Salzburg to Tamsweg, through what can only be described at the most beautiful drive I’ve experienced. We took the mountain pass, heading through the Alps. The mountains rose either side, dark green and wet from the rain. We followed a river for a while, and my personal highlight, the mountains were topped with a little snow. Even a few days later, I don’t think I will ever get used to the beauty of snowcapped mountains. As Tamsweg approached, we began to drive through small villages, with traditional Austrian houses painted a dazzling variety of colours. Every few minutes Max would point out something new… ‘that statue commemorates where The Beatles made their film’…. ‘we’re passing the church where the lyrics to Silent Night were written’… ‘that’s a Roman milestone marker’. My brain couldn’t keep up.
We arrived at his house where he introduced me to his wife Anni, who helps runs the European Wilderness Society, and his family. It was all a blur of introductions and dinner and here is your new room etc… Over the next few days the blur continued and I met my other Austrian-based team members, Nick and Verena, and started to build a routine. It felt like I had arrived in the middle of a hurricane. Max and Nick left the next day for a meeting and quick-audit in Majella National Park, Italy, Verena was preparing for a trip to the USA for some training, and Anni was prepping for a massive project proposal deadline.
And somewhere in the middle I was trying to find my feet and a rhythm. I scoped out the town, where could I buy chickpeas, chocolate, almond milk, soap. Which were the paths that would lead me to the mountains. Where would I get the best view of the sunset. Where can I get wifi…
What am I doing here?!
For the first week, Anni fed and caffeinated me and accepted me into her family. I jumped into her household doing dishes, chopping vegetables and going along on the dog walks, and the biggie – trying to learn some German. In between mealtimes I made myself at home in the office and pottered in the team dropbox folders – a vast labyrinth of documents, plans and photos. The office is bright and airy, with prints of Wilderness on the walls, a few lifesize cutouts of wolves in the corner and a little balcony with a mountain view. I have been reading and proofing publications, writing for the website and trying to get to grips with using a mac.
Working in the office helped to reaffirm me that I had done the right thing by moving to Austria. This first week my mind went into crisis mode a little. All those things that I hadn’t considered because I’d been too excited about working in the field of conservation, in the mountains. Suddenly I was far from everything and everyone I knew, and it hit like a sledgehammer. It was like I was floating along with nothing familiar to hold on to. I missed my family, and the little things like reading road signs and chatting to people on the street. Suddenly there was a language barrier everywhere and whilst I’m working on my German it’s a slow, painful process. But working in the office helped! I had a purpose and I was working in an organisation that protects Europe’s landscapes and large carnivores. I am 100% behind the ethos of the European Wilderness Society, and it’s cheesy, but I felt like I was doing some good, giving back to the world a little. To be able to work in conservation has been my dream for so long. I used to pore over maps and travel books when I was younger and then as I grew older I realised our planet needed a little help and protection. And here I am today, working to protect Europe’s wildest places.
Slowly my mind exited crisis mode. Over the weekend I visited a lake with Anni, her youngest son and their dog. We played and explored the puddles for tadpoles and little critters. Time slowed down and it began to dawn on me that this was my new home. The mountains were ever-present and beautiful, the sun was shining, the air was fresh, and I was surrounded by people that had welcomed me into their family. I had time to stop and breathe after a whirlwind few days. I realise I have a lot to be grateful for, and I’m looking forward to a year of hard work and adventure.
Let’s get wild!