Curmudgeon tightens his belt

Before regular readers congratulate me on progress, rather than victory, in the Battle of the Bulge or my efforts to avoid going up a waist size, which has been a positive effect of continuing regular exercise and walks, I must advise that this is not a self-congratulatory note about weight loss achieved. It might have been, had I not enjoyed a few too many hearty helpings of food recently, particularly while going off grid in Czechia – the current name of a place that has been part of Czechoslovakia, the RCS, and then until recently the Czech Republic.

On our weekend away at the end of January in the wilds of Czechia with our friends, who like any Austrians resident in Vienna for four or so generations are a genetic melting pot or confluence of Bohemian, Magyar and Austrian genes, and who through deceased cousins without issue enjoy part ownership of two country cottages, near Závada and Györ respectively, we spent a weekend firmly off grid. There we were nicely hermetically sealed off from the outside world, possibly even more off grid than expected, as a kind local rodent had gnawed his or her way through the cable to the satellite dish (although it was unlikely to have worked anyway, and there was only a screen of “snow” on the antiquated cathode ray television). Our deal, in return for free board and lodging and a pick-up in half darkness from the railway halt nearby, was to help out with a few maintenance jobs that needed doing and which could be achieved with minimum outlay but just a bit of time spent, and most importantly with spare hands holding the stepladders. So what did this all have to with tightening my belt?

“Don’t get someone in, when you can do it yourself”

The answer is a simple one. At an age where I am old enough to be retired, yet young enough to still clamber up a stepladder without my wife needing to check our life insurance policies before allowing me to do so, I have time available, albeit with less money than when I took home a salary, even under general Austrian final salary pensions. My friends are also in similarly time-rich and financially-stable positions, and our home ownership CVs are bursting with a lot of DIY experience. We’re also of the “don’t get someone in, when you can do it yourself” school, from a bygone age when subjects like woodwork, technical drawing etc were staples of the curriculum, rather than some subjects that just confuse me in the 21st century.

So after a somewhat lethargic start to the year (maybe something to do with how the public holidays fell again over Christmas and New Year) and then another seemingly valedictory trip to coastal Lincolnshire to check up on Elderly Aunt, I’ve started throwing myself headlong into some projects that my friends have collectively rustled up. We’ve decided that winter can be banished with such jobs, although the weather has been pretty non-wintry thus far (touching wood as I type), and so we factor in walking mornings and working afternoons where possible. I’ve been helping out with decorating, putting up curtain rails, renovating a herring-bone parquet floor and getting others’ homes shipshape. All very charitable, you might say, but it has a great dividend.

A new set of curtains that we had otherwise balked at having professionally made have been run up by a friend’s wife in return for me having helped her husband decorate two rooms while she was away for a couple of days. We’ve all agreed that we help each other out with various renovations and repairs and the favours are paid back. For us the curtains were a godsend. The once beautiful curtains we had had made when we moved into our flat were a faded imitation of their former glory, as not even relining them would have been enough. Also in having re-purposed a couple of rooms a few years back, we also realised that the curtains no longer suited the rooms. And so we had negotiated and bartered and then only a few weeks later taken a phone call to say that our curtains were ready to be fitted to their rails. And of course all of that called for a bottle of fine wine, to toast curtains, friendship, and life-long skills.

We have also used the projects as an excuse to have meals together, and such meals have been how we have brokered further DIY projects. In May, as my wife provides pastoral care to her school pupils as they go through the Matura, I’m working with a group of five friends to install a new double garage door at one’s out of town retreat. We’re likely to be shacked up there for a few days, as we have to make a few not so rudimentary alterations in order to ensure that the new motorised door will go in where wanted and the clearance is just right. But there is another point to all of this. The world seems to stigmatise anyone struggling with their inner demons. One of our group, who can be the life and soul of the party, has been a bit of a hermit recently (his own words, and not meant as a criticism), and our collective plan has always been to try and make sure we were there for one another.

I had a very dark spell at the start of last year, and still have good days and the occasional very bad one, but DIY projects have helped give me back a purpose that otherwise was drifting away as I was retired shortly before my intended retirement age. When we saw that he was struggling, we hit upon the idea last autumn that we’d prioritise a project for him first up, which we duly completed and now he enjoys repaying our labour in having helped pep up his flat by helping energetically with the projects we work on, and we’ve made excellent progress in recent weeks, and he seems more contented, and every bit as rude as when he is on finest form at our Stammtisch, the character we all know and love.

One unwitting advantage of a lot of our projects is that we have found a way to largely get round the problem of having to buy items in bulk quantities far greater than the amount we really need. By having a very rough and ready list of left over bits and pieces, we have “cannibalised” the leftover hinges and brackets, screws, hooks and what-not, from completed projects and we also are saving on all the little bits and pieces that soon tot up. We’ve rationalised outlays for new tools – many of us lament the fact that tools nowadays are not the workhorses of yesteryear, and soon wear out, while the old tools are still doing sterling service. Between us we are well stocked to do all the projects necessary, and some wives have also breathed sighs of relief that old ladders have made way for new ones and there is no need to dread a call from a partner in crime breaking the news of one of our midst having caused himself a mischief by falling off a rotting ladder.

Best of all, with our out-of-town jaunts – we get out into the country, and get to chew the fat and eat remarkably well for a very modest price – and the taste of the locally sourced meat and vegetables is second-to-none. And we have also learned to factor in an extra day “just because” to allow us to get a good walk under our belts. Were it not for such walks and energetic days hard at work, we would invariably have piled on the pounds (or kilos, since we are in mainline Europe and are not succumbing to imperial measures as part of our “new-found freedom”) as the fayre in local Wirtshäuser has been little short of excellent everywhere. We’re also more than happy to support the local economy, since we invariably stay for free (although we do on occasion have to buy or collect a bed en route from Vienna in the first place, but that is another story).