Change came to the valley this year. Since the days of King Francis' kataster, or land register, made at around the time of the battle of Waterloo, we have got by with a house number and the name of one of three cadastral communities that comprise the postcode. My house was number 40, the next three houses, on the other side of the old mineshaft, were numbers 162, 163 and 164 (they were built in the 1920s) , and the next house, on the old unmetalled track, was number 3, the house of the Deplorables. Every house built since 1815 was given the next available sequential number, irrespective of location. And our cadastral village is three miles long and a mile wide.
The system never caused the slightest problem locally, as everyone knows where everyone else lives anyway, and the postman's job is a lifetime sinecure, held for three generations by the same family. It was the internet that killed it. Rumour has it that an Amazon delivery driver from Graz, a decent man called Kemal who just wanted to finish his round and return home to the warmth of his family, was found sobbing in his vehicle at 11pm, having spent seven hours trying to locate number 67. Ah, they nodded when he had shown them his clipboard. The Huber house. It's down an unmarked forest track.
So we now have some sixty street names each with a geographically sequential run of numbers, and this being Austria the change went smoothly if somewhat unorthodoxly. It's still not quite fair, many feel, on the city boys who drive the internet vans; they have a fear of the high valleys, and not just in a Deliverance banjo-twanging way. The little GPS satellite high in the sky guiding them to their destination is often unreliable in the forest. And we actually do have well-established populations of bears, wolves and lynx - a cause of pride to us, but a source of fear to a city boy navigating an unsurfaced mountain road at 6kph with the Spruce boughs brushing the sides of their van.
The official figures have just been published like a sort of tierwelt league table; bears have taken 35 sheep this year, wolves only 4. The Land employs an expert called Roman, the Wolfsbeauftragter, with a helpline number, whom one calls to take DNA samples from any scraps of your sheep that remain uneaten. The State hunters' association must by law pay compensation for livestock killed by bears, lynx or wolves, even though the species are protected and cannot be shot by the hunters. It's a very Austrian thing. Before DNA testing many farmers were reputed to messily kill their own sick and worthless sheep and blame it on the local bear in order to pocket the generous (80€ per ewe) compensation. Our local bear has already destroyed several hives and taken a sheep from a small herd of Suffolk blackfaces (they really are - what are the chances of that?) at the bottom of the valley, so our sheepholding neighbours here are paying students home for the holidays to guard their stock.
Back to house numbers. I had, I thought, let everyone back in the UK know that my address had changed, but of course several Christmas cards have arrived with the old address. No problem. The postman will operate both systems until he retires, and he's still a comparatively young man. Frau Fuchs regrets slightly that number 3, our oldest house, now has a more anonymous number, but it's of little consequence to its occupants, our own Deplorables.
The house itself is an old farmhouse built of massive larch timbers and dating back to the 1600s. In the UK it would be as desirable as a Georgian parsonage, but here, where the old is scorned, and old houses are unwanted (hence me buying my own gorgeous 17th century mine-owners house for a song) it has been converted into three apartments, that are let cheaply to three single men, all white-beards, whom I have come to call the Deplorables.
They live together quite amicably, and once or twice a week one of them takes it in turn to take the local drunk-taxi, the Gomobil, down to the Spar to restock with beer. The rear of the van is loaded with crates of empties (one gets money back on crates and bottles - shops have automatic machines into the base of which one pushes a crate of empties which disgorges a little credit ticket to be redeemed at the till) and it waits outside the shop while the elderly delegate wobbles a trolley stacked with full crates out of the door. The rough track to the church runs through the farm, as of yore, and the old boys keep some chickens and goats in shanty sheds on one side with the house on the other. They have an elderly and somewhat toothless dog who barks but is afraid to approach closer than about six feet. I suppose he frightens some people - delivery drivers, probably. I like them. They are always beaming, always ready to exchange words or a cheery wave, and they annoy the more puritanical local OCD obsessives who disparage the drinking, the untidiness of the little stables and the animal turds, a rebelliousness which I perhaps admire most of all. They have perhaps achieved that wisdom of years which focuses on what is really important in life.
It wasn't until yesterday, sitting in quiet companionship over a beer down at the pub, chuckling at comments thrown out with the expert comic timing that develops amongst drinking buddies, that it occurred to me. In a real-world mirror of the crib outside the church, we had the elements of the nativity amongst us; in the sky above, the twinkling GPS satellite guiding the way, on the hills shepherds were watching the sheep, and the three wise men, between beers, felt the warm breath of the goats in their byre. All we lack is a pregnant virgin. But this is Austria, and I have come to be surprised by nothing, and we have two days to go.
With all my sincere best wishes to every one of you, I'm signing off now for a few days. Have a wonderful Christmas, all!