When I hopped in a car from Klagenfurt airport, I kept expecting us to arrive at a huge glass building with soundproof bedrooms, quite possibly with huge iron gates and bulky suited men speaking into their sleeves. When we drove on to a jetty on a lake and took a boat I decided to give up guessing until I spied a tall broach spire (St. Mary’s church) poking the sky. Then when we turned towards a large building, I thought maybe the driver was giving me a short tour. But then when he told me to “stop the phone” it goes “in and out” I panicked and pulled a notebook plus irrelevant bits of paper from my pocket packed with last minute calls. In a few minutes my phone would cease to work in the “tech detox zone” so I frantically dialed my sister. And just as she was about to launch into what sounded like one of her best stories yet, my phone went “out”.
Alone and with zero knowledge of German I turned to a magazine in my arms for comfort. I consider printed magazines and newspapers, things of great beauty and brilliance and comfort. But those who specifically insist on padding their pages with enter-shame-ment to make me feel crap, loose instant brownie points from me. I tossed the magazine aside and squinted towards the shore.
I’ve several camera cards loaded up, with pics of this trip to Austria, so bear with me whilst I show and tell you what I was doing here. (Psssst! I really took these pictures so that I could remind myself of what really happened as the twelve days are all a bit of a hazy blur.)
In we went to shore and a lady broke from swimming to welcome me. She said she’d been a guest here for the previous three weeks and apparently “breakfast was a boiled egg, dinner, a potato, herbal tea counted as nourishment and I’d be weighed, starved, my tummy kneaded like dough and then…” the teller fell silent and put her finger to her lips (just like in the movie Shutter Island). Which is why I have to tell you why I visited here….
I was seduced by the idea that an expert could sort out my insomnia. There it is. Plain and simple. I had not intended to describe the process here except that I noticed that many of us on Twitter seem to tweet about not being able to sleep late at night. And we’re not alone…
On the flight to Austria I reeled off in my head what I’d learnt about many well-known insomniacs; Vincent Van Gogh hoped to earn more sleep by steeping his bed linen in camphor, Margaret Thatcher “Sleep is for wimps”, got by as British prime minister on just four hours of sleep each night. She took a supplementary short nap in the daytime. Likewise Bill Clinton famously takes a 30-minute nap after lunch daily (as did John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Florence Nightingale). Franklin D. Roosevelt drank a warm glass of milk with a shot of cognac as a sleep aid. Marilyn Monroe treated her insomnia with sleeping pills, Abraham Lincoln took long walks at night, Madonna claims that her mind is too busy, Judy Garland stayed up for three or four days at a time, Napoleon survived on 3 hours a night, Benjamin Franklin would get out of bed until it cooled down, Isaac Newton was nodding off over a book when he saw the apple fall and Charles Dickens trawled the streets of London at night for inspiration for his books. Shakespeare’s many references to “oil-dried lamps,” “candles” and to “the smoakie light” refer to his all night writing sessions. Winston Churchill had two beds, one to try to sleep in and one to just lie in when the first bed failed. And Marcel Proust (my favorite) considered his lonely nighttime hours fertile for making art.
Proust wrote his masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, when sick, at the end of his life, confined to a Parisian, cork-lined bedroom. He’d sleep during the day and write all night. Proust’s most famous work was born over a succession of nights, the writer’s time when you’re separate from daylight influences. I was apprehensive climbing those wooden steps. Secretly, I kind of liked being awake at night, writing or reading while all around me slept.
As a writer I come alive at night; scribbling away, wrapped in a blanket of wool, silence and mystery. I’ll keep going for days until something is complete. And though I inherited this late-night-owl-gene from my mother, she will often get on the phone and alert me to its dangers. “Do you think you’re getting enough sleep?” she’ll ask. “Like hellooooo?” I reply wittily imitating my ten year old godson’s response to an obvious inquiry. It’s worse when my boyfriend’s away or I’m traveling, left to my own schedule, I’ll write until 3am, have “lunch” at 3.30am, creep around and check dark corners with a tennis racket at some point between 4 and 5am because I’ve heard a floorboard creak, anything except sleep. I can survive on none for ages. So after trying to get to bed before 3am for weeks and failing miserably, my chief motivation for visiting the Viva-Mayr was to see if the experts could regulate my sleep.
My first night I wrestled all night with the unfamiliar pillows, searching for that elusive optimum level of plumage you get at home. In the morning after a night of no sleep I wondered how long it would be before I’d get a respectable eight hours? Mine was a twelve day rush job, normally it’d take a month to detox and recalibrate an old eating and sleeping pattern. The number of sweets I’d been eating at home had also recently risen sharply (only slightly). (You might think it unusual, even unbelievable, that a girl should remember all the sweets she eats, but this one does, and lately she’d been mumbling the words Minstrels, Toblerone and M&M’s far too often.) It wasn’t long before an impressive answer was given to me regarding my love for sweets… “when we sleep well, we not only experience its regenerative powers, (better hair, skin and nails) but we we are less likely to crave sugary foods to give us an instant energy boost the following day.” Made sense!
So, first morning, (I won’t lie to you, the Viva-Mayr cure wasn’t easy. There I’ve said it), I downed one teaspoon of Epsom salts dissolved in warm water and mineral base powders (everyone was required to do this every morning) and within a few hours strange and unpredictable symptoms started to unfurl on my insides.
Examination next. There are five doctors and it was suggested that I have a full medical with one and this meant that I had to provide, ahem, samples and report for professional probing and prodding. A brisk nurse took an armful of blood and then I reported to Dr. Nadja Aichbichler for MAT. Yes that’s short for Manual Abdominal Treatment and “yes I can feel my kidneys, pancreas and liver you’re poking doctor! Nice to see that you can identify with your fingers that I still have a full set!”
Back in my bedroom, a pounding headache, constant trips to the bathroom and strange noises from deep within my intestines could not be ignored by just turning up the TV. I was under instructions to “try sleeping” (lights out and TV off at 8pm please). I spent the first two nights in my room staring at BBC World News ALL NIGHT where everything had turned slightly chaotic, turbulent and fearsome (detox symptoms). My reflection in the bathroom mirror from nights of feeling unwell told the whole tale. Around night three, things really deteriorated… The BBC World News theme tune which I love more than anything didn’t even make me smile. FACT! Whenever I’m traveling and in a foreign hotel room the boop, boop, boop, boop, tun tan…. “This is the BBC” comes on and ALWAYS makes me smile. It gives me that tiny little bubble of happiness in my chest. Have a listen below…..
Now the moment to get upset had arrived. I pulled this…..
A deadly silence ensued. A member of staff arrived and disappeared again to return with a pot of camomile tea. I said, now, now, don’t be hasty, you can always make an exception for an insomniac Irish girl wanting a cup of proper milky tea. Right? This minor loss of control was merely the prelude to an exciting twelve days of every tea on the planet except my two favorites. Oh the adventures. I honestly never knew other teas could be so precious. So let’s hold that scene for a moment while I establish why exactly I wasn’t allowed a drop of ‘normal’ breakfast or Earl Grey tea. Too much caffeine! Simple as. Fortunately I began to take my camomile tea with a British lady who poured hers with the placatory high tea ceremony noises: chiming china, clever quips, husky laughter late at night downstairs while everyone else snoozed, “Shall I pour?”, “Yes please, may I bother you for proper tea with some milk” “Thank You!” “No, afraid not”, and so on. In fact it was all so Miss Marple that it made us smile. She became a forever friend and as the group grew in size and loudness I rapidly whipped back to my (er, semi-normal?) self.
On the fifth night I finally dozed for more than four hours. The sixth morning I woke to little sparrows (two),their chicks (four), some swifts (six) colonizing my front balcony and chirping in firm Disney-esque form. They really were there, look here’s a picture of the slowest of them to prove it. I think they were hungry (me too) so I made a mental note to stash some extra bread in my pocket at breakfast (just in case of animal emergencies you understand).
Food whether for the wildlife or otherwise was a big talking point on the detox and everyone tried to get more from the waiting staff.
After a trip to the doctor, he thought it would be a good idea if I had a little more than other guests because I exercised and ran daily in the woods. This was my bumped up breakfast.
By lunchtime I’d a good appetite for this Arctic char with both white and wild asparagus.
By supper I thought they’d made a mistake. Goats cheese rolled in crushed pumpkin seeds.
Or a turmeric omelette was also an option on days I hadn’t already had an egg.
Wheat, sugar and caffeine were all stripped from my diet for twelve days as variously too “clogging” too “inflaming”, or too “stimulating” for insomniacs. Enter “super-doc” Doctor Harald Stossier (yup, ‘super-doc’ has entered my fashion lexicon…) with his Viva-Mayr clinic detox to “boost my immune systems, kick-start my energy levels, re-educate my sleep patterns” he said he’d have me “sleeping normally in no time.” How? “A well functioning digestive system is the corner stone of quality sleep and skin health. A sluggish gut prevents nutrients from being correctly absorbed and distributed to the vital organs, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the outward signs show on the skin, hair and nails. Toxin forming foods cause toxic side effects” Such as? “Any food your body can’t digest when it is tired or awake late at night ends up fermenting in your digestive system. The result when you finally do get to sleep is lots of tossing and turning and very little regenerative sleep. Spots, tiredness, water retention, headaches and finally chronic fatigue and some depressions are more serious results.” We settled on a diet of clean protein (fish and organic eggs) and fresh vegetables (steamed asparagus celery or swiss chard).” At least these things would be easy to find once I got home.
As ever in places like this, I felt like a trespasser, a confused and disorientated trespasser who lolls about pointlessly for hours on end. I confessed this to Dr. Stossier along with…. I’m just an Irish girl who rather likes being up all night, sweets and too many cups of tea. He had a long think about that, and then he said firmly “None of these are good things. You will benefit greatly form this detox. Each member of staff goes on this detox once a year here and we have few colds and flus or sick days. You will also feel the benefits. I don’t think you realize the serious implications of poor quality sleep!”
Dr. Stossier’s brand of “super-health” is a method unlike any other and he takes the workings of the intestine very seriously feeling his way around the intestine by pressing on the abdomen. “With the digestive system” (I didn’t know this, it’s quite interesting) “it’s common for conditions such as insomnia, auto-immune diseases to stem from an incorrect diet.” This was all very new to me. What else? Oh yeah, the most important thing to aid sleep is this “Eat NO RAW FOOD after 4pm (fruit or salad)” Dr. Stossier explained.
You may remember me mentioning now and again that I love lots of things about Paris. Actually one of my favorite French things is their love of an enormous simple salad in the evenings. Dr. Stossier banned salad in the evening (raw after 4). He explained “compromise by having a large salad at lunchtime.” No problem. I said and then spent a fair bit of time nodding and concealing my habit of night time fruit snacking guessing that eventually he would say something exactly like this “Salad and fruit ferment in the digestive system and causes you to toss and turn at night which results in disturbed sleep.”
After mentally chucking out both raw food and fruit for supper we had an animated debate about what I could actually have for my tea. The choice ranged from an egg and some hummus, or a bowl of soup or an omelette or some goats cheese and oatcakes or a baked potato or hummus with rice cakes. You will notice I use the word ‘or’ and not ‘and’ in the list of allowances. Cue shocked silence. “Steady on”, I said after a while, and I think I speak for most insomniacs here, “but that’s a bit radical isn’t it?” Dr. Stossier, took his pen and wrote in the margins of my schedule, “Supper should be a light meal eaten at about 6 or 7pm after which no solids should be consumed until breakfast the following morning.”
But hold on a minute. What about those of us who likes to eat our largest meal in the evening? Incidentally (this might be useful) “Simple. Switch it to lunchtime.”, he said “for example you can have a steak for lunch here.” Besides the small supper, large lunch, tips other Viva-Mayr lessons abounded. It was possible, I suppose, though unlikely, that we would agree about the cooking of steak. I had that lovely Heston Blumenthal show me how to cook the perfect steak for my first book a few years ago. Happy Memories. “Rub your steak with olive oil and lay in a very hot pan pressing gently down on it (if you can hold your hand over the pan for more than two seconds, then it ain’t hot enough, baby”. Leave the poor beast alone to cook, this seals it and stops it sticking. After two minutes, flip it over and let it cook for the same amount of time on the there side. Season with salt and pepper and keep it in a warm place for five minutes before serving.” Thank You Heston.
I love my meat Heston’s way. Either way, I inherited a new rule for frying everything at the Viva-Mayr: “replace olive oil with coconut oil. Coconut oil (the clear one on the left above) has a number of positive properties for cooking at high temperatures and since it is not inclined to oxidize, it can be stored for at least a year.” I was introduced to the news that “the liver burns coconut oil very quickly and this aids detoxification and weight loss. Olive oil can be a good alternative to coconut oil but one should consider whether it makes sense to use-high quality Virgin olive oil for frying, given that it is rendered useless in the heating process. Cheap olive oil (refined) (the yellow one on the right above) can be used for frying/cooking but Extra Virgin olive oil (the green one in the middle above) is ideal only for cold dishes such as spreads, salad dressings or for drizzling over warm dishes once cooked.” Oh and someone also mentioned a scientific trial where “coconut oil was pitched against other oils and it gave women smaller waists” proving it to be really helpful in weight-loss.
There was a lot to learn and I was tired and hungry. During a cooking demonstration with the chef I somehow got custody of a yellow rice dish (Risotto with multi-coloured vegetables). Ten minutes later, while the class moved onto the healthy (Asian) way of cooking (steaming) some fish, I was still clutching the rice in the bowl. Calculating that they must have forgotten about it, four of us picked at the thing in unison. We thought we’d gotten away with it, but wouldn’t you know, barely four minute later, “Hey”, where’s the risotto gone?” I decided the truth was the best policy and explained that we were curious as to what “inflammation-dampening antioxidants” tasted of. I learnt that “curcumin (the main active ingredient in ground turmeric) is an anti-inflammatory and 1 tablespoon, once a day (it can be added to rice, scrambled egg, soup or curry) has a multitude of health benefits.” They went on to explain that there is currently scientific evidence that points to turmerics benefits in fighting cancer cells in mice and regular ingestion of this spice, is partly to be credited for the reduced rate of Alzheimer’s in India.
Next we were told about “the health benefits of taking 1 tablespoon of ground sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds per day. Flax seeds (or linseeds as they are also know from which we get linseed oil) have more omega 3 fatty acids than any fish. Linseeds/flaxseeds improve the quality of hair, nails, and skin and help to regulate body weight. Sesame seeds provide a natural source of copper, magnesium and calcium.” They looked tough to chew. “They have to be ground in a coffee grinder to release the goodness.” We were also told that “sesame seed’s were one of the most natural foods to help reduce severe migraine.” I wondered what the remedy was for a throbbing, persistent ache brought on by the desire to possess a coffee grinder and some coffee beans in my room?
And because we were drinking so much liquid, we were fed wild asparagus every day as according to the experts it was soothing for our systems. Chef told us that “wild asparagus had been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. In the first century AD, the Greek physician, Dioscorides recommended using asparagus to treat kidney problems.” It was good to find that one of my favorite vegetables had centuries of belief behind it. I pointed out to Chef that Foxgloves if eaten can kill you stone dead.
You probably knew all this already. I didn’t. It was riveting. So riveting that the next day, during one of my daily runs in the woods where Bessie Rollins (she’s a pro) left me miles behind because she’s training for professional races.
I stopped to talk to a local mushroom picker and told him about the Foxgloves thing. He in turn told me that if I ate a certain mushroom I’d probably want ride the magic swans across the lake. Or at least that’s what I think he said. In German.
Next I had one of the most unusual experiences of my stay. Morning, 10.30, the sky cool and clear through the window. Inge at the controls, me on my back with two pipes inserted into my body for a colonic irrigation. The sound of water gurgling away as it filled my intestines… it felt weird, like when someone jumps out and suddenly screams BOO! You know that feeling? You think I’m joking? “It’s like an internal flush,” she said brightly. Ten minutes in and Inge reversed the process to draw out the impurities. I learned a lot from Inge. About why peanuts can cause blockages when not chewed properly and raw food after 4pm ferments and causes disease and the worth of a big smile in almost any situation. Yet the real lesson came at the end of my session, I expelled a doll’s hand which I had chewed off my Barbie and swallowed when I was seven. For me (please excuse my happiness) the discovery that part of a toy had remained with me since childhood reminded me also of something that my dad had taught me the day that Barbie’s hand went missing; never to sneer at people with broken toys or less then perfect things. As I said before, I like things a bit scuffed up and broken, maybe it’s because I chewed so many things up as a kid.
Chewing it turned out was one of the key factors to improved digestion and word reached me that Dr. Stossier chewed each mouthful of his food 30 to 40 times. Can you imagine? I could only manage 7 at a push. Chewing, Dr. Stossier claims, is the key to overall health and well-being and it helps improve sleep quality and a very unusual side effect is a shedding of excess weight. “When you chew more you eat less because your brain sends signals telling you that you’ve had enough. It also means you eat less because the nutrients from the food are absorbed more effectively, and your body craves less food” he explained. Other guests had their silent chewing down pat whereas honestly, I didn’t, I just chatted and chewed and chatted some more as guests chewed around me. Dr. Stossier explained that I was “a highly charged distraction to the chew”
Did I mention that the use of heat was also on the programme and that off the jetty was a Swedish sauna which overlooked the lake.
And the water temperature of the lake, honestly?
Cold as the grave, a mere degree or two above solid, the sort of water that did for Leanardo Di Caprio at the end of Titanic. If you plan on visiting the Viva-Mayr, it might be advisable to leave a note with a family member in case you never return, from the saunas. There are five different types of sauna from wet to dry but the infa-red one comes perilously close to entering the Guinness book of records as the hottest place on earth. Dr. Stossier insisted I “take hot saunas and cold dips in the lake throughout the twelve days.” It was this hot-cold-hot-cold changing of body temperature which would help detox my system and help me sleep more soundly. Being immersed and surrounded by water all day was a very large part of the cure.
Swimming in, soaking in it, and drinking in, water was relentless. “Some 60% of your body is composed of water and we need it for the dilution of toxins, their transportation, and regeneration. Still, bottled not carbonated was preferred to tap water plus “the most crucial thing is not to drink water while you’re eating solid food. Water dilutes your saliva just when you need it in concentrated form for digestion. It’s fine to drink water 15 minutes before you start your meal But then avoid drinking water again until at least an hour after you’ve eaten a meal.”
One of the masseuses Melanie (there’s a massage prescribed each day) said that he was a good man, Dr. Stossier, charismatic, down-to-earth and she was right.
He joked that he apparently enjoyed a glass of wine or beer when he went out for meals. He said when quizzed “one glass of either isn’t the worst health crime.” Er, I quized, if you’re not a wine or beer drinker with dinner what’s the alternative? “You could always try a few teaspoonfuls of herbal tea.” How about milk? “No, milk, fruit and vegetable juices are strictly for in between meals only as they are classified as nutrition and need metabolizing which is an extra load for the digestive system.” And no water? “Yes, only between meals.”
And how much water should I drink? “One to two litres a day, EVERY day.
This was the water station down stairs where we were encouraged to fill these bottles from a fresh spring which poured from a little fountain. Or there was detox tea which looked like cocktails but smelled of cough syrup but tasted of lemongrass…
If you’d like to mix up this detox lemongrass tea at home take (a half written as 1/2) 1/2 tbsp of yarrow, 1/2 tbsp vermouth (the herb, NOT the drink made from it), 1/2 tbsp horsetail, 1/2 tbsp birch leaves and 2 stalks of lemongrass and blend together the ingredients, and pour over 1 litre of boiling water. Steep for 2 to 4 minutes, and strain into a jug. Add 2 stalks of crushed lemongrass, and sip warm or cool.
Seeing as this post is full of questions, I’ll end with another… “Where are the magic swans?”, you ask. They are of course on the lake. Lake Worthersee where I swam about every day and watched them with their little ones. The fashion world loves a bit of nature and it was strange the effect the swans had on many of the actresses and personalities there. I tried not to scare them in any way and would just swim by and offer just a friendly little nod from a slightly confused sleeper. I was feeling rather optimistic with just three days to go.
I know at this point we can’t avoid the key question. “Was any of this working on your insomnia?” Honestly, I think it was. Not to take anything away from the professionals which like I said, were, knowledgeable, kind and cheerful but around day nine I began to enjoy BBC World News again. When not watching news, I found the place alive with a diversity of different people. I ate and laughed and stayed up past curfew with a gang of guests from Russia, Britain, Georgia and France. And hell, how could I not love the sparrows which I had adopted and did I mention that there were swans? So you can judge away at this point, but I’ll stand by my decision, this is a clever and healthy way to tackle insomnia. Stoccier is a realist, not a purist, and his overall goal is to use food to rebuild and cure (there’s no calorie counting) yet in twelve days I shed 16 LBS (7.2kg). Yeah, I reflected and as the darkness gathered on night nine, hating myself but still needing the company of BBC World News I slept three hours. On night ten I drifted off and slept for four and the last night I managed a full six hours straight. Not bad at all. Hopefully now I’ll manage to keep this up! The night holds so much attraction for me. xx
Viva Mayr tel: 0043 4273 311170, www.viva-mayr.com
Fly to Klagenfurt from £461 return, with www.austrian.com or with Ryanair