Baking away solitude: Vienna cafe hopes to unite world’s grandmas

At Vienna's Vollpension cafe, retirees bolster their often meagre state pensions and bake away the loneliness many senior citizens can feel.

A social enterprise at Vollpension cafe, in Vienna, Austria.

Framed by wooden cabinets, Karin Hofbauer holds a stick of butter to her laptop camera and imparts to the novice bakers gathered virtually in her kitchen the secrets of kneading shortcrust dough.

“It’s a simple recipe, I’ve made it so many times for friends and family, and it’s always a success,” the 62-year-old Austrian says before filling the baked apple tart with nuts and vanilla custard.

The five Germans and Austrians taking notes have come to the online class because the recipes are simple and straightforward – and because they’re taught by real-life grandmothers like Hofbauer, who will soon be joined by fellow grannies and grandpas from across the world in a scheme run by a Vienna cafe.

Two years ago, Hofbauer retired from an administrative position at a hospital. Healthy, active and eager to “do something meaningful”, she joined about 50 other “grannies” at Vienna’s Vollpension cafe, a social enterprise where retirees bolster their often meagre state pensions and bake away the loneliness many senior citizens can feel.

The idea was born almost 10 years ago, over a too-dry slice of cake at a Vienna cafe. “Nobody makes better cakes than grandma,” Vollpension’s co-founder Moriz Piffl-Percevic tells AFP, recalling how wistful the dry sponge made him for the comforting indulgence of his grandma’s cakes.

Following a “Granny Wanted” classified in a local paper and some trials as pop-up cafes at festivals, the intergenerational team opened the first “Vollpension” – a German term referring to both full retirement and
accommodation with full board.

At the social enterprise’s two cafes, coffee is served in old mugs with flower prints and cross-stitches of border collies grace the walls.

The clientele, many of them hipsters, are often joined by the elderly part-time hosts – unless, of course, a pandemic forces them to shut.

A social enterprise at Vollpension cafe, in Vienna, Austria. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

‘Keep our grannies going’

When Austria’s first virus lockdown hit, patrons donated €140,000 euros to maintain the extra income that many of the staff depend on – especially single women who, after years as homemakers, receive relatively
small state pensions.

That, however, is just one benefit of the social enterprise. “Older people want to feel needed, that is something incredibly essential to ageing, and that’s something that Vollpension provides,” says Franz
Kolland, a professor at the University of Vienna who focuses on social aspects of old age.

As people grow older, “they face two decades of retirement during which they are mobile. They want to do something – they just have to be approached,” Kolland says, lauding Vollpension as a “role model”.

Piffl-Percevic says he is touched when friends and family report how much their grandma’s wellbeing improved after joining Vollpension. “Suddenly they don’t feel their hip aching anymore, or they’ve stopped
drinking a little too much,” he says.

To “keep our grannies going” during the pandemic, Piffl-Percevic and his colleagues began looking for alternatives beyond takeaway cake. Taking the grandmas’ and grandpas’ baking skills online was the next logical step.

An army of volunteers helped create a baking studio similar to those of TV chefs, and filmed on-demand baking classes ranging from Christmas cookies to vegan cakes, while Hofbauer and others are hosting live baking classes in their own kitchens.

After overcoming the familiar pitfalls of Zoom meetings, Hofbauer is passing on her knowledge from decades of baking – including on the best apple peeler: “It doesn’t have to be something expensive – I think mine cost three euros,” she says, laughing.

A grandma conducting an online baking course at Vienna’s Vollpension cafe. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Going global

When the most recent Vollpension cafe opened – just before the pandemic – more than 300 eager seniors applied within 24 hours.

The baking courses’ success with hundreds of participants is now prompting Vollpension to go global. In several languages, Vollpension is this week calling on grandmas and grandpas from all over the world to join them.

“Vollpension was founded to give people like us a place where they find meaning, and can lead a life worth living even in old age,” one granny says in Italian in a video promoting the call for applications.

People from all over the world can learn to bake with “original family recipes from the region, and straight from grandma’s kitchen,” another one says in Spanish.

“It’s about local and national recipes – mango with sticky rice being taught by a Thai grandma, and panna cotta by a Sicilian,” Piffl-Percevic says.

Hofbauer, who says she has had participants tune in from Boston and Crete, is already looking forward to see the baking classes go global.

“I found new friends, new acquaintances, and if we’re going international, it’s going to be even more fun,” she says, the scent of warm apple tart now filling her 80s-style kitchen. “The more the merrier.”

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Unmarried couples: How can I visit my partner in Switzerland?

Since the start of the pandemic, unmarried couples have found it difficult to reunite in Switzerland. Here are the documents you need to visit your partner.

Unmarried couples: How can I visit my partner in Switzerland?
A couple enjoys a shared fondue in Switzerland. Photo: STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP

Before the pandemic, visiting your partner in Switzerland involved little more than the money for a flight and perhaps a tourist visa. 

Since March, 2020 however, Switzerland has tightened the rules for entry – which has meant many couples found it challenging or even impossible to see each other. 

While the rules were originally so strict that only married couples could reunite in Switzerland, this was relaxed in August of 2020. 

READ MORE: Unmarried partners again allowed into Switzerland

In order to do so however, unmarried couples will need to ‘prove’ their relationship to satisfy Swiss authorities. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

How can I visit my boyfriend or girlfriend in Switzerland?

First things first, your citizenship and where you are arriving from will be crucially important. 

If you are a Swiss citizen or resident, then there will be no issues. You can come to Switzerland at any time.

If they live in a EU / Schengen state or in the small European states like Andorra, the Vatican, Monaco and San Marino, they can come for a visit as well. 

More information is available at the following link. 

UPDATED: Who can travel to Switzerland right now?

How can people from outside Europe visit their partners in Switzerland? 

For non-Schengen countries, you’ll need to do the following. 

Generally speaking, these people are not allowed to enter Switzerland at the moment, except for a handful of nations deemed low-risk, including Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand.

However, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) does have exceptions for families and partners of Swiss residents.

This what the SEM website says:

“Entry by the immediate family members of a Swiss citizen who are registered with a Swiss foreign representation and are entering Switzerland with that Swiss citizen for a stay here does not require authorisation. Immediate family means the Swiss citizen’s spouse or registered partner and minor children (including step-children). In certain circumstances it also includes unmarried partners”.

SEM then goes on to specify entry rules for unmarried partners:

Entry to visit a partner to whom one is not married or in a registered partnership with and with whom one does not have children is possible if:

  • The person wishing to enter the country has an invitation from the partner living in Switzerland and the partner is a Swiss citizen or has a short-stay permit, temporary or permanent residence permit.
  • Confirmation of the existing partnership is submitted. This can be a document confirming the relationship which has been signed by both partners. 
  • Proof can be given that at least one face-to-face visit or meeting took place in Switzerland or abroad.
  • Entry is not permitted on the basis of a mere holiday acquaintance.
  • Proof must be given that a relationship has already lasted for some time and is regularly cultivated. The persons concerned must provide credible evidence that they have been in regular contact.

How do I prove someone is my partner to visit Switzerland? 

There are no hard and fast rules as to which documents will be sufficient, but the government wants to be convinced that this is a “long-term relationship which is cultivated on a regular basis”, with no definition of “cultivation”. 

The SEM provides some examples, including “documents that document a long-term civil partnership (for example, letters and e-mails, social media, telephone bills, flight tickets, photos); Evidence such as a copy of your passport with entry and exit stamps that at least one mutual personal visit or meeting has taken place in Switzerland or abroad.”

One couple speaking with Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes said they used instagram photos as evidence of their relationship at the suggestion of the SEM. 

A couple sits above the clouds in Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Are there any exceptions? 

There are other exemptions as well, which SEM defines as “cases of special necessity”.

They include people coming to Switzerland because a close relative is dying; to visit close relatives who have medical emergency; to continue essential medical treatment; or for important family events like funerals, weddings or births.

The full list of exceptions and other entry-related information for visitors from third countries can be found here. 

If your family or partner are eligible based on the above exceptions,  they may need a visa to enter Switzerland, depending on their country of residence. They have to apply for one at the Swiss foreign representation in their country, explaining and documenting why they are a case of special necessity.

In certain cases, the foreign representation may be able to provide documents confirming the situation.

For those who don’t need a visa, the border control officers in Switzerland or at a Schengen airport decide whether the requirements of necessity have been met, SEM said.

Keep in mind that all the above rules apply only to family visits, not general tourism. Rules for third-country tourists are here.

READ MORE: UPDATE: When will Switzerland relax restrictions on international travel?