A fascinating workaway placement does not necessarily need an exotic setting somewhere near the South Pacific. I, for example, had a wonderful time at a restored historic watermill in Germany – located almost in the middle of nowhere.
The Seminarhof Proitzer Mühle is set in the beautiful, remote Wendland. Groups of people book in to attend workshops and seminars, the catering is done by a team of fantastic cooks and the housework by energetic cleaners. The management of it all – and the hosting of workawayers – is in the capable hands of Heike, who is ably assisted by Jutta and Sally. The three women divide their time between administrative tasks, animal care, Scottish dancing, cycling and carpentry, as well as looking after the guests. Their love for the English language leads to many interesting discussions of its finer points. Whenever the four of us were together, talk turned to matters of language sooner than later, and we mainly conversed in English.
Living at the mill is a mild-mannered wild pig named Nessie, and also Prince Rupert, a grumpy pot-bellied pig. They share the stables with three beautiful if somewhat aged ponies, and with Major Tom, almost bursting with a cat’s self-confidence. Heike looks lovingly after her animals and it is easy to see how much they mean to her. Ducks and chickens live here too. Red deer, red squirrels, grey cranes and storks drop by on the occasional visit.
At any time of the year, there may also be travelling volunteer workers at the Proitzer Mühle. These stay for variable lengths of time and help out with all kinds of tasks in kitchen and house, in stables and garden. Sometimes these workawayers make a real difference and leave their unique mark as an enduring memory, such as this beautifully crafted bunk bed:
The mill’s buildings can accommodate up to seventy guests in thirty rooms (but most beds are of the more traditional variety). Many of the visiting groups have been here before and come regularly every year to enjoy the peaceful setting, the fine facilities and the excellent cooking. Every day, I look forward to the breakfast buffet because it is such a splendid affair: crusty, oven-warm rolls, high-quality cooked meats and cheeses in abundance, honey and homemade jams and jellies, a large bowl of yoghurt, jugs of cream and coconut cream, steaming porridge, muesli, bowls of nuts, almonds, grated coconut and pumpkin seeds. A large urn dispenses hot, delicious lemongrass-and-ginger tea all day long. This tea is a speciality of the house and very popular with the guests, who like to buy it in bags to take away with them. Most likely they will remember the lovely time they had here at the mill over each steaming mug at home …
The coming and going of new groups of people naturally adds interest to each passing week. A Tango Argentino workshop is followed by an amateur choir that replaces those seductive accordion tunes with uplifting sacral music. Sweat-lodge-builders, osteopaths and Tai Chi enthusiasts arrive in turn to pursue the study of their subject with focus, discipline and enjoyment. Tea breaks and meals increasingly take place out of doors as the spring sunshine gathers strength. The atmosphere buzzes with a zest for learning and self-improvement, and much laughter punctuates friendly conversations everywhere. Musical instruments for public use are scattered around the common rooms and make up for the fact that the mill remains a TV-free zone.
One evening there is a splendid buffet, a feast to celebrate the end of the Tango Lab. The cooks have surpassed themselves, and nothing is more surprising and delicious than the ice cream spiked with crushed pumpkin seeds and topped with a ruby-red cinnamon and cardamom sauce. Later on, I sit in and watch the tango ball in the beautiful, mirrored hall with the sprung wooden floor. One couple in particular catches my eye. A young man and woman are locked in a hold that is at the same time commanding yet utterly tender as they dance with closed eyes and great skill. Their steps are much smaller than those of other couples, and they seem absorbed in an inner space that binds them together and makes them move as one. I wonder immediately if they might be Argentineans far from home, so connected do they appear to this dance, and so pleasing to the eye is the picture they present … It turns out that they are the instructors. Another Argentinean master arrived recently, and once he begins to dance, I am unable to watch anyone else. The fluidity of his movements and the carefully guided intensity in the way he leads his partner are unmatched. He embodies the tango, which is so much more than a series of steps. The German lady he is dancing with is quite accomplished, but her face betrays the strain of trying not to be a disappointment to him, as well as the bliss of finding herself in the arms of such an expert.
Another night, there is a concert of folk music and songs by a talented trio of Scandinavian musicians. A lot of local people arrive for this event, and the dining room is crammed to the limit with an appreciative audience.
I also enjoy the performance put on for all the workers at the mill by the very dedicated Tai Chi group on their last night.
So much for the evenings! In the daytime, my contribution as a workaway volunteer is to wake the garden from its winter’s sleep. The beds and borders around the terrace need tidying and planting with spring flowers. Drifts of autumn leaves have to be raked off the grass, cobbled areas need to be swept and rose bushes are waiting to be pruned. I also remove bunches of dead stalks from flowering perennials and am thrilled by glimpses of new buds waiting in the soil. The air is full of the promise of spring, and the sun has a tender force that draws the cold earth slowly into the new season. But a large bush no longer displays any signs of life. One by one, I saw its branches off near the base and drag them over to the woods. Major Tom the cat joins me and tries to catch the twigs, or even the saw, in his lightning-quick paws.
Almost everyone who passes offers a friendly greeting, and some even stop to exchange a few words. And although I have barely begun, I already get comments on how nice it all looks. Oh, what a lovely change from working as a teacher, where one is criticized so readily! How agreeable is this kind of life, where there is no position or reputation to safeguard, no possessions to acquire and no ambitions to pursue! A warm and pleasant room, good food, friendly people and a variety of outdoor work in a lovely location seem an excellent bargain in exchange for the aggravations of a settled life.
I love working outside in the March sunshine, and my favourite job is the lopping of tangled branches crowning the linden tree by the main house. It is overgrown with shoots that need removing, for the old and partly hollow main branches can no longer support the growing weight. So I spend a few days perched on a tall ladder, wielding my trusty loppers and feeling increasingly at home up there.
There is also plenty of time to explore the area with my kind hosts. (I have already described our outings to Salzwedel, the Elbe River, Schnackenburg, the former inner-German border and the Grenzlandmuseum in previous blog posts.) This gorgeous part of the Northern European Plain is particularly well suited to bicycle tours, therefore the mill has a stable full of bikes for guests to borrow. But Heike and her friends prefer their personal recumbent bikes and invite me to try one. Verdict: Wonderfully easy on the backside!
On my last day, Heike collects me, a plateful of poppy seed cake and two thermos flasks of tea and takes me to her private sanctuary, the treehouse, for a tea party with Sally and Jutta. One by one we ascend in an electric lift that winches us up to the platform in the oak tree, towering above the mill. The view is great, for the branches are still bare at this time of the year. In the summer, it must be like a sea of green.
Inside the large and professionally built tree house there is a table with benches, fixed to the wall, and chairs covered in furs and blankets. Two large windows let in the light, and the eye roams freely across the land. Huge branches like minor trunks pass through the interior space, up from the floor and out through walls or roof, and around the corner there is a proper bedstead under a skylight perfect for stargazing. What a view – and what a feeling!
The sun is setting in a haze behind the dark fir forest on the horizon, and on my last evening walk along the fields nearby I spot four deer. They are watching me, seemingly unafraid. The evening air is warm and smells of spring. I feel at peace, easily able to live in the moment … It is hard to leave, for I loved being here and should very much like to return one day!