The day of our arrival marked a significant change. We were leaving the very familiar Berlin behind and venturing into a new area both geographically and personally. For the next 6 months we’ll be HelpXing – living as helpers with lots of different German hosts. Naturally this takes you out of your comfort zone – meeting new people, doing new things, not knowing the language and so on. So of course we had mixed feelings – anticipation and trepidation – excitement and nervousness.
It was change all around really including a seasonal one. The need to wear jackets had gone and now it was warm enough for t-shirts. So we arrived at our first HelpX host – Proitzer Muhle – a converted watermill near Schnega in Lower-Saxony which is used as a venue for hosting dance group holidays and training sessions.
Heike who owns the Proitzer Muhle, Jutta who deals with the day to day running of things and Sally who has been a helper here for a year have given us a very warm welcome and helped us to settle into the surroundings quickly and easily. We all eat meals together so we’ve been able to build really good relationships and find out more about Proitzer Muhle and an insight into German culture – from discussions about the German constitution to the meaning of die Streichholzschachtelchen. The wider staff team work on a casual basis but there is nothing casual in their endeavours. They turn out amazing food in huge quantities which is served in a buffet style so it’s very easy to find reasons to go up for seconds if not thirds.
On the work front we’ve mostly been doing gardening as spring has arrived for real and Heike is keen to weed out the flower beds to bring some colour after the long winter. But by the end of the first week we had been treated to a cycle tour (20km) of the local area a walking tour of the nearby village Salzwedel and a trip to the local flea market so it definitely was not all work.
The cycle tour was really interesting for us as we crossed the historic border of East and West Germany. Heike was able to show us exactly where the border was and took us up an abandoned watch tower which is one of the few reminders that the border or ‘wall’ was not just in Berlin. There was a no-man’s land here too, with villages located on the border evacuated to make a 5km clearing to be guarded or defended. Heike talked poignantly about how the border led to families being split apart and people experiencing oppression. Since the border came down this has been an area that has attracted like minded and creative people who might be regarded by some as being “alternative”. Initially people would likely have been attracted by the relatively cheaper prices for property. As a result like minded people have settled resulting in various arts and cultural events, festivals and activities developing. People live very sustainably and various campaigns have started from here usually associated with the environment, the most famous being the protest against a nuclear dumping site. So although the border has gone the state authorities still snoop on and intervene on the ‘new radicals’ and sometimes with their heavy hand. Different regime but same tactics.
Over and above our outings we took part in some Scottish country dancing in the first week. Heike runs a weekly class with a group of local women and amazingly some of them have been attending for nearly 20 years. So here we were having left Scotland behind only to find it again at Proitzer Muhle. We had never done any of the dances before (e.g. White Cockade, Trip to Gatilburg) so we felt pretty un-patriotic, especially as the ladies were so good with their dancing. Thankfully the group were very friendly, welcoming and patient with us and were so pleased when we got the dances so it wasn’t all bad however we still felt a bit like fraudsters. The group sat together and had a little chat (commonly known in Germany as “small talk”). Although we didn’t understand much it was a good experience to be amongst a group of people who come together to socialise and share an activity. Another great and unique HelpX experience.
There was a group of Kindergarten (nursery) teachers arriving at Proitzer Muhle the same time as us as they were about to begin one of their regular training sessions here – Sunday to Thursday. The course seemed very intense and therapeutic which involved the teachers reflecting on their past and themselves personally to see how this could influence their work with children. Seems Germany takes this kind of work a bit more serious than back home.
The teachers left and their rooms were quickly filled by tango dancers who were here for their tango dancing course/holiday. It amazed us how versatile Proitzer Muhle is to provide the setting and atmosphere for very different activities that bring fuflilment and joy to the people who take part in them. We look forward to seeing this more as future guests arrive and take part in their ‘thing’.
Our cultural observation this week was the politeness from people – both staff and guests. Like everytime you pass someone you are greeted with “morgen” (good morning), “abend” (good evening) or “guten appétit” (enjoy your meal). This is done by everyone and it’s done genuinely – with a smile and engaging in eye contact. Sometimes people extend this into a very brief conversation or comment. With us this tended to be people saying things about our work like “schon” (nice) or something along those lines. Again this was done genuinely.
Now don’t get us wrong this can become a bit tedious when you have 30 odd guests passing through a room at some point and you are greeted by every one of them. But at the same time it’s nice to engage in this exchange and it’s not something we’re used to at home. It gives us a tentative chance for us to engage in language at a very basic level and so gives us a wee bit of confidence.
Although this might seem bit formal it does show the politeness in the German language and culture. This is something we’ve always found a bit ironic as the stereotype associated with German people (at home) classes them as being “arrogant”. There are other times when the German language and culture can be very direct – like when people ask a question and you don’t give them an answer or you try to avoid it or if you try to get on a bus thinking there is a queue but in fact it’s a case of everybody for themselves. To us that is not arrogance but just differences in how people see politeness. At home we would see politeness as routinely queuing for things here people see it as having conversations that are genuine and honest.
Despite having 3 trips in our first week Heike still encourages us to take breaks and work less so like our last HelpX experience we might be working too hard. Of course we’re still in a bit of a transition from leaving our jobs to being a volunteer. But also we want to give a big effort to help make Proitzer Muhle look colourful. After all it has brought a lot of colour into our lives in such a short time so we want to do what we can to return the compliment.
Seminarhof Proitzer Muhle main building
A closer look to take in the original old mill
One of our first pieces of work in the garden…
Nice afternoon so we went for a cycle tour of the local area with Heike, Jutta and Sally
The watchtower we visited on the cycle tour…a reminder of the not so distant history
Watering the newly planted pansies on our return
A lovely street in Salzwedel – typical houses of the region
Johann-Friedrich-Museum Danneil Museum – another impressive Salzwedel building
Back to some work…this is the before photo of a bed needing weeded
Time for a break and some kaffee und kuchen!
Then we go on a walk…this is our favourite walk around the local area…that’s Heike in the distance on one of her horses!
A spot where you can buy some tatties in Molden a wee village nearby that we pass on our walk
A war memorial in Proitzer village nearby with a St Andrew’s cross in the sky behind
Heike’s tree house
We finish our first week with a run – this is the view from our room window as Liane finishes her run
“Vielen Dank fur ihre Geduld” translates as “many thanks for your patience”. This was a phrase we used when we were doing Scottish Country Dancing and we’ve chosen it as our German ‘phrase of the week’ as we were pretty poor cultural ambassadors. But we would like to extend this sentiment as we’ve taken a while to start our blog, so we thank you for your patience too!