Many of my friends thought that I had chosen to spend my vacation in a retreat center because I wanted to spend some time reflecting on my life, or because I was interested in learning to meditate, or perhaps just because I was looking for some peace and quiet. These are of course natural assumptions, although none of them is correct. Yes, I am always looking for some peace and quiet, but I don’t have to go to a retreat center just for that.
My decision to spend 3 weeks at the Moulin started just as an innocent attempt to explore a new way of traveling. After 5 years of traveling, I felt that I’ve reached a point where I’ve seen most of what I could possibly see considering the limiting circumstances I have. Lately, it has become more difficult to really be impressed with something, be it landscapes, churches, castles, medieval villages, or just plain old roman architectures. If I really want to see something new, something that will really take my breath away, the choices are either I get myself a driver’s license so I can visit places where having my own transport is a necessity, or I pluck up enough courage to travel to places where solo traveling for female may not be highly recommended. Living in Singapore, option number one is way too expensive and useless since we don’t have/need our own car here. Option number two is also out cos no matter how adventurous I am, I don’t think I could pluck up enough courage to backpack alone to South America or Africa. At least not yet. I am badly in need of a like-minded traveling companion and in Asia, that is a rare commodity. Almost everyone I know prefers the more traditional family life, either raising children or pursuing a career or both.
I came across Workaway and HelpX while searching for a middle ground between option number one and two. The idea of volunteering your work in exchange for food and accommodation sounded really interesting, especially because it would give me an opportunity to be part of a local community, interacting with the local people and fellow volunteers, learning their culture and language along the way. That’s exactly what I’m always looking for every time I travel.
Hence I ended up at the Moulin by pure chance because they received a long list of glowing reviews from fellow volunteers who had previously stayed there, and it just seemed ‘safer’ to choose such a place for my maiden workaway experience. But what happened next was totally unexpected. I’ve never been someone who is easily touched by something, be it a sad story or an act of kindness, and the older I get the more emotionless I’ve become (I didn’t even cry watching Les Misérables!). So I was completely taken aback when I found out how attached I’ve become and how much I’ve come to love the people who formed the team at the Moulin, just from spending 3 weeks with them. The genuine and sincere kindness that they showed everyone who came, be it as a volunteer or a guest attending a retreat, the way they accepted you as part of the community and treated you the same regardless of who or what you are, these were something that I wasn’t accustomed to and probably didn’t exist where I came from. I spent the better part of my adult life in a corporate world where people bitched about one another, where I had to constantly watch out for backstabbers, and where recognition for a job well done was few and far between. On the other hand, halfway across the world some people just couldn’t stop saying ‘thank you’ for every single task you completed for them, no matter how simple and effortless the task was. And it wasn’t just a mumbling, barely audible ‘thanks’ that people often say automatically without meaning it, but it was one where they looked you in the eyes while saying it so you’d know that they sincerely appreciated what you’ve done.
To say that I had a great time there is such an understatement. The property of the Moulin consists largely of a 4-storey main house, a meditation hall, a yurt, a koi pond, a green house, and a few individual cottages scattered among lush greeneries by the bank of Auvézère river in the South West of France. The entire ground is so huge that you could easily hide among the nature if you’re feeling a little anti-social and do not wish to be found. Three weeks was barely enough to explore and get acquainted with all the nooks and crannies of the place, and let’s not even talk about the neighbouring villages. Just the beauty of the surrounding area alone was enough to guarantee you a great time there. But of course there was more to it than meets the eye.
I was assigned to kitchen duty from day one, where I learned so much about preparing food and cooking for a large group (we cooked for nearly 70 people during one of the retreats); about all kinds of vegetables, bulbs, roots, and grains which I’ve never heard of and most likely didn’t exist in Asia; about what to cook for people with all sorts of funny diets like vegan and gluten-free; and how to whip up a nice supper from a refrigerator full of left-overs. Do you know that peanut butter (yes, I’m talking about Skippy peanut butter) can be turned into a delicious hearty vegetable stew? I learned to appreciate the meaning of ‘you are what you eat’ and acknowledged firsthand how much differently you would feel if you feed your body with the right kind of food. I’ve never eaten that well in my whole life before and it didn’t even include a single meat. I learned how fascinating it was to witness the Westerners struggle with something as simple as a rice cooker. They just couldn’t comprehend how a machine could be left on its own to cook a perfect rice. And despite my best effort to advise them not to, they kept stirring the rice while in the cooking process, which of course ended up ruining it! I also came to understand that all cooks must be control freaks. I meant it in a positive way cos after having experienced cooking with 5 different cooks there, I finally realized that being a control freak is necessary in order to produce the perfect result.
But what I learned most was about work ethics and how differently the Westerners view it from the Asians. When they said 5.5 hours of work a day, they really meant it literally, not a minute more or a minute less. Day offs were also treated respectfully, meaning you were not allowed to do any work at all on your day-off. If for some unforeseen circumstances your help was needed on your day-off, your work hours the next day would be deducted accordingly. In fact, if someone mistakenly asked any of them to complete a task on their day-off, he/she wouldn’t hesitate to point out that it was his/her day-off and therefore he/she not supposed to perform any work. On the other hand, being the Asian that I am, I found it normal to stay back beyond the required 5.5 hours if there was still work to be done, or to show up for work earlier than the stipulated time if I knew there was going to be a lot to complete. It amused me when I found that some people were bothered by the fact that they kept seeing me working in the kitchen after my official work time was over, or that I started work earlier than the stipulated time. During one of my day offs, the kitchen became short-staffed due to the arrival of a big retreat group and Gail, who managed the team, asked for a volunteer to lend an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. I put up my hand cos I didn’t see anyone else doing it. It was honestly not a big deal for me, day-off or not, but the appreciation and the recognition that they showered me afterwards made me feel as if I’ve saved them from a certain doom. Perhaps it might be too quick to generalize that all Asians tend behave that way since I was the only Asian there at that time, and hence I didn’t have enough samples to draw a conclusion from. However, the experience has made me realize how much I’ve come to undervalue work-life balance thanks to the working culture in Asia.
Of all the fabulous experience I enjoyed there, ultimately it all boiled down to the people; i.e. the members of the community, the individuals that formed the team, the heart and soul of the Moulin without whom the place wouldn’t be what it is today. I couldn’t really find words worthy enough to explain how beautiful the energy that their relationship and interaction have generated, and how much it has impacted me (and surely my fellow workaways as well). The picture below was taken during my last supper there. Moving clockwise from the bottom left, we have: Ian the handyman and co-owner of the Moulin; Oded the cook; Australian Sebastian and German Sebastian who were both workaways; Wim the gardener and cook (who also happened to be my favorite person there); and Louise who’s also a workaway.
I had planned to take more pictures with the rest of them on my last day, but as I said my goodbyes one by one the tears just wouldn’t stop streaming down my face. It was so surreal cos I couldn’t remember the last time I ever felt this emotional (gosh, maybe it was high school graduation 14 years ago!). The plan to take pictures went down the drain. Hence, missing from the above-mentioned picture are: Christine the household manager; Eliza and Nina from whom I’ve learned a lot about French cooking; Jenny the jack of all trades; Heather, Auriel, and Reed my fellow workaways who left earlier than me; Gerlof the mad chef who reminded me of Gordon Ramsey (I knew from the moment he arrived that he’s a real bona fide chef cos he carried his own set of kitchen knives); Lluis the dishwasher, the baker, fluent speaker of 5 languages, and the gentlest soul I’ve ever met; and Martin, Gail, and Caroline the rest of the co-owners whose pictures can be found in their website.
On the day I flew to Paris, I met a friendly American on the MRT on my way to Changi Airport. He chatted me up cos he saw me reading a guide-book about France, so we made small talks. I told him I was going on a vacation without elaborating much and he told me he was on his way to his meditation class. He started taking this class a while ago and really fell in love with the teaching and the group. My jaw dropped. In all my 14 years of riding MRT, no one has ever made a small talk with me. All of a sudden, on the day I was due to leave for France to volunteer at a retreat center, I met an ang moh who told me about his meditation experience. No matter how unsuperstitious I am, I couldn’t help raise an eyebrow at the coincidence. I did give meditation a try while staying at the Moulin as I had always intended to. While I truly appreciate the peaceful communal silence shared during the session, I have to say I still don’t get the whole point of doing it and what we’re supposed to achieve from it. But I blamed it on the lack of knowledge and practice. Nevertheless, meditation or not, I already got much more than I bargained for by coming to this wonderful place. One thing for sure, workaway is likely to be my new way of traveling now. And as for the Moulin, not trying to be cliché here, but during my 3-weeks’ stay there I’ve become the most grateful, appreciative, impartial, sincere, open-minded, and sociable person that I’ve ever been in a long time. Despite not coming here in search for peace and quiet in the first place, I might have actually found myself a personal little retreat spot. One which I would very much love to return to again next year.