"Are you nervous?" The morning sun pours over the country road and my mother is beaming in the back seat of our friend's car.
"No, not really." I answer, wondering if that's really true. We are driving to the train station where I'll start my five hour journey up North. Two months ago I wrote to a couple converting an old water mill into a yoga retreat with the help of volunteers. They responded promptly and I took it as a sign to go for it.
I feel content on the train ride up North. As I watch the scenery change I feel more like myself. It's only when I arrive in the small town after travelling all day that my sense of calm drops. I walk around with my backpack and duffel bag while I wait for the bus and realize how vulnerable I feel. Rain clouds start to form and raindrops fall down my bare legs.
When it's time to catch the bus it's not there. The ticket vendor comes out and tells me the bus doesn't come for another two hours on Saturdays, even though the owner of the mill had told me in an email that I had a seat reserved. I call The Moulin and a man with a German accent answers the phone. He doesn't know where the owners are, where The Moulin is located, or what to tell me. I hear lots of people having a good time in the background and tell him I'll figure it out.
After picking up some groceries and having a picnic in the park I board a small bus. I still have no reservation, but the driver agrees to let me on and says he'll try to find the mill. After an hour of twisting and turning down country roads we are greeted by three beautiful fresh faced young girls at the side of the road. We slow down and one chants "Welcome! We're going for a walk, see you soon."
The driver drops me at the top of a long driveway and I collect my bags and thank him. I walk down the gravel path and wonder where to go. There are three separate buildings. I see light from a kitchen and decide this is the main home.
I enter nervously and introduce myself to a group of people standing in the kitchen. A tall blonde German with dreadlocks gives me a big hug. No one seems to be expecting me, but no one is surprised to see me either. I dip into the living room and find a blissed out group all sitting closely together on the couch. To my surprise no one is French, but there is an Austrian, an Israeli, an Estonian, and a mix of German, British and American.
I sit down in the kitchen to drink some tea and one of the British girls sits down in front of me to pick at a big salad with her hands. She tells me she's a hippie, that she loves nature and is "quite the botanist". She seems so young but I envy how in tune with herself and nature she seems.
When the owners arrive home I find out they are a young Deutsch couple. Wim is bald and Patricia is tall with long dreadlocks. They both hug me warmly and tell me they weren't expecting me. They must have forgotten to write down my dates.
I'm shown the caravan where I'll be sleeping and go to bed early while a group dances to trance on a picnic table outside. I realize that for the first time in a long time I am going to have to sit with my emotions. I have no way to numb myself. I feel old and tired, more worn down than I expected. I'm terrified of the idea of staying here. I write in my journal "You can do this. Two weeks. I dare you."
I wake up right before morning meditation feeling heavy. I can hear the roosters crowing. I check my reflection in my small hand mirror and find my worry lines more apparent in the soft morning light. I don't have a lick of foundation to hide under. I throw on some jeans and a t-shirt and walk up to the house where everyone is finishing their breakfasts and laughing. I do my best to smile and go to the kitchen to search for coffee.
I skip breakfast out of lack of time and appetite and join the group in the living room where everyone piles onto sofas, hugging and sitting closely to each other. "Who is doing introduction?" Chants Wim happily. A young American girl does a funny dance and then everyone introduces themselves in a name game. Somehow my name reminds a girl of a chocolate brand and I earn the nickname "Hot chocolate", or "HC". It makes me laugh. We are assigned our jobs for the day and I'm told I'll be plastering the new kitchen.
Before we get to work I'm shown the stock of leftover clothes and work shoes used by volunteers. I grab an old pair of jeans, a men's dress shirt and heavy working boots for the day as I'm warned the plaster will never come off. We work hard all day, stop for tea and a hot lunch, and every so often a meditation bell is rung and everyone stops for a moment of silence.
I quickly ease into this routine and enjoy the aches of physical labour. We work hard but we relax a lot. In the evening we dine simply on feasts of bread, rice cakes, sweet spreads, cheese and hummus. The work makes us all hungry and we slather thick layers of peanut butter and Nutella on everything we can find.
Some nights we all lie around and some play board games, or music, and the quieter types work on their computers. Other nights a group goes down to sweat naked in a homemade sauna by the river. There is yoga every two or three nights. Like the sauna, it is not for the shy or reserved. To my surprise the yoga is kundalini and tantra yoga. While it's not the hot sexy stuff that comes to mind when you think of the word "tantra", it is still an intimate experience. In my first class we all put on blindfolds and feel each others faces and bodies. Wim says in his thick Deutsch accent "You are the buddha. They are the buddah." And tells us to live like heaven is on earth.
One night an Estonian unicycler who is always singing "Always look on the bright side of life," asks me if I can help him with something. I hesitate, but he is kind with trustworthy eyes so I agree. I follow him up to the main road.
"I need you to climb on my shoulders." He says. "I want to practice riding my unicycle with someone balanced there." I tell him there's no way in hell. I don't even like getting on peoples shoulders in the first place and he's the same size as me.
But then something in me trusts him. I get on his shoulders. At first I cling to his head tightly and it makes it difficult. He tells me to relax like I'm sitting in a chair. The sun is setting and we're crossing a small bridge. I imagine I'm sitting in a chair. I relax. He pulls it off and even when he slips we both manage to land safely. I realized I have laughed in fear's face and feel exhilarated.
To thank me he offers me to teach me to ride a bike. I tell him I have faced enough fears for one evening but agree to start tomorrow. I figure if anyone can teach me to ride a bike, it's the guy who rides a unicycle with someone on his shoulders.
The next night we pull out a bike from the garage and I'm practically trembling. I get on the bike and fear pulses trough my body. It doesn't make sense to me. How can it stay balanced? How come everyone else makes it look so easy and I'm a 26-year-old woman who can't ride a goddamn bike? My thoughts overwhelm me and I keep getting off and sitting down on the curb.
"Don't be lazy," he says, "and don't waste my time." He does it with kindness because he knows I need to be pushed. It works.
For what feels like hours I get on and off. I fall, lose balance, I struggle to get the bike moving at all. He holds the back and eventually I make a little progress and stop swerving all over the street like a mad woman. He tells me to stop thinking and I get on the bike and fly right down a hill and into a bed of stinging nettles. I want to cry but I look up and see him standing there laughing. So I laugh too. We joke that I was taking Wim's advice in yoga of doing everything one hundred per cent. "I thought if I was going to fall, I'd really fall, one hundred per cent, into stinging nettles."
I surprise myself by getting back on the bike to try again. There is only one moment when I stop to cry. Not because of the stings pulsing all over my face and body, but because I am overwhelmed by my feelings. I realize I am facing years of shame, embarrassment and failure. The simple act of riding a bike is so much more to me. It is not feeling good enough. It is my fear of driving, my failed relationships and insecurities. It is everything that has held me back.
I take a deep breath and try again. I accept the stings on my skin and those that go deeper. I ride across the bridge without help and when I stop I'm beaming.
"There," he says, "you are alive and glowing."