Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Alex in Latvia on EVS - 2009

Well, I’ve been here for almost a month now, and some early impressions are starting to form. As far as the weather goes, it has been more consistently cold then I was expecting, I mean before I arrived I knew it would be a cold winter, but the average temperature even now is much lower than I expected. The warm stuff I thought I was bringing for the winter is now in daily use in the autumn, we received a snapshot of what the winter would hold for us last week when there was a day of freak snow. It was blizzard-like, and served to illustrate how I may have underestimated the Latvian winter.

This, identified in October, is a very manageable situation, and already I am making enquiries into where a guy like me gets hold of more significant cold weather gear. By winter I will be kitted out and (fingers crossed) ready for anything!

As far as the living arrangements go, the first speed bumps have been hit on the road to happy families, nothing out of the ordinary or anything you wouldn’t expect from a group of under 25’s living together; people not washing dishes, not drying dishes, bathroom not being cleaned, etc.

Leaving aside these more trifling matters (I have never heard an argument that could convince me that an able-bodied person is unable to or shouldn’t have to do their own washing up) the more serious consideration was to do with shared foodstuffs, bread, pasta, etc, and where the money should come from. We decided in the end to introduce a kitty system, whereby everyone puts a set amount into a pot at the beginning of the week and from that we buy things all these little essentials that everyone uses. This should, at least keep everyone happy with regards to basic food, and hopefully head off the “Who ate my last...?” arguments which do no one any good.

And so the domicile is shaping up nicely. We have a rota for cleaning the bathroom and hallway weekly, and are managing to keep the kitchen in a reasonable state most of the time. As far as my digs go, I’ve reshuffled the furniture and am lobbying the system for a desk and chair.

As far as work goes, my job has been both varied and challenging. Most days I function as a language assistant in the English lessons run at the centre, focusing on the speaking side of things. My classes range from adults who already have good knowledge, through high school pupils who know a lot of English but lack confidence, and on class of two 10 year olds and a 7 year old. This last one was dropped on me last minute, I am on hand to fill in for Natasha when crisis arises, and it was actually much easier then I had expected. We had a good text to work from, and once I had got them laughing it all went fine. The secondary school pupils are a challenge in a different way; the text is useful but very boring, so we need to change the pace from time to time to keep people interested. I was at something of a loss about how best to do this, but fortunately for me I was helped by fellow office working volunteer, who has experience working with children in France and suggested singing; we pick a song that everyone knows (for example, “We Are The Champions”) and I write the lyrics up on the board. We talk through it, I explain words they are not sure about, and then we all sing, their nervousness quite overpowered by my enthusiastic (if somewhat tuneless) contribution. The other diversion was actually suggested by one of the students, she suggested that we prepare cards with basic words on them (car, tree, road etc) and each person has to take a card and describe the thing to the others, who guess. An amusing diversion which is actually excellent for developing both their confidence and vocabulary, which I have quite shamelessly adopted in my other classes!

The adult classes are usually small, and more advanced, requiring more intense conversation and careful correction to ensure that they are learning and improving.

The other work we do in the centre is the organisation of volunteer projects for the local population, both foreign and domestic. This can entail talking people through the EVS process, discussing potential seminars and voluntary work in our town, and organising youth projects and exchanges for young people in Europe. In practice office life is usually quite relaxed, it is only when we have a deadline for project submissions that it can get really hectic. Then we will be working late discussing what sort of projects we could run, brainstorming ideas, and then in my case either taking the ideas in bullet points and writing them up, or proofing documents written by others in English. All in all the workload is manageable, and there is more than enough to keep us busy and out of trouble.

So, what else? Well, I am still in quest of a guitar; this is proving a challenge because Rezekne is a very small town, with only one music shop. This obviously makes it something of a seller’s market, and so when I was in at the weekend the bloke in the shop, an incredibly nice man whose one flaw, it would seem, was the somewhat inflexible position he took to his massively overpriced instruments. I (in my very limited Latvian) tried to explain that I was a volunteer, that my funds were limited. Although he agreed that volunteers are generally a good thing, he was unable to get the price down as much as I wanted. We fenced a while longer, in an incredibly good humoured way, and in the end I left, promising to be back in November when I had more ready cash. He warned that all could be different by then, and the time for action was NOW, but I cheerfully resisted.

I left the shop feeling, despite the failure of my mission, very good. This had been, I realised, the first time I had actually communicated in a jovial fashion with a Latvian stranger.

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