6 months in...
Well it now almost exactly 6 months since I started my EVS in Latvia, and it seemed like a good time for a progress report of sorts, so here goes nothing.
I decided on this EVS at the very last minute, I was more concerned, I think with getting out into the world and doing something challenging then what precisely I was doing. While some may not agree, since I did not have a particular field, like social work, which I wanted to go into, it seemed to me then that the best idea would be to just throw myself into something and make the best of it. I still believe this to be true. I knew going in that there would be challenges and difficult times, but I felt that these would be nothing compared with another year behind a till at WH Smith!!!So I arrived in Latvia last September, the day after, for those keeping score, my 22nd birthday. It was on the plane that I had felt my first nerves, reflecting that I had none of the language and what if no-one met me at the other end? Upon landing the second of these worries was put to rest, as I was indeed met, by Aytan, from the organization I would be working at, and John, who had himself just arrived from France, and who would go on to be my next door neighbor and very good friend.
The problem of language did not go away quite as quickly, and on reflection the first real low points for me were due to not being able to communicate easily with local people. This was, I think, due to three factors, the first was, I am sure the same from any EVS in any foreign country, it does take time to get to grips with a new language, especially if you did not get the bare bones of it at school. (It should be noted that even if they had offered Latvian at school, my track record does not suggest that I would have made a lot of the opportunity ;)) The second factor is more unique to my project’s location, Rezekne, a mere 40km from the Russian border, boasts a large Russian population, and as a result many people are disinclined/unable to communicate in Latvian.
There are few things more disheartening in the early stages of language learning then painstakingly constructing a sentence in a foreign tongue, only for the listener to scowl and reply in another language entirely. Though these two factors were critical, the third and most important one, in my opinion, was me. I spent a good deal of my social time with John, the aforementioned French volunteer, and two French Erasmus students. As well, of course, of the pleasure of cultivating friendships with likeminded people, I also took the chance to get my French back up to conversational level. I told myself this was still language work, as indeed it was, and it was a distinct pleasure to get myself back to a level where I was able to “switch” to French in the middle of a conversation. This is all very well, but it does not help with the local language, and I have resolved for the next 6 months to get more stuck into the local culture, so as not to squander the opportunity presented here. I will also mention that, due to the considerations of population mentioned above, as well as future application, I am now focusing on Russian over Latvian, which is initially daunting but vastly rewarding when one starts to understand a bit.
And so to work. The work on my project so far has been interesting, enough to keep me challenged and busy without feeling overworked. I am mainly employed as an English teacher, due to my native language, and although at the beginning it was difficult, having never taught before and only having a very bare bones text book to work from, it has become if not easy at least enjoyable and rewarding. The big highlight of the last few months for me was teaching a more advanced class of mine “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. It was a challenge, for my part to spend time before the class dissecting the poem and establishing a concrete meaning for a number of archaic phrases, but more so for the class, who really got stuck in and did an excellent job. This was rewarded with them getting to watch “The Simpsons” parody of the poem after we had finished studying it!
The other work on the project is connected to the centre, that is, a sending, hosting and coordinating organisation for EVS and the Youth in Action program. This usually takes the form of applying for seminars and youth exchanges and the paperwork associated with that, but on occasion we have a larger deadline, for a final application for a project or seminar, for example, and this gets quite hectic, but this is very much the exception rather than the rule.
The living situation here is, from what I gather from other volunteers in Latvia, somewhat unique, as there were (at the start at least) 9 volunteers in Rezekne living together in a youth hostel. Although I was initially keen on the prospect of living with so many other people, I would be lying if I did not confess that we have had some rough patches over the last six months…
At the start we, all together, resolved to do lots of things together, and so we established a kitty for food money and cleaning supplies, organized a Rota for the cleaning, and then realized that we all lived very different lives and had different eating schedules, and the systems broke down, which had a knock on effect of causing some friction between the volunteers. This, I am happy to say, is now essentially resolved, with people buying their own food and organizing the cleaning of the hostel in a less formal manner. The learning curve here, I suppose, is that a group of very different people, even if they are all placed into the same strange environment, are unlikely to all see eye to eye on every issue, and it was when we had accepted this and moved on that the atmosphere living in the hostel became much more pleasant.
I suppose the end of this (retrospectively) overly long piece, is to heartily recommend the EVS program to anyone who happens to still be reading. I have volunteered abroad before, though not for as long, and lived away from home for some years, and I thought that there were few things that would surprise me, at least as far as living with other people go. I have found that I have been challenged and forced out of my comfort zone in a manner which I could not conceive of if I had remained in the UK and kept working, and as far as instilling self confidence and general life experience this is certainly one of the best experiences I have had so far. It has, at times, been difficult, but this, I suppose, is a natural part of life, and this is really a once in a lifetime experience.
Overall I have had a great 6 months, and anticipate enjoying the next 6 just as much (especially seeing as the snow has just melted!!) If you are reading this while on your own EVS, then I hope you are having as rewarding a time as me, and if you are thinking about EVS and are looking through the blogs, then go for it, there is literally nothing to lose!