Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Natalie in Serbia on EVS - 2010

Belgrade, the White City – Quite alright for me!

When I arrived in Belgrade four months ago, my first and overwhelming feeling was a huge sense of relief! After a nightmare journey involving a cancelled flight, excess baggage, a night in a Heathrow hotel, and a 6 hour delay in Vienna, I was so pleased to have finally made it to Serbia in one piece.

I’m volunteering for 12 months with Osmeh Mladih (which means ‘smile of youth’ in Serbian). Osmeh is a non-governmental voluntary youth organization based in Belgrade, which promotes youth mobility, participation and active citizenship through international projects and volunteering. At the moment I’m living and working with Aneta, an EVS volunteer from Poland, and in March we’ll be joined by Lutza from Hungary.

Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and the biggest metropolis in the western Balkans. It’s not a beautiful city by any stretch, and certainly no Paris or Barcelona, but it has a long and fascinating history, and there are lots of features that make Belgrade a really exciting place to be. Including, as any Belgrader will proudly tell you, its famed nightlife – in fact, the city was named number one party capital of the world by Lonely Planet earlier this year.

So anyway, after a couple of weeks spent sightseeing and settling into life in the (rather ironically named) ‘white city’, I was more than ready to get stuck into work at Osmeh. A big part of my EVS project is ‘English Speaking Friday’. Since December, I’ve been holding two conversation workshops every Friday for young people. The aim is not so much to teach English, but rather to provide an opportunity for people to practice speaking. We talk about all kinds of things – music, tourism, stereotypes, traditions – and I often finish the workshop feeling like I’ve learned something as well!

Other projects I’ve been involved in over the last few months include organizing an Open Day to celebrate International Volunteers Day; a international partnership building event in Kikinda, Vojvodina; redesigning Osmeh’s website; and creative work (posters, logos) for projects and events we’ve participated in. In fact, I’m really enjoying the opportunity to be creative. This is what I wanted from my EVS – a chance to try something different and develop new skills. And volunteering at Osmeh is a world away from the office admin jobs I worked in before I came to Belgrade.

Right now we’re preparing for an international training course that Osmeh is hosting in Subotica, near the Hungarian border. It’s a busy time for us volunteers, making sure we have all the materials, paperwork and equipment ready for the start of the project. It’s been eye-opening to be part of the hosting team – and to realise exactly how much work goes on behind the scenes!

Although winter’s been cold and snowy, and life in the city (like the traffic) has slowed down for a couple of months, there’s still plenty to see and do. Every week it seems there is a new film or music festival, exhibition or theatre season. This month we have the Guitar Art Festival and the 38th International Film Festival. For me, Belgrade’s a true capital of culture. And there aren’t many places where you can bag a seat in the National Theatre for less than 5 euros!

Spring will bring new projects (promoting EVS in high schools); partnerships (with the Media Education Centre); travel opportunities (including trips to Poland and Lithuania); as well as the mid-term EVS training in Ohrid, Macedonia, and hopefully chances to see a lot more of the Balkans region. I’m starting to wonder how I will fit everything in! Eight months left, and already I’m thinking it’s not long enough…

Liam in Spain on EVS - 2009

I've been in Barcelona for about three months. I love this city, the history, the culture, the people, the food, the music, the list, it goes on. It's one the of the reasons that I chose this project, a big reason to be honest. But I was under no illusions that it was going to be easy, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into when I applied, when I signed up.

Like any big city, Barcelona has it's problems. But unlike other cities, the place that the problems are concentrated is right in the centre, in the notorious barrio of El Raval. Barely a day goes by without the neighbourhood being on both regional and national news; Drugs. Prositution. Robberies. Violence. Unemployment. Immigrants. The homeless. The same problems any other big city has, but concentrated into a relatively small barrio which these days is constantly patrolled by the police. This is where I work.

My organisation has a huge variety of projects, most centred in and around Raval. My project works with immigrants, from 16-21/22 years old. People from Morroco, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea, the Filipines, India, Pakistan, Bolivia, Columbia, todo el mundo! We do language classes, computer classes, music classes, sports classes, etc. etc. I teach kids who can't swim how to swim. Guys that can't even send an email how to use a computer. I train our football team. And generally support the running of all of our activities. One of the most important aims of all of this, is to give these guys something to do, something constructive, just something that isn't struggling to make a living by whatever means possible. And ultimately, we guide them into work training courses to develop some skills so that they are qualified to work.

Summed up in a paragraph it sounds fairly straight forward. It's not. There are a mountain of problems thrown into this mix. Primarily, I arrived without speaking Spanish. Nor Catalan. Nor Arabic, nor Swahili, or any other language that would be of use to me here. And Í'm the only EVS volunteer in this project, and so fairly isolated. The embarassment you feel when somebody speaks to you, and not only can you not reply, but you very little idea of what they even said, is horrible. Horrible enough to motivate me into studying Spanish every spare minute of every day! Next problem, the guys can be difficult. Extremely difficult. They're in a very strange and difficult situation, and so considering this it's understadable that they can behave like that. Another issue is the massive predjudice and discrimination that they face. Consider what it must be like, to arrive in a foreign country, where you don't speak the language, you don't know anybody, you have no money, no food, no home, no job, and then even if you do manage to get a grip of the language, you do learn some skills, become qualified even, after all of this, you're still faced with blatant discrimination. These aren't bad people, regardless of how they may behave at times, regardless of how they are forced to make money to survive, they are just people. It's only the situation that's bad. Life can be hard and massively unfair. But this project is trying to do something about it, I'm trying to do something about it.

The whole EVS experience can be a really strange one. It's a long period of time to be doing something, and so it's important that you know as much as possible about what you're going to do before you get there, to be happy with the type of work you'll do, to make sure that it's right for you. But it's just as important that you do it, that we do it. The whole EVS project is designed to promote cross-cultural learning and European cohesion, it's effectively designed to help the EU as a whole. But regardless of the political motivations behind it, it's an incredible opportunity, as the cliche goes, too good to miss. Not only is it a means of living in another country for an extended period of time, it's a means of really knowing that country, really learning the language in a way never possible at home, and above all, it's a means to do something useful, something important. I don't think you can ever really know what you're capable of until you do something that challenges you. This project is not only important for the kids that we work with, but for me too. I'm learning a language which opens up an entirely new world for me. And I'm learning things about myself, discovering what I am actually capable of. Something is happening to me, something that I need to think about for a long time. But that thing is good, it's a thing which inspires me to be better, to do more, to be more.

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.