My route to this year’s international volunteer project in Cluj Napoca, Romania, was as exciting as it was unconventional. Keen to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina, the only former Yugoslav republic where I had yet to step foot, I found a cheap Ryanair flight to Zadar in neighbouring Croatia a few days before my project was due to start. Two bus journeys later I was in Sarajevo and had soon checked into my night’s accommodation with a local couple in their city centre apartment. As I strolled in this quiet, low-key, almost provincial capital city, it was hard to believe that this was the scene of so many atrocities in the violent break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Eight decades earlier it was another death in Sarajevo – the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria – which would be one of the main causes of the start of the First World War. As the reassuringly familiar sound of the call to prayer echoed around the city at the end of an afternoon of sight-seeing, I was reminded that this country boasts one of Eastern Europe’s largest Muslim populations.
From Sarajevo I took an overnight bus to Belgrade, a city I knew well from last year’s international volunteer project, the renovation of a school in Kragujevac, Serbia’s fourth largest city. From Belgrade I took the daily train to the Romanian city of Timisoara before boarding a connecting train to that country’s fourth largest city, Cluj Napoca. After a well-earned rest I met up with the two Italian group leaders and the other volunteers: as well as a fellow Brit there were participants from France, Germany, South Korea, Spain and Switzerland. Our work consisted of organising and supervising activities for children mostly from poor families at a centre which was funded by the European Union and located in one of the city’s more deprived suburbs: these varied from table tennis to origami, from painting to English lessons, from Monopoly to football. There were also day-trips: to the city’s Central Park, as well as to the Botanical Garden with over 10,000 plants from throughout the world. We were joined at the centre by the Romanian staff, as well as by long-term volunteers from Azerbaijan and Germany. Despite the poverty of the children’s families, there was never any hint of envy, nor did we have any worries about showing valuables such as cameras. We encountered only friendliness, humour, helpfulness and an overwhelming sense of hospitality.
It was during one the football sessions that I was left in agony by a tackle which went badly wrong. For the next week I was limping and had to get used to the idea of limited mobility. As I looked around enviously at people walking or running effortlessly, I saw this as another reminder that physical fitness can never be taken for granted. Three years earlier I experienced a far more powerful example of this. That summer I left for the first of three consecutive international volunteer projects in Turkey. Little did I know as I waved good-bye to my mother from a National Express coach on a rainy Friday afternoon in June in the English seaside town of Dover that on my return she would be fighting for her life in the Intensive Care Unit at London’s King's College Hospital, a life which, tragically, would be cut short by cancer nine months later.
As in any Romanian city, there were constant reminders in Cluj Napoca of the country’s revolution, from the 21 December 1989 Boulevard, named after the day soldiers opened fire on protesters opposed to the regime of dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu who would be toppled and executed days later, to the Anti-Communist Resistance Monument which stands proudly next to the city’s Central Park. During the project we made the most of our opportunities to experience Romanian culture and visit the local area. On the first Sunday we hired two cars and drove to the Turda Salt Mine, one of the largest such mines in Europe. Later we escaped the summer heat by swimming in a nearby lake. The second weekend, as I nursed my horribly bruised toe in some of Cluj Napoca’s coffee shops and pavement cafés, made my first steps in learning Romanian and listened to podcasts downloaded from the BBC World Service, most of the other volunteers visited the cities of Sighişoara, considered by many to have the most beautiful and well-preserved inhabited citadel in Europe, and Braşov, widely known as the Jewel of Romania.
As I boarded my Wizz Air flight home, I reflected on how, in the era of budget airlines, international travel has become so much easier and more affordable than it once was. What a delight it is to be able to print your boarding pass in the comfort of your own home the day before, and to be able to go straight to the gate on the day of the flight. Whatever the occasional discomfort of budget travel, these airlines have undoubtedly made a huge contribution to bringing the peoples of Europe together.
As I start my sixth year as an expatriate teacher in Kuwait, I look forward to my next international volunteer project with excitement and enthusiasm. Who knows, I might even be persuaded to play football again. But maybe next time I’ll stay in goal.