Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Only a joke? Learning about online cyber-bullying and Hate Speech on a Concordia hosted workshop

The Council of Europe's 'No Hate Speech' campaign aims to raise awareness of the problem of online bullying and Hate Speech. Concordia France recently ran an international workshop in Le Mans, France aimed at training educators and youth workers in methods to teach about this growing problem.

Have you ever been the subject of a 'joke' comment which instead of making you laugh maybe revealed more about the senders prejudices? Have you ever read a Facebook post which you thought was a little close to the bone? Most of us have. Cyberbullying and Hate Speech are new names for old problems. Traditionally intolerance and bullying involved comments thrown across the street or the playground, but today our increasingly online social lives offer new avenues for such comments.

'No Hate Speech' was the topic of a recent workshop organised by Concordia France in Le Mans for educators and youth workers from across Europe. The 'No Hate Speech' movements aims to raise awareness of this growing problem through education and publicity. It was established in 2012 by the Council of Europe. The workshop aimed at giving educators the tools to use with young people to make them aware of their online actions.

Prevention is better than cure.
Could we define key terms like Hate Speech, gender, discrimination, LGBT+, migrant, and refugee? These are words we use everyday but for which tying down a concrete definition is surprisingly difficult without a dictionary. Heated group discussion ensured. What were our personal experiences of discrimination? We identified instances where we had either been perpetrator, witness or victim of Hate comments. Sharing experiences and feeling made us aware of the impact of the problem.

We learnt methods to break down hateful comments to examine their origin and effect. One activity 'the tree of Hate' centred on one example of Hate and in groups we identified the root causes of the comment and what effects it later had. Our group choose the infamous 'Breaking Point' UKIP poster. Was this the result of fear of immigration, loss of border controls, a lack of knowledge of migrants and other faiths, a consequence of welfare cuts? Had it resulted in the EU 'no' vote? Topics for endless discussion.

Had we personally been discriminated against because of our looks, faith, sexuality, origins or even dress? Together we stood in a line, and stepped forward if we could answer no to each statement. It was surprising how many of us were left behind.

Towards the end of the week a workshop was organised for local youths from Le Mans to allow some of us to put our skills into action. A publicity event was organised in Le Mans to engage the local population; this involved handing out compliments from a bucket to passers by, asking people to cite things they loved, and aimed at educating about the project. Another group learnt how to make a video about online bullying.

Taking it forward
The international nature of the week greatly contributed to its success. Attendees from Austria, Albania, Greece and Great Britain all looked at problems with a different perspective. Attitudes to problems like the European migrant crisis are different depending on whether you are a transit country or potential host.

By actually taking part in activities you really learnt how these topics could be taught back in your host country. But perhaps as valuable as the actual training was the chance to engage with others with different background and different ideas. The ultimate take home message was maybe, we are all different but we all have the same feelings. 

Participant in the No Hate Speech Training & International Volunteer with Concordia


No Hate Speech

The day after I turned 30, I hopped on a train to London, made my way to St Pancras International station and boarded the Eurostar – destination, Le Mans! The reason for my journey was to attend a training course, funded by Erasmus+ (yes, the same people who run the university exchange) and open to participants from across Europe.
The topic of the week focused around the No Hate Speech Movement, set up by the Council of Europe, which aims to educate people on the forms of hate speech, where it is found and what actions you can take to combat it.
On a personal level, this training course woke me up to the reality of hate speech. As a white, British, straight female, I’ve not come across much hate speech directed at me personally. I glossed over what I saw online, inwardly condemning the people who wrote it, but not thinking about the causes or the effects that it can have on the victims. I wasn’t an ally, I was a bystander. I came away from this training much more aware of the damage that hate speech can cause, and the ways in which it has crept into our daily lives through social media, sensationalist tabloid headlines and online comments.
Considering the year we have had in the UK (*cough* Brexit *cough*) and the fact that the US elections happened during the week-long course, this training could not have come at a more relevant time. It’s no secret that there has been a rise in reports of hate crimes in the UK since June, and the US seems to be following the same trend since the election. But now, rather than sitting and feeling helpless about what I am witnessing online, this course has made me consider the actions that I can actually take to combat Hate Speech when I encounter it. From reporting hate speech online to running workshops on hate speech to the young people I work with, I now have practical actions which I can take to stem the tide of hate and anger which I see in our society.
But the week wasn’t all doom and gloom!
I don’t think I have ever been on a course or volunteering project where I felt so immediately at home and comfortable with the people I was sharing my time with. Participants from UK, France, Slovakia, Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia and Greece came together with one thing in common – huge hearts and a desire to be part of a happier, more inclusive world. We explored the beautiful city of Le Mans together, we exchanged our food and customs from across Europe, we shared the similarities and differences of language and had fun making fun of ourselves! Of course, being in France, I consumed much more bread, cheese and red wine than is required in one person’s diet, and had a lovely time doing it!

For anyone thinking of attending a training in Europe, I say do it. I have had great experiences, met wonderful people and had my eyes opened to new ideas and discussion which have benefited me both in my work and personal life. All this was provided for free, and even my travel costs were covered (well, most of it) Fingers crossed the next training course won’t be far away!


No Hate Speech participant and

longtime volunteer with Concordia Volunteers

Friday, October 28, 2016


Last week, you might’ve noticed several publications on Twitter and Facebook focusing on Human Rights. For a weeklong period, (17th to 22nd of October), our two international networks CCIVS and Alliance joined forces with organisations and individuals, planning local events, actions, trainings and volunteering to bring attention to the needs and actions for Human Rights.
Worldwide, and locally, the denial of human rights is a serious obstacle to the fulfilment of peace and human happiness, and as a charity hosting and sending volunteers overseas, we are one of many players in the game needed to take on our role.

We are stronger together. One of the greatest things I believe is coming out from volunteering is that no-one goes away the same. You may arrive as an individual, but you leave the project as part of a group. For a short period in your life, you have come together, formed a coalition of nationalities showing that everyone is ready to do their bits to make this project successful. Last week, this was proven to work the same on an organisational level with great ideas and events were being carried out world-wide.

Our friends in Volunteer actions for Peace organised the seminar “Moving On and Settling Down”, to analyse and learn deeply about the phenomenon of migration, in the past and present. Egyesek Youth Association in Hungary counteracts the hate speech promoting an open society, Solidarités Jeunesses holding a week long Peace Week, INEX - Sdružení dobrovolných aktivit inviting to a workshop on diversity & migration.

Within the movement of volunteering we organise several international volunteer projects, providing a natural habitat for volunteers to meet each other, with the common goal to engage in a well-needed communal project. In Italy, Legambiente Paestum organised a volunteer projects with international volunteers and refugees, working together to protect and recover the highly important ecosystem in the region, the "Dune Oasis". SIW Internationale Vrijwilligersprojecten, Switzerland, had this summer a workshop on human rights and the freedom of movement on all of their projects.

Over the week, eradication of poverty, the rights to food, housing & a life in dignity, the rights to a life in Peace, the rights for Migrants and Refugees, the right to sexual orientation have all been giving their day to highlight what is being done, and what can be done to continue the good work. Our role for the week is to ensure that as many people possible is being reached by the message, the calls, the rights and the actions showing that there is a movement carrying about these rights, that serves as not only guidelines but for RIGHTS to be treated as a human being. The work by individuals and charities are still equally needed this week, and so our work will continue working towards an open society, where the Human Rights are respected globally. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

My Indian Adventure: Eco-Education and Environmentalism in the Himalayas

Volunteers doing yoga in a temple in the mountains – from south Korea, England, Italy, and Japan

Namaste! It didn’t take long before this greeting, accompanied by a joining of the palms, became second nature to me in India. Everywhere I went, I was greeted by a beaming smile and a ‘Namaste Madam ji!’. Not to mention the offer of a hot chai!

I have always been captivated by images, stories, and representations of India, and after hearing from friends who travelled there it quickly became my dream to visit and experience the country for myself.

Last year, I spent two weeks volunteering with kids as part of my summer spent in Italy, which turned out to be the most memorable and enjoyable part of my trip. This encouraged me to volunteer in India, to immerse myself in the local culture and offer my service within a community. I was firmly opposed to working for a profit-driven company and knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to a worthwhile cause. This led me to discover Concordia, and the rest is history!

My project was based in a village in Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous state in the Himalayas. The project, run by a local NGO, was focused on education, environmentalism, and eco-tourism. I went with an open mind, not knowing what to expect of India or the work required, and found that the project became so much more than I’d originally thought it would be…
Views of the village, Junga in the foothills of the Himalayas

I did not expect that I would learn so much in the space of two weeks, not just about India, but other cultures too: my fellow IVS volunteers were from Italy, South Korea, and Japan. By getting to know each other and sharing food, games, and tales from our home countries, I learnt about many cultures and now have friends in all corners of the world.  
I learnt about the key issues faced by the local community, which gave me perspective on the wider challenges of India as a developing country. I also learnt about Eastern spirituality, stories of the many Hindu Gods, and some bizarre local superstitions: one afternoon whilst playing cards with village kids, one warned us urgently, ‘Don’t whistle indoors, or snakes will come in!!!’.

The memories, photos, and stories that I’ve taken home with me will make me smile for years to come. Learning local ‘pahari’ (mountain) dance moves after dinnertime, having a traditional suit tailored by a local seamstress, and dancing with kids to their favourite Hindi music played through my Bluetooth speaker are among many precious moments that I will never forget. I felt very proud of the environmental murals which we painted around the village, and knowing that these will be there to spread the message for years to come gives me a fantastic sense of achievement.

I spent a total of 6 weeks in India, and although I was lucky to see some incredible sights including the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple, but my first two weeks volunteering in the small mountain village will always remain special to me.

Meeting the Concordia team at the North South preparation day reassured my concerns and gave me the confidence to go to India alone, and I could not have imagined a better introduction to the country than spending a fortnight volunteering and living amongst the local people. I am still in touch with my camp leader in India, as well as many people I met whilst staying in the village. My time in India made a huge impact on me, and it is all thanks to the excellent organisation, support, and encouragement that I received from Concordia which inspired me to take the leap and go for it. I would encourage anybody who is considering it to do the same. Only one dilemma remains – when can I go back?! 

A typical evening spent playing sports with local kids from  the village – watched by an audience of course!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The end is nigh….

Do you remember our EVS volunteer in Romania? Catch up on her story below...

I write this blog entry just as I am about to leave for my last travels around Romania, across the country to explore the Danube Delta and (finally) its capital Bucharest.
All project activities with the kids came to a close at the end of last week. The final two weeks of the summer camps were devoted to primary school aged children in the villages. For the most part, it was a lot of fun-particularly the first week, where we were in sole charge of the kids.
The first week and into the second we prepared (quite last minute but thankfully successfully) activities with the theme ‘Discover Europe’, with the aim to introduce the children to the culture, history, geography and language (a little) of different European countries. The first day was focused on Romania and we then branched out to present our own countries and others.  I was in charge of British and Romanian culture, as well as preparing French activities-for the Romanian activities we decorated clothing patterns, made bookmarks and vampire masks amongst other things, and in the British activities included split-pin soldiers (thanks Mihai for finding them!) and loo-roll bagpipers. In the afternoons we played fun games outside and in with the kids.
The second week was slightly disappointing in comparison as we were slightly usurped by another lady running a camp-to her credit she managed to hold the attention of 60 kids with her voice, however a little less shouting at the youngest kids wouldn’t have gone amiss. Despite only assisting for some of the week, we still had fun being with the children, accompanying them on walks around the village and teaching them English and German songs.
The rest of our time in the week was filled with cleaning the flat before the imminent departure of two of the long termers the beginning of this week-(cleaning a kitchen thoroughly takes a long time but I was successful at getting the grime off the oven) as well as recording and filming for our end-of project music video to present in the closing event. With ingenious lyrics by our resident song-writer Mathias, improved singing to last time and an easier rhythm, as well as some fun scenes to accompany the music, I think it fair to say, it was a success and our audience were thoroughly entertained!
The week culminated in the closing event in which we presented on our EVS experiences and a meal followed at the weekend by a full-blown trip of Maramures all together featuring a chance to try on traditional Romanian clothes, a horse and carriage ride and hike to the Horses Waterfall in Borsa as well as a delicious meal in a shepherd’s hut in the mountains.
Thanks for organising AIST staff-was a lovely way to spend our last few days together as a full team

Annika Mathews

Monday, September 19, 2016

Group Volunteer leader in Italy

This summer I volunteered to lead a group of 12 Girl Guides from Staffordshire, England, who worked together to complete a project in the local community of Poggio Mirteto, Italy. 

My role as the overseas volunteer leader was to represent Concordia through coordination the project, to lend pastoral care to the group throughout their trip, and to liaise between the local coordinators and the group to ensure that everyone benefits optimally from the project. The group worked together to renovate the picnic benches and tables, finishing them off by painting them with their own creative designs. These will benefit local groups, hikers and other international volunteers who work at the farm throughout the years. We then renovated and waterproofed the wooden window frames of the barn, to keep them in good condition throughout the winter. This work taught us many practical, hands on renovation skills (such as sanding, natural wood filling, paining, tool work) that may not have had the chance to develop otherwise; as well as an essential opportunity to develop important life skills such as working as part of a team, communication, planning and design.

Our wonderful hosts also made sure that the whole group benefited fully from our trip, and planned numerous trips and cultural activities for us. Our day trips into Rome were amazing and we got to see a lot of the famous landmarks such as the Colosseum, the Forum, the Piazza Venizia, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Our knowledgeable hosts also suggested less “touristy” areas, including the beautiful Villa Borghese Park and the historic Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica outside of the city. We also had the opportunity to explore the inspiring medieval village of Casperia, through doing an entertaining scavenger hunt in small groups, which encouraged the young people to interact with the local people. Of course in Italy, food is incredibly important! As we were staying in an agricultural community, all the food we were eating was fresh and produced locally. Our hosts even taught us how to make traditional Italian meals and how to make our own cheese from locally sourced milk. We also took part in a language workshop, learning some basic words and phrase. We learned by going shopping in the local markets.

Our wonderful hosts also made sure that the whole group benefited fully from our trip, and planned numerous trips and cultural activities for us. Our day trips into Rome were amazing and we got to see a lot of the famous landmarks such as the Colosseum, the Forum, the Piazza Venizia, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Our knowledgeable hosts also suggested less “touristy” areas, including the beautiful Villa Borghese Park and the historic Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica outside of the city. We also had the opportunity to explore the inspiring medieval village of Casperia, through doing an entertaining scavenger hunt in small groups, which encouraged the young people to interact with the local people. Of course in Italy, food is incredibly important! As we were staying in an agricultural community, all the food we were eating was fresh and produced locally. Our hosts even taught us how to make traditional Italian meals and how to make our own cheese from locally sourced milk. We also took part in a language workshop, learning some basic words and phrase. We learned by going shopping in the local markets.

For me as an overseas volunteer leader I got to continue to work with young people in a different environment, and supported them to have the opportunity to travel and go out of their comfort zones. Through doing our renovation work I was able to develop my team leadership skills, communication and organisational skills, as well as useful “DIY” skills. I’ve learned how to work with others who may be of different cultural backgrounds and working styles, to ensure the successful and mutually beneficial trip. I have also really enjoyed submersing myself in a different culture and feel that I have learned a lot through this truly unique voluntary work. 


Group Volunteer Leader 2016 - Italy

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

International Group Leading with Concordia International Volunteers

A question I get asked a lot by my friends these days is “where are you off to next then?”

I have developed the reputation for being the traveller of the group, the one who will only stay in the same place for a short amount of time. The one who always has the next destination booked, or the next adventure planned (Berlin, in case you were wondering!)

This is in no small part due to my volunteering with Concordia International Volunteers. I’ve volunteered with this organisation since 2009, and they still manage to find me new adventures to go on! I have participated in a Spanish work camp, attended workshops and seminars across Europe, helped to deliver training weekends in the UK, co-ordinated UK volunteer projects, contributed to the writing of educational resources, and most recently, visited Asia twice to lead on their group volunteering programme.

The group volunteering programme sends groups from the UK to participate on international volunteer projects. I travelled to Vietnam in 2015 and South Korea in 2016, both times with groups of Girl Guides from London and the South East Region.

To say that these trips were challenging is putting it mildly! From non-stop rain for most of our time in Vietnam and living in leaky rooms, to finding a variety of gluten free food in Korea (difficult to find much that wasn’t rice and plain steamed vegetables!). From lost luggage in Hanoi, to an (almost!) lost passport in Busan. Hospital trips, cactus stings, sore hips and knees. Bad stomachs and squat toilets! Early mornings, late nights, hot sun, crowded bedrooms. Eating rice three times a day...

But for every challenge, there was a reward. Moments such as early morning Tai Chi on our junk boat in Halong Bay, or even earlier morning meditation with a Korean monk at a templestay. Finally seeing blue sky after 10 days of rain in Vietnam! Meeting local residents in Busan and being given free ice cream while we painted steps in 35 degree heat. Watching friendships develop between UK and Korean teenagers, who may live 5000 miles apart but share the same appreciation for the High School Musical soundtrack and photos of Zac Efron!

Then there is the personal growth. Sitting in a rooftop restaurant and listening to the youngest member of your group describe so eloquently how the trip has changed how she views the world is a moment that has stuck with me, and is my reason for forgetting all the difficulties and hard times and coming back to Concordia for more.


Eternal part of the Concordia Family

Volunteering in Iceland 2016

In July, 19 students and two members of staff, embarked on an amazing trip to Iceland as part of the Volunteer Abroad extension study. The trip was the culmination of 9 months of hard work, with students having to fundraise to pay for the trip throughout the year.

Students travelled to the remote East of Iceland and volunteered in a beautiful village located in a fjord. The students worked extremely hard and undertook 5 days of environmental volunteer work.  This included removing Alaskan lupins which are an invasive plant species, clearing up the local coastline and digging the foundations of a traditional Icelandic greenhouse.

The group also took in the amazing and beautiful sites that Iceland has to offer, visiting waterfalls, glaciers and geysers.

All of the students who took part in the trip were a credit to the College and should be really proud of what they achieved.

Concordia have organised four fantastic trips for our students over the last few years, with destinations as diverse as India, Vietnam and Iceland. I continue to be impressed with the dedication and organisation of Concordia. They have a genuine commitment to ensuring that students have a unique volunteering experience and undertake meaningful work.

For example, in India our students lived in a rural village alongside the local community and volunteered at a local school. The local community were so welcoming and we had the privilege of eating in villagers houses and learning first-hand about Indian culture. Our students had also fundraised in order to buy the Indian primary school children a pair of shoes, pens and school books.  Our students gained an enormous amount from the trip and not only learnt about a new culture, but also developed leadership and team working skills.

On all of the trips and projects that we have worked with Concordia, their support prior, and also during the trip, has been outstanding.  The leaders that Concordia sends to accompany the group have been excellent, and any issues have been dealt with swiftly and professionally. 

Michelle McGrath,

Teacher, Esher College

Thursday, August 18, 2016

MTV on the island of Tokushima

To start with a cliché,  has it really been just one week?  

Thanks to the amazing people I have met, there have been so many wonderful experiences and these unique insights into life in Japan are exactly why I wanted to spend so long volunteering in this fascinating country.  The landmarks of Hanna Road are slowly becoming more familiar, although I would be lost without Shinri-san, Yani and Natalia to guide me.  The blazing sunshine makes the water we supply even more essential and it is particularly rewarding to see a dusty corner return to life, such as the site of the recent car accident.  Hopefully we won’t see any more of those!

As we go around the city it is impossible to ignore the preparations for the festival and the sense of excitement is infectious.  Right now, I cannot imagine the one million visitors we will be welcoming and I know being involved will be both a privilege and a real highlight of my time here.

We have also been watching the teams practice, setting a very high standard for us to imitate as part of the international group joining the main parade on Sunday.  What an honour!  This also means we will soon be joined by another Workcamp, which will include two friends from the orientation weekend which seems so distant now.  It was sad to bid farewell to the other group, although they truly inspired me with their enthusiasm and dedication to mastering the Japanese language. 
My own attempts to improve have begun with three lesson at Topia. These classes have definitely stretched me, but my desire to communicate to the wonderful people around me is providing good motivation.

To me, this is also about learning more than just the language.  There is an entire culture to fathom out and I am extremely grateful to my patient guides.  Food is an endless voyage of discovery, not just because of all the new things I am trying, but I have quickly realised that our regular breakfast stop is the social hub of our little corner of Tokushima and I love meeting familiar faces there most mornings.

My taste buds have been left in no doubt about the quality of Japanese produce as our talented cooks create masterpieces that are breathtaking in both presentation and simplicity.  I think I will be on a constant mission in the UK to try and recreate my favourites.  Cooking itself is also great fun for me, whether it is watching experts at work, or frantically learning etiquette from the locals around me.  I just hope I don’t offend any of them with my frequent errors!

So, it is soon to be all hands to the deck for the festival ... and we can’t wait for the fun and games to begin.

Follow the rest of the adventures of Keira, our MTV volunteer in Japan, through her blog: 

NCS - unforgettable experience

Signing up to NCS was an easy decision. Having the reps talk to us in our school assembly I knew instantly that NCS was something I wanted to be involved in. 

I spent the first week in Devon getting to know my team while partaking in many different challenging outdoor activities. Week two brought us to Brighton university spending the time living together as a group and continuing to learn a range of unique and interesting skills.

Weeks three and four our groups worked on different community projects. Our group chose to concentrate on raising awareness for autism, supporting Resources for Autism.
Overall I felt that meeting new people was the best part of NCS. I have had a brilliant time and made some lifelong friends. It has helped me with my confidence and I have learnt many new skills.

NCS has been an unforgettable experience. Thank you.


See Wesley's experience from the first week of NCS with Concordia

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Volunteer abroad, discover new cultures

Below you can read a text from our international volunteer coordinator Francesco, a text that highlights the meeting of cultures, and why we should continue discover more. 

If you volunteer abroad you get to know about new cultures. But what does it really mean “learning about new cultures”? Is it about discovering different food, languages, art and music? Or is it more? Is it easy to get a real insight into another culture through volunteering?
Well, cultures are much more than what’s visible to the naked eye: using an analogy, what we can see about a culture is like the top of an iceberg, very small compared to what lies underneath and supports it. Below the surface there is a world of values that deeply shape everything that a culture is: concept of time, personal space, what is friendship, how direct can you be with someone, etc.
Not understanding the culture you are immersed in can be tough. When speaking to volunteers about to go on a project, “cultural shock” is always one of the things they are most worried about. To them, we say that volunteering will allow them to know the bottom of the iceberg, and although it can be difficult at times, it is definitely one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences that volunteering abroad can offer. Especially because our international partners, hosts and leaders know how to support volunteers during this process.
Volunteers approaching Concordia often don’t realise how much they benefit from it and come back to us with their eyes open to new perspectives and ways of seeing the world. And that is exactly why Concordia is so deeply involved in international volunteering.

If you want to read more about Intercultural Learning and “culture as an iceberg”, we would recommend that you have a look at this free online resource: Intercultural Learning T-Kit. Here is a quote taken from it: “Intercultural learning can be one tool in our efforts to understand the complexity of today’s world, by understanding others and ourselves a bit better. […]. Intercultural learning may enable us to better face the challenges of current realities. We can understand it as empowerment not just to cope personally with current developments, but to deal with the potential of change, which can have a positive and constructive impact in our societies. Our intercultural learning capacities  are needed now more than ever”.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Testimonio from a SVE in España

I first heard about European Voluntary Service during a Blablacar journey from Brest to Rennes in northern France.  

An excitable fellow passenger spent almost the entire 3 hour drive telling me all about her life changing experience she was having as a volunteer. I was astonished to learn that such an opportunity existed; even more so that I’d never heard of it! As soon as I got home from that journey I jumped straight on the computer, and typed in those three magic letters E V S. Little did I know, I too was about to embark on a life-changing journey….

Flash forward 6 months. After what seemed like an eternal flight from London, I arrive, dazed and confused at Madrid-Barajas airport. I walk through the sliding doors expecting to find my tutor Cristina, struggling to remember her face from the Skype interview we’d had months previously. After making eye contact for a couple of seconds too long with a few potential Cristinas, I give up and go outside to see how warm it is. ‘Hmmm I could get used to this!’ It crosses my mind to get practicing my Spanish straight away and ask someone “donde está Majadahonda?” just in case Cristina doesn’t show up. But how do I pronounce Majadahonda again? I decide to have another go at the arrival lounge.

 As I walk back towards the sliding doors, I notice out of the corner of my eye someone holding a card with a British flag printed on it and ‘Bienvenido Sam!” written above it. Ah that must be Cristina, but who’s this grinning blonde girl with her? Of course, it’s Greta my fellow volunteer from Lithuania. Immediately, my nerves disappear and we chat all the way to Majadahonda. On the way, I pluck up the courage to ask to Cristina to pronounce it as slowly as she can. Now I’ve got it!

Cristina takes us to our new apartment and we meet our housemates Martha and Juliet. Once the ‘besos’ and ‘encantados’ are out the way, Martha looks at me and says something very quickly in Spanish, everyone laughs… loudly. I join in pretending to understand the joke. Greta and I exchange a look of bemusement and then the tour of the flat begins. I think I got away with it this time but I it makes me realise that my Spanish is going to need some serious work.

The following day it was time to meet the rest of the team at the youth centre. We were greeted with beaming smiles and warm embraces and given a tour of the building. Though making small talk in Spanish was a challenge, whatever lingering anxiety was quickly extinguished and I knew then that this was going to be a great year.

The first few months of the project flew by as Greta and I settled in nicely. From making new friends from across Europe at the on-arrival training to starting our intensive Spanish course, from exploring Madrid at the weekends to getting to know our students at the English conversation workshops, our full-on schedule kept us incredibly busy. Before we knew it, it was Christmas and a chance to reflect on everything we’d learnt so far.

I went back home to the UK and bored my family and friends with perhaps too much detail of my time thus far in Spain. I realised that despite a few minor imperfections, the experience I was having was an incredible opportunity to learn many new skills and to grow as a person. Though it was hard to say goodbye once again to friends and family, I was eager to get back to Spain.

The second half of the project seemed to go by even quicker than the first. Though our Spanish course came to an end I was gaining more and more confidence speaking this wonderful language. We started with the English Book Club in January which turned out to be a great addition to the project, a chance to make new friends and of course to read some brilliant books.

Arriving back in Majadahonda from a weekend trip to France in March, I realised that I was starting to feel very much at home here. Our conversation workshops were improving week on week, I was meeting loads of new people, my Spanish was coming on leaps and bounds and after a long, wet winter (by Madrid standards!) the sun was starting to shine again. In just a few short months the whole thing would sadly be coming to an end.

It is only now, with the project drawing to a close, that I am starting to appreciate the excitement and passion of the girl who introduced me to EVS during that fateful Blablacar journey back in France a year and a half ago. it is starting to sink in just how much I have learnt this year. From simple Spanish slang words like ‘chungo’, ‘majo’ and ‘molar’ to using video editing software, from running a book club to learning all about how EVS works, from writing a newsletter of international opportunities to improving my confidence in public speaking, the list goes on and on.

Sam Bartrop
European Volunteer Service 2016

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Versteck in the south of Germany

A photo of me in my medieval costume with one of the local children. Behind us is the view from the top of the 13th century tower where the play scheme was based.

In the beautiful surroundings of southern Germany I was able to do two things I love: speak German and work with children. For anyone interested in practising their language skills, I can definitely recommend volunteering at a children’s camp or play scheme. The children were all very forgiving of my many grammar mistakes and willingly involved me in their games. The forest in which the holiday club took place lent itself perfectly to hours of “Versteck” (hide and seek), interspersed with art and crafts. All the volunteers dressed up in costumes to go with the medieval theme of the holiday club, which inspired the children to create their own gowns and armour. A group of small girls transformed me into their fashion doll and added to my costume daily – finally resulting in a head scarf, veil, apron, 2 cloaks and small bag round my waste, in which we put ‘precious’ stones and jewellery. I loved being greeted by a shriek of “Jennyyyyyyyy!” every morning, and soon forgot the challenges of speaking a foreign language with the fun of being with children out-of-doors every day.

Outside of the play scheme, which lasted until 2pm each day, we were able to explore the surrounding area and visit the local museums and tourist attractions. The international volunteers stayed together in a youth hostel and we cooked for ourselves, often attempting to recreate typical dishes from our home countries. It was fascinating to learn about other cultures and taste their cuisine, and especially exciting to get to know people my age from all over the world. A highlight was probably the many evenings of card games and the fun we had trying to create little Russian felt boots, which the two Russian volunteers kindly but despairingly tried to teach us! I was also taken aback by the level of gratitude which the locals showed to us as volunteers, and we were frequently given free fruit from the market and on one occasion two large bags filled with bread from the local bakery. This interaction with other volunteers and with people from the area has not only boosted my confidence in speaking German, but has also made me more confident when meeting new people in general – which was perfect preparation for the first few weeks at university.

I would recommend this experience to anyone. Thank you, Concordia, for making it possible!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Festival in Andalucía

I had very mixed feelings as I set foot in Granada for the first time in nearly nine years. I felt sadness: in the four years after my previous trip I lost both my parents and both my grandfathers. I felt excitement too, as I began to embark on a two-week course in Spanish followed by my twenty-third international volunteer project at the Parapanda Folk Festival in nearby Íllora. Now living in a part of the world where summer temperatures reach fifty degrees Celsius, I also felt strangely at home in the blistering heat of an Andalucían summer.

I was joined at the project by three Spanish volunteers: the coordinator, Ena, Almudena and Aly; two Ukrainian volunteers both called Maria; Virginia from Italy; and Rhu (pronounced ‘You’; he became known as ‘Mr You’ to avoid any confusion!) from South Korea. We were guided in our work and helped during our stay by Daniel and his team from the local volunteer organisation. Our work included setting up and taking down the equipment for the festival, constructing fences, arranging chairs, watering plants, looking after the needs of the performers, sweeping, cleaning, laying the table, washing up, and playing with the local children. We also enjoyed a varied free time programme including games, flamenco lessons, a dance class, watching performances and a day off hiking in the nearby mountains. During the project I tried to revise the Spanish I had learnt while studying in Granada, and want to say muchas gracias from the bottom of my heart to the Spanish volunteers who helped me and showed me great kindness and endless patience.

As a student in Granada, I had learnt a lot from watching fellow teachers do their job and was able to empathise more with my own students in my French classes. Another benefit, both of the course and of my project in Íllora, was meeting people from different walks of life: not only fellow teachers but people from many other fields too. When not studying, I took the opportunity to see what I could of the local area: at the weekend in the middle of the course, I went to Fuente Vaqueros and to the ski station at Sierra Nevada, where, as I stepped off the bus, I felt cold for the first time in many weeks. I soon warmed up hiking in the beautiful and peaceful surroundings on and around the deserted ski slopes.

The festival over for another year, after a day with the other volunteers in Granada, I began my journey north to my UK-bound coach in Barcelona, with stops on the way in Cazorla, Úbeda, Jaén, Baeza, Madrid and Manzanares el Real. I found nothing but friendliness from local people who often went out of their way to help me. In Úbeda, for example, having got nowhere in the local tourist office in my quest to find the nearest campsite, and by now exhausted and demoralised after a fruitless search with heavy luggage, I asked a passer-by, who not only went to the trouble of showing me on his phone how to get there but even offered to drive me.

I often think back to my adventures in Spain last summer, as I go about my daily life in Kuwait. When I see the Spanish and Latin American students in my classes, I think of the Spanish children we met at the festival, and how I wrote their names in Arabic on their arms and made wristbands for them. As I watch Spanish series on my laptop, I think back to our accommodation in Íllora, where I watched the first episode of Desaparecida. When I listen to Spanish music on my MP3 player and proudly wear my Parapanda Folk Festival t-shirt, I often get goose-bumps as I remember moments of great emotion. As I reflect on those memories, I feel an overwhelming sense of happiness at what I experienced and at the people I met, and an overwhelming sense of longing both for my twenty-fourth international volunteer project and for my next visit to Spain.

Barney Smith
international volunteer 2015