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