I sometimes believe that the acronym EVS is incorrect, or at least insufficient. Indeed, EVS – European Voluntary Service – incorporates only three aspects, important ones mind you, yet it leaves behind everything else that happens quietly in the background in the life of a volunteer.
EVS is a project dedicated to European youth to gain working knowledge in regards to their field of interest; it is about absorbing foreign culture, about testing your limits, facing challenges and ultimately returning home with a suitcase full of memories and experiences. The European Union supports you all the way through by providing you with trainings, housing, transportation, insurance and pocket money, and even though one might believe that that is sufficient for an experience abroad, fundamentally there is something missing. All of the information you receive prior to embarking on such an adventure cannot and does not prepare you for the months ahead (as many as they may be). EVS is more than just volunteering. It is a constant learning process, a rollercoaster, if you will, of novelties and challenges. No one will tell you about the homesickness; no one will tell you about the occasional loneliness, nor will they tell you that feeling at home in a country that is geographically and culturally distant from yours is a struggle in itself, and that culture shock can be real. Yet, just as much as all of this sounds like a pessimistic foreboding, it also acts as a crucial building block to one’s personal and emotional growth. That is what is missing in the acronym EVS: the maturity factor.
You never expect to grow, until you do. I have always considered myself a ‘Daughter of Europe’; born in Switzerland from a Dutch mother and Italian father and having studied in international schools all my life (in Italy, Holland and Greece), I never perceived differences among my fellow European peers. A country is merely a country because of the geopolitical borders and cultural customs, yet all in all I always felt that a deeper, unperceivable bond connected us all and that therefore, no matter where in Europe you are, you will always feel at home. A possibly utopian ideal, I cannot deny that after years of living abroad in other countries, for the first time in my life, my experience in the Czech Republic did not confirm my belief. I first arrived in a snow covered Prague, and just as flaky as the atmosphere was, so was my apparent self. It was only with the arrival of Spring, that my thoughts and lessons started to flower, and I can now comfortably see that in this golden water-coloured Prague, the old leaves of my former self are falling off too. Ripe autumn, with its crisp air, has carried along a new sense of myself and belonging. Indeed it is in these last bittersweet months that are left, that I am starting to make sense of all that has been, of all that is and of all that will be.
On this emotional and professional ride in these already 8 months since starting in INEX-SDA, I have had a chance to meet new people, learn new skills and break down barriers; all lessons that I hope to vigilantly treasure. These months have also taught me and shown me new places and new customs, about the Czechs and their habits – a fundamental part of the EVS’ ideal of strengthening the European Union. Despite the apparent initial sternness and roughness of Czechs (which externally appears as rudeness and perpetual anger), I have witnessed funny customs, strange customs and beautiful customs. While battling over a š, č and a ř (a clear foreign crowd’s favourite Czech letter), I have learnt about their obsessions with onion and garlic, about the necessary hikes and escapes to nature (including weekend Na Chaloupa trips and mushroom picking), about the laziness in not cutting open the rohlik bread, the existence of indoor shoes and outdoor shoes, the love for books, the custom of beating women with sticks during the Easter holidays and finally, last but not least, the obvious need of pivo everywhere you go (making the Czech Republic the highest pro capita beer drinking country in the world). A pride? Of that I am not sure of.
During these eight months I have also been enthralled by the sheer beauty of Prague, a golden jewel amidst the European capitals, an awe I owe to my insatiable curiosity. It is such curiosity that has often saved me in my life. In times when the EVS made you feel lonely and lost, by wandering and meandering through the narrow cobbled streets of the city, I owned my time and I felt like owning Prague. Every niche demanded exploration, every nook and every corner acted as medicines to fill up time, in an effort to donate that home-feeling I truly craved. It is that burning desire to see, to know, to explore that fuels my enthusiasm, soothes my doubts and occasional loneliness and peppers my experience as an EVS in the Czech Republic, a secret and an ingredient I gladly share with future fellow volunteers. Never fall into pattern, be hungry in regards to the world and let the exploration take you places and thoughts that enrich your adventure, despite the challenges, despite the hardships and despite the novelties.
A handful of months are left till the end of this complicated and exciting chapter of my life story, leaving a bittersweet taste in my mouth. With the apparently flaky strength with which I arrived in Czech Republic, I had to face the prime season of doubting and questioning myself and my choices, only to then welcome the arrival of the falling of old foliage of my previous self and make space for the harvest of the lessons I have learned so far thanks to the EVS experience I am living. Leaves, like layers, will keep falling off, and flowering questions will persist, yet I believe that beyond the work experience gained and the cultural lessons learned, at the end of my EVS experience next February, I will depart with a suitcase full with even more clothes, more memories and a stronger understanding of my position in this world and of my ground core beliefs.
EVS is a winning project, with its successes and falls; it is a challenge; it is a bet the European Union makes on its youth; and finally it is among the most rewarding and constructive experience we are given the chance to take part in.