How the EVS programme connects people, cultures and nations.
Ennio studied the bus schedule very carefully. “It’s half past two already! I don’t want to be late for my afternoon coffee“ he thought. Despite being 97 years old, the old man still enjoys the small trips he has always taken on Friday afternoons. The whole week had been quite rainy, but today the weather was not too bad and he decided to visit the military area on the coast, where he spent most of his twenties. Of course he was not allowed to enter the area anymore, but from time to time he met some people that worked in the complex and then he tried to have a little conversation with them.
He likes talking to strangers. Living in a small Italian town near Trieste, close to the border of what is nowadays called Slovenia, he has had the pleasure of experiencing different people and their cultures not by travelling the world, but by having lived in the same place for almost a century – and by being curious enough to talk to strangers. But today he didn’t have any luck – not even a single person had crossed his usual route and now he was waiting for the bus that would bring him back home without having spoken to anyone.
He stopped scanning the schedule and turned around to see if the bus was already coming down the road, when he suddenly became aware of two people with big backpacks standing right next to him. He could have seen them long before walking down the street that led from the Slovenian border, but he was so focused on the bus schedule that their presence was a surprise to him. Instantly, a big smile appeared on his face – people with big bags are always interesting! “But to get some information from strangers, you first have to tell them things about yourself to make them more comfortable with sharing their own stories” he thought, and so he started telling them about his childhood in Trieste, about his children and grandchildren and that he never left his home region – but enjoys talking to strangers to learn about their opinions and habits. The only pity was that the two travellers didn’t understand a word of Italian. Otherwise they could have told him their own story, which would have filled the old man with so much joy, since they had the opportunity to experience other people and cultures in a completely different way, that Ennio was not even able to dream of when he had been their age.
It won’t surprise you that the two travellers were Jessica and me. After staying at the farm for five weeks we travelled all the way to the coast to take part in the on-arrival training of the EVS programme. It brought together all the young people from various countries that decided to spend time as a volunteer in Slovenia. Many of them work in different kinds of youth centres or are part of projects that help people with special needs, but some also deal with agriculture-related topics like our project. And since all of the participants have different social, educational and cultural backgrounds, they were able to contribute with certain skills, knowledge and experiences. By combining the power of all these unique personalities, great things can happen!
The aim of this on-arrival training is to give the participants helpful advice for the first weeks of their stay in a foreign country. They should learn about the general structure of the EVS programme, but also about cultural and practical topics, of course with a special focus on Slovenia. The schedule of the week also included activities about project management and team-work exercises. The concept of the training is that all goals can be reached by non-formal learning, meaning that none of the activities included normal lectures or presentations, but instead different kinds of little games, role-plays, group discussions or individual conversation. As a side-effect of this learning practice, we were able to get to know each other very well and could thereby create a good basis for making common plans for the next months. In the end, the training is supposed to be an important step in fostering cultural awareness among participants.
One good example of this approach is the personal project, which was set up for the whole of Wednesday. I was part of a small group together with Anna from the Czech Republic and Alicia from Spain and we were advised to think of a project that would be beneficial not only for us, but also for all the other participants as well as the local community in the coast region of Slovenia. Having the restriction of finishing the project by the end of the day, we came up with the idea of cleaning a part of the coast of all plastic waste and also to gather information about how the inhabitants of the coastal towns deal with this problem. We found that actually the beaches were very clean and on a 3 km long part of the coast we could only find a small bag of waste. By talking to people from the municipality we discovered the reason: local schools as well as adults from the villages and towns nearby regularly organise activities to collect all the waste along the coast. However, everyone we spoke to agreed that the problem of plastic waste has become much bigger over the past few years. By presenting our project to the other participants we were able to make them more aware of the problem in general, but also to give them inspiration for lowering their use of plastic in particular. And finally, this project was not only beneficial to the local community and the other participants – but also enabled us to learn something about how to manage a project and which skills we as a person are able to bring in during such a process. The same principle applies to the whole EVS experience – the projects of the hosting organisation are supposed to help the local community, but the volunteer also gains a lot of skills, knowledge and unforgettable experiences that will in the end strengthen the bonds between the cultures and nations of Europe.
By interacting with all those wonderful people from various countries during this week, Jessica and I became even more aware of how great it is to be part of this European Union. There has never been a time when travelling and experiencing different cultures has been so easy. And the more we know about the habits and opinions of people from other parts of Europe, the clearer we see that we are basically all the same – having similar problems and fears, but also wishes, hopes and dreams. But the biggest dreams can only come true when we all work together and share our knowledge, experience and passion, but at the same time accept our differences and our roots to a certain part of this great continent. And by doing that, we should think of the old man at the bus station from time to time: he loves his home town and is proud of his country, but at the same time he is willing to learn from “strangers” by telling his own story – and then listening to their ideas. By appreciating our differences we can make this union more diverse, and therefore stronger.
Long live the United States of Europe!
Starting European Solidarity Corps at the NGO EkoPot (OrganicWay)
My name is Jessica Knights, and I am one of two volunteers working on the ‘iFarm Organic’ Erasmus +/European Solidarity Corps project at the NGO EkoPot (OrganicWay). Running from March to November 2019, Lukas and I have been given the opportunity to experience a full growing season on this organic and biodynamic certified, 12 ha farm project. The principles of community and sustainability are at the core of all of the activities here, which uses a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model. The farm project also participates in a food co-operative in Ljubljana, and is the first crowd funded agricultural project in Slovenia. Central to the work being carried out here is a commitment to living, on a daily basis, as much in line with the values that the project represents as possible. The farm project is 80% self-sufficient and extremely diverse, producing vegetables (more than 60 different varieties), fruit, nuts, grains and more than 100 minimally processed goods, such as pasta and preserves. It operates a zero waste policy and regularly hosts volunteers through different programmes, creating a unique and exciting learning community.
I am from England originally, and have been volunteering on other farm projects in the UK through WWOOF since September 2018. Previous to this, I studied Social Anthropology to Master’s level, and worked for arts, heritage and research organisations for several years as an administrator and event organiser. I had long felt that my sedentary lifestyle, working 9-5 in an office environment, wasn’t beneficial to my mental or physical health, and felt a strong desire to focus instead on things which would give me nourishment - good food, being outdoors, and spending time with like-minded people. I do not come from a farming or even particuarly rural background, but was influenced by the work of indigenous writers such as Robin Wall Kimmerer and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson to recognise the importance of learning from and establishing a reciprocal relationship with the land, and to understand that this connection is at the root of our individual, societal and planetary health. This sentiment is perfectly encapsulated in this quote from Wendell Berry (via bell hooks in her book ‘Belonging: a culture of place’):
"Only by restoring the broken connection can we be healed. Connection is health. And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is. We loose our health - and create profitable diseases and dependencies - by failing to see the direct connection between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving. In gardening, for instance, one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive..."
While I have only been on the farm project for a few weeks at the time of writing, I already feel that I have learnt and experienced an enormous amount. When we arrived the landscape was still in slumber; within the first week tiny green buds were appearing on the trees, seemingly in front of our eyes. Today I sat outside in the sunshine under a Mirabelle tree in full bloom, resonating with the sound of bees. We learnt that trees heal just like people do, and that good soil smells like the forest. Rain means a quiet day processing indoors, and that everything will be greener when the sun shines again. Every task that we carry out is done in anticipation of future bounty - seeds are sown, berry bushes pruned, young apple trees planted in orchards with decisions made for harvests forty years from now. But most wonderful of all is sharing work, meals and laughter with our small farm community, learning a little more about each other and how to live together everyday.
On Friday 15th March Maja, Katharina, Lukas, Luca, Ema, Samo and I joined the youth strike for climate action in Maribor, which felt like a fitting activity to begin our stay in Slovenia. One of the aims of the European Solidarity Corps programme is to foster international cooperation, and the protest highlighted the importance of this impulse in responding to the present issues we face. No matter where we are in the world we are able to give each other the strength to say no, this is enough, and to imagine and work towards a different future. This is the important work which is being carried out at EkoPot, and I am incredibly grateful to Maja and Matjaž for giving volunteers the gift of participating in the custodianship of their land, of learning with them and enabling us to be part of their growing international family.
Images: Katharina Kochems