Thursday, April 17, 2014

Two weeks, two training sessions and a bottle of Rakija

A few weeks ago I came back to Zagreb from 15 intense days of training sessions, intercultural exchanges, trains, buses, making new friends, energizers, Turbo Folk, porno hostels, sleep deprivation, and, I wont lie, considerable amounts of Rakija took part of the whole process. Just writing this sentence got me exhausted all over again! But for sure I won't forget these couple of weeks any time soon.

Let me explain what I have been up too. As part of the EVS programme, all EVS volunteers that came to Croatia during the last few months should take part of the On Arrival Training that is organized by the Croatian National Agency. It's a great opportunity to meet a lot of people from all around Europe that, just like myself, decided to do their EVS in Croatia. This training took place in a little town that goes by the name of Orahovica, in the local Red Cross facilities. Right away I want to send a couple words of appreciation to all the Red Cross staff and also the trainers that treated us so well during these days of the On Arrival Training, making us feel at home since the first minute: Thank you!
Allow me to rewind a little bit. After leaving Zagreb early in the morning, I spent four and a half hours in the world's slowest train (really, I can run faster than that train!) throughout Slavonija's beautiful plain fields to get to Orahovica. This region of Croatian is worth visiting, it is known by its landscapes, its rich culinary, its wine production, its agricultural sector that represents almost half of Croatia's agricultural land, but probably the most important thing you need to know about Slavonija can be summed up in one word: Polako... polako...
It means "Slowly... slowly". Relax, enjoy yourself, have a cup of coffee. But really, take your time! Is this Slavonija's essence? Perhaps. Or maybe it's just a stereotype, but judging by the "snail train" I'd say that there might be some truthfulness into it. One of my Croatian teachers is not going to like this.. Oprosti Katarina, molim te nemoj me ubiti! :)

Anyways, back to business. The On Arrival Training is something like an official welcome to Croatia. Its purpose is to give the tools for volunteers to make the most of their EVS. During 6 days we engaged in a lot of conversations about the EVS experience, its potential as a volunteer programme, the rights and responsibilities of volunteers and organizations, we were introduced to the Youth Pass, we spoke about how the cultural shock can affect volunteers abroad, and so many other subjects, but I'll spare you the details. You just have to do an EVS and see for yourself! Telling you and living it it's just like seeing the movie and not reading the book. It's just not the same.. the book is always much better.
The best kept memory from this training was the intercultural night. After a real feast of local traditional delights (vegan version for me!), everyone presented interesting facts and some quirks of their own countries and culture. It was very funny to learn some peculiarities that this amazing group of people brought with them. Off the top of my head, I remember the improv theater that the Bulgarian girls did, representing the way Bulgarian guys try to get lucky with the ladies, if you know what I mean, the Czech people absolute love of beer, the (dis)organization of Italian daily life (with a lot of similarities to my fellow Portuguese people by the way!), the personal distance measure (or lack of it) of the Spanish people interactions, and "La Cobra" (the zig-zag movement that girls do moving their heads backwards while guys try insistently to kiss them!), the French people reluctance to speak about money (just don't ask them about money!), the Polish love of vodka and the gazillion different ways they produce it, and the common personal traits of Greeks (over-talkative and their beautifully applied sarcasm towards everything and everyone, often including themselves). I spoke about the old Portuguese student traditions and presented this short video that shows a little bit of the craziness that goes around my city (Coimbra) when the most popular college student traditional parties take place. Lets not forget Malta, those guys are just crazy!
Slavonija was a good host.

Ok but I don't wan't to give the impression that this training was all about eating and drinking. During most of the day we actually got to be happy participants in the training sessions that were quite informative and dynamic. And let me tell you, non-formal education works! In my humble opinion, it makes much more sense than the traditional form of education... but that's a subject to another blog.

After this amazing week at Orahovica, the next stop was Osijek. Although my body was screaming for a few hours of beauty sleep, I still had another training to attend in Novi Sad, Serbia. My bus to Novi Sad was schedule to the next day so I got to stay in Osijek for the night, in a very peculiar hostel right in the middle of the Fortress city, called Tvrđa (Citadel). I call it the porno hostel. Yeah, you read that right! The decoration of this place speaks for itself. I'm so sorry for the bad quality pictures, but I think you get the idea. Lets say the artistic choice was... well... kinky!

This was not only an hostel. It is actually a night club, and it happens to have a few dorms on the top floor. When I got there the owner rushed to let me know that I had a perfect timing. Apparently that very same night there was a big drum n' bass party, and yes, you guessed it, right below my dorm! I like drum n' bass music, but really? That exact night?? I was begging for some sleep... Anyways, I was so exhausted that the rhythmic vibration that made every piece of furniture shake all night long worked out as the perfect therapeutic massage for my crippled body. And it was funny to try to go in the bathroom in my pijamas and have to go around all this people drinking and smoking right outside my room. A fun night at the porno hostel..

The next day I spent a few hours visiting Osijek. Many buildings around the city still bear the wounds left from its recent history of war and violence. I believe most local people don't pay attention anymore, but for me it was very noticeable. Every other building is still full of bullet holes. It was a mixed feeling witnessing what was for me a very exotic scenario and the sad realization of the devastation that Osijek suffered not much longer than 20 years ago. I was quite young at the time to understand this war, but I clearly remember seeing and hearing on Portuguese television the images and sounds of this dark period.
But it was a sunny day, and Osijek revealed its beauty! Visit this city if you have the chance, you will for sure enjoy its green parks, a long walk along the riverside, and you can't miss the Church of St Peter and St Paul with its 90 metre tall spire.
The same afternoon I got a bus to the next destination and seminar, in Novi Sad, Serbia. I was the first to arrive at the hostel where the entire group was staying, and again my expectations to sleep were quickly flushed down the toilet... Apparently the hostel was completely booked just for our group, and the guy that works there had some personal stuff to take care off, so I was left in charge of opening the door and receive everyone that was arriving during the night from all kinds of places in Europe. I just couldn't get a break! No harm done, Novi Sad is a very busy city at a Saturday night, it's easy to have some fun there. Serbians know what they're doing! I feel the need to send a quick message to my EVS Hosting and Sending Organizations: these two weeks were a massive cultural exchange, don't see it as bohemian life style ok? :)
And the next day: POT! No, not that kind of pot guys... It was the Placement Officer Training. Which happens to be my job at VCZ, so I got to learn how to do it right.

I'll leave you with a few pictures from Novi Sad, a beautiful city that has a very interesting charisma and that received our group so well. By the way, a warm hug for my friends from POT, you guys are awesome!

The Rakija bottle is finally over... See you soon.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The clock starts ticking

January the 29th 2014 was the day it all began. And what a cliché first sentence for this blog! Anyway, after a quick but heartfelt farewell at Coimbra's train station, off I went to Lisbon to spend the night at a friend's house (thank you Gaudêncio for hosting me!). A couple beers at Bairro Alto and a traditional Portuguese Ginginha set the mood for my early morning flight to Zagreb. Not packing much, just some clothes, my guitar and lots of excitement, my adventure throughout Croatia was about to start..

Ok, maybe it is time for some context here. I am doing my EVS in Zagreb, and with this blog I will try my best to share my EVS experience with you guys. Hope you enjoy it!
Some of you might be asking yourselves what exactly is an EVS? Well the short textbook definition could be something like 'it is the European Voluntary Service, a European Union programme that facilitates your staying in a European foreign country in exchange for your volunteer work in an organization of your choice'. Very formal right? Well now that I have been in Croatia for 7 weeks, I would say that an EVS is much more than just that. But you will have to stick around to know more about it (always leave them wanting more, right?;).

After a four and a half hours flight, which included an airplane vegan "lunch", a connection flight in Bologna that I didn't even know about (thank you TAP airlines for informing me!) and a couple hours of sleep, I finally arrive at Zagreb Pleso airport. My precious guitar arrived in one piece! Ufff...

Zvone, the husband of my EVS coordinator Ivana, was expecting me at the airport. Hello big guy! A ten minutes car ride to the city center and I was amazed already. My first impressions of Zagreb: cold and white! The city was covered in snow! Yes, it's winter I know, but this is a big deal for a Portuguese guy that only saw snow a couple times in his life.. And never like this, so much, everywhere, snow! So there I was looking out Zvone's car window like a little kid looking at the candy shop. Reality check: I need to get myself some winter boots...

First stop was my Hosting Organization. It is called Volunteers' Center Zagreb (VCZ). I briefly met my future coworker's, an all-girls small team that received me with big smiles. I'll tell you more about VCZ later. Second stop was my flat. I'm living with this lovely Croatian couple that gave me a warm welcome into their home. And after unpacking, the third and last stop of my first day in Croatia was my new and comfy bed!

A couple weeks have gone by and I'm still enjoying the snowy scenario of this beautiful city, walking around with my camera and the city map, felling like a true tourist. Zagreb is a good place to live, not that big like so many other European capitals, but definitely bearing a good vibe. Everyone's friendly, people smile, and it is quite easy to go by without knowing the Croatian language. Dobar dan! That was it for me for the first couple of weeks. Not that I know much more by now, but I will have some language classes starting pretty soon! Slavic languages seem so strange for my 'Latin ears', but it is funny to try to figure out some words when people are speaking. Once in a while I can ear some recognizable words, there's even a couple of Croatian words that are exactly the same as Portuguese words. But the meaning... I won't even go there, because my mother might be reading this and it is nasty! But in Zagreb pretty much everyone speaks at least some English, even the old lady from the bakery around the corner! By the way, it is worth mentioning that Croatians love their bakeries. There's one in every corner, literally! It is the Mecca of bakeries this city. Full of good fine pastries and all kinds of fresh baked bread. Too bad for veganism.. I won't taste most of the sweet stuff, but I always have a wide variety of fresh bread to enjoy every morning.

Anyway, doing an EVS is not meant to be just about traveling and sightseeing, so let me explain what exactly is VCZ about and what is my job in this organization. This small but quite active NGO works at several levels of voluntary work, acting at the community level by organizing and coordinating all kinds of voluntary projects and work-camps, doing promotion work and raising awareness about this world and all the possibilities available for everyone. I am also still discovering VCZ and its activities, so I hope I can tell more about it in future posts.
Also, VCZ is a branch organization of Service Civil International (SCI), "a volunteer organisation dedicated to promoting a culture of peace by organizing international voluntary projects for people of all ages and backgrounds". And my main job is to be the Outgoing Placement Officer. Fancy title right? Well, it is quite simple actually. My responsibility as a PO is to help Croatian volunteers to find their way into participating in work-camps around the world. The SCI network is quite big and spread around the planet and there are so many awesome opportunities for everyone, you should definitely try it!
By the way, did I already told you that VCZ is a dog friendly office? There are 2 to 3 little dogs in the office almost every day! They are so cute and playful, if you had any doubts about visiting us, now you just have to come to meet these creatures :) You are all invited to pay us a visit, the office is in Ilica street, number 29, really close to the main square... and feel free to bring cookies.

Well that's it for now, this blog took way too long to finally come online but I promise that I will write more regularly from now on. Just a quick side note about EVS, if you want to know more (and believe me you do!) check out this website. Click it! An EVS is an amazing experience, you'll get to know a lot of different people, you can learn a new language, travel, work with the local community, get involved, share experiences, be altruistic, feel good :) Really, get your ass of the couch and do it! You can thank me later..