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An ESC volunteering project is a suitcase to life skills

     By Annalisa Ranzenigo

       After three months from the start of my short-term European Solidarity Corps project, I found myself opening the website one more time. Scrolling through the opportunities offered, I was looking for the perfect experience to live during my long-term mobility. I wanted this to be in a French-speaking country and to end before September, but most importantly, the activities proposed needed to suit my interests. As you can guess, the research was not easy.

       I spent my short-term in a little Bulgarian town, known for its architecture as ‘the little Vienna’. Living there was charming, but there was not much to do. This is one of the main reasons why, for my long-term project, I decided to rule out missions located in small villages in the countryside. Nothing against them; I have always thought that living in a small village for a while could be delightful. Anyway, this time I was looking forward to engaging in a different experience, which could enrich me with new competencies and skills. I intended to live in a dynamic city, with places to discover and different people to meet. Amiens looked like a very good option. It is a medium size university city with interesting touristic sites and many green spaces. The project also met my interest: it is about sensitising and educating people on the protection of the environment. The environment theme has always attracted my attention, but I have never had the chance to deeply develop my knowledge about it. So this was my opportunity to learn, and at the same time to spend my time doing something useful for society and nature.

       Globally, many associations are turning to environmentally friendly practices and are trying to find solutions to waste and pollution, while many NGOs are tackling the problem encouraging communities to do the same. This zero-waste lifestyle is entering everyone’s life in various ways, and even social media suggest every day videos about recycling, waste reduction, or lives without plastic. Yet, for all of these good proposals and resolutions to work, everybody should be conscientious of the marks they leave on the earth and should do whatever in their power to reduce them. I believe that each individual can contribute a little, while associations and other structures as hostels can raise common awareness about the importance of environmentally friendly practices. I thought such a volunteering experience could enrich me as a person while teaching me to help communities and the environment. So, after some days of thinking, I decided to accept the offer and move to France.

       Amiens is a welcoming city encompassing low red brick houses. They leave, for the travellers arriving from outside the city, a direct open view on the majestic cathedral. Entering the city, a distracted passerby could think about the houses as all similar. Yet a deeper gaze reveals the little peculiar characteristics which grant each house its uniqueness. South-west from the city centre, where once an old military building used to stand, there is now the Auberge de Jeunesse. Pierre, the director of the hostel, together with Elisa working in animation, arranged for the volunteer from Spain and me a bright, spacious and comfortable flat on the last floor of the hostel. The view from the big windows is breathtaking, and every night, I stand still for a while contemplating the city, before lowering the thick grey curtain.

       As explained to me before my departure, my activities in Concordia are going to be about developing actions to sensitise the public towards the preservation of the environment and, together with the other volunteer, to promote mobility and European Solidarity Corps and to create social links with local inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Part of our project will be developed within the Youth Hostel, which is engaged in environmental missions. Here my tasks consist of helping the hostel with its green practices and building a connection net within the neighbourhood. Pierre found a way to combine environment and involvement of people: the goal is to create a vegetable garden along the walls of the hostel, for which people can work together and then benefit from the results.

       The days pass by fast between the work in the hostel and in Concordia’s office. The first two weeks we discovered the hostel, our missions, we met the people in the association and we visited the city. However, I quickly understood that undertaking a European Solidarity Corps volunteering does not only result in acquiring the skills included in the info pack. In fact, every mobility will be a life experience, during which everyone will have to deal with unpredictable and sometimes stressful situations.

       The unexpected situation of my mission in Amiens arrived on a Monday, the first day of the third week. The project stumbled a little with the announcement of the closing of the Auberge de Jeunesse due to the Coronavirus epidemic. In one day, while we were rushing out of our accomodation and moving to our mentor’s flat, all my perspectives towards my five months here changed completely. I thought back at when I was considering Amiens as a great opportunity to meet many different people. Sitting on the bed with the loyal cat, Icare, I am pondering my months in Bulgaria, and all of the people I met there. Just a little amount of Bulgarians, but many Turkish, Romanians, Polish, Spanish and even a girl from Ceuta, who with few words and a smile, has been able to change my desperate train travel to a nice adventure full of stories from the other continent. I suddenly realized this is the exact reason why I loved all my Erasmus mobilities. Despite the difficulties, they are a link to the world, and to the kindness of people from all over the world. Yet their richness does not only come from others, since they also allow young people to grow and better their own selves.

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      The confinement did not only change my location and expectations, but also my volunteering activities. Some missions in the hostel have been paused for a while, especially the ones where physical presence is needed, yet we have not lost heart, and the work in Concordia is continuing on. In our little houses, we are all connected through our computers. Through our computers, we are also able to admire the benefits for nature of the shut down of people’s busy lives. Encouraged by the unusual silence and the mitigation of the traces left by our overbearing presence, animals are making their shy way through the streets and by the beaches, all over the world, some dolphins have been spotted. Maybe when this will be over, with a new desire of sharing and socialising, and with the picture of clear waters glued in our minds, the project will continue on with fresh energy.

       So, in terms of my life here, what came together with the epidemic was not only negative. Yes, I miss social contact, but not as much. In the room where I am sleeping now, there is a big window, and I feel safe as behind the glass, the night tucks in the same Amiens I was contemplating from south-west. I lift my head from my computer and I smile seeing my Spanish and French flatmates, including the little Icare, and the stories from the world that every night take shape in this little house. Then I turn around, my bags remain ready in the back of the room, I am ready to leave again, and to move to one more new apartment. This is another aspect I learned to love about my mobilities: volunteers not only master the ability of coping with uncertainty, yet they discover how to live with it. They learn how to feel the same comfort in a spacious apartment in a bright hostel, or in a tiny flat, on a bed on the ground, not knowing where tomorrow will take them. And after all, sometimes uncertainty can feel safe, it can feel like home.

       I would be lying if I was saying that Erasmus is easy, but from my experience, I know that those difficulties seeming huge and insurmountable during the exchange, will be the best stories to tell in the future. They will become the best adventure memories and the fear of those days will be laughed at. At the end, the only real step to take is the one to hop on the plain. Everything else, good or bad, easy or hard, will arrive by itself. And I am sure that at the end of each project, short or long, anyone who really tried, will return home with a huge suitcase of life skills held tightly in their hands.