Pasta with jam, please!

The real work has definitely started and the honeymoon with the community life is over. The past two weeks have been packed with learning and new experiences. During these two weeks, I have among other things planned and held 36 intercultural sessions for kids and teenagers between the ages of 6-17 years working in pairs with other volunteers. To put it more concrete, I have found myself singing head-shoulders-knees-and-toes with kids, holding a Spanish class for Polish teenagers as well as organizing a CV & LinkedIn workshop for the other volunteers. Still in the early autumn, I did not expect any of these to happen in the near future but here I am, alive and kicking!

One of the schools we have been working at

Working in such a different environment compared to my office-job in Finland has created me an excellent opportunity to observe what is natural to me and what makes me feel at unease. As people who know me have seen, I am very organized and want to be in control of the situation, which often means I have carefully planned everything in advance. Well, as expected, I have been put very much out of my comfort zone on this aspect while working here. The Poles are punctual and structured and the main organizer at Fundacja EBU has done a tremendous job at providing us all the possible information in advance. However, as there are many moving parts and we volunteers come from very different cultures, you need to accept sudden turnarounds and try to balance between different attitudes towards working. Furthermore, as this is a short-term volunteering experience and no one is here for money, our motivations and expectations differ a lot, which makes the matter maybe even more complex.

We work in pairs but already the second day working at the schools, I surprisingly found myself standing in front of the class alone as my volunteer colleague needed to meet with the doctor and I knew she wouldn’t make it back on time only when stepping into the classroom. A few long breathes and I managed to start with the exercise she had been leading the other times. Another time we walked into the class only to find out that we had already had a session with the group and now we needed to quickly come up with another workshop plan for the next 45 minutes. Luckily, I was working with my lovely volunteer colleague María and it was surprisingly easy to come to a common understanding with a new plan in a matter of seconds. We rocked it!

However, as said, I am naturally a planner, not an improviser. It is somewhat okay for me to improvise when I know the topic and methods thoroughly and am only accountable for my own actions. Nevertheless, when you put me – who’s not a professional teacher – into a teaching situation abroad with another volunteer who I’ve known only for two weeks, improvising becomes a whole lot harder. You’re not only insecure of what you should do when the kids don’t understand what you try to say but in addition, you need to evaluate if your colleague will play along if you decide to change the original plan in the middle of the session when things don’t seem to work out. This to me is the hardest part of working with many different people coming from different cultures as it’s more challenging to foresee what your actions might trigger as you don’t share common history. It would maybe even be easier for me to go to the classes alone and be responsible for the whole session on my own but that is not why I am here. This is a great way to practice giving space to other people and creating an atmosphere where one can count on the other one even if something unexpected should happen.

Being forced to improvise and take quick decisions several times a day has not been the only thing that has made me to step out of my comfort zone frequently. Community life with different dinner times and cleanliness standards makes it sometimes hard to find a compromise how to do things together. It took us an entire week to find a suitable time to watch a movie as we Nordics were always about to go to bed the time our southern colleagues approached us with a friendly invitation to watch a movie together.

Furthermore, my first experience with the Polish school lunch took me even further away from my comfort zone. I have now learned the hard way that eating a school lunch in Poland is a bit like Russian roulette – you never know if you make it. We have tried our best but unfortunately many of us have realized that our taste is not sophisticated enough to enjoy some of the local delicacies like a juice with the taste of mouthwash. However, I think that the most severe trauma was caused to our Italian volunteer who  was served pasta with jam as the vegetarian lunch. Even my invisible salad at a dinner restaurant was probably more delicious than this.

Today we will prepare 20 students to go for a field trip in Spain and after that we are off to Krakow till Tuesday! Next week is also otherwise exciting as we will get the real Santa Claus from Rovaniemi to visit in Minsk Mazowiecki and celebrate the Finnish independence day with Finnish & Greek cultural evening on Friday. Stay tuned to hear more!

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