The story starts around April 2018. I had already written so many applications for ESK (European Solidarity Corps) projects, that were all turned down, and I was in the middle of my final exams in secondary school. I was starting to get frustrated and even a bit scared because I didn’t really have any other plan for my immediate future than becoming an ESK volunteer. I felt the urge to go abroad and just leave behind all I knew for a while. It was not like I was feeling uncomfortable or bored at home, I have a lovely family and friends that mean a lot to me, but I had never been away for a longer period of time on my own. It sounded like an adventure to me. Diving into another culture, meeting people from all over the world, learning a new language. I really wanted all of this.
So when I finally received an email inviting me to a Skype interview, I was pretty nervous. I knew how important it was to make a good first impression, as the interviewer would decide whether or not I would be accepted as a volunteer. The ESK project that had sent this email to me was a school in Denmark and they were looking for someone to help teaching German. When I read the description I thought it was a perfect match. I was considering becoming a teacher after my gap year and I was fascinated by the idea of teaching children my own language. You can imagine how tense I was. Sitting on the edge of my chair, I waited for the call.
I was greeted by the German teacher of the school, a young woman called Tina who was ever so kind, and after a short chat she asked me if I wanted to be their next volunteer. I didn’t really realize what she had said at first but then, of course, I accepted. After the interview everything felt a bit surreal. I was completely over the moon and the only sentence that ran through my head was “holy shit, I’m going abroad”.
About four months later, on a Friday in September, I was standing on platform 5 of the central station in my hometown. I can still remember as if it was yesterday this strange feeling of not being nervous although I thought I should be. The whole thing still felt as if it wasn’t real. And then the locomotive rolled into the station, I hugged my friends and family goodbye and as soon as I got on the train the doors closed, I heard the loud whistle of the station attendant and started moving north.
I’ll skip the nine hour drive for you, as nothing really happened besides the changing of the landscape that rushed by. I was strangely enough feeling quite calm during the trip but when the speakers announced “næste station Aarhus / next stop Aarhus” finally my heart started beating quicker. I grabbed my luggage and kind of stumbled out of the train because of my heavy backpack and the rising nervousness.
The host family I would be staying with for the next months had told me that they would pick me up at the station. They had also send some pictures of them in one of their emails, so I recognized them as soon as I stepped out onto the platform. A small, sporty women in her late 40s with a warm and open smile and a tall, slim girl that looked very likeable and was around my age. I knew that there was also a father in this family but he was working in another town on this weekend that was why I would meet him later.
My future host mum and sister both gave me a warm hug and we started chatting about my journey, the plans for the weekend, Aarhus and so on and so on. I instantly felt utterly welcome and comfortable with them. I think that I could already sense that we would get along pretty well.
When we got to their house, in a quiet, family friendly district of the town, where all the houses had little gardens and the leaves on the trees were just starting to turn red, I thought that I could easily feel at home here. Of course I was still nervous and didn’t know exactly how to behave in this new situation but Signe and Solveig already talked to me like I was a member of the family and after a nice dinner and the attempt to unpack all of my stuff, I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.
I had been given a spacious room with high ceilings that, before my arrival, had belonged to the oldest daughter of my host family who was now in Taiwan doing a voluntary service. It may sound like I was some kind of replacement for her but I never to this day felt like it. Actually it turned out to be a huge advantage to live in a family that was used to have two almost grown up girls in the house. As I would learn later, a lot of the volunteers who were hosted by families with smaller children, had some problems within these families.
Anyway, I spent the rest of my first weekend cycling around the city with Signe and Solveig exploring the sights of Aarhus. Signe knew quite a lot of fun facts about almost everything we saw. Thanks to that and the fact that we were going around by bike, I already got a pretty good overview of the town after just two days of being in Denmark.
On Sunday evening I also met my host dad Peder who was just as kind and welcoming as the others. He offered to take me to my project on Monday so I could get to know the best way to cycle to work.
I was very relieved when I heard that the school was close enough to go there by bike, as I deeply enjoyed biking to my secondary school back home every morning.
So the next day Peder and I drove up the hill, where their house was located on, and through a nice park area towards my project.
Just a really quick info about the Danish school system, to make things easier to understand in the following.
In Denmark all the children aged six to sixteen, which corresponds to classes 0 to 9, go to the same type of school, called “folkeskole”. After that they can choose to do three years of “gymnasium”, to be able to go to university later, or start a professional education. The school I would be working at was a privately owned “folkeskole”
Alright, enough of that and back to the story.
When we arrived we were greeted by the vice headmaster Søren, so I said goodbye to my host dad and was shown around the little campus. There were four buildings in different colours and shapes arranged around a schoolyard with sandboxes,swings, trees and two artificial hills. Basically a huge playground. They also had some football fields and a little forest that belonged to the property. To me the whole school looked like a little village just made for children. I knew of course that as a private school they had more money than the public ones but I could also see that they were investing it to create a better environment to learn in.
After the little tour I met Tina. She was the German teacher I had already talked to via Skype. She was just as kind, considerate and easy to talk to as I’d gotten the impression during the interview. She took me to do all the necessary paperwork with the authorities, which was of course important, but also extremely boring to read about, so I’m just going to skip to the next day: my first real day at the project.
We started with a lesson in 7th grade. My hands were a bit sweaty before, I have to admit, as I had never stood in front of a class before, especially not one that didn’t really speak my language. But Tina told me it would be just fine to introduce myself in German and then simply observe for the rest of the lesson, to get to know how everything worked here. The kids were a bit shy but also curious and I was glad Tina was experienced in having volunteers around.
This little routine, of me introducing myself, following the lesson and attempting to pick up the style of teaching, continued for the rest of the day. At lunch break I met all the other teachers, pedagogues and maintenance staff, that all ate together in the teachers’ room. I was surprised by the flat hierarchy, which was, as I would learn later, very typical for Denmark. It was a bit overwhelming to meet all these people who had known each other for years, were much older than me and whose language I didn’t speak. Everything they said sounded like gibberish to me, they spoke fast and mumbling and I thought that I would never be able to understand it.
When I got back to my host families’ place, I was just so tired of all the new impressions I had gained, that I couldn’t really do anything at all. As my first two weeks in this still unfamiliar country passed by, I started to get used to everything. The strange and everchanging weather, the slightly different food, seeing the Danish flag all over the place -yes, the Danes are quite proud of their country and like to show a festive occasion with raising the flag in front of their house- and of course my work and the life in my host family. Although all of that was still new and exciting and I also missed home, I found myself settling into my daily routine and everyday life.
As an ESK volunteer you get to go to two camps / trainings during your stay abroad. They are meant to connect the volunteers that are staying in the same country, give them the opportunity to built a network and discuss and prepare them for upcoming problems. After about three weeks I had my so called on-arrival training where we stayed in a scout center right in the middle of nowhere. About fifty volunteers from all over the EU took part in it and it turned out to be an amazing experience. Before I went to that training, I didn’t really know anyone my age. I think that was the main reason I was looking forward to the camp as much as I did. I was eager to meet people that were in a similar situation as I was at that point and I was hoping I could make some new friends as well.
To get to the camp, I had to take the train and then change into a shuttle bus that would bring all of the participants to the location. When I arrived at the train station alone, I was all nervous because I was afraid to miss or not find the bus. So I felt relieved when I saw a group of young people with backpacks speaking English, that were standing at the platform and looked just as lost as I must have. When I approached them, it turned out that they actually were ESK volunteers but, just as me, they didn’t have a clue about where the bus would leave. After a short search, with some introductions and small talk on the way, we eventually found the bus. It was already filled up with people speaking Italian, Spanish, German and mostly English and after everyone had found a seat we took off to the camp.
After we arrived, found our rooms and had made some first contact with one another, the persons in charge of the training made us play some get-to-know-each-other games. Usually most people don’t like these often quite awkward games but I thought it was rather enjoyable to talk to so many volunteers with different backgrounds, cultures, opinions and languages. I find that to be one of the most important parts of the ESK and I underestimated how much I could actually learn from these intercultural conversations, and later, friendships.
I do have to admit, that I don’t remember a lot of what we learned on the camp, although some of it did came in handy. But what I do remember are all of the amazing people I was allowed to meet and I was genuinely glad that we would get to see each other again on our mid-term training.
It went on to be an extraordinary week and at the end of it I had met individuals from all over the EU and was equipped with a folder containing not only useful information but also some new memories of a camp where I, for the first time, felt not German but truly European.
The weekend after the training I met up with some of the volunteer that lived in the same area as me. We went to a pub and, as we were all Germans and Austrians, we naturally spoke German. It felt familiar and satisfying to speak me own language again and I think that the others felt the same. We had a cozy evening with beer, a lot of good conversation and stories from back home. After these wonderful experiences and finally knowing some other young people, I was somewhat euphoric. I was sure that everything would just be fantastic from now on. Whilst that feeling was not completely wrong, there would be some difficulties in the upcoming months, some things I just hadn’t had in mind. The problem was that, now that I was back to my everyday life and working at the project, I began to feel bored.
There were various reasons for that. As I got used to the way of teaching and became comfortable with being in the classroom on the teacher’s side, I wanted to engage more. I wanted to help the children with their questions, wanted to tell them about the German culture, wanted to do something apart from sitting on a chair and observing, which had been perfect for the beginning but wasn’t enough anymore. Following that urge came frustration. I couldn’t really communicate with the kids. I didn’t speak their language other than a few words, after all I hadn’t been in Denmark for more than a month. Talking English was of course an option in the upper classes but it didn’t really work out with the smaller children. Adding to the language barrier was the fact that they didn’t know me very well at that time and the initial curiosity had vanished. So most of them were shy and afraid to ask me questions or accept help from me. I also didn’t have long working hours; I was always off in the afternoon. This may sound like a dream come true but it left me with a lot of time I had to fill on my own. It wasn’t as easy as back home to meet up with people, especially spontaneously, as I had often done with my friends. Some of the other volunteers had to work much more than I did and almost all of them had to travel at least 40 minutes to get into Aarhus, as they lived and worked on the countryside. That’s why I could only meet them at the weekend and I hadn’t yet found some free time activity to spend the time after work with.
It was only thanks to my lovely host family that I didn’t feel as lonely during this episode of frustration. They took me to family parties, dinners, even holidays, introduced me to the neighbors and visited sights in the area with me. I’m tremendously thankful to them that they did all of that and even more let me be a part of their family. I know that a lot of other volunteers had some problems with their host families at least at some point, but I never had and I consider myself very lucky to have ended up with them.
After a few weeks of feeling disappointed, and admittedly also self-pitying myself a bit, because my expectations hadn’t been fully met, I decided to pull myself together and do something against it. In school I asked Tina for some more work and she immediately took care of the matter and organized that I could help out in the afterschool care on two days a week. I thought it was a great idea to also get to know some of the kids in a non-school environment and was very much looking forward to it. Roughly at the same time I was finally informed that the language course, Tina and I had signed me up for on my first day, would start soon. So I had even more I could anticipate. I had known from the beginning of my stay that I wanted to learn at least some Danish and the fact communicating would become so much easier raised my motivation even more. And indeed: after a few weeks of language school I was already able to understand a lot of what people were talking about around me. I was even able to have small conversations with the pupils. Unarguably the best thing was how they reacted to me suddenly speaking to them in their own language. All of the sudden they lost their shyness towards me and that was when I truly realized how much of a door opener it is to speak the tongue of the country you live in. They were remarkably supportive, helped me find words when I couldn’t remember them and tried very hard to understand what, I’m sure, sounded awful at the beginning. It was owing to them that I, too, lost my shyness and started to use Danish whenever I could. This new skill also helped me a lot with the work in the afterschool care which had been a bit difficult at the start. The concept was very loose and I struggled to find my place in it at first. I felt a little redundant as there wasn’t a clear task for me. But the pedagogues tried their best to integrate me and as soon as I started a little project with the kids – crafting some self-made Christmas decoration – I was feeling more comfortable with that part of my work.
Time just flew by now that I had overcome the frustration. On top of that I also joined a guitar group with some really nice university students that met up once a week to play some music together. Combined with the Danish lessons twice a week, where I had also met people from all over the world, this filled up my afternoons and cured me from my boredom.
After I came back from the Christmas holidays which I had spent back home with my friends and family, I travelled quite a lot around the country with other volunteers and my host family. I got to see many beautiful sceneries, idyllic towns and wild seaside landscapes. For a country of its size, Denmark does certainly have a lot to show. Apart from these trips, nothing really spectacular happened in the next time.
At work I took over two or three lessons in some of the classes, where I was allowed to teach a bit on my own and tell the kids about the culture of Germany and my hometown. I felt proud that Tina had the confidence in me to let me do that and I genuinely enjoyed it. Other than that, I also went to the mid-term training.
To some extent it was weird to meet all the others again, talk to them and realize that we’d all gone through the same highs and lows. But always with the thought in the back of my mind that some of them I would probably never see again after this camp. I think many of us felt like this, more or less, marked the beginning of the end of our stay. Nevertheless, it was a great time we spent in Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, where the training took place. With a perfect mixture of good food, some sightseeing, a visit to Malmö in Sweden and some of the nicest and coolest people I was lucky enough to meet, I think it’s safe to say that this was one of the best weeks of my EVS.
The presentiment I had, of seeing some of the volunteers for the last time on the camp, did come true. But with others, the ones I had made friends with over the last nine months, I am still meeting up with. And I’m confident that we will keep in contact with one another even after our stay abroad has ended.
During an ESK you learn about culture; the one of the country that hosts you, but also the variety of cultures in Europe and, not to forget, about your own. Some of the volunteers fall in love with living abroad so much that they just stay instead of going back home. Some really outgrow themselves and did things they never thought they’d be capable of. And even though there certainly have been some struggles and strains, I believe that all of us have made experiences that are priceless and will last for a live time.
I, for myself, can say that Aarhus has gained a special meaning to me. I know that when I leave, it won’t be forever. I will come back to see the city, the country, the people, that have been my home for ten months, because I know how much I will miss them.