The house at the end of Vabriku Street is what reminds me regularly how fast time passes and to make the most of it. When we arrived in Võru this house was a total ruin and nobody was living there. The current status; the main building is finished from the outside and renovations are beginning inside. The garden is still a total mess and muddy from big machines digging it up. As a matter of fact this metaphorically corresponds with my present feelings about my evs journey.
January is always a hard month to get through, the Christmas celebrations are over but it’s still dark and cold. I was very frustrated in my project because I feel totally uncreative and still haven’t really found a task that I am good at, which is needed or that makes me feel fulfilled in some way. This part I would say is represented in the metaphor through the garden. On the other hand I have been realizing that I am learning and do already speak Estonian quite well. Võru really does feel like home now, I totally know my way round and although it doesn’t feel like it I know quite a few people. Also my feelings towards my project are improving greatly. Related to the house this is the bare building and as the inside is going to be done up I hope to fill my experiences with actual relationships, meaningful conversations and creative ideas.
As a matter of fact before Carla and I went home for Christmas the house was still surrounded by a scaffolding but when we came back the scaffolding had vanished and we both noticed that something was different but couldn’t exactly say what. This was also how I felt in general about coming back after nine days in Lüttershausen, very fitting. Sometimes the building site doesn’t change for some days because there are no people working but in general it does keep moving. Looking at how I can gain something from this metaphor e.g. to stay positive and motivated, the last point is very helpful. Even though in those down moments I might feel like everything is still the same as at the beginning and I’m wasting my time. But of course many changes have been made it may be me changing personally, my colleagues approach towards me or the relationships I have built to the kids.
Since last writing here a lot has changed and happened.
I was a little scared of the month of November as there were a few new things coming up. The only teacher from my group who speaks English went away for the month to Finland as she does this annually. Very kindly they asked a temporary teacher helper who speaks German to come to our group for the month so I would have someone I could communicate with at work. At that point my Estonian obviously wasn’t that good yet. The helper was super nice and we talked a lot. She saw me as equal straight away which I think also helped me going on from there as my other two colleagues realized all the things I could do and trusted me with more responsibilities from then on.
It is kind of hard to reflect or look back on what happened in November now as it is quite long ago but I think we had our first Folkdance lesson that month. Because of the annual Folkdance festival in Voru the willing teachers form all kindergartens in Võru form a group and prepare three dances for the show. Carla and I obviously take part, we set ourselves the rule to say yes to all new things this year, one of which evidently being Folkdance. This is also a nice way to get to know some of the teachers a little more. Towards the end of the month we even had our first video taken of the so called “washing dance” by my friend Maneesha who was visiting. She was the first person to visit me here and I must say I was a little scared of how it would be for me and how it would leave me feeling. Luckily it was really nice and we spent the first days in Tallinn and then made our way to Voru from where we made some day trips and Manee joined me in the kindergarten one day. At this point I want to state that everyone is welcome to visit me, I mean when will you ever again have someone you can visit in Estonia?
My coordinating organization organized an overnight hiking trip in Aegviidu in the middle of November and both Carla and I took part. To sum it up, hypothermia was kind of the best way out. Beforehand we had to send pictures of our equipment so the guides could check if it would be suitable. At that point I thought they were being a little over dramatic but looking back it was a good job they did. Fortunately mine was fine and I was ready to go. The distances we walked weren’t actually that far but because we had these massive backpacks with us and it was cold and raining the hike became relatively challenging. The guides kept telling us about all the dramatic things that could possibly happen, one of them being hypothermia. They explained that once one stops shivering (but the body’s still cold) that’s the point when hypothermia starts so I was just hoping to keep on shivering. The hardest thing for me was the evening and the night. Because it had rained all day we had to change in the evening and I didn’t really manage to warm up again which was difficult especially during the night. In the morning my toes were so frozen that they were hurting really badly. However once we got moving the next morning it was okay as I knew I would be back in a warm bed in the evening. All in all, I’d say it was a good experience and I’ll go on another hike just not overnight in winter maybe.
After the experience of the hiking trip we decided to stick to the local area around Võru a little more and for example went swimming in the nearby Väimela which was nice.
The best word I can think of to describe December is: Magical.
At the beginning of the month my coordinating organization hosted a meetup for a few days with all their volunteers. And again as at the on-arrival training the dark winter days and a dreaded lonely Christmas Eve were a big topic and as always when Estonians talk about this it had quite a dramatic connotation. I think they try to make themselves part of Scandinavia this way. Luckily at least in December I was totally spared this and even felt like the early evenings added to the atmosphere. Comparing my experience to other volunteers, especially those from more southern countries, Germans in Estonia are quite lucky; the daylight period is not that much shorter. As a matter of fact I was actually quite disappointed by the supposed totally depressing Estonian winter. There wasn’t even that much snow.
However Christmas time here has been the best thing I have experienced in Estonia so far. Every weekend there was something going on in the otherwise quiet Võru. It began on the first Advent when a big part of the community gathered around to see the Christmas tree lights turned on on the main square. Different dance groups ranging from Hip-hop to Folkdance performed around the tree, speeches were held and the Estonian equivalent of the German song “Oh Tannenbaum” was sung. After all the aspects of the programme were over, there was free Piparkoogid (Estonian ginger bread biscuits) and tea for everyone. This was the first time I in some way felt part of the local community and I had goosebumps all over my body. Originally Carla and I had just planned to cook together and listen to Christmas music after a long walk around the lake but somehow it became such a special experience.
The weekend of the Second Advent the local Võru Christmas market was on the agenda. Around noon Carla and I made our way to the market for a stroll. We met my tutor who told us that we could watch the best Folkdance groups of Estonia perform in the cultural centre and after that everyone would make their way back to the main square and dance together. We thought this sounded like a good idea so did so. It was lovely to see all ages perform traditional Estonian dances but an absolute highlight was the dancing afterwards. There were numerous small groups dancing together, one woman always announced the next dance and the music started to play. My tutor spotted us and got a dance partner for both Carla and I. At first it was a little awkward because I didn’t know the steps but he did. However I got the hang of each dance pretty quickly and could start enjoying this event. We ended up dancing for what must have been around two hours. I think there must have been about two hundred people who made their way down to the river still dancing together at the end of the evening. On the beach a fire show had been organized. That evening Carla and I were so happy to be here it really felt like we had just experienced part of the core of Estonian culture.
There is no December without at least one Christmas party and as I learnt through this; the Estonians know how to have a good party (at least the kindergarten teachers do!). Sadly I wasn’t able to go to the party for the teachers working in my project because I left that afternoon to go back to Germany to spend Christmas with my family. Luckily for me Carla asked me to join her to the Christmas celebration of her kindergarten and it was a really nice experience. I do think though German kindergarten teachers wouldn’t celebrate Christmas together like this. They had hired an entertainer and singer who proposed games which the first one was straight away a drinking game. The goal was which team could empty the Vodka bottle first. As the mood was generally very good after this and the alcohol kept flowing there was a lot of dancing and we really enjoyed ourselves. On the 13th December my group had its do which was of course not a real party but still fun to experience. I was shocked at how dressed up kids and parents were. The girls all had pretty dresses on and the boys were all in shirts and even bow ties, same for the parents. We were performing a small play and I was a mouse. I would have liked to have had a bigger part not just size wise but as I wasn’t there for the early rehearsals because there was the meeting with my coordinating organization I think my colleagues thought I wouldn’t have enough time to prepare. I did however obviously take part in everything else; singing the songs etc. There was even a photographer and a filmmaker present so I luckily now have a DVD filled with two hours’ worth of footage of me singing Estonian Christmas songs with the kids and Santa giving out a present to each kid individually. A very nice part of the Christmas time was also the gift exchanging which I felt brought me and my colleagues a little closer.
A gift I very generously even here didn’t have to forgo was an Advent calendar. I even had more than usual because Carla and I decided to make one for each other and my mum and my big brother each made me one too. In general in December I felt very blessed and grateful not only due to all the nice cards and parcels I received but also that I was able to spend Christmas with my family. I was warned a lot by other volunteers, my organizations and also my parents that I should think hard about going home because it would probably be really hard to go back/ the time afterwards being back would be very challenging. But I am so glad I did it. I took my time to think it through and wasn’t sure if it would be the right thing but together with Carla we decided to both go home for Christmas. I did though decide to keep it a secret from my friends that I was coming and it was super nice to see their reactions to seeing me and this made me even more grateful for also having such good friends. Of course saying goodbye was hard but once I was back in Võru with Carla I felt good again.
Something to take my mind off thinking about home the following days was we had overnight guests in Voru for the first time. Fortunately the weather was super nice and Võru was showing its nicest side which we hoped could follow up with more volunteers visiting us. And the next day was of course New Year’s Eve which I spent with Carla, Mira, Romara and Olivier in Tartu. We had a lovely evening cooking together some more successfully than others… and at midnight we went to the main square to see the fireworks and after overcoming a small police questioning went clubbing.
After all the positive vibes in December unfortunately January was the opposite. As mentioned at the beginning I felt pretty frustrated and was struggling a little in general. The hardest part was that I didn’t have anything to do in my project at least nothing new. The months before it had been quite easy to get and find new assignments because everything was new and I could always discover small things that could help and had to be done. At the beginning of the New Year I was still doing these things but they weren’t new anymore so my work became quite monotonous. I arranged for my colleagues and I to sit down and discuss how it had been going so far and tell them how I was feeling. Fortunately the conversation went really well and I saw things change afterwards. I was aware of the fact that I had to be active and creative myself and have been trying to think of new ideas ever since. But it was very nice to see them help and support me. An example for this was that they organized for me to join different groups when they were doing something special and they have been asking me for help or to do specific tasks more since. This is nice for me as I have more of an insight in what’s going on in the rest of the kindergarten, have new challenges, the other teachers actually know me now and in general I feel more needed. At the start of my evs I would have never thought that unsatisfactory work would be such a problem for and affect me as strongly as it did but this is also an experience I am grateful for. Although I am glad this period didn’t last too long. However sadly I am not the most creative person so I am thankful for any good ideas what I could do with the kids in the upcoming weeks and months (the Estonians like doing things in themes, e.g. upcoming Easter, spring etc.). At the end of October the teachers had asked me to look after one boy called Benedict a little more. The first few weeks this went really well, he noticed that I approached him differently than the teachers do because they also have to watch all the other kids and can’t take time to concentrate on one child. Especially if he was being naughty or aggressive they would tell him off but I could take the time to try and calm him down first and see in what mood he was. However in January it became more and more difficult, Benedict kept telling me to go away when I approached him and became very angry towards me. So during the conversation I asked if I could take a step back from responsibilities regarding Benedict so I could gain some distance between us and maybe try again when he wouldn’t get so upset by me. One does always have to remember I don’t have any qualifications in this field so don’t have for example different techniques in handling such situations. Of course my colleagues said this would be no problem and gave me as a feedback that I have to be stricter with the kids. It was nice to also get some feedback, be able to give feedback and answer open questions on both sides. In Estonia I think it is especially hard for the teachers to concentrate on special needs of individual children as one teacher has to look after up to twenty four kids only with the help of one teacher helper whose responsibility doesn’t actually involve engaging with the kids. When I explained that I was feeling quite useless in the project they told me for them it is already a big help if I just play, talk, occupy or draw with the kids especially the ones who would otherwise be running around and being loud. Each group only has one room so it is more difficult to create a pleasant atmosphere for everyone if there are a lot of noisy boys running around. This changed my view quite a bit and followed into new ideas; what I could do with some kids individually.
For a relatively big part of January I was working only with the teacher and teacher helper who speak Estonian because the English speaking teacher was ill. For my Estonian skills this time was really good, not only did I learn new vocabulary but I don’t have to think about what I’m going to say that much anymore. During January it was also the kindergarten’s anniversary which is celebrated bigger than I know it from Germany and the whole staff was invited for a meal out. That evening I tried to really concentrate on conversations and was able to understand quite a lot. The Estonian I know is definitely more than the basic introductory vocabulary, I was for example able to explain a problem I had with my online banking to an employee at the bank. After managing things like this it always gives me a small push to try and learn more. Carla and I are very lucky anyhow as we have a super good Estonian teacher who has even agreed to give us more lessons than provided by the programme which we are very grateful for as she has somehow become our Estonian mother anyway.
My life besides the project in January was okay. Unfortunately I am not going to the dance lessons (not folkdance, but the dance group I was in before Christmas) anymore because the group is training for competitions and practicing old dances I don’t know and apparently couldn’t take part in. Because of this and my gym membership ending in December I didn’t do that much sport which obviously effected my mood. However the weather was absolutely beautiful, it was quite cold but definitely endurable, the lake has been frozen ever since and people are ice skating on it, we’ve had snow consistently for probably over a month (snow not being a thin layer but actual snow) and we were even able to find some hills in flat Estonia and go skiing with the Youth Center. At the weekends it was really nice to, like we hoped for in December, have more visitors and we also saw a few new places by visiting others.
Every down is followed by an up so luckily I have been feeling a lot better so far in February. I’ve been going to the gym again which lifts one’s mood and the beautiful weather has continued. A bonus is that the days are becoming longer again and it feels like spring is somehow coming closer. Although when I look at the weather forecast this definitely isn’t the case; -25 is coming for us in the next days. This week is very special in Estonia because on Saturday they are celebrating Estonia’s 100th birthday as they call it and this is super big. On Thursday we’ll be in the Youth center for celebrations and on Saturday we’re going to Tartu where the president will also be. Today we had a rehearsal in the kindergarten for Friday when the military will come and perform a march and we will do the same afterwards. Yesterday in the music lesson we listened to the national anthem, the kids had to stand very still and listen whilst the teachers joined in singing. This kind of patriotism is definitely a new experience as I’d say we Germans aren’t very proud.
We have been visiting the Youth center quite a lot lately and also organized a German evening there. It is nice to spend time with some of the local people and kids this way. Most of the kids are quite a bit younger than us but the people who work there and their volunteer are super nice so we mostly hang out with them.
I also had my mid-term training at the beginning of the month which offered a good opportunity to reflect on how it has been going so far, what problems I have encountered, what problems might lie ahead, which I’m encountering now and to make a plan of action for the second half of my evs. I also gained some new motivation to be and stay active, not as much as I hoped for but still some. Fortunately this was also contemporaneous with carnival taking place in Germany so I didn’t have too much time to think about what was going on at home.
During this year I have the chance to organize an initiative project. This is supposed to be a bigger project that should be gainful for me, my hosting organization and the community. There is also financial support available from the European commission if the idea is good, explained in detail and all costs are listed. My idea is that I would firstly like to create an exchange between my kindergarten and as many others in different countries as possible. This exchange should ideally consist of a postcard of for example the local region with a few words on it and maybe two or three pictures of the kindergarten, the kids and what they like doing. As it is an exchange we will obviously also do this for each kindergarten too. If you know anyone living anywhere in the world but Estonia and who could maybe ask the local kindergarten or give me the contact of it or even works at one please let me know. As a closing for this project I hope to organize an evening in the kindergarten where each room is a different country and offers an activity typical for the particular country. Which countries will be represented depends on how many volunteers would be prepared to spend an evening in Võru. Volunteers from all countries are again welcome, so let me know if you would be interested/ prepared to help me out.
To close things up I just want to express my gratitude for all the kind words and support I have been receiving from all sides. I realize each day how lucky I am for such good friends, family and especially parents. I’ll try and write more regularly as I do enjoy it when I do but somehow it’s always hard to find some time for it.