Hi! My name is Melina, I’m 18 years old and I’m from Austria.
I just finished school this year and decided to do a volunteering service abroad before starting to study. For one month I’ve been in Estonia now, working in the Taheva Youth Centre and living in the small village of Hargla. If you want to learn more about me and my first experiences here, keep reading! 😊
My September was…
S as in Short
E as in Estonian
P as in Priceless
T as in Tricky
E as in Eventful
M as in Memorable
B as in Bittersweet
E as in Educational
R as in Remarkable
If someone asked me to summarise my first month in Estonia in one word, it would probably be “short”. It really can’t believe I’ve been here for such a long time already. But saying that it seems like I just arrived yesterday wouldn’t be right, either. Because actually at the same time I feel like I’ve been here for, like, forever. Even though I’m still learning and discovering something new almost every day, I kind of got used to my surroundings already. Going to Valga by bus, greeting my neighbours, talking to the youngsters, going shopping alone (that can still cause me some troubles, though – why do they have to put the things in such a weird order?) – most of what was new and unfamiliar and maybe hard for me in the beginning, is starting to feel almost normal now. But even despite all of these advances, I have to admit that I don’t feel quite at home just yet. I still have not fully realised that I am going to stay here for almost a year, right now it feels more like a dream, like a holiday, like I might be going back home every moment. But time flies, the days keep passing and I can’t change anything about that, so I guess I’ll just have to keep moving, keep trying to settle in, and soon that realisation will come, too.
Well, obviously. I am in Estonia, so why wouldn’t it be Estonian? But it really is worth a mention as my September was all about getting to know the Estonian culture and lifestyle, trying to figure Estonians out and of course starting to learn the Estonian language (which is really hard, I can definitely confirm that now).
Especially the On-Arrival training in Tartu was really helpful for that. During those five days we deeply explored Estonian culture and traditions (including traditional dances!), talked about Estonian history and manners and also learned some of the most important basic phrases (and yes, “I’m drinking beer at the bus stop” is indeed one of them). And besides that I also had the chance to meet a lot of likeminded, interesting people and make contacts (I’ve got at least 15 couches I can crash on all over Estonia now) and explore the beautiful and vibrant city of Tartu, which was very nice, too. And since I missed my chance to see the Upside-Down-house, make a wish on that weird bridge and go to the archive you’re encouraged to have a drink in, I definitely have to go back!
This month was filled with new experiences and first times for me. Be it going by plane for the first time (no, I really haven’t done that before, why is that so hard to get for people?). Be it my first real sauna-visit. Be it getting to know new people, both in the village/youth centre and other volunteers at the On-Arrival training. Be it cooking “Kartoffelgulasch” for the first time (it didn’t taste exactly like at home and it was definitely lacking some salt, but besides that I guess it was quite okay). Be it living all by my own for the first time. Be it being away from my family and friends and basically everyone I know for a longer time than ever before. Be it surviving in a country that you don’t speak the language of (google translate is my best friend now). Be it learning how to deal with the youngsters there (I`m still working on that). All of these are things that I had no idea about before I came here. And even though I might still struggle every now and then and I definitely still have a lot to learn, I can say that each of these experiences was priceless, as they made me grow as a person.
I probably already mentioned parts of what I’m going to say in this paragraph already, or will repeat it again in some of the following ones. But here you go anyway: I have to admit that my process of fitting in here was and still is not always easy. Especially in the beginning I found it difficult to approach the youngsters, to find a way to interact with them. And the fact that I don’t speak Estonian and some of them aren’t too fluent in English didn’t make it any easier. But nevertheless I already got quite used to the youngsters now and (hopefully) vice versa. The language barrier also appeared in almost every other part of my life, as I’m not able to communicate or have a conversation with most of the locals there (unless they speak English or German).
Another thing I found tricky but am slowly getting used to is living all alone. This was maybe the biggest change for me, as I had been living with my (rather big) family all my life, which means there was always something going on or someone around to talk to. And suddenly, from one day to the next I was completely alone in my new flat. I couldn’t even really skype with my family or anything because I didn’t have Wi-Fi yet (and still don’t have it, which is a bit annoying, but that will hopefully change soon).
And the last change I couldn’t so easily adapt to and still struggle with, is living on the countryside. In Austria I lived in a rather big town (at least for Estonian standards it’s big) and could easily meet up with friends or get from one point to another. That’s all different now: Hargla, the village I live in, has not even 200 inhabitants and there’s nothing besides the youth centre, a culture house and a little overprized food store. If I want to go (food) shopping, I have to take a 50-minute-bus that only goes 4 times a day. So although I always used to complain about the public transport in and around Wels (my hometown), I would now be more than happy with even only a fraction of the busses and trains there.
But all those difficulties are part of what made this September so interesting, because what would be a flower without rain? It would be dead. So yeah, there might have been some tricky parts to it, but that’s okay.
Thinking back on the last month, I felt like there must have been a lot of events, that’s why I chose the word. But now that I went through my calendar, I realised that there actually weren’t so many as I had imagined. The feeling probably derived from the fact there was something to do every day and I never really had the time to get bored.
There were a few meetings, and some events, like the school year-opening-ceremony, the astronomy evening in Tõrva, the Koikküla-swing-opening and my Austrian event – the first event I had to plan on my own (it wasn’t even too bad, I guess, even though there were some troubles to it - especially the shopping for cooking was interesting, because apparently strudeldough in Estonia isn't the same as strudeldough in Austria)! Besides that I had the On-Arrival-training, which I already wrote about before, but could write pages more about. And when I still had free time left, I was usually doing some exploration trips around Hargla or meeting up with Gabriel, my co-volunteer, or Selma, another volunteer who lives in Valga. And like this, one month passed without me even realising it. And October is already waiting for me, filled with other events and activities: The student company opening event, the youth centre birthday party, the Tankla media workshop, and much more. Guess who won’t get bored in October, either!
As time passes and life here gets more normal for me, I start to forget what it felt like to come here in the first week. Everything was new, everything was unknown. And day by day I discovered how things work and are done in Estonia, in Hargla, in the youth centre, et cetera. But even though those early feelings might slowly start to get overshadowed by routine, this month held a lot of experiences, discoveries and moments for me that I will not forget so easily. It was the little things – both achievements and difficulties – that made my September so memorable: understanding a basic conversation for the first time, playing a board game with the youngsters for the first time, getting recognised by the bus driver, but also feeling lonely in my flat in the evening, missing the last bus or having trouble communicating. All in all this first month I will probably forever have labelled in my head as “the month where everything changed”.
I had a lot of different ideas for this letter. Busy, beautiful, bizarre, blurry – they’d all have fitted just as well. But finally I decided to use bittersweet because it is the feeling that best describes the emotional rollercoaster I’ve been going through in the past month. The days before I came to Estonia (especially 30th of August, the day of my flight) I was feeling so many things at the same time I didn’t even know was possible: excitement, fear, sadness, hope, anxiety, stress, joy, anticipation – everything at once. Excitement and anticipation, of course, because I had wanted to go abroad and do something new for a long time. I was excited for all the experiences I might make here, all the people I might get to know, all the skills I might learn, all the change I might make and go through and I was hoping there will be a lot of it. I was afraid and anxious, anxious that it might turn out differently (or worse) than what I had expected, afraid that I would miss home too much, anxious that I’d be wasting that year, afraid that the youngsters and community here wouldn’t like me. I felt sadness, because after all I’d be leaving everything and everyone I knew and loved behind. It was the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to be around my family, my friends, my cat, my home for such a long time that made me sad.
And even now, that I’ve been here for a month, I still go through phases of each of these emotions. I’m still excited for all the things I’m hopefully going to experience, I’m still anxious about not getting accepted here or disappointing someone, I’m still missing home. But I’ve also started to appreciate the small joys, like some of the youngsters telling me they were having fun with me today, my neighbour kids hugging me, someone trying to talk to me in broken German, or just some rays of sun after a rainy day – because now that it’s autumn, these are especially precious.
My first instinct was to put ‘exciting’ here, but that seemed too general and predictable, so I decided to use ‘educational’ instead. I already wrote a bit about that in the “priceless” paragraph, but there is more to it. When I finished school, it was clear to me that I couldn’t start to study anything just yet. First of all, because I had no idea what I wanted to study. And second of all, because I didn’t feel ready to indulge myself in another era of exams, studying and sitting in classes. I wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn anything new, I just wanted a different way of learning. And that’s why this was the perfect chance for me, as I got to learn a lot of new things and skills, but without the pressure of having to show my knowledge and perform well on one specific day. And I really did learn a lot: I learned a bit of Estonian. I learned that if you want to, you will find a way to communicate with someone. I (more or less) learned to be and live alone. I learned that if you want something, you have to ask for it and do something for it. I learned to plan my fridge if I didn’t want to suffer from hunger. I learned how life in Estonia works (at least some parts of it). I learned that having high expectations should be avoided because things will turn out differently than planned anyway, especially when you are working with youngsters. I learned how to create good posters (at least I hope they are good). I learned so much in this month already and there are still 10 months left and I am looking forward to all the skills and facts and lessons I will get to learn throughout that time.
So as a conclusion, I can say that my September was just… remarkable. I had no idea what to expect when I got on the plane to Riga and it turned out to be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It was weird and it was interesting and it was tough and it was happy and it was sad and it was exciting and it was both easy and hard at the same time. There were and still are things that I have to bring myself to do, that don’t come easy to me every day. But there were also a lot of positive surprises, joyful moments and people around me who help me cope with this new situation better, especially my tutor Rasmus. I’m really glad that he is around to answer all my questions, explain everything and help me find my place here.
And another thing I’m glad about is that I still got to experience a taste of summer in Estonia. Before I came here I was afraid I might be freezing to death so I was positively surprised when my first few weeks were so warm and sunny that you could actually go out with shorts or take a swim in one of the plenty lakes here (which I both did of course). But now that it’s autumn it’s much colder and I’m already feeling cold quite often, so let’s see how I will survive in winter 😉
Es ist unmöglich, diesen ersten Monat in Estland in nur einem einzigen Wort zusammenzufassen, deshalb versuche ich das gar nicht erst. Denn er war sowohl lehrreich, als auch schwierig, ungewohnt, erfreulich, herausfordernd, kurzweilig, anstrengend, aufregend und vieles, vieles mehr. Ich hatte die Möglichkeit, so viele neue Sachen, Fähigkeiten und Menschen kennenzulernen und bin schon gespannt, was mich in den nächsten 10 Monaten noch so erwarten wird 😊
If you have any questions about my EVS experience, feel free to contact me on Facebook (Melina Springer) or Instagram (melina.saltara)