EVSxperience of a Lifetime by Ryan Bugeja

Austria wouldn’t be the first place that would come to anyone’s mind when one mentions voluntary work. After coming back from the land of mountains, waltz and extravagant history I can say that my European Voluntary Service (EVS) experience proved to be one of great fun, getting to know loads of people and living an enormous wave of new experiences in the process.

What’s an EVS?

The YOUTH Programme of the European Union (EU) supports many youth projects and splits these projects into five so-called “actions”. EVS falls under “Action 2” of these actions, and involves the supporting non-formal education opportunities for young people through transnational voluntary service which directly and actively involves young people in activities designed to meet the needs of society in a wide range of fields.
To start all this, one needs to submit an application form which will include personal details, details of the sending organization, which in my case was the Salesian Pastoral Youth Service (SPYS), a host organization or in some cases, as in mine a coordinating organization. Volunteers will then also have paid flights to and from the project, pocket money, paid language courses, paid food and accommodation as well as a mentor who will support the volunteer during the project.

How my adventure started…

At the start of my last academic year at university, I realised that very soon, university life will be over and it would be soon time to start looking for a job…and no temporary one. But I realised and asked myself, “Do I really want to start a career from now, till I’m a pensioner without doing really anything else interesting in my life?”
With Malta a fresh member of the EU I started seeking opportunities that were now available at hand.
To make matters easier to access, SPYS, of which I am a member, joined the Don Bosco Youth Net (DBYN), a network of 11 Salesian organizations from across Europe, and so the contacts and the projects were readily at hand.
Having been in Austria already twice before, and was always fascinated by its beauty, together with Austrian friends urging me to go there, I decided I would follow the voices of nature and of my friends pulling me to Austria.

In Austria…

The project I chose would have me work in a Salesian boarding house for technical-school teenagers in Klagenfurt, in the southern region of Austria named Carinthia (Kärnten). The youths live far from their schools and so live in this house throughout the week. Together with a team of educators, my job was to supervise the youths during allotted study times, organize activities for their free time, manage the bar in the house’s games’ room, attend weekly team meetings and design and edit any design material, including a quarterly newsletter and posters for the house.
The house was equipped with nothing anyone can imagine and compared to other volunteers, I felt I was in a 5-star hotel. There was a gym, a games room, a bar, a music room, laundry, a football pitch, and my room had internet, a television, a telephone and a bathroom too. That was my villa for a year. To add to that I was also given a bicycle to use…and you bet I did. This bike took me to one of the largest lakes in Austria, Lake Wörthersee in less than 20 minutes… something which among other things, although nothing beats the sea, I still miss.

An Alien in the World…

“I don’t drink coffee; I’ll take tea my dear…” so goes Sting’s song Englishman in New York. I felt more than just that way while I was there in my first few weeks. I spoke very little German, while the Austrian folks spoke little English, not because they don’t know how to, but because they simply wouldn’t speak it. Besides, their German is characterised by stark dialects ranging from region to region, sometimes from valley to valley. To make matters worse, the youths there came mainly from three different Austrian regions. So before I started the course in German language, I was nodding and observing…speaking very little to whoever would speak to me in English. Besides communication, getting used to the cuisine and the table-customs were also things I had to take some weeks to adjust to.

From ‘din il-Gżira’ to the ‘Herz Europas’

Any Maltese who was never abroad except on holiday very often cannot realise the freedom of movement one lives when living in the middle of everywhere. Inexpensive travelling by train, plane and cars gives this amazing sense of freedom to cross borders…and I took the opportunity to do all that.
I was lucky enough to have friends almost anywhere in Europe. I got to know them from past jobs I had as a group leader with language schools as well as through youth exchanges with SPYS. This also gives room for cheap or very often free accommodation. Cheeky, but it’s a fact. Encouraged by the fact that school holidays and weekends were also my holidays since all youths went home, I’ve been quite around some places.

Tour d’Europe

I was always teased of not being much at home…to an extent that my Austrian friends nicknamed me “Mr Always Away”. Indeed. I was often away. I’ve been to Slovenia quite often since I lived close to the border. I’ve also been to Italy and Germany a couple of times, and also to the Czech Republic on a youth exchange, and in Poland for a seminar. I visited some friends in Croatia too and I’ve been to London on holiday as a self-gift for my birthday, and may I add: low budget airlines are worth having around! I’ve been to Hungary with friends and Slovakia too. Besides that, I’ve been to almost all regions in Austria visiting a number of places in each… one of which goes by the name of Malta, which, let’s face it…I couldn’t not visit.

Live at…

Another love I discovered that goes part and parcel with travelling was that of going to concerts and festivals. My first was in Innsbruck in December – a five hour train ride to Sting’s concert. Being there not too early but early enough to stand just not more than two metres from the stage, the feeling was just great. Later then, in January I went to Ljubljana in Slovenia for R.E.M.’s concert. The atmosphere there was just awesome. In May then I went to Vienna (one of many times) for Alanis Morissette’s concert and the highlight of all concerts then was for me when in July I’ve been to Novarock Festival in the region of Burgenland…where Green Day performed and just left me stuck to their tunes.

And my thanks go to…

For such an experience to be a successful one, one needs the support of many people. First and foremost, my family for understanding my wishes and supporting me throughout, my friends at SPYS for keeping in touch with me and encourage me to take the opportunity, my friends, colleagues in Austria and elsewhere I’ve been to for making me feel so welcomed, and last but not least, the staff at the European Union Programmes Unit (EUPU) particularly the YOUTH Programme section.

What next…

Being an ex-EVS volunteer entitles me to start what is called Future Capital Project (FCP) which I already started working on and which hopefully will see the development of an international office at SPYS (SPYS.int) which will see the organization promoting voluntary work abroad and coordinating other international activities in conjunction with the YOUTH Programme and the DBYN.

Summing Up…

If I had to sum up this year of mine in Austria and elsewhere, like anything else, many memories remain, some of which were more touching in different levels and in various ways. Apart from my work there and the independent life away from Hotel Mama’ which helped me grow into a more holistic person, the four main highlights of my year abroad were: World Youth Day in Cologne which I’m still impressed with the atmosphere and amount of nationalities coming together; secondly, a visit to Turin and Colle Don Bosco in Italy on “Don Bosco’s Steps” where together with youths from our boarding house, we visited whatever has to do with the Salesian family, and where the work started; and my visit to Poland at which I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz…it was a sad but more-than-worth-doing kind of experience. Towards the end of my time in Austria, my family visited me and we spent 12 days of real fun together roaming around Austria, Slovenia and Slovakia, up mountains and into valleys and in all important cities…it was some good family quality time which was really great.
Besides these experiences of course, memorable were the days I went skiing on New Year’s Eve and the couple of times I tried my luck at playing ice-hockey. Not to mention also my cycling the 40 kilometres Wörthersee perimeter during a car-free day.