At the end of July the time had come to take a very slow train through all sorts of gorgeous landscapes to Alsasua, a village close to Pamplona. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what to expect, and to be honest I wasn’t looking forward to it very much.
I arrived in the deserted train station of Alsasua, two hours after everyone else. In the hostal we introduced ourselves and our project, and went to bed early. My roommate turned out to be the sweetest girl from Greece, who was singing all the time. After the food I got used to in As Corcerizas (fresh, healthy, vegetarian) this took some getting used to. Fried potatoes and lots of cheap meat, strangely accompanied every day with large portions of grilled red peppers. Why?
The next day we started seriously. There were all sorts of games meant to build team spirit, problem solving capacity, self-reflection (it worked…) and transmit information through informal learning. I hated it. I’m a scientist, and I am used to a direct and scientific approach to transfer or process information. This seemed like a waste of time, it wasn’t fun, I felt very uncomfortable and I did not fit in with the group. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it was excruciating for me.
I’m a person who enjoys to work alone, and usually does not do well with organized group activities. I’m a lone wolf, and social settings like these (organized activities, games, lots of –young- new people) generally make me very uncomfortable. I am not a shy or unsocial person at all, but under these specific circumstances I pull back and close off. I become taciturn and closed off due to my discomfort and feeling I don’t fit in. This happened here as well. I was the oldest of the group by a few years, and felt it. Everybody seemed to feel very at home with the games and ‘informal’ ways of learning which involved a lot of drawing on colored pieces of paper. I felt like I was back in nursery school.
However, during the third day something changed. We went to Pamplona, where I had more freedom to do what I wanted. We also had a very nice dinner at a social restaurant where I met other volunteers who had almost completed their project. It was a very nice experience, and I started to feel more sympathy for my companions. The monitors were amazing. Kind and helpful and inclusive, and very good at what they did. Especially Ruth; she recognized my struggling and spoke to me very kindly and openly about my experience.
The next day we did some more teambuilding games, and I got it - it actually worked! By having to work together, combine our different strengths and minds, we had to pass certain tests. Having to work together in this way creates a certain intimacy and familiarity with each other. It also made me think a lot about my attitude in the beginning, and my judgement. One activity that really influenced me was where all the other volunteers formed a tight circle, and some other volunteers were put inside by themselves and had to escape the circle. We all had a different approach. Some tried talking, some became desperate and passive, other asked nicely (this was the key: ask and say please) and I had a more violent approach of trying to forcibly break free. Very confrontational.
This does not mean that I liked all the activities after the third day. When we had to go out on the street to change a pen for something of more value, asking strangers on the street, I felt again very uncomfortable. However, one activity on the street was very interesting to me. We were supposed to go out and ask strangers how they feel about Europe, if they feel European and why or why not. I think this is a question that should be asked more often. We perceive Europe as a thing that just is, with too many bad associations. If we think a little bit more about what it brings us, and how we are all alike, what are things we find important…. I think the European Union would be much stronger for it. So let’s do that more! Ask our friends, our families, our colleagues, strangers at parties.
The group turned out to be magnificent, and by the end of it I loved all (well, most..) of them a little bit. I felt safe and accepted and included.
After this meeting of volunteers I felt more prepared for my EVS, and it is a great thing to have friends all over Spain (and next year all over Europe). But much more important than this was for me the realizations I had to do about myself and the suspense of judgement about other people and different teaching methods. People I perceived as shallow turned out to be smart and motivated, others full of bravado or arrogance turned out to be shy (I suppose I was one of those). It was a fantastic but also tough learning experience.