A grand library, new friends and 383 billion seconds.
It’s been another whirlwind of a week – this time mostly in Vienna. Part of being an EVS volunteer includes arrival training, which is in Austria’s capital of Vienna. The training is useful to help volunteers understand and make the most of their time in Austria, but it’s also an opportunity to meet other volunteers in the country. Also, Vienna. I was rather excited to see and explore the city.
The training was Sunday – Wednesday, but I travelled up on Saturday morning to make the most of being in the city. I’d decided not to make a plan, mostly because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to see, so my aim was simply to wander and see what I could find. This turned out to be a good strategy because the city was vast, vibrant and FULL of tourists. It was a lot to take in, and such a contrast to Tamsweg’s quiet streets that I would not have enjoyed myself if I’d also been determined to see particular things or queue with lines of tour groups. It was hot, noisy, and I wandered the streets in awe – every building seemed a masterpiece of baroque architecture, and everywhere there were museums, galleries, palaces that beckoned.
I acted like a typical tourist; taking pictures of everything, grabbing ice cream, and stopping often in the middle of the street in awe whenever I turned a corner and realised the city was even bigger and more beautiful than I originally thought. Vienna has a strong coffeehouse culture, which I am 100% on board with. Sitting down and enjoying a coffee is one of my favourite ways to relax, and the Viennese in particular have a slowed down pace of life. They like to enjoy their coffee.
A dose of history
I also managed to squeeze in a visit to the Austrian National Library before my training begun. And boy was I happy. The State Hall is 80m long, 20m high and filled floor to ceiling with over 200,000 books. The library is currently celebrating its 650th year so there was a small exhibition that toured you through its history and treasures. From the origins of the imperial collection through to the inclusion of cartography, papyrus, music and art collections, to the darker days of the second world war, to the restitution of stolen items. I zig-zagged across the gallery reading and marvelling. There were frescoes above, four huge Venetian globes in the centre, and books everywhere; I was in my element admiring the treasures and soaking in the history. It was so calm and solemn and everything that made my heart happy about being in a historical monument. I left the building practically glowing (and late, it was hard to tear myself away..)
But on to my training. I was really excited for this – I was unsure what to expect but knew that I would be meeting eight other volunteers. I was curious to meet them and learn about their projects. They worked in a range of organisations – for example working in a disabled home, in a radio station, on a social entrepreneurship program. They were originally from Slovakia, Greece, Latvia, Turkey, Spain, Bosnia and even as far afield as Indonesia, so we were quite the diverse group. This gave us the opportunity to build intercultural relations and see things from many different perspectives – a key focus of the training.
The programme had a creative undercurrent, and it was refreshing not to have to worry about listening to hours of powerpoint presentations, or having to take notes. The whole process of EVS is constructed in a way to provide space for non-formal, lifelong learning, and so we focused on intercultural sensitivity, and building goals and strategies for our year ahead of us. There was lots of space for discussions and for us to help and support each other, and time dedicated to comparing our experiences and first impressions of Austria. It was encouraging and even a little surprising to realise that even though we were all completely different people, we shared similar experiences, challenges and feelings of volunteering.
We had a Vienna Rally, where we were teamed up, given a list of specific photos to take and set free in the city. Some were easy ‘a photo that reminds you of home’, and some were more challenging ‘a photo of your group with a monument, pram, dog, a local, and three tourists in the background’. As you can imagine, chaos ensued. We also had smaller fun activities, like creating a ‘frozen image’ of your favourite part of the day, where everyone had to guess what you were reenacting. Or holding up paper in front of you for a portrait – every group member having 10 seconds to draw a portion of your face. Cooking and eating together one evening on the balcony of the National Agency office, with the whole of the city spread before us. We made many memories, and they’re all tinged with a happy glow in my mind.
I also learnt a few new German words (my favourite being unglaublich ‘unbelievable’), and gained a new perspective on intercultural sensitivity and how to work in multicultural teams. The week was busy and exhausting, but it also involved a lot of space for self-reflection and -assessment, and I came back to Tamsweg feeling invigorated and ready to throw myself back into work in the office.
The Sound of Mur
And it really was throwing myself straight in. Thursday morning I spent in the office and then in the afternoon, the team took the car and drove to the village of Muhr, where we had been invited to the grand opening of a new national park exhibition. It was all about the River Mur – Austria’s second largest river, which has its origin here in the Lungau, but also flows through National Park Hohe Tauern, and actually most of Austria (it’s long).
So we went along in our uniform of bright orange shirts, standing out amongst all the officials dressed more traditionally in Lederhosen. There was a band, many rounds of thanks and applause, a cutting of a (blue) ribbon, and then we were set free on the exhibition. I was really impressed, there had clearly been a lot of time, thought and money that had been poured into this project. A counter by the doorway indicated how many seconds had passed since the birth of the Mur (around 383 billion, if you’re interested), and there were tonnes of interactive exhibits, panoramic photos, and information in both German and English.
We did some networking, but since my German is currently limited to impractical words such as wassermelone, fledermäus and schmetterling, (watermelon, bat and butterfly!) I just shook a lot of hands and played with the exhibits. There were interactive games, but also more abstract exhibits like a button for every different sound the river would make on its journey.
Making myself at home
Friday evening I moved rooms, so I have left the Pension and I’m in a little room on the top floor of a house on the Marketplace. Nick was a trooper and carried my heaviest bags up three flights of stairs. The room is simple, bright and clean and I already feel at home. My plants are also perking up with the extra light and when I open my curtains in the morning I’m greeted by the mountains. I couldn’t ask for anything better.
The time is flying by, I can hardly believe I have finished my sixth week here. This week was an extra happy week, I feel like I am (finally) settling in. Whilst I still miss home and my family, the joy of living and working in Austria is outweighing the feeling of homesickness. Austria – the people and the mountains – are sinking into my bones and I’m starting to feel like I can actually do this. I’m ready for whatever this year wants to throw at me.