Similar to the German saying: “Aller Anfang ist schwer” (Every beginning is difficult) started our volunteering service in Bulgaria. On the 1st of August 2021 I met up with the other German volunteer in Dortmund and we took the flight to Sofia. Because of a delay of about 5 to 6 hours, we arrived around midnight in Sofia and stayed there for a night until we were able to travel to Blagoevgrad the next day, where we would stay for 12 months. Blagoevgrad is a small and calm city in the south-west of Bulgaria, with around 75.000 inhabitants. When we finally arrived there very exhausted, the culture shock kicked in. The whole situation in a new country, the very soviet flair in the streets and the apartment, the different language/ alphabet, the extremely hot weather, the exhausting travel and the fact of not knowing anyone made it very difficult for all of us to truly arrive and settle in. Luckily everything went better after a few weeks and we were able to fully get used to our new situation. One advice I would give to anyone is to go into the volunteering service with as few expectations as possible and be open for everything because everything will be different than you might expect. You can´t be completely prepared for this, so you should just go with it.
As I already said the language was one problem, we faced in the beginning and made our first weeks even more difficult. Personally, I didn´t speak Bulgarian, nor could I read the Cyrillic alphabet, which made me feel very helpless in the streets. Also, I was sometimes not even able to truly express myself in English, even though my marks in school were always good. I never faced a situation so far outside of my German-speaking comfort zone. Now after three months here, a language course in Bulgarian and everyday communication in English, I am astonished by my basic knowledge of Bulgarian and my huge improvement in English.
Probably the best part of this whole experience are all the other volunteers you are getting to know over time. In our case, there were on one hand the volunteers in our association and on the other hand also volunteers from a different organisation in Blagoevgrad. The amount of different countries and cultures I have gotten to know is incredible. I have met volunteers from France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Portugal, Poland and of course Bulgaria. Especially at the beginning, the contact with all of the other volunteers helped us heavily to truly settle in Bulgaria. Also, I can say for myself, that before this experience I was quite introverted and had problems really engaging in social events, especially with people I don´t know. Now after the first months it improved a lot. I am feeling more comfortable in social events and can also better open up to other people. I can´t even imagine how it will be after the whole year. One thing, that I think has helped a lot, is the fact that all of us are in a similar situation. It just created an instant connection between all of us. We are all in a different country, didn´t know anyone at first and also our English was not perfect.
Something I haven’t talked a lot about already was our real work during the first months of our ESC. In general, we were involved in organising different events like an Escape Room about the European Union and a presentation of the Opportunities provided by the European Solidarity Corps and Erasmus+ at the Erasmus Days, sadly it was not possible to carry out the projects (at least not in person) due to the Covid situation. Additionally, we have been active on our volunteer’s website, wrote articles there, helped in the association with smaller tasks and started to create a concept for our personal projects.
But the thing, we probably mostly enjoyed during the first months (besides meeting all the other volunteers), were the possibilities to travel to so many different places. Thanks to our association, we were able to travel to a lot of cities in Bulgaria, like Plovdiv, Sofia, Burgas, Bansko, Dobrinishte, etc. It was wonderful to take as much of the country as possible with you just in the first months. Besides Bulgarian cities, we also travelled a bit outside of Bulgaria, for example to Thessaloniki in Greece. During our travels, we saw a lot of different places, met a lot of different people and not least of all, we were able to break out of our small and calm Blagoevgrad.
All in all, I can say, that the last 4 months were amazing for me. I´ve learned a lot of stuff, especially a lot about myself. Deciding to go on this year abroad was truly the best decision, I could have taken after finishing school. While other people already started to study, I have more than enough time to really think about what I want to do in the future and discover more about myself. It is a wonderful opportunity, which I am happy to have and I can´t wait to see how the next months will be and how much I will have changed after this whole year.