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Cloudy with a Chance of Lifelong Friendships

This article is a glimpse of my volunteering experience as a short-term volunteer for an ESC project in Zagreb, Croatia. Come and join me on this 1000-word journey, as I reminisce through my fondest memories of the month and a half spent on gardening, working with school children and forging lifelong friendships, all under Zagreb’s “there hasn’t been a spring like this in 20 years” non-stop rainy weather.

During my gap year, after 16 years of constant formal education, I decided it’s time to start checking some things off my bucket list. Ever since my early teenage years, I’ve wanted to do a volunteering project. However, most of those who piqued my interest were long-term (6-months to a year) which, unfortunately, never worked with my schedule. Then, one gloomy February day I was scrolling through the ESC app and stumbled upon a project called “Green Fingers” about gardening and education… for a month and a half that spring… and in Zagreb – one of my favourite cities in the world! An application form, an interview and a few emails back and forth later – everything was set, I’m doing this ESC project in Zagreb!

When I arrived in Zagreb, the city was charming and welcoming as ever, with little events in every corner for everyone’s taste. And I mean EVERYONE’S. During the mobility, we went to numerous flea markets, festivals, international nights, danced in countless pubs, clubs and streets, swam in lake Jarun (to the horror of the local citizens), tried some new sports… and the list goes on. The weather on the other hand, as per the title of this article, seemed to have confused April for November. It was merely 10 degrees Celsius and raining non-stop. “This is typical for early April, it will get better”, I told myself, but boy was I wrong! The rain followed us throughout the whole mobility, which, on the bright side, made us appreciate the few days of sunshine we got. And at the end of the day, if the company is right, everything else is trivial.

This ESC project was organised and coordinated by an NGO called OAZA. The first time I entered OAZA’s office, it all made sense why they called their organisation OAZA (the Croatian’s word for oasis) – it was a green haven in the centre of the capital. Friendly environment and even friendlier people, good vibes, over 100 plants peeking from every corner, and the cherry on top – the rooftop. Another positive thing about the rain – if it weren’t raining almost all the time, I would’ve probably never left that rooftop. The first few days of the project were filled with typical “first days” activities – small talk, ice breakers, city tour, logistics, intro to the project. At the end of the first week, we got to visit one of the school gardens and officially start with our gardening activities. Throughout the mobility we fixed a garden pond and successfully returned the fish to their renovated home (with zero casualties that is!), planted some beautiful flowers, and most important of all, learned that 90% of gardening isn’t just planting new plants – but rather maintaining what’s already there. On one of the last days of activities, we helped organise a garden festival in one of the schools, which was bittersweet, both seeing the fruits of our labour from the past month and a half come to life, but at the same time realising it’ll be all over soon. Besides gardening, every now and then we’d also have other random activities – a few of my favourites being: birdwatching in Park Maksimir (where I saw my first wood nuthatch!), visiting a bee collective for Bee day (where we learned about the way bees live, planted some plants for the bees, and in return got free honey!), and our intercultural night, which was held during the second week of our mobility, while we were still getting to know each other. Collectively preparing the food in the hostel that random Tuesday was one of the best spontaneous team building activities we could’ve done and that was the exact moment I started feeling like I was truly part of the group. And what a group it was!

During my eight years of experience with European projects, both as a participant and an organiser I have never seen a more accepting, tolerant, peaceful, wholesome and loving group. As a more introverted person, I often feel unnoticed and left out in group settings, but this time – not for a single moment. From day one everyone was so inviting and eager to involve others in their activities, simultaneously respecting their need for alone time. I’ll use two instances to capture how wholesome the group was. First, the emphasis people put on having a good time together over winning. Once we played pool, and even though some of us were extremely bad at it, we were encouraged to play, treated as equals and weren’t let to miss our turn just because we wouldn’t bring any value to the team. After years of being told “I’m bad at sports and should sit this one out” it was like a breath of fresh air to experience this. The second instance that truly shows the pure nature of our group is the fact that we practically “adopted” another two volunteers that were cleaning our hostel – a Dutch and an American. And even though they weren’t part of our gardening activities, they’d join us for our extracurriculars and be a “constant” we could return to at the end of a long day. Saving the best for last, I cannot finish this article without mentioning the Croatian coast road trip we took for our last break. From the turbulent beginning and the bittersweet end, to the mesmerising beaches and the spontaneous dance party at that street food festival we randomly stumbled upon… those five days will forever be a reminder for me that this life is worth living.

Having said all that, I feel like the perception of Zagreb is forever destroyed for me, as Zagreb will never be as beautiful as it was during those two months of spring ‘23.

Ankica Sokolić
– our ESC volunteer in Zagreb, Croatia