The sun sends the last rays of heat at the end of summer in late August 2018 when a 23-year-old woman sits on the living room floor at home, surrounded by all her belongings. The big red suitcase contains only two black cats leaving their hair all over as a last farewell gift to this woman who starts the biggest adventure of her life, who is furious about what to pack for a year-long trip to Macedonia.
That moment is over a year from now and I vividly remember the spectrum of emotions of my future which that time woke up in me. The main thing was the excitement, bit scary one, that shakes the whole body; to start a new life in a completely different country and culture, leave all known life in Finland for a moment and jump into the new and to the unknown. I seriously thought that after one year I would return home to my old painting job, family and friends for the same routines I had enjoyed for years. I would have never thought that one year from that moment I would be sitting on the floor of that same living room, with the sun shining from the window into my big red suitcase full of cats, for which I would repack the rest of my property, this time for forever.
“I chose Macedonia simply because I wanted to move out from my comfort zone, to experience a totally new culture and challenge myself to do something as frightening as this.”
So, I started my Erasmus+ EVS volunteering for 12 months in Volunteers Center Skopje, where I worked with an amazing volunteer team who had come to the same project from all over Europe. We created the monthly VOICES magazine, held various events and workshops in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. The main idea of our organization is to give opportunities and to empower young people through local and international projects and volunteering. This goal was fulfilled better than I could have guessed; I learned more about myself during the one year than I have learned in years. In a completely new environment where they speak a language totally unknown to you and people’s everyday life slides to a different degree, you only have the choice of jumping into the waves or going home.
I jumped, head above towards Macedonian culture, and found values and things that strengthened me as a person. At first I was fascinated by the kindness and acquaintance of the people. How on dinner they can sit for hours enjoying each other’s company, amazing food and local alcohol, rakija. Without hurry, without the rush of filling your stomach quickly and getting drunk, it is also about spending time together. I learned to relax, I learned to cope with rush and stress, my patience grew to new levels. When it comes to a country like mine, where everything works well and where you run to the metro and where you are always in a hurry, it is good to pause for a moment in a culture where the bus cannot always be trusted and people arrive late for meetings. It’s good kind of crazy to come to the office and hug your colleagues and bosses in the morning and at the end of the day. Moving out from your comfort zone and personal space is challenging, but after breaking your boundaries, it’s great to see how easy it is to make friends with strangers when you have an evening out in the town.
I found my old passion on the professional side, my passion for graphic design and production, and throughout the year we re-created our 14 years old magazine to a whole new level and freshened up the outfit of it. I learned what I am capable of and I no longer doubt myself. I dare to openly talk, forward myself and my ideas. I encouraged, opened, and let in a totally new life, family, and circle of friends who were with me even when it was difficult and burnout drew my eyes to tears. Over the months I started to smile daily; even when I was sad or angry, I was still happy where I was. I understood little by little, that first time in my life I was 100 percent sure of where I belong and where I feel good to be. I have never been unhappy in my life, I have had an insanely big pile of love in my life from family and friends, I enjoyed my studies and my work, the place where I lived and my everyday life routines. Anyhow, I can’t quite explain why exactly Macedonia made these good feelings double up and gave me a continuous good feeling inside. And made me somehow breathe more freely.
So when I think about the question “what volunteering gave to you”, the answer is easy. It gave me a bunch of new experiences, openness and understanding the different cultures, professional passion, love for the mountains and nature, friends that became a family, difficult moments that I always got through, all kinds of emotions, and faith in myself, courage and confidence. And most of all, a new home.
“I made the biggest decision of my life after my volunteering experience; I decided to stay in Macedonia.”
So when I sat down again after a year with my big red luggage, I packed everything. Once again, I left behind my beloved Finland, which is my home forever. However, as I stepped out of the airplane into the Macedonian sun and the warmth radiated inside me, I got the most indescribable feeling; to here I belong.