First Impression Counts – Beatriz blog

My EVS experience in Bitola
September 12, 2017
Final report: Green Raid – Bitola, Macedonia – Belinda blog
September 12, 2017

My name is Beatriz Viegas, I’m 23 years old and I’m from Lisbon, Portugal. I decided to take this short term EVS opportunity between the sending and hosting organizations, Teatro Metaphora (Madeira) and SFERA (Macedonia) for several reasons. First of all, I’d already had this inner curiosity and for some time I’d been searching for European Voluntary Services opportunities, but as I was working and studying simultaneously I could not achieve this goal. In December I finished my master degree and in January my employment contract ended, so I decided that it was the perfect timing to participate in an EVS program. As so, I found the Short Term EVS project “Green Raid” and I decided to take a chance and come to Macedonia. For me, a short term EVS of 2 months was perfect, because I know that we can do a long term EVS if we first participate in a short term one, and as I’d never had this kind of experience, I thought it was logical to do a short term program for the first time. Besides, I was always curious about the Balkan style of life, but I never had the chance to come to the Balkan countries, as travelling there from Portugal is quite expensive. Alongside the timing, the time period and the place, I must also highlight the theme, which I thought it would be useful for me in the future, as I previously hadn’t had any background related to firefighting issues.

From my point of view, an EVS experience is a tool created by the EU that can be enjoyed by European youth, as well as young people that belong to countries with special agreements with the European Union. That way I think one of the most inclusive tools that we can use if we want to experience a long or short time period abroad.

As a first time EVS-er I would say that I had high expectations, I wanted to understand the life in Macedonia, the people, the culture, and absorb every little detail, to compare Macedonia to my own country, Portugal. I wanted to get to know the different perspectives concerning certain issues and compare them with the other cultures I already know.

I arrived in Bitola, joining Belinda and Diva, and the rest of the SFERA organization team, Milcho, Imma and Mende, along with all the other volunteers that I can’t name. Later, we met Shahrzad, a lovely Turkish girl, integrated in another short term EVS program under SFERA. Moreover, SFERA organization also connected us with volunteers from other organizations, which made us feel more integrated.

Our working schedule was fixed from 10:00h to 15:00h, however flexibility was one of the main aspects of the organization. During the two months, besides the weekly evaluation meeting, we have attended and participated in the organization of several activities such as SFERA art attack, SFERA floorball, informational workshops, movie nights, game nights, intercultural night, cleaning action days, sensibilization actions for the prevention of natural disasters  and the most important, we gave Portuguese classes to members of the local community. In exchange, we have also received Macedonian lessons that turned out to be really useful to communicate to the community. We’ve also had the opportunity to create a survival kit for the next generations of volunteers that are coming to Bitola.

I could say that I have developed several types of skills, namely organizational and social skills. Organizational skills due to all the workshops organized, that improved my time management and creativity skills, in order to create the flyers, organize the information and to teach the interested people that showed up in our activities. Social skills because we had to deal with young people and also interact with people with different attitudes and views, which required from us to take the role of facilitator.

Due to our schedule flexibility, we’ve had the chance to visit several places in Macedonia, with the help of SFERA organization. When here I visited the capital, Skopje, as well as Ohrid, Struga, Prilep and Bitola (including the surroundings). Besides Macedonia, we have traveled to other cities, located in other countries, such as Sofia, in Bulgaria, Athens and Tessaloniki in Greece and finally, Limassol in Cyprus.

From the places I had the opportunity to visit, the first thing I should point out is that Macedonia, as a non-EU country has certain physical aspects that largely differ from Portugal, such as the roads, the bus signs or even the buildings.

Besides that, there are some other aspects we can point out that largely differ from the reality that we have been living in, for example, the food. The food is the integration and combination of several dishes specific to other cultures, such as the Greek or Turkish, but my favorite was a vegetable spread called Ajvar. Normally it’s used like butter, to eat with bread or to add cheese to it, and it’s a really enjoyable snack.

Socially, I can say that people are a little shy, most of them (normally older people), as they don’t possess a high level of English, so communication with foreigners is more difficult. I could say that Macedonia is a seasonal country because during the summer Macedonia welcomes foreigners in key tourist centers, but during the winter, fewer foreigners visit the country due to its cold weather. Macedonia has a beautiful nature that can be explored in the summer, when the snow has already melted.

Besides that, I can point out that culturally, Macedonia has a patriarchal family structure, as issues like divorce are considered a taboo issue. What Macedonia and Portugal have in common is coffee culture. People here start their coffee time at 13:00pm and you can find streets filled with smiley faces. The streets are filled with lots of different cafes and you can find a whole range of coffee styles.

The young people in Bitola have a particularity that I found out to be very strange. Despite the fact that Macedonia is quite pop-oriented and you can find the best music in clubs, here the people don’t dance. The most they do is move their shoulders, but that’s it.

Finally, I should point out one of the strangest beliefs Macedonian people have, promaja.

Basically, Macedonian people believe that you can be seriously ill and promaja will get you if you open the windows of the car or house or do some regular daily basis actions, like go to the street with your hair wet. The problem is that they cannot specify the symptoms as this is an urban myth taken out of proportions, even though is still funny to see scared faces when you actually open a window in your house.

So far, I must say that I’ m pretty much enjoying my experience here, it has been so great to take in all that surrounds me.  Until now I’ve enjoyed the best of both worlds, living in Macedonia and at the same time enjoying the company of the other Portuguese volunteers. This way I’m away from, but also near home simultaneously.

I would recommend this enriching experience to everyone as it allows you to enter in contact with different people, develop new skills and give you a sense of what you need to improve in yourself. My recommendation is for you to choose and think well about the place, about the duration and about the subject. From my point of view, these are the crucial points when choosing an EVS program.

And last but not least, I just have to thank the SFERA team for all the support that it has provided us since the beginning.

Beatriz Viegas

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