Reflection on my EVS experience

text and photos by Taco

Taco

My EVS project happened by a series of happy coincidences. After finishing my studies in the Netherlands, I felt the need to get away from it all for a while. I roamed around on Workaway looking for places somewhere away from the busy west. Eastwards, Bulgaria, Romania… I finally found a remote place in Slovenia called Sunny Hill, an eco-community in permaculture which seemed to be an interesting and peaceful place to hide out for some time. I came there and helped around the house, also to prepare the place for an upcoming dancing youth exchange.

During that time I discovered the existence of EVS (European Voluntary Service organised by the Erasmus + program) and that such a project was being organised here. Not giving it much attention, by the end of the two weeks I got to understand that Sunny Hill would soon be looking for volunteers to be part of it. Considering that I didn’t have many plans for the coming times and that living for a year in the middle of nature in a permaculture eco-community with friendly and like-minded people, starting a pretty awesome project, I couldn’t find many reasons why not. I was proposed to apply for this project that would start at the beginning of October and got accepted.

Hrvoji, the village where I spent a year

The main project for this EVS was initiated by Vida, a former cooperative member of Sunny Hill. Her idea was to establish a pilgrimage: the Camino d’Istria. A walking path that would go across the Istrian peninsula from north to south, going from Slovenia into Croatia. For one year we compared maps, explored the territory, looked for suitable accommodation and locations to find sustenance (food and water sources), discovered ancient trails, historical villages and researched about the philosophical and spiritual meaning of pilgrimage. Religion not being our cup of tea, we opened our pilgrimage to a universal understanding of spirituality, an all-inclusive version of pilgrimage.

We organised two inaugurating events, the first one in April celebrated the opening of the short walks in the vicinity of Sunny Hill. Three walks in total, two half days and one three day long walk. Most of the organisation went into the three day walk which crossed the border. The border at Hrvoji being only for accessible to locals with a key, we made special demands to the police in Croatia and Slovenia to give us permission, as a sportive event, to let us cross. The police came to check our IDs and opened the fence for half an hour in one direction and another two days later at agreed times. In two groups we visited and stayed in Motovun and Groznjan, both groups going in opposite directions. The event was a great success from the organisation point of view and the feedback of the 14 participants was overall very positive. This gave us the reality check that our endeavours and efforts were not just feeding our personal fantasies and gave us the cheer to continue our work in this direction towards the long Camino event in September. In the next four months we explored the region, looking for the best and most suitable trails, getting lost in the middle of nature, going off track to find another trail south west, 50 meters lower..

Pilgrims

We finally came up with the present version connecting Koper, Hrvoji (Sunny Hill), Motovun, Pazin, Draguc, Kotli, Hum, the Poklon pass on Ucka, Vojak (1400m alt.) and Moscenice. A seven day walk of about 135km. Having learned from the first event, the second was organised in a trouble-less manner. Only finding the participants was a little bit more difficult, 8 days halfway September is not the best timing in the year. Finally we gathered a small group but unfortunately due to an injury from the previous walk I couldn’t come along.

Beside having had a year full of adventures, walking through beautiful landscapes, I finally got the grounding I needed and also developed a strong bond and partner- & friendship with Vida, complementing each other into a smooth work symbiosis. We also established the association of Camino d’Istria in Ljubljana which has become the node of a small network of friends, hikers and pilgrims interested and/or convinced of the potential of the project.

I shared this volunteering year and project with two french girls (separately). Working with them taught me a lot about teamwork. Living and working in the same place day after day can have a confusing effect, certainly when one is used to clear boundaries and a structured lifestyle. Also, life in a community can be quite confronting. Imagine living actively with a family in a house, cooking, working and sharing free time together and meeting every week. In such a setting it’s not uncommon to discover each others and your own boundaries and weak spots. To me it’s certainly a positive process of getting to know yourself and others but in order to make it fruitful one should have a humble and willing to learn attitude. If the ego is too deeply rooted then a clash can occur.

Sitting and talking in circles is part of the community life

This humble and observant attitude can serve as a base to grow, in my case, from individualism and self-importance towards a more inclusive attitude of solidarity and togetherness. This to progressively find a balanced and healthy position in the community. On the ground this can be experienced as first taking things personally and having the sense of ‘what should I be doing’, to eventually understand that living in an eco-community means you are part of a living organism. Such an organism needs to eat, drink, digest, rest, and first of all: breath, take the time to enjoy. Reaching this realisation and perspective is not a simple thing when coming from a world of strong conditioning. It’s a tough self-confronting process which can eventually bring one to find one’s own place inside the group and unfold towards your full potential.

Being an EVS volunteer at Sunny Hill is great but can sometimes come to be tricky. I’m part of the community on a relative long term making me a solid and immersed member to it and it’s activities. At the same time my time here is also counted so there’s a psychological limit to the real commitment. Like a tree growing in a planted pot separated from the earth. Off course the possibility always existed to remain after the volunteering period (if the other members would agree) but that’s another story. Also, being mainly busy with a project that only remotely yields to the community’s interests, I often had the feeling of sitting between two chairs when it came to occupation and responsibilities. But on overall, the easy going atmosphere, friendliness and open-mindedness of the fellow members made my stay very enjoyable, filled with good moments, laughter and joy. We would never hesitate after a day of work close to the coast to take a dive in the sea and go for an ice cream in Koper on the way back during the warm days.

In total I spent 12 months in this peaceful corner of Slovenia, experiencing all the four seasons with in each its work and harvests:

The cheerful olive harvest in autumn at Goran on the hill above Isola. A few hundred kilos of kakis picked from one fertile tree in Pomjan serving as material for week long ‘kaky parties’ (cutting and peeling) in the winter. The spring planting and weeding campaigns around the sunny hill and at Romana’s in the valley of dragons. From salad and strawberry overdoses in spring to overabundance of cherries, tomatoes and plums for jam, sauce or drying in the summer.

Living for a year in this sunny community changed me in many ways. I improved my organisation skills through the Camino project and by organising local events such as the Christmas eco-fair where we set up a gift economy market of second hand christmas presents. Also my practical skills greatly diversified. Cooking for on average 10 people and up to 30 on special occasions. Helping out building or putting apart constructions, plastering, building stairs in the garden, doing the maintenance of dry stonewalls, helping build a green roof, and a lot of wood cutting and storing.

Christmas market: no money involved

During these activities I learned how to use simple tools like an axe, a scythe or a hoe, discovering that, to use them properly, in the most energy-efficient way, one must learn for some quite specific techniques. This brought me to humbly realise how peasants and farmers in the past, and many still today, have to be quite skilled and hold a tight line on how much energy they spend versus the energy they take in. I might see this as an interesting practice, for others it’s a nice work out. For those having no other choice came to this balance by their own and, the generations before them, fine tuning and adaptation to their environment and climate conditions. Back when muscles and strong minds shaped the landscape.

Planting peas in early spring

I also learned to better appreciate the people I live with in order to avoid judging. Every person is the cover of a life story with ups and downs, weaknesses and strengths. One can’t understand a person by only looking at the title or having an overview of the present chapter. Community life makes a deeper reading possible and enables greater valuing of the persons qualities and more compassion for her or his short comings. Living in community has been a great lesson of life.

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