(Almost) 1 year as a volunteer — in a retrospect

Hello Medium! I have been writing a blog of my volunteer experiences on WordPress for a while now, but I got a tip from my brother TSS to publish here as well for the 1 year anniversary. So here I go, with a lot of overlap.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover.

My story actually begun even a bit earlier. In early 2014 I was told about the Danish folk high school (højskole) system, and since I’ve been quite interested in Scandinavia it came as a revelation: I must apply for a course if I ever want to make it to the North. So I did. I spent two long courses at Højskolen Østersøen between the end of August 2014 and the end of April 2015. I got exposed both to a very international student community and also to Denmark and Scandinavia. I learned about what it means to be a Dane, why they love their flag so much, why they drink a lot of coffee (with the obligatory cakes or buns), why it is amazing to have free healthcare, and more. Being there felt like a huge step forward in my life. A radical change of environment from my native Hungary. Being there on the shore of the Baltic Sea, breathing in the fresh air filled with the salty fragrance of the open water, I instantly knew that I want to stay in the North. One way or another.

Finding a job sounded the most plausible way, but despite the language classes at HØ, my Danish skills were far from sufficient. Danish is easy on grammar, weird on pronunciation.

Therefore I set up on finding a different way of experiencing Denmark and working at the same time. I found out about a nifty website for international volunteers: workaway.info. During the last weeks of my stay at HØ I sent plenty of messages to all kinds of hosts, hoping that replies would be swift, but not seeing any reaction for quite long. My cances seeming bleak I was almost giving up, fearing the end of my Nordic stay when I got a message. I had a place to go. I had to go. And so I did.

On the 27th of April 2015, a fine, sunny day, I passed through the entrance of the school, took a few steps and took a last photo, realizing that this was my first “Home” in Denmark, in the North. Nothing will be the same anymore.

My volunteer career started off on the Northwestern tip of Sjælland, or as the people of Jylland call it: the Devil’s Island. That’s a rather Danish way to address the capital.

I found myself on an organic farm startup and retreat center (Ananda Gaorii). Later I worked at a holistic folk high school (Stensbæk), a school for teens with learning and social difficulties that operates as a bed&breakfast during summer (Småskolen ved Nakkebølle Fjord), an Iron Age village and a Viking village (both belongs to Ringkøbing-Skjern Museum), and now as I’m writing this I’m in a forest hostel (Tivedstorp) in the heart of Sweden, but preparing to leave to a Viking village in Birka, close to Stockholm.

My expectations were mixed in the beginning, but they got more realistic as I progressed in my career. I have met various people in various situations, I have been to various places in various environments. I have helped with various tasks, improved in various skills.

I have faced obstacles, fears of suddenly ending my journey, but it always worked out, one way or another. This 1 year and the opportunities still ahead of me have not been a mindless and careless period of doing nothing. In my native Hungary some might think that spending so much time “working your ass off for free” is nonsense. I think that such an opinion is nonsense. Volunteering, especially in a different country, is the most amazing life experience you can get. The most expensive, all inclusive organized travel will never get you as close to the actual people.

I have even joked with Danes that I have seen more of Denmark in a few months than the average in their entire life.

I can fairly say that I have progressed a lot both in skills and personality. I have proved myself that I am capable of working, I am capable of adapting to and getting along in completely different scenarios. As I said, this has been a radical change of environment for me, and I can tell you that though I had a wonderful job in Hungary for a while in between, the general apathy and bad mood of the country just stuck, no matter what I did. Not even listening to music on the tram will help if you are sensitive to your surroundings.

The most important experience with this many hosts is simple: keep your expectations to a minimum. Every host is different, every task is different, even the seemingly same tasks can turn out differently.

Be content with what you get. One place might feel luxurious, while an other not. I have slept in super comfy beds, but also in a Viking hut, or on a thin polyfoam mattress in an unused office room. Sometimes the shower was on the other side of the hallway, other times on the other side of the property in an other building. Sometimes meals were included, other times I had to take a long walk or ask for a lift to the nearest shop to have stuff for my own meals.

I am looking forward to my forthcoming hosts for the rest of the year. My summer offers are getting more complicated with opportunities both in the South and North of Sweden. I have to make a choice, and this is the other end of the dilemmas I have to face. This is the first time that I have a scheduled plan and new possibilities coming up along the way. As for the autumn, chances are good that I will finally get to Norway, both Oslo and Bergen. And maybe more, who knows!

As for a main goal of my volunteering, I think my CV is starting to look more and more convincing.

Working in a hostel on a payroll is a career start scenario I could feel comfortable with. Or in a guest house of an open-air historical museum. ;)

If you are considering a similar path, or just a summer volunteering getaway, please feel free to contact me, throw you questions at my mailbox (internordic@zsoltsandor.me). I will try my best to answer them.

I publish photos infrequently, you are welcome to follow me on Flickr too.

And at the 1 year anniversary of my volunteer career I encourage you to help me with the finances of my adventure. Staying in the North is quite a big deal for someone coming from Hungary. Though my accommodation and food is covered by the hosts I still have to travel in between. I’m running a fundraiser on Generosity. If you like the idea of long-term (almost) non-stop volunteering please spare a few bucks, or just share with your friends and foes, beloved and hated family members. Thank you!