“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost” wrote JRR Tolkien in 1954, when he published the first book of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Almost seven decades later, in October 2021, I decided to sign the official documents to become an European Solidarity Corps volunteer in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and now, having reached the end of this project, I can say without any doubt that far from getting lost, this long journey has led me to find not only my place in the world, but also to find myself.
I would be lying if I said that everything was easy during this period, because it was not. Every day was a constant struggle to cope with personal fears such as the lack of self-esteem, insecurity, the language barrier, the cultural shock or the strong sense of homesickness. I guess we all worry about disappointing the expectations of those around us, about not being good enough.
However, I could not be more grateful for these challenges, as it has been despite them, or perhaps precisely because of them, that I have been able to make a change and experience a deep personal development on all levels after this year abroad. The Swiss psychologist and writer Carl Gustav Jung used to say that “if there is a fear of falling, the only safety is deliberately jumping“. So I did.
Throughout my experience working as an ESC volunteer in Smokinya Foundation, I have had the opportunity to write and coordinate international projects, deal with partners from countries all over Europe, learn about human resources management, organise and host public activities and events, practice public speaking in a foreign language through all the workshops and meetings I have had to hold and develop my digital skills among many other things I could mention.
In this way, they have all strongly boosted my professional skills and job prospects, giving me the confidence, knowledge and international experience I needed to make my dream of working in the European Union a little more real, pushing me one step closer towards that direction. However, although it was an essential, impressive and priceless part of my experience, I must say that it was not the best.
Meeting other people from so many countries, hearing their stories, travelling together and exchanging ideas, hopes, laughs and fears with each other was definitely the most valuable part of my long journey in the Balkans. I arrived in Bulgaria full of nerves, scared and alone, and I leave the country happy, proud of the work done, with my mind full of clear ideas and above all, accompanied by those who have become my new family after a year working, living and exploring together.
Thus, I would like to take advantage of this reflection to thank all the people who have guided and taught me in different ways during this incredible experience, from the beginning to the end; Loïs, Vladan, Kalda, Valentina, Viki, Sveta, Marisya, Elena, Tisho, Sipi and especially, Masha and Igor. Thanks to you I have had the privilege of living an unrepeatable adventure that has reminded me of an important lesson that seems to have been forgotten by some people today; to judge others by what they do, who they are, and not by where they come from.
In this regard, it is worth noting that during our volunteer project in Bulgaria there were some particularly difficult moments that we had to face and that tested our strength, our bonds and our values, there is no denying it. The terrible war situation in Ukraine has shaken the lives of people on four continents, and our team was no exception. However, I am proud to say that we successfully overcame all obstacles by supporting each other, standing together and waging war on war, proving to the rest of society that there is nothing stronger than the feeling of brotherhood among people and cultures, that a better world is still possible through will and cooperation. All we need is love and courage, courage and love.
Following this idea, I must also mention how extraordinary it has been to have the opportunity to cross the boundaries marked by the old Iron Curtain and visit other countries in Eastern Europe, broadening my understanding of other cultures, values and lifestyles that have only further increased my love and respect for them, as well as my firm belief in an open and multicultural Europe, a bigger and stronger one where we can all live in peace.
The American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail“, and I swear that I have tried it. Poland, Serbia, Turkey, Greece and of course Bulgaria, have witnessed such a deep and meaningful learning process that has driven me to change, to adapt, to think, to reflect, to understand and to grow, personally and professionally, as an individual and as part of a global society.
I will certainly miss the coloured lights hanging over my head in the labyrinthine streets of Kapana, the views from the hill of Nebet Tepe at sunset, the ancient sound of guitars and bagpipes as I walk without direction through the old town, the sunny summer days and the first snowfalls of winter, the taste of musaka and banitsa or the magical atmosphere during the festive nights in Plovdiv. But most of all I will miss its inhabitants, who opened their arms to me from the very beginning and showed me how great Bulgaria and its people are, some of whom have become close friends for the rest of my days.
Life is certainly unpredictable, and it is impossible to foresee what awaits me on the path I have taken, but I know one thing; being an ESC volunteer in Plovdiv for a year has been the experience of my life, a wonderful dream that I wish I could dream every night. Knowing that it cannot be, at least I am left with the consolation of continuing my journey towards creating a better Europe with a backpack full of beautiful memories, warm people, meaningful lessons and bookish knowledge that will accompany me wherever I go.
For all these reasons, I would like to thank all those who have played a role in my life during this time since they all have taught me something new, as well as Smokinya Foundation for giving me the opportunity to experience it. I wish all the best to the next volunteers, who will have the duty to continue working tirelessly for a world of love, care and cooperation as my colleagues and I did for so many months. However, I am absolutely certain that they will not only preserve, but also enhance our common legacy. Finally, I can only add that it has been a real honour and privilege to be part of this project, leaving my grain of sand on our way to make a change in this world.
It is often said that when people decide to go abroad for a long period of time they cry twice; first, when they have to leave their homeland, and finally when they have to say goodbye to the country that has welcomed them for so long. I could not agree more, since a part of me will always remain in Plovdiv and in Bulgaria, this magical country where I arrived as a child, but from which I leave as a man thanks to this experience that I carry deep in my heart. What will life hold for me? Only the future can tell, but time is gone, a new path is emerging on the horizon and I am fully prepared to take the next step. Now my watch is ended.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not 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”