Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Things we learned in Romania

Sarah spent 15 – 21 March 2015 in Iaşi, Romania, on an exchange programme that saw young people from four European countries come together to learn about sustainability and social entrepreneurship. Here’s what she got up to…

When I applied to go on this exchange, it was with very little idea of what I was actually signing up for. However, since the birth of the Edge of the Universe Printing Press I’ve come to learn that it nearly always pays off to say yes to whatever opportunities come our way – even if we don’t always initially understand exactly what those opportunities are…

And so it was when Rachel from Youth Discovery Ventures (a really great Sheffield-based social enterprise, who we had worked with before) let me know that YDV was recruiting the UK participants to a Youth Entrepreneurship for Sustainability (soon shortened to ‘YES’) exchange, which would take place in Romania, and asked me if I would like to apply to take part.

As usual, saying yes turned out to be the right decision, as my time in Romania was one of the best weeks EVERRRRRR!!!!1!1!1! (Seriously – it really was)

The exchange was overseen by Suportis, a Romanian social enterprise focused on youth action, and was attended by groups of five participants each (one facilitator, who co-led the week, and four participants) from the UK, Romania, Estonia and Turkey, respectively. Here are some of the things I learned on it:

Things I learned about Romania:

Iaşi (pronounced “yash”) is a city in eastern Romania. Its population is about the same size as Coventry’s, but Iaşi has far more dogs and far less intimidatingly gigantic Ikeas. It was a really cool, welcoming city – not least because the GBP-RON exchange rate meant that a gourmet two course meal in a scenic sky bar cost about £6 – and being there taught me masses about Romania’s awesome culture. Here are just three key things:

1. Dancing
Every Romanian I became friends with on the exchange was a really, REALLY good dancer. One of them told me that dancing was the Romanian national pastime, and this certainly appeared to be true: every time we were at a bar and a Romanian song came on, loads of people would immediately leap to their feet and start doing these (to my eyes) impossibly complicated routines. Fortunately Akif, one of the UK team, was also an incredibly good dancer, which meant that he distracted attention away from the rest of us Brits as we jerked along to the music, gamely yet horrendously arrhythmically.
Iaşi being pretty, plus the #sayyes team

2. Singing
In Romania, they take karaoke seriously. We learned this to our cost: on the first night out we went to a local bar, where we picked a “fun” karaoke song (Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby (One More Time)’) to perform as a group. It was only after making this choice that we realised everyone else in the bar was not only singing heartfelt ballads, but singing them staggeringly well.

There was actually quite a lot of singing on the trip, as music served as a great window onto other people’s cultures. Ion, who was part of the Suportis team and co-ordinated the logistics of the exchange, played some beautiful, sad folk songs for us, whilst Cristian (Romanian participant) and Louis (UK facilitator) treated us to a somewhat less moving, although very enthusiastic, performance of Romanian gangsta rap group B.U.G. Mafia’s seminal hit ‘Cine E Cu Noi’:

3. Positivity
Partly, I would think, as a result of their recent political and economic history (Romania only became independent right at the very end of 1989, and became a full member of the EU in 2007), the Romanian team were all really un-cynical, ambitious and optimistic about what we, as young people, can achieve. This was in stark contrast to the relatively downbeat, disengaged attitudes that seem to characterise my generation in the UK. It was really refreshing and empowering to be around that kind of mindset, and to start to believe that, yes, we do actually have the power to achieve some really great stuff.

Things I learned about making friends:

I should start by saying that I was very fortunate in that everyone on the exchange was really, really lovely. Here are some ways in which we became pals:

1. I’m wary of overpraising alcohol – but nonetheless, it does seem like there are few things that brings people together as effectively as drinking multiple steins of Romanian beer. Drinking was also a great way to get a taste (har har) of the different participating countries, as every nation apart from the UK* brought some of their national booze for us all to share: raki from Turkey; incredibly strong homebrewed wine, incredibly strong homebrewed vodka, and incredibly strong (are you noticing a theme here?) not-homebrewed palincă from Romania; and a drink that I can’t remember the name of from Estonia, but that Wikipedia suggests might be called ‘kali’, that the Estonians miraculously managed to brew at the hostel (how?!), and which definitely contained bread (what?! They amaze me).

* Before the trip we spent a looooong time discussing what we should bring to our intercultural evening – an event where we were to share our country’s traditions and pastimes with the others – but ended up massively overthinking everything (‘but Cadbury’s and Terry’s are technically American companies now, aren’t they!?’ ‘I feel like we’re not giving a very contemporary perspective on British life, here’, etc.). In the end we were too overwhelmed by choice to actually make a decision, and brought nothing with us to share except Yorkshire tea. In hindsight, this decision-making process does seem very fittingly British.

Cheers! / Noroc! / Teviseks! / Serefe!
2. If there was anything that could finally convince me to ditch my (very) long-suffering Nokia 3220 and enter the twenty-first century by getting a smartphone, it was this trip. Much as I generally spend my time get annoyed at my friends for being on Facebook / Twitter at all hours, even when their real-life pals are stood right next to them, IT’S REALLY RUDE, GUYS, HOW DO YOU NOT REALISE THAT?!, the YES exchange did open my eyes up to some of the incredibly positive things social media can also be used for. Namely, services like Snapchat and Instagram, which are primarily visual, are a really, really great way for people that don’t (fully!) share a common language to communicate. And modern technology can be helpfully utilised in other ways, too – one of the Turkish girls had an ace translation app on her phone, which was really useful in helping us understand each other.

3. Humour is (obviously) a great way to make friends – much more so than discussing inter-cultural differences, or your respective countries’ political issues (very interesting as this stuff is).
'Weird British humour' - the Sheffield-based members of the UK team
But this isn’t to say that humour is a universal language. ‘Your weird British humour’ was a phrase the UK team heard a lot during the week – and justifiably so, as I and most of the rest of the British group reached such a level of sleep-deprived delirium that we did repeatedly enter into very weird states of hysteria during the exchange. And there is also some comedy that just doesn’t translate that well. In our intercultural evening presentation – the one we drastically overthought – we made the decision (possibly not a wise one, in hindsight…) to not tell people things they might already know about the UK, but to instead give an ‘alternative perspective’ on British cultural life. Hence why, to exemplify the British sense of humour, we chose to play the following clip from I’m Alan Partridge to a room full of non-native English speakers:

The reasons behind exactly why we chose to show this are now lost to the mists of time. Hindsight, once again, is a fine thing.

Nevertheless, joking around was the best way to make pals, I think. This reached its peak on the last night of the exchange, when Louis and I spent ages (and ages) telling “knock knock”, “doctor doctor” and “man walks into a bar”-type jokes to the Estonian group. Somewhat surprisingly, this went down incredibly well (though seriously, who can fail to be charmed by “Who’s there?” “The interrupting cow”? Best joke everrr!) Karolin, the Estonian facilitator, then treated us to her own, unique, style of joke-telling, which consisted of making very surreal, matter-of-fact, totally pointless statements, and then laughing uproariously until everyone else felt compelled to join in. These were genuinely some of the funniest jokes I have ever heard.

4. To me, there was a genuine advantage to us not all speaking the same language to the same level. I realise I’m making this statement from a position of very naïve privilege – the exchange was conducted in English, and a lot of the other participants talked about their frustration at not being able to find the right words to express themselves when speaking in this language – but because we were all actively working to understand each other, it made those moments of connection and understanding much more meaningful and rewarding (or it did to me, anyway). That it was harder for all of us to communicate than usual made me value that communication much, much more.

And because we had a limited range of language in which to express ourselves, there was no room to be shy, reserved, or subtle.  The restrictions of language forced me to be way more open, direct, and enthusiastic than I normally would be, and I found this an incredibly rewarding way to be.

Things I learned about social enterprise:

The YES exchange was part of Erasmus+, which apparently is a catch-all term that encompasses a huuuuge number of European Union funding programmes: all of those covering education, training, youth and sport, in fact.

There were three different, themed, weeks to the YES exchange, and our week looked at ‘sustainability and social entrepreneurship’ – sustainable development being development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The week started off with activities that saw us identifying different sustainability issues and examining case studies around different entrepreneurial leaders. We then used Augusto Boal’s concept of ‘forum theatre’ (yeah, I had no idea what this was either) to explore how we might fix some of these issues, before filming awareness-raising videos and drawing up business plans to tackle several specific problems more directly.

We also went on a couple of site visits to social enterprises in Iaşi. Veggie/vegan café CUIB was like a home from home – with its racks of bikes outside, cacao-packed cakes, and Pinterest-worthy coloured pencil lampshades, I could easily imagine CUIB nestled in Sheffield’s leafy Nether Edge. Guided by principles like slow food, zero waste and fair trade , CUIB also sold locally and ethnically made gifts, including this dope magpie badge which is produced by the Romanian version of the RSPB:

We also visited Util Deco, a large social enterprise on the outskirts of Iaşi that gives education, training, counselling and (primarily, and most importantly) work to people with disabilities. A large population of their staff were people who had been infected with the HIV virus as infants during 1989-1992 (this was a period when, tragically, blood transfusions caused a huge number of infections). The work they were doing included garment making, printing (wahey!!), arts and crafts, and archiving.

A couple of things that really stood out were, firstly, that this social enterprise very effectively utilised a fillip in the law: Romanian businesses legally have to employ a certain percentage of disabled people, and businesses would get around actually doing this by outsourcing their work to Util Deco. Second was the fact that they had hit upon archiving (maybe not very cool, but once again legally necessary, and also very labour-intensive) as a form of job creation.

A bit sadly, if understandably for such a small-scale operation, Util Deco wasn’t self-sustaining, as they were in a large part reliant on grants from various European funding bodies in order to keep going. That is to say, the profit they made through the various services they offered was not enough to keep them financially viable; they needed grant money, too.

Things I learned about everything else:

If I had any vague expectations of YES when going into the exchange, it was that it might improve my technical knowledge about social enterprises: I thought I might learn about business planning, or the legal issues governing these kinds of businesses. As it turns out I did learn some of this technical stuff, though not as much as I initially expected – but I learned a heck of other, much more important, stuff instead.

As it turns out, social enterprises don’t exist in quite the way they do in the UK (where we have around 70,000 social enterprises!) in other European countries – in Turkey, for example, they don’t seem to really exist at all in the way they do here. As such, the exchange had to take us right back to basics, so we could all understand what a social enterprise is and what it does.

Rather than causing me to think “I already know this” (it’s very unlikely I would ever think this about anything enterprise-related, as my business knowledge is worryingly minimal), looking at social enterprise and sustainability from a position of not knowing was incredibly eye-opening. Going through the process of questioning core concepts and learning together and from each other was amazing.  It meant that, unlike pretty much any other training course I have ever been on, this exchange actually caused a profound shift in my, and other people’s, thinking. It was amazing watching people go from being quiet or even timid at the start of the week to being articulate, confident and full of ideas by the exchange’s end.

Spending a week in such an intense atmosphere of positivity, optimism, and co-learning really opened my eyes up to how much we, as individuals, can actively do in order to help make the world better. It helped me try to be more open and less cynical, and made me even surer that by leaving one of my part-time jobs and committing to making the Edge of the Universe Printing Press a going concern I’ve made the right choice.

I’ve travelled a fair bit in Europe before, but I see now that I was just skimming the surface of other countries. By the end of the exchange I was totally fascinated by the various cultures of the other participants – and really amazed, and heartened, by how well we all managed to bridge language barriers in order to work together and become friends. It made me much more aware, and glad of, my own European-ness!

It also made me really appreciate how ridiculously lucky I am to have been born in the United Kingdom towards the end of the twentieth century (even if it might not always feel that way!), as well as how embarrassing / awful it is that I don’t know any other languages, beyond secondary school-level French. The English levels of the other participants were astoundingly good, and put the few words I picked up from their languages to shame (FYI, these were: ‘thank you’ in Romanian; ‘thank you’, ‘cheers’, and a seemingly taboo swear word that I was taught by semi-accident and then not explained the meaning of in Estonian; and a love poem in Turkish, which, albeit somewhat impressive, isn’t particularly practical). This made it feel even more outrageously presumptuous that the whole exchange was conducted in English.

At the end of the exchange we wrote messages to each other - and these are the ones written to me

What next:
  • First up, saying a big thank you to Youth Discovery Ventures, Suportis and the rest of the participants for an awesome week
  • Secondly, fix my glasses, which I broke, spectacularly, on the first day of the exchange
  • I loved this whole exchange so much that I definitely want to go on more of them. There’s so much Europe to see! So many new friends to meet! So much world to change!
  • I also really, really enjoyed the process of overcoming language barriers to have meaningful communication, and also felt like I was quite good at facilitating this kind of thing – to the extent that I would love, one day, to be a facilitator on these kinds of projects
  • Linked to this, I'm hopefully going to start going to a local conversation club in Sheffield, which is aimed at helping develop the language skills of people who can't yet legally access formal English language courses (e.g. refugees)
  • In terms of the Edge of the Universe, the exchange defined some key tasks we can do to help focus and improve our social enterprise – including writing a proper business plan!
  • I would really like to start doing projects that help facilitate communication between people from different language / cultural groups. I think we could make a really big positive impact with these kind of activities.
  • Related to this: I’m now dead interested in the experiences of people who are regularly not communicating in their native language (such as expats now living in the UK) and their experience of that (how it feels; if it causes them to communicate differently; if they miss their native language; etc.). So I want to start making a series of bilingual zines that feature the stories of these kinds of people
  • Keep doing more good stuff. Be positive and open. Help change the world. Say yes!