Mountains, language barriers and loads of history – Experiences from the first EVS-volunteer of Dolomitenfreunde

Verfasst von Hanna Rask

This year Dolomitenfreunde, a long-term partner organization of SCI Österreich, got their first EVS (European Voluntary Service)-volunteer to work in the Museum1915-18 in the village of Kötschach-Mauthen for the summer season. That was me, a 24-year-old anthropology student from Finland. SCI was also closely involved with the project, in terms of supporting both Dolomitenfreunde and me with several practicalities, and also through the annual work camps organized in the mountain area near the village.

A sister organization in Austria is urgently seeking an EVS-volunteer for a half-a-year placement in a World War I -themed museum in the Dolomites. The volunteer should have interest in history and museum work, and be fine with living in countryside.”

That is, in a nutshell, the content of an announcement that I spotted on the webpage of KVT (the Finnish branch of SCI) at the end of January. I had recently been panicking about not having practically any working experience related to my field of studies, and was also going through a period of intense travelling fever. The content of work described in the announcement sounded interesting and the pictures that I googled about the area looked amazing. Did I have especially deep knowledge about World War I? No. Did I know any German? Not really, except the very few words I could recall from the two courses I took at school 10 years ago. However, I decided to give it a try and applied. After one week I got a highly surprising phone call from KVT: I had been chosen for the project. About three months and several e-mails and fill-in forms later I was in Austria.

I still remember the rather “foggy” and unreal feeling of the first weeks in May. I had arrived from cold and rainy Helsinki almost into middle of summer, in a place that looked like being straight from a fairytale, and hardly understood a word about what people around me were speaking.

It’s hard to summarize the past months into a couple of chapters, but they have definitely been an unforgettable experience. I was looking forward to learn something about the practical work of running a museum to complement the theoretical aspects learnt from museology studies, and that’s something that I have definitely learned. I might have been rather unrealistic with some of my expectations about improving academic or professional skills during this volunteering period, but on the other hand, have gained a lot of other things that I didn’t know to expect.

Language(barrier) has been The Word of the past months. As I wrote, I didn’t know almost any German at all upon my arrival. Now, when looking back, I feel to have learnt much more than I expected. Not enough to write this article in German, but enough to manage with some simple daily communication in the museum and outside of it. I’m also very proud of being able to sell tickets usually without an interpreter. At the beginning I was horrified when I was told to take charge of the ticket desk on one of my very first working days. It proved, however, to be a smart move. You learn to use the language fast when you just have to. Of course, especially some dialects caused moments of confusion still at the end of my volunteering period.

About the museum itself: when I read about “a museum in a small village” before my arrival, I pictured in my mind that the museum itself would, logically, be small too. That eventually appeared to be something completely else. The more days, weeks and months I stayed in Kötschach, the more impressed I became about the huge load of work with which the system is being managed by so few people. The amount of the very detailed information the exhibitions include is equally impressive.

My main work in the museum has been ticket selling, and in addition to that I have learnt to take care of diverse daily tasks related to opening and closing the exhibitions. Some more quiet days have included for example listing the endless amount of books, translating the info sheet for the exhibition into Finnish and making mobiles of paper birds. The ladies in the Post Office also recognize me as a regular visitor. The most exciting week at work was definitely the one I spent practically alone in the museum in the middle of the busiest tourist season. On the other hand, especially towards the end of the opening season, the main challenge has often been to come up with something to do while waiting for the hypothetical visitors.

I was more than happy to be able to take part in both the study camp of SCI in Kötschach and another of the work camps up in the mountains. No more about the study camp here – it was worth of a separate article – but the week in the mountains was absolutely one of the best during the whole summer and also a welcomed break for working inside at the time of the best summer weather. The company of other international volunteers was also something I had already missed at times, and the older and more experienced volunteers of Dolomitenfreunde turned out to be great people too. It was fun to notice how fast ways communication and mutual inside-humor were developed within a group in which a common language didn’t exist between everybody.

Back down and to everyday life in Kötschach-Mauthen. Living as “that-non-German-speaking-foreigner” in a small village has been something quite unique. It has been a great chance to get to know local life on one hand, and on the other hand a challenge of having no “co-stranger” to share the situation with. I’ve had to stretch both my ability to stand loneliness and courage to approach new people. Overall I found local people very friendly and helpful, no matter the language barriers. Especially grateful I am to my mentor, retired headmaster of the local shool, who has not just given me free German lessons but also helped me to connect more with local people. The natural consequence of course was that an overwhelming majority of the people I got to know during these months are either current or former teachers. A good experience has been also attending to a local choir, even though some of the lyrics of the songs in Carinthian dialect still remain a mystery.

As I’m writing this text on one of the last days of my project, I can say to be happy about choosing to come here and wish luck to the next EVS-volunteer(s). Thanks to everybody who was involved with the study and work camps in Kötschach-Mauthen, and to Thomas for support during the project!