Dresden and Sandstone Dreams

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The FÖJ ebbs away and a few weeks ago our FÖJ group had our last seminar in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains near Dresden. I couldn’t stop myself from becoming slightly sentimental about being in Dresden again, 10 years after my first exchange to Leipzig in 2009. I still have my diary from that first trip to Germany and peeking back through it, amidst the completely embarrassing declarations of love, are street names, cafes-mentions and pictures that create a circular feeling in my German adventure.

My new friends who I’ve met through the FÖJ asked me what brought me here. “Well, if you want the full version”, I asked warningly, “it’s probably because I decided to take German instead of Spanish at school”. And then I told them a bit about the exchanges, my exchange partners, who I idealised, and the freedom I have since associated Germany with. Here I saw my first demonstrations and people were allowed to drink beer in parks and smoke in (some) bars. And school finishes at 1pm. The forests, the lakes and the fairytale cities. I loved it all. That has all contributed to my being here now.

The absolute highlight of our seminar to Saxony was sleeping under open sky in a sandstone overhang called a Boofe. And there’s a verb for it, of course. Boofen. I boof. You boof. One sleeps in the sandstone cavey thing, one boofs. The word is Saxon slang and comes from “pofen”, to sleep deeply. The 40 of us were split into several small groups, given maps and some Motivationsschoko (motivation chocolate), dropped off at various points around the national park and then had several hours to get to the meeting Boofe. We were told to take our time, to enjoy the views, to carry out little, mindful tasks along the way. Our group took this instruction very seriously and arrived a few hours later than the others. This would have been less problematic, hadn’t we shared out a considerable amount of the evening dinner into our packs. Alas, it was overcome and we ate a delicious dinner and watched the sun sink away behind the fire-red rocks, under which the river Elbe flows.

The Elbe rises in the Krkonoše Mountains of the northern Czech Republic and travels through Germany to meet the North Sea near Hamburg. The Elbe sandstone mountain range spans each side of the river from Pirna in northwest Saxony toward southeast Děčín in the Czech Republic. The remarkable landscape is formed by sand, clay and marl that was carried into the Cretaceous sea that pooled here between 145 and 66 million years ago. The rock formations we see today are a result of both weathering factors and the Elbe’s watercourse.

What belongs to the stimulating seminars in addition to inspiring talks and excursions is an element of reflection. What’s this year done for me and what has it been about? We sat in small groups and drew a mood timeline, all noticing a pretty hard dip around winter. Most of us work in agriculture and when there’s less work to do in winter and the crops are either asleep or non-existant, motivations seemed to be low. As our team-leader noticed, however, what’s important is how we got out of that low-point. In spring came new animals, plants, challenges and enthusiasm.

This is what my timeline looked like. Pre-FÖJ, I’d spent the summer waiting for a new challenge, lazing around parks and ponds, reading and cycling and spending time with friends and almost desperately looking forward to the 1st of August and the beginning of something new. Fanny, the FÖJler before me, had been my inspiration to apply for the voluntary year with NABU and at the vineyard. I started working with both the charity and the vineyard nearly eight months before the voluntary year actually began. By the time August came, I felt a pleasant haze of excitement and familiarity.

During my first month at NABU, I was able to attend events and write about them and at the vineyard we were getting ready for the grape harvest, so the first month was pretty great. But it wasn’t until I met my fellow volunteers at our first seminar in Springiersbach on the Mosel that I felt an inspiration that I’d been missing.

In October, several good friends left Trier and I threw myself into the FÖJ to compensate (I think now, retrospectively. At the time I was not aware of this link). I took on extra duties as a representative for the FÖJ on state level. This meant I was less present at NABU and felt like I was running from A to B, from my house, to the vineyard, to NABU, to the English course I was giving, to delegates meetings in Mainz and Erfurt. I was full of motivation but spreading myself to thin and felt lonely and lost.

In November I had my first holiday and met my family in Nice for the marathon. “Four hours of me-time”, I thought gleefully. December got easier with events and a wind down for Christmas and in January I came back newly engaged. “If you don’t like where you are in life, then change it. You are not a tree”. Love the trees, yes. But don’t be the tree. Be human and engaged and be the change.

So I changed some things. I started a Yoga course, moved into a new flat, started a Spanish course, loaned a pretty fly road-bike from a friend. Ooh novelty, I heard January call! Margot, my fellow FÖJler at NABU, Emilie, another volunteer in Trier, and I had our climate evening in January, where we gave a presentation about the climate policies in our three countries and how they compared with one another (England, France and Germany). In many ways January was the volta in my mind and attitude.

The half-year from that turning point to now, the end, has been a mix of ecstatic incentives and humdrum slumps. Our seminar group met several times in inspiring locations around Rheinland-Pfalz. We made cheese with Finn, our very own cheese-making FÖJler. We played piano and sung by candlelight; Aleks drew and painted and taught us too; we chopped, cooked and enjoyed communal meals and we looked for and found lovely things and people amongst slightly nervous glances into the future.

This was always only ever going to be a year and now the year is finishing up but I’m not sad. The FÖJlers have already organised an after-meeting and the friendships are there. Take the motivation, impulses, passion, skills, lessons learned and mistakes and climb with them up the next mountain. I can’t wait to see where we’ll all go!

Below picture from hiking in the Lake District in 2007

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German Exchange 2009
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