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A Weekend on the Hillside

Volunteering while you are abroad is one of the most rewarding experiences you can give yourself. While studying abroad with CEA in Prague last Spring, a friend and I volunteered with a program called Tamjdem. Not entirely sure of what we were getting ourselves into, it ended up being one of my favorite weekends abroad. Here's a quick look at my weekend on the Czech hillside:
 A late afternoon hike through the pines led us to this lush open meadow that sits right below the brewery.

In the serene countryside of the Czech Republic lies the small village of Chříč, resting on a hillside so quiet that you can hear the wind whisper through the towering trees and the hills seem to hold the secrets of a simpler way of life. Located in the Plzen Region that sits 35 miles west of Prague, the town covers 4.06 square miles and has a population of 197. Buried between the tall pines lives a Czech family—father Peter, wife Jana, an adorable 3-year-old girl, and the cutest 8-month-old boy —in a timeworn house connected to a historic brewery where the closest toilet is a 3-minute walk to a wooden out-house. I had arrived on the family's land for my first volunteer experience abroad, and it almost felt as if I had time-traveled back to what I pictured life like a century ago.
 This beat-up door leads you into the historic stone brewery on the front side of the home.

I was awakened by the soothing sound of a flute playing a soft melody that traveled through the cold, brick hallway of the farmhouse. My eyes were pierced by the sunlight shining through the window, and the crisp morning air floated in and cover my body like a warm blanket. As I made my way to the kitchen to meet the other volunteers, my nose filled from the aroma of dumplings and fresh bread.

There were 12 volunteers total for the weekend—from different countries including Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Czech Repulic, Finland and Spain—all there to help repair the brewery and create job opportunities for people with social and mental handicaps. My main job was to break down large pieces of stone with a hammer for a wheelbarrow to dump near the wall that was being built. Others collected long branches or cleaned areas coated in wood shavings, dirt, and debris.

Jirka, a Czech kindergarten teacher was the volunteer organization leader—someone I will never forget. His childlike positivity and story-telling made the labor enjoyable as we listened to him speak of his favorite Czech cartoon shows and his hobby of searching for star constellations at night. The language barrier was tough at times, but it gave me quite a few laughs.

“What do you call this?” Jirka asked as he pointed to a shovel.

“A shovel,” I replied.

“Show-vel?” he struggled to say, “I think for you I will just call it a really big spoon.”

 Full of knee-high dirt, rocks, and trash when we started, here is a look at one of the brewery rooms after a day of shoveling, wheelbarrowing, and sweeping away debris.

Later, he heard me use the expression “Oh my gosh” and of course he had to ask, “What is gosh?” When I tried to explain it to him, I think I confused him even more.

We worked until the sun dropped behind the hills, taking short breaks throughout the day that were full of beer, stories, and laughs while we let the sun warm our bodies. That evening just before dusk, a long hike through the forest alongside a creek led us to a vast open meadow. Although I was not in Salzburg, I began to feel like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” as we frolicked through the overwhelming beauty that surrounded us. Radiant stars lit up the sky on our walk back to the house before we all turned in for bed, feeling wonderfully tired from our day of hard work.

On Sunday we ate and worked just like the day before, never forgetting to take in the beautiful landscape around us while always feeling thankful that we got to be a part of a project so much bigger than ourselves. Saying goodbye that evening, even after such a short time, was sad like goodbyes always are. The volunteers and the family of the home were some of the most genuine, smart, and funny people I have ever met, and I feel so much joy that I was able to spend a weekend in the Czech countryside with them. I have come to realize that this is my favorite part of traveling: meeting and getting to know the most kind-hearted people, even if it just for a short while—and knowing that I may never see them again, but feeling so lucky to have met them. I hope one day I can return to Chříč to see the finished brewery.

 The volunteers take a short break from the work to relax and tell stories while bundling up to stay warm.

If you're thinking of volunteering abroad, here are a few tips:

1. Be open-minded and take yourself out of your comfort zone. You will feel so accomplished afterward!
2. Talk to others who may have volunteered before so you can find the right program and contact the organization leader before you go.
3. Look up the weather conditions of where you're going; you want to be prepared!
4. Get to know the other volunteers, even if they speak a different language. It is so amazing to make friends from countries all over the world.
5. Be ready to work-- you don't want to show up to volunteer and be seen as a “lazy American.” Be excited about what you are there to do!

Sarah France is a CEA alumna (Prague Spring '14). She is an Alumni Ambassador and senior at the University of Arizona.

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