The nature within the city

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My first contact with the traditional Czech Christmas took place quite early, during the last weekend of November. It was not the opening of the typical Christmas market that you can find in every main square in every city, town or village in Czech Republic but a special and traditional Christmas fair in Toulcův Dvůr, a Centre for Environmental Education in the surroundings of Prague.

When you are already inside the complex, the first question that comes to your mind is, Am I really in Prague? Different habitats -forest, meadows, wetlands and orchards- shape approximately 8.5 hectares of natural grounds. A gratifying piece of nature within the city. Because in the end, if you look at the horizon, the Paneláks are still there, defiant, looking more grey than ever although they are not grey anymore, as if they were the first line of the enemy’s army of a never-ending war. The silent war between “progress” and nature, between the city and the countryside…

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But today, in the other “army” is a day of celebration.  Toulcův Dvůr is welcoming Mikuláš (St. Nicholas), so it is a good opportunity for everybody to visit the place, know their values and of course, get more in touch with Czech traditions. My guide through this special natural “rear” in the city is Jess, an EVS from Cambridge, England. She is 24 years old and works in Youth and Environment Europe, one of the NGOs that are established in the landmarks of Toulcův Dvůr. The aim of her organization is to promote environmental protection and raise awareness among young people. Actually, it is a network with more than 40 member organizations in 25 different countries. Through several platforms –youth exchanges, international trainings, youth in action programs, online networks…- young people from different places and organisations can share their ideas, collaborate together and communicate in a daily basis.

For example, Jess is now in charge of The Right to Bee, an awareness campaign to support the survival of bees. She set up and promoted an online place where everybody could add their ideas for workshops. Then, the campaign team voted for the five best ones, which will be realized during next spring with the help of some interactive step-by-step guides created by her.

Since she was 17, Jess has been passionate about two different topics that have been in her life together since then: Environmental protection and Eastern Europe. Before coming here, she was working in different NGOs and environmental campaigns in Armenia and Ukraine, and also travelling all around the continent. Now she is writing a blog (tygerbeat.wordpress.com) where she collects the news about environmental needs in Eastern and central Europe. “Western Media is not interested at all, if they are writing about these countries is only about economics or corruption. But I am, so I try really hard to find these stories and if I find something which I can support in the future, I will definitely do…”.

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Jess talks really enthusiastically about all her work and her aspirations. She is the kind person you can trust to work with, always ready to start something, always motivated, with a smile in her face. She is talking with me while we are visiting the Christmas festival and the fields of Toulcův Dvůr – the horses, the farm, the wooden structures where children play and learn, the bees, the fire, the offices, the permaculture garden, the kindergarten, the  nature itself… -.

It is indeed a really cold day but we stay outside most of the time, as well as all the Czech families that have come to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. It is not 5th of December but, as we are at the weekend, Mikuláš has come early this year at Toulcův Dvůr. To warm up ourselves a little bit, we decided to try some Svařák (hot wine typical from Czech Republic) and eat a Bramboračka. Soon, the children will run into the angels, devils or Mikuláš. He looks a little bit like Santa Claus –nice old man, big white bear…- but more religious – he wears a red cape with golden motifs and a classic tall walking stick. The origin of Santa Claus was indeed inspired by St. Nicholas.  If the children were good this year, they will be rewarded with sweets, if not, they can be put into the Devil´s sack and be taken to hell…

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But before that, all of them have the opportunity to show their skills to their parents. In the outside stage, different groups of them sing typical Czech songs, perform a play about nativity, or show old Czech dances. There are also some folk bands and a lot of stands where you can buy typical Christmas and craft products, homemade dolls, old Czech food, drinks…

Most of the children come from the Kindergarten Semínko (Seed), also located inside Toulcův Dvůr. They believe in the need for children to have daily contact with nature, ensuring their healthy and harmonious development and enriching the lessons by the fact that they are there, looking, touching, smelling and feeling all they learn. They spend as much time as possible outside, no matter the weather conditions as long as the children can adapt to them… The learning, therefore, is something real in all senses, not only something that they have to believe it is real.

In the different classes and programs they have there are not only qualified teachers but also foreigners assistants. Penélope, an EVS from Málaga, Spain, arrived here last winter, when a thin layer of snow covered the whole area. She has been working with the children since then, overcoming the barriers of language. For me, it is still amazing to see how easy is for them to have a good relation with the children, to communicate with them, to understand and help all of them in different situations. In the end what counts more is the affection, the empathy, the motivation, the gestures…

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Penélope is one of the most cheerful people I have met. During the mid-term, we had the opportunity to see how she teaches flamenco to the children with a really nice short story to make all the movements. Today, we also met her during the festival. She is not the only one who works in Semínko. Three more Spanish girls are currently working there, with EVS or Erasmus programs, and Jess also helped them once a week.

The night was coming but we kept looking at some performances with the help of more Svařák. We wanted to stay until the end, not to see Mikuláš, as all the children, but one of the devils. The reason was that we knew him very well. And not because we have behaved badly during this year but because he is also an EVS… Today, Txus, a 25-year-old guy from Madrid, Spain, is dressed up as a devil to frighten all the bad children in Toulcův Dvůr. He also works in Youth and Environment Europe and helps with the horses and in other events which take place in Toulcův Dvůr as well.

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One of the projects he has been in charge of since the beginning is the urban gardening for small spaces. Every moment is a good moment to make people aware of the many benefits of it (for the environment, for the human health, for food conservation, for economic and sustainable development, etc.). In the mid-term, for instance, the other EVS could share their ideas and learn more about it.

Txus has been always involved in social movements fighting for social justice and equality in Spain, a country which everyday lacks more and more of it. He has a really outgoing personality and he seems to have the things clear. For him, the war is waging everyday. A very difficult war, as many people are still not aware of it. But as an old African proverb says, “Many small people, who in many small places, do many small things, can alter the face of the world”.

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The house of all volunteers

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The other day I was talking with another volunteer about how strange is to feel more like “at home” in a friend’s house where you spend one or two nights than in your own place. For different reasons we both agreed that our places are far from this “feeling”. In my case, I won´t definitely miss my dormitory. May be some people I met here or the amazing park which is close to it but not the different rooms where I had to spend so many nights this year.

Fortunately, in some sense it encouraged me to be always outside, to enjoy the “city life” when I am here in Plzeň and to travel whenever it is possible. For the first time in my life I feel like a nomad, and I love it. Meanwhile, this old dormitory, ugly, harsh and unpleasant, is just the necessary place where I sleep.

Amara –the other volunteer- and I were talking about it because we have already been in a very different place. A warm, comfortable and friendly house where you can feel “at home”. It is a flat in an old grey fourth-floors building in Kafkova ulice (Prague 6), not so far from main Prague spots like the Castle and Letenské sady but far enough to feel that you are in a common Czech neighborhood and not in the middle of this tourist massive attraction which is the center of Prague.

It is actually the flat of Adna and Nora, two volunteers from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Spain who are doing their EVS in the Association for Voluntary Activities INEX-SDA. I don´t know if it is because of the comfortable rooms, their decoration, their close and open-minded character or their relaxing way of life, but I am sure Amara and I are not the only ones who feel it. Many EVS, workcampers, coachsurfers, friends and friends of friends from all over the world have had the opportunity to stay there and enjoy a quiet, friendly and free stay before the rush which can be visiting Prague.

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Last week I was there again because I wanted to see Adna´s presentation about her country, where I could spend some days this summer in an unforgettable trip. She is from a small town called Visoko but studied Psychology in the capital, Sarajevo. After volunteering for some years in an NGO there, she decided to have some experience abroad and came to Czech Republic.

Adna is working now in the educational department of INEX. One of her main projects has been “Football for development”, a one-month campaign about global education which tries to raise awareness about racism and discrimination connecting Czechs and Kenyans through football. She spent one month in different regions in Czech Republic giving workshops, drama performances and organizing football tournaments with people from Kenya and Czech Republic. What is interesting about these competitions is that the final winner is not the team with the highest score but the one that all mediators agree that has been playing the fairest football.

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During this year Adna and Nora have been always in contact with people from all over the world. As INEX is the organization in charge of coordinating all the international summer workcamps in Czech Republic, they have had the opportunity to become leaders and deal with some of them. For example, Adna was recently in Chříč, a very small village near Plzeň, restoring an ancient brewery; while Nora was cleaning in an organic farm which had been highly damaged after June floods – but in the end they managed to plant some tomatoes and cucumbers-.

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The aim of INEX is to carry out, support and promote international voluntary work and intercultural education. They are not only focused on bringing foreigners to Czech Republic but also arrange voluntary placements abroad for Czech volunteers in workcamps, EVS organizations and other specific projects (for instance, there are some people working in India right now). Nora leads the campaign “Your Experience Counts”, in which they ask for some feedback to all the Czechs who are currently abroad. As she is working in the volunteering department of INEX, she is monitoring all of them and also writing the evaluation of the foreigners who came here for the summer workcamps (statistics, motivations, things to improve…).

Nora is 24 years old and comes from Zaragoza, a big city in the north of Spain between Madrid and Barcelona. After finishing her studies in Law, she wanted to live abroad for some time. She spent already some months in Ireland and chose this project in Czech Republic because she wanted to see how an NGO works from inside as she pictures herself in the future working for non-profit projects.

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Both Nora and Adna miss a little bit the warmth and good cheer of their hometowns but, although the adaptation was difficult, they are glad they are living here. They think their EVS has changed them somehow, they have now more experience, more knowledge and have met many people from different cultures and backgrounds. They enjoy more the relaxing times and how close they are to nature here, but also the opportunities of living in a big city like Prague (exhibitions, concerts, cinema, hanging out with friends to different places everyday…).

Now, they are working in their personal project, a sharing guide for EVS where you can find ideas and support for workshops and other activities. For me, they are already the support I need every time I go to Prague. Their kindness, their consideration, their generosity… As I see, the house of Adna and Nora is the perfect metaphor for INEX. A place where everybody is more than welcome…

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My Czech playlist vol. 1, United Islands…

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One of the best things of being an EVS in Prague (or in other capital city) is that there is always some interesting free event that you might like to attend. Last weekend was one of the biggest event of the year and I couldn´t miss the opportunity to enjoy it.  So I finished work, took my bag and went directly to the bus station in Plzeň. One hour and a half later (and after two episodes of Big Bang Theory, one free chocolate and a quick siesta in the confortable bus of Student Agency) I was already in Ladronka, an enormous parkland in the suburbs, where United Islands, Prague International Music Festival took place (yes, it wasn´t in one of the islands, but who cares?).

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During 3 days some of the best independent bands of Czech Republic would performance together with other international bands in Ladronka and in many music clubs of the city center during the night. As it was all for free, it was probably the best occasion to go in depth with the Czech independent scene, quite unknown for the rest of the world, but with many interesting bands which deserve to be discovered.

Books, movies, music… everything can be a good help to get inside another culture, to break the wall and to start to know how they are, how they feel and why they react in one way or another. For instance, when you have watched some Czech movies you can already notice that they have a special kind of humor. Concerning the music, you can start thinking about why there are some styles more popular than others, what they want to express with them or what makes it really different from other parts of the world… But anyway, what is important is that you don´t even need to know the meaning of the lyrics, you just need to feel them… And the atmosphere in Ladronka was perfect for that. They day was really sunny, the place was big enough to not have agglomerations and people were in that special good humor you can only feel in the great music festivals…

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They were from all ages, since families with children who were dancing and playing with imaginary drums until old guys who wanted to remember the old times… and of course thousands of young people, who were drinking and moving from one stage to another to enjoy as many bands as it was possible. I was one of them. After seeing some of my favourite ones, I met with Carmen and Katy, two EVS from Galicia and Hungary who are working in Prague and we just relaxed, listened to music and enjoyed the great atmosphere… The day and the night were long, but there is no need to write about it. As I said before, music can talk by itself, so I just wanted to show some of most interesting Czech groups which performed in the festival. To be honest,  I didn´t have the opportunity to see all of them but as Czech Republic is not a big country and they are all year on tour around it, it´s not difficult to find them more than once in a gig at your Czech hometown. P1010897P1010911 P1010915

Floex: Electronic, ambient, post-rock, nu jazz… One of the most creative artists in Czech Republic, Tomáš Dvořák, aka Floex, will transport you to another world… Music for dreaming…

Zrni: Beautiful, sensitive and delicate music with folk, indie and electronic influences. Their simple but meaningful lyrics get deep inside you and never leave…

Midi Lidi: Electro, dance, indie music. Perfect for party but also really innovative. If you let yourself go inside their freak world, you won´t regret it.

Už jsme doma: A legend of the Czech Underground. No limitations on the stage. Their style has been called Intellectual punk. With rock, ska and funk influences, what is sure is that you have not seen anything like this before. Let´s say Punk in a Czech way…

The Plastic People of the Universe: The symbol of freedom in Czech Republic since the 60s.  Old pychodelic rock legends with the American influence of Frank Zappa, Velvet Underground… Their spirit is still young and it will always be…

Of course, there are many more interesting bands. I will write about some of them another time but others will never appear in this blog. Everyone has its own likes and I can only talk for myself. You just need to be curious and discover them. For now, enjoy these ones.