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The Bebrusai Story from 7 to 16 September 1998

This is a series of impressions, trying to give different viewpoints at different times.  During the course I took over 83 pages of notes.  Obviously every person in the group has their own story to tell - ask them!

Monday 7 September

So we come in planes - via Warsaw and Frankfurt - in cars and buses - some for more than six hours - to Vilnius.  [Strange scene: the Irish bar in Vilnius was full of Scots in kilts waiting for the football match against Lithuania.] And then on to Camp Bebrusai, a few kilometres away from the little town of Moletai.  Some are given rooms in an accommodation block, but most have keys to little wooden huts surrounded by silver birch and cedar trees.

A skip and a jump and we find ourselves walking down the path to the sandy beach of  huge, quiet lake Bebrusai where a funny collection of rowing boats and pedalos rock gently next to a pontoon.  Crunch across the sand and over a wooden bridge and we come to an important meeting place: seminar room, kitchen, working spaces and, of course, a sauna.  The walls are clad in wood and the seminar room has a balcony overlooking the lake.  Outside there's a green open space and a barbecue.

Collect some wood, get it burning, try to talk to the other people standing in little groups, the sun is going down and the mosquitoes are coming out.  Which language can we use?  Where do you come from?  Jacqueline gives us all a little name badge made of Cyprus wood (it smells gorgeous) and we have to introduce ourselves and ask each other deeply meaningful questions.  Salads appear, shashlik is speared onto enormous skewers, is this Lithuanian beer?

Up to the seminar room, trying to learn names by making a row of names from A to Z standing on chairs in a circle, touching and holding so as not to fall off the chairs.  Team members introduce themselves - they are not afraid of their bungles, they say.  Practical things like who is going to wash up?  who is going to make breakfast?  what time do we start tomorrow?  who can keep their eyes open?  The team has their second team meeting of the day.

Tuesday 8 September

Anne is swimming in the lake.  A BIG breakfast!  Cheese and bread and sausage and bread and juice and four litres of coffee and tea.  Clear up and use two kilometres of paper towel to dry the dishes.  Outside the sun and Janis Joplin screaming "take another little piece of my heart now baby".

We interview each other and draw a shield and everybody gets introduced to the rest of the group.  Is this really how others see me? What will we do here?  Each member of the team tells us something about the course or introduces something to do.  You know we're on a Youth for Europe ACTION D project?  That means we're going to transfer all we learn to our work back home and, even, we're going to cooperate with each other after the course.

Much of what we are going to do is based on Outward Bound® concepts says Bart T (T stands for "trainer" in this report, just to distinguish him from the other Bart): "There are no bad groups" "Learning through experience" "The goal is that people can grow".  Arturas tells of the place - the Land of Lakes with 216 little settlements, where people are friendly and will want to talk to you, where BIG stones can be found and no-one really knows where they came from.  He does not tell us about the frogs (there are millions) or about the mushrooms (we will come to them).  We charge around the camp on a treasure hunt, somebody counts 143 beds, somebody else only 76.  Annelies and Hilde form a social committee and the Greek participants arrive and we are complete.

Taking care to have a balance between nationalities and gender, we form Group A (with Dirk, Jacqueline and Kristina) and Group 1 (with Bart T, Evija, Arturas and your reporter).  Two groups which will have a life of their own for a few days, so that we can really feel that experiential learning approach on our own bodies and so that the group will not be too big.  Each group finds its own rhythm, its own way.

A full afternoon of problem-solving exercises, gradually gaining in difficulty to challenge the group and stimulate the growth of communication and decision-making agreements.  Pull the tarpaulin that way!  Start again!  That's good, but it could be faster! Why did you leave me all on my own? Don't we need a coordinator? No, that one was your hole!  How can we make things better?  If you feel you're being ignored, say it!  What would you like to share?  How did you feel?  What are your wishes for the future?

Thirty people.  Two showers.  Somehow it works...

An "intercultural evening" is much more interesting than "washing tv" [thank you Artûras].  We learn so many things:
the reasons for the colours of the Lithuanian flag;
how to eat Lithuanian honey (anyway you like, its a free country);
how to dance in Latvian (inky pinky, inky pinky);
where the real geographical centre of Europe is;
the real meaning of the Alsatian phrase "Jo Jo Hopla";
the connection between beer and the Mannekin Piss;
that it really is great to be a Belgian "Potverdekke";
the necessity to have octopus legs when you dance Greek;
when to drink Retsina

and, of course, nobody drank too much and everybody went to bed extremely early in order to be fit for the HIKE, otherwise known as "Two days in the bushes of Lithuania" (© Bart T)

Wednesday 9 and Thursday 10 September

One circuit with the two groups travelling in opposite directions over roads, round lakes, through forests.  They are supposed to meet each other and make a camp in the evening.  There are landmarks to visit on the way.  The sun is shining, not too hard.  One map and one compass per group.  Some people are given real Outward Bound® rucksacks because their own bags will hurt them, others wonder whether their shoes will be strong enough...

Walking, walking, walking.  There are many chances to speak, or just to walk quietly next to someone, or just to look and to listen.  At each crossroads or break in a track, a group forms to decide which way to go next: the exciting way or the boring way?  over the field or on the road?

An old lady tells us that one of our landmarks - Siau Ciukas - is somewhere in the middle of the forest, so we search and search until we find the most incredibly huge rock we have ever seen - it is so BIG that we nearly walk right past it.  A miracle.

Walking, walking, walking.  First little blisters.  Some people walk so fast!  Who is taking the decisions?  I don't care.  The sun goes down.  It gets colder.  The camp place must be somewhere near here.  There is no big city to dim the stars, but the forests are still dark, dark, dark.  And the 10kg of potatoes feels like 50kg.

Ah, the joys of making a salad with a torch in your mouth.  Ah, the satisfaction of finding a place to cook the potatoes in the ashes, where they will not burn - only to come back and they have disappeared! Ah, how sausages spit on a stick!  The speed of Karlis as he constructs a kind of tent with a tarpaulin and ropes.  Ah, lying under the stars with the gentle sound of "tss tss tss; tss tss tss"  floating on the breeze.  But what is "tss tss tss; tss tss tss"?  It is the sound of one brave woman's fight, a fight against the noise pollution of snoring...

Oh, its a nice lake!  But we're not going swimming today.  There is, it must be said, a lot of shit in these woods - and it is not ours.  Clear up the camp.  Take away the rubbish. Bury the potatoes, they are not coming with us.  Vita goes back to Bebrusai with Michaela who cannot walk.

We start again.  We've talked about yesterday and maybe we can make it better today.  More sharing of responsibilities.  More joint decision-making. Walking, walking, walking.  Watch out for the baby frogs.  Gradually those little blisters get squashed in your boots - but they pop up again after every rest period.  There are no real villages, just little collections of houses and farms.  Horses are pulling carts and ploughs, a huge combine harvester pushes us to the edge of a track, Zilvinas talks to every single old person he can find, mushrooms grow everywhere and we collect LOTS to make a sauce for dinner.  Walk walk walk talk talk talk listen listen listen.  Each group turns into an octopus.  Still alive we reach Bebrusai.  Trust falls for some, relief for the others and less danger to the baby frogs of Lithuania.

Friday 11 September

How was it for you?  Did the earth move?  How do we see each other in the group after two intensive days together?  If the group were a vehicle, which person would be the steering wheel?  The debriefing takes quite some time.  But this is important, and one group continues until well after lunch had been prepared.  Some of the only "free" time is eaten away.

Then its on to the bus and into Vilnius for at least three minutes to see Frank Zappa, buy presents, look at all the famous buildings, have a coffee, discuss the merits of Starka, and meet to spend the evening in Ritos Smuklé.  Someone said we're supposed to eat Zeppelins here - no, no, they are called "cepelinai" , they only look like heavy, white Zeppelins.  I see.  The vegetarian version is great!

Saturday 12 September

Stay in bed a couple of hours longer.  Wander down to "brunch" which is a big collection of all sorts of things to eat at 11.30.  What a lovely concept - only a few hours later we suddenly realise that this means that we miss a meal!  Ilze teaches important phrases in Latvian, others throw in some Russian.  Still, the sun is shining and it is time to bring the whole group gradually back together again.

There is a need to share and compare the experiences of Group A and Group 1, so we make mixed groups to discuss and make new stories.  When we hear the reports and see the posters in plenary....  (Wow! reports in plenary! traditional seminar methods can be used here too!)  When we hear the reports and see the posters in plenary, it is clear that these few days have had a remarkable impact on everybody.  An octopus has joined the group.  One report is given in Russian, the others in English.  A new dynamic is created, new forms of translation and checking that everything is understood.  Remember:
"Don't do elephant from the fly"
"Trying is not torture"
"We don't have food, but we don't have to eat each other"
"Action and reflection"

Another dynamic: the mysterious arrival of posters everywhere "Cigarettes kill!  Smokers you are not alone here!  Smoke outside!"

So drink a coffee, smoke a cigarette (outside) and then it is time for the "Basic Theory Show", presented by Dirk and Bart T.
Both are nervous; theory is hard to explain, especially for the first time in English.  They do a great job by breaking the presentation down into chunks.  Its a bit like a ping pong match:

first (ping!) Dirk tells us part of the theory of experiential learning using the flip chart to visualise his point and then,
(pong!) Bart gives us a concrete example drawn from his own experience

All the while, anyone can ask a question or make a comment.  There is structure, there is feeling.  There is debate.  For nearly two hours without a break.  So, really, what is the goal?...  Trusting 100% on intuition is too vague for me!...  Usually 'too strong' means something is wrong....  The big WHY?...  When can a trainer decide what to use?...  Feel it in your belly....

Choose your workshop for tomorrow: conflict management; group dynamics; communication.

Only Frank chooses to manage conflicts - what to do?  Evija and Kristina have prepared a workshop but it would be difficult (if not insane) to run it with one participant.  Working through this takes tact and openness in the late night team meeting.

Team meeting?  Yes, this team meets lots of times, on a couple of days it is even necessary to meet twice.  They share impressions of the day, they compare their ideas about what kind of relationship to have with which participants, they make choices and decisions, they argue, they share their feelings, they laugh and it has been known for one of them to bring along a small bottle of beer (just in case the roof is on fire, you understand).  Somehow, no-one laughs when Dirk says "let's make it short" at the beginning of each meeting.

You know there are not only little frogs in Lithuania - there are also little mice?  They seem to like the wooden cabins too.

Sunday 13 September

With 30 eggs you can really make tasty large omelettes.  If you look in the fridge at lunch time today there is hardly any food, but there are SEVEN different kinds of ketchup.  Tom Waits "The Asylum Years" plays over and over and we go waltzing, Matilda.

Artûras and Dirk give half of us group dynamics and Zanger and Rodgers and Forming, Norming, Storming, Performing and (a world first) Dirk's non-bible of  building up an experiential learning process.  Jacqueline and Bart T open half of us up to Watzlawick axioms and a new flower: the Rose of Leary.

The whole of us eats lunch and then we split again.  Two groups where couples and threes have to devise experiential learning activities for the others.  Team members remain available for consultation (particularly on matters of safety), but this is the space for participants to put into practice their own ideas.  Use the environment, use the ropes and other equipment if you want.  Each group will have around 80 minutes to run and evaluate their exercise tomorrow with the participants, then the trainers will facilitate a "meta reflection" on its usefulness, changes that could be made, possible adaptations.  Don't worry about dinner, Dirk and Bart T will do it.  Off they go - everywhere you look there are little groups talking, running, drawing, trying things out.  Real excitement in the air.

Consultations also multiply between trainers and participants about the possibilities for organising and financing future concrete projects - practical Youth for Europe stuff.

Many work late into the night, refining their exercises for tomorrow.  A large group gets together under the balcony, sharing energisers, walking like chickens, singing in the rain (oops! mistake),  advertising Pizza Hut and McDonalds and then back inside to try to escape the vampires.  Bradas Pittas walks the lake of Bebrusai.

Monday 14 September

Artûras' grandma joins the course and tells us "God opened a window here last night".

People playing volleyball fuelled by eggy bread (French toast?) and the wind is blowing.  Inside energy is running at high levels, little sparks flash, will we get others interested in our exercise?  how will it work?  have we prepared enough?  what is, really, a meta reflection?  Kristina reminds us that tomorrow is the last day, there will be a party to organise - but tonight the sauna will be open...  We will need it!  Anyway, let's go outside.....

So what do we get?  [I had to make up some of the names to these exercises - if you want to give them another name, please let me know]

Ilza, Andris and Annelies give us "Going over the little house".

Jos, Sarunas and Zilvinas give us "Hulala!".

Annick, Frank and Ricardas give us "The bridge in the middle of an earthquake".

Dace, Bart and Michaela give us "Blindfolded boats".

Vita, Anne and Hilde give us "Climbing on the rope circle".

Krista, Paulius and Deividas give us "Save the world".

Vidas and Jovita give us "The spoons, the cups and the roped legs".

Pressure is certainly on everyone: to perform, to keep to time, to participate, to question, to build on the previous exercise, to comment, to reveal feelings.  Stunning creativity.  A shame that we cannot all participate in all the exercises as we are in two groups - at least they are not the same Group 1 and Group A as we had for the hike.  Choices, decisions, time in and out of  balance.

No-one is left untouched by these exercises.  Each time a new group has to form.  Some exercises are extremely difficult to accomplish.  One proves to be  impossible and ends in a massive downpour of rain (SKUDIGS LAIKS!).  Roles change continuously.  Participants become trainers (then participants again), trainers become participants (then trainers again, then participants again...).  Part of it is like preparing to go home.

Evaluation in two steps enables everyone to express feelings and then to take a step back and look at the possible transfer of the exercise to different situations.  Each team receives honest (even hard) feedback on their work.

Well, nearly every team...

Karlis and Valdis want to give us "ZAKIS MEZA EZI SAUC....."  or "CRYING RABBIT FOR HEDGEHOG IN THE DEEP FOREST".  But we run out of time and cannot do it.  We can run it after dinner.  OK.  No, we talk about it tomorrow morning.  OK.  Bad feeling, it is not fair and we share responsibility for the fact that they cannot run their exercise.

But Karlis and Valdis, they have a surprise for us!  Its true they could not run their exercise, but they give us something else which gives us all some exercise the next day:

An enormous "WHISTLING SOUP" is what they make for dinner.  And these beans, they really do make you whistle, only you don't whistle through your mouth.  Just let your imagination work a bit.

Ricardas whistles with his guitar and when he's joined by Paulius and Artûras they make a beautiful noise.

Poetic management means that the sauna is open tonight.  It has never been so full.  I've never been in a sauna before, so I've got to try it.  Dry sauna, wet sauna, shower, mouth of beer.  Don't stay in here too long.  If you come in here, you have to give a speech.  Hey, what's it like to run in a little group out of the sauna, out of the door, down the path, along the wooden pontoon and jump backwards into the lake?  Its funny, its cold, its a shock, its magical, that's what it is.

Things are slightly crazy.  Sleeping under a plastic sheet on the beach in the pouring rain?!  Six people try that.

Tuesday 15 September

Sun has come back.  An empty bottle of vodka lies alone on the beach.  Last breakfast all together.  Everybody has had the chance to prepare food and wash the dishes at least once, maybe six times here.

The hedgehog finally catches the rabbit in the working room downstairs.

Let's hear a story to remind ourselves of all that has happened.  Once upon a time there were four people in a sauna....

How can we help each other after the course?  Choose a couple of people with whom you can really talk.  Go away and work on your outcomes, how you can support each other, what can you use?  Take the rest of the morning.  It is freedom to choose.  People take it, seriously.

Meanwhile, your team has a meeting of deep explosions concerning the process and content of the final evaluation - discussions which started days ago reach a peak.  Boom!  each person should have as much time as they want to say what they want!  Boom!  how long do you want to stay in that room?!  Boom!  what about preparations for the farewell party!  Boom!  bite my tongue bite my tongue!  Boom! OK, we mix the structure and the feeling!  er, phew.

An enormous soup and the songs of Shawn Colvin propel us into the Final Evaluation.

Draw or write what you got from this course (make it concrete!) on the pictures of the rucksacks and then what you would want to leave here on the pictures of the rubbish bins.  You have to crawl over the posters and people to find a space to write.  The rucksacks are full.  The rubbish bins nearly empty.

Choose an object, draw something or find a phrase as a symbol for you of this course.  Place it on the table.  Bart T chooses a symbol, a leaf, it is Dace's.  She goes to the "hot chair" and tells us what it represents for her.  She chooses a symbol, a bowl of sand, it is Jacqueline's.  She goes to the "hot" chair (which really is warm now) and....  all the way through to the berries chosen by Valdis.  Powerful moments, these.

An evaluation form - please fill it in and it will be your ticket for the party.

Farewell ritual (the first of many).  Outside in a circle.  Hold hands, close eyes and think of what the course and these people have meant to you.
7 to 16 September 1998......

Step back and release hands. The course is finished.

Yes and No.

There are ropes to be tied and equipment to be cleared!

There are the financial affairs to finish!

There is a final team meeting with its own farewell ritual!

There are 600 Litas to spend on the farewell party!

There are songs to be sung and dances to be danced!

There are last conversations!

There is all night to stay awake until the first ones have to leave for the airport!

There is time for private farewells to the beach!

There is another final ritual with those who are left outside the bus!

There is a little bottle of wine (bull's blood) in the bus!

There is a Mexican wave (Ola!) from the Latvian group at the bus station!

There is an old Belgian bus which still carries the sign from Leuven to Herent!

There is Ricardas at the airport!

There are hugs at Frankfurt airport!

There are letters, e-mails, photographs, and mini-meetings in each country.

There are future projects!

The Roof is still on fire!

Mark, Strasbourg, 21.10.98

[My real thanks to Annick for suggesting that I try to write the story of the course as part of the report.  Maybe its possible for a reader to catch a glimpse of what went on.  Under the water too.]