An European Story

 Sofia BulgariaHow Bulgaria gave me a great gift

Last Sunday I returned home after ten days in Bulgaria… When I left for this beautiful European country for the joint staff training of the European Project ‘Sentyr’, I had in mind to post every day something. But when I was there somehow I couldn’t…. Too much impressions, too much contradictions, too much shifting moments in my life.

Why? Well, let me tell you a story…

Drunk neighbour

Sitting in my rented apartment I look out of my window. The sun is shining on the block of apartments across the street. Badly maintained, but in one of the best parts of this wonderful city Sofia.

I see my ‘neighbour for one week’ roam about in the garbage can. Searching for food I presume… Every day when I come home late at night after a long day of work he is sitting outside… totally drunk. In the beginning I was afraid of him. Not knowing him, not knowing the country and the city, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture…. I really felt a big barrier to communicate with anyone, so surely with my drunk neighbour….

But he gave me a valuable gift…

Treasure map with narrative elements

I am here in Sofia to give a training for the Sentyr project together with my partners of the International School of Entrepreneurship, Martijn Meima and Demian Burgernik. On the third day of the training I explain to the participants the treasure map of the story elements.Narrative scheme

To explain how this narrative scheme works, I take my fear for my ‘neighbour for one week’ as an example. I tell the group that my goal is to enter in the night my apartment without fear. My colleagues and some wonderful Bulgarian friend that I met already, are my support team. They bring me home every night.

The drunk neighbour is my dragon, but I name also my fear for him as a dragon in myself. Because somewhere there is that voice insight me, that is saying: “Yes, girl, you should be afraid of drunk man, but this one is harmless.”

Then I come to the ‘treasure’. The idea of the narrative scheme with the narrative elements is to become aware of the different elements that are active in your life story. And also to discover the treasure that is lying underneath the dragons you try to defeat in your life. When something or someone is annoying you, you can learn something out of it. “ALWAYS”. I even emphasize the word ‘always’.

I ask the group what I can learn from my fear of the drunk man. Some treasures are obvious: that I shouldn’t be drunk every night myself and that my fear is a warning of my body to be aware of the danger of drunk men in general… for example.

Treasures are sometimes hard to get

But we all feel that in my case this is not exactly what I can learn from this situation. Treasures are not always that easy to catch. You have to work for it or wait for the right moment to understand the treasure, so you can really overcome a setback that is holding you back in life….

This counts for the participants of the training. This counts for the youth at risk they are going to work with. And it counts for me…. So the drunk man and my fear for him ‘bother’ me for the rest of the day.

When I come home that night he is not there and I realize I kind of miss him. Strange how paradoxically our feelings sometimes can be….

Dobŭr den

Joris en de draak BudapestThe next morning he is sitting outside when I leave my apartment for work. I look him in the eyes for the first time. I see the pain, the sadness, the lost change to make something out of his live.

But I also see a kindness and curious twinkle to know who I am….  In my best Bulgarian I greet him: “Dobŭr den”. I get the most friendly toothless smile I have ever seen in return.

He starts speaking to me…. In Bulgarian…. of course… I have no idea what he is telling me, but I feel that it is friendly and hearth warming.

The combination with whatever he is saying and his sad eyes give me tears in my eyes and a special warm feeling inside. We both know that we are communicating without understanding each other, but that is ok. I wish him a nice day and he waves.

And that moment I realize my treasure, or should I say ‘treasures’. In a split second I understand what I can learn from my ‘neighbour for one week’:

The behaviour of someone isn’t the same as who he or she truly is. There are other ‘more intuitive communication channels’ in us which tell us a lot about people around us. I knew that already, of course, that is what I always explain in my trainings. But now I also feel that you can trust on those other channels, even when you don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture. We all communicate constantly without using words.

You are not the story yourself

One of my inspirators, Chené Swart, says:” You are not the story. You are somehow related to the story you are living.” From an organizational point of view this is easy to understand. When something goes wrong in an organization, it is not because of the people themselves, but because of what they do. They can change that.

But to realize that this also counts for my drunk neighbour strikes me deeply. Much of the story we live, the story that is in me and you is not our own personal story. It is a family story, a cultural story, a story of the history of a country…..

The fact that he is drunk every night, doesn’t make him a bad or dangerous man. I felt that from the beginning, but I didn’t dare to trust my guts. He is living ‘an other’ story, not his own…. And he doesn’t know how to escape.

What story are you living?

Every story has an exception on the things that happen. There is a counter story for almost every situation in someone’s life. I realize this is why we do the Sentyr project for Youth at Risk. And also why I joined. Sentyr is a European Erasmus+ project for youth workers.

Our goal is to empower youth at risk and enable them to take responsibility of their own lives. So they can live the story they want to live themselves. By the exercises in the training methodology they become aware of the situation they are in. In my ‘narrative’ words: they learn what story they are living. The next step is to create more freedom, so they can follow their dreams and -if they want to- they can be entrepreneurs.

Hero and author of your life story

You are the hero and the author of your own life story at the same time. That makes life sometimes confusing and complex. It gives you the feeling that things just happen to you. Like my Bulgarian neighbour. He is the hero of is own life, but he doesn’t feel like a hero at all and he tries to escape from that feeling by drinking so much…


In the past days we have met a lot of lovely and friendly Bulgarians who do such wonderful things for their country. Youth workers who are hardly paid for their work. Some have to live of €250,= per month so I am told. Although the living in Bulgaria is much cheaper than in the Netherlands, this salary is not enough to get to the end of the month. And still they leave as a volunteer in their spare weekends for the mountains to meet the children who skipped classes at school and their families. To talk to them, to make them aware that the children are the future. That youth is the change for a better life. Youth is after all the future.

A European gift

When I leave on Sunday morning to go home my neighbour is sitting outside together with another man. Bottles of wine and bear are standing on the ground in front of them. Some are already empty, some are still full….. They rise immediately to help me open the heavy door, so I can get out with all my stuff.

I give them a smile, a paradoxically smile. A part of me is sad, that I can’t help these men and at the same time I realize that they probably don’t want to be helped by me. Instead they helped me! My neighbour for one week gave me without knowing it such a wonderful and valuable present. An insight that I’ll carry on for the rest of my life. I am proud of Europe. Proud of the project Sentyr I work for and very happy with the change I get to do something for a better future for our youth.

This is Bulgaria… this is Sofia… and I know all over Europe there are man and woman living like my neighbour.…. And I hope that with the evaluation methodology and trainings methodology we created together with our partners in Europe, we are able to make a slight difference in some of the lives of the youth at risk in Europe. So that they learn to follow their dreams. So that they also learn what treasures are underneath their dragons.

To be continued….