My pilgrimage through the labyrinthine depths of the volunteering sector in Aarhus is coming to an end. Over the past few months, I have been visiting several voluntary organizations and I have been meeting Aarhusian volunteers to ask to them all what I wanted to know while their city was holding the title of European Volunteering Capital 2018.

I started this path asking myself many questions and thanks to their impertinence I felt that I had to go further, to understand more until I would have satisfied my curiosity. And I had not been waiting so much before the answers arrived: some of them came from the words of the volunteers I interviewed, others were written in their eyes when they tried to hide the emotions that the good memories were bringing to the surface, others were given to me after having lived on my skin an experience as volunteer.

At the beginning of my pilgrimage there was a question that was burning inside me more than the others: 

Who are the volunteers that contributed to make Aarhus a reference point in Europe?

Therefore, I started trying to identify the features of the typical volunteer. However, with time I realized how naive I had been because actually there is no stereotyped volunteer. At that exact moment I realized it was going on something similar to what happens during a trip abroad. Before leaving, everyone tells you that during your trip you will see so much that afterwards you will be able to get a clear idea of the world and you will be able to bring everything back to specific categories.

It is the most reassuring thing that can be heard because putting the world in boxes allows us to understand it more easily. But unfortunately, this is not true. By discovering new cultures, you will realize that the world is richer and more varied than you thought and that there will always be a new category that you did not take into consideration.

This also applies to the world of volunteering and to the inhabitants who populate it. 

The truth is that there is no typical volunteer, but a set of figures that in their uniqueness create an incredible synergy.

Of course, it is possible to find some common traits among the volunteers: a big heart, laborious hands that are eager to do something useful, legs that ignore the fatigue because they feel there is something valuable to do.

Except for that, though, everyone is different: there is the blond Viking and the Mediterranean brunette; there is the boss of a company and the student with the grandmother in tow; there is the family man and the one still waiting for love; there is the foreigner who is there to meet new people and the one who wants a free entry ticket to the Northside Festival; there is the muscular man who can build whatever with his own hands and the bespectacled person who seems to be born for the desk work.

However, this was not the only surprise I received while the answers to my questions were arriving little by little. I also realized how much the Danish culture plays a fundamental role in shaping the world of volunteering, the same world that now is under the European spotlight thanks to the title that Aarhus obtained as European Volunteering Capital 2018.

"Tak for i dag", "tak for mad", “tak skal du have” are sentences that have punctuated my daily life in Denmark. The appreciation is in fact at the base of the Danish society and this aspect emerges also in the volunteering sector. Whatever you are doing as a volunteer, there will be many people appreciating your work and you will notice by yourself how appreciation makes the difference. It is indeed the most powerful fuel ever and it will be a precious boost for you to keep going. I still remember that day when I volunteered to clean the harbour in Aarhus on board of a kayak. 

At a certain point we passed by a crowded area and the people from the shore were encouraging us, thanking us and pointing at us so that their children would see us as an example. All of a sudden my arms were not tired anymore and I felt as if I could go on forever.

A non-hierarchical society
Denmark is famous for its absence of hierarchies. Everyone is equal and everyone contributes equally to the achievement of a common goal. This cultural feature is visible also in the volunteering sector. First, you can see it in the fact that as a volunteer you are considered at the same level as others. Better yet, you are respected even more than the people who are paid to carry out those tasks because you are offering your time and energy without receiving any economic return.

Moreover, the absence of hierarchy can be seen in the fact that among the rows of the volunteers you will find anyone, even business leaders and important personalities and you will even see them performing humble activities such as setting the table or preparing coffee for the whole team of volunteers.  

An individualistic society
Denmark has an individualistic culture. For me, coming from a collectivistic culture, I was surprised to find out that the cashier at the local supermarket does not need to know what I am doing in life, if I am married and what is the name of my parents and I was immediately grateful for this incredible respect of my privacy. On the other hand, an individualist society also entails a higher degree of isolation. And this is where volunteering comes into play.

Volunteering is an opportunity to meet other people, to feel part of something and, how I have often heard, of creating a 'fællesskab'.

This has indeed always been the most immediate answer I received to my question: "Why did you decide to become a volunteer?" 

In other words, volunteering is a powerful tool for integration and it seems that it was clear to the many international volunteers whom I have met in these months and who were trying to become part of Aarhus and of the Danish society.

Maybe it is because of these reasons that volunteering is so deep-rooted in the Danish society. 

This means not only that 41% of Danish people carry out a voluntary activity, but also that volunteering exceeds the boundaries of the social sector embracing any field.

I have always been amazed to see the number of volunteers contributing to the success of Danish events, be they sport, cultural or musical events. And there are many who seems to benefit from volunteering on those occasions.

First of all, the organizers of the events who can make the most of the energy of those arms that do not ask to be paid. But those who seem to be happier are the volunteers themselves because it means a lot to them to go into the backstage of an event that dominates the general imaginary and to play a role in something that is also part of them.

That is exactly what Anna, a volunteer at Aarhus Festuge, told me: 

I remember having attended Aarhus Festuge since I was a child and working as a volunteer for it makes me feel even closer to my city and gives me the opportunity to show to everyone how much I love Aarhus."

I started my series of articles by asking a provocative question to Aarhus: was it really up to the title it was holding? Today I look back and I think about all the enthusiastic words that the Aarhusian voluntary sector has stolen to me and about all the times that those words could not come out of my mouth because my amazement had left me speechless. 

So, today my answer is yes, Aarhus deserved to become the European Volunteering Capital 2018.

After all, I knew it from the beginning and the answer was already there, at the bottom of my heart that had been immediately captured by the energy and the resourcefulness of the Danes.

Therefore, the true revelation of my journey is another: the title of European Volunteering Capital 2018 is not just a prize for Aarhus, but it is a prize for the entire Europe.

It is a precious gift that CEV - the European Volunteer Centre gave to all of us regardless if we are Danish or not, a present that is able to teach us valuable lessons if we have the curiosity and the desire to unwrap it. Some people can see themselves and their culture reflected in those lessons and feel proud of what they are, whereas some people as foreigners decide to bring those lessons home in order to inspire their own countries.

That is exactly what I am about to do myself and I will never be grateful enough to Denmark for having stimulated me so that I will be able to strengthen the volunteering society that surrounds me, wherever my future will take me.

Thanks for everything Aarhus. They call you the City of Smiles, and in these last few months you have shown me why.

Genny Cabas is an Italian taking a European Volunteering Service in Denmark. In February, she started working at Studerendes Frivillige Netværk (SFN) based at VIA University College and she finished her project on 1st October.