My journey with the Peace Work Institute started in an extraordinary way. It started with an old friend, a cup of coffee, and a December day. I was living in Baku, Azerbaijan at that time and had decided to use the chance to meet up with an old friend who was flying to Tbilisi to take part in what I later learned to be the PWI. The organizers (YMCA Europe) were kind enough to arrange a double room in the venue dedicated to hosting the event so we’d have the chance to hang out in his free time – so we thought. After arriving in Tbilisi, and making our way to the hotel, respectively, there was still time to grab a coffee and sit down for a small conversation about the ‘old days’, past meetings, and experiences, not forgotten but far behind in the minds suited into a fast-moving world. Time flew by, the coffee and the replacement coffee after the first one had vanished were empty and the time called for my friend to head back to the hotel for the official start of the event. Out of personal interest in the event and to have the chance to thank the organizers for helping in arranging our meeting, I joined him on his way to the conference room. I was confronted with a colorful group of people of varying ages, nationalities, and stories that their faces seemed to tell but the eye of a stranger could not decipher at first. Talking to the organizing people, I got invited to stay for the first afternoon/evening, an offer which I happily accepted. We spent about two hours getting to know the people that were sitting around us, doing our best to memorize names, match them to faces and search for ways to engage in conversation. I was mesmerized immediately by these people that had traveled from all around Europe to share their perception of peace, to learn about how to help spread it, and to find out how to play a part in making the world a better place. Time flew by and left a lot of exchanged questions, smiles (some shy or reserved, some bright and confident), and warmth in its wake. Strangers turned into acquaintances. I had just dipped a toe into this atmosphere of the very first evening and already didn’t want to leave. So naturally, when I got told a decision had been made that I could possibly fit in and I was invited after this first evening to become an actual participant and a part of the program itself I was overjoyed and quick to accept it.
For the next few days, we embarked on a journey together. A journey that saw us learning – about methods we can adapt to, tools we can use to do so, and ways to combine these and understand what we are doing while at it. A journey that saw bonding – people that did not know each other at all and ended conversations after a few sentences of polite talk turned into people that took care of one another, respected each other, and learned to read and let read some of the stories written in faces over hour long talks. And of course, a journey that saw culture – A group of people being somewhere where they usually weren’t was always going to spark an interest about the country so kind to host us for the time being. Our days would usually start with input sessions, aimed at empowering us, bouncing between food, and coffee breaks, and breaking the remainder of the ice to enable a workflow. The evenings were not always filled with programs but in one way or another also always saw people come together, enjoy their company, and find ways to bounce back from busy days by letting the mind fly over the sounds of guitar strings, music speakers, or of course the omnipresent conversations, of people slowly turning from acquaintances into friends.
Day after day went past, programs were being developed, a day out in the city with the chance to thoroughly dive into the culture had been enjoyed and time was flying quicker and quicker towards the end. Eventually, the last day had come, finishing the sessions that were still to be finished, answering the questions that were still to be answered, and getting ready to apply what had been learned in the local organizations or programs that had been agreed on. And after a beautiful farewell dinner that saw a lot of emotion, reflection, and a mixture of happiness about the experience and sadness about leaving this all behind, for now, the time for departure had come. Naturally, with people leaving for different countries at different times there were not too many thoughts wasted on sleep, everyone wanted to be there when it was time to say goodbye. And the hugs that were shared on that evening and throughout the following morning were tight and heartfelt ones, between people that had turned from friends into what had become our little family.
After everybody had eventually left we found ourselves again at the beginning of this story. Again my friend and myself, as we had decided to take a few days off to stay in Georgia for a while and spend a bit more time together. Again 2 cups of coffee, respectively, helped to keep the body moving after what had been a long week. Just this time there were differences. We were not alone anymore, not the two of us dwelling on memories of past years. We had a lot of new people with us, one or two in person that we decided we wouldn’t want to miss having around us while we still could as they made us feel a lot more like home wherever we were headed. And a lot more in our minds and hearts, participating in our conversation through our memories. What would they have thought and said about what we’re saying right now? We caught ourselves talking to and agreeing with people that were not even there but sitting in planes or homes thousands of miles away. Like that we spent our remaining days in Georgia as a big group – of two people.
When I was finally sitting on the plane onwards after our time had come to an end I realized that I had changed in a way. I was not the same person that I had been heading into the trip. I had a lot more motivation to become active where people needed to be. I had a whole new set of tools that I was eager to apply and find a set that was going to work for me. I had people that I knew I could work with and count on. And I had a different view on life, having gained a lot of new perspectives and confidence for what was to come.
Throughout the following year, I went back to what had become normal life to me before. Sitting in offices, juggling numbers, estimates, and propositions, meeting people to talk about more numbers, more estimates, and what had to be done, and delegating rather in the world of business than in the world of hands-on peace work on an official scale. The new contacts that had been established refused to vanish though, same as the mindset that I had grown and the motivation to contribute to a change. There have been few days throughout this year without a message to or from one of the people I met in Tbilisi and few days where I didn’t engage in conversations on peace and opinions of people around me when it came to this topic.
The days were flying once again and before I knew it another year had passed – one morning I woke up and knew it was time to board yet another plane to bring me back to these people I missed and couldn’t wait to catch up with what had happened throughout the past 10 months.
This time around the journey took us to Yerevan, Armenia, and thus another magical country that was new to most of us joining the second session. As you will already expect from the course of this story – once again my next chapter with the PWI started with coffee. Just this time around in a hotel bar, only one cup and not in the company of the friend from the beginning who joined the other early birds and me a little later for lunch in the city, having rested a little after his flight. After eating and having become a little acquainted with the part of the city around us it was time to finally meet up with the rest of the group and express our happiness about finally seeing each other again with lots of hugs, smiles, tears of joy, and long-awaited conversations. I remember sleeping only a few spare hours that night which was to develop into a trend for the following days. Nonetheless, the next morning and the start into another week of the program was filled with energy, fueled by what had been experienced during the last session in Tbilisi and the expectations that had manifested throughout the waiting period. The days were structured not too differently from the first session but with some changes to the approach towards the topic and the atmosphere within. The tools we talked about were now often already applied ones that many of us could tell our personal relation to, the topics and examples used for showcasing were ones that we already experienced. We became the base of learning for ourselves and the group. Thus the atmosphere was much more a coworking one than a simple sit-and-learn-and-throw-opinions-in-here-and-there one. We had become a team that could share and build on visible success that had been achieved throughout the past ten months and that could learn and grow based on that. Many of us had become experts in a personal approach that we found ourselves using within our projects and which could be shared and discussed. More people took the step to also actively present and explain rather than just intaking information. Again I caught myself being astonished by the change in aura so to say that all of these people around me had been empowered to develop since the first time we met. An aura that radiated an iron will to contribute to a change for better in the world and an aura that didn’t leave you any other choice than understanding that each and every single one of those people would succeed in implementing this will in one way or another. Looking back at this period now and thinking about it while writing these lines I can’t help but feel a sense of pride to have been part of the journey that led to this glow. Of a journey that will go on to reap the fruits of plentiful scattered seeds over the course of the next many years to come. But apart from the success in empowering us on a knowledgeable level I want to talk a little about the off-topic and general interhuman dynamic of the second session as well. If the atmosphere during the first session has been a heartful one already, the atmosphere during these days in Yerevan was immaculate. The sheer amounts of warmth, absolute trust, and emotions were unprecedented in anything I had experienced so far. There were countless moments within the group and even more within the plenty of one on one conversations where both sides were able to open up and share about what they usually would not talk about. I like to think that I am a somewhat decent listener and offer to listen to someone’s story and give my opinion if asked for, whenever I can. But this was different. I had hour-long conversations, sometimes completely losing the sense of time, where I was honored to be allowed to catch a glimpse of the soul of the person I was looking into, of the deepest thoughts, wishes, fears, secrets, and general personality. Where it was not just asking for opinions but really trusting me with the insides of head and heart. And the same thing happened the other way around. I have lived through quite some hard/traumatic times in younger years and although I am mentally somewhat in a better place there is a lot that I haven’t come to terms with yet. A lot that can get heavy at times. This part of my life I am not good at talking about, it is incredibly hard for me usually and here I was – telling people about it. About all of it. Feeling the absolute trust to be able to do so. And feeling light as if gravity has been deactivated for me for these moments. To have people that listened. That understood. And that took away all of the weight.
Eventually all things come to an end though, the time spent together in Yerevan was no different. So after one last dinner in town (I didn’t mention yet that all our dinners this session were in different restaurants and the chance to dive into the rich food culture of Armenia was amazing) it was time for the temporary parting. I say temporary parting because with people like these and this kind of a connection I feel like there never really is a ‘goodbye’, always a ‘see you again’ instead. So I won’t even go into too much detail about the parting of ways, just want to have you think about the tightest hug you have ever received, that made you feel warm and cozy. And about the feeling of saying goodbye to a beloved sibling when leaving to study for some time before coming back. Now combine these and repeat them for the number of people around.
After having sent everybody on their way the journey so far ended – how could it be different – with the same friend from the beginning. And yes – Two cups of coffee. Again we had decided to take a little time off, to travel a bit through Armenia and to allow ourselves to process what we had known to be with us. New memories, although it is not fair to call them that as I feel memories are a thing that usually describes the past and our story with the PWI and the people we met along the journey is far from finished. It is an attitude and these are people that I will carry for life. And I’m looking forward to all of the meetings, cups of coffee, and eye-to-eye conversations starting with ‘do you remember’ and ending with ‘see you soon’.
Max Danner, PWI Alumnus