You’d think after neglecting this blog week after week, I would learn from my “mistakes” and take some initiative to post more regularly, but nope. Where’s the fun, or dare I say, spontaneity, in that? It makes the most sense to post, in this case, something about my autumn break travels only 2 days before I embark on my Christmas break adventure! I guess I could use the excuse of “well, it takes time to digest an experience like traveling to a foreign country,” which isn’t completely false, but to be honest, I like posting sporadically. It makes my time here in Germany not seem like just another vacation. I often have to remind myself that I live and work here. I didn’t blog about my day-to-day life in the USA, so why would I post about my Alltagsleben in Germany? Germany has become a comfort zone; it’s no longer foreign to me. I mean, of course if anything exciting, memorable, or bizarre happens or if I go on any adventures, I of course would love to document it as a reminder for the future, but I feel like a weekly post would be overkill. So for now, I think my monthly posts are sufficient and I am perfectly content with that.
Admin business aside, I just wanted to write a quick blog post about my first school break, Herbstferien/Autumn break, around Poland! During my first two week break from school, my fellow ETA Rose and I travelled around Poland, more specifically Wrocław, Kraków, Warsaw, and Poznań. I knew early on that during my Fulbright year, I wanted to travel Eastern Europe. I’ve always been one to be more captivated with the culture, history, and languages of Eastern Europe, and since traveling to Russia does not seem plausible at the moment, I wanted to take full advantage of seeing a beautiful and culturally rich part of Europe that not many people pay attention to, at least in Western countries like the USA. I got to travel around Poland for 10 days, and I must say, in those 10 days, I learned quite a bit and had a few important realizations.
My first taste of Poland was sadly only a glimpse of Wrocław. We had about two hours in the city between connecting trains, which meant walking around the beautiful old town for a bit to stretch our legs. I think what I loved most about this city are the little gnome statues scattered throughout. From what I gather, these little guys are symbolic of an underground, peaceful protest that spread across the city and southwest Poland, fighting against the then authoritarian communist regime. The gnome (technically referred to as dwarves in Wrocław) was an icon of the group, called the Orange Alternative, so the city decided to place little statues around in 2001 to commemorate the movement. They’re doing little tasks or depict normal, everyday jobs, and are super cute. I’d love to go back to Wrocław and find some of these gnomes hidden around the city, seeking to be noticed.
We then ventured onwards to Kraków, which ended up being a six-hour train ride from Wrocław. The sun had already gone down when we arrived, making it kind of difficult to find our hostel from the train station, but the view we saw in just the short walk around was the kind of beauty you imagine in old European cities. Houses were accented with different lighting, shadows of statues shone onto the buildings, attracting more attention than the massive sculptures themselves. Our Kraków agenda was filled to the brim, which included:
- Wieliczka Salt Mine
- Kraków ballet/opera of Orpheus and Eurydice
- Wawel Castle (very awesome—in front of the castle’s cathedral are a dragon’s bones, according to folklore.)
- Jewish Quarter
- Film location of Schindler’s List/old quarry/massive hill overlooking the Krakow city center
- Mozart’s Requiem at St. Mary’s Church (probably my favorite part of the entire Kraków leg of this trip!)
- Auschwitz-Birkenau (actually in the town of Oświęcim; we took a regional train there, which was an experience within itself. The train was like a tin box on wheels.)
- Oskar Schindler’s factory
I think what I took away the most from visiting Kraków is really understanding Poland’s past. Whenever I did learn about Poland’s history, which was seldom, it was always in context to either World War II or Soviet occupation and from the perspective of an American. I have never heard the story of the real Poland, from the people themselves, through the eyes of the victims. One night when we were sitting in our hostel, we overheard a conversation between a Polish guy and a guy from what seemed to be a Balkan state. The one guy mentioned something regarding the German language and the Polish guy, a man in his mid-twenties, replied hastily, “Fuck no, I don’t speak German. Fuck Germans. I hate them.” It was really in that moment that I realized that generations later, there is still this animosity and hatred toward Germany amongst young adults, even though they never directly suffered under Germany’s unfair and outrageous rule of Poland. I just assumed, since in Germany, younger generations are finally accepting the past and moving on, that other countries are doing the same—moving on from the war, and looking forward to a brighter, stronger Europe. This conversation really opened my eyes, but then we quickly left the room because it kind of frightened Rose and I, as we’re Americans living in Germany.
After an incredible four days in Kraków, we then traveled to Warsaw, a dynamic, young city in comparison to the historic city we previously explored. Warsaw is unlike any other European city I have visited. There are skyscrapers and roads that can fit 4+ cars across; dare I say, it reminded me of an American city. The city is extremely representative of post-occupied, post-war, post-Soviet Poland. As drab as it sounds, Warsaw being completely bombed to nothing was a clean slate to be appreciated 40 years later, where a Polish identity could be built from the ground up. The city was a lot bigger than I expected, but as we did in Kraków, we planned our days in Warsaw to a T, not missing out on any of the big sights or attractions we wanted to experience. Some include:
- Uprising Museum
- Jewish Museum (which was actually in between exhibits, but the building itself was architecturally stunning!)
- Pawiak Prison
- Chopin Museum (AMAZING!)
- National Stadium (my favorite part about Warsaw! We saw the beautiful stadium that was built for the 2012 Euro Cup)
- Lazienki Royal Park (gorgeous! The leaves were all in foliage, there was a botanical garden, little palace, and of course, a huge Chopin monument)
- Milk bar (delicious, cheap, home cooked meals!)
- Old Town (part of Warsaw that wasn’t completely obliterated in the war; old buildings remain)
- Warsaw Philharmonic
- Holy Cross Church (where Chopin’s heart rests in a pillar—the Poles love Chopin, in case you didn’t notice)
- Making homemade pierogis at our hostel with new friends! 😀
Warsaw really surprised me, in the best way possible. The Uprising Museum in particular further showed me a perspective of this amazing country that I never knew. I cannot wait to visit again, as it is now one of my favorite cities in Europe.
We got to spend around 24 hours in Poznań, but I’d say about 15 of those hours were spent in our hostel’s amazingly cozy beds that were quite literally heaven in a duvet. In the morning, before our train back to Berlin, we roamed around the city center for a couple of hours, ending our Polish experience very similar to how it began. Wrocław had cute, colorful buildings in its old town, but nothing compares to the rainbow that is the Poznań main square!
This entire trip around Poland was phenomenal. It was a breath of fresh air to leave my comfort zone and go to a country where I don’t speak the language or know the norms. Six weeks later, I can look back on this trip and say it was a huge success for the sole reason that as I write this blog post, I feel nostalgic and have a desire to go back. It is such a cool country that too many people overlook because there is a stigma associated with it. So friends, if you are ever fortunate enough to travel around Europe, consider going to Poland! Not only is it extremely cheap, its cities are unique and are memorable. I will never forget the bagels I ate from a street cart in Kraków or the resistance logos scattered around Warsaw. Poland is alive and well, and ten days was not enough to take in all the amazing sights and culture this country has to offer!