– The Who, ‘Going Mobile’
I’m writing this to you from a café in Kraków, Poland. It’s nighttime here; back in the States it’s mid-afternoon.
Everything feels just a little bit backwards. My parents are often just falling asleep at midnight when I’m waking up at six in the morning. Trams run on tracks above ground, unlike SEPTA, which rides the rails below Philadelphia. Obiad, the largest meal, is eaten at midday, contrary to more filling American dinners eaten later in the evening. Ice cream, or lody, seems to comprise more than half of Krakowians’ food pyramid, yet most everyone is fit from being active. The Kraków Rynek, or main square, at midnight is just as – if not more – populated than it is at noon.
Fast-forward a few short weeks, and I am back at home in Scranton after a month-long adventure in the heart of Poland. July seemingly flew by faster than my grueling seven- and eight-hour flights on Swiss Air and Lufthansa.
Needless to say, this has been the busiest and most thrilling summer of my life. From scoring an internship and subsequently securing a work position to scouring the streets of Kraków, there hasn’t been a dull moment in the past three months. (Unfortunately, that means I didn’t get to blog as much as I would have liked – but I sense great possibility with the upcoming semester!)
While in Poland, I studied Polish language, literature, and art history; thankfully, SJU allowed me to take the art history course for credit since I’m minoring in art. I had about seven total hours of classes a day, a few of which were spent visiting and examining museums, galleries, architectural sites, and ornately beautiful churches in true art historian style. My classmates and I learned about syntax and spelling, writing and writers, language and culture. Though I leaned a great deal in the classroom, most of what I learned came from observing people in their natural state and attempting to interact as best I could. By using what little Polish I knew I was able to communicate at a basic level, allowing me to begin immersing myself in my surroundings and feel more at home with the local people.
I must admit, though, that not knowing how to speak the native language was extremely off-putting at first. It’s difficult to feel like anything but an outsider when every sign, every newspaper, everything is in a language you can hardly understand. There were moments of extreme embarrassment when someone would attempt to speak to me in Polish and I had to explain (in English) that I didn’t really understand them. Thankfully, just about everyone there could speak English; even so, though, I wished I had known more Polish so that I could better converse with native Krakówians.
Outside of Kraków, my classmates and I went on a few field trips to sites of both academic and personal interest. We first went to Zakopane, a small town in the extreme south of Poland, surrounded by majestic mountain ranges and expansive green plains. We hiked around and through a smooth, slippery cave on the side of a mountain, climbing up a ladder and holding onto a chain to finally reach the highest point. It was excruciating (especially in my Adidas Sambas – don’t hike in trainers, kids!) to the point where I questioned whether I’d make it out without any sort of injury. But together we made it in one piece, albeit a bit shaken up, and soaked in the sun and the stunning views.
We also took a trip to the town of Wieliczka, where we visited its most site: its gorgeous, multi-level salt mine. Now you might be thinking, “what could possibly be interesting about a salt mine? How could that be pretty?” Well, for one, the mine is filled with statues made of salt, exhibits on old-fashioned mining techniques, a subterranean lake, and to top it all off, a huge cathedral completely carved out of salt. Salt crystal chandeliers, salt renderings of biblical scenes, and even a salt statue of Pope John Paul II (the Polish pope!) adorn the cathedral corridor, making for a beautiful and ornate place of worship deep underneath the ground.
A less pleasant yet more emotionally profound experience occurred as we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. As we were walking onto the grounds, I found it hard to breathe. It was as though I was being choked, like someone tied my windpipe into a knot. I felt the fear, I felt the pain of the place; it is so intense, I don’t know how anyone could miss it. I tried to breathe deeply, but my breaths turned into sobs and the air burned in my lungs. You can sense the essence of souls around you there. I knew it would be extremely difficult to visit Auschwitz, but I felt that since I had the choice – and so many people during the Holocaust didn’t have a choice in their fate – I had to take the opportunity to learn and feel firsthand the terror and inhumanness that occurred there.
Studying abroad was extra significant for me, being that I’d never been outside the United States prior to this trip; nonetheless, I would highly recommend studying in another country to anyone who is looking for a true adventure. Before going abroad, my friends and peers told me that it would be a life-changing experience; although I somewhat expected that to be true, I could never have imagined the extent to which my perspective and worldview would broaden. Feeling out of your element in a foreign country is strange and downright scary at first, but it opens your eyes to the fact that (as obvious as this may sound) there is life outside of the hawk nest that is St. Joe’s, life outside of the United States – life outside of your comfort zone. And, as they say, that’s where the magic really happens.
If you have the opportunity to study abroad at some point during your college career, I sincerely suggest you seize it and take full advantage of every moment. I’m sure you’ll be taught a great deal in the classroom, but I guarantee that you’ll gain even more knowledge simply from interacting and making connections with people of different cultural backgrounds. We, as a family of humans on this earth, have so much to learn from each other; I urge you to leave the comforts of home behind as you find a new home in the global community at large.