The Window

I have lived in Poland for about nine months now. It’s hard to believe that time has gone by so quickly, and yet there have been moments when I felt that time has stood still, frozen. It is no exaggeration to say that my journey has felt like a roller coaster, with many ups and downs. I’ve experienced joy and love, and I have also felt the frosty bite of loneliness. The best way to describe my time in Poland so far is like looking through a window. Most of the time the window is clear with viewers on both side. I see Poland, and Poland sees a curious American girl. At other times, it seems as if I can look through this window, but on the other side there is just a mirror.

For the most part, what I have seen through this window has been good. Through my observations, I have seen and learned so much about Poland. I have breathed in the mountains, the trees, the old town squares of Bielsko, Krakow, and Pszczyna, the lakes, the blossoms of spring, and the snow covered trees of winter. It’s all very beautiful. In many ways, the nature reminds me of my home in the Midwest, and yet it is also very different. There are four distinct seasons in Poland. Spring time has lifted my spirits in many ways, and has stayed at a nice cool temperature, gradually getting us ready for summer, but not skipping over it entirely. (*cough cough* Minnesota!!!) There are some cities like Pszczyna in Southern Poland with beautiful parks and walking paths. As I am writing this, I’m sitting next to a small lake in Pszczyna looking out at the green around me – the green grass, the green leaves on the trees and the weeping willows, bowing next to a quaint, little bridge. Poland has beautiful nature that I never would have known about if I hadn’t accepted the teaching position here in the first place. Spring has pleasantly surprised me.

These last nine months, I have observed a country filled with people who has survived communism, regained their freedom, and maintained their religious values. There are many countries in Europe with people who claim atheism and agnosticism, but in general, Poland has upheld their Catholic beliefs. They take pride in their religion, their Polish pope, and the community they have maintained all these years. Just last Sunday, I walked the streets of Bielsko-Biala to see many boys and girls of about eight years old dressed in white robes. Proud parents would take photos and reserve a place in restaurants to celebrate a child’s first communion. I am not Catholic, but I can’t help but admire some of the genuine joy and pride these children have on their faces during their First Communion. In one of my English classes, half of my students are young girls who were getting ready for their first communion about a week ago. Prior to First Communion, the mother of one of the girls told me how proud she was that her oldest was getting ready for this day. She and the other mothers helped teach the girls how to sing “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (the Polish version of course.) Towards the end of my lesson with these girls, they begged me to let them sing “Hallelujah” for me. I couldn’t say no to that and found the music for the song on YouTube. As soon as the music started playing, the girls sang out with all their hearts. I couldn’t help but be touched. It reminded me that while I am a Protestant and they are Catholics, we have a belief in God as a commonality.

With religious values at the core of Poland, I believe with much certainty that this influences the strong marriage and family values that the Poles highly uphold. Even if they are not as religious as the generation before them, family, friendships and relationships are clearly important. I see it almost everywhere I go. Just sitting by the lake and observing the people around me, I see mostly couples, and then families, and after that same-sex friendships. Oh, don’t forget a few dogs in the midst! Rarely do I see someone sitting or walking by themselves on a beautiful, sunny weekday. Somehow these relationships seem stronger here in Poland than most places I see in America.

In a recent article I read, couples get married at a much younger age in Poland. Several Polish teachers in the school I work at are married. If they are not married, then they are likely to be in a relationship. If not that, then they are probably seeking to be in one. Sexual desires are in our human nature no matter where we are from, but Poland tends to seek for love that is long term than instant gratification. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it doesn’t happen in Poland. I just see more young couples, young families, and strong ties.

Sadly, there are also broken families in Poland and children who have one or more absent parents, like many places around the world. Teaching at a private primary school in Poland, I see that it is more common among the wealthier families – a tale as old as time. Divorce is not as common in Poland compared to other countries in Europe and North America (mainly because the Catholic church frowns upon it), but I have heard stories of spouses living separately or trying to push through unhappily. I might not know the back stories of each parent, but I do see some of the children I teach crave for attention.

I have learned so much from observing the people here in Poland. As I mentioned earlier, I had described my observations as looking through a window. As a a young American female temporarily living in Poland, I have seen much but am also very aware of the glass between. I see an overall loving community, and yet I have felt very alone on many occasions. A huge part of this is due to language barriers. Even after living here for nine months my Polish is at best minimal, mainly because my job requires me to teach English and also because the language is difficult, and Poles will comment on how Polish is one of the hardest languages to learn. On the other hand, many people in Poland, including the young people are too shy and afraid to use the English they know. Talking to a young man who goes to the church I attend most weeks, many Poles are afraid to use the wrong verb tense and don’t want to mess up. On another occasion I was talking to a young Polish couple who had asked me about my time in Poland so far. Most of the time I will find something positive to say, but on this occasion, I found myself becoming misty eyed. I admitted that I was having a hard time getting to know other people Polish young people and mostly spent time with other Native English speakers I work with. I gave her a truth, and she returned with a truth of her own. She admitted that she feels like she does not have enough vocabulary to have a full conversation with me. What she told me is true for many people in Poland.

Another reason why I believe I feel occasionally lonely in Poland is the strong family and relationship ties. As I mentioned before, the strong family ties are beautiful, but in a strong friend and family group, it can be very hard to step outside of the comfort zone and meet new people. The same can be true for many countries and cultures around the world, include America. It is human nature, but sometimes you cannot help but wish that someone is willing to take that step, especially when you took a giant leap out of your comfort zone.

Despite the lonely moments on this crazy roller coaster ride, there have been times when the window opens. Sometimes it just takes me opening the window, using the little bit of Polish I know to let others know that I am not afraid to make language mistakes and I do not judge language mistakes. Sometimes it just takes a friendly smile and me just constantly approaching people. On other occasions, the window opens from the other side. These are the unforgettable moments. I find myself going to church most weekends because a single woman in her forties wants to pick me up from my apartment building and translate the sermons for me. This same woman took me shopping during my first few months in Poland and introduced me to her mother. On another occasion, there is a Polish teacher who saw me eating a waffle alone outside and she sat next to me, talking to me for about an hour because she wanted to. Parents of some of my young students take time to chat with me, wanting to know who I am. These are the moments you carry with your forever.

So maybe the window isn’t closed – just ajar.

 

Quarter-Century in Prague

On Friday May 1, Europe celebrated labor day. Taking full advantage of the three-day weekend, I took a trip to Prague in the Czech Republic. I woke up early in the morning and made my way down south to Prague. With my travels taking up six or more hours of my day, I needed to enjoy every moment I had in Prague.

First Impressions – Money and Puns

The currency used in the Czech Republic is Czech Crowns. Unlike most currencies, there are no cents. Just crowns. Approximately 1 USD equals 25 Crowns and 1 Euro is 27 Crowns. I had to remind myself that while I held a couple thousand Crowns in my wallet.  Sadly, it’s easy to spend hundreds Crowns on food and drink. Still, I am a coin collector. I have a box filled with coins from other countries that I used and spent during my European travels. It may be odd to some, but I actually looked forward to using a different currency. It makes me feel like an experienced world travel.

Like many other tourist cities, Prague has souvenir shops and stands strategically placed all over the city. Walking by many of the shops, I noticed that Czechs sell their items using English puns. “Czech Mate” or “Don’t bounce Czechs.” The hostel I stayed in was called “Czech Inn.” So I Czeched-Inn into the Czech Inn. They were many puns using “Czech” just so you don’t forget your time in Prague.

Walking Tours

Best. Decision. Ever. During the week up until I left for Prague, I had no idea what to do. I just knew that I wanted to go. I wrote to my brother who has been to Prague before and he gave me a list of places that I had to see. I had no idea where to start or where to go first. What my hostel recommended was to take the walking tour, which was well worth it. I took the free tour in the morning and then paid the equivalent of 10 euros for the Castle walking tour in the afternoon. Between those two tours I saw everything I wanted to see in one full day.

Here is a list of the must-see places in Prague:

Astronomical Clock

In the evening, I returned to this clock in Old Town Square. I waited for the clock to strike eleven and watched as the skeleton (2nd to the right – upper) rang the bell indicating that the hour of death has arrived. The two men in the upper left side, representing vanity and greed, shook their heads and begged for more time. Meanwhile, the two blue windows on top opened to reveal the 12 Apostles, watching over the event unfold. The skeleton decided to grant mankind one more hour and stopped ringing the bell. The show ends with the golden rooster at the very top crowing at the start of a new hour.

Charles Bridge

Old Town Square

John Lennon Wall

Since the 1980s, this wall has been filled with graffiti of John Lennon and related images of the Beatles. However, this wall commemorates more than just John Lennon. It is also about freedom from Communism, love, and peace.

The Castles 

The castle complex is huge and it’s hard to capture everything in a single shot. I decided to post this wall that was hand carved and very detailed.

The Cathedrals 

Take a close look at those two men. They are modern 20th century men that have been added to this cathedral. Over the centuries, this cathedral has been under construction. In fact, there are still more places on the outside of this cathedral where more statues should go, but the church needs more money to fund such a project. Currently most of Czech are atheists and agnostics with little interest in donating more money. There are many other projects to invest so I don’t blame them. Still, this cathedral is absolutely beautiful, especially the inside.

The Parks and Gardens 

Quarter-Century in Prague

In the evening, I wandered around Prague, soaking in the night scene. With my long travel days on Friday morning and Sunday afternoon, I was determined to make the most of my Saturday. That included not going to bed until I felt uncomfortable being out at night in Prague. With many tourists wandering the streets during the late hours, I didn’t feel unsafe at all. As I crossed the Charles Bridge at night, I saw fireworks shooting off from both sides of the river – probably to celebrate Czech winning the ice hockey game that night. Still, it was incredible that the fireworks went off just as I was  half-way across the bridge. It was God’s way of putting the icing on my birthday cake.

I am now 25 years old – a quarter century. Truthfully, I was in Prague a couple days before my birthday. I’m really turning 25 in Bielsko-Biala, Poland. Still, I like to think of my trip to Prague as my birthday trip. As I was standing on that bridge, staring at the fireworks, I couldn’t believe that I am now a quarter century – officially in the mid-twenties instead of early-twenties. At the same time, I thought about all the places I’ve been within the last year while I was 24. Within a year, I’ve been to Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Czech, England, and Greece. Not a lot of people can say that they’ve been to as many places before reaching a quarter-century. With that in mind, I hope I visit many more places and meet more incredible people during this crazy journey called life.