Dziękuję i do widzenia Polski – Thank You and Goodbye, Poland

As of June 26, I completed my contract with Oxford Centre in Bielsko-Biala, Poland. I can hardly believe that ten months have quickly flown by and the time has come for me to say thank you and goodbye to Poland. I am not leaving Europe yet, just Poland. For the last two weeks, I have been preparing myself for leaving, but now I can hardly believe that the time has come.

Oxford Centre Primary School

Oxford Centre runs two different schools, the primary school and the language school. As a Native English Teacher, I was expected to work for both. The primary school required more work. After all, this was a private school for grades 1-6, specializing in English language skills that replaced the typical public school in Poland. This private school is also very small with under 100 children enrolled. As a teacher, you get to know all of the children very well by the end of the year. Now that I have reached the end, I can look back and see how much the children have grown both physically and academically. I worked with the first grade children the most and they grown a lot in the last year. They had started out with almost no English. Now that they are comfortable with me, they try to talk to me with their basic English skills even though there is a lot of learning left for this age. Still, they have a good start and I am proud of them. Another activity that I was asked to run was a singing club for an extra curricular class. At first there was a Polish teacher running the class, but then she left half way through the year. They tried to find another Polish teacher to take it over, but then someone suggested that I run the class since I have been known for singing during my lessons. I agreed to it even though I am not a professional. The class turned out to be really fun. It was a group of girls from grades 3-5 and we sang songs from Frozen as well as Taylor Swift and Rihanna (clean versions). For the end of the year program, my girls sang “We Found Love” by Rihanna and it turned out well. They knew all the words and sang with a smile. By the end of the year, a group of 4th grade girls who were in my singing class gave me a card and hugged me. They told me not to go back to America and that they loved singing with me every Friday. My eyes got misty then.

Oxford Centre Language School

In the evenings, I taught for the Oxford language school. I gave lessons once a week for various groups. My youngest group was a class made up of three girls who were 4 and 5 years old. My oldest group was an upper-intermediate group with teenagers who were 16 and 17 years old. On top of that, I taught a beginner adult one-on-one. I have also gotten to knows all these children and teenagers, and enjoyed teaching them. Yes, there were moments when they did not want to pay attention because it was around 5 pm on a school night and their parents forced them to go to English lessons. Still, I tried to find ways to make classes fun as well as constructive. I had a lot of ups and downs, but over all, I will miss the kids. I also taught a few one-on-ones with a few kids. I have a private lessons with an 8 year old girl as well as an 11 year old. The 8 year old loved anything to do with Disney princesses and chocolate, and I successfully got the 11 year old girl hooked on Anne of Green Gables (there is an abridged story for ESL learners that was perfect for her!) These lessons were home visits, which were located right next to the mountains. For my 11-year-old, I taught lessons every Wednesday in her bedroom with a gorgeous mountain view.

The Pharmacist

Over half-way through the year, I picked up a private lesson that wasn’t arranged by the school. In the middle of winter, I came down with a nasty cold. I try to avoid going to the pharmacy, but it got to the point where I couldn’t properly function without the help of Sudafed. After work, I went to the nearby pharmacy and tried my best to ask for cold medicine. The pharmacist realized I spoke English. After I told him where I was from and what I was doing in Poland (I got asked that all the time), he asked if he could meet with me once a week so that he could practice his English. Since I wanted more ESL adult experience, I agreed to it. Later, I learned that he wanted to work in London and had connections for pharmaceutical work there, but he was told that he needed to practice his English first. He wanted lessons twice a week, but because I did not have the time, I introduced him to my British colleague and he practiced with both of us every week. I asked him if it was confusing for him to practice with both an American and British teacher, but he seemed lessons from both of us. Lessons with him were very relaxed and enjoyable. I also learned a lot about Polish culture from him and how Poland has changed in the last 20 or more years.

Sfera and the Cafes

The downside for working for Oxford Centre (both primary and language school) was that there were days where I was scheduled to work as early as 8:15 in the morning and as late as 7:45 in the evening. Since my contract was for 30 teaching hours and 10 hours of prep, I had random two hour gaps throughout my day. Usually I would work on lesson planning, grading, and whatnot, but a lot of the time i would want to get out of the building. Near the school was a mall that we called the Sfera. It had two coffee shops that I was a frequent customer of – Coffee Heaven and So Coffee. It was a nice place to go whenever you have that awkward midday break and get some work done (or check Facebook without shame). The baristas who worked there got to know me. They would let me order in Polish, but if they were in the mood they would try to chat with me in English. There was one barista around my age who would ask me English related questions and try to get mini lesson out of me as she made my mocha. As for the rest, they were always friendly and welcoming. I am going to miss those baristas.

Kościół Adwentystów Dnia Siódmego – The Seventh-day Adventist Church

Most Saturdays, I was able to attend the SDA church in Bielsko-Biala. There was a single woman from the church who was willing to pick me up in front of my apartment building and take me to church. She would also translate the sermon even though she’s still learning and practicing her English. In the beginning, translations would turn into discussion about the difference between the words and phrases in Polish and English. She would say something like, “Let’s go to 2nd Moses” and I would be momentarily confused before saying, “Oh, you mean Exodus.” She would then be confused until we realized that the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) were called 1st to 5th Moses. The Ten Commandments were known as the Decalogue, and the book of James in the New Testament is called Jakuba (which is the same name used as the Old Testament Jacob with 12 sons). This woman who took me to church each week went out of her way to make sure that I was comfortable. The young adults in this church were also very friendly to me. What impressed me was that it was one of younger members who helped me translate the Sabbath schools. He was still just a teenager and around the same age the students in my teen English class, but he was the most willing to translate even if his English wasn’t perfect. I was just glad to be apart of this group. The people I met at church were very kind to me and it helped me get to know more people outside of the Oxford Bubble so to say.

Favorite Places in Poland

Now I’m in Switzerland with plans to travel around Europe for another month before finally flying back to the USA. Even though I’m excited for what’s ahead, I’m also sad about leaving Poland. There are places in Poland that are charming in their own way. I will miss Krakow and the city life there. I will miss Bielsko-Biala, my home away from home. I will miss Zakopane and the gorgeous mountains there. I will miss Pszczyna and the quaint park and castle there. I will miss Poland, but the memories will live on. Thank you Poland for welcoming me for the last year, and thank you to everyone who I’ve met along the way. Dziękuję i do widzenia Polski.

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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.

This is Bielsko-Biala

While I have mostly written about my travels around Europe, I hardly took the time to write about life in my temporary home away from home – Bielsko-Biala, Poland. Now that several months have gone by, I forgot to appreciate what Bielsko-Biala has to offer. Lately, I have been seeing the dirty, ugly, and the unattractive sides of Bielsko-Biala. I have been viewing Bielsko-Biala as the place I live in. While residing in this city, my focus has been on work and rest. I have developed a routine here in Bielsko-Biala that life that doesn’t include much exploring and experimenting. When I do explore, the first thing I want to do is get out of Bielsko. Last Sunday, I forced myself out of bed, grabbed my camera, and toured my temporary hometown.

A Brief Background of Bielsko-Biala

Bielsko-Biala is a city in southern Poland with approximately 174,000 residents. The name, Bielsko-Biala, refers to the river that cuts through the city, the Biala River or White River. Originally, the city used to be two smaller cities, Bielsko and Biala, which was divided by the Biala River. In 1951, the two cities merged and formally became known as Bielsko-Biala.  Within this last century, Bielsko-Biala was one the home of World War II victims.

Not far from where I live, there is a post indicating a site of a Jewish synagogue that was destroyed during the war and many of the Jews that once lived in this city was sent to the infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz (which is located not too far from Bielsko-Biala). After the war, the Soviet Union instilled communism in Poland. In 1981, a general strike took place in Bielsko-Biala in protest against the corrupt communist leaders, which resulted in their resignation and an increase in wages. Eventually communism fell and 1990 became the year known by many as the formal end of Communist’s People Republic of Poland and the beginning of the modern Republic of Poland.

Bielsko-Biala Today – 2015

Today, Bielsko-Biala is an industrial city for textiles, machines, and automobiles. It also attracts visitors with the nearby Beskid Mountains that can be seen on a clear day. Back in October, a couple of teachers from the language school I work at took a hike in the Beskid Mountains and soaked in the beautiful trees and the view of other mountains. In the winter, many people ski in the mountains (but not me since I am not much of a skier).

Bielsko-Biala has a mixture of the old and the new. There are building that have stood for over a hundred years, and yet there are modern structures and modern art that help redefine Bielsko today. Some of the older buildings are kept in good shape while others are starting to crumble and fall apart. Some buildings are abandoned altogether. I do not have much of an explanation for this. Perhaps the people want to let some of the old crumble away and ignore it altogether. Perhaps someday there is a plan to destroy and replace it with something new. Reflecting on its history, I don’t blame Bielsko for wanting to recreate itself.

However, there are many places that look old, rundown, and neglected. Staircases are crumbling, and smokers find cracks on the ground to place their used butts instead of seeking an ashtray. In one part of town, there is a street lined with crumbling buildings with layers of exposed brick.

In other parts of Bielsko, there is lots of color. There is one apartment building that I admire with the balconies painted several different colors. Near the city center of Bielsko, there is one street where the buildings on both sides are painted yellow (though personally I find this a bit tacky).

Bielsko-Biala, like almost all cities in Poland, is catholic. Images and monuments of Christ, Mother Mary, popes, and apostles can be found throughout the city. And yet, Bielsko is also unique by being accepting of Protestants who dwell in the city. In fact, Bielsko-Biala takes pride in the fact that their city has the only statue of Martin Luther in all of Poland, which is located in front of its Lutheran church. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I am blessed that have a church nearby with about a hundred members who welcomed me on day one.

My Life in Bielsko-Biala

As I mentioned earlier, I have mixed feelings about Bielsko-Biala as a whole. Many days, I wished I lived in Krakow for the year, or another bigger city full of history, art, and culture. At the same time, living in Bielsko-Biala has allowed me to experience an unique aspect of Poland and Europe. Poland may be very catholic with people who go to church every week religiously, but there are non-Catholics who find a different (protestant) church to attend religiously without shame. It may have old buildings that are falling apart, but there is the hope that something new will one day take it’s place, recreating and redefining itself. (Though there are pessimists who believe that Bielsko-Biala will just decline further – I like to be hopeful but I will admit that I am uncertain.)

More people are learning English in Bielsko-Biala. The older generation, the ones who lived throughout the communist era, never had the opportunity to learn English. Today, there is a strong desire to learn English, starting at a young age (which is where Native English teachers like me come in). There are days where I keenly feel the language barriers, finding people both young and old who cannot communicate with me. Yet there are places where there are young people who can speak to me in English. Sadly, most are too shy to talk to me. It took at least a couple of months for some of the Poles in the school I work at and the church I attend to warm up to me. At the same time, there are those who enjoy talking to me and want to practice their English and get to know me.

Is there a brighter future for Bielsko-Biala ten years from now? Twenty? Will it decline? What will happen? I don’t know, but I like to see it improve and continue to definite itself. As for today, for better or worse, it is my home away from home.

*Author’s Note: Embedded into this blog, there are links to the sources I used for the historical information that I referenced. Also, all the pictures in this blog are taken by me.