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.

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.

Spring in London

It has always been a childhood dream of mine to visit London, England. I’ve read countless novels that took place in this city, which had whetted my appetite. Back in 2010, while I was an undergrad student, I went on a French study tour through my university and had a layover in London on the way to Paris. I never counted it, but now I can say I’ve officially been in London, England!

First Impressions

I will be completely honest. The first thing that came into my mind was “Thank God most people speak English!” Everywhere else I’ve traveled to, I had to work through language barriers. Yes, major cities in Europe have people who speak English, but sometimes it is still hard to communicate. Once I landed into the airport (and had a few complications at the border patrol), I felt confident communicating. After I got settled into the place I’m staying at, I had little difficulties finding the places I wanted to see because everyone speaks English! As I walked around London on day one, I couldn’t help but think about how it’s a nice way to relax and not worry about language barriers.

Traveling with Friends

Throughout most of my year here in Europe, I have traveled alone. This time was different. I had planned this trip with two friends I had met during New Years in northern Poland. While I thoroughly enjoy the experience of solo traveling – learning crucial life lessons and meeting new people along the way – it was a very welcome change to experience London with friends and have church support. My friends and I were able to stay with the Newbold College recruiter, who was situated in the heart of London. This gave us the ability to walk and see most of the places we wanted to see. Our host went above and beyond, making us feel welcomed and going out of the way to help us. Having my two traveling companions and a friendly host made me feel at ease and included.

London Landmarks and the Rosetta Stone

During the first full day in London, my friends and I saw most of the major landmarks in London: Big Ben, the Eye of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Cleopatra’s Needle. When I pulled out my camera, I discovered that the battery died, but thank God I had my iPad as my backup. While most tourists take pictures with a smart phone or a decent camera, I looked like a dork holding up my iPad for all my photos. Still, it’s better to look like a dork and have all of these pictures to help me write this blog then not have pictures at all.

What I looked forward to seeing the most in London was the Rosetta Stone. I had reminded my companions all week that I really wanted to see it and we had to go to the British Museum. When I finally gazed upon the stone, I was in awe. This stone helped crack the Egyptian language. With out it, how much of our world history would still remain a mystery to us? As a true Rosetta Stone fan, I purchased a Rosetta stone mug and a Rosetta stone USB drive.

Newbold College 

For one evening, our host took us to Newbold College where we would spend Friday night. Our friends took a train to Bracknell where the college was located. Newbold is a small Seventh-day Adventist college, but the students who attended the school came from several different countries. We didn’t get to meet very many students since it was Easter weekend, but those we did meet were friendly, telling us about the school and where they came from. During the evening, I heard two guys in the lobby area play contemporary Christian music on the guitar. I couldn’t help but think about how much I missed live contemporary Christian music. In fact, during church service the next day, I couldn’t help but think about how much I missed listening to sermons in English and singing contemporary music.

Hyde Park and St. James Park

There are two large parks that we visited in London – Hyde Park and St. James Park. With spring upon us and celebrating the Easter weekend, I was excited to see all the flowers in bloom, especially the tree blossoms. The swans were in the pond, the grass was green, and the leaves were returning to the willows. Both parks were pleasant to walk through, and we spent some time in one of the parks every day we were in London.

The Soapy Smith of London and Drunken Encounters 

There were two interesting characters that my friends and I encountered during our time in London. The first was a drunken woman we met on the train from Waterloo station to Bracknell. At first we didn’t realize she was drunk. We were looking for empty seats on a crowded train, and she smiled at us and warmly greeted us. It wasn’t until she shook our hands in greeting, and held mine for several awkward sentences, that I realized that she was wasted. We spent almost the entire trip listening her say that she’s “drunk as as skunk” and then complain about the social sponges who abuse the welfare system, which would have been an interesting discussion to have with her if she was more sober. Then at one point she sprayed her perfume on all of us.

The other interesting person that we encountered was someone I like to call the Soapy Smith of London. For those who don’t know who Soapy Smith, he is a famous con artist during the Klondike Gold-rush. Instead of breaking his back and digging for gold in the Yukon, he made money off of stampeders in Skagway, Alaska through gambling and trickery. One of his many famous games of trickery was “Find the nugget” where he and his friends would trick stampeders by hiding a small gold nugget under one of three cups. The cups would be shuffled around and then someone would guess where the nugget was hidden. If they guessed right, then would win money. However, like all con artists, they would cheat to make sure they would win and the stampeders would lose.

This con artist in London, located right next to Tower Bridge, was no different. He also played the “Find the Nugget” game, but using a pompom ball that would make it easy slip into another cup without anyone noticing. My friends and I spent a good twenty minutes watching the con artist play his game. We watched people make and lose anywhere between 40 to 100 British Pounds, but there was a pattern. There were at least three people around who kept on playing, making and losing around 100 pounds. When they did lose, they were suspiciously not upset. They just kept on playing. It made the rest of us certain that they were winning so that outsiders would think they have a chance at winning. Like I said before, this man was a Soapy Smith.

Fighting Homesickness with Food

As much as I like Poland, the variety (and quality) of restaurants is lacking. The type of food I missed the most was Mexican. While I didn’t go to an authentic Mexican restaurant, sadly, I did have my fill of Chipotle. It was very American of me to want Chipotle, but I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I was in London.

That was not the only time I had “Mexican.” We went to two other restaurants that severed Mexican food, taking advantage of opportunity. We did eat other types of food. Twice we had burgers, and on one occasion, pasta. There were other foods, snacks, and treats that we found in London that I missed from home, which included Doritos. Reese’s, Orange juice with pulp, and hummus with pita bread. Oh, and I bought a bagel too. Can you believe that Poland doesn’t have bagels?

Going Back to Poland 

It was hard to go back to London, and it wasn’t just because I had to wake up at four in the morning to make my flight. London felt like returning to home, even though it wasn’t home. It had so many things that I could resonate with. From food, to language, to church services in English with live contemporary music, made me feel like I was home even though I was not. If I had traveled straight to London from America, I would have looked for all of the things that are different. While I did notice the obvious differences (like how every drives on the wrong – I mean left – side of the road), I observed what was similar and felt like home. While I wouldn’t want to live in London, I’d definitely plan another trip in the future.

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.

Seven Hours in Munich

February 14, 2015

Looking at my flight itinerary, I noticed that I had a seven hour layover in Munich as I traveled from Athens back to Kraków. My vacation was over, and the last way I wanted to end the week was to sit in an airport for seven hours. A friend who stayed in the same hostel as me in Athens recommended that I visit the city center. Since she has spent a lot of time in Europe, she knew from memory what transit line I needed to get on and the stop with the best sites and shops. Her advice definitely did not lead me astray.

I only had a small snippet of Munich, but what I took in during those few hours were rich. As soon as I emerged from the underground at Marienplatz, this was the first thing I saw:

I was in awe. My eyes scanned the beautiful architecture. The buildings that surrounded me were gorgeous and I couldn’t take enough pictures. I behaved like a starved tourist, but my seven hour layer suddenly wasn’t long enough. I wanted to make each moment count.

First, I needed to get the necessities out of the way, which included buying coffee and going jean shopping since jeans in Germany are more stylish and more form fitting than Polish jeans. (Personal opinion.) After that, the rest of the day was mine. I explored the square and saw lots of markets. What caught my eye was the cheese market. I sampled all the cheeses that was allowable and then bought a chunk of cheese to take back with me. Thankfully it made it past security when I had to check myself back into the airport.

I peaked at the other shops and stands in the square. Since it was Valentine’s Day, there were flowers sold right and left. Women walked around with their significant other in one hand and a rose. I even came across of a statue of a woman with a rose in placed in her hand.

As I explored more of the square, I overhead an English tour guide talk about climbing a nearby tower for two euros. Less than two minutes later, I approached the tower and climbed hundreds of steps to receive a stunning view of Munich.

When I climbed back down, I knew I had limited time before I had to take the underground back to the airport and go through security all over again. With that in mind, I decided to soak in as much art and architecture as I can before heading back.

During my flight back to Krakow, I couldn’t help but think about how much I liked Munich. It’s the second city I’ve explored in Germany and so far I really like this country, the architecture, and the culture. One way or another, I have to go back someday and properly explore Munich and other cities in Germany. In the meantime, I will savor the memories I have made in this city and country so far, even if I only had seven hours.

What it’s like to be an American in Europe

When I meet people during my travels, one of the questions that always comes up is, “Where are you from?” When I tell them that I’m American, I get a number of different responses – some positive and some, well, not so positive. Here are a few situations I have found myself in:

“What are you doing here in Poland?”

It seems that no matter where I go, even if it’s just the grocery store, someone will eventually asked me where I’m from. In Poland, I recently started responding to this question with, “Jestem Amerykanka.” (Polish for “I’m American.”) This is my simple way of trying to communicate the point that I’m from America, but I’m trying my best to be mindful and respectful of your culture and language. I’m not simply a tourist, but an American who is making your country my temporary home. At first, I didn’t want to be open about my nationality, but living in Poland for several months has taught me that the people here in Poland respect and admire Americans. In fact, some of my Polish students have relatives in America. There’s even a Polish community in Chicago. When I told one of my student’s mother over a month ago that I was spending the holidays in Europe, she responded that it was a dream of hers to spend the holidays in America – mostly because she had a sister in Wisconsin. The more I realize that it is a Polish dream to move to America someday, the more comfortable I am about being American in Poland. Now that I’m more comfortable about my nationality, I don’t mind telling people that the reason why I’m in Poland is because I’m an English language teacher who wants to experience a new culture.

“Did you vote for President Obama?”

You’d be surprised how many times people have asked me that. Most of the time, the person who asks the question clearly does not like Obama so when I honestly answer, “Yes, I did,” they inadvertently start blaming me for Obama’s actions. Every time this comes up, I get super uncomfortable. I try to explain that I am politically independent (neither Democrat and Republican). Every time I vote, I try to figure out who is the lesser of two evils, which is a very pessimistic approach, I know. I like to have an open mind about both sides. When I explain that to the person who sparked a political conversation, I sometimes regain some respect. Or they see they see that I’m someone who isn’t up-to-date with politics, which also isn’t a complete lie.

“You should say you’re from Canada instead. Minnesota is close to Canada.”

I received this response once. It was while I was visiting Venice, Italy. I met a young man from Belgium who openly disliked America and was not afraid to tell me, but he but he was curious enough to ask what state I was from. When I told him Minnesota and explained that it bordered Canada, he immediately told me that I should start telling people that I’m from Canada. He claimed that Europeans would like me more if I was Canadian. It didn’t help that I was already self-conscious about being American. The very next day, a couple from England asked me if I was Canadian. I couldn’t help but respond with, “What makes you think I’m Canadian?” They told me that my accent sounds like it could be Canadian. (Maybe it’s because Minnesota is close enough!) Ignoring the Belgium man’s advice, I told them that I’m American. It turned out they were more interested placing locations with accents instead of favoring Canada over America.

“You’re American. You definitely have the accent.” 

Most of the time, people can tell that I’m American before I even tell them. It’s because of my accent. When I was a young child, I was fascinated by other people’s accent. I’m still fascinated by it. I love hearing the difference in pronunciations. As a child, I wished that I had an accent too. Somehow, I grew up thinking that I didn’t have an accent. I thought that it was too normal and bland. Now that I’m in Europe, I find that I’m now the person with the unique accent – unique enough where I can’t hide the fact that I’m American. In Bielsko-Biala, Poland, there was an expat meeting held for people who live in Bielsko who are not from Poland. I enjoy those meetings because I get to talk to people from France, Egypt, the U.K., and America. During one of the meetings, a fellow American after observing me for a couple of minutes told me, “Judging by your accent, you’re from the American Mid-West.” At first I was blown away, but then I realized that so was he. Then he decided to guess my state and decided upon Indiana. He was wrong, but I did tell him that my dad’s side of the family was from Indiana. (And added that the Colts are my favorite football team.) This made me start asking myself if I really do have a hybrid Minnesotan and Indianan accent since they are the home states of my parents. I still don’t know.

“You can have guns in America.”

Towards the beginning of the school year, one of my fifth grade boys asked me where I’m from. After I told him, he immediately said, “You’re from the best country.” I’m not going to lie, I smiled a little at this response – until I asked him why he thinks America is the best. “You can have guns in America!” Right now the fifth grade boys at Oxford Centre has an obsession with guns. When I ask them to write sentences using the vocab words from the list provided, a handful of boys tried to incorporate guns, even if it made no sense with the target words. Whenever I update myself about what’s happening in America, the more I’m convinced that gun obsession among school boys must be taken seriously. The teachers talked and debated among themselves about how to properly react to the obsessive talk about guns and shooting people about the 5th grade boys. As the American teacher in the school, I’ve been asked to share my point of view and where America stands. People from other countries are aware of the shootings taking place in America. I decided to personally not allow talk of guns in class even though the director of the school basically told the teachers, “They are just boys. It’s natural for them to talk about guns. They might become soldiers someday.” While there is truth in that statement, I still decided to not allow gun talk in class and other Polish teachers felt that same way.

“You’re smart for an American. You surprise me.”

This was said by a Polish young man who was at least two years younger than me and still in college. We were sitting next to each other on a bus from Zakopane to Krakow. This young man sat next to me because the bus was full and the only available seat left was next to me. When I opened my mouth and spoke English, he recognized that I’m American. He then spent an hour ranting about how he’s amazed that Americans have some of the laziest and most athletic people in the world, the skinniest and the fattest people, and the dumbest and most intelligent people. He asked me what I knew about European history. Thanks to my intensive history course called Western Heritage, I managed to prove to him that I knew quite a bit of European history. “You’re smart for an American,” he then told me. “You surprise me.” This statement took me aback. Despite the fact that he previously mentioned that Americans had some of the smartest and dumbest people, this comment about being smart for an American told me that he secretly harbored thoughts that Americans were generally dumb. Even though I genuinely enjoyed the two-hour conversation we had, I couldn’t help walking away with the words, “You’re smart for an American,” stuck in my head. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.

What it’s like to meet another American in Europe

If I’m to be honest, I’ve had both positive and negative reactions towards meeting another American in Europe. On one hand, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. We are both on this journey together. We both know what it’s like to be an American in Europe. Sometimes we swap stories and reassure each other that we’re not alone when someone (consciously or unconsciously) discriminates us as Americans. Then there are times when I meet the American tourist who acts superior and has no cultural awareness. During my travels, I have heard other Americans vent about language barriers or why they don’t like this country or that. Talking to a former English teacher in Poland, she was glad when her contract in Poland was up. When I heard her complain about various things in Poland, I couldn’t help but think to myself that I want to make the best of the time I have left. I’m half way through the school year, and so far, life has been getting better for me instead of worse. I decided to see the beauty of Polish culture (as well as the other countries and cultures I encounter during my travels) and yet maintain a healthy American pride.