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.

 

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.

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.