Lessons Learned in Slovakia

Every winter, all schools in Poland close for two weeks so that families can have vacation time and the children can rest from their studies. The school I work at, Oxford Centre, also closed for two weeks but all the teachers had to work for one of the weeks. For my week on duty, I was asked to go to Slovakia for a week-long ski trip. The kids would go skiing in the morning and in the afternoons they would have various activities which would include an hour of English games with the two native English speakers that went on the trip. Aside from me, the supervisor of the native English speakers at Oxford Centre, Adrian, went on the trip since he goes snowboarding. I quickly learned that of the adults on the trip, I am the most inexperienced skier. I was chosen because I had skied before in the past, unlike the other Native English speakers at Oxford, but that doesn’t say much. Despite my lacking skiing abilities, there are several lessons I learned from my week in Slovakia.

I Learned How To Ski

Even though I skied before in the past, it turned out that skiing is not like riding a bike – at least for me. My first run down the bunny hill was embarrassing. I fell down at least three times during my first run and I had a hard time getting back up. All the Oxford kids seemed to be better than me. Since the ski instructors prioritized helping the kids with their skiing, I had to teach myself and try to mimic the other skiers. It took a lot of trial and error, but I managed to get down the hill without falling, but I was still very slow. Even though it was embarrassing for me that all the adults and kids witnessed my horrendous skills, I made the decision to not let that get to me. I was open with the kids about my skills, and that did not change the way they looked at me. They did not respect me any less just because I was terrible. If anything, they cheered me on as I improved.

I Can Survive Without Internet

But I will admit that it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was really annoying to have no WiFi. Even phones with data could not pick up a strong enough network to use the internet. My personal phone is useless outside of Poland. The lodge we stayed in did have a computer with internet, but we had to pay one euro for every 15 minutes! I did use it twice to make an important payment and then check it the next day to make sure it was verified. The only other place we had WiFi was when the kids went swimming. Overall, we didn’t need the internet. We were kept busy on the slopes, and then with our afternoon and evening activities. When I did have free-time, I just caught up with my reading list on my Kindle app, or I would play the games that did not require WiFi. Besides, this week was meant to be a week in nature and to spend time with each other and not necessarily glued to our phones and tablets. However, I will admit that with a language barrier between me and the rest of the group make this a difficult task.

You Can Survive on Bread and Butter

Well, at least you can survive on that diet for a week. The lodge we stayed in provided cleaning and cooking services so that none of the adults would have to worry about making meals on top of everything else. The Slovakian man who owned the lodge gave us some sort of pork product almost every single meal. For breakfast and supper, we had bread, butter, cheese and sliced ham. Sometimes it will come with tomatoes and a slice of cucumber. For lunch, we were given some sort of pork with sauce as well as watery soup. Since I don’t like pork, I did not each any of it and stuck with bread all week. All the kids hated the food as well as the other adults. On our last day, we all went out to McDonald’s. I never thought I would see the day where I felt like I was eating something healthy at McDonald’s. After all, McDonald’s grilled chicken wrap actually had fresh greens inside.

Slovakian is Similar to Polish

Before leaving for this trip, I thought that the kids would be forced to speak English to the Slovakians since the country had their own language. It turns out that Slovakian is not much different from Polish and that the kids on the trip understood a lot of Slovakian. English, however, is not something most Slovakians understand. The owner of the lodge could talk to the adults and kids, but with me it was a different story. I was suddenly the odd one out since I was one of two native English speakers, and the other one has an intermediate level of Polish. Whenever we were at the slopes and wanted to buy a hot drink, I found that it was easier to order with my beginner’s level of Polish instead of English.

Kofola is Nasty

I have never heard of Kofola until I visited Slovakia. Suddenly Kofola was advertised everywhere and were found in all the shops. A couple of kids on the trip told me that I had to try it, and so I did. I never tasted a soda more repulsive than Kofola. It tasted like a mixture of cough syrup, vanilla, and Coca-cola combined. Apparently Kofola is a soda combination of coffee “kof” and Coca-cola “ola” thus resulting in the infamous name “Kofola.” I gave it a few sips and even set it down for a day and tried it again, but it was still nasty so I gave it away. None of the kids wanted it. In fact, I caught them kicking it around in the lounge area in the lodge, so I just threw it away.

Sometimes a Smile is All it Takes to Break Language Tensions

This is not a new revelation for me, but this was definitely true for me this week. There were about 8 adults on the trip and roughly 40 kids from age 8 to 16. As I mentioned before, I am the only one of two native English speaking adults, but I did my best to show my respect by trying to use the little bit of Polish I do know. On day one, when one of the Polish ski instructors met me, he gave me a clearly disappointed look when he found out that I couldn’t speak Polish. He made it clear that he didn’t not know much English, but we tried to find ways to communicate and get along. He would teach me a few Polish phrases and gesture the various words he tried to communicate to me, and I would do the same. Each night, I would have to share a room with a Polish woman in her early 40s. She hardly talked to me, but I would smile and ask her simple questions in English. It turned out that she knew quite a bit but was afraid to use it in fear that she would “mess up.” I find that this is a common problem with English language learners. My job as a teacher is to first become a safe person to practice and mess up in front of. It was amazing to see a difference between day one when we hardly talked to the last day where she would freely talk to me. And finally there was the Slovakian owner that all the adults complained about. He was annoyed with the kids and got upset over a scratch a kid made on the table. He always looked grumpy when he served us our daily pork. Even though I absolutely hated the meals, I decided to smile and thank him each day. Even though we could only communicate through my minimal level of Polish, I could tell that he liked me because I simply smiled and was polite. He and the other adults did not get along, but he liked me. Maybe it is our lack of communication that made us pleasant to the other, but I like to think he thought I was different than everyone else.

Always Bring a Swimsuit – Just in Case

During one of the days on the slopes, I met an English speaking Slovakian who was helping a group of beginner skiers from Greece. I heard him talk to them in English, and my natural instinct was to stop skiing and introduce myself. I wanted to meet a Slovakian who can tell me a bit about his country so that I could learn more. I asked him what I should know about Slovakia, other than having amazing mountains and ski slopes. The only other thing he told me was that I needed to check out were the thermal springs and visit one of the spas. On Wednesday afternoon, our group went to an indoor-outdoor spa that had pools that were heated by thermal spring water.

Unfortunately, I did not bring a swimsuit. I seriously thought about swimming in my underwear, but I figured no one would appreciate it so I brought my camera to take pictures. The more of the springs I saw, and after dipping my feet in the water, I was kicking myself for not bringing a suit. I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I was told to bring a suit, but because I hate what I look like in a swimsuit, I decided against swimming. Bad choice. In that moment, I did not care. I wish I got in the water. Sadly, I didn’t.

To be Humble

Throughout the week, many children got sick. Most of the cases were the common cold, but there were a handful of kids who had a temperature. For two of the ski days, I was asked to stay behind with the sick kids, take their temperatures, and give them medicine if needed. I knew the unspoken reason why I was chosen to stay behind with the sick kids was because I was the worst skier of the adults. Even though I wanted to continue practicing, I knew that my first line of duty was the be there for the kids, especially when it comes to sickness. I had to go into the two days with the right attitude, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise despite the sickness. There was one boy named Michal (pronounced Mee-How) who just wanted someone to talk to. He was one of the few Polish kids who went beyond greeting me in English. He loved learning English and wanted to practice with me even though he had a temperature. He told me about an English competition he entered and his hope to win. After his temperature reading, I gave him medicine and he promptly threw up. My initial reaction was to jump away. I cannot stand vomit, but as the adult in the building, I had to do something. That required asking the Slovakian workers for cleaning supplies. Since they don’t speak English, I had to rely on Michal’s roommate (who only had a cold) to communicate for me. I felt embarrassed that I could not be the one to speak. I am the adult in charge and I should not make a child translate, but everyone involved knew that this was the only way to effectively communicate. Throughout week, I felt little next to these children would could ski better than me and communicate to the Slovakians while I couldn’t. But I had to be at peace with this. Besides, being an adult doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to be better than the kids. Let them take pride in their abilities while the adults step aside every now and then. Once I came to terms with this, I enjoyed the rest of my week.

Overall, Slovakia has been a positive learning experience for me, even though during the week I counted the days until the trip was over. Sometimes you need to make the best of the situation you find yourself in and be determined to enjoy yourself even if your are served nasty pork every meal, or if you don’t know how to ski very well, are asked to stay with sick children, cannot communicate with most people, and did not bring your swimsuit for the spa. I will not say that I wish to repeat my week, but it is certainly a week I cannot allow myself to forget.

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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.

New Berlin – Historic and Hip

I arrived in Berlin on the 27th of December by the night bus. I figured taking the bus would save me money, but I ended up getting less than 3 hours of sleep and I had to sit next to a middle aged man who reeked of cigarette smoke. I got the most sleep that night when the police stopped the bus at the border to inspect our passports and ID and kicked my seat mate out because of suspicious ID. But at least I made it to Berlin safely!

I absolutely love Berlin! It’s a beautiful mixture of historic and hip. There are people who like to call this city New Berlin and say that Berlin is still becoming Berlin. The people are both hip and optimistic – I just love it!

At the flee market I visited on Sunday, I met an artist who created a poster of a woman wearing a classy red dress with sunglasses. The image of the woman as well as the words “Vintage City” drew my attention. I talked to the artist for the while and asked him if he really believed the Berlin was a vintage city. “Of course,” he agreed, and then proceeded to tell me about how a lot of the people are hipster and love shopping at thrift stores and going to antique stores. A lot of people want to wear the big framed glasses and men (gay or straight) will wear brightly colored skinny jeans. Yes, I am aware that people in North America do that too, but it is very common in Berlin. About half of the items sold in the market where secondhand and vintage. My Indonesian friend I met in the hostel spent a lot of time looking at vintage cameras that were refurbished. I’ll admit that it would be pretty cool to take Polaroids again, but I’d rather save my euros for future trips in Europe.

What I really enjoyed in Berlin was walking around the city and observing how much history and culture changed in this city. It’s hard to believe that present-day Berlin is considered to be one of the most liberal cities in Europe when only 25 years prior it had a very dark past. I took two walking tours in Berlin and learned about the history of Germany and how it has changed in just the last one hundred years. The two tour guides I had were working on their History PhD and one was working on a book about Berlin from 1910 to 2010. There is a lot I could say about Berlin’s history, but there are some sites that speak for themselves and demonstrate how far Germany has come.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was completed back in 2005. From the picture, it only looks like a collection of concert blocks of different sizes. What it is hard to see from the picture is that the ground is uneven. When you walk through the concert blocks, you get sick, dizzy, and disoriented because of the uneven blocks and ground. This is exactly what the architect wants the visitor to feel. This is supposed to make you feel a fraction of what the Jews felt as they were captured and placed into concentration camps.

This is a memorial to political leaders who opposed Hitler. As you might guess, they were killed for speaking up against Hitler. This put fear in everyone else, forcing them into silence as the horrible events unfolded.

This is the site of where Hitler’s bunk was found. It was in this location where Hitler committed suicide with his wife of one day. The bunker is not made into a memorial because the official stand that the government made was to not memorialize Hitler’s life. However, we cannot erase the memory. We must remember the dark past, but we should not honor his life.

This is the infamous Berlin wall. For some reason, I imagined it a lot bigger and thicker when I learned about it in my history classes. Despite the size, what the wall represented was the real threat. In summary, it separated Eastern Germany from Western Germany. No one can reach the other side of the wall without being shot by the guards, though there are some successful stories of people who did reach the other side. The barrier that the wall created not only separated Germany but a historical view of how we viewed Western civilization from the rest of the world. Westerners were supposedly “smarter, more intelligent, and more advanced” while the East wasn’t. Finally in 1989, the wall came tumbling down!

In front of this university, books were burned during WWII. What is sad is that there are books that are completely eliminated and with it, knowledge that we can never get back. In front of this building was an underground memorial, which was simply a room of empty bookshelves to memorialize knowledge and information that we can never hope to retrieve. I tried to take a picture of it, but it was too dark and cold. The frost on the window made it hard for me to get a good picture of it, which made me sad as a book lover.

Overall, I absolutely loved Berlin and I would definitely go back when given the chance. I didn’t give myself enough time in the city and there was so much history to explore. I did go to a history museum that displayed Germany’s history from the end the Roman Empire to present-day Germany. I spent four hours and it amazed me how much Germany has changed and it amazed me how much this city has progressed. As I mentioned before, Berlin is now considered a very liberal city, which explains why hipsters love Berlin. Personally, there is nothing wrong with Berlin being liberal. If anything, having a very oppressive past to people of difference races, sexes, religions, it is refreshing to see Berlin a city that firmly believes in equality for everyone. I think this is why I love Berlin so much. It gives hopes to others that someday other places in our world will learn to one day accept others who are different.

Christmas in Vienna

This was my first Christmas away from friends and family. I decided to spend it in the charming city of Vienna, Austria. I stayed at a hostel called Believe-It-Or-Not that was ran by a young hostess named Lily from South Africa who was warm and welcoming. This was the first hostel I’ve ever stayed in that felt homey instead of like a college dorm. The hostel can only hold 12 people total and only has two large bedrooms. It may sound like it is a bit of tight squeeze, but actually brought everyone who stayed in the hostel together. Never before had I experience such unity with other people in the hostel.

Our Hostel Christmas family was represented by guests from Brazil, England, Australia, Canada (Quebec), India, Thailand, Argentina, and America. We all came into the hostel as lone travelers (except for the couple from Quebec) who needed a place to stay for the holidays. Most of us chose Vienna for a similar reason – it is notorious for their Christmas markets, which I made sure to visit on my first night.

There were several different Christmas markets located all over Vienna, but the one I spent the most time in was the one in front of the parliament building. It had the most lights, decorations, and a small children’s Christmas training circling the markets. There were many different crafty items for sale. I was tempted to buy an owl purse I found as well as a tiny wooden stump with cute, tiny drawers, but I passed both up and bought a tea-light candle holder with a village winter scene etched in the ceramic. To be quite frank, the real attraction for me in the Christmas markets were all the food, drinks, and sweets they sold. There was a stand that sold the biggest baked potato I’d ever seen. My mouth watered at the sight; I purchased one and gobbled it up. I didn’t stop there. Another specialty in the market that I saw everyone buy was deep-fried flat-bread with garlic. It sounds weird, but it was very good. I also purchased as Nutella crepe, which made me beyond stuffed. I finally had to walk off all the food and explore the city.

Vienna has beautiful architecture and is filled with so much history. On my first day, I visited the St. Stephan Cathedral. I went on a tour of the catacombs underneath the city that were filled with graves, bones, and urns. The important church officials were kept in a room of crypts, which included a bishop from Vienna who died about eleven years ago. Then there were the rooms where the corpse of the commoners were tossed in a giant pile, and there was another where the bones were piled up like logs. It was fascinating, but creepy to see that these bones were real and several hundred years old.

On a more positive note, I did get to climb to the top of one of the towers of the cathedral and see a breathtaking view of Vienna. The climb, however, was a workout. I was out of breath after climbing all 343 steps, but the view was worth it. I was just on time to see Vienna at sunset.

On December 24 and 25, several places in Vienna were closed. On Christmas Eve, there were a few museums that were kept open. One of the places was the House of Music. My fellow travelers from Brazil and Argentina also went to the museum. We learned about the science of sound as well as the history of various composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and other great musicians of history. It was fascinating. Another place that was neat was Mozart’s house. It was not a spectacular building, but we were in awe that we were standing in the same rooms that he used to dwell in and compose some of his great masterpieces. And then the cathedral nearby was the same cathedral he and his wife married in.

When it was night on Christmas Eve, about seven of us from the hostel found an Indian restaurant that was still open for the holidays. We were very glad to find a place to eat, but we were mostly happy to find a place to have a nice Christmas dinner. We spent the next couple of hours chatting and spending time with each other, reminding us that we are not alone for the holidays.

Christmas day was a relaxing day with a morning filled with chatting and card games. In the afternoon, a group of us went to see the palace, Belvedere Castle, took pictures of it as well as explore the museum inside (since it was one of the few museums open on Christmas day).

I left Vienna the next evening on the 26th. During the last few hours of my time in Vienna, it started to snow. My Brazilian friend, who had never seen snow in his life, quickly put on his coat and dashed outside. I followed him and watched him look up at the sky in awe. Seconds later he opened his mouth and tried to catch a few snowflakes. For the next several minutes, he kept on saying, “It’s snowing! It’s actually snowing!”

The snow picked up as I made my way to the bus that would take me to Berlin. All this time I kept on thinking how my new Brazilian friend would love these huge fluffy flakes and I was sad I would not be there to see all the stages of his snowy delight. However, the next day he sent me pictures on Facebook playing in the snow the next day, making his first snow ball and then eating it. He said it tasted so good.

The Christmas Spirit in Poland

Christmas is coming. The evidence of it are everywhere in Poland right now. Last Thursday, I watched the giant Christmas tree in Bielsko-Biala get set up in the town square. Not only that, the castle in the town was lit up with blue light and dancing snowflakes. According to the locals, this is just the beginning. Apparently Bielsko-Biala won an award last year for their Christmas decorations. I can’t wait to see what else they will do to this cute city.

       
On December 6, Poland had St. Nicholas Day. This is holiday for only children. Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) gives children an early Christmas present, getting them into the holiday spirit. This holiday is very new to me. If kids back in North America knew about this holiday, they would not stop bugging their parents to buy them gifts on both days. On Friday, the day before St. Nicholas Day, none of the children in the primary school would not pay attention to their classes. Classes were interrupted with Santa Claus bringing treats and cookies for all the kids. Some of my first grade boys wore Santa hats with long white bears. It was too cute!

On Sunday, I went to Krakow to visit the Christmas markets there. I just have to say that I haven’t had a lot of fun Christmas shopping for my friends until now. I would love to write about what I bought, but then family members who read this would be spoiled. I am not going to let that happen!

The Christmas market is full of souvenirs, sweets, toys, and fresh food that is cooked right in front of you. My favorite is the mountain cheese with jam. It sounds like a strange combo, but it is very, very delicious. I first tried the Polish mountain cheese when I first arrived, but the cheese in the market is the best I had so far. I wish I could send the cheese back home for everyone to try.

There were also Christmas parades with motorcyclists wearings Santa suits as well as a marching band. It is only the 7th of December, but it seems as if everyone is Poland is in the Christmas spirit – and so am I.

But not everyone is in the Christmas spirit. When I went to the Seventh-day Adventist church yesterday, I discovered that none of the Adventists celebrate Christmas at all. The most they will do on that day is take advantage of the day off and have dinner with extended family. When I asked them why, they told me that Christmas is a Catholic holiday, the Christmas tree is idolized, and Jesus was not born on December 25. They did make good points, but I did explain why Christmas is important to our family and that the Adventist churches I know in America celebrate Christmas. Still, I do not see anything wrong about getting into the Christmas spirit. For me, it is celebrating Christ’s ultimate gift to the earth by coming to us as a baby so that He can ultimately save us.

I am pretty sure that I will write several more posts about the Christmas spirit in Poland and all of Europe. Stay tuned for more!!!

Language Barriers are…Frustrating.

When I visited Krakow for the first time, I got excited to see a Starbucks in the mall. I immediately pulled out my wallet from my purse and got ready to order my Vanilla Chai Latte and was debating whether or not to get a grande or venti. I never order the largest size back at home but I had gone months without a Vanilla Chai Latte and I wanted to make the most of the rare opportunity. When the time came for me to order, I remembered that the person manning the cash register speaks English as a second language. I had to slowly repeat my order and thankfully she understood.

Then she asked for my name to write on the cup and I told her, “Laurel.” I know it is not an easy name, especially with that second “L” sound. Back home, it is common for native English speakers to write “Laura” or “Lauren.” What I did not expect was this:

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When they finished the drink, I had no idea that it was mine because 1) it’s not my name. No one has ever misspelled with with an “N” at the beginning and 2) the person calling out the drinks gave the Polish name for my drink. When I grabbed my drink, I laughed at the mistake, took a picture, and went on my way.

Unfortunately most of my experiences have not been as easy to laugh off. Most of the time I felt frustrated. I would try to be patient, keep my cool, and move on.

“I’m trying to find the bus stop!” – Zakopone, Poland

During my four day weekend this November, I decided to visit Krakow and Zakopone. I wanted a full day in the city and then a day in the mountains to balance out my vacation time. I was told that the mountains in Zakopone were beautiful and that I had to see them. I took a bus early in the morning so that I can make it to the mountain lift, hike and enjoy the view before the sunsets at 4:30.

Taking a bus from Krakow to Zakopone was the easy part. The problem was once I got there. I was nowhere near the mountain lift or the main city. It turned out that there were several trails and mountains to hike, but only one mountain lift. I asked the locals running the shops how to get to the lift. Most gave me that blank look that immediately told me that they didn’t speak English. Those who could speak some English told me one word, “bus.” I had to take another bus.

Now I understand that I am visiting Zakopone during the off season. It’s past summer hiking and it is too early for downhill skiing. Still, I had hoped that a tourist city like Zakopone would have more people people who could speak multiple languages. Did the locals even speak German or Czech?

So I took the bus. I tried to ask the driver about the lift, but he just gave me a blank look. I sat on the bus until everyone was told to get out at the city center. I figured that in the center, where most of the restaurants and shops were located, there would be someone – anyone – who could speak English and help me. I probably entered five or six shops until I reached a shop that sold hiking gear. The man in the store wrote down directions and apologized for “not knowing much English.” I told him it was just fine.

His directions somewhat helped. Unfortunately I had already burned an hour or more of daylight. I walked quickly to find this bus stop. Now the man’s direction told me to go straight and take a right. He said that I couldn’t miss this bus stop. Well, somehow I missed it. I wandered around for several minutes and I approached other shops asking for the bus stop. This time, I just stuck to those two words. The locals were happy to give me Polish directions. I tried to use my hands to gesture right, left, or straight, just to make sure I understood correctly. The woman working at a gift shop gave me a straight arm, spoke Polish and then gestured with her hands towards the left. So I had to go straight for who knows how long and then go to the left. I decided to just go straight. I asked about five other locals using the same methods until I finally found the right stop. I used the directions that the man selling hiking gear gave me to show the bus driver. He recognized the name of the mountain and smiled, trying to assure me that this was the right bus.

Finally I made it to the mountain, but unfortunately it was already 2:30 and there was a long line for the lift. I ended up standing in line for over an hour. When I was not far from the ticket booth, one of the workers made an announcement. A couple who stood in line with me, and thankfully spoke English, told me that the lift was closing. Many people were upset, but it turned out that 16 more people could take the lift before it closes. Praise God I was among the 16!!!

Initially I wanted to take a lift up the mountain and hike down, but with less than an hour of daylight, it was not a possibility so I had to spend extra money on a round trip ticket. That was the condition for the final 16 customers. At this point, I did not care. I did not want to go through hours of frustration for nothing.

It was worth it.

 

The twilight view of the mountain top was beautiful. There were clouds blocking some of the view, but I did not care. I made it to the top. I might not have done any hiking, but after all that I had gone through to reach the top of the mountain with the language barrier, I might as well have hiked two mountains.

I remained at the top for final hour of daylight, taking pictures and enjoying the view before I finally made my descent. It was fully dark by the time I reached the bottom. Although I wished I had gone hiking, I’m glad that I at least reached the top. Someday I’ll go back now that I know where to go and what to do. In the meantime, I can the enjoy the pictures I took and all the effort I put into capturing the moment.

The First Month in Bielsko-Biala, Poland

So I found a job and stopped blogging for over a month. Almost as soon as the plane from Rome landed in Krakow, I was whisked away to Bielsko-Biala. It is a city in the south of Poland and not far from the border of the Czech Republic.

Upon arrival, I was shown my apartment that was included in my salary. I didn’t have time to unpack because the director of the English program and his wife took me out to dinner at a Polish restaurant. Immediately after that, they took me to their receptionist’s birthday party for cake and goulash. I tried to pass on the goulash, but Martyna (the receptionist) made me take a bowl and try it. I didn’t like it. Thankfully I didn’t have to eat the rest since I used the excuse that I already ate, which was true.

After that, my life became filled with learning the school, getting my class schedule, getting my schedule changed three times since, lesson planning for classes, and then actually teaching the classes. In the mornings and early afternoons, I teach at the primary school, Oxford Centre. It is a school for grades one through six. I teach all levels except for the 6th graders. Overall they are good kids, but there are some moments where I have a hard time getting them to listen.

This school is a private school that parents where parents spend good money so that their children can get more exposure to English and native English speakers like myself. Not only do I teach lessons in English, but I also teach first grade science and third grade social studies. They are not hard classes to teach. The idea is that the students are learning more English at a younger age.

I also teach various classes in the evening. The ages range from four year olds to teenagers. For my younger students, I teach them the basics such as numbers, colors, letters, body parts, shapes, and so on. As for the preteens and teenagers, I help them with conversational skills, grammar and higher level vocabulary words. Each age group comes with their challenges and virtues. I work over 30 hours in the school, which is full time since my salary includes 10 hours a week of lesson planning. I can guarantee that I am putting in well over ten hours! Teaching is a lot of work, but reflecting on what I have accomplished right now and the smiles and hugs the students give me when they seem me let me know that what I am doing right now is worth it.

Now that I have made it through the first month, I will try to write in my blog more often and recount what it is like to live in Bielsko and the other cities I hope to travel to. There is much more that I need write about and I promise I will do my best to keep my dear readers posted!

The Tourist of Venice

I just had to see Venice. There was no way I was going to leave Italy and start my new job in Poland without seeing Venice first. Besides, in an earlier post I mentioned that Venice is one of the top 5 cities of the world I had to see. Now it’s checked off my list.

First impressions? Very beautiful. It’s definitely a photographer’s playground. All I really wanted to do on my first day was sit on the back of the water bus and take pictures of the city. (And that’s exactly what I did!) There wasn’t just one place or one site in particular I wanted to see. I just wanted a time to relax and explore. My plane for Venice was to walk around until I came across something that looked interesting.

Over the course of three days, I came across three different museums. The first was a museum of music. In an old church there were violins, violas, cellos, basses, guitars, and other antique instruments that were made in the 17th and 18th century. Just staring at them made me wish I was gifted musically. The other museum I came across was on the waterfront and it contained artifacts from ships from the 16th century to the 20th. The building was filled with old cannons, swords, guns, and navigational tools from the different eras. There was even a room filled with old navy uniforms. I would have to say that this museum was probably my favorite. For my third and final museum I decided to see a modern art museum that had an exhibit for the photographer, Irving Penn. It was alright. I think I wanted to see this museum because I wanted a change from Renaissance art.

What really made my trip to Venice was the people I met in the hostel I stayed in and the restaurants I ate at. There was a couple from the south of England who invited me to eat with them. They were on a romantic getaway while their two girls were with their grandmother. During another meal, I met an older woman from Australia who was also traveling alone. She works as a private detective and she hopes to take them time off in Venice and work on her novel. (Ah! A woman after my own heart!) For the three nights I stayed in the hostel, I had to share a room with all men. I don’t understand how they assign rooms, but I was the only woman. Thankfully they were nice and respectful. I hung out with them and listened to their stories and was amused by the Canadian who thinks Belgium women are the hottest on the planet. The Belgium guy who was in the room found this very amusing and told him that Danish women were hotter. I just teased them. In that hostel alone, I met guys who represented different countries: Canada, Belgium, South Africa, Japan, England, and France. They all had interesting stories and backgrounds which made my trip to Venice worthwhile.

My Venice trip concludes my tour of Italy – for now. I plan to come back someday. Now I have a new adventure that awaits me – Poland.

The Perks of Traveling Alone

For two weeks now, I have been touring Italy by myself. Actually, when thinking about it on the larger scale, I left America alone and traveled to Florence alone, but at least I knew I would make friends at my school. Now that my new friends have gone their separate ways, I really am a lone traveler. To be perfectly honest, it has its ups and downs. Over all, I find that traveling alone has several perks that families, friends, and couples who travel together tend to miss out on.

1. You plan your own itinerary.  I go where I want to go. If I want to go to a history museum, the only thing that would stop me would be time and money. Because I am the lone traveler, I take charge of that. When traveling in a group, you tend to do things you do not want to do. If you don’t want to see another Renaissance art museum – you don’t have to.

2. In general, it’s easier to travel alone. There are many ways to get from point A to point B. When traveling alone, you get to choose the best option for you. I find that taking slow trains work best for me. I only pay one ticket for myself and hop on. When traveling with a group, there are other factors you might want to take into consideration. When a group takes a train together, there is a chance that they will have to sit separately. Then everyone needs to know exactly what stop they need to get off at. Trains, metros, buses, and planes can get crowded, hectic and it is easy to lose track of the others. When you are traveling alone, only you need to know where to go. On the flip side, it is nice to be with someone who does know where he or she is going. When you are lost, it can be nerve-racking. This leads to point number three.

3. Your sense of direction improves. I will admit that I never have been good at directions. I have always been dependent on other people and technology for telling me where to go. Traveling alone forces me to quickly understand the train and metro system. When I first tried to find Florence about 6 weeks ago, I had to learn fast before I missed the next train. You also have to understand the layout of the city you are in quickly. Some people naturally have the gift of direction. I never did. Now I feel more confident about my navigational skills – at least more confident.

4. You control the budget. This is both a perk and not a perk. Managing a budget of any kind is difficult. Traveling alone in Europe and maintaining a limited budget is not an easy task. However, it is a valuable learning experience, which makes it a perk in the long run. When you are traveling alone, you are the only one you can blame for the money you lost or congratulate for the money you save. I don’t have a friend or significant other to blame instead, which can save heartache. Besides, it feels good to blame the government, high exchange rates, and vendors for emptying your pockets instead. They are not your loved ones. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have someone plan the budget for you, but when giving that power over to someone else then you have to follow their limitations and not yours. When you are sharing equal control over the budget, then there will inevitably be bickering and disputes. I am my own woman. I am financing my own journey.

5. You can relax and take it easy when you want to. I know this is related to point number one, but I really want to emphasize this. Many of us who traveled in groups or even pairs have been in situations where one person just wants to take it easy while the other wants to go sightseeing. When traveling alone, I can go back to my room and take a nap whenever I want to.

6. You meet new people more when traveling alone. This is the biggest perk. During the two weeks of traveling alone, I have met so many different people from different parts of the world. Most of them were in hostels since four or five of us have to share a room. When visiting sites, I am open to talking to other visitors and asking them about their travels. Sometimes I will join some of my newly formed friends to see various places or have lunch together. When traveling alone, you eventually want someone to talk to. This encourages me to put on a friendly face and actually meet new people.

There are also many cautions one must take when traveling alone, especially a young woman such as myself. For instance, I give myself a curfew and do not go out alone at night past eleven. When I do walk around in the dark, I make sure it is in a well lit area with a lot of activity. I also travel with a lock on my suitcase and carry a satchel bag with actual buckles. During the day, I carry a small backpack in the front instead of the back. Unfortunately it brands me as a tourist, but I rather look like a dorky tourist instead having someone pickpocket me. And then there are the accommodations to worry about, but I will write a separate blog about staying in hostels. I will just say that if you decide to stay in a hostel – be smart and keep your belongings locked up.

I will admit that as I visited places like the Rome, Pompeii, and Venice I wished I had my family or my best friends with me to enjoy these amazing places. Still, I enjoyed these places by myself. It has given me a chance to learn more about myself, discover new abilities, and meet new people along the way. I believe that everyone should take a solo trip at some point. There is always something new to see, do, and learn when traveling alone.

Naples & Pompeii

Before setting out for Naples, I have been told by many people that it was the ugliest city in Italy and a place not worth staying for too long. The only thing I needed to do in Naples was to eat pizza, visit Pompeii, and then move on. Though I will say that Naples is not as picturesque as other Italian cities, it still has its charms. In fact, I liked Naples more than I thought I would.

I spent a total of four nights in a hostel in Naples. It was located right in the center and it was fairly easy to reach all the places I wanted to see in the city. On my first full day, I went to see Castel Nuovo which was located right next to the harbor. I did not learn about the castle until I was on the train to Naples and then again from one of the girls who stayed in the hostel with me. I figured if two people told me to see it, then I must. I was not disappointed.

At first I just saw the Renaissance artwork which was alright. After seeing several paintings of Jesus’ crucifixion, baptism, the Last Supper, and Mary with Baby Jesus, I was ready to see something different and exciting. I was about to leave when I saw another section of the castle that tourists could explore. In basement of the castle was an excavation site that was covered in glass for us to walk on top of. I could see multiple skeletons preserved in the ground. It was grotesque and epic. Then there was another room of old jewelry, gold, jewels, and an old crown that was found in the castle. Plus there was an old iron door with a cannonball stuck inside of it.

On my second full day in Naples, I went to Pompeii. Two girls from the hostel were planning on visiting the site on the same day and they told me to go with them. The girls were friends who met at an international summer camp. One girl was Italian and lived in Rome. The other was Israeli. Together the three of us explored the ruins of Pompeii. The Italian girl explained what she knew of Pompeii since she learned a lot about it in school. The site was huge and there was a lot to see.

We saw temples, the amphitheater, old market places, and houses where people used to live. We also saw bodies of the people who were preserved by the lava. I saw a pregnant woman in the site and you could see her swollen stomach that was preserved. I also saw the bodies of children and animals that was a sad site to see.

In Pompeii, I also discovered that the ancient city was one very colorful with artwork. When we think of ancient, classical cities, we tend to think about white marble but really there was a lot of art and color. It is evident from the ruins that color and mosaic art was important to the city. Over all, I really liked Pompeii. There was a lot to see in the ruins and I left in awe knowing that I walked through the site of an important part of our history.

During my last full day in Naples, I took it easy and relaxed. I did take two hours to see the underground city that was located in the heart of Naples. It was another archeological site where I saw sites of an old bakery, laundry, and so forth. walking through the underground city was like walking through a maze and a labyrinth. Don’t worry, I didn’t see any skeletons this time! The site was not very big so I walked through it twice because it was that awesome.

Now I am currently on a train to Bologna, but I am not going to stay there for one night. My destination is Venice, which is another city that is on my “Must See” list in Italy – and the world for that matter! Stay tuned for more very soon!