I was excited, yet nervous, the first time I hopped on a plane alone without family or friends. I was 17 and I received astounding news. I was going to Poland for a few months to represent India in a cultural exchange program. Granted, I already had a fair amount of travel experience, but Poland was to be my first solo trip. I promised myself to be mature, responsible, and cautious.
Our sponsor, the international youth organization, AIESEC (not an acronym); provides student leadership development and global volunteer exchange experiences. Our goal was to travel and conduct workshops on cultural norms. AIESEC gave us airfare and a stipend of $18 per day to survive in Poland.
I lived in a student dormitory with eight other strangers from different countries. It’s ironic how nearly 15 years later these remain among my closest friends. Students in our small group came from Belgium, Tanzania, South Asia, Tokyo, Togo, and the U.K.
Poland’s name, derived from the Polanie tribe, means “people living in open fields.” Poland miraculously survived after its total destruction during World War II. In its history, the country went from Marxist to Soviet control and finally emerged as a democratic country in 1989, becoming part of the European Union (EU) only in 2004. Although free from the shackles of communism, Poland suffered under a great economic depression in 1989.
Despite its hard times, no country does hospitality better than Poland. Its citizens are known to be exceptionally friendly. As for me, I appreciated polish hospitality, beer, pierogies (polish dumplings), mushroom farming events, and handsome polish men — but the language was a real challenge.
Wherever you go, it’s funny how you set out to travel alone but end up meeting new people who speak different languages. On my 18th birthday, I decided to learn polish and try vodka for the first time, making me a legal drinker in Poland. Having said that, my survival skills (rather than vodka) helped me get through the winter.
Since I was in Poland to explore the culture, here are some things I learned:
- Kissing a woman’s hand remains part of polish culture.
- Wearing a hat indoors is considered rude.
- Name day is celebrated in Poland.
- Mushrooming is a popular family activity.
- Piwnica Świdnicka, the oldest restaurant in Europe, is in Wroclaw, Poland and still serves steamed potato and onion pierogies.
- Don’t buy white lilies or red carnations for a house warming because they’re considered funeral flowers.
- Zapiekanka, a baguette topped with cheese, mushrooms, garlic mayo and lots of ketchup is a traditional polish meal.
Auschwitz — a tragedy
My visit to Auschwitz, Hitler’s largest Nazi concentration camp, was a terrifying, yet life-changing experience. Hearing our tour guide say “Right on the block where you are standing, 200 Jews were shot during the Holocaust,” was startling.
Watching the movie, Schindler’s List is one thing — but a real-life, visual experience is something else again. Auschwitz is the site of one of the greatest mass murders in history. While walking through the railway tracks and gates here, I realized that I didn’t know the story at all. Auschwitz in German means “symbol of terror.” Over one million people were killed here. Today the camp is a memorial site.
Birkenau is the largest of the Auschwitz concentration camps where the scale of terror starts hitting you. Birkenau stretches over 425 acres of a barren landscape, enclosed by wire fences and watchtowers. Here, Nazis industrialized death, building four gas chambers in which to dispose of fellow human beings.
The campus comprises lanes with brick huts which are nothing but prisons within a prison where people starved to death. There are piles of people’s belongings here — hair, shoes, cups, and bowls that Holocaust victims brought with them, expecting this to be a work trip.
As a 17-year old, I found this visit emotionally disturbing.
Beautiful Cities of Poland
But, as unsettling as Auschwitz is, there’s plenty of beauty in Poland. Other than war memorials, the cities have numerous parks and Gothic buildings. There is no dearth of old, soviet-style cafes, bars, and boutiques here.
The capital of Warsaw is Poland’s trading center. Another major city, Krakow, has managed to retain its place as a cultural center. A UNESCO world heritage site by the Vistula River, Krakow is located in southern Poland. Its marketplace, Rynek Glowny in the main square, has existed since the 13th century.
The city of Lublin really caught my attention with its Chapel of Holy Trinity. This chapel is classic proof of the cooperation between the Eastern Orthodox church and western Roman Catholicism. This has not always been an easy alliance.
During my stay in Poland, I learned that people are inherently good and their traditions have value. Just like Poland has arisen out of the ashes of WWII, can you always build something better out of broken pieces?
Image Credit: Alexander Spatari
- Afia’s travel experiences.
- “Poland | History, Geography, Facts, & Points of Interest”