Author Archives: Chance in Poland

About Chance in Poland

Growing up, I would have never dreamed of stepping foot in Poland, let alone studying here for the next 10 months of my life. Towards the end of my high school career, I had envisioned a business degree and a subsequent return to my rural Nebraskan community to work with my parents' homegrown company. However, after a semester of suffering through an accounting class and having my interest piqued in a comparative politics course, it did not take much convincing for me to follow my heart and pursue a degree in Political Science instead. This interest eventually grew to encapsulate the politics and people of central Europe, which sparked my curiosity of Polish culture that eventually led me to Wrocław. My, how life changes! I hope to follow my passion for learning about all things foreign and pursue a career with United States Foreign Service and enroll in a Masters program after I graduate from Nebraska Wesleyan University in the Spring of 2019.

Back in the Heartland

Studying abroad was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. The friends that I made and lessons that I learned have guided my outlook on the future since my flight touched down in Denver, Colorado and I made the long trek back to Nebraska. I’d be lying, though, if I told you that I wasn’t excited to return to the United States. I see my experience in Poland as one of deep value not just because of my studies and the relationships that I have forged a world over, but because it has already transformed the way that I view and desire to live back at home. Perhaps the biggest struggle that I had in Poland was adjusting to a daily and academic lifestyle that was completely up for interpretation, negotiation, and often lacked hard deadlines or due dates. I craved the structure of my life back in the United States, but now that I’ve returned, it is this structure that is ironically conflicting for me.

There’s never a shortage of deadlines, due dates, or obligations. Graduation, internship applications, and prospective careers are the foci of my life now that I’ve returned, and that’s okay, but it’s far different than the previous nine months. It’s no longer an evening meal with an international friend group, a university trip to Kraków, or introduction of a new holiday celebration that takes precedence each day, but rather, a more competitive and structured lifestyle with an emphasis on professional and financial advancement. While there are merits to both lifestyles, I have felt as if I’m caught somewhere between the two conflicting ways of life and attempting to find methods that balance future goals alongside the desire to see, experience, and familiarize myself with new perspectives and places.

Perhaps one of the best outlets for me since returning home has been not only staying in touch with my friends abroad, but also reconnecting with my peers and classmates that are also returning to the United States or who have been in a similar situation. Discussing our mutual experiences and comparing and contrasting them with our normalized routines at home not only helps me readjust, but also highlights the aspects that I miss most about Poland as well as those that I enjoy in the United States. With this being the outlet that best suits me to deal with reverse culture shock, I have great excitement to continue working with international students as well as my peers that are planning study abroad adventures of their own when I return for my final semester at Nebraska Wesleyan.

If you’d asked me about my future plans even a couple of weeks prior to my departure for Wrocław, Poland there’s no doubt that I would have had a specific trajectory for my life in mind and a grand plan of how to get there. I still have plans and goals after this experience, but I now have a far better idea of which aspects I can control and those that I cannot. If I take anything away from my time abroad, it is that some of the most rewarding experiences stem from taking a detour from the grand plan that I keep in the back of my mind. As a result, I’m far more open to enjoying the moment and making the most out of the opportunities that are in front of me. It means taking that family trip to South Dakota, attending that friend’s birthday party, or RSVP’ing for that summer wedding. It means not getting so discouraged with the flight that’s been cancelled the evening before it’s supposed to depart, but instead getting to know the grandmother from Yorkshire and the Scottish storm chaser that you’ve been seated next to on the rescheduled flight. Minor actions such as these are the agents of change in my life that I have brought home with me, and implementing them each day is one of the best culture shock vaccines that I could ask for.

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Changed for the Better

As my time in Poland comes to an end and I prepare for one more round of final papers, presentations, and meetings with friends I have begun to reflect on on how different my life here has been in comparison to the one I put on pause in Nebraska and how those differences have changed me as both a student and a person. I make this distinction because often people think that purpose of going abroad is specifically academic, and to some extent, it is. However, the majority of my growth over the past academic year has taken place off campus and outside of the classroom. Instead of crafting the perfect thesis at every corner, I’ve learned to create and have dialogues that I cannot have at home. Rather than living for an exam, I’ve spent the year living for experiences and seeing sites that will be out of reach in just a couple of weeks. Of course, I’ve definitely taken the time to study, particularly when it comes to the political and cultural shifts that are visibly changing Poland, but while nine short months ago I would have only examined these changes behind the screen of a laptop or between the covers of a book, I am now actively witnessing them with analyses provided by professionals who call this country home.

This past year has also changed my outlook on my future and my home state significantly. When I initially applied to attend the University of Wrocław, I was actively seeking a change of pace. I had recently concluded what I consider to be the most difficult year in my academic career and questioning whether or not my future would be in Nebraska, and if not, where would I go? My time in Poland provided with clarity when it came to these topics and reassurance in the fact that sometimes it’s impossible to know. I’ve become more relaxed and flexible when it comes to setbacks, both personally and academically, and a new found acceptance of deviations to my “master plan” seem far less intimidating than they did last fall. This is not to say that I don’t take my education and future seriously, but it does mean that I’ve allowed myself more room to expand my horizons and embrace situations that would have only caused me frustration in the past.

When it comes to Nebraska, I have to admit, I miss it far more than I thought I would at the beginning of this experience. Of course, I never had any doubt that I would miss my friends and family (and a special thanks to each of them that has worked with my strange schedule and across time zones just to say hello), but I was skeptical of missing the slow pace of my small hometown. As it comes time to consider my return, though, I am far more excited than I expected to spend some time back in the routine that has, love it or hate it, always been home. As I move from the short grace period of reconnecting with family and friends, I will also embark on my final year of college. Before long, I will be writing a thesis and rushing to finish final projects, but I will also have the opportunity to work with international students at my home university and my peers that have decided to go abroad through my university’s Office of Global Engagement. I will also be able to welcome the newest class of students to the campus I have considered a second home for the last four years, and for that I am all the more prepared because of the experience I have gained over this past year.

Perhaps the largest impact that going to Poland has had on me is the affirmation I am capable and excited by the prospect of living and learning abroad. I have gained a support group on an international scale that has encouraged and inspired me since my first day in Wrocław, and these factors have ultimately led me to consider the pursuit of a master’s degree abroad with a focus on development, security, and the impact of a globalizing world. If someone had asked me a year ago about my plans after undergraduate study, I would likely have smiled and politely declared that I first had to get through the semester at hand. Now, I am looking forward to finding a place to continue my education even further and taking my experiences with me on the long journey back home as the next chapter in my life unfolds. Although I cannot pick one single event during my time here that led to a life changing epiphany, my collective experiences have ultimately changed me for the better and I am beyond excited to translate them into a new perspective on my once familiar life back home.

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Remembrance and Activism

One of the most rewarding parts of studying in Europe is the fact that you are constantly living alongside the sites of the some of the world’s most memorable historic events. It’s hard to go further than a few steps from my Wrocław apartment building without seeing evidence of the city’s past. Whether one is walking past the numerous museums that dot the city or simply a repurposed structure that gives roots to the now firmly planted modern style of Wrocław, one need not dig far to discover something new and interesting. One of my first experiences beyond the university building itself with such a history was Hala Stulecia (Centennial Hall), which was created when Wrocław, then Breslau, was a German city in 1913. Today, the building hosts events and the surrounding grounds provide recreational space during times of warm weather. Though now considered widely a normative Polish symbol of Wrocław, this UNESCO heritage site had history that at first glance would have been overlooked.

This is but one example that is illustrated through one of the more major areas of the city, but unfortunately, not all sites carry such a positive past. The impact of WWII and the Holocaust are felt throughout Poland and perhaps the most glaring reminder of this sits only a couple hours from my host university. Auschwitz serves as a reminder of what can result when bigoted and racist extremism festers and transforms a once democratic system into an instrument of mass genocide. Today, Auschwitz serves as a museum to educate its visitors about the reality of war and the Holocaust in hopes of preventing such an act from repeating itself. The interesting part of remembrance, however, is that it is never without a political component.What is remembered and the context in which it is reflected upon is subject to change.

For instance, while my memory of Hala Stulecia is a positive experience in a Polish university city, this may not be the same for everyone. Wrocław lies within Lower Silesia and is considered a part of the “recovered territories” that were returned to Poland after WWII and though it is now undoubtedly Polish, it was not long ago that this structure and city were formally German. Competing narratives and memories such as this can be easily transformed into kindling for a political flame that can set alight the popular narrative of a location such as this. Though there is no guarantee that this issue will arise over Hala Stulecia, the example still illustrates the process in which politics can transform a seemingly harmless recreational venue into a political talking point.

Although politicization is not a new concept and will undoubtedly take form in some shape or another in any given nation, it is of particular interest now given the shifting political realities of Central and Eastern Europe. As I have mentioned before, the Law and Justice party that has been overwhelmingly overhauling the political system of Poland and one way that support is rallied is through politicization of memory and locations such as Auschwitz or other other contentious sites. Using this method as a tool has led to support of these sweeping and illiberal changes to Polish democracy. Though this method alone is not necessarily responsible for these changes, it can play a key role in the process. As these changes occur, it becomes an awkward and difficult situation as an exchange student at times.

Mass demonstrations and political debate on a wide range of subjects has become common place in Wrocław and Poland in general. As a student of political science, and a foreign one at that, the dilemma is often how involved, if at all, should one become in these conversations and demonstrations. My experiences in the U.S. certainly shape my outlook on many of the issues being debated in Poland, but as a guest in the country how involved should one be in the political sphere. While, for instance, it may seem hypocritical to be a staunch defender of democracy at home and not march or speak out for its preservation abroad, how can it also be justified to take a stand in a society and system that is not one’s own? The collision of remembrance and politics in the context of an exchange student is undoubtedly unique and the answer to these questions is likely different for each person put into such a position. One thing, however, is clear – No matter which country one may be studying in or where they call home, context is the key to understanding the difficult political issues that will need to be addressed both at home and abroad.

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A Fine Line

The conclusion of my first semester in Wrocław has brought a number of mixed emotions, ups and downs, and reoccurring themes. Of these topics and themes that come up in casual conversation, one in particular continually emerges between my friends and I. As a political science student at home and in Poland, political debates are not uncommon in either class or casual gatherings and it never takes long for the conversation to transition into a comparison between nations. Though there are always good natured jokes between my peers of various national origins and serious debates there are, inevitably, disagreements. At the end of these conversations, it is always easy to see that there is a vast difference in the way that each participant views not only the perspectives of their peers, but also their own nations.

As an American, I had never before questioned the commonplace of the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in high school, the playing of the National Anthem before any given sporting event, or even the presence of military personnel during Independence Day celebrations. Each of these is a norm, especially in my rural Nebraska hometown. Having grown up with these norms, it’s hard to imagine life without them and even more of a shock when I hear the way that this is perceived from the outside looking in. What many of my peers and I at home view simply as pride and patriotism is more often than not described as “nationalism” by my friends abroad. Admittedly, I was at first enraged to be labeled as an “American nationalist” due simply to the fact that a fine line exists for me between the concepts of patriotism and nationalism. While I view the former as a love for one’s country and the principles that it represents, I tend to see the latter as an extremist position that supports a “holier than thou” perspective that refuses to acknowledge anything other than one’s own national superiority. Patriotism for me, then, boiled down to accepting new ideas and tolerance and having pride when these principles prevail in the society that one calls home. Nationalism, on the other hand, seeks to further a sense of superiority in a subjective and exclusive way. Having this as my operating definition of this dichotomy between the two terms fueled my annoyance with the “nationalist” brand that had been given to me and required me to take a step back and try to understand the difference in perspective.

Searching for context to understand the viewpoints of my Polish and other European friends, however, made me take the aforementioned American norms and look at them through a new lens. While for me these actions would fall under my definition of patriotism, I had also to consider the fact that I was now on a continent where what I would classify as patriotism had not once, but twice, given way to global conflict under the guise of patriotic duty. In Poland, you will rarely see a national flag flying somewhere other than a government building and outward criticism of the status quo and establishment is not uncommon. Discussing this issue with my roommate, a Polish law student, also shed some light on the contextual differences that supported our separate definitions of the two terms. In November, Polish Independence Day occurred and my roommate had off handedly mentioned that it was one of her least favorite holidays. This was a small shock to me, as U.S. Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays back home. After some time, she explained that in Poland this day was often hijacked by nationalists and, more than once, people from different countries were made targets for little more than speaking a language other than Polish too near to a demonstration. This year, more than 60,000 nationalists marched in Warsaw with anti-Semitic and racist undertones under the guise of a patriotic celebration with many on edge as the potential for violence grew. Between conversations with my roommate and events such as this, it became easier to understand why patriotic norms at home may be viewed in a different context here in Poland.

It also became apparent at this point that this only represented a Polish perspective. I am studying alongside individuals from dozens of different countries and for each of them, myself included, different significance is given to various norms and it becomes incredibly complicated to see all events through the eyes of one another. Although it’s difficult, however, it doesn’t mean that hope should be abandoned. The purpose of programs such as study abroad is to help bridge these gaps and understand the way that historical context and education can be used to rid ourselves of stereotypes and dichotic labels such as “patriot” and “nationalist.” In Poland, there is much history to take into consideration. The catastrophe of WWII and the transition to a Soviet dominated society thereafter will forever hold contextual significances on this issue that many may overlook. It is here that nationalist viewpoints devastated a society for decades and the consequences of extremism are still being felt as Poland marches forward into new and uncharted territory. With this in mind, I now take the “patriot” versus “nationalist” debate with a grain of salt when it arises and though I stand by the norms at home, I now have a better grasp on their perception abroad.

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Something to Celebrate

After arriving in Poland, there have been many times that the differences between home and Wrocław have been stark, particularly when it comes to holidays and traditions. Spending a birthday away from my family and friends wasn’t a new experience, after all, being a college student means balancing these important occasions with those who are important to you and making the best of the situation when you can’t. What is difficult, though, is spending holidays that are traditionally family based so far from home. As November approached, I’d put little thought into celebrating Thanksgiving. For me, like most Americans, this was a Thursday filled with family, food, and conversation that could carry on for hours, but in Wrocław I was quickly reminded that this holiday was one that wouldn’t follow me to Poland like so many other traditions. Even with this in mind, being abroad is about improvising and learning to make the best of your time and as always, having a few close friends to surround yourself with never hurts! This was the spirit that would lead me to an apartment full of my new international friends and a potluck style dinner that brought each of us a little closer to one another.

As November came to a close and the days got shorter, rainy days became more common, and Christmas drew nearer I was counting the days until my family would visit me for an early holiday celebration. If I’m being completely honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Christmas season (I’m more of the Independence Day type), but the thought of spending some time with my family in one of the largest holiday markets in Europe definitely had its appeal. Upon their arrival, my family went through the various phases of jetlag that would be familiar to anyone who made the long trek across the Atlantic, but after a bit of Polish cuisine, a short walk to stretch our legs, and turning in a bit early the remainder of the trip proved a success. Admittedly, my love of the holiday season has grown since arriving in Poland. This isn’t simply because it meant getting to see my family and recreating the comfort of home, but also because I got to watch as the different spheres of my life merged in a fashion that many never witness. Introducing my family to my friends in Poland was not only exciting, but marked the beginning of new connections, conversations, and shared experiences that I could never have imagined.

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Now, as the holiday season has drawn to a close, my family has returned home, and some of my closest friends prepare to end their experiences in Poland and return home I realized that there is a lot of truth the cliché that life is about who you spend it with and your perception of that experience rather than being in a specific location or following an uncompromising list of holiday norms. No, I’m not just saying this to justify my preference for fireworks on a warm July evening in lieu of the bitter cold of Christmastime, but rather because of the fact that I’ve learned to celebrate more than just the commonly observed days marked on our calendars. This season, I celebrated my new friendships and the long awaited visit from my family, but I also celebrated countless nights of learning my host city and making new acquaintances. I celebrated taking a new set of courses with ideas I would never have been previously exposed to and also foods I would never have tried at home. The holidays may be over, but the same cannot be said for my time in Poland. As I prepare to take on a new year, a new semester, and numerous new adventures an ocean away from home I remind myself that everyday is something to celebrate.

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Spot the Difference

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Now that I have been in Wrocław, Poland for nearly two months at the time of writing, I have come to notice some things that are far different than my home university in Lincoln, Nebraska as well as my general culture differences between Poland and the United States. Though there will never be an exhaustive list of interesting topics to discuss, I will do my best to describe the biggest differences and surprises I have experienced thus far in my study abroad journey!

Differences

When discussing my time in Poland with my friends and family back home, one the most common questions is, “what’re the biggest differences you see in Poland compared to the U.S.?” Besides the obvious difference in geographic location and language, there a few major things that I always mention.

  1. Goodbye, Car Culture

Of course, like many places outside of the United States, owning a vehicle isn’t necessarily commonplace, especially for those in my age group. Not only is owning a vehicle expensive for a multitude of reasons (maintenance, licensing, fuel, etc.), but in a city like Wrocław where there is an extensive tram and bus network at affordable prices, there is simply no need to drive.

 

  1. Academics

The pace of life here is far slower than that back home. At my university here, courses usually meet once a week for an hour and a half coupled with optional (yes, optional!) weekly lectures instead of the U.S. normal of three class meetings per week for fifty minutes (generally speaking). Additionally, professors here see no need for day to day busy work other than the occasional reading assignment. In the U.S., I am usually scrambling to finish multiple assignments for the following day’s class. Meanwhile, lectures and course readings in Wrocław are centered around student engagement with aim of producing a final term paper rather than multiple small assignments.

 

  1. No “Nebraska Nice”

At first glance, one might see this heading and think that I am implying that the Polish are an unfriendly people, and I can’t stress enough that this is NOT what I mean. Having grown up in a small town where speaking to one another on the street, in line at the store, or literally any setting at all, one could say speaking openly with strangers is not a rarity. In my experience in Poland thus far, however, this simply has not been my experience. It is incredibly rare for someone to speak to you casually in public if you are strangers and, at times, the language barrier between myself and the older generations here does not help. Again, this is not to say that the Poles are an unfriendly bunch. For instance, my roommate here is Polish and one of the friendliest people I have ever met in my life. The difference is, in my opinion, that many here keep their guard up until you get to know them on a more personal level, and once that happens, the cheery Midwestern attitudes that I’m used to are reincarnated 5000 miles from home!

 

Surprises

In addition to the differences between U.S. and Polish culture that I have noticed, there have also been some instances where I was surprised by what I have seen in Wrocław, for better or worse!

 

  1. U.S. Influences

When I first decided to study in Poland, I had imagined that there would still exist the occasional McDonalds, but I could never have imagined the the extent to which American based franchises and culture existed in Wrocław. Not only are there multiple fast food franchises (a surprisingly large number of KFCs and Pizza Huts) and Starbucks to boot, but American movies in English dominate the cinemas and the brand names of common household items are never too far away.

 

  1. The Dryer is… Where?

I didn’t realize how many creature comforts I was accustomed too until I arrived in Wrocław and one of those comforts was having a dryer to do laundry. In Poland, a dryer is not something typically found outside of a Laundromat here and if you request one, you will be promptly directed to the nearest drying rack to hang your clothes. It’s not the end of the world, but getting used to laundry being a day-long ordeal is something that I’m still not quite used to!

 

  1. The “Native Speaker”

My program of study in Wrocław is conducted in English, which is great considering the fact that the majority of international students here are also in this program. What I have learned, though, is that many people (Poles, international students, professors) can quickly identify who is a native English speaker, causing a number of results. There are times where some become self-conscious about their English, others take the opportunity to clarify their burning linguistic questions, and I enjoy the experience of simply being able to interact with a such a diverse group of people in my native tongue. There is always a small tinge of guilt knowing how comfortable I am with the other international students in English while I don’t fluently speak any other language, but the more that you take the time to simply live, laugh, and learn with each other, the less it matters what language it happens it.

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Rynek

Adapting to my new home is an ongoing process and each day brings a little more comfort and self assurance that I haven’t jumped into the metaphorical deep end and forgotten how to swim. Wrocław is full of hidden gems, whether you’re looking for a quiet café, bustling nightlife, or a casual visit to the city zoo. Of all of the sights that the city of gnomes and bridges has to offer, however, my favorite has to be the Rynek. Translated literally, the term means “market” and to say that Wrocław is the only city in Poland that has a rynek district would be untrue, but here the Ryenk is so much more than just a market square; it’s a barometer of culture and community unity. The journey to my favorite Polish site begins by descending the front steps of Dwudziestoaltka, my student dormitory that my friends and I have resorted to calling “the one that starts with ‘d’,” as none of us have quite mastered its pronunciation. I then await the traffic light as the bustling traffic careens through the crowded “rondo Ronalda Reagana” (Ronald Reagan Roundabout). It is here I will board the tram that will take me away from whatever has been stressing me on any given day, so long as I board one that is taking the correct route, but that’s a story for another time.

When the silence of the train ride is finally broken by a disembodied voice bellowing, “Świdnicka!”signifying my stop, I disembark the tram in time to see the large weekend crowd begin to flood the cobblestone square that is my beloved Rynek. Some are students, making their way to the various pubs and discos that has come to symbolize Erasmus (the European equivalent of study abroad) life, while others are locals seeking a release from a long week. Performers begin to fill the street, attempting to captivate an audience long enough to earn a couple extra Złote. One man sings the Foo Fighter’s “Everlong” to those passing by, another juggles fire in the air precariously, and an elderly woman begins setting up her night market, consisting primarily of flowers, mushroom caps, and other seasonal goodies. It never ceases to amaze me how so many activities can be undertaken in the embrace of the Ryenk, surrounded by the pastel shaded baroque buildings, whose lights begin to flicker as night falls and the autumn temperatures plummet to a brisk 40 degrees. Plates piled high with Kielbasa sausages, pierogi, and other traditional Polish foods are delivered to diners eagerly awaiting their meals followed by the utterance of, “Smacznego!” (Bon Appetite).

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Music from the discos and pubs fills the streets, some of which is surprisingly familiar. A band in the Irish pub across the square plays Johnny Cash, a popular student venue blares anything from the top American hits to Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block,” causing me to smirk to myself as I venture further into the methodical madness that is the Wrocław Rynek. Long after the chaos of the night has subsided, though, the Rynek demonstrates its calmer side as dawn breaks and the nightly regulars shuffle home and, in their place, the morning shift takes over. The cafes that had been shuttered for the evening again come alive offering croissants and espresso, usually to be enjoyed outside in the crisp morning air as the temperature now begins to make its gentle rise to the daily high of 65 degrees. Construction workers return to continue maintenance on this historic district and expand the jewel of Wrocław.

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The Rynek takes many forms and moods, its versatility being one the characteristics I love so dearly about it. No matter your mood, you can find something here that suits you. For me, though, this place is so much more. It’s not simply a commercial district, but a place where I get to share memories and experiences with the people I met only weeks ago, and now couldn’t imagine my life without. It’s where I experienced my first meal in Poland, discussed cinema, politics, and cultural similarities with numerous acquaintances that grew into friends, and where celebrated my first birthday outside of the United States, will see my first Christmas markets, and take my family when they come to visit me in my home away from home. The Rynek is the heart of Wrocław and a piece of me will stay here long after my studies finish in June.

 

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