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Poland Part 1: Hello, Warsaw!

In the beginning of May, a few friends and I decided to go on a long weekend trip to Poland. We did a lot there, and I feel that it warrants being a series of sorts, so it will be broken up into several parts.

To save money, we decided to travel by bus overnight to Warsaw, an 8 hour journey from Berlin, which was just as awful as it sounds. When we arrived in Warsaw at about 6:00 am, I was dead tired and did not want to walk around the city for however many hours before I could sleep, and I like to think that everyone else felt the exact same way as I did. But we checked into our hostel, a really nice place that was brand new in right on the outskirts of the Old City, dropped our stuff off and grabbed some breakfast, which helped re-energize me. And so we started walking around Warsaw, checking out the buildings and Old Market and some churches. The picture on the left is of the main courtyard, while the one on the right is of the Old Market.20160505_090608 20160505_095416

About an hour or so later we went on a guided tour with a Warsaw local, Blazé (I honestly can’t remember how to spell it. It was in Polish, after all), who was awesome. He was very informative and gave us a deeper sense of the history of Warsaw and the Polish people in general. Eventually we made our way to what used to be Warsaw Ghetto. There, Blazé informed us about the Warsaw Uprising, which led to the destruction of about 80% of the city. So most of the “old” buildings that we had seen were in fact replicas built to resemble what Warsaw looked like before World War 2. At one point, he passed around some aerial photographs taken before the war in the 1920’s and one right after the war. The difference in the two pictures was…stark, to say the least. He pointed out the area that had been the Warsaw Ghetto and it had been turned entirely into rubble. The picture on the left is of a plaque commemorating where the wall that separated the Ghetto from the rest of Warsaw used to be, while the one on the right is a monument commemorating the Warsaw Uprising.20160505_115920 20160505_121732

After the tour was over, we were all feeling rather hungry and decided to grab some traditional Polish food. So we stopped at a restaurant for some Pirogi, which are essentially dumplings filled with meat, cheese, and vegetables. It was very delicious and I wish that I had taken a photo of it, but I unfortunately did not. This dining experience, however, really made me realize how difficult it is to communicate something as simple as what you want to eat to someone that doesn’t speak your language. I really haven’t had any trouble communicating simple things like this while I’ve been in Germany, but being thrown into a country in which I don’t understand a single word was rather…frustrating, to say the least. Luckily, though, a really sweet lady stopped into the restaurant and was able to help translate our order for us. We got our food and enjoyed our pirogi, which tasted awesome after walking around for a couple of hours. At this point, the lack of sleep was really catching up to all of us, so we headed back to the hostel to relax and sleep for a few hours. After that bus ride, it felt so amazing to be able to just lie down. Later than evening, Gabriel, Kelly, Isa, and I decided to go out and explore the city for a bit. We walked through a couple of parks and made it to the Vistula River, which essentially cuts the city in two. These two pictures are just of the parks that we walked through.20160505_193021 20160505_175619After we got back to the hostel, some other people were wanting to go out, but since I’m not exactly a drinker and I was still very tired, I decided to stay in. This seems like a good stopping point, so stay tuned for part 2!

The Völkerschlachtdenkmal

Ok, if you have no idea what that word in the title means, don’t worry. It is in German, after all, and means “the monument to the Battle of the Nations.” The Battle of the Nations was decisive victory over Napoleon, who had invaded Russia in 1812. The battle itself involved over 600,000 soldiers and was the largest battle in Europe until World War 1. Needless to say, this was a very big deal. The monument itself is probably one of the coolest things that I’ve seen here in Germany so far. I’ve visited it twice now, once in the day time and once at night, and it really is amazing. I feel like pictures will say a lot more than words when it comes to this, so I have several here for your viewing pleasure.

The first picture is the walk up to the monument, with my friends walking up to it.20160403_145445

Next is a group shot of everyone in front of the reflection pool. The pool had live fish in it, which I thought was definitely interesting. I’ve been to Washington, D.C. before and the reflection pool in front of the Washington Monument did not have fish…Volkerschlachtdenkmal

Here are some closeup shots of the monument, with the middle one getting photobombed by my friend Gabriel’s forehead. Thanks, man.

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And here is a picture of the reflection pool and the city from the top of the stairs. This thing has at least four different “levels,” with this being taken at the lowest one. The next one is taken inside of the chamber, when we went the second time. Apparently they do concerts within the monument, and that night we were lucky enough to see it! Neat.

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Finally, here’s a shot of the monument at night, in all of its glory.

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Day Trip to Erfurt

A few weeks ago I went to the wonderful capital city of Thuringia, Erfurt! I traveled with the university’s foreign exchange student program, which is called WILMA. They sponsor different trips all around Germany. Erfurt is only a few hours away from Leipzig, so even though I knew nothing about it, it still seemed like a worthwhile trip. And for only 7 euros? Totally worth it. When we all met up at the train station, the weather was pretty dreary. And over the two hour train ride there, it didn’t improve. But we popped open our umbrellas and trudged onward. A few of the people from WILMA took us on a guided tour of the town, which was very nice. We started off by walking to this bridge, called the Krämerbrücke, that was built out of wood in the early 1100’s. Over the years, however, it burned down several times, until it was finally rebuilt out of stone in 1325. Now what makes this bridge so special are the 62 merchants that line it. The place is packed tightly, with tourists and locals crowding the narrow street.

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After that, we went to the cathedral, called St. Mary’s. It sits atop a large hill in the city center, right next to the market place. Pictures really don’t show just how large and magnificent this building is, both on the outside and the inside. I was raised Catholic, and even though I don’t practice any longer, churches always have a strong effect on me because I understand so many of the symbols used in them. But even if I knew nothing about Christianity or the history of the Church, etc., I have no doubt that I would still be struck by the magnificence of this building. It sits at the top of a hill, so you have to walk up a huge flight of stairs, all while the church looms over you. Then you get to the doors, which are truly massive. And then you get inside, where everything looks even bigger. The stained glass windows stretch from floor to ceiling, and there’s even a mural of some Renaissance man that covers an entire wall. The entire structure is strong and impressive. I guess you could use the word imposing instead.

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From the cathedral we walked to Erfurt’s old citadel, the remnant of the keep that used to protect the city in times of siege. We didn’t get to learn much about it since it’s really just some walls now, but it was still very interesting. At around this time, though, the weather broke we got a great view of the city!20160416_145638

At that point, we had used up most of the day. So we headed back to the meeting point, got on the train, and went back home to Leipzig! Overall, it was a solid trip. I knew nothing about Erfurt at the beginning of the day, but now I know that it is a beautiful city with an amazing cathedral. Til next time!

First Week Blues

So, my last post was about how much of a pain it was just getting to Leipzig. But once I was in my dorm room and finally had time to sit down and realize what I had done, I started to get really depressed. And since I had had such a crappy start, I think that this feeling was warranted. The bad thing, though, is that it got to the point where all I could think about was going home. I missed my girlfriend, my family, and just home. I even tried contacting my airline to see how much it would cost to reschedule my flight. It got that bad.

When I would talk to people about studying abroad, everyone always at least mentioned culture shock. They would talk about it like it was a medical diagnosis, a scientific phenomenon that is your psyche’s natural reaction to being thrown into a new culture. I’d always nod along and think, “I really don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just a new place. It can’t be that bad…” But I never really knew what it was until I got here. It didn’t help, of course, that I had never even been out of the US before, so I had absolutely zero reference points to what culture shock could even be.

I think my first week here was all about getting acquainted with culture shock. It was my first experience with it, so it only makes sense that I had such a strong reaction. It wasn’t pretty, either. There were times, like I already mentioned, where I just wanted to pack all of my bags, get my flight changed to the very next day, and run home. Other days, I just felt too depressed to do anything. And still some other days, I was just angry at the way German people did things in such a German way. Now that I’m so far removed from those feelings, I can’t even say what exactly I got angry at, but that doesn’t really matter. The point is that my first week wasn’t a good one.

But then something amazing happened: things got better. I mean they obviously had to if I’m still here, right? I think that there were a few things that helped me out the most. It’s list time.

  1. Hang out with people. It doesn’t matter who it is, just so long as you’re not sitting alone in your room thinking about your woes. Every time that I was around people and just doing something else, I would feel better because I was distracted. That helps a ton.
  2. Talk with people back home. I must have talked to my girlfriend for at 12 hours that first week, as well as my family. These are the people that you can lean on for support when you’re in need, and you should! I don’t think that I’d still be here in Leipzig had I not been talking to them.
  3. Talk to your study abroad support. I didn’t say anything to my study abroad coordinator until Thursday of my first week, at which point I was actively trying to figure out how to go back home. This was a terrible, terrible mistake. I should have emailed her as soon as I found out about my flight issues. After I had, I felt much, much better. This is what these people are paid to do, and they enjoy their job. Talk to them!
  4. Time. Yes, time. This is what probably helped out the most, actually. After a while, the foreignness of everything wears down to the point that you become at least comfortable with it all. It’s like that cat poster says: “Hang in there!”

And that’s all I have to say about that. After this post, I will (hopefully) be doing regular updates about what I’ve been doing in the last week or so instead of digging so far back in the past. And don’t worry, there will be pictures! Don’t worry about that.

Aufwiedersehen!

A Rough Start

So, it’s been several weeks and things have finally calmed down enough for me to write another blog post. Yay!

First off, I’d like to go over my journey getting to Leipzig and my first week here. It was rough, to say the least. On Friday night, the day before I was supposed to leave, I logged into my airline’s website to check my baggage limits, and there was a message that said, “The passenger has missed one or more of their flights.” I looked at the itinerary and it had been changed by 24 hours, from Saturday to Friday. I immediately began to panic and called the airline. After many calls and lots of hold time, I eventually got a flight for Sunday instead of Saturday. I was supposed to be in Leipzig Monday morning for the start of the language and orientation course, so I was rather stressed about missing the first day. Whatever, at least I had a flight now. So I arrived at the airport on Sunday, all ready to go, and I ended up running into more troubles at the check-in counter. After several more phone calls, I was finally able to get my tickets. I said my goodbyes to my family, hugged and kissed my girlfriend, Miranda, one last time, and then I was walking through security. It was funny, though. The entire time leading up to leaving, I didn’t really feel sad that I was leaving. I was mostly just really really excited! But as I turned around and waved goodbye for the last time, it all started to hit me. I finally realized just how long I’d go without being with the people I love. But, my journey to Leipzig had only just begun! Unfortunately, so had my flight troubles.

My flights from Kansas City to Toronto and Toronto to Frankfurt went smoothly. As I was walking into the terminal, everything was written in German (Duh). At that moment, I realized that I was in Germany. It was very surreal. I had wanted to travel to this country since I was just a little kid, and now I was finally here! But that fascination quickly changed, however, when my ticket from Frankfurt to Leipzig wouldn’t print. According to the airline’s records, I didn’t even have a ticket with them. I went back and forth to at least five different people before I found someone that could actually help me, but by that time I had missed my flight to Leipzig. See, my original plan was to get into Leipzig and run to the student services building as fast as possible so that I could get into my dorm. But because of my later flight, this was no longer a possibility, since they would be closed by the time I got there. So I ended up booking a hostel for the night right by the train station in Leipzig. When I got on my plane, I sat next to a very kind German lady. She and I spoke a little bit (in German!) and she actually ended up giving me her little bag of potato chips that they gave us as our in-flight snack. She was very sweet and wished me luck on my travels in Germany. That little act of kindness made me feel so much better, and speaking with someone in German, no matter how briefly, really boosted my confidence levels.

And then, after many hours of running into one bit of trouble after another, I finally landed in Leipzig. I got a train ticket to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) and found my way to the hostel. It was my first time in a hostel, and one of my roommates, an older man there for business, showed me the room. I immediately took a shower, which felt great after such a long and stressful journey. As I was laying down for bed, I grabbed my blanket and headed towards my bed. He immediately got up and said in German, “No, you need to put your sheet on the blanket!” But my jet-lagged, frustrated brain just looked at him with what must have been comical confusion. He laughed and grabbed one of my sheets, which looked like a giant pillowcase, and put the blanket inside it. I smiled my thanks and went straight to bed.

So, the next day I woke up and started walking to the language course, dragging my luggage behind me. Now German streets are pretty much all cobblestones. This proved to be very destructive to my suitcase’s tiny plastic wheels. Eventually the wheels got worn down to the point that my bag was dragging on the ground. It was an annoyance, but it was one that I thought wouldn’t be much of an issue. Oh, how wrong I was!

I made it to the correct building and walked inside, with everything that I had brought with me to Germany. And I immediately made a friend. Her name is Chandani and she is from Angola originally (which is a country in Africa for those who need a geography update), but studies and lives in Portugal. As I’ve gotten to know her, I’ve realized just how much of a kind and caring person she is. We even call her “Oma”, which is German for “grandma” because she’s always making sure everyone is cared for. So knowing that now, I’m sure that when she saw me, an exhausted look on my face and carrying around all of me luggage, and instantly saw someone that needed to be taken care of. Either way, I’m glad that she did! After the introduction to the course, we walked to the student services building and got my paperwork for my dorm room figured out. It was a process, with lots of papers and what not. From there I had to go to my room, which is about 20 or 25 minutes away from the city center by train. Remember how I said that my wheels had been worn down? Yea, well it got to the point where I had to physically carry my 45 lbs suitcase around, switching from one hand to the next when my arm got too tired. I did this all the way to the train station and then from my train stop to my room. By the time I actually got into my room, I was dead tired and my arms were incredibly sorry. But I had made it! I was officially in my room and able to lay down on a bed and what not. I was finally able to just sit down and relax a bit.

Saying Goodbye: Leipzig, Here I Come!

So, the big day is almost here. Tomorrow, at around 4:20 pm, I will begin my journey to Leipzig, Germany! Man, this is crazy. I’ve been planning this trip in earnest for the last year or so, but it goes much farther back than that. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to live for a time in Germany. My family is from “German stock,” as my grandma would say, and ever since she showed me an old German bible, I’ve wanted to both learn the language and travel there. And now here I am. Only 24 hours away from living there for 5 whole months. Surprisingly, I don’t feel scared or anxious, really; I only feel ready. My bags are all packed and I have a nice little checklist here with everything ticked off. And yet, despite my preparations for the past half year, there are things that I still don’t know about. Sure, I have most of the physical things taken care of: packed luggage, a plane ticket, a place to stay when I get there. But no matter how much planning I do, I can’t avoid those nagging uncertainties, such as who my flats mates will be or even what classes I’ll be taking. Those aren’t small “who knows,” either; they’re kind of important! I just need to keep an open mind and roll with it.

As well as my last day to finish packing, today was my “goodbye day.” I saw my two best friends, my old boss and a few other people from work, and my grandparents. All in all, it was definitely a busy one! I haven’t been so busy in a loooong time. The rest of the day was spent hanging out with my girlfriend, Miranda (who I’m sure you’ll hear more about in future posts), and my family. It’s odd, though. You know that feeling you get when you say goodbye and know that it’ll be for a long time? Well, I didn’t experience that at all while I was saying my farewells. Even as I was hugging my friends or shaking my boss’s hand for the last time, those emotions weren’t present; it all felt like it was a normal goodbye, a “See you later!” kind of goodbye. I didn’t feel sadness or anything, which is the exact opposite of what I was expecting. I think that I was just happy to see them one last time. I’m sure that once I’m hugging my mom, siblings, and girlfriend for that last time before I hop on a plane for 14 hours, the realization of what I’m doing will really hit me. I just hope that my seatmate doesn’t mind a sobbing dude next to them. And I hope they’ll have some extra tissues handy.