Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kraków w świetle dziennym

[ Krakow in the daylight ]

After the exciting tour the evening before with Kraków literally wisping by as we cruised on the Vespa, I may have been exhausted, but I didn’t immediately go to sleep. We all had to skype back to America to say hello. I excitedly dialed Babcia first and was so proud and happy to greet her with “Babcia! I am finally here!”

It was really special for me and sharing with Babcia all the places I was going to see and family I was going to meet. Being able to share my excitement with her is really one of the most incredible feelings for me. My only hope now is for her to come sometime this year to Europe and I can share this excitement with her in person – something I know would be an incredible opportunity in my life.

[ The Market Square by day ]

The next morning, after a short, but much needed few hours of sleep, I was up and ready to experience the city outside of the shadows. Kaśka had to go to work, but Michał and I were going to tour the city a little and then meet her for lunch.

Only a few minutes out from the apartment, I was in the mix of Kraków and immediately realizing just how different everything was from Germany. At first glance it is still similarly European with small cars, tight clusters of living quarters and shops, little vendors of fresh bread. Even so, it felt different. The people walked with a different air, the environment functioned differently. Maybe it was the people making a dash across the clear street when the light was red, or maybe it was seeing little Babcias walking around with baskets and little headscarves crossing paths with a young woman clacking the cobblestones in attention-grabbing heels.

There were corners not as clean as Germany, and signs that there were still efforts to rebuild this country after decades of struggle were common, but just the wave of something new and different catching my attention was a breath of fresh air. Maybe it was my excitement of wanting to capture everything I could see and learn in Poland, or maybe it is undeniably inescapable and the first impression of this great Polish city reveals itself as a historical hub of culture, a city scarred by a tragic history, and modern times represented by the efforts to build the city to its highest potential side by side with the appetite for western commercial culture.

Adding to the sensory overload was the barrage of Polish everywhere that was resurrecting hours of studying during my first year of UofM seeing my vocabulary come to life around me



sklep spożywczy

… Ulica

This was in addition to the fact that I was rapidly recalling Polish grammar as it was spoken around me, but unfailingly only German could come out of my mouth in response. Ja… I mean Tak

As if just staring at the people and shops on the street weren’t enough to make me lost in thought we had just arrived at Wawel – The most important castle in all of Poland. Scratch my initial sensory overload – it starts now.

Michał and I were only walking around the castle, and it was more history than I could handle. Wawel is the most important castle in Poland because it was where the kings of its royal past would reside and coronations would take place. The cathedral connected to the castle is where many members of Polish royalty as well as other distinguished citizens are buried.

Around the castle were many tours of Polish students led by their teachers, and aside from the great views of the Vistula river and the grand towers of the castle, before even entering the huge construction, there was so much to say about the castle and its outside landscape.

There is nothing really uniform about the castle at all when viewing it as one cohesive building. There are many different types of rocks, colors, designs – it is almost a puzzle of different parts cemented together. This is where I find the history so fascinating, because the construction of the castle never stopped. Pre-dating even the 11th century, the first constructions of the castle were built for the residence of the royal family as Kraków became the capital of Poland at the time. As the centuries past, more additions were added on creating a compilation of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque in addition to its ancient crypts. The result is a castle so unique that every turn is a new architecture and masterpiece of its era in European history.

For a castle that proudly displays the beauty of the past centuries of European architecture, as well as the revered burial grounds for so many important figures of this country’s past, it goes without question that the connected cathedral is a treasure in itself.

Photo from:www.katedra-wawelska.pl

No pictures are allowed inside, but even so I doubt they would serve it justice – there were details everywhere, paintings, gold, statues, crests, treasures, gated off holy chambers flickering with candlelight, and narrow stairwells leading to tombs of the royal family. It was truly incredible.

photo from:www.katedra-wawelska.pl

With all the details, and little platelets of information along the walls beside national treasures, I am sure that an entire blog could be written just exploring the Cathedral or the outdoor castle grounds – notice how I haven’t even gotten inside the castle yet? That tour is for another day!

Jazda na rynek Główny.

[ Riding to the market square ]

The train all the way from Göttingen, Germany was finally pulling into Kraków Głowny station. One platform change on the sprawling criss-cross train station of Berlin and 12 hours later I was finally arriving at my destination in Poland.

Outside my train window I saw my cousins, Kaśka and Michał, standing and waiting for me at the platform – at least with these relatives I knew what they looked like and didn’t have to resort to almost two decade old photos to know their faces! Even after only about half a dozen short skype calls with each other over the past few months, right from our first handshakes and hugs on the platform, it felt as if we were always well acquainted family.

The following events were a blur - going down a ramp, an escalator here, into the tramway there, finding the apartment – stop and breath – woah I am actually in Poland!

Kaśka has a nice little apartment not so far from the center of Kraków – 15 minute walk! – but being night, there was nothing to catch sight of to begin familiarizing myself with where I was – that feeling of being lost and dragged around like a little kid was back.

Having dinner inside the apartment was really nice – even with the disoriented feeling after dragging a suitcase once more around a strange new place. After only minutes chatting with Kaśka and Michał it really felt as if I have been in contact and known them for a really long time – in reality, Kaśka and I had really only talked on skype together about 5 times ever – and they were generally short calls just to see each other’s faces, talk about coming to Poland, and calling to share my arrival time at the train station in Kraków. In fact, our entire connection was a bit of coincidence with the play of events this past year.

This past summer – very soon after I departed for Germany – my mom had told me that a relative of mine was visiting Michigan from Poland. Kaśka had utilized her vacation period during the summer to visit her aunt [from her dad’s side] in Canada. While there, she decided to go on a whim and utilize her first trip to North America and get in contact with her “relatives that live in Michigan.” The detour was actually pretty adventurous for her as well since she largely didn’t know my part of the family and only remembered my Babcia from when she was a young teenager. Kaśka is the granddaughter of the sister of my Babcia – whom I have always referred to as Ciocia Hanka.

Babcia is the youngest from her siblings and the last that is still living. This was one of the main reasons that Kaśka found it very important to connect with this side of the family, and also learn about her roots and grandmother as much as possible as well by staying with Babcia. During her stay in Michigan was the first time that I skype called with Kaśka and she shared that she really wanted me to visit her in Poland that year. Now, a few months later, a bit of free time during my very busy year in Germany, and a little drive for adventure, I am in Poland with cousins that I have only talked to for virtually minutes over the internet ready to explore with them the country that will provide me with a much deeper understanding of my family.

Kaśka and Michał were extremely easy to get along with. After our dinner it was dark and late, and after 12 hours of traveling I was pretty numb – but when Michał proposed checking out the city center, how could I possible pass that up.

It was pretty cold outside, so we bundled up with hoodies and jackets, and Kaśka pulled out her new proud purchase – the quintessential European Vespa. A growl and hum from the the engine, I jumped on clutching my arms around Kaśka’s waist and the streets of Kraków, possibly the city I have been most excited to see in Poland, began whipping by. The streets were chilly and dark, with the glow of the streetlamp light hazed by a late night fog – but with the wind streaming by your face, and the undiscovered city passing by I was blinking twice realizing that I was really there.

We parked the vespa and Michał caught up with his bike, and they told me that just down the street was the market square – the largest market square in Europe [I had no idea!]. It was really one thing after another in that evening that was capturing my amazement. The square had terrace covered café’s, churches, colorful buildings with flower draped windows lining the edges of the market. It was actually very empty since it was late night on a weekday but nonetheless, with the glow of the evening light it displayed a grand heart of the city.

Walking a few other nearby streets there were things every direction that Kaśka would say “ We will make sure to see this,” which was an early sign for me that my excursions in Poland were going to be full of opportunities and excitement.

Billet Proszę

[ Ticket Please ]

I had fallen asleep and was startled awake by the train attendant requesting my ticket.

I had to almost pinch myself. Sometime during my dozing off the train attendants changed and there was no more German anymore – the director spoke on the loud speaker in Polish; The woman requesting my ticket had a pronounced Slavic facial structure.

Poland? Don't scroll down to see if there was a missing post or some bridge to this story - it flows just like this. Literally hours after hanging out with some of the new international students [I didn't even sleep - I packed in the early hours of the morning ] I was on a train passing Berlin, and heading to Poland. The trip was semi-spontaneous. I had no idea what the transition was going to be like in Göttingen, but I knew that between my Einführungswochenende and my first day of class, I had a gap of rare free time to spend a few days and meet my extended family in Poland.

Being woken up by the attendant – just like Saarguemines from Saarbrücken – I had a split second to realize that I was just over the border, and just that quickly in a new foreign environment.

Above all – this was Poland, a country that I have wondered about my whole life, and have in recent years embraced a growing fascination with as I have had an increasing desire to connect with my background of being 75% Polish-American.

Hearing the murmur of Polish around me of other passengers was actually a comforting feeling – I have heard Polish spoken like this around me my entire life. It was frustrating to me that I struggled and had to “reach back” into my memory bank for some vocabulary that I heard or saw on signs – not that I have neglected my Polish studies, but my adamant efforts at learning German may have used the same space in my brain pushing out the stressful hours of Polish grammar recitation at the University of Michigan. The frustration was more of “so much I want to learn, and the struggle to find the time and energy to do it all” which all stems from my ambition to truly make the most and learn the most from all the opportunities that come my way. [didn’t I mention that I wanted to keep up my Japanese too?… oof]

Looking out the window the train had stopped at a little village called Żary, which had a tiny brick building at the station, aged and weathered with a few tattoos of graffiti. Amongst the scenery of brown, tan, and green fields of tallgrass and brush along with the gray skyline and a misty fog hugging the ground, the drab image was strikingly beautiful and was oddly, but warmly, familiar. The streaming image out the window going by was as equally foreign to me as my other border-crossing travels thus far, but the significance that this adventure will hold for me possibly triggered that it is bigger and more profound for me as a person than I initially had anticipated hastily buying a ticket for a “little trip to visit family in Poland”.


[ Bar / Nightlife Tour ]

The sun may have been setting on both Friday and Saturday night when the Einführungswochenende was complete, but the night was still young. There were nightlife tours to check out what was popular hangouts in the Univerisity town of Göttingen, and both evenings had Kneipenabend – bar nights.

I found it very enjoyable to go out an see some of the packed bars and grab a table with some other foreign students and meet some new friends. Then you could easily walk over to another table and say hi to another group of people - like the girls from Spain for example that made the request the first time I met them that I always greet them with a kiss on both cheeks like the Spaniards do.

I think one of the neatest parts was that one of the bars and one of the dance clubs went underground. The pub that we visited the first evening had stone walls, and seemed to be part of an underground tunnel, or a very old underground stone cellar that was turned into a very cool setting with flickering candle light against the barrel seats and musty stone walls. The club that we went to late in the evening on Saturday night had a Dj mixing south American and Latin instrumental music, which was unique for me to hear at a dance club, but what was better was the fact that everyone was dancing to it!

On Monday night, after the entire hectic weekend was over, I made my way across town since I had an invitation to a Studentenwohnheim [ student residency ] party hosted by Chilean and Columbian exchange students. There were some recognizable faces there and a bunch of new people to meet including students from South America, Great Britain and finally some German students at the Uni. More South American music was playing and everyone was salsa dancing until the windows were fogged with sweat and condensation. I cannot deny that this weekend was stressful, but after meeting so many great people, having great conversations and seeing some great opportunities for a fun, social weekend night out, I think this is going to be a very fun semester.

Spaß und Spiele

[ Fun and Games ]

Once back at the international Foyer for a group dinner, we all had our presentations – ranging from one group poking fun how we may have no idea what we are hearing… but still say Ja, ja, ja in agreement with everything [*I have been guilty of this], to other groups mocking the Germans that wait until the walk symbol is green even with no cars in sight. Everyone had good laughs, and honestly after two full days of hearing, speaking and working in German, I think everyone was exhausted.

The night was not over however, since we were instructed to push all the chairs into lines – The music was turned on, some very European techno beats – and musical chairs began. I was a little confused – we are playing musical chairs with 23 and 24 year olds? It wasn’t until racing against a guy from the Czech Republic, high fiving a girl from China like we were 3 again and we made it excitingly to the next round that I realized that I underestimated the value of the game.

We were all still learning each other’s names, and where we were from – and with this simple game requiring no communication we were all laughing, screaming, bonding and having a really great time. A few other games – including one where we tied balloons to our ankles and had to hop around and pop the other people’s – concluded the evening. Like the first day, I left the evening completely exhausted, yet very satisfied with the great new friends I was making, the surplus of German I was speaking, and the easier transition that was being created for the beginning of University in a foreign country.