Poland: An Adventure of Discovery for Me

The Palace of Culture and Science at night

The Palace of Culture and Science at night

For the past eight days I travelled Poland, visiting three major cities with friends I had made while studying in Berlin at the Humboldt University. During the trip, many laughs and fun times were had and overall it was a great week excursion. Wrocław, Krakow and Warsaw were the cities we visited and this entire trip opened up a whole new country, culture and history to me, all of which I did not know much about before. Oh and of course the food! But I will get to this part later on.

Perogies!

Perogies!

We took coach buses for our travels. In particular, the company ‘Polski Bus’ took us everywhere we needed to go. All the buses were fully loaded and super cheap. For example, our bus ride from Wrocław to Krakow, which lasted about four hours, cost only 1 złoty, which in conversion to the Euro, is only 25 cents! It even included complementary snacks and drinks along the way! This comparison speaks to the entirety of Poland, I would say. The prices of food, drinks and city transportation for example are inexpensive in contrast to many other cities (Europe and North America) that I have been to.

Ordering my obwarzanek from a typical street vendor

Ordering my obwarzanek from a typical street vendor

We first spent one night in a hostel in Wrocław. We stayed in the city centre which was surrounded by many historical buildings and rivers. We visited many old churches and landmarks, finding our way around with a tourist map. We then spent three nights in a hostel in Krakow, the second largest city in Poland. The hostel was called “Let’s Rock Hostel” and I would really recommend it to anyone who wants to visit Krakow. The staff were extremely friendly and always there to help you with anything you needed. There were even themed evenings; for example we drank sangria one night and ate waffles another.

Krakow- Cathedral beside the Wawel Castle

Krakow- famous cathedral beside the Wawel Castle

On one day, we went on an excursion to the Auschwitz concentration camps. We took a bus from the main station and the journey was about an hour and a half. I visited two concentration camps before, but nothing compared to this one. The content was heavy and the themes were deep. The entire set up of the experience was very well done, with documentation, artifacts, authentic buildings, information panels and pictures explaining the camp’s history. If anyone plans to visit in the future, it takes a whole day; there is so much to see.

Auschwitz

Auschwitz

On another day, we jumped on a free walking tour of the city. The entire history of Krakow was narrated to us and we visited the most important sights to see such as the main square, Wawel Castle and St. Mary’s Basilica. Walking tours are great- you get to walk around and get some exercise, breath fresh air, enjoy the sights, all while having someone explain to you the history of the city, pointing out important landmarks. Afterwards, we went to Oskar Schindler’s former factory, which was turned into a museum dedicated to Krakow’s history of German occupation during the Second World War. In particular, I enjoyed the section about Schindler himself and his role within the city. Like from the movie, “Schindler’s List”, pictures and documentations were given about the history of the man who saved the lives of over 1000 Jews through the running of his factory.

The Palace of Culture and Science- beautiful architecture

The Palace of Culture and Science- beautiful architecture

One viewpoint from atop the Palace of Culture and Science

One viewpoint from atop the Palace of Culture and Science

Finally, the last stop of our tour took us to the capital city of Poland, Warsaw. With much thanks to a Polish friend of ours who also studied abroad for the first semester in Berlin and who currently lives and studies in Warsaw, we were able to stay at her apartment for the duration of the trip. We all did a free walking tour again, which allowed us to visit some of the important sights of the old city. Our guide was hilarious, so it made the experience that much more enjoyable. We visited the top of the ‘Palace of Culture and Science’, a building built by the Soviets in 1955. The architecture was impressive and being located within the centre of the city, it offered an amazing 360 degree view of Warsaw; definitely a highlight of the week. We also went to the ‘Warsaw Uprising Museum’. It was very well displayed and the content was great; weapons, artifacts, movie clips and documents were displayed. There was even a full-sized bomber plane hung up on the ceiling! The entire experience there reminded me of our ‘Canadian War Museum’ in Ottawa. This museum is a must if anyone ever visits Warsaw. It speaks directly to the courage and strength of the Polish fighting spirit during the German occupation of World War Two.

A massive memorial/list of names of the Polish insurgent soldiers killed during the Warsaw Uprising

A massive memorial/list of names of the Polish insurgent soldiers killed during the Warsaw Uprising

And again thanks to our host friend, I was introduced to the amazing world of Polish food! This part of my Polish experience was one of the best portions (no pun intended). Our first stop was at a traditional Polish restaurant which served authentic Polish cuisine. Here I ate perogies and they were absolutely phenomenal. It is a sort of dumpling which is made of dough and the inside is filled with different ingredients ranging from meat, to a type of potato-like filling, to cabbage, to cheese. They are boiled and then fried in butter: pure deliciousness! I also had a hot beer with this meal (shots of flavour such as ginger and raspberry could be added upon request).  It was alright, but I think next time I will stick to a good old ice cold beer 😉

Also, before when I was in Krakow, I also ate an obwarzanek, which is pretty much a pretzel. They are a known specialty within the city, as the street vendors were literally everywhere to be seen. It was really cheap and fresh. Back now to Warsaw, we went again to the restaurant but this time I ate the recommended flaki. It is a beef soup, which literally translated, means “guts”. Yes, I know it doesn’t sound too appetizing, but it was amazing. Let the taste do the talking, not the sound or impression of the ingredients! Finally, we all tried zapiekanka, which is sort of like a long-shaped baked pizza made with mushrooms and cheese. I would say it is more a take-out, fast eating type of food. Again, it was inexpensive, yet very filling and of course, like all the food I tried, truly appetizing.

My zapiekanka. This one had bacon and garlic sauce

My zapiekanka. This one had bacon and garlic sauce

Flaki

Flaki

So Poland, what can I say? You showed me a country rich in culture and you have a lot to offer to all visitors. I had a great time this past week and it didn’t hurt the wallet at all. I tasted amazing food and learned a lot about history firsthand through the museums we visited and the tours we took part in. Before I head back to Canada, I will visit Poland again because I had such a good time. Furthermore, I will definitely be going to the annual Polish Festival that we have in Toronto- I always heard about it, but never went. I just did some research, and it is actually the largest Polish festival held in North America. I need to get my fill of perogies somehow!

My first zapiekanka was so delicious, I ordered another one: salami and Mexican sauce this time

My first zapiekanka was so delicious, I ordered another one: salami and Mexican sauce this time

Everyone Wants to Study in Berlin

A different way home from class one day. Left: German Cathedral. Middle: Concert House. Right: French Cathedral

A different way home from class one day. Left: German Cathedral. Middle: Concert House. Right: French Cathedral

So yesterday I went to get my study visa. What a long day is all I can say. For students studying in Germany, within 3 months of their arrival, they must go the Ausländer-Behörde (foreigner’s office) and apply for a study visa. To book an appointment online would be useless, as the waiting times are backed up until January at this point. I urgently needed to get one because I booked a flight home for the Christmas break and hence a visa is required. The last thing I need is to have problems at customs in the airport!

I had to bring along a biometric photo, show many documents such as proof of enrolment in university, my health insurance, proof of financial stability and other such hassles that governments need from you. Since I didn’t have a booked appointment, I needed to go early to get a waiting number… and I mean EARLY. My alarm was set for 3:45am and I arrived there at 5:30am (it opens at 7:00am). I heard from people that you need to get there early, and this is NOT an understatement. I personally think that everyone wants to study or do research in Berlin, as it is THE place to be as a student in Germany. Even with the pitch darkness of the night and the cold weather lingering, there were already about 80 people in front of me when I arrived- the lines are like this every single morning. I was afraid I wouldn’t get in, but I was lucky. Only after waiting another 6 hours did I finally see someone and with a 50 Euro payment later, I received my student visa which lasts until September 2014 (it states that I can even be employed and work up to 120 days if I wanted to). So that was a bit of information for any of you thinking of studying in Germany in the future :) The task seems daunting, but it really isn’t so bad. Bring study materials or videos and music and you’ll be good.

A tasty, oven-fresh snack I grabbed from a local bakery

A tasty, oven-fresh snack I grabbed from a local bakery

There are a few peculiar things I find about German universities and I would like to share some of them. After almost every lecture or seminar, all the students knock the desks with their knuckles. Back home, sometimes the professor would get a little round of applause at the end. But here, I guess it is a part of the culture and customs to tap the tables lightly in appreciation for the work that was given. Another aspect that is unusual is how the libraries work. Everyone must lock everything in lockers before entering the stacks or study areas. No bags or coats or anything is allowed. They provide you with clear plastic bags where you must put all your notes, books, pencils, paper, pens, laptop, chargers, and so on. There is security at the front who scrutinizes everyone as they enter the library, turning back those who don’t comply with the regulations. Talk about strict guidelines.

The German Cathedral (foreground). The French Cathedral (background)

The German Cathedral (foreground). The French Cathedral (background)

Germans also take their recycling seriously! To them the environment is a very important issue. All the households/apartments and most public areas have a sorting system for every type of waste. Some of it is like ours back home. There are the bins for just paper products. There is composting. Then there are of course the recycling bins for glass. However they are sorted even further between different colours: clear, brown and green. There are also bins just for cans. On top of it all, there is a separate bin for Verpackung, which means packaging. So anything that was used as packaging is put into here. And then whatever is left would be considered “normal” garbage. I guess this reaffirms the efficiency of the Germans :) Just another fun fact about living in Germany.

Thanks for reading and see you again in two weeks. I will talk about my courses next time.

Typical public garbage bins. Household bins are even more specifically organized

Typical public garbage bins. Household bins are even more specifically organized

IT’S FINALLY HAPPENING!!!

My friend Amalia Damberger

My friend Amalia Damberger

 

My lovely friend Bronte.

My lovely friend Bronte.

 

The School!!!!

Schmancy dining hall ceiling is schmancy.

Schmancy dining hall ceiling is schmancy.

This blog is going to be somewhat jumbled because the closer I get to leaving the more it feels like my brain is made of mangos. If you will bear with me, dear reader, then I am sure you will gleen something useful, or at least entertaining, from my rambling.

First off, several obstacles have tried to prevent me from getting to Royal Holloway. I feel a great deal like Harry Potter caught in the scheme that sought to unfairly allow him to return to Hogwart’s. First I was mistakenly sent a tuition of about 5,763 pounds. The exchange rate to dollars would have crippled me financially and before discovering this was a mistake I was launched into a 3-day spiral of depression. I came to terms with not getting to see the UK, started making preparations to get into classes at UTM late and generally hated being alive. The email saying the tuition fee was an error is the best news I have ever received and I do suspect the only news I could ever hear in the future to rival what I felt would go something like,

“You do not have a terminal illness.”

“Your child was born healthy and strong.”

“Your mortgage is paid in full.”

A day after my good news came I noticed I had developed a strange abdominal pain that wouldn’t let up. It felt like cramps and so I ignored it as an inconvenience. About three days later though I was woken at 3am by a searing pain in my lower abdomen. I ran to the bathroom and discovered that I was urinating blood.

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking,

tmi .

Perhaps, but stay with me the story gets better.

I got my roommate to take me to the hospital at about 5am when I could stand again. Luckily the hospital is only just down the street. While there we sat across from a sleeping-homeless-partially-nude woman. After waiting for a few hours a man in complete hysterics came in and began screaming and crying about how he had been robbed.

We listened to him whine for a few hours and discovered from his many loud and self-important phone calls and chats with the police that he had gone to a club, had 6 drinks in 4 hours and accidentally Rufilin-ed himself.

Seriously.

This is too stupid to make up.

He had intended to drug and then do god knows what to an unsuspecting victim and accidentally took the drugs himself because he was too drunk to remember what cup he put the Rufilin in. So far as I am concerned, he got what he deserved.

After the drugs started to kick in the club called him a taxi to get rid of him. In the taxi he had taken out his cell phone and all his ID (including passport) and put them on the seat. He then panicked, thinking it had been taken by the taxi driver and demanded to be let out. The taxi driver let him out on the sidewalk, where he promptly passed out before coming into the hospital and claiming he had been robbed.

I, in the mean time, was in agony waiting for a doctor. When I was finally seen the doctor and nurse were lovely and were able to determine that I had a UTI and needed antibiotics. In his effort to discover what was wrong with me one of the doctors asked me if I had ever had an STI. I mistakenly thought he said UTI and off handedly said,

“Oh yeah, tons, all the time.”

He gave me the kind of horrified look that indicated my answer was somewhat worrisome. I felt I needed to break the petrified silence and so I said,

“I usually drink cranberry juice, I’ve heard it helps.”

The cranberry juice thing is, as it turns out, recognized by doctors as a helpful aid to getting rid of UTIs because my mentioning this helped the good doctor to recognize that I have not in fact had several STI’s (or any STI’s for that matter).

These are the kinds of things that seem hilarious at 8am.

***

The closer I get to leaving the more anxiety I am starting to feel. So I am engaging a well-practiced university skill and not thinking about it.

This anxiety is combination of good and bad; bad feelings like, “What if I get there and realize I haven’t packed any underwear?!” which is of course ludicrous, as I have packed more underwear than what is housed in the average Calvin Klein wear house.
These notions of paranoia are broken up with good thoughts such as, “Ican’tbelievethisisreallyhappeningIamsoexcited!”

My bags are neatly packed, a friend is subletting my apartment while I am gone, I have completed (with the aid of my mum) all the necessary documents at this point. The full gravity of the situation hasn’t yet hit me. And I don’t think it will until I am up in the air.

I am not worried about being on my own because I am just as introverted as I am extroverted. I am looking forward to the time away from everything familiar (though I fully admit to being terrified of the idea of a totally new habitat) because I am hoping to gain, among other things, a new perspective of what I have by experiencing something new entirely.

In a vain effort to appear organized and travel ready I have herein attempted to prepare a list of all the things one must do to prepare for a long journey, alone, internationally. I do make my first recommendation this; if at all possible avoid attempting to complete 2 difficult summer school classes while simultaneously moving from a mold ridden, cockroach infested apartment to a more suitable, if notably more expensive, dwelling in the city.
Having successfully avoided all the above, here are some things that will help prepare you on your travels!

1. Waiting. Get good at this.
There will be a lot of paper work and registering and waiting in soul crushing suspense to get in. Once you have found out you are accepted there will be a lot more paper work, registrations, meetings, seminars, et cetera. All I can really suggest is wait it out, check email constantly and don’t panic. I know this isn’t spectacularly helpful or informative advice but everything is relatively straight forward and lain out for you. Just follow the steps your school gives you and don’t expect anything to happen at a normal pace. Everything will either happen too fast or painfully slowly.

2. Pay Attention.
To deadlines, instructions, registrations et cetera. There will be a lot of things to keep track of, so make sure you keep track of them.

3. Keep a list of the things you pack!
Once you get to the packing point, which may be sooner for some of us and later for others. Having everything written down on your mac book or another, inferior piece of hardware (I jest) will make it easier to avoid losing things and will give you a solid idea of what you already have and what you need.

***

I am not a savvy traveler. People skills and resourcefulness I have down pat; it is following directions and finding locations that I struggle with. But here is where the people skills come in handy; find someone who is going where you are going, make friends with them and follow them to the gate.

So upon entering the terminal I find I have just enough time to board the massive plane, my first time on such a plane. In the connecting suspended hallway I can hardly contain my excitement, an old man ahead of me notices this and says, “Are you excited to go to Cancun?”

I can feel the color drain out of my body and puddle onto the floor around my Doc Martins which are large and make my feet look big. Except they don’t actually make my feet look big, my feet are actually just that big.
The cheeky bugger. He realized he had half scared me to death and told me he was kidding; this flight goes to England.
I let out a huge sigh of relief and recounted to him the occasions on which I had nearly died before this flight. Surviving all that, only to find I was about to get on the wrong flight, would be too much.

The flight attendant is a spiffing man with a Jordy accent who point me in the direction of my seat and says, “Have a good flight love.”

As I enter the plane I pass through the first class section; large sprawling, reclining seats, foot rests, cup holders a premium amount of space for carry on luggage. I am over taken by a moment of giddiness until I realize that my section is closer to the back of the plane, far removed from this life of luxury.

As I walk down the aisle people struggle to get their luggage into the over head compartments and I actually cheer them on in their struggle.

“You can do it!”

“I believe in you!”

“Take your time, you got this!”

7 and ½ hours later I find myself in Heathrow Airport. I had been warned that it was big. I was never told that it is FRACKING MASSIVE. Immediately everyone is shuffled into lines to cross the border. I worry that I may be in the wrong line because there is a line across from me where a lady is yelling “Students!? Students here!”

As it turns out I am in the first class line. I have no idea how I got into the ‘fast track’ line as it’s called because I didn’t have a first class ticket. I start to get nervous and because sweating seems to be my body’s response to even the suggestion of emotion I also begin sweating heavily. I start to panic, thinking things like,

“What if they don’t let me into the country?”

“What if they make me go stand in another line and I miss the shuttle taking me to Royal Holloway?”

“What if they think I am up to no good because I am sweating so heavily and looking paranoid?”

Getting across the border was of course no problem. The officer was lovely and I was not forced to return to Canada. Having then crossed the border I began searching for the shuttle that was to take me to the school.

Rows and rows of bored, grumpy and scowling faces met me. All the taxi drivers half hold up cardboard or washable signs with names like ‘Charles Munchin’ and ‘Mike Lee Zoa’. None have the words “Royal Holloway” embossed on them.

I start to panic again. Luckily just as the first bubbles of dread popped on the surface I saw a giant orange sign.

ROYAL HOLLOWAY.

It told me. I quickly joined the group to meet friendly, if jet lagged, girls from France, Kazakhstan and Greece. The drive to the campus was somewhat disappointing; it looked just like Ontario. Any disappointment I had from the drive was washed away by the view of the campus cresting the hill: it was spectacular.

Once moved in and settled I met several lovely girls who are now friends and joined a group who gave me free beer promptly before losing me accidentally in the winding halls of the building. Everyone is lovely.

***

Administration here is disorganized and painstaking. But it must be done. I am successfully moved in and hope to have my class timetable soon.

I have found that I am able to stay up until early morning and only sleep until 8am without feeling tired. I am unusually positive about everything that happens, good and bad. I am, I feel, truly living to the fullest in a way I have never been able to before. Small inconveniences don’t bother me the way they usually do.

For the first time in my life I feel truly, and fully, content.

Tata for now.