I can still remember every reaction I received when I informed people about my plans to do an intensive language course in Krakow, Poland. I saw amazement, disbelief, and horrified astonishment, as well as a weary smile from my German friends and family as well as, shockingly, the people I met in Poland.
But everyone who knows me knows about my stubbornness and commitment. If I plan on doing something, I will do it no matter what. A part of my family lives in Poland. They only speak a little bit of German, so when they come to visit there occurs a funny mix of German, English, Polish – and hand pointing and gestures. One of the many reasons I wanted to improve my Polish is due to the fact that Poland is a very important partner to its neighbouring country Germany, a country I call my home and with which Poland shares a long history and relationship. My second rationale is that Poland plays an important role in the European Union and NATO. Finally, I wanted to get to know Poland and its language because it is such an interesting country: full of culture, customs, history, and amazing people.
No sooner said than done, I found myself on a plane to Katowice followed by a bus to Krakow,which would be my home for the next two and a half months. I had been to Krakow before and seen all the sights and tourist attractions, so I planned on concentrating on the unfamiliar, on getting to know Poland and its people better. I wanted to focus on typical Polish life.
I was enrolled at Prolog, a private language school recommended to me by one of my former employers. The staff was wonderful; I learned an impressive amount of language knowledge, especially considering that Polish is among the hardest languages on the planet to learn, and it takes a person three solid years of studying everyday to be truly fluent in any language. After going in and out of the school on a daily basis, it became my second home in Krakow.
My Polish flatmates not only introduced me to their friends, but also showed me the everyday life of Polish (architecture) students. We often would sit in the kitchen discussing different topics, opinions, and points of view. I realised that too many people in both countries – Germany and Poland – do not know enough about their neighboring country. I tried to recapitulate my history lessons at school and realised that we had hardly learned about Polish history or culture even though, of course, the dark chapters of German history are inevitably intertwined with Poland’s own past. We realised that every country defines differently what part in history is important. For example, I knew about the Katyn massacre – which is among the most important points in Polish history – simply because I had stumbled across a movie on it. But at school? Negative.
Also prejudices against Poland and Polish people are still present in Germany. Only a small group of my friends and acquaintances has ever travelled to Poland. When they travel, most people concentrate on the south where the Mediterranean and hot temperatures are luring. The farthest east many Germans have usually travelled is Berlin. Of course, during the Cold War people oriented themselves towards the West, the South or the North but not the East. Hence – most people have never been to Poland, however, for some reason they think that they know everything about it.
For a first timer traveling to Poland, I really recommend Krakow. Rich in culture and history, Krakow is a student city in the south of Poland that is not only a magnet for tourists but also a great place to live. Many young people stroll around the Old Town with its huge market square, little cafés, restaurants, and bars. A long list of museums awaits you; the sites of Schindler’s factory and the concentration camps Auschwitz and Birkenau tell the stories of world history. There are also art and galleries, which contribute to the cultural flair of this city.
From a busy and active tourist programme to a simple stroll along the Vistula river – Krakow has it all. Kaziemierz, the old Jewish quarter, is one excellent part of the city to visit; you can learn about Krakow’s past during the day and easily dance the nights away.
In this regard, money should be mentioned: Poland is cheap.
I remember my friends and visitors constantly calculating the prices, unable to believe how cheap everything was. This affordability not only allows you to visit a lot of attractions, but also enables you to spend a decent amount of time in Poland. Getting around town is easy: the city supplies a perfect, cheap public transport system. A useful hint: Always make sure you have a ticket, as I have never seen so many ticket inspectors… and, as I said, it is very cheap, so why risk it?
Most importantly – the food: Krakow offers heaps of different restaurants, allowing you to experience all parts of Polish cuisine. Pierogi, Zapiekanki, Barszcz, Bigos – make sure you taste all of them. And don’t forget about the long wódka tradition in Poland.
Every time I have convinced someone to visit and travel to Poland, they have thanked me and were impressed. They regretted not having travelled there earlier and they all assured me that they want to go again.
As for myself, I will be visiting Poland constantly in the future. Not only because of my family, obviously, but also because it is just such an impressive place and, even for me, there is so much more to explore.
Photo credit: Jacky Westermann