The GoGlobal Blog

Month: November 2012

That Time We Were “Rich” In Budapest

That Time We Were “Rich” In Budapest

Ciao friends! Here is the final installment of my posts about fall break!

After Poland a few of us went to Budapest in Hungary. The first thing you need to know about Hungary is that they have this crazy currency. Called the Hungarian Forint (abbreviated HUF so we called the currency “Hufflepuffs” after the house in Harry Potter, but more on that later), their currency is so inflated that $5 USD is equal to 1000 Hungarian Dollars. Crazy! It was mindblowing to go to the ATM once our plane landed and take out 10,000 “Hufflepuffs”(or about $50 USD). As we were taking our money out we were all laughing about how many ‘Hufflepuffs” we had on us and how we were “Hufflepuff big spenders.” Well I guess that someone overheard us because not five minutes later when we were ordering a cab did we hear a couple behind us ask the taxi stand attendant, “How many Hufflepuffs will this cost?” We had started a trend!

We spent our first day in Budapest doing all the touristy stuff. Budapest is technically two cities, Buda and Pest (you can’t make this stuff up), that has been combined into one city. They still, however, call the west side of the river “Buda” and the east side “Pest” (we were staying in Pest). We walked through Pest seeing the famous Gerbeaud coffee house along the way. We crossed over the Chain Bridge into Buda (but not before stopping to take a million pictures!) and started making our way to Castle Hill. We saw St. Matthias, the Fisherman’s Bastion, and had a great overlook of Pest, especially of Parliament. It might have been cold and overcast but it was still so beautiful!

The next day, however, was one of the most relaxing days I’ve had abroad. We spent the entire day in the Gellert Bath House. Hungary, and especially Budapest, is known for its bath houses, all located over natural hot springs. The Gellert was huge, with 6 different pools of various temperatures, saunas, and every spa treatment you can imagine. We spent hours just swimming around, talking, and relaxing in the water. It was a perfect way to end a crazy busy fall break trip and we left feeling refreshed but ready to be back at home at the JFRC!

2nd Half of OcToBeR

2nd Half of OcToBeR

October 17 to October 28th
Fall Break
Instead of Spring Break in Rome at the JFRC we are given a fall break. Now our fall break is the lasts one week, the equivalent of a spring break. It gives us students a chance to travel to and go see Europe or Italy. I chose to do the latter of the two and stayed in Rome for half of fall break, than explored Italy for the other half. While I stayed in Rome I spent one full day walking all of Rome starting at Piazza del Popolo, checking out the Borghese Gardens, Via Del Corso, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the Pantheon and continued all the way to Piazza Venezia and the Roman Forum and the Coliseum and I ended the journey at Mount Testaccio which is a ancient landfill/dumpsite of roman pottery. It was a full day of walking that was much needed “ME TIME.” Also snapped a few photos on the journey as well.

Hunger Run 10k
My 5 days in Rome also consisted of running a 10k starting and finishing at the Baths of Caracalla (one of the biggest bath houses from ancient Rome). Through out the 10k various tourist attractions were passed such as the Coliseum which was unbelievable feeling as I ran on the closed streets of Rome that are normally packed with tourist buses and taxi cabs.  The street was packed with people going back to the ancient days of Rome when everyone either was walking or on horseback.
I finished the race with a time of 39:40 and finished 80th out of 1500 people which was fun. My goal time was 40 minutes and for never having ran a 10k I think that was a good place to start. The race ended with laying on the field of an old track waiting for a lunch call from the US Ambassador to UN Mission in Rome.
Somehow our head of student life got connected with the US Embassy and it was set up for participants from my school that after the Hunger Run we were invited to the US ambassador’s residence for a rooftop BBQ. Now you may think that Lays Potato chips, Heinz Ketchup, Chipsahoy cookies, and burgers are extremely normal in the United States. But here in Italy you would be lucky to find any of the above items, it was honestly heaven on a plate. Not to mention we were eating the BBQ amongst the green parrots of Rome’s forests just inside the ancient city walls of Rome.

In Italian Parco Regionale Dell Appia Antica in English Appia Antica Regional Park
Another day I went to the Appia Antica Park which is a regional park located in southern Rome. This park is extremely cool because it almost feels as though you are in a different world, or land, or country all together. The park is located in a valley of sorts and when you are within the valley you cannot see outside to the normal hustle and bustle of Rome. Even though you are only a mile or two south of the historic city center of Rome and just barely outside the city walls. There were ancient houses, crypts, aqueducts, and the original Appian way. The Appian way is the ancient road that the Roman’s used to transfer their troops fast off to battle. Also it was the first main road built that was leaving the city.Also this was the first time that I had seen more than one Roman working out, there were plenty of people doing physical activity whether that be biking, running, or walking.

Perugia – chocolate FEST
The Chocolate festival was a very chocolaty experience to say the least. Perugia is located in the region of Umbria, one region north of Lazio – Rome’s region they hold the Euro Chocolate Festival every year. Usually over 500,000 people visit just to get their hands on Europe but mainly Italy’s best chocolate. At the chocolate festival was Chocolate bars the same size as oversized bricks, also full extra extra large pizzas of chocolate not to mention chocolate kebab and chocolate covered apples. Most of the chocolate was extremely expensive so I just went around to the 150 plus booths asking for free samples and acting interested in purchasing. Lets just say, I consumed my fair share of chocolate… well as much as my stomach could handle.The highlight of my visit was not the chocolate but it was the friends and views of Italy that made it most worthwhile. I went on the trip to Perugia not knowing the two girls that came with me very well. Howeve, by the end of the day in Perugia both Shimoli and Karina had became great friends. It was a great coincidence that they happened to be around for fall break and joined me on a chocolate adventure when almost everyone at JFRC is traveling all of Europe.

Au-Pair Family Visit #2
Also during fall break was my second visit to the family that I will be living with for around 6 to 8 months from January until June or August. The second visit exceeded the outcome of the first visit. On this visit I got to meet more of the extended family and also bonded with the two boys Giacomo and Niccolo and their mother Francesca more so than I did last time. That being said I also got to meet Francesca sister and husband and their two kids. They live in London so I assisted the two boys with their school work due at the end of their holiday. I also met the Giacomo and Niccolo’s grandma and although she only speak Italian, I had a minor and brief conversation with her. The visit consisted of consuming the best food I have ever had in my life, SORRY PAPI! I had truffles grinded on top of my pasta. Had ravioli filled with veal, also had homemade gelato, and farinata that is made out of chickpeas I believe. Anyways I am trying to grow out of being a picky eater being surrounded by all this unbelievable food. Yes Gram, finally you would be proud of me although I do have to say that focaccia and salami is unbeatable when it comes to a sandwich.

Another update is to come, sorry I am behind we’ll get back into the swing of things soon…

Extend a hand to someone you do not know today, never know what someone may need!


Steve OOOooo

October~ cakes, and pies, and the moon

October~ cakes, and pies, and the moon

October for me has been a month of many things- School picking up speed, late Summer finally conceding to the reality of Autumn, Halloween, two of my three brothers birthdays, and of course my own birthday. One thing has been constant for October- pumpkin pie. Every year I go through several pumpkin pies… sometimes by myself. Luckily I have a high metabolism. Every year the first day pumpkin pies appear in the grocery store is like a little celebration for me. I remember last year I got the first pumpkin pie delivered to Devon Market in Chicago straight off the delivery truck. I was smiling the whole two block walk back to my apartment. You can imagine my excitement as October rolled around here in China. I generally tend to eat in Chinese restaurants and avoid western food, but I was ready for some pumpkin pie. It’s a part of my life. I saw some pumpkins around Beijing so I assumed there would be pumpkin pie. I assumed wrong. (Insert emphatic sigh) I have searched high and low, and much to my chagrin I have found nothing. Even in the western district of Sanlitun, which I like to think of as the nanban quarter after Dr. Fair’s Asian Studies class at Loyola. There are some western coffeehouses that have pumpkin lattes, but it’s not the same.
My birthday was on the 19th and I guessed that maybe my friends had found a pumpkin pie for me to eat. The day rolled by and one of my friends brought by a cake, but no pie. Later we went to the Peking Opera. The performance was spectacular with beautifully panted faces, elaborate costumes, and a very interesting vocal range. The night came to a close with no pie. It was the first birthday in my extant memory without pumpkin pie.
Even when I left Beijing for a weekend with one of my Chinese friends, there was no pumpkin pie. I went to Tainjin by bullet train for one weekend. All over the city were the remnants of concessions, which were basically foreign enclaves run by the major European powers, Japan, and the United States to extract wealth from China through trade domination. My favorite concession was one with a hmmm, Hapsburg feel? It had lots of German and Italian restaurants and had a lot of neo-renaissance style architecture. It was weird being so European/Colonial in China. Even with the foreign presence long gone, the old concessions had turned into hip hangouts for Chinese who wanted to experience the west at all the cool cafes and restaurants. My hope was with all the foreign places I would find some pumpkin pie. Alas, there was none to be found. However, I did get a kind of sweet to placate me for a while. The time in Tianjin was the Mid-Autumn Moon festival and that meant one thing- MOONCAKES!
If you don’t know, mooncakes are popular treat in the fall popular in the sinosphere. They are given out as gifts to coworkers, friends, and relatives during the mid-autumn moon festival as a sign of affection/recognition of an important relationship. There are many kinds of fillings- my favorite being redbean paste, green tea, or lotus seeds. They are so sweet and delicious. The filling is so thick, that even though the cakes are relatively small, each one is about 1,000 calories. Yikes. Once I ate five in one day. Mooncakes abounded in Tianjin and I was able to have my fill. One night after riding bikes around the city my friend Elvis, his friends, and myself all posed with mooncakes held up in the air next to the full moon. That was really cool. Tianjin is a city known for its sweets, so the mooncakes proved exceptional. It was really nice to eat them by the ocean, even if the ocean was black from China’s absurd amount of industrial waste. The feeling was great- sun, friends, sweets, and the sounds of ocean. Still, on the bullet train ride back to basecamp in Beijing, I was still craving pumpkin pie.

My hope was about to run out on the pumpkin pie when a dessert party was planned for this week on Wednesday to help alleviate the stress of this week’s midterms. I half joking said to Mariel in student development at the start of the week, “If only there would be pumpkin pie at the dissert party. I would be so happy”. She replied with a diplomatic, “We’ll see what I can do”. The next day I saw Mariel with Kevin in the main office of TBC and I inquired about the pie. Kevin was also diplomatic with words and then Mariel turned to Kevin and said, “I think I can do it”. Kevin looked shocked and said, “You can get pumpkin pie in Beijing?” She smiled at both of us and said, “I know a guy”. I guess word had gotten around from Fr. Gene how much I had enjoyed pie (I told him on my birthday how much I had missed it). The following day I got an email from Mariel in the morning, “I have the pie, but only one so be early to the party!”
I was the first one at the party, and there it was in all its glory in the center of the table- PUMPKIN PIE! The first bite was amazing, followed by the second… all the way to the crust. I was so happy. Everyone could see the happiness on my face. I swear the pie was what got me through the rest of midterms and then on to the Guilin expedition, which I’ll talk about in my next blog. Mariel later told me that her roommate knew a guy who knew a guy who had the supplies and had a Chinese baker friend. He sold the pies, complete with homemade whipped cream for around 160 RMB, which is equivalent to about 27 dollars. However complicated the deal was, it was worth it. Remind me next time I am going to china to stash pumpkin pie filling cans and spices and a powerful mini-oven ( WHY ARE THERENO OVENS IN CHINA???) so I can make my own pies and sell them to make a profit off the foreigner community. Anyhow, I need to get back to work on some presentations. Peace for now~

Greece Trip!

Greece Trip!

Hi all,

It’s been a little while since I’ve returned from my 10 day trip to Greece, and I want to give you some details of the amazing time I had there!  This trip was arranged by the JFRC, and I was accompanied by around 50 classmates.

We flew from Rome to Athens and had an amazing seaside lunch upon our arrival. I tried so many different types of seafood that I had never tried before! It was a great start to the trip. After visiting the temple of Poseidon, we went to our hotel and then received a walking tour of historic Athens. With dinner free, what else could we get for our first meal than gyros? At 2 euros a pop, these were by far the most economic and delicious meal. Tradition Greek gyro: flavored pita, cooked meat (lamb or chicken) shaved off the kabob, tzatziki, onions, tomatoes, and french fries! We topped off dinner with Greek frozen yogurt with honey and raspberries.

On the second day we visited the Acropolis, seeing the Parthenon and the ancient Agora. We also visited the amazing Acropolis museum which houses numerous original statues, parts of pediments, and other artifacts from the acropolis. I adored the museum because it was unbelievable to see the statues I’ve studied about in Greek history courses in person!  Our tour guide was spectacular, and I knew it starting the first day- Ionna Kopsiafti always captured my attention and told us the most interesting stories of Greek history. That night a few friends and I visited a jewelry/leather shop and ended up invited to a meal and drinks with the owners! They had fresh calamari, and a variety of other delicious looking plates. We happily partook in the meal and were astounded at how friendly the people were!

We left Athens for Delphi and visited the temple, amphitheater, and ancient stadium. We did some major hiking and saw truly incredible views of the Greek landscape. We had another great group dinner and were offered oyzo, which is a licorice-like alcohol. After the shock of the time I attempted to drink it the first day, I politely declined the offer at dinner.

We then traveled to Nafplio, stopping on the way at a traditional monastery. I mistakenly wore shorts that day and was taken to a room full of skirts that looked decades old! Always up for an adventure, I happily grabbed one and wore it around on the tour of the monastery. We saw some breathtaking views and sent out to our hotel after a slight hiccup- our bus ran down somewhere between Delphi and Nafplio, so we were delayed just a short bit. To get to our group dinner, we hiked 250 steps up a mountain to a local tavern, in which we enjoyed several courses and turned the place into a dance club for the remainder of the night!

After Nafplio we drove through the area that used to be Sparta and hiked around the Byzantine ruins of Mystras. It was amazing that we were able to explore cathedrals and homes that were centuries old in this ancient town. We travelled to our tour guide’s native town, Karyes for the afternoon. Karyes is a tiny, traditional town of Greece. We were welcomed into the biggest tavern that could fit our large group and enjoyed a group lunch, after which we participated in a scavenger hunt around the city, visited a wine cellar, and sampled loukoumades ( a pastry similar to donuts doused in honey) in the town square. The one slight mishap of my trip: I lost my digital camera somewhere in Karyes. When we boarded the bus close to midnight, it took me only a moment to realize my camera wasn’t in my purse! Unfortunately, between the tavern, scavenger hunt, and wine cellar, it could have been anywhere in the city! I couldn’t hold up our bus to look for it, and was distraught to have to leave it behind. The Dean of Students here at the JFRC told us only a few days earlier that “objects don’t matter, people matter” , and I woke up the next morning deciding to forget about the pictures I lost and focus on enjoying the rest of my trip!

Our last destination was Mykonos, and we stopped briefly for a lecture at Corinth before taking a boat to Mykonos. With free time the next day, I woke up early and hiked around a part of the island (it’s much bigger than it looks!) and loved all the white buildings and blue shutters that characterize the town. After a great lunch of gyros, I went shopping with some friends. It was the very end of tourist season, so many stores had discounts on all of their merchandise. Almost everyone I know bought some form of gold or silver jewelry in Mykonos! I also, oddly enough, enjoyed a couple crepes in Mykonos. (Just prepping me for my time in Paris I suppose!) Our last evening we had an amazing meal in which I tried raw octopus, fish egg paste, and sea urchin, just to name a few! I made sure to try absolutely everything for good measure. We had sentimental speeches by our tour guide and teaching advisers seaside that evening.

Our last morning there was a local parade that took place along the sea in Little Venice. It seemed as though all of Mykonos came out in their Sunday best to celebrate an important political date in their history. I made sure to get a spot along the sidewalk to view the marching bands.

We returned to Rome that afternoon, exhausted from a very lengthy trip! I still am in disbelief of the amazing architectural and sculptural masterpieces I was able to see and learn about, combined with the incredible views of various parts of Greece we saw while hiking. I’m missing the Greek food already and wish we could have brought some back with us! I’ll never forget how kind and welcoming the Greek people were to us, and definitely hope to return someday.

eating until our belts snapped

eating until our belts snapped

Poland is a country full of gorgeous landscapes, hospitable people, and amazing food.  I may be a bit bias, considering I am Polish-American, but once you experience it for yourself you will forever understand.  Just thinking of the hot, delicious pumpkin soup and delectable pierogi is making my mouth water.

The JFRC had two study trips organized for our fall break: one to Greece and the other to, you guessed it, Poland.  While many immediately went for the Greece trip, I knew that going to Poland was a no-brainer.  Why wouldn’t I want to go to the motherland?  Plus, Poland would actually look and feel like fall.  All of September and October, when in Chicago it was cold, Rome had been hot and humid.  There were no leaves changing colors.  No cool, crisp fall air blowing.  But, I knew Poland would give me my much need fall fix: and boy did it.

We arrived first in Warsaw, whereupon I immediately felt right at home.  Warsaw is a city similar to those in the US: full of people, skyscrapers, public transit, and endless shops.  We were walking along one of the main streets when I suddenly caught a whiff of a familiar smell.  It was coffee, and it was coming from somewhere that in America I had been an extremely loyal customer: Starbucks.  I, of course, had to get a comfort coffee to, one, remind myself of home, but two, to appreciate the Western phenomena of to-go cups.  I love Italian coffee, but you can only drink it at the bar and they give such a feeble amount.  I miss being able to get a huge coffee and then walk all over Chicago with it keeping me warm.

Our first night in Poland was a wonderful taste of what was to come.  There were mountains of Polish meats, pierogi, potato pancakes, a huge bowl of Greek salad, and cups of beetroot soup.  While I was only able to eat the salad and soup, both were delicious.  For dessert, I devoured a vanilla sundae topped with warm cherry sauce: truly divine.  By the end of the meal, our stomachs matched that of Santa Claus’s and we had to be rolled out the door like Cutlet in Animal Café.

After visiting the stare miasto, becoming educated at the World War II museum, listening in rapture to a ninety year old Auschwitz survivor, and getting hooked on a new coffee chain, Coffee Heaven, we left Warsaw and headed by train to Torun.

Torun is a tiny medieval town that accommodates to college students and gingerbread lovers.  It is home to the Nicolaus Copernicus University and a gingerbread museum: both of which we visited.  We went to Nicolaus Copernicus for a human rights symposium that was completely amazing and provoking.  The museum, on the other hand, was…entertaining.   Let’s just say reenactments are not my thing.  From Torun, we headed to Krakow, a city rich with jazz music and culture.  We visited the Schindler museum, had an emotional experience at Auschwitz, ate more pierogi, and lived Real World style in an apartment.

I was extremely sad to leave Poland, even though I was ready for a break from traveling.  Already, I wish I could go back.  I miss the food, the people, and the coffee.  Plus, compared to Rome, Poland is super cheap.  If you are a person on a budget, go to Poland because not only will get more for your zloty, but you will see how lovely and worthwhile the country truly is!

Halloween in Vietnam

Halloween in Vietnam

Halloween in Vietnam was a strange experience for me. There was certainly no chill in the air, the usual signal that Halloween is here and fall is in full swing. Instead we sweltered in 90-degree heat while attempting to apply face paint and costumes to 40 squirming bodies. We spent our Halloween at SMILE, our service placement in Vietnam that works with children affected by HIV.

It’s a strange thing to explain Halloween to someone that has no concept of it but I did my best to explain that it was a day devoted to dressing up and going door to door to collect candy. (I debated explaining the significance behind All Hallows Eve or even Dia de Los Muertos but I was struggling enough to translate the basic facts). We did all the things that kids in America love to do: bob for apples, pumpkin carving, games and finally a make shift piñata that produced more screaming and excitement than it did candy.

We also gave the kids cookies we had made ourselves. We had spent the previous night baking dozens and dozens of chocolate chip cookies for the Halloween party; and here’s something I did not know, children in Vietnam don’t like chocolate chip cookies! More for us I guess. Despite the confused looks, the sweaty face paint and the lack of love for our cookies, both the American students and the kids had a great time!

The next night we attended a Halloween party put on by our roommate’s English club. Apparently we were the main attraction, we spent the majority of the night being asked to have our pictures taken or to pose with people we had never met!



Our first day in Cambodia was an adventure to say the least. Stuck at a ferry terminal for five hours (despite the large bribe we paid to get to the front of the line) gave us a glimpse of what Cambodia is like for the people who live there. It is a stunning country, words truly do not do it justice. But I have  a hard time reconciling the beauty with the absolute poverty of the people who live there. On our five-hour stop we had plenty of time to walk around the city we stopped in. I had read about it and even braced myself for it but seeing street children begging, babies literally playing in piles of garbage and children no older than 5 picking up plastic bottles barefoot made my heart ache. These are things that I like to push to the back of my mind, pretend they aren’t actually happening because they are happening in a country across the world. It’s strange how my brain immediately starts scrambling for a justification, a way to make sense of what I’m seeing.

I felt the same sort of brain scrambling-justification the next day when we went to see Toul Sleng high school and the killing fields. I had read about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, I had even done a project on them in high school, but this was different. This was brutal history still deeply impacting the present. Our tour guide was a survivor of Pol Pot’s regime. This almost seems unnecessary to say because nearly anyone over 35 years old lived through the Khmer Rouge. Everyone we met on the trip had a very personal story about how their lives were forever changed by Pol Pot’s reign. One tour guide watched her father and brother be taken away and never saw them again. Our tour guide at Angkor Wat wouldn’t speak of that time other than to say, “everyone had a gun, everywhere you look they had guns.” It was an eye-opening experience.

Luckily we had some more uplifting experiences planned, after Phnom Penh we headed for Siem Reap and spent two amazing days at Angkor Wat exploring the temples. If you have never seen pictures of Angkor Wat, google them now. This place is astounding. I was continuously at a loss for words as I wandered through these behemoth temples built by the Kings of Angkor. I have never felt so small! Against all odds, I managed to find a deserted corner and had my first perfect moment in Cambodia.

I’ll be heading back next month when my sister comes to visit and even then, I don’t think it will be enough time in Cambodia…

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our visit to Auschwitz.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our visit to Auschwitz.

I have something to admit, readers. For the last week I’ve been avoiding writing this blog, because I wasn’t sure if I could process it. Even as I type I’m still not sure exactly what I’m going to say, so I’m just going to start talking and see what comes out.

Let me start off by saying that the reason I decided to go on the Poland trip was because we would be seeing Auschwitz. The topic of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular, has always been an “interesting” topic to me (I hesitate to use the word interesting but I can’t come up with a better one). Especially in the last few years I’ve found myself reading, watching, and learning more about the horrors that took place in the camp. So when I learned that the Poland trip would be going to see it I knew that I had to be a part of it.

The topic of Auschwitz, however, became a huge part of the trip even before we left Warsaw. After we were already in Poland we were told that an incredible opportunity had come up. One of the alumni leading our trip, Jim, had set up a meeting with an Auschwitz survivor for us for the following afternoon. We would get to hear his story, ask him questions, and hear about his life now. This, we could already tell, was going to be an incredible and eye-opening experience.

The next day we met up in a conference room of the Westin Hotel. We all eagerly awaited his arrival, not sure exactly what to expect. The first thing we noticed when George came in was how incredibly happy he looked. He couldn’t stop smiling as he took his seat in the front of the room while we all leaned forward ready to hear his story.

George went through his entire life, from before the war, to life in Auschwitz, to the foundation he set up after the war. He was speaking about such hardships, and yet you could hear the passion and love for life he had with every word. It was so inspiring to see that he, who had been through so much and so many unimaginable events, was able to still have a spark and love for everything he did. Speaking with him was one of those experiences that I know I’ll never forget.

The group with George

I think that hearing George’s story made walking through the gates of Auschwitz the following Wednesday that much more real. The town of Oświęcim is a quiet town that at first glance you would never know housed one of the largest and more infamous death camps of WWII. But when you walk up and see the sign “Auschwitz” the feeling of quiet and calmness turns into a stomach quenching feeling. It’s hard to describe what emotions I felt walking into Auschwitz. I’ve read so much about it, see so many documentaries, but nothing prepared me for actually being there.

The first thing you see when walking into the camp is the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes You Free” sign. It was then when I became overwhelmed with emotions. How many people have walked under this sign that didn’t live to see the end of the war? How many Jews, Catholics, Poles, POWs were walked under this sign and forced to labor till their deaths? The feeling of standing where they all stood was….indescribable. It’s been over a week now and I’m still unable to put into words how that felt.

Our guide took us through the different parts of the camp, showing us part that had been preserved along with massive displays set up that showed some of the items that people brought with them in their luggage before all their possessions were ripped away. We saw rooms full of shoes, pots, and suitcases, most of which still had the name of the person written in big white letters on it. The most disturbing display, however, was the room full of hair, cut off of women when they entered the camp. It was one of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen. Knowing that they were stripped with nothing, not even their hair, made the place so much more haunting than I had imagined it would be.

That feeling only grew, however, as our guide told us that he was taking us to see a gas chamber. I was shocked that one was still in existence, as I was under the impression that they had all been destroyed before the camp was liberated, but our guide told us that this was one of the original ones, and that not only would we be seeing it but we would also be walking through it. I felt terrified as we entered, knowing how many innocent people had been murdered in the spot we were standing. I remember clutching my rosary in my purse, trying to calm myself down from how overwhelming it was to be in there. Even now thinking about it I feel sick to my stomach.

From Auschwitz we took a shuttle to Birkenau, the larger camp that you see when talking about Auschwitz (technically both places are together under the name Auschwitz-Birkenau). Most of this camp was destroyed by the Nazis before it was liberated, but you can still see the chimneys of the buildings, some of the structures, and the railroad tracks that the trains would come into the camp on. This was without a doubt the most moving part of our visit. Our guide told us to come forward and stand behind a line on the ground, next to the tracks. He told us that this was where people were judged, within seconds, if they should live or immediately be sent off to the gas chambers. Around the spot were real pictures, taken by the Nazis, that showed people standing where we were and having their fate decided. Chilling doesn’t even describe it.

One of the train cars that would bring people to the camp

Auschwitz, for all its horrors, I think is a place that everyone needs to see in their lifetime. It’s a place that moves us, teaches us, and shows us why we must never forget what humans are capable of but, more importantly, what humans are capable of overcoming.

“We Wanted to Be Free and Owe that Freedom to Nobody.” Poland Trip Fall 2012

“We Wanted to Be Free and Owe that Freedom to Nobody.” Poland Trip Fall 2012

Let me start off this blog by saying that I never, ever, thought that I would find myself in Poland this semester. I’m not Polish, I have no ties to the country, and just never even considered putting it on my list. But for some reason when the day came to sign up to go on the trip (way back in the beginning of September) I kept finding myself drawn to the trip. Around 4pm I decided to go check out the list, assuming it would be full, just to get it out of my system. I dragged my buddy Fernando with me to the business office and asked, casually, if the list was full.

“Oh, there’s actually two spots open,” she said.

I turned to Fernando, wide-eyed, and without a word of discussion I turned back to her. “We’ll take them!”

Best. Decision. Ever.

The view over Warsaw!

17 fellow students, one SLA (Emily!) the Beazleys,the alumni leading the trip and myself met up in Warsaw to begin the trip. From the first dinner there (more on food in a future blog!) we knew it was going to be a great trip.  Our first night in Warsaw we found ourselves in a bar listening to traditional Polish music and dancing with a 70-year-old+ entertainer who would pull us from the audience and swing us around until the whole group was dancing. It was silly, amazing, and a great way to kick off the trip.

Luke dancing with our entertainer!

The Poland trip, however, did have a very serious theme to it. The trip was based around a Human Rights Symposium held in Torun at the Nicolaus Copernicus University (more on that later), and throughout the trip we were visiting museums and discussing World War II and what life was like in an occupied country. The first full day in Warsaw we went to the Uprising Museum, which covers just about every topic of WWII, from artillery to Nazi propaganda. The most striking part of the museum to me, however, was a movie that took you on a virtual flight over the city of Warsaw in 1945. The city was absolutely destroyed, leaving only 1,000 citizens living among the ruble. Looking at Warsaw now it’s incredible to think that just over 60 years ago it was essentially flattened but has been able to pull itself back up into the thriving city that it is today.

Armbands of the members of the Uprising

After the Uprising Museum we had the incredibly privilege of talking with an Auschwitz survivor. The topic of Auschwitz is so important and was so moving that I’m writing another full post on just that, so I’ll talk more about meeting him and seeing Auschwitz there. But let’s just say that we all left his talk feeling incredibly blessed and so fortunate that he was able to share his story with us.

The next day we set off for Torun, a beautiful small town that’s home to the Nicolaus Copernicus University.  John Kurowski, one of the alumni leading our trip, has been a visiting professor at the University multiple times and seven years ago set up this Human Rights Symposium to facilitate discussion among Polish and American students on different human rights topics. This years topic was “Trafficking in Human Beings: A 21st Century International Crime.” The first night in Torun we watched an extremely moving movie that depicted what life was like as a girl who was being trafficked. The movie left us all shaken up and a little uneasy. That feeling of uneasiness, however, was then able to lead to discussion and debate over the topic. Even at the dinner afterward tables were still discussing parts of the movie that they found particularly disturbing, and how this topic was so much bigger than any of us originally thought.

The next day we got to the heart of the Symposium, listening to talks and discussing the topic of trafficking with experts on the topic, including one woman, Iana Matei, who kidnaps girls from the traffickers. Can you believe it?? When asked about what it felt like to kidnap girls away from a huge organized crime industry she just replied, “It’s easy. And really fun!” So much courage.

After the Symposium and a visit to a Gingerbread Museum where we got to make our own gingerbread while learning the secret recipe (which we had to swear on our life not to tell!) all the students and administrators of the Symposium met up for dinner and then drinks at a bar near the campus. We were able to mingle with Polish students studying at the University, along with American students studying in Bologna in Italy who had also attended the Symposium. You could hear the cry of “Na zdoróvye!” (Polish for “Cheers!”) throughout the room as we got to know each other better. By the end of the night we all left old pals, hugging and promising to “find each other on Facebook!”

Me making gingerbread!

The next day we set off on a six hour train ride to Krakow. We settled in our 19 person apartment (18 college students + 1 SLA + 1 apartment = amazing and fun mayhem) before setting off for the Schindler Museum. For those who know the story or have seen the movie, the museum is inside Schindler’s factory, and gives you a tour of life pre and during WWII. My personal favorite part of the museum was the last room, which was just a circular round room with quotes from worker’s in the Schindler factory. The quote that stuck out to me the most was “He employed me in his factory although he know I would be useless for him.” Incredible.

Kitchenware made in the Schindler Factory during WWII

The next day after a night in our cozy apartment we headed to Auschwitz. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be doing another post on that topic, so I won’t say much about it here. But I will say that it was without a doubt the most moving and emotional place I’ve ever seen. More on that later, though.

That night was our last official night in Poland, as we commemorated the trip with another amazing dinner. It was hard to believe that it had already been 6 days, and that the trip was coming to a close. Speeches were made, baby Annie (the Beazley’s one-year-old daughter) was passed around the table, and we talked for three hours reflecting on how amazing the trip had been. In a lot of ways the Poland trip is a very heavy one. You spend a great deal of time discussing sometimes uncomfortable topics, like Human Trafficking, and experiencing feelings that overwhelm you and really shakes you to the core. This was a trip that changes and affects you, and I can already tell that it will be one of, if not the main, highlight of my study abroad experience.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

The above quote is so fitting for this post that it’s almost frightening. Allow me to explain.

First, as I go through this semester I’ve been discovering things about myself that I never knew existed. Traveling does that to you, I suppose. You’re put into a new situation with CRAZY opportunities and you begin to find yourself through the experiences you have and people you meet along the way.

Second, as you begin to discover all the opportunities you begin to realize how much this world has given to you. This world has given you LIFE and POSSIBILITY. Every day I’m here I feel more and more called to give back to this wonderful place that has already given me so much. SO when the JForce announced that we would be having a service day I jumped at the chance to lose myself in the service of others.

Third, when Gandhi visited Rome he stayed at the house literally right outside our campus gates. In Monte Mario. Where we had a service day where we tried to lose ourselves in the service of others. It’s fate.

Let me tell you about this service day. After meeting up in the morning (and receiving our free shirts!) we set off for the park in Monte Mario. As we were heading out Cindy (our Associate Dean of Students) told us that instead of walking herself and the man facilitating the clean-up had offered to drive us up to the park. We were already thrilled that we didn’t have to walk to the park when we saw the car pull up that would be driving us there. We would be riding in a Jaguar to the park! Even I, who knows nothing about cars, was excited to cruise through the streets of Monte Mario in the back of a Jag.

After a much too short drive we arrived at the park, and began the cleanup, which entailed moving branches and brush off a path and out of the main part of the park so that the take-away crew could get to it. It was quite a sight seeing all the boys carrying huge logs while the girls dragged branches the size of small trees up the hill. By the end we were covered in dirt, sweaty, but somehow still smiling and laughing at how silly we all looked.

After the cleanup we were lead on a walking tour of the park, where we got to see amazing overlooks over the whole city of Rome. We could see the stadium, the Vatican (somehow no matter where you are you can always see it!), and even the Jewish Temple in the distance. It was absolutely stunning.

After the tour the fun continued with lunch! The men that showed us the mark barbequed up pork sandwiches for us which were DELICIOUS. Served up on fresh Italian bread it hit the spot after a morning of hard work. And they were more than happy to give us seconds (and in some cases thirds!) Just when we thought the morning couldn’t get any better or tastier they brought out a HUGE box of pastries and desserts from the Sicilian bakery in Piazza Balduina. So good! We even grabbed a few to eat on the ride back. Let me tell you I never thought I would find myself covered in mud sitting in the back of a Jaguar eating sweets. But in Rome absolutely anything is possible!

Eating our dessert in the back of the Jag!