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First Trip of the semester: Kraków, Poland

First Trip of the semester: Kraków, Poland

Here it is finally: my blog post for my first trip of the semester! Took me a while to sit down and write it properly…

Kraków, Poland January 26th-31st.

I never in a million years thought I would travel to Poland, let alone Kraków, a city I had never even heard of. There wasn’t any particular reasoning, it was more that I knew nothing of the country and therefore had no desire to travel there.

Serendipity always catches me when I least expect it. Some night in the beginning of the semester, a lot of us were all hanging out in our friend Zach’s apartment. I remember distinctly sitting on his desk when my roommate Cami and our friend Nick said let’s go to Poland. In the matter of an hour, we had booked flights and accommodation—it was all so surreal! As I do when I get excited, I started shrieking with joy, almost bouncing off Zach’s desk. It was going to be my first trip of the semester, for 6 entire days, with 5 other strangers who I would soon call my good friends. Poland here we go!

Like I mentioned, I went to Kraków with five people: Cami (roommate, Argentina), Will (North Dakota, USA), Zach (Michigan, USA), Sam (Adelaide, Australia), and Nick (Auckland, New Zealand). These were still people I barely knew and yet I was about to travel to a different country with them—utter craziness.

The trip began with an early morning, meeting outside the local grocery store, Rema, at approximately 6:00am. Ironically, Sam; the eccentric and lovable Australian, otherwise known as Sammy K, Gutten (The Boy, in Norwegian), and various other names; happens to not show up. Turns out, in anticipation for our big journey, he had woken up at 4am only to fall asleep again and miss his alarm. He miraculously got ready in 10-ish minutes and then we were all set to go, even though Sam was upset he couldn’t perfect his hairstyle for the day (he really loves his hair).

It was funny how little we knew about where to go and what to do to get to the airport. Thankfully Cami is a strong, take-charge Argentinian and while at Oslo Central Station she found a nice gentleman who literally walked us to the Airport Express train we needed to take. While on the train, I dozed off as I was thinking about how I was already leaving Norway when I had only just moved here…

Once at the airport, we got our boarding passes. In the Norwegian airport, to get to the security line, you must scan your boarding pass. Of course, I go first and the pass I scanned wasn’t working. The machine kept saying, “Wrong airport, check boarding pass”. This cumulated in me panicking that we somehow had the wrong airport and that we were basically screwed. Luckily, Nick—who is the most responsible person I think I have ever met—happens to be the intelligent one who realizes that I was trying to scan my boarding pass for our stopover in Trondheim to Kraków, rather than Oslo to Trondheim. Thank the heavens for Nick!

On the plane, Will, Zach and I all sat separately while Cami, Nick, and Sam sat in the same row. It was nice to get some alone time to read my book before such a long trip. Like I always do, I packed an absurd amount of food to eat because I vow never to purchase anything in an airport (don’t ask why, because it is just a weird quirk I have). I gorged on my veggies, bread, and avocado while I awaited landing.

When we arrived, the guys all converted some money—I didn’t because I wanted better rates—and then we found a taxi driver to take us to our hostel. This driver was such a nice guy, and just a wonderful way to start the trip! We asked him how to say basic words in Polish, like “hello”, and “thank you”. The most important word we wanted to know was how to say “cheers” in Polish, which now I know is “Nazdrowie”, pronounced ‘nostrovia’! He told us all about the city, some cool places to go, as well as his home town that was a few hours outside the city. As we drove, I kept getting more and more excited to be in such a different place.

We finally got to our hostel and we couldn’t figure out where it was exactly. The hostel was located in what seemed like an apartment building but we had somehow found the courtyard in the center of it, rather than a front desk to check in. After a few minutes of confusion, this cute, little Polish man greeted us and showed us to our room. We had one room for all six of us with 3 bunk beds. It was cozy, to say the least! Sam and I took the bunk bed in the corner near the window, and he was kind enough to let me have the bottom bed.

Us in the courtyard of the building when we were lost trying to check in to the hostel.
The view from the window in the common area.
The crew within the first few minutes of entering our room we would call home for 6 days.

Before we had even settled in, the man (who I believe might have been the owner) came back upstairs with six complimentary shots of mint vodka—the best vodka I have ever had in my life. The hostel apparently provides one free shot of vodka a day, and unlimited malt wine—to which we took full advantage of while we were there. I told my Polish friend back in the states about it, and he said that was the most Polish thing he has ever heard. It was a great, culturally infused stay already!

Once unpacked, we left to go exploring. Our hostel was located right outside old town, with the Jewish quarter a short walk away as well. All the roads are cobblestone and the buildings are beautiful and historic. The Wawel Royal Castel and Cathedral was where we watched our first sunset in Kraków, as well as took some group photos.

The group walking in front of Wawel Castle.
S/O to Cami for capturing this candid photo of us taking in the views – Nick, me, Zach, Will, Sam
My flatmate, Cami and I.
The beautiful sunset outside the castle.

We did some of the usual touristy attractions. We went to the Schindler’s Museum, which I highly recommend, as well at toured the Wawel Royal Castel and Cathedral. To gain access we bought tickets for about $2 and it was well worth the money. The cathedral is astonishingly beautiful; however, photographs were forbidden. I snuck a quick one of one room I was in because the ceiling was just too beautiful to ever forget. I was glad we took the time to go there.

Outside the Cathedral.
The ceiling I illegally took a photo of because it was so impressively gorgeous.

The Kraków historical foundation provides free walking tours of the city to anyone who wishes to go on one to learn more about the city and its history. Nick, Cami, and I lost the other three guys when we were making our way to get lunch before our 2’oclock tour. Where they went is a story that is better told in person, but because of that setback we didn’t get lunch before the tour began. All the guys and Cami just quickly got McDonalds, but the ethical environmentalist in me would not give in to getting anything from the popular food chain, so I withheld from eating basically the entire day. The tour lasted four long hours in the cold. It was certainly interesting but as I was tired, cold, and starving, I was starting to feel closer to a zombie than an excited tourist. I never, ever miss a meal, so this was quite peculiar for me. I still remember the relief when we finally headed back to our hostel and stopped at a quaint Polish restaurant where I ate my first traditional Polish soup, that will undoubtedly, forever be the best soup I have ever eaten. (It was some fermented soup with a hard-boiled egg and sausage).

On that note, all of Poland is impeccably cheap, and we lived like kings and queens while we were there. The hostel didn’t have a kitchen, so we literally ate out at every single meal and went out on the town every night. It was a nice juxtaposition to Norway, in which absolutely everything is absurdly overpriced and I have yet to eat out even once. For breakfast, we always went to this bagel shop for delicious bagels and coffee. For lunch and dinner, we would try to eat Polish foods, or even just cheap bread that you could get on every street corner by a vender. At night, during and/or after going out, we would always get kebabs—always. I think a really good kebab is probably my favorite meal on this planet. I can’t begin to describe to you how much I miss those massive, two-dollar kebabs with fresh meat and spicy sauce. (Sadly, I have no photographs of the glorious kebabs).

The massive amount of sushi we got for dinner on the first night – Sam even befriended our waiter enough to hug him when we left!
My last dinner in Kraków – very Polish, very cheap, and very delicious!

In fact, one our favorite kebab places happened to have a shisha bar beneath it. On our third or fourth night (they kind of blend together at this point), we had gotten kebabs and then decided to spend the night chilling and talking around a big hookah. Instead however, Cami, Nick, and Sam decided they weren’t feeling it and left to go home. That left the three of us: Will, Zach and I. The owner of the bar came over at one point to offer us free tea, and then proceeded to sit down with us for one of the best two hour long conversations of my life. His name was Mustafa, an Egyptian muslim who immigrated to Poland. We talked about so many controversial topics, but in such a respectful, eye-opening manner. We discussed the racism in Poland, what his experience as a Muslim has been, his children, Israel, Syria and the refugees, and more. He was such an open, humble man and I was grateful to share that conversation with Zach and Will. We left the bar around 3am thankful for the time we had spent there.

Some other significant people I met while in Poland were two women from our hostel. One was a 21-year-old Australian, Tess, who we only were able to spend time with for one night before she left the following day for her next adventure. Tess was such a free-living person with a high degree of independence and an aura of maturity beyond her years. One word I would use to describe Tess is fiery. As she is my age, I found it fascinating to get to know her, hear her life story, and learn what she plans to do with her life.

The other woman who made an impact on me was named Brenda, a 60-year-old Brit who has traveled previously to Kraków and returned because she loves it. She, too, was intriguing to me. She had divorced about 10 years prior and now was doing what she had always wanted to do—travel and feel free. I thought she had such courage to do what she was doing, and her story, like Tess’s, really touched me. Us three talked together for hours in the hostel, before Brenda took my friends and I to a great pub in the Jewish district, called Alchemy. We later went to a club to go dancing and I could tell Brenda was having the best time. At one point, she literally pulls me aside and tells me thank you. I asked what for, and she said she was grateful that we made her feel young for the night—that we didn’t treat her as this old woman who was tagging along. I smiled and told her she was the youngest one out of all of us…

The next day, Tess had already left and Brenda was leaving in the afternoon. Before she left, I made sure I said goodbye. She gave me the warmest hug, squeezed my shoulder, and told me not to stress; that I will figure out my life in due time…

Me, Brenda, Cami, and Tess at the end of the night when we went out. 

An ironic, funny in retrospect, moment of my trip was when I woke up early one morning to go for a run. We had been out super late the night before, but I had promised myself that I was going to still go for runs while we were in Poland since we were there for such a long time. So, despite a lack of adequate sleep, I somehow woke up naturally at 9am and quietly got dressed to go for a run. Poland was even colder than Norway at the time so I dressed fairly warm and set out for a short run.

Within the first five minutes some woman stopped me and began speaking polish to me. When I said I didn’t speak polish, she waved her hands in defeat and kept walking. Confused, I started up running again. All awhile, everyone I passed kept staring at me. I was slightly uncomfortable to be honest. It made me wonder if Polish people had ever seen a runner before or something. Not 10 minutes later, another woman stopped me on the street and this time when I said I didn’t speak polish, she answered in English. Turns out that the pollution in the city was something like one-hundred times worse than usual and there was a general warning put out to stay indoors. She said I should cut my run short for my health. It scared me, so I ended up only running for 30 minutes and I held my hand over my mouth, almost like a mask, to try limit my inhalations of polluted air.

Upon returning, hence the ‘funny in retrospect’ part of the story, the hostel door was locked and no one was answering the it. I was stuck now in this freezing hallway, sweaty and hungry, with no hope of getting indoors. I messaged my friends in our group chat repeatedly starting from 10:26 to about 10:46 upon which I was just about to give up hope. I decided to knock one last time in desperation, as at this point I was violently shivering from the cold. Suddenly Brenda opens the door!! She heard my knock and apologized for not hearing it sooner (such a sweetheart). I thought I was going to cry I was so happy. I then immediately proceeded to enter our room and screamed for my friends to wake up. They awoke grumpy and confused as to why I was loudly waking them up. I explained and they laughed as they read my messages I sent them while they were sleeping. Looking back, it was pretty funny, but at the time it wasn’t the best… For your entertainment, attached below are my messages I sent to the group. They are quite amusing, now I am sitting here in my warm kitchen with a full stomach…. Again, bless Brenda, my savoir <3

The first set of messages I began to send in our group chat
The more desperate messages followed the longer I was locked outside.

On a different note, another crucial aspect of my venture to Kraków was visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. About a week before we left, Cami asked if we would be ok with doing a six-hour tour on our second to last day. We all thought that was a good idea, but I was scared about how I would handle it. I am Jewish, and I had family members who had lived and died within the camp. Cami and the guys said they would be there for me, and I appreciated it whilst knowing it would be a difficult day.

I can’t really go into detail about everything I felt and experienced while I was there. I truly hate crying in front of people, even in front of myself for that matter, so at times I wished I were alone as we walked in and out of the buildings of the camp.

After three hours we got a break, and I had not brought any food, nor did I have any desire to eat. I knew I was probably starving, but I felt extremely sick to my stomach and couldn’t image taking a bit of anything. Sam, the sweetheart that he can be, bought me a slice of pizza without me knowing and gave it me. It was a surprisingly kind gesture that I needed to get through the last three hours of the tour.

It was a harrowing, but vital aspect of my trip, and I am grateful I was able to experience it. I highly recommend going if you are ever in Poland.

The entrance to the concentration camp – the only photo I took while there.

Now our trip was coming to a close, and it felt weird. Poland had become our home for what seemed like forever, but in reality it was only 6 days. On our last night, we ate a delicious Polish meal together to close the trip off. Mine, despite its size, cost me approximately $4, including the tea I got for dessert (sorry, still can’t get over how cheap everything was!). Some of my friends, Will specifically, mentioned how they were ready to leave and go home. I, on the other hand, was sad that we had to leave. I loved and still love Poland! I am not sure if it is because it was my first trip, or if it was actually because I loved it, however, I am more certain it is the latter. Even just writing this blog post helped me to remember all the crazy fun times we had there. Poland was the best place I have traveled thus far while studying abroad. It was such an awesome place; so beautiful, and so historical, and with a lovely group of people. I am extremely grateful for how things turned out.

Love ya, Poland. 🙂

The group: Nick, me, Zach, Will, Sam, Cami
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