For as long as I’ve wanted to study abroad in France, I knew I would want to visit Poland during the semester. The majority of my heritage is Polish, and I grew up eating a lot of Polish food and practicing certain Polish traditions like eating pork and sauerkraut for good luck on New Years. Poland is only a two hour flight from Paris, so if I was going to go see where I come from, I knew there would be no better time than while I was studying abroad. Another reason I had for wanting to visit Poland is that a friend of mine from high school currently lives in Krakow, the town my great-grandparents are from. It seemed like fate to be able to not only visit my dear friend after being apart for five years, but also to see my heritage from a local’s perspective rather than a tourist’s perspective. Once I got to France I worked out the details with my friend and booked my flight to Krakow to ensure I took advantage of this great opportunity.
For St. Patrick’s Day weekend my friend, Onyoo, kindly opened her home to me and my friend Clara and showed us all around the city. When we arrived in Poland, the first thing we had on the agenda was to meet up with Onyoo for dinner. This required us to get from the airport to the city center. We asked the info desk how to do that and then confidently headed on our way. Our confidence was quickly shattered when we realized that outside of the airport English was not as widely spoken as we had thought. The announcements for the stops on the train were all in Polish and so was our map. The language barrier definitely posed a challenge for us and had me very concerned that not only would we be late but that we would also be lost in a foreign country at night. I couldn’t help but think back to all the times my grandma had tried to teach me Polish and wish that I had been able to pick it up. Speaking the language would have probably helped us to get where we needed to go faster, but eventually Clara’s phone GPS began to work again, so we were able to find our way to Onyoo. We got in later than planned, so the only place still open was a French cafe, which was ironic given that we had just come from France. I introduced my friends to each other, and we spent the remainder of the evening chatting and enjoying each other’s company.
Over the next couple of days, we were able to see so much of what Krakow had to offer. We started off our first full day by going on a tour of the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine, which was well worth a visit. The mine is unlike anything I had ever visited before. The whole thing is made of salt and even has incredibly detailed sculptures that you would think were made by artists, but they were actually made by the miners. Wieliczka is still used for salt production today but only by using the water that runs through the mine. There is also a spa and wellness center underground, because, according to our tour guide, breathing the salty air has proved to be beneficial for one’s health in many ways including reduction of asthma and allergy issues. In addition to the wellness center, Wieliczka is also home to several underground stores and numerous chapels also built by the minors so they could pray for their safety while they worked. While I walked through the chapels and other areas of the mine, I wondered if any of my ancestors had ever worked there. I also contemplated the strong likelihood that my ancestors got their salt from the place I was now touring. During our tour we went over 50 stories below ground and spend half the day touring the mine, yet we only saw 1 percent of the mine. The area that we saw was so expansive I would have easily believed it if the tour guide had told me it was the entire mine, so I was in shock to hear that we had not even come close to seeing the entire thing. I left in awe and was ready to see more of Krakow.
The rest of our time was spent roaming around downtown Krakow. Since Easter was the following weekend, the entire town square was transformed into one giant open air market. It was full of stands with locals selling traditional foods, handmade ceramics and dishes, candy, souvenirs, clothes and pretty much anything else you could imagine. With the shopping center that sold more traditional handmade gifts and famous Polish amber right next door, it was a tourist’s dream. We spent the majority of our weekend walking around the market shopping, watching children perform traditional dances and trying the traditional foods that I eat at home like pierogies and kielbasa. We also tried some new foods like grilled goat cheese with jam and loved it. For me, it was so exciting to walk around a place that I have a connection to and try the authentic versions of my normal food as I went. Every dance, traditional outfit and market booth made me think, “So this is my what my culture is really like. This is what kinds of things my ancestors wore/did/ate.” At times I even imagined what it would be like if I had grown up there or if I moved there. I asked Onyoo lots of questions to get an idea of what this imaginary life in Poland would be like. My connection to Krakow made it really important for me to try everything I could and to buy lots of presents for my family. Though we felt like we were spending tons of money because of the exchange rate, we actually were hardly spending any at all. My 100 euros was actually worth over 400 Polish Zlotych, so for once I found myself not having to worry about how much I was spending. I did and ate everything I wanted to and bought handmade gifts and polish amber for everyone in my family. Since I didn’t have to be as concerned about money, I was also able to visit Wawel Castle, the local museum, the Jewish Quarter and several local Catholic basilicas during my stay.
As I explored the different areas of Krakow, I was amazed at how much it felt like home to me. Most of the older people resemble my grandparents in both looks and personality. I was constantly seeing Grandpas teasing their grandchildren just like my grandpa. Hearing the language everywhere reminded me of all the times my grandma used Polish words, or even when she tried to teach me Polish as a child. Even the food tasted like home. As I sat in restaurants halfway around the world eating potato pancakes, I couldn’t help but think back to the last time my mom made potato pancakes while my sister and I were home for a break. The longer I was there I even started to pick out some of my own personality traits in the Polish. I saw many people with facial structures and coloring similar to mine, I heard countless people say how much the Polish love potatoes and how much they love chocolate, two things I am known for being slightly obsessed with. It was the most amazing feeling to make those connections and walk around saying, “So this is where I come from.” I still can’t help but wonder what it was like when my great grandparents were living here, but seeing as it is one a few cities unscathed by WWII, I imagine it was much the same. I will take pride knowing I walked the same streets as my ancestors and I had an authentically local experience by staying with Onyoo and learning about this great city and it’s people from her.
While I was with Onyoo I got to not only spend the whole weekend around a more familiar culture, reminiscing about high school while also learning new things about myself and my culture. It was just the perfect taste of home I needed halfway through the semester. Now that I’m at the end of my study abroad, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on what I learned while I was here, and I think that what I learned about myself and my family while in Poland was probably the most valuable of all the experiences I had. When it comes to learning about where you come from, there is just no substitute for taking a trip there. I can’t wait to go home and be able to share this trip with my family and give them all a little more of a taste of where we come from.