Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Post 15: Meet Me in the Middle: Prague

Observation Deck at the MUC airport

Hello, I am guest blogger, Amanda and I am here to tell you about our adventures in Prague. Contrary to popular belief, Ryan and I are not independently wealthy and even though I would have loved to meet him in Krakow and tour some of Poland, two things were standing in my way. Number one, I couldn't get enough time off work and number two, I have a budget. I can fly for "free" only to places where my airline goes, and they do not go to Krakow. I could get to Munich on our airline, but then I would have to get some other sort of transportation to Poland. I can get "discount" tickets on other airlines, but they are for standby travel and sometimes that is more of a headache than it is worth.  I looked at the discount airlines, Easy Jet and RyanAir and thought about buying a full fare ticket, but they were not that cheap. The train or bus was an option, but it would take a full day to get from Munich to Krakow and I just did not have enough time off to waste another full day traveling. So getting to Krakow was problematic for me. Then Ryan was booking his trip back to Munich where he could then get on the "free"  (I keep putting that in quotes, because it is not really free, we still have to pay taxes on the cost of a full fare ticket) flight back to the USA and he noticed that he had to change buses in Prague. "Why don't you meet me half way in Prague?" he asked. And a plan was hatched.

Observation Deck was a nice place to sit and read
I again started looking at trains, planes and buses from Munich to Prague. I ended up taking a bus from Munich to Prague, planning to arrive in the morning. Ryan's bus from Krakow to Prague would arrive in the afternoon and we would then take an additional full day to tour the city before leaving for Munich together.

I flew from Seattle to Philadelphia to Munich all on American Airlines. I am very familiar with the Munich Airport because I used to work flights to Munich quite often. So it was very nice to have some time to kill at the airport before I caught my bus to Prague (I was taking the overnight bus!) I visited the observation deck at Munich Airport which was very cool and you could watch the planes landing and taking off. I found out later that there was actually a tour I could have done! Shucks, maybe next time. And I had a fabulous lunch in the beergarden. The weather was gorgeous and it was just a relaxing few hours. Then I had to board my night bus to Prague.

Flix Bus is packed
I chose the FlixBus company and I really liked it. They had wifi and the bus was very comfortable. It was completely full and I was glad that I had reserved a ticket ahead of time and not risked purchasing onboard from the driver. The trip from Munich to Prague was approximately 4 hours (the bus made 3 stops during the night) and I arrived in Prague at 7am in the morning. I thought I would tour around the city a bit and get my bearings before I came back to the bus station to greet Ryan arriving from Krakow. First of all, Ryan was coming in at a different bus station. I had arrived at the train station. These were two different places (and on the map, it only looked like they were half a mile a part), but I did not think I would have trouble finding the bus station. I headed out of the train station towards the Old Town section of Prague to look around. I was glad I walked around in the morning before the crowds arrived.

I saw several brides out early also getting their photos made with the great morning light and a lack of people milling about everywhere. Later in the day when we returned to Old Town, it would be wall to wall crowds everywhere.

The problem with being out so early in the morning was in finding a bathroom. I found out that the public restrooms were NOT OPEN yet. Many of them did not open until noon. I did ask at a few places where people were opening up, one hotel, a hostel and even one bar. But they all told me to use the public restrooms out in the square...The ones that were not even open yet. I did find one that had an automatic turnstile, but I needed change for it and I only had paper money, so then I had to find someone to make change for me. The going rate for the restrooms in Prague is approximately 50 cents. I decided then and there that I was not going to be able to drink anything for my entire stay in Prague, either that, or just sit in our hotel room and drink beer there!!

Of course it is under renovation
One of the most famous sites in Prague is their  Astronomical Clock. It was first installed in 1410 and is the oldest one in the world that is still operating. Although, while we were there we did not see it work. It was covered with scaffolding and undergoing repairs. It is very pretty though.  The dial has a background representing the Earth and sky and a zodiacal ring with all the signs of the zodiac, then an outer ring with the Sun and Moon phases. There are figures representing Vanity, Greed, and Lust and Death.  The Twelve Apostles also are represented above the clock.  I read several descriptions of how to read the clock, but never got the hang of it!! It is basically a mini planetarium! So I just appreciated the pretty carvings and artwork on it.
The netting is to protect them from pigeon droppings
What time is it?

I also scouted around and found several used bookstores, so that I could come back when they were open and look around. Then I headed back to the bus station to meet Ryan and I got incredibly lost. I had a map and I knew where I was trying to go, but the Old Town is just a maze of cobblestone streets and there are very few street signs telling you where you are to begin with!! I finally got out of the Old Town section and was back at the train station and then was trying to find my way out to the bus station. Part of the problem was crossing the train and tram tracks and one major highway that was between me and the bus station. when I finally got to the other side of the train tracks. I could not figure out what street I was actually on. I could see a crazy TV tower which is a sort of landmark in town and I knew where I had to be in relation to the TV tower. In short, I walked way out of my way and was in the wrong area. I had to backtrack quite a bit and I kept getting frustrated by the lack of street signs. And again in the maze of streets, I would think I could get across the train tracks and I would come up to a dead end and have to back track again and try to find a road that had a tunnel or bridge across the tracks. At least, once Ryan joins me I will KNOW where I am going. Since I had already gotten lost once, I was sure I would not make the same mistake again.

Lots of interesting architecture in Prague. This is a Cubist Kiosk

I can recognize a used bookstore in multiple languages

President Woodrow Wilson

I should also mention that the only word I could master in Czech was good day: Dobrý den (sounds like Doe-bree den) [Ryan's note: It sounds very much like the Polish dzień dobry with the words reversed--which made it easier for me to remember! There was quite a bit of words I'd hear that sounded vaguely Polish.]) This is most commonly used for all greetings. I kept forgetting the words for please and thank you and I couldn't get the pronunciation right anyway.  So I was pretty much stuck with saying dobry den and then just asking someone in English if they spoke English.  And pretty much everyone had some English. It was very easy to get around and talk to people. 
Winston Churchill

I waited at the bus station for Ryan and his bus was an hour and a half late. Luckily we had planned to meet by the Burger King in the bus station, so I had a place to sit and wifi and power and I could pay to go to the bathroom in the bus station (50 cents!!) 

When Ryan arrived, I suggested that we walk to our hostel by way of the Old Town and the square with the clock. I am an expert now since I got lost before he arrived. He agrees and we get to the square, which is now crowded with people in the late afternoon. Now to head out to our hostel. I am sure that I know the way [Ryan's note: despite my protests that my smartphone suggested the route she wanted to go was 180 degrees in the wrong direction], and off we go and we meander through the maze of streets and in a minute we end up right back at the Astronomical Clock!! I had gotten us lost AGAIN. Ryan of course thought this was hilarious. So we start out again and where I am POSITIVE we should turn right, Ryan suggests we go left instead. Every fiber in my being says to head to the right, but as we now know, that will just put us back towards the square. [Ryan's note: Every fiber of my being wanted to turn right as well, but my smartphone kept telling us left, and I trusted it more than I trusted myself or Amanda!] 

So we go left and lo and behold we get out of the maze of streets and are heading directly to our hostel! We check in and find that we have a private room which was unexpected. An added bonus of checking in relatively early and getting first pick of beds. Since I had taken the overnight bus and already walked all over Prague, I was beat and decided to go ahead to sleep. Ryan went back out for a little while to see the city as it was lit up at night along the river. And that was our first day in Prague. 

Loved the facade on this building

Monday, August 28, 2017

Post 14: School is in session!

Now, it's my turn to tell you about school. =) Emily's post was great, but I had written most of this already so I figured I may as well post it too--there are some details where our experiences differed.

I arrived early for my first day of school in Kraków. First, I wanted to make sure I got there in time. Being my first day, I gave myself extra time in case I took a wrong turn, a wrong bus, a wrong stop or whatever. Plus, I was supposed to have a short interview before classes started so they could assess my Polish thus far.

If the interview was being graded, I'm pretty sure I bombed it badly, but this wasn't a pass or fail test--it was a test to assess my abilities and get me in the right class best suited to my skill level.

Which is how I ended up in a class by myself! Wee! =)

Most of the students today showed up for the after-school activity of making żurek. =)
I think anytime they involve food, there's going to be a high turnout!

But that only lasted two days before I was approached and one of the teachers asked if it would be okay to move me to a class with some other students because they thought I'd get more out of it if I did. I'm not entirely convinced that that was the whole story--I had the impression there was some sort of scheduling conflict in the background they were trying to work out and it would be convenient not to have a teacher dedicated solely to teaching me each morning. To compensate for less of the one-on-one courses I was doing, though, they'd give me some extra one-on-one courses after the group class was over, and I was okay with that.

Also, I think they realized that I actually knew more Polish than they had realized based on my interview which was entirely hearing and speaking--definitely my weak points! After a couple of days of lessons, I think they realized that on a theoretical level, I could keep up with one of the group classes. That's not what they said--just my interpretation of the situation.

So on my third day at the school, I joined a class with four other students: one from England, two from Germany, and a fellow from Ireland.

And immediately, I felt way behind the others terms of hearing and speaking ability. The teacher would tell us to turn to a page, but I didn't know what page and would look at what the other students turned to and follow suit. I know my numbers--why the heck can't I hear them? Stupid head.

Marcel, from Germany, is on the right. Iwona (on the left) is the teacher handling this after-school activity, and I don't remember what they were talking about when I took this photo, but it probably had something to do with new words she was using since the board contains words like faruszek (apron) and obrus (tablecloth).

My favorite Marcel story: Monday morning, shortly before classes would start, Marcel asked me--in Polish--how was my weekend. And this particular weekend I hadn't really done much of anything. Wandered around Kraków a bit, but nothing particularly noteworthy so I told him, "Było nudne." (It was boring.)

He looked at me with a strange look, a little worry in his expression. And I suddenly realized that he didn't know what the word "nudne" meant. It's pronounced like "nude-nay." He didn't know the word, but he clearly heard the "nude" part and starting making assumptions about the word. And I quickly switched to English, "NOT NUDE! Nudny! It means boring! I had a boring weekend--and I had clothes on ALL weekend!" =) He laughed and said he said that he was glad to hear it, because he had, in fact, been worried that I was about to tell him more about my weekend than he really wanted to hear. =)

There were some definite differences between this school and my school in Sopot. For one thing, in this school, saying anything in English is all but forbidden. Even during breaks, talking with other students, we'd continue trying to speak in Polish. Often times I wanted to say something, but unsure of how to say it in Polish, I'd just not say anything at all.

In class, if I asked about a word that I didn't know, they'll try to tell you its meaning by speaking in Polish, often turning into games of charades or Pictionary--anything but actually tell you the English translation of the word. Only when all else fails and you still couldn't understand the word several minutes later they might give you the word in English.

I suppose this is good for learning Polish, but it can be frustrating at times when the Polish explanation of a word doesn't immediately explain it.

English was so uncommon, in fact, it was two or three weeks into class when I heard the German guy, Marcel, speak a full English sentence to me and I was absolutely floored that he didn't have that traditional German accent I would have expected. I literally had NO idea what his English sounded like the first couple of weeks we had classes together!

Emily--you remember her from her guest post--was from England, but it still took me by surprise the first time I heard her speak English a week or two after we met--she had a British accent! Which, I know, doesn't seem surprising since she is from England, but I never heard a trace of that British accent in her Polish and that's all we ever spoke, so I kind of forgot that she would likely have a British accent. I'd met a French student in Sopot who, even when speaking Polish, you could hear a French accent. Our native languages can seep into our non-native languages. But Emily--nope, I never heard a trace of an English accent in her Polish so--in my head--she didn't really have any accent at all (or rather, a stereotypical American accent that, to me, sounds like no accent at all). And so, the first time I heard her speak a complete sentence--in English!--a week or two after we met, I was surprised to hear the English accent. I tried to hide my surprise, but she's probably reading this now and thinks it's hilariously funny. =)

Emily, from England (who still managed to surprise me by speaking with a British accent a week or two after we first met), was put in charge of cooking the kiełbasa.

The other big difference with this school was that I didn't have the same teacher throughout the day. The first session would be with one teacher, then the next session would be with a second teacher. It seemed quite deliberate and probably is suppose to help us learn Polish better by hearing different Polish accents, expressions and teaching methods. Round us out better. It seemed an odd set-up to me at first because none of the language schools I'd ever attended ever did this. Not in Central America while learning Spanish and not in Sopot while learning Polish.

But our teachers were well coordinated and would hand us off to each other seamlessly. My usual teachers were Jurek and Magda--with Jurek being my first and only male teacher during my time in Poland.

One day, Magda had Emily and me play roles. I was to be a victim of a robbery--my wallet was stolen! Emily was to be a police officer that I was reporting the theft to. I'll write our conversation in English, but of course, we were speaking Polish. We were, after all, learning Polish. And I'm paraphrasing. It's not like I was recording this conversation or anything.

Me: Help! I've been robbed!

Emily: I'm sorry to hear that. What was stolen?

Me: My wallet.

Emily: Okay.... and anything else?

Me: No... just... well, yes. My pride! My wallet and my pride were taken!

Now let me cut in here a bit and explain this a bit. Pride is one of those weird words that you wouldn't expect someone learning Polish to know, and I didn't expect that Emily (or any of the other students) would know what it meant, but I thought it was a funny joke to say that my "pride" was stolen and at the very least, Madga--our teacher--might find my response amusing. And I was curious how she would try to explain the concept of "pride" without using any English. Being such an abstract word, it's not something one can pantomime or draw easily. And I thought it was a funny answer. I'm a sucker for funny answers. (Alcohol i spać?)

Emily: Duma? Nie rozumiem duma.... (Duma? I don't understand duma.)

Even our teacher, Madga, looked at me not seeming to understand what I had just said. Duma? she repeated, puffing her chest out and tilting her head back trying to imitate what someone full of pride might look like. Madga understood what I had said, but was clearly thinking she must have misheard me because surely I wouldn't know a word like pride.

Me: Tak! (Yes!) Duma!

Magda turned back to Emily.

Magda: Ignore him. It's an abstract word, and you don't really need to know it now.

She did try to explain what I was talking about, and even though I knew what she was talking about I didn't understand her explanation in Polish. Emily and Marcel nodded their heads like they might have understood what she was saying, but I'm not sure how much they really understood about her explanation. Except the part that the word was "abstract" and not one they really needed to worry themselves about.

Me: I hope you find my wallet, but I know you'll never find my pride. *sigh*

The rest of my theft report went on without anymore of my smart-alack answers, probably much to Emily's and Magda's relief! =)

After the two group sessions were over, I'd stick around for some extra one-on-one classes which I liked since the classes could go at my own pace and cover whatever I wanted them to cover. Jurek and Magda would switch off who would give me the one-on-one lessons, and my last week was provided by Iwona--an entirely different teacher altogether. (She's actually one of the authors of our textbooks. I didn't think of it at the time, but I should have asked her to autograph my texts!)

For our one-on-one classes, I preferred just to talk. I always felt like speaking and hearing Polish were my biggest weaknesses, so we'd toss the textbooks aside and just chat in Polish. I told them about my hiking stories, or what I did last weekend or after class, or what plans I had for the upcoming weekend, or whatever. It didn't really matter--just time to practice. Sometimes we'd write words or concepts on the whiteboard I didn't understand which I'd copy into my notebook for later study. They'd correct words that I butchered or cases that I'd mess up. We'd stand or pace around while chatting--a nice change after sitting for most of the time during class.

Early in the class, Jurek and I had a mock discussion about making room reservations over the phone with a hotel, and as a homework assignment, I was to write out half a dozen questions I might ask about the property over the phone.

Which I did, and during the next class, he looked over my questions and we discussed them a bit, then he pulls out his phone and starts dialing a number telling me that he's calling the hotel and I'm to ask these questions.

"WHAT?! NIE!!!"

Hang up that phone! The number rang, and he had the phone held out to me, and I disconnected it, and Jurek asked why I didn't want to do that.

"I don't want to bother some clerk who's probably busy about a hotel room I had absolutely no intention of renting for the night."

Then he told me that it was actually his wife he was calling, not a real hotel, and if that would be okay. The exercise was meant to build my confidence talking to other people--strangers--in Polish, and he thought I was totally ready to have such a conversation on the phone. Which is a clever exercise to make things interesting, and I wouldn't have minded a mock conversation with his wife who was allegedly expecting the call anyhow. But now I wasn't sure if he was just telling me that to go along with the ruse or if it really was his wife that he was calling....

Eventually, he decided to leave me with his phone, then went into the office next door and called his own phone which I was supposed to answer and he'd pretend to the desk clerk at the hotel. So we did that for probably ten minutes or so as I went through my list of questions and Jurek answered them. When I didn't understand an answer, I'd tell him that (all in Polish, of course), and he'd try to answer again in another way or explain his answer more thoroughly. It was a little bit harder over a phone than in person without being able to use hand signals or spelling out words I couldn't understand on a whiteboard, but I muddled my way through my first Polish conversation on a phone.

A week or two into my one-on-one lessons, Madga asked me what I'd like to talk about in the next session. "Nie wiem," I told her. I don't know. It didn't really matter to me. But then for some reason, I remembered my Polish book--a copy of which I had in my backpack. "Oh!" I said, digging into my backpack and pulling out the book. "To!" This.

Madga looked at the book, surprised to see that it was both in Polish and had my name as the author. I gave her a copy (I had plenty of copies!), and that became a subject of discussion for the better part of a week asking me questions about my adventures, translating the pages from "sophisticated Polish" to "Polish that Ryan can understand."

The next morning, before classes began, I was looking out the window of the third-floor window admiring the view--I often did that, sometimes sitting on the windowsill which seemed to concern some of the teachers who were afraid I'd fall out--when Jurek stormed into the room. "Ryan!" he said. "You have a book in Polish?!" (He said this in Polish, of course.)

"Ahh...." I said. "You must have been talking to Magda." =)

So then he wanted to see the book and had all sorts of questions about it as well and become a topic of discussion with him for the better part of a week as well.

"I can't believe you didn't tell me that you had a book in Polish," he said to me.

"Well, it's not like I wrote the Polish," I explained. "I can't even read it! That Polish is hard!"

Then I joked that I was taking Polish classes so I could check that Karolina didn't change the story on me or have me killed off unexpectedly to build up to a more exciting ending.

My last day of classes were down to just Marcel and Emily. That's Jurek, the teacher on the left. I kind of miss our little group. It was also Emily's last day of classes, but Marcel was scheduled to continue for another two months. (Probably finishing up about now when this post is posting, actually.)

After my one-on-one classes were over, there would be some sort of after-school activity we had the option of participating in. It was also a chance for me to meet some of the other students in the school that I didn't share a class with.

The activities varied wildly. Some days we went out of the school on field trips such as to Kościuszko Mound which I mentioned in my previous post. Another time we went on a scavenger hunt of sorts through a local shopping mall looking for answers to questions on a set of questions we were given that could be answered somewhere in the mall. All of the activities, of course, were done in Polish and were meant to allow us to use and expand our Polish skills.

During the shopping mall scavenger hunt, I didn't know what an  AGD was which seemed to surprise Emily. Those stores would sell things like kitchen appliances and washing machines, and Emily knew I knew a lot of words--but seemed surprised that I didn't know AGD which was apparently a word covered very early in the textbook. The textbook we were using had 26 chapters, and my first lesson in it was chapter 20 or so. There was a lot of stuff from those first 20 chapters that I didn't know! A lot of names of shops I could guess. For instance, if you know the word "flower" then saw a word for "flower shop"--even if you didn't know the word "flower shop", you could make a pretty good guess what what it was. But I couldn't do that with AGD--it was an acronym, and an acronym that I hadn't come across until today! (Yeah, learning more Polish!)

Another day we made żurek--a popular Polish soup. Another time we were given comics with the dialog removed and we were to fill in our own Polish dialogs. Other times we played games in the small garden area in the back. Another time we played table games. The whole time I was there, we never had the same activity twice.

And finally--often as late as four o'clock in the afternoon, I was done for the day. I'd been speaking and hearing Polish almost non-stop for seven solid hours. I'd go out for dinner somewhere nearby, maybe walk somewhere nearby to do some sightseeing (usually on days when I didn't participate in the after-school activity), and then took the tram back to Agata's place--using the free time on the tram to study Polish flash cards I installed on my smartphone. And at Agata's place, I'd create new flashcards for all the new words I came across that day and complete all of my homework assignments at which point I pretty much went straight to sleep.

It was exhausting! I learned a lot, but I never had more than a couple of hours of free time to sight-see and explore on school days. Weekends were kind of a nice break from the daily mental bombardment.

Saying goodbye to each other at the end of our last day of classes. (It was actually the last day not just for me and Emily, but also Aya--the woman on the left who comes from Japan.) Of all of the students I met, I bonded with Marcel and Emily most since I had them in my classes considerably longer than any other students. Marcel was in my class for all six weeks I attended the school, and Emily was there for the last five. Aya was at the school the whole time I was, but we never had any classes together so I didn't get to know her as well.
Aya, from Japan, had been attending the school for the last six months and drew this comic during our comic-drawing after-school class. It's adorable! The rest of us filled in thought bubbles from existing comics, but Aya made her own from scratch about her adventures in Kraków. (It's even better when you can read the Polish on it--most of which I can understand, I'm happy to report.)
Jurek had these dice that you roll and then tell a story using them. So we rolled them a few times and I took photos to turn it into a story as a homework assignment. Alas, it was a homework assignment I never got around to completing, and I still feel guilty about it. One of these days, I'm going to write that story and email it to Jurek! But! If YOU want a homework assignment, build a story out of these dice. You can write it in English, but if I really like it, maybe I'll translate it into Polish and email it to Jurek as my own idea. =)
Just in case you didn't like the results of the first roll, here's another one.
And another!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Post 13: Glossa Language School

Surprise! It's another guest blog post! =) This time from Emily, a woman I met in my Polish language school in Kraków. She's a new character in my blog--a translator by trade--and I figured she'd be immensely qualified to write about the school we attended, share anecdotes, and such since we had the same teachers, in the same classes, and shared many of the same anecdotes about our time there. It seemed kind of like a long-shot that she'd be interested in writing a guest blog post since, as far as I knew, she'd never even read this blog--but she was game to give it a try! So, here's her take on our language school in Kraków....

This is Emily, cooking up some kiełbasa for a batch of żurek during one of our after-class activities.
 ******* Emily's post starts here ******

I met Ryan in May at the language school, Glossa, in Krakow. I am a freelance conference interpreter and translator, working from French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian to English, and I decided to learn Polish because I wanted the challenge of learning a Slavic language (and clearly I thought, ‘Hey, let’s go for the hardest one, with all of its seven cases and absolutely bonkers grammar….’) and also there is currently a dearth of Polish to English interpreters and translators on the market, so it
seemed like a good career move. I also have been fortunate enough to meet many wonderful Polish people, and I was won over by their warmth and enthusiasm for their beautiful country.

So, I decided to take off to Poland in an attempt to learn this mysterious language. Before I went, a lot of my interpreter and translator colleagues looked at me wide-eyed, mouths open in shock and the proceeded to warn me that I would never be able to learn what is reputed to be one of the hardest European languages. I’m happy to say that I did manage to learn some Polish over the course of three months. Before I went to Poland, all I could say was lubię chleb, meaning, ‘I like bread’ (don’t ask why), [Ryan's note: I really want to know why!] and after a lot of hard work and bread consumption, I managed to achieve a lower-intermediate level. When you learn any language, you are bound to have a bit of fun and enjoy the beauty of language learning when you say the odd silly thing – I
accidently told someone I was delicious instead of tired, and asked for a date with a doctor instead of an appointment…  But that at least I won’t make those same mistakes again. And I’m still holding out for a date with a Polish doctor.

I chose Glossa because I wanted to go to a school in the centre of Krakow, that didn’t just offer classes but had a lively social programme, and Glossa seemed to fit the bill. I turned up on day one, only being able to say ‘Tak’ (yes) and tell the teachers I liked bread. Great start. But luckily I had two young, incredibly dynamic teachers, and despite not knowing any Polish whatsoever, all of the classes were given entirely in Polish. Imagine my initial horror, being faced with a crazy language full of consonants and a total paucity of vowels. The best way I can describe their approach was by teaching you language as if you were teaching a young child how to speak for the first time. Weirdly enough, it didn’t feel patronising at all, and it actually broke down language learning into manageable, bite-size portions. Classes were from 9.30 – 12.40 everyday, with a twenty-minute break, where we would hang out in the corridor, chat to other classmates in Polish (to some limited success, especially in my first month or so…) and solve the quiz of the day, which would include anagrams and completing what appeared to be a whacky Polish proverb.

The classes were varied to say the least, and it certainly wasn’t one of those schools where you sit down and read from the book the entire time. Sure, we used a textbook, but the teachers used engaging methods to complement the classes, which were fun, lively and more often than not funny. Often the methods were interactive, i.e. we had to mime things like our daily routines, we watched videos and made up our own endings, we played games. I remember one class we were learning fitness vocabulary, and we had to go around the class giving each other instructions like ‘put your arms up!’, ‘feet apart’, ‘touch the ground!’ It was Ryan’s turn, and often Ryan would take a
little bit of time to really think about what he was saying (Ryan had the most amazing vocabulary, but more on that later), and he would leave us in suspense. Ryan got us to lie on the ground, face down. As we were all on the ground, teacher included, and as we were waiting his next instruction, there was a long pause. We waited. And then we waited some more. As our faces were becoming better acquainted with the ground, Ryan let out an exasperated ‘uh…nie wiem!’ (Uh…I don’t know!) And after a good bout of laughter, we managed to stand upright and become vertical again.

One of my lasting memories with Ryan was a class where we were discussing illness and giving each other advice. The dialogue would take this format:

Q. I have a cold, what should I do?
A. Take some paracetamol and drink plenty of fluids.

We were all giving each other sensible advice, until it came to Ryan’s turn. We were talking about what possible remedies there may be to having the flu, and Ryan said, Potrzebujęsz alkoholu i spać! (You need to drink alcohol, and go to sleep!). This ended up becoming a running gag: i.e. I have a hang over, what should I do? Potrzebujęsz alkoholu i spać! Or even, ‘What are you going to do tonight?’, Ryan: ‘pić alcohol i spać’ (drink alcohol and go to sleep). Only now did Ryan confess to me that he rarely drinks alcohol, and looking back it makes the whole thing very funny!

This was the end result of one of our interactive in-class activities, and I took a photo of it to study later because it was faster than writing everything down. =)

It’s true that Ryan provided amusement in class, and he was an excellent classmate,
but I have to say I was left astonished by his incredible vocabulary. Sometimes the
teacher would point to an object in the classroom, something really obscure like a
door hinge (bearing in mind we were still on the beginners text book). I’d look over to
Ryan, who would be searching deep inside for the word and each time, I would think
to myself, ‘Nah, he won’t know that word…surely…’ But sure enough, he would
know the word for door hinge, nuts and bolts, bicycle spoke…you name it, he knew
it. And we were left amazed. [Ryan's note: I actually don't know the word for door hinge, but I did know the words for nuts, bolts and bicycle spoke. I also remember a moment when I pulled out the word kotwica, meaning anchor, and Emily leaning over to me and asking, "How did you know that?!" And.... I couldn't remember why I would have known that word.]

When classes were over, I’d go to a nearby Bar Mleczny (literally translates to milk bar). The Polish milk bars are ex-Socialist era workers’ canteens. In their previous incarnations they were run as government-subsidised cafes where workers could get a good, nutritious and affordable meal. Nowadays they are small, inexpensive restaurants that some Polish people I met said reminded them of welfare state nostalgia. You can get three-course meal there for as little as 2-3 euros, and there you
can find hearty delicious Polish food including soups such as żurek and barszcz czerwony, and you can find pierogi, breaded cutlets to name but a few items on the menu.

Following lunch, I’d go back to the school for the optional afternoon workshops, where we would get up to all manner of things such as playing board games – one was called Kolejka, which translates to ‘Queue’ in English, a game designed to teach about the hardships under communism and how you had to spend hours queuing up to buy even the most basic of things – games in the garden, cooking workshops (we made żurek), singing songs, trips to local museums where we had to speak to people
and find out certain information, and even a trip to the local shopping centre where we had to go into shops and find out the answers to questions on a work sheet. These were great opportunities to put your Polish skills to the test, and actually realise that you could communicate with someone who wasn’t your teacher.

All in all, I had an absolutely fantastic time at the language school, and I met some
wonderful people there. If you’re looking for a new challenge, I’d always recommend
learning a language – and Polish in particular! It’s a great way to learn a different way
of thinking, a different culture, and communicate with people you would never have
had the chance otherwise. What can I say, I had a blast at the language school in
Krakow, and I hope to go back soon. Dziękuje, Glossa!

A typical day of class. Emily on the right, Marcel (from Germany) in the middle, and one of our teachers (Jurek) on the left.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Post 12: Field Trips!

I had some other photos I wanted to post from various travels in and around Kraków, but I didn't really have much to write about these locations so I'm just going to mush them together in no particular order. =)

Kościuszko Mound was constructed in the 1800s in commemoration of the Polish national leader, Tadeusz Kościuszko. Kraków has four of these memorial mounds--two prehistoric and two modern ones. (This is one of the modern ones.) Interestingly, you'll find information about the American Revolution in the nearby museum devoted to Kościuszko in which he fought. There's an urn buried here with soil from Polish and American battlefields where he fought.

On an unrelated note, the two people in the photo are one of the teachers and a student of the school I attended. They regularly had after school activities and today's walk was to the Kościuszko Mound--which was a place I wanted to visit anyhow and thought it great that I now had company for the trip!

View from the top of the mound. It's extensive!
This restaurant in Kraków used old sewing machines for their tables. I can't say if the food is any good or not (I never ate there), but I love the sewing machine tables! =)
This staircase in the Jewish section of Kraków, I was told, is where they filmed a scene for Schindler's List when a girl in a red coat hides under a staircase from some soldiers or something. Never having seen the movie, I had no idea what the guide was talking about, but I took a photo for Amanda since she's a movie buff and loves that kind of stuff. I have no idea if the setting is at all recognizable from the movie!
Kupa, in Polish, means "poop." (Ulica means "street".) So I am standing on Poop Street. =) Apparently, it's a popular place for Polish people to take silly photos, but this is in the Jewish section of Kraków and apparently it has a Hebrew or Jewish meaning something else entirely. (Don't ask me--I have no idea.) So it's not really supposed to have a negative connotation, but it does for Polish-speaking people!
Zakopane is a popular tourist trap practically on the Slovakian border deep in the Tatras Mountains. I'm told the area is absolutely spectacular and has some of the best views of anywhere in Poland, but the weather was pretty miserable while I was there and I never saw any views. The town was adorable, though, famous for wood carvings, a local mountain cheese called oscypek, and people walking around with a shephard's axe called a cuipaga. There's nobody in this picture to really give it scale, but this sign is HUGE! By comparison, see that smaller wooden carving on the far left?
This is it close up. Perhaps the coolest "put your face through the hole and take a photo" thingy I've ever seen! Look at that carving! It's wonderful! (I'm on the left and Agata is the face on the right.)
My best view of the surrounding mountains was this mural on a wall in the restaurant. =)
Creek running through town
Adorable little fence!
This church is made almost entirely from wood. It's quite interesting!

Next town I want to make a quick mention of: Katawice. It's a sizeable town of about 300,000 people and this is the Cathedral of Christ the King--Polands largest cathedral according to my guidebook with a base measuring 89 by 53 meters. But I gotta say, it's kind of boring as far as cathedrals go. It's like they used their budget just to make it big rather than beautiful.
Even the inside is large and stately.... but surprisingly plain and kind of boring.
Still in Katowice--my guidebook says this 14-story, 60m-tall building was the tallest building in Poland from 1934 until 1955 and is--to quote my guidebook--"the best example of functionalism in Poland." Well, at least it's functional, I suppose. But it amazes me that a building that would be the tallest building in Poland for over 20 years would be designed to look so.... blah.

I found all of Katowice in general to be rather bland like this, and when I returned to school the next day, my teacher asked what I did for the weekend and I mentioned visiting Katowice. "How'd you like it?" she asked. "It was kind of boring," I told her, unimpressed. Which is when she told me that that's where she was from. Oops. :o\ I didn't mean to insult her hometown! Glad I just called it a little boring rather than something really harsh! (To be honest, though, I didn't really have anything really harsh to say about the town. It was just underwhelming. Maybe if I had a good guide to show me around and fill in the stories of the city's development I'd have been more impressed, though.)

And that's it for today's episode of Life in Poland. Stay tuned for more! =)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Post 11: Auschwitz

Just an hour or two bus or train ride from Kraków is the site of the world's largest mass murder in history: Auschwitz. I had mixed feelings about visiting this place, which is probably normal for most people. I knew it wouldn't be a happy or pleasant visit, but it still seemed like something I had to do--if for no other reason than to pay respect to the victims who died there and as a reminder that just because someone is of a different religion, nationality, or  __ fill in the blank __, they're still human beings and should be treated as such.

The entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau

I arrived on a train late on a hot, sunny afternoon. I didn't have any tickets, which I thought might be a problem since it was a popular place to visit and the tourist high-season was swinging into gear. Visits in the morning and early afternoon all required one be part of a guided tour. I walked up to the information booth and told them I didn't a ticket--what could I still see?

The lady gave me a ticket (free!) that would allow me to get in at 4:00 in the afternoon. I had a couple of hours until then, however, and she suggested that I visit the Birkenau site a kilometer or two away. There was a free shuttle bus that would take me there and no tickets were needed.

Awesome! I walked over to the bus and took the quick ride to Birkenau.

If you're like me before my visit to Poland, you might not know how Auschwitz was laid out. Auschwitz had three distinct parts to it. Auschwitz I was a camp used to house Polish Army barracks until the Nazis decided to turn it into a camp to hold political prisoners and would later become the headquarters for the entire Auschwitz complex. It's also the location of that infamous entrance with the Arbeit macht frei sign (works sets you free). It's very well preserved and the former barracks are now full of displays covering the history and atrocities of the camp.

As Auschwitz I filled to capacity, the Nazis built Auschwitz II nearby--a considerably larger camp they called Birkenau. That's where I was headed first. This camp is largely in ruins now with little more than foundations and chimneys left to mark the barracks location. This camp is also where they built the gas chambers that would be used to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people where the bulk of the murders at Auschwitz took place. (Which isn't to say that tens of thousands of people weren't killed at Auschwitz I, but it was a relative drop-in-the-bucket compared to the assembly line death they instituted at Auschwitz II.) This was not merely a concentration camp, but an extermination camp.

Birkenau was absolutely massive in size--probably ten or more times larger than Auschwitz I. It was built to hold 250,000 people at a time. It's mostly just ruins now, though, with little but foundations and chimneys left. (And the fences. The fences are still maintained.)

Later, when the Germans wanted to build a new manufacturing camp, they created Auschwitz III--a.k.a. Monowitz concentration camp--to support it. It was located a few miles from the other two camps and I would not be visiting it. I'm not even sure what there is to see there anymore, but the other two camps were more than enough to satisfy my depression and horror limits for the day.

So I arrived at Auschwitz II-Birkenau and was immediately shocked at the sheer size of the complex. Barbed-wire fences and guard posts lined the road as far as I could see. The place was absolutely massive in size.

And there were those infamous railroad tracks leading into the entrance of the extermination camp. You couldn't help but feel a sense of dread walking up to it. How many hundreds of thousands of people went to their deaths along that narrow path?

The exact number of people killed at Auschwitz will never be known since many people were never even registered and the Germans went to great effort to destroy evidence of their crimes near the end of the war. The burned bodies and scattered the ashes in such a way that nobody could ever calculate the number who died.

Shortly after Soviet forces liberated the camp, the Soviet government claimed that 4 million people had been murdered--but that's an estimate generally everyone considers greatly exaggerated. Eventually some people took a look at documented train arrivals and deportation records to estimate 1.1 million total deaths which is the official number adopted by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, but it could have been as many as 1.5 million people.

Regardless of the specific number, it's absolutely staggering. That's about the same as the entire population of Rhode Island--every last man, woman and child, because women and children were not spared in the slaughter. As many people as the entire population of Vermont and Wyoming combined.

I walked around the camp, reading the posted signs about the horrors that took place. It was quiet and peaceful now. Flowers grew among the ruins and I even saw a couple of deer wandering through. I wondered how they got in given the high fences that still surrounded the place. Obviously, the fence is no longer guarded, but it's still maintained as part of the preservation of the site.

It seemed a little incongruous to see such pretty flowers blooming in a place with such a horrible history.

In the back of the camp were the gas chambers. They're rubble now, what's left after the Nazis blew them up near the end of the war in an attempt to cover up their crimes. But you can still see them, the shape of the floor plan, and the nearby forests where victims would have to wait while previous victims were being cleared from the gas chambers and the grounds where ashes were scattered.

One building near the back of the complex was still intact and open for visitors. It was where they processed incoming arrivals. Where they'd be forced to strip and and take showers (actual, real showers--not the fake ones like found in the gas chambers), all of their possessions stolen and removed. Horrible things happened within those walls.

Eventually I looped back towards the entrance and took the shuttle bus back to Auschwitz I just in time for my 4:00 ticket. I was hot, sweaty, hungry and severely depressed.

And I couldn't find my ticket. I don't know what the heck happened to it. Did I accidentally drop it somewhere? I cursed mildly under my breath and returned to the information desk. "I had a ticket for 4:00, but I seem to have lost it...."

They gave me another ticket, this time for 4:20 since the 4:00 tickets had long since been given away already. That actually worked out really well for me because that would give me 20 minutes to eat some snacks and get a drink. It was hot out and I hadn't eaten since breakfast!

Ashes of burned corpses were often dumped in this pond, which is the reason for the memorials in front of it.

At 4:20, I was in line to go through the security checkpoint. There was no security checkpoint when I entered Birkenau, but there definitely was here. No backpacks, weapons, foods, etc. allowed. (There was a place to check bags nearby, though, which I made use of.)

There's not really much more to say about this camp. It's much better preserved with plenty of buildings to house all of the exhibits about the history of Auschwitz, other concentration camps, Nazis and WWII in general. It's where there's that enormous pile of shoes representing all of the victims that died there.

Auschwitz I was the headquarters for the entire Auschwitz complex and it's where they first tested the idea of a gas chamber. So yes, people were gassed here too, but just to figure things out for building the high-volume gas chambers at Birkenau. The medical experiments took place in this area as well, horrible experiments that were inhumane and cruel.

At the end of the day, I was emotionally drained. How could people do something like this to each other? How could the people who worked in these camps live with themselves?

It did occur to me later that the tour guides and people who run the camp now would certainly have an interesting resume. "Yes, I worked at Auschwitz. What of it?"

I'm glad I visited the place. I'm glad to see it firsthand, and size and layout of the place. It makes it feel more real somehow--not just something you read about in history books. But once was enough. I never want to go back there again.

The infamous entrance to Auschwitz I.
Thousands of people had been executed against this wall during the course of the war. The building on the right (not really visible, I know) was where Nazis first tested the idea of gas chambers.
The buildings in Auschwitz I are generally well preserved and now house exhibits about the camp.

I stumbled into this fascinating YouTube video about "The Soldier Who Voluntarily Became a Prisoner in Auschwitz"--yikes!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Post 10: Back to the Salt Mines

Just outside of the city limits of Kraków lies the most wonderful of all tourist attractions in Poland: the Wieliczka Salt Mines. It lies in the town of Wieliczka, and people had been telling me for weeks that I shouldn't miss this. I assumed it was "near" Kraków in the sense that I could take a train and be there in an hour or two. Walking around Kraków, you'll see all sorts of places offering to take tourists to the salt mines. And on Friday, shortly before I was to finish my studies for the day, my teacher asked what my plans were for the weekend.

The salt mines are near!

And I said I was thinking about hitting the salt mines. He suggested that I take the local train for a couple of bucks. They sell "packages" to visit the salt mines for a huge markup and it's a waste. Just take the local train for a couple of bucks.

And I was surprised. I could take a local train? It was that close?

After I returned to Agata's place, I pulled out my laptop and got online and actually looked at a map of it's location. It was located several miles southwest of Kraków, almost right on the border with Kraków. In fact, it was not far from where Agata's place was. I had Google show me a walking path from Agata's place to the salt mines, and it told me that it was about a one hour walk away. The salt mines were closer to me than the school was! I didn't need to take a train at all!

So with that figured out, I looked up when the salt mines would open the next day (9:00, as I recalled), and planned my arrival accordingly.

The walk to the salt mines was uneventful. Most of the roads I followed had no sidewalks, but the roads weren't especially busy either.

At the salt mines, the crowds were huge! It wasn't even the busy summer season yet, and already the crowds were enormous. I checked my bag since large bags weren't allowed, stood in line for tickets and when I reached the front, bought two of them. I decided to take both the Tourist Route, the main route almost everyone who visits the salt mines does--but also the Miner's Route where we got a more intimate experience with the mines and some of the undeveloped parts of the mine.

First up was the Tourist Route. I signed up for the English-language tours. I know I was supposed to be learning Polish, but my Polish was still terrible and I wanted to understand everything they were telling us, so I wasn't willing to throw the English-language guided tours out the window just yet.

These statues are carved out of salt! Salt! They're amazing!

I showed up with about 10 minutes to spare, and the route immediately took us down hundreds of feet in a dizzying circular descent.

And wow--the mine was amazing! Salt mining first began in the 13th century and produced salt continuously until just a few years ago. Commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low salt prices and flooding, but it continued to produce table salt through 2007. Even now they still produce a tiny amount of salt, but only because water leaking out from the mine is filled with salt and for environmental reasons, they aren't allowed to just let it run into creeks that would kill the wildlife. So they extract the salt, but it's just a tiny amount and basically is a waste product of the mine.

The mine reaches a depth of over 1,000 feet and has nearly 200 miles of corridors. The salt is naturally grey from impurities in the salt, and looks more like regular rock than the pure white salt you're used to seeing on tabletop restaurants everywhere. And it's so hard, they've actually carved blocks of it into statues! Amazing, detailed statues created out of salt rock.

The mine also has dozens of chapels scattered through it--mining was a dangerous job, and miners were nothing if not religious. It's even a UNESCO World Heritage Site now.

St. Kinga's Chapel, located deep in the mine, will absolutely take your breath away. It's an enormous cavern decorated with salt statues and decorations. Even the chandeliers are made from salt! The floors, which look like tiles, is just the natural salt floor carved to look like tiles. Absolutely stunning!

The woman on the right was our group's tour guide on the Tourist Route, and she's telling us about the horses that used to work in the mines. The horses would live their entire lives underground, and the last horse worked in the mines until just a few years ago!

The tour guide told us that we are allowed to lick the walls. The walls are salt, after all, and you can taste the salt with a quick lick of the walls. They assured us that it was sanitary to do so--salt is a natural disinfectant and would kill any germs and bacterial that previous visitors might have left when they licked the walls. Which might be true, but... gross. I decided to pass. Although I have to admit, I was really tempted. I wanted to taste a wall that tasted like salt....

The tour eventually came to an end, and I had about an hour before I was scheduled to start the Miner's Route so I went for a quick hamburger nearby for lunch then headed back to the salt mines.

This tour group was a lot smaller--just seven of us. (The Miner's Route had us in a crowd of about 30+ people and they gave us headphones that they could communicate with us because we were so widely distributed at times and to not get confused with all the other tour groups crowded into the mine.)

And we would be traveling well off the beaten path of the Tourist Route. We were given helmets to protect our head, headlamps to see with (there would be no lighting in the tunnels we would be traveling through), coveralls to protect our clothes from the dirt we'd be crawling through, and a portable thingamajiggy to be used in case of an emergency so we could breath (for a short while, at least) in case of a fire or whatever.

"You shouldn't need it," our guide told us confidently. "The last fire we had in the mine was decades ago."

Famous last words, right? =)

Dressed up and ready to party, we took an elevator down hundreds of feet and started exploring the mine.

I'm dressed up and ready to mine!
Our guide showed us what it was like to be a miner. He showed us equipment that could test the air quality and let us know if it was safe to breath, which we then used to test the air. We measured if the walls or ceiling were moving and perhaps about to cave in. In another room, there was a log set up with a cross-cut saw, and we had to saw a piece off as if we were cutting wood for scaffolding. (I was a real pro at the cross-cut saw task having used cross-cut saws several times during my volunteer work on trails.)

We shoveled rock salt into carts, crushed larger pieces into smaller pieces--which we were then allowed to keep as souvenirs. Yes, folks, I mined salt and brought about five pounds of it back with me to the surface. I also licked the rocks because after breaking the big pieces into smaller pieces, I could be absolutely 100% certain that nobody had ever licked those rocks before. =)  And sure enough, it tastes like salt! Our guide told us that the salt was about 70 to 80% pure.

I was also excited at the thought that later, while checking my bags to the United States, someone would pick up my bag and exclaim, "Holy cow, that is heavy! What do you have in there? A bag of rocks?!"

And I'd chuckle. "Well, as a matter of fact...." =)

But anyhow.... All-in-all, it was an absolute blast! Totally worth it, and a completely different experience than the Tourist Route. If I had to pick a favorite, I'd be hard-pressed to do so. The Tourist Route was visually a lot more spectacular with all the statues carved from salt and decor, but the Miner's Route was much more hands-on and just plain fun to participate in.

After I finished the second tour, I stopped for dinner at a nearby restaurant in town before walking back to Agata's place in the evening. Between the two tours and my lunch and dinner break, it was an all day event! Totally awesome, though. Totally awesome. *nodding* If anyone who reads this ever makes a trip to Kraków, you have to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. It's absolutely an amazing experience and worth every cent!

These mechanical men show us how miners would remove waste water from the mine. (Water, of course, dissolves salt, so water could be a serious problem for miners!) Also, salt forms on everything! All the equipment is just encrusted with salt!
St. Kinga's Chapel will just take your breath away! Unfortunately, my camera sucks and the photo is absolutely terrible. I used a flash in this photo and you'll see little white dots all over it. Those are salt particles floating in the air.
The salt carvings are so amazingly detailed!

Even the chandeliers are made from salt!
This floor that looks like tiles? Nope... salt. *nodding*

Loading up a cart with salt is hard, back-breaking work! =)
Checking out the walls encrusted with salt.
Near the end of the tour we had this small chapel to ourselves without the hoards of tourists on the Tourist Route.
My camera on the ground, looking up with the salt chandelier above my head. The little white dots all over the photo, again, are particles of salt in the air that my flash lit up.

A group photo of our small little group on the Miner's Route. That's me waving my arms in the background. I'm such a ham! The guy in the green suit was our tour guide and head miner. Our certificates prove that we're now experience miners and can work in any salt mine anywhere in the world. (Okay, maybe they won't actually get us jobs, but they do give us certificates for having 'braved' the Miner's Route.)
There was a machine that would take a self-photo of you with these salt statues, and I was trying to make it look like that statue in the middle had just punched me in the face. It was hard, though, because I only had about ten seconds to put myself in position before the photo clicked and the image in the monitor I saw was a mirror-image of my point of view. I just couldn't do a good job of getting in the right position in ten seconds! This was my best attempt before other people wanted to use the machine and another couple wanted to get closer to the statues to take photos with their camera.

After I finished the tours, I found this small statue outside not far from where I ate dinner. I thought it was cute. =) I don't really understand what it's saying, though. Przerwa is a break. (We took them during classes. Time for a 20-minute przerwa!) And prosze czekac (which I think should actually read proszę czekać, but they didn't use the weird Polish characters) mean "please read?" Break, please read? Please read during breaks? I wonder if this is located outside of a library. I didn't think to pay attention at the time!