After my horrendous final last week, I was in desperate need of a break. My History and Religion of Sweden class was extremely demanding and culminated in a five hour test of eight essay questions. I didn’t have time to finish the test. I had studied so hard and felt so prepared before the test. Now I must wait nervously for a month for my grade. I was completely mentally and physically exhausted after that exam, but I couldn’t have been more excited. I was going to Poland at the end of the week.
Two friends, Alejandra and Kana, went with me to Poland. I have tried traveling in groups and traveling alone. They both have positives and negatives, but I really wanted a group for Poland. Going to Poland seemed so exotic and a little scary. It would be a totally different culture and language. I wouldn’t understand the public transportation system or how to order food in a restaurant, so many things that I take for granted having been in Sweden for so long. All of my friends were going to places like London, Berlin, and Florence. “Why go to Poland?” they would ask me. It certainly isn’t a top European tourist destination. I had never considered going there myself until a few weeks ago. I told them, “Because I can.” That really became the motto for the weekend.
I never would have imagined that I would be in Gdańsk, Poland. This experience really widened my perspective of the world. Now I know about life in a place so juxtaposed to Sweden.
When I first arrived in Sweden, I didn’t feel very strong culture shock. It is true almost everyone speaks English in Sweden (even if people aren’t very willing to talk to you) and signs are in English. Anyway many Swedish words sound like their English counterparts if you say them out loud; they’re just spelled differently. Sweden is a modern, clean, safe, tech-savy, rich, environmentally-friendly oasis. I’m not saying Poland does not have these characteristics, but Poland shows them in a very different way.
I think I might not have been as mentally prepared for Poland as I should have been. I got off the plane not knowing how to say anything in Polish, what bus to take to the hostel, what sights I should see, or how the Polish currency (which I found very confusing) worked. I’m really glad I had great friends there to help lead me to the city as I struggled in my culture shock haze.
I found myself homesick for Sweden. I didn’t realize how I have come to expect certain privileges from my time in Sweden. I searched Gdańsk for a recycling bin when I finished my glass bottle of water (the only way to purchase water in Poland, even in restaurants), and I couldn’t find one. Eventually, I asked someone where the recycling bin was, and she just laughed. I was also saddened by having gendered restrooms imposed on me once again. Surprisingly, there were many American influences in Poland, not that I took part in them because I wanted to fully experience Polish culture, but there were Subways, McDonald’s, and KFCs in many places; American food brands in the grocery stores; many diners advertising American food; and American pop music playing on the radio.
In a way, Poland was harder and easier to navigate than Sweden. My basic knowledge of Swedish helps me feel comfortable in Sweden. I can order food, get directions, understand prices, and introduce myself. If I need to, I can resort to English. It has been said that is very difficult to make friends in Sweden, and I can attest that this is true. Swedes can seem standoffish which they explain as intense shyness. In the times I needed to use English in Sweden, I have received eye rolls, annoyed sighs, and impatient frustration. In that respect, it was much easier in Poland. Every time we were lost, Polish people went out of their way to help us. If they couldn’t speak English, they ran and got somebody who could. Twice when people couldn’t explain how to go somewhere, they walked us there themselves. When we weren’t sure on which platform to wait for a train, a man showed us the platform then came back to us when the trains arrived to make sure we got on the correct train. The Polish language looks intimidating, but we managed to learn a few phrases by the end of the weekend. I couldn’t help but wonder what it might have been like if I had studied abroad in Poland instead of Sweden? How would my experience and view of Europe be different?
Apart from my cultural observations, Poland was spectacular. It is a country infused with living, redeeming history. The first thing we did after resting in the hostel was check out a market. We tried pajda which many of the stands were selling. It is fresh bread covered in garlic pork lard and topped with super salty pickles. Along with pajda, I thoroughly enjoyed all of the Polish food I tried.
Then we went to the European Solidarity Center. The host of the hostel said this museum is the pride of Poland, and the most important attraction in Gdańsk. This was an incredibly moving experience for me and one of the best museums I have ever visited. Before visiting Poland, the only Polish history I knew was what I had just learned in Swedish history class of Sweden’s conquest of Pomerania. Beginning with this museum, I got to experience history in a whole new way. This museum is very informative, high-tech, and interactive. It explains the solidarity movement which began in Gdańsk and lead to the fall of communism in Poland. I gained an immense respect for the people who participated in this movement. The information I learned at the European Solidarity Center influenced the way I viewed the rest of the city during my stay in Poland.
At the end of the museum tour is a wall with tiny slips of paper. White papers for the background and red papers which spell out “solidarity.” Museum visitors can write on the papers and add their thoughts to the wall. What does solidarity mean to you? What does freedom mean to you? What are human rights to you? I wrote “LGBT rights are the next human rights revolution.” I felt like I had contributed to this huge movement and I felt solidarity with everyone else who had added papers to the wall.
Over the next few days, we visited historic sights, museums, and the largest, most ornate Catholic churches I have ever seen in Gdańsk, and we visited the Molo, the longest wooden pier in Europe in Sopot. I had read online that Gdańsk is the prettiest city in Poland on a travel blog. The host at the hostel confirmed this information. He said other towns in Poland still aren’t recovered from WWII. Many of the buildings had incredible historical architecture. It felt like we were walking through history. Beside these colorful buildings were buildings from the communist era. Prominent buildings had giant black and white photographs on them which depicted what they looked like after WWII. In many cases, they were just piles of rubble. I was amazed that the city had been historically restored to its original grandeur. I feel like WWII was so long ago, but there were constant reminders in Gdańsk that WWII impacted the world in the very recent history. I wondered whether Damascus would be historically restored in this way some day? I wondered how much of a country’s culture could really be understood through tourist attractions? Could all these pretty remodels just be a facade?
At one point, we visited Oliwa, a suburb of Gdańsk. This town was not glamorous. There very many trashed vacant lots and boarded up houses. The graffiti there was prolific. It did not have the intrinsically safe aura of Sweden. Yet it was well worth the visit. We attended the Oliwa Cathedral which puts on free concerts on Sunday afternoons. This was the biggest church I have been into. Not like a modern mega church. This church was at least four stories tall with an organ which spanned the height of a most of one wall. The music was so loud it reverberated in my chest like a rock concert. The one thing I have learned about Poland in my History of Sweden class was that Poland was and continues to be very devoutly Catholic. During the reformation, Sweden banished its Catholic priests to Poland. Now Sweden is one of the most secular countries in the world, yet in Poland, it was evident in the sheer number of churches and in the amount of times the churches were closed to tourists for mass that religion is very important in Poland.
One church, in particular, had a profound impact on me. We visited Saint Mary’s Basilica of Gdańsk and climbed to the top of the church tower. 410 stairs. That is the most stairs I have ever done at one time in my life. I really had to push my body to be able to climb to the top. Despite the fog, the view was incredible. I was so proud of myself for going up there. If it hadn’t been for the encouragement of my friends, I probably would not have pushed myself to go there. I gained respect for the work that went into creating these magnificent churches and the impact these churches have had on Polish history and Polish culture today.
The best part of Poland was the affordability of the trip. Everything from the plane ticket to the hostel to the food and public transportation was inexpensive. I was able to eat out and have huge fancy meals for $4 U.S. The hostel was only $8 a night. The half hour train ride to Sopot was only $0.47! All of the museums were $1 or $3. The exorbitant costs in Sweden have been really eating away at my budget. Poland was a relief in that respect. If you ever want a quality, inexpensive European vacation, the Gdańsk tri-cities region is the place to visit.