Sunday, April 14, 2013

Wymiana w wymianie

In case it didn't come to you, titling my blog entries in a foreign language is my way of making them intriguing, enticing you to read them. Which means that if you are reading this right now, I have very well succeeded.
This time the language, unlike previous titles in French, Chinese, and German, is a language I previously had no knowledge of. Hailing from eastern Europe, the language is Polish, and it is the language that has been surrounding me this past week.
It's a hard language to describe; in fact, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Polish, Hungarian, Slovenian, and other eastern European languages if I heard them. (Well, now that I know some basic Polish, I can at least distinguish that.) But my impression of Polish is that it sounded slightly like Russian, although at times it sounded like Italian and even Chinese in certain syllables. Either way, I loved hearing it. There's nothing like listening to a language you don't understand to remind you how little you know and how much there is you can learn.
I found the Poles to be very hospitable, sweet people. Natalia, Noémie, and I ended up living alone at Natalia's house (a small apartment with 52 steps to get to the entrance) due to lack of space. Despite that, her mother was still very welcoming and happy to have us at her house, and she even made Noémie and me these pillows to commemorate our exchange. They are personalized with some inside jokes from the week and my favorite Polish words, and I know I will treasure mine forever. The Poles' ability to speak other languages is more impressive than that of the French, which is a recurring idea that I will mention more of later.

Now that that's said and done, here is a day by day account of my week!

Day 1: Friday, April 5
The day started early. I was at the high school at 4 in the morning; all 40 kids boarded the bus and it left soon after. We had lunch in eastern France, somewhere near the border between France and Germany. One of the things I did on the bus ride was play this game called 4 Pics 1 Word on my iPad (I recommend it), and just as we were about to cross the border, this set of images came up...

Wow, so hard to figure out
In the early afternoon, we entered Germany!
I had never been there before, and it amazed me how all the road signs just suddenly changed from French to German. I would brag that I understood them all, but it's not that big of a deal to understand things like "Frankfurt 65 km"...
We arrived in a city called Bad Hersfeld at around 7:30 PM, where we established ourselves in a youth hostel for the night.

Day 2: Saturday, April 6
Thankfully, the day didn't start as ungraciously early as the day before. We had lunch at a gas station restaurant (oh by the way German gas station shops are super fancy) near Dresden. I didn't prepare a picnic because I wanted something hot, and was I glad I made that decision. I even managed to muster up the courage to speak to the lady in German and place my order, and when she spoke to me back in German I understood! My heart swelled with pride and even more desire to eat the meal I had just ordered.

Currywurst mit Pommes
At some point in the afternoon, we finally entered Poland, and the landscape was entirely covered with snow, the sky an overcast gray. I didn't understand the road signs at all, nor did I have any idea how to pronounce the city names. Our English teacher announced that the city spelled "Wrocław" was pronounced along the lines of "Vrocwaf," just to give you an idea.

Yucky weather
We reached Katowice, our destination, at around 7:00 in the evening, where I was greeted by Natalia upon exiting the bus. After meeting her cousins at a family party, the three of us retired to her house, tired but excited to start the week.

Day 3: Sunday, April 7
Have you ever been to a coal mine before? Yeah, I thought not. But on Sunday, Noémie, Natalia, her uncle, her adorable cousin Szymon, and I visited the Guido mine. Part of the visit included going 320 meters under the ground! Just for a comparison, the Eiffel Tower is 324 meters tall.

Me and Szymon
It was a difficult concept, knowing how deep down under the Earth I was. I thought of the Chilean miners, having had to be trapped in such an atmosphere, and shuddered. In my quest to go everywhere, I never thought of exploring the depths of the Earth in a mine! Look at how eerie it is.

At some point, I engaged in conversation with one of the guides who spoke English very well. And then somehow we ended up speaking (broken, in my case) German. It just amazes me how being multilingual is not a big deal here in Europe, and it continued to amaze me throughout the exchange.
Later that day we took a walk around Natalia's neighborhood.

Day 4: Monday, April 8
When I heard we were going to the Beskid mountains that day, I groaned. I couldn't imagine how cold it would be. However, I was wrong, for the day was bright and the weather perfect! The sky was an endless blue, contrasting with the blankets of white that covered the ground and lined the creeks. We drove through tranquil mountain villages and alongside cliff forests overlooking similar landscapes across on the horizon. We stopped by a famous ski jump and took the lifts to take a look at the view offered to us.

Our next stop was a traditional Polish mountain house, where we got to listen to a guide describe to us how their way of life used to be. I particularly enjoyed the instruments he showed us, such as the ocarina, this kind of bagpipe composed of inflated goat skin, and a horn so large and so long I wondered how they managed to play it.
We spent the afternoon in a town called Cieszyn. This place is special because a section of it belongs to the Czech Republic, and another belongs to Poland. We had free time to eat our picnics then explore the city, and later that afternoon, we had a guided tour. To get to the Czech Republic, we had to cross a bridge, so we spent about ten minutes over there.

Poland side
Czech Republic side
As of that evening, so far on my exchange to France I have also been to Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. And I haven't even started Eurotour yet.

Day 5: Tuesday, April 9
I'm not entirely sure where it is we drove to, but we pretty much just visited a Polish dancing troupe's base. (...I think) To become more familiar with Polish traditional dance, we were shown costumes and part of a film of a dancing spectacle, and we watched a demonstration by dancers during rehearsal. What I loved most about the dance was the music. In general, I love traditional world/folk music, but Polish music is just so lively, spirited, cheerful, free, boisterous, you get the point. We had lunch in this rather fancy dining hall, and I was able to ask one of the servers IN POLISH "Excuse me, water please." (Which makes a grand total of four languages I got to use during this week)

The view from my table
During the afternoon, Natalia showed us around her city, Katowice.

That evening, a lot of us had planned a game of laser tag at the local laser tag place. There were teams of 12, and it became French versus Poles. Due to numbers, I became a Pole. We won!

Day 6: Wednesday, April 10
Starting at about 10 am, we had a guided visit of Krakow. How I love being able to discover a new major European city! They are truly magnificent, all with their own character, particularities, a plethora of different people... everything that pleases me. During the visit, we saw the castle, the center square, the old part of the city, and the Jewish quarter. We then spent the afternoon in the Schindler Museum.

That evening, Natalia had arranged a visit of the organ museum at the Academy of Music in Katowice. Our guide, one of those old wise musicians, was passionate about organs! Seriously, there was this twinkle in his eye as he spoke about them, and it made the visit really enjoyable and interesting. You wouldn't have thought there'd be so many things to say about organs... But anyway, he is a pianist by profession. I was very happy to hear that, and he reminded me of my piano teacher Don, with his kind voice and knowledge. He spoke to us in fluent French, and he told us he also speaks Polish (being a Pole), Czech, and German. I asked if he spoke English, and he said no, because it wasn't a requirement of his generation. That made me even more thankful to be fluent in French myself.

Because Noémie, Natalia, and I really took a lot from his tour, I asked if I could play the piano to thank him. He said of course, so we were able to get access to a classroom that had two baby grand pianos in it. I squealed with delight. I don't think I had had the chance to play on such a piano before then. Since it had been one of my goals once I found out I was going to Poland, I played him a polonaise. I didn't play him my signature polonaise that I learned when I was 14, but I played one I just learned (op. 44) and haven't mastered completely yet. I knew he would be forgiving though, and when I was done he asked if I studied at a conservatory. Well, not anymore, I told him. Either way, he told me to continue, and I was very satisfied being able to play a polonaise in Poland for a Polish person. (Two, counting Natalia!)

Day 7: Thursday, April 11
We had free time in Krakow in the morning, and I loved it! My friends and I spent most of our time promenading around the city, buying souvenirs and looking at shops. At some point, I wanted to find a bathroom, so I left the group and headed to where I thought the bathroom was. There was a group of French girls going up to a door that I knew was locked, so (assuming they were from my high school) I asked them, "Are you looking for the toilets?" and they turned to me in shock and exclaimed, "She speaks French!" Oops. They weren't from my school. Either way, I spoke with them and found out they were more desperate than I was to find the bathrooms, so I wished them luck and they told me "au revoir" as they went on their way. I thought about how I must have confused them... what is an Asian-looking person, who speaks French like them, doing in Poland? This is why it's fun to be me.
That afternoon, we visited Auschwitz, the World War II death camp.
It was very, very distressing.
Throughout the visit, I was in disbelief, a myriad of thoughts endlessly racing through my head. I have been long aware of the existence of such camps, having learned about them in class and seen them in films, but absolutely nothing compares to actually being there where all those atrocities occurred. Then I saw tangible proof being displayed, like suitcases, pots and pans, shoes, and, most disturbing, the hair they cut from women.

By far the most terrifying part was walking through the gas chamber. There was this inexplicable coldness contained within the metal walls, and I thought of all those who walked in and never walked out, but instead ended up in the crematory ovens that were in the same haunting room.
I thought of how Primo Levi (an author whose testimony of the Holocaust we studied in class) described the dehumanization of the victims, then conjectured that it wasn't only the deported, the imprisoned, the tortured, the assassinated who were stripped of their identity as human beings. The Nazis too could no longer be considered human; they were worse. To emotionlessly make all these innocents suffer, to see one's fellow men exterminated in mass, their corpses burned in ovens, to witness the degradation of their being, all INTENDING for it to happen, indicates an utter, total, indisputable lack of humanity. Whereas the prisoners were made to be no longer human, the Nazis were no longer human themselves in doing so.

According to this memorial plate (set in many languages), the present existence of Auschwitz serves as a reminder and a warning. After that, mass executions shouldn't have happened anymore, but then I think of the Pol Pot Revolution in Cambodia and all the conflicts that have happened since. I ask myself, is the human race doomed to succumb to the manifestations of its own hatred? Are we fated to never know a peaceful world? Current events seem to make "yes" the answer. But then I think of some exemplary human beings who, despite the evil, continue to have faith that "no" can one day be the answer. People such as Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who starved to death to save another prisoner's life in Auschwitz, Mahatma Gandhi, and, of course, exchange students, who foster tolerance, open-mindedness, and, most importantly, hope in the new generation. As long as this tradition is kept alive, the human race isn't going to wipe itself out just yet.

Day 8: Friday, April 12
The last day in Poland arrived far too fast, and I didn't feel like leaving. I had made some incredible Polish friends, I was having a grand time learning Polish, and I was really in love with bigos (a traditional Polish dish that sounds like "beau gosse," French slang that roughly means "handsome devil"). For the last day, we visited Wujek mine (just the museum) then spent a few hours at the high school with the Poles. I spent most of my time talking with Natalia, and two of my new friends from the week Kasia and Ala, who became dear to me very fast. Kasia has the character of both an exchange student and a speech/debate person (consequently we got along instantly), and Ala too loves foreign languages, and I have carried conversations with her in English (mainly), French, and German. My Polish friends are all very smart and respectable, and I sincerely wish I had more time with them.

I love polonaises- the piano pieces and people!
Ala and me
Kasia and me
Natalia and me together again!

Day 9: Saturday, April 13
All the French and the Poles were gathered outside the bus at around 7:30 in the morning, the French getting ready to leave. It was extremely hard to say good bye to the girls; they told me they were happy to have met me and asked me to please come back to Poland, because I would always have a place with them. I pinky promised Ala I would, and I told them that I really loved my stay in their country, especially because they became my friends. Traveling is really about the people you meet on the journey, and they make the places you visit all the more special. I had tears in my eyes as I hugged Natalia tightly and let go of her hand to board the bus, knowing for certain I would see her again but uncertain when, and we left at around 8, bound for the country we call home, France.

Day 10: Sunday, April 14
That's today! I've been working on this blog entry throughout the bus trip, which was pleasant (except for the overnight drive, because I couldn't sleep.) Now that I've left France several times, I always feel relief and comfort whenever I make the trip back, to a language I speak and to scenery I recognize. I stopped feeling like an exchange student in France a while ago; I just feel French now. It was difficult enough to leave my mini exchange in Poland, so I can't fathom how difficult it will be to leave France.
Wait, I have to leave this place?
June 30 draws menacingly closer, though I keep it in the back of my mind.
BUUUT first, my Eurotour starts tomorrow. AW YEAH. Be right back. 

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