GEF Movie Night: “Return to Cuba”

A short while ago I attended a GEF-Sponsored movie night, featuring the 2016 independent film/documentary entitled “Return to Cuba.”

Featuring one Barbara Ramos, a native Cuban woman who returns to her hometown of Santa Clara after 18 years of living in Italy, the true story chronicles her life upon return to her dear Cuba, and the process of building her dream home over the course of three years.

While watching the film, I felt as if I developed an intimate relationship with Barbara, because she leaves no stone unturned when it comes to her description/observation of life in Cuba, especially during and after the Communist revolution brought about by Fidel Castro.

There were so many things that I loved about the film. The music used in the film, for instance, was excellent at setting the mood and tone of Cuba. It was light and jovial, Which I imagine many days in Cuba are, especially based on the individual interviews throughout the film, which were also a very important aspect of the documentary.

Various different people, from Barbara herself to Barbara’s father, to her friends and neighbors and other locals, are interviewed individually in the film, and they talk about everything from the general happiness of Cubans to the political climate.

It is mentioned several times by interviewees that Cuba is a special place, because in Cuba, people enjoy life more than in other places. People are happier with less in Cuba, and they only work so that they can enjoy life, whereas in other (especially Western) countries, it is often seen that people live to work. It is also said that personal relationships are more important in Cuba than they are in other countries; in the West, everything is done with cell phones, which is something that Cubans simply don’t do.

As for the political climate in Cuba, different people had different opinions. Some liked Cuba’s socialist economy, claiming that the free healthcare and education in Cuba is very valuable (“my husband had a foot operation, and we paid nothing”), while other see the value in capitalism, especially concerning the fact that many Cubans must make their money using black market trading systems. One man remarked that capitalism is “the same watchdog as socialism, just wearing a different collar.” I think there is truth to those words.

Some people thought that improving relations with the US would be very good for Cuba and the Cuban economy, while others recognized that the US does nothing for free, and that the US will always adopt an imperialist behavior. There is only one thing that can be generally agreed upon, and that is that US relations will take time. I think that, in the long run, there are some Cubans who will be better off when US relations improve. However, I think the poorest of Cubans may end up even worse off. Only time will tell.

I knew little of Cuba or Cuban culture prior to watching the film, and I am so happy that I attended the event, because I feel like I learned a lot, and I would love to visit Cuba one day.

German Opportunities Fair 2017

I recently had the distinct pleasure of helping host the German Opportunities Fair, which is a gathering of great German-speaking minds who want to attract and inform other great German-speaking (& learning!) minds. We hosted the event in the student union, and invested in food offerings of pizza and drinks in order to attract even more prospective great minds. Needless to say, the event was a hit.

There were several stations at the German opportunities fair—we had tables for internships, German major and minor information, Fulbright grants, graduate programs, general study abroad programs, and individual study abroad programs, like the summer in Leipzig, Germany Program. Everything anyone could want to know about OU’s German program (and more), they could find it there.

I was stationed at the general study abroad table due to my recent studies abroad, alongside a few other friends of mine who were in Germany last semester. I was the only representative of Austria, but I represented well. 😊

As soon as the doors opened, we were bombarded in the best way possible with students who wanted to know all there was to know about studying abroad in German-speaking countries, and we told them everything we possibly could based on our own experiences.

The best way to learn about studying abroad isn’t from pamphlets or professors, it’s from face-to-face conversations with people who studied abroad and had a wonderful time. Study abroad changes your life in innumerous ways, and nothing gets that across quite like someone who has personally studied abroad. Prospective study abroad students don’t need a spiel, they need an informal conversation, and that’s what they got.

The event was scheduled to last for two hours, of that I was only needed for the initial hour, but I ended up staying until about 30 minutes after the set end time.

The time passed quickly—likely because there was not a single moment where I wasn’t talking to a student who wanted to study abroad. The enormous huddle around our table kept us extremely occupied and entertained; who doesn’t want to talk about their study abroad experience while also informing others how they can do that same thing? If only we could get paid to do that.

OU Cousins Feel the Thunder

OU Cousins recently took its semi-annual trip up to Oklahoma City to watch our favorite NBA team, the OKC Thunder. Although some people may loathe a 30-minute bus ride through the not-so-scenic route, I enjoy that individual OU Cousins know how to make the most of it by having eye-opening conversations with one another. Those bus rides are always excellent avenues in which to make connections with fellow OU Cousins, especially concerning topics of culture and difference.

My go-to questions when it comes to speaking with OU Cousins have never changed, but I learn very new things each time I ask, “So, what’s your favorite/least favorite thing about Oklahoma/The US?” and “What’s the most striking difference between your (home) culture and Oklahoman/American culture?”

The answers never fail to engage my curiosity, and lead to thoughtful and meaningful conversations. If anyone has any tips on more questions that lead to such good discussions with people from culturally diverse backgrounds, I sure would like to know them.

Sport is something that connects people across the world. For example, I truly believe that the Olympics is one of the most unifying and important things that the world does, because we all (with the exemption of a small few) come together to participate. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, but for many reasons, sport and competition are an integral part of human society. Although the sports themselves may be different in some countries, the motivation behind them is the same, and I believe that is what brings people across the world together.

Professional sports, although I am not very interested in them, are very important to the United States. They are enormous industries wherein Americans spend millions of dollars per year, a driving force in the economy and culture.

For the reasons above, I think it is AWESOME that we get to take OU Cousins to Thunder Games!! It’s likely the only time our international students will be able to attend such an event (besides OU football games, but those aren’t “professional”), and they get to do so with a huge group of their fellow OU students!

Those who enjoy basketball are able to watch the game and cheer on the home team, while those who are less interested in watching the game are able to continue chatting and making connections with other OU Cousins, all while being surrounded by a massive amount of American culture. It’s a win-win.

A win-win-win, if you include that OKC solidly defeated the New York Knicks, 105-84.

Lunar Moon Festival 2017

I recently attended the enchanting Lunar Moon Festival!

The festival, hosted by the Vietnamese-American Community of OKC, was at Military Park in the Asian district on October 7th. I had never been to the event before, or even really that part of OKC before, and I had an amazing time. Here is some background on the history of the festival itself:

The Lunar Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival (called tết Trung Thu in Vietnamese), is a harvest festival celebrated by ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese people. In Vietnam, Rice is harvested before the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (mid-autumn). Each household then offers sacrifices to the God of Earth. While occupied with harvesting, parents do not have much time to take care of their children; therefore, they make full use of the festival holiday (which is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar) to play with their children. This date corresponds to late September/early October. The festival is mainly for children, and parents buy their kids paper lanterns (which are often carp-shaped), snacks, masks, and toys. People celebrate by setting up a worshipping platform, on which they lay traditional mid-autumn food and treats. Later, family members sit together to eat the food while appreciating the full moon. The platform is not taken down until midnight, when the food has been completely eaten.

I think this is the sweetest festival ever, because it is all about parents spending time with their children. The celebration in OKC involved dragon dances, traditional dance performances, a talent show where kids showed off their impressive skills, games, and food trucks that served traditional Vietnamese foods.

I personally enjoyed the dances and the talent show (some of those kids blew me away!), as well as the tasty Vietnamese food.

I tried Sugar Cane juice, which I also had in Zanzibar, and it was as delicious as I remembered. It is not as sweet as people would think (being the juice straight from a stalk of sugar cane), but rather, it is just incredibly refreshing. I also enjoyed a sticky rice cake filled with pork and mung bean, which was delicious and filling.

I so love learning new things about different cultures from around the world, and I especially love getting to experience traditional cultural celebrations and practices. It makes me feel more connected to the world and it’s people, and I will certainly be attending this festival in the future, as well as looking for other cultural festivals in my area that I can attend.


To learn more about the Lunar Moon festival, check out these links!

http://www.adoptvietnam.org/vietnamese/tet-trung-thu.htm

http://www.accent.ac.nz/elto/articles/mid-autumn-festival-vietnam

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Autumn_Festival

OU Cousins Bingo & The Importance of Cultural Understanding

There’s something magical about playing a good ol’ game of bingo.

There’s something even more magical about playing the same ol’ game of bingo in a room filled to the brim with joyful international students.

Throw in some pizza and a myriad of cool prizes, and you’ve got a full-blown party.

Thus began the ever-wholesome OU Cousins Bingo Night.

You know, this was my fourth experience with OU Cousins Bingo, but it may have been the first year I realized that many international students aren’t familiar at all with the game. It’s quite embarrassing if I’m only just realizing this after four years, but it could be untrue; my memory often fails me. It would be as simple as looking at my previous OU Cousins Bingo night posts to find out… yet, here we are. Also, it brings me to my next topic.

As a global engagement fellow, I have found I am often very aware and accepting of the existence of cultural differences. However, seeing as I am the type of person to be aware of the existence of such divergences, this leads to the problem of me believing that my thoughts and feelings are shared with the rest of society, which is untrue. Unfortunately, this is not true, and makes for some bigger overarching problems in society, especially in a society whose (incompetent) President encourages (shameful) ethnocentric ideals.

For example, recently at a family gathering, a cousin of mine mentioned working with a group of Native Americans who considered eye contact to be disrespectful. My cousin had to adapt to their cultural norm by making sure not to make direct eye contact while she was interacting with the group, which was fairly simple to do. Having heard of several such slight cultural differences before, I simply accepted the fact and continued with the conversation. However, another family member was completely taken aback, and felt that the idea of not making eye contact while speaking with someone was extremely disrespectful.

This family member is one with whom I often clash, for various personal and political beliefs. Unfortunately, he is very ethnocentric, and has a very difficult time grasping the idea that people can be different from him and his steadfast beliefs and still be considered, well, people.

How can you explain the idea of culture to someone like that? Culture is something that we learn from interacting with our society from birth. It’s not innate; and therefore, not one culture in the world is better than all others. Culture is amazing and unique and beautiful, and I love learning about new cultures, because I get to learn more about humanity.

It makes me really frustrated, but mostly sad, that some people will never understand that.

Sometimes you just have to decide that some people will never change, and move on. Besides, those people are missing out on some excellent multicultural bingo.

May there always be more bingo prizes for those of us who appreciate the cultures of others.

“You’re Okla-HOME!”

The first international event I attended this semester was the “You’re Okla-home” event for returning OU study abroad participants. The event included dinner and conversations with others about our experiences abroad, as well as our experiences upon returning home. I was really excited about this event, because I knew quite a few people who studied abroad last semester/year, and was eager to swap stories and share tips for things like reverse culture shock.

I spent the evening mostly conversing with students who had studied abroad in Germany, with whom I shared some very similar experiences, such as our shared language and cultures, our newfound adoration of public transportation, and the amazing friendships we forged with people from around the world. These conversations made me feel continually blessed about studying abroad in Graz, a peaceful city that was just the right size. Even though my friends who studied in Germany had incredible semesters, they had certain experiences, such as drunken violence, that I never witnessed in Graz. Although I’m sure things like that happen in Graz, I am also sure that it does not happen very often, simply due to the relatively smaller population and lack of overcrowding.

I also got the opportunity to speak extensively with a fellow GEF who spend the entirety of last year in South Korea. She told me all about the culture of South Korea, and even though Asia hasn’t really been on my radar in the past, I’m now determined to go as soon as time and money warrant a trip (The question becomes, where in Asia??). Speaking with her made me wish even more that I had gotten to spend a year in Graz, but alas, my expected graduation date could not wait for another semester.

Unfortunately, none of my other friends from Graz could attend the event, but that was okay, as we had already taken time to decompress with each other.

I think this event was very important for returning study abroad students, because coming back to OU after being abroad is a challenge, certainly for those who studied long-term, such as for the duration of a semester or a whole year. Obviously, I still miss Graz each and every day, and I know that feeling will never fully go away. However, when I first returned home, I experienced intense feelings of culture shock. My idea of home, and my home itself, had shifted from Oklahoma to my lovely city in Austria. I had also changed, and the change had occurred in my new home, where I had adapted to the way of life.

When I got home, I began to reject a lot of things that are present in daily American culture. For example, something that really got me was simply how much open S P A C E we have here. I had been living in a very dense city, wherein one could feasibly walk or take public transportation to their desired location, and reach that destination in a few short minutes. I felt like here in America, and especially Oklahoma, we had an unnecessary amount of open space. Why did we need to spread everything out so far? I used to love driving, but when I got home it seemed like an annoying hassle. In Graz, one can go to the city center and get basically everything they need, just by walking a few minutes (or even less) to the next store. Here, everything was spread out for what seemed like no reason, except for the fact that Americans just like things to be big and spread out. Moving around my hometown like a chore, and I *hated* it.

While I never thought I would get over the little things about Oklahoma that I had a newfound distaste for upon my return, I eventually re-adapted to the norms here. This re-adaptation was something I greatly enjoyed discussing with my fellow study abroad participants. All in all, the “Okla-home” event was a success in my book.

Home Is Where You Make It, And Other Cliché Notions

I don’t think I ever really understood the meaning of “home” until I went out and made one for myself, over 5000 miles away from what my idea of “home” had always been.

My home had always been the place where I grew up, the place in Oklahoma with familiar faces and roads in which I knew every turn. It had been the place where I had always lived, where all my memories were made. I thought it was special just because it was where I came from.

After spending a semester in Graz, Austria, home is very different to me now.

To me, home is no longer simply where you’re from. Home is something that you make for yourself.

I have surely made a home for myself this past semester. I became a part of something that, only a few short months ago, was completely foreign to me. And, in the most cliché of statements, I’d like to think that Graz became a part of me, too.

In my town in Oklahoma, I had always been there. My reputation preceded me, everywhere I went. The kids with whom I grew up and people I had always been around knew me inside and out, through every phase of my life. They had seen me through struggles and stages I care little about, while I was working on becoming who I am today. As hard as we try not to, I think those preconceived notions of other people stay with us forever, and always shape how we see people and interact with them. I think that’s especially true in Oklahoma, where everything seems to move a little bit slower, and people are a little less concerned with the passage of time and the development of thoughts, ideas, and people in general.

It’s not that I completely reject who I was as a kid, or even who I was a year ago. It’s that, no matter what I do in Oklahoma, there will always be those who have placed me in a box, the same box in which I have always been stuck.

However, that all changed when I arrived in Graz.

Here, I have been able to shape myself completely as the person I want to be. Every person I meet is a new opportunity to grow. The lifelong friendships I have made here are not simply shared with people I know because of locational circumstance, but serendipity. The person I get to be when I’m around them and getting to know them, doesn’t have to carry the weight of who I have been for my whole life. My identity is no longer tied to where I’m from, and everything I’ve done in the past. It is concerned only with today, and what tomorrow brings.

As someone who has struggled with identity issues for most of my life, this feeling of being able to shed the past 20-odd years is astounding, and freeing. I truly have never felt so free in my whole life.

So, Graz, this is my love letter to you.

Meine große Liebe, oh how I admire you. It may seem self-centered, but over the course of these last few months, I have learned just as much about myself as I have learned about the whole world. And at the heart of this change, my dear, is you. You, with your lovely cobblestone streets, often cut through by tram lines. Your beautiful, thoughtful, colorful buildings and churches, adorned with delicate detail. Your sweet air, which has filled me with pleasure at all times of the day. Your tame midnight streets coupled with your boisterous nightlife, your green color which I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

At the heart of you lies the Schloßberg, where one can enjoy views of you in all your majesty.

And at the heart of me lies you, where one can see my ultimate adoration.

Graz, my love, my true home. How grateful I am to have met you.

Easter Break Extravaganza

Are you ready to hear all about my spring break trip? I sure hope so!

In Austria, we get a two-week long Easter break. While many Austrian students stay home and work for these two weeks… the international students take adventures of a lifetime! My two-week adventure did not disappoint, but it certainly wore me out. Between the 8th and the 23rd of April, I traveled a total of 2,694 kilometers (1,674 miles) through four countries and six beautiful and unique cities.

Our first stop was Venice. I traveled there with Lauren and our friend Janine (Sie kommt aus New Jersey.) It was a 7-hour bus ride from Graz to Venice, and then a long walk to our hostel, which was on the mainland. Luckily, our hostel ran a bus service to the island several times throughout the day, so after a night of rest we hopped on the first bus to the island the next day. We were only going to spend two nights and one day in Venice, so we had to absorb as much as we could into a very short time span. Thankfully, Venice is a very walkable city, so I feel like we got everything done that we needed to do. We visited the Doges’ Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Torre dell’Orologio in St. Mark’s Square (which we stumbled upon by accident), the Rialto bridge, and several other gems of Venice. We ate gelato and cannolis and pasta. My favorite part of the day, however, was the Gondola ride. We went through the Grand Canal, as well as the smaller canals where the locals live, and our gondolier even serenaded us with his angelic voice.

Another exciting thing about Venice? It is very easy to get lost. There are so many bridges and alleyways, the whole place is just a huge maze. Thankfully it’s so small, that you can’t ever be lost for too long. Besides, getting lost in Venice is hardly an unfortunate occurrence. Of all the places I went over the break, Venice may have been the most magical.

Our friend Peyton joined us that evening in Venice, after a fairly traumatic incident in which we thought we would never see her again. It’s a long and dramatic story, so I won’t try to relate it here, but if anyone who ever reads this wants to hear the story, feel free to ask, and I would be happy to tell the tale.

Our next stop was Florence. The bus ride took about three hours, and by the time we got to our hostel on a hill that happened to be about 6 miles away from the center of the city, it was too late to go back.

The hostel in Florence was probably the coolest hostel I will ever stay in. It wasn’t party central, like some people would think an awesome hostel would be. The internet didn’t really work. It was at the top of a really steep hill, about half a mile away from the nearest bus stop, so you had to walk all the way. You had to pay 8 euro every night to eat pasta for dinner, but there usually wasn’t enough pasta to fill you up completely. And, to be quite honest, it gave me bed bugs, which I haven’t even told my mom. So, definitely not your typical “cool” hostel. But this place. This hostel? Was awesome. Because it wasn’t really intended to be a hostel…

IT WAS AN OLD MONASTERY.

IN THE MIDDLE OF TUSCANY.

WORDS CANNOT DO IT JUSTICE, so I’ll have to post pictures, but suffice it to say, it was really, really cool. Also, there was a cat who lived there named Gianna, and she took Janine and I on a proper adventure through some beautiful olive orchards to what I truly believe could be the best view of the city of Florence. I will never forget that cat and I will never forget that evening.

Back to the point of the blog, however: Florence is the place to go in Italy, and probably the whole of Europe, if you want to see art. You have to shell out a lot of money to skip the hours-long lines, but if could definitely be worth it to some people. We didn’t have that much money to spend nor time to stand around in lines, so we didn’t go to that many museums. In fact, the only museum we went to was the Galleria dell’Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s statue of David. I loved Florence, and I loved the Duomo and everything else that we got to see, but I feel like I just didn’t have time to see everything. One day, I’ll go back.

Peyton and Janine went back to Graz when we were done in Florence, and we met Lauren’s cousin Matt, who has been studying in Hamburg, Germany this year, in Rome.

If there is one place that I need to go back to, it is Rome. How did I develop such an intense relationship with the old city in such a brief period of time? No one could know, but Rome holds my heart all the same.

We visited countless historic sites: the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps, the Pantheon, the Roman forum, the Vatican, the Vatican Museums (including the amazing Sistine Chapel!) and so much more. I even thought that the underground train system in Rome was a sight to behold.

The one thing I will say about Rome, is that during the high season there are far too many tourists. I know that is very hypocritical, because I myself was a tourist, but it’s still a valid point. I know Rome will never be completely free of tourists, but the next time I go, it will be in the winter, so I can have a little more privacy while I take in the life of the city.

Our next stop was Zürich, Switzerland. Zürich is the economic capital of Switzerland… and is very, very expensive. Thankfully, we only stayed there for about 24 hours, but in that time, I still spent an ungodly amount of euros on one serving of fondue. I also bought a swiss army knife, which I am quite proud of. Immediately upon arriving to the city, we had a few hours to kill before we could check into our hostel, so we decided to take a two-hour long “vintage” trolley city tour. The coach bus was no “vintage trolley,” but we still got to see everything in the city that we wanted to see.

Next on the Itinerary was Innsbruck. Now, let me preface what I’m about to say with a short summary of the weather that we had been used to in Italy: perfection. The weather in Italy was perfect. It was sunny and at least 75 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there.

That all changed on the way to snowy, cold Innsbruck. But what else should we have expected? ? Innsbruck is a perfect little Austrian town settled in a valley of mountains much larger than those that surround my quaint, but still just as lovely, Graz. Every angle of the Altstadt of Innsbruck was picturesque. The snow-capped mountains in the background everywhere you look makes it feel like a beautiful dreamland. Even though I didn’t have the proper clothing to handle the snow and cold in Innsbruck, I loved our time there dearly. Matt had to make his way back home to Hamburg when we left Innsbruck, but we still had one last stop.

Munich, Germany. Is it sad that I’ve already been here almost 3 months and this was my first time in Germany? Hey, at least I finally made it!

I am really glad that Munich was our last stop, because it is a really great city, and I would love to go again. I’m not sure if I was just really digging the culture of Munich or the culture of Germany, but either way, like I said, I was diggin’ it.

The Englischer Garten of Munich is an ENORMOUS and wonderful park that runs about 2 or 3 miles through the city of Munich. There are lovely wooded walking paths, horse riding trails, ponds, a river, and huge open fields. There is also a Biergarten, where we may or may not have forgotten to return our glasses and pfands. We saw the Glockenspiel and Marienplatz in the Altstadt, as well as the Hofbräuhaus, where we gorged ourselves on German beer and food.

We also a day paying our respects to victims of WWII at the memorial and site of the Dachau concentration camp. We felt it was an important site to visit, and wanted to reflect on something profound before we headed home for the end of our long adventure.

So, that was it. It was the most eventful 16-day period of my life.

Along the way, I gained much more than a few trinkets. I feel like I lived an entire lifetime in those 16 days. Acquainting oneself with new people, places, cultures and beliefs is something that cannot be overpriced or undersold. The knowledge gained from travel is immeasurable.

And with that brief note, I am off to sleep, to adventure another day.

Visa Adventure

Good news: I finally got my Austrian visa. The process of gaining a visa from Austria as an American, for some reason, is very complex if you do not live in or near California or New York. If an American cannot get it from one of those two locations in the states, then it must be granted at the Austrian Embassy in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

I’m certainly not complaining about the complexity, because it gave me the opportunity to travel to two new countries; Slovenia and Italy.

Myself, as well as a large group of students who needed to get their Visas, as well as other students who signed up for the sight-seeing portion of the trip, boarded the bus by the Opera house in Graz at about 6am on Thursday morning. In a little less than two hours, we were in Ljubljana, waiting in line at the embassy to turn in all the required documents. The process of approving and printing visas takes about one business day, so once we finished the visa business, we all piled back onto the bus and headed for the beautiful border town of Trieste, Italy.

Thankfully, Trieste is only about an hour away from Ljubljana. When we arrived at our hostel, which sat right across the road from the Adriatic sea, the sun was shining so bright I felt like it was trying to blind me. The water was perfectly blue. Our large group dropped off our overnight bags in the lobby of the hostel (we couldn’t quite check in yet because not all of the rooms were ready), and headed back out for a short trek to the nearby Miramare castle and gardens.

We spent about two hours at the castle, and took far too many pictures of the scenery. Afterward, all ~50 of us hopped on a public bus to go toward the heart of the city. Let me tell you, that bus ride was uncomfortable! We were squeezed in and I was standing right by the door, so anyone new who got on the bus had to squeeze in next to me. Even though I couldn’t understand a word of their Italian, the locals who surrounded me on the bus were pleasant and kind. I shared some chuckles with some elderly Italians, and that was the extent of the conversation that we needed.

Finally, after what seemed like a hundred bus stops, we arrived at our destination, and were quickly ushered onto a short walking tour of the city center. Unfortunately, there was only one guide and fifty of us, so I didn’t hear much of what was said, but I did admire the sights.

That evening, our large ESN group ate pizza at a local shop. The pizza was great, but my favorite part of the meal was the pint of beer that I ordered. I’m usually not a fan of the taste of beer, but it was just right. Unfortunately, I have no idea what kind of beer it was. I hope to taste it again someday, because I am still thinking about it.

After dinner, a small group of us crossed the street to get some fantastic gelato, and then we traveled with the large group to a small bar where we sang karaoke and partied well into the night. I won’t bore you with the details, but just know that we brought the house down with our epic renditions of several classic songs.

By the time we got done at the karaoke bar, the buses had stopped running, so myself and a group of about five others went off into the wee hours of the morning, searching for a taxi that could take us to our hostel. We made a pit stop at a Kebap shop that I will never forget, because I had a wonderful conversation with one of the men who worked there. He was from Bangladesh, and we spoke about the importance of accepting and loving people no matter where they come from.

Finally, we made it back to our hostel at what must have been about 3am, and after a short while on the rooftop terrace conversing with some other students, I passed out onto my hostel bed without even properly putting the sheets on.

The next morning, we returned to Ljubljana to get our visas, and luckily had no trouble. We then spent about 5 hours aimlessly wandering the beautiful city, but we were very tired from the previous night, so we didn’t do anything more exciting than walk around and try to soak in some sunshine.

We got onto our bus to head back to Graz that evening, and made one delicious pit stop at a famous Krapfen shop. Krapfen is a donut-like pastry usually filled with apricot marmalade, and they. Are. To die for.

All said and done, the trip was very short, and even though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I feel like I only got a tiny taste of the two cities (and countries) to which we traveled. I know that I’ll be back, and soon.

Kraków, a Gem of a City

Wie geht’s (what’s up)? I have recently arrived back to my flat in Graz after a short, but eye-opening and unforgettable journey to Kraków, Poland.

The pre-semester German intensive courses ended this past Tuesday, so Lauren, Abbey and I decided not to let our long weekend go to waste. We left for Krakow on Thursday evening, and had our first experience with the night train. Although the train was relatively comfortable, I didn’t sleep that well. I think I was too excited.

We arrived in Kraków at around 7am Friday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Our first objective was to find our lodging, the Let’s Rock hostel. During the 15-minute walk to our hostel, we got our first taste of the lovely city of Kraków. It’s similar to other European cities that I’ve been to in that there are various beautiful churches and other fine works of architecture-art, but Krakow also has a personality and a uniqueness all its own. I loved it.

We couldn’t check into our rooms at Let’s Rock yet, but we were able to drop off our stuff in the luggage room. From there, we went back out into the city to enjoy our day. First, we exchanged some Euros for złoty, the Polish currency, and walked around the main square, as well as a park nearby.

It was in the main square of Kraków that I gazed upon one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: St. Mary’s Basilica. Specifically, the inside of the Basilica. The ceiling and walls are decorated with the most intricate and delicate of patterns colored a beautiful teal-blue and gold. I could admire that ceiling for hours on end. It was magnificent.

That afternoon, we took a three-hour tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the oldest salt mines in the world. It was a dizzying 378 steps down to the main chamber, but luckily, we got to ride the lift back up when we were done with our tour. The coolest part of the mine is the enormous underground Chapel—the Chapel of St. Kinga. It is exactly 101 meters underground, and services are performed there regularly!

That evening, we also walked around the Wawel Castle, which was situated very near our hostel, and ate a delicious dinner of traditional Polish food: pierogis. My mouth is watering just thinking of them!

We returned to our hostel that night anxious for the next day, in which we experienced something that I’m sure we will never forget: a guided tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps.

The drive from Kraków to Auschwitz takes about 45 minutes. We had hired a driver to take us there, and we shared the van with five other students our age who are studying to be veterinarians in Slovakia. Three of them were from Scotland, and two were from London.

The full-guided tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau takes about five and a half harrowing hours. Learning about the terrible events that unfolded there in history class and seeing the grounds in real life are two very different things. To walk in the footsteps of so many people who suffered and died tragically and needlessly is an experience that is profoundly devastating, yet absolutely necessary.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was nothing short of sobering experience.

It was hard for me to breathe, the air seemed so thick with desperation and depression. In order to display the enormity of the transgressions that occurred there, they have several rooms filled with belongings of the victims. An entire glassed-in room filled with human hair that was shaved from dead bodies to be used in production. Displays filled with eye glasses, razors, hair brushes, pots and pans hair grease and tiny children’s shoes. It makes your heart drop in your chest, and stay there.

The sight of train tracks and the main guard tower in the background at Birkenau will always haunt me. Over one million human lives were lost there after arriving in cattle cars. It sickens me to no end. Even so, we must remember.

We must never grow complacent. Be it with brash acts of violence, or quiet acts of discrimination and racism, we must resist at every corner and at all costs. What happened to the world all those years ago must always be remembered, and never repeated.

I don’t want to write that Auschwitz -Birkenau was the highlight of my journey to Poland, because it was much more than that, much heavier. It was powerful, and I will carry it with me all my life.

 

Kraków, Poland, is truly a gem to behold. It has a beauty and personality all its own, and I hope to return someday.