Tuesday, July 21, 2009

God Bless Texas

Welcome home to Texas! I am so glad to be back at home with family and friends. I arrived back in Fort Worth on Saturday evening at 8 p.m. to the smiling face of my mother at the airport. She even came in and waited for me! I spent Saturday evening catching up with my parents. At home, my mom had homemade chocolate chocolate chip cookies for me! Yum! I also managed to get breakfast out of the deal too. Chocolate chip pancakes. Notice a theme here?

Colton arrived home from Austin around 11:30 a.m. and picked me up from my parents house. I was VERY happy to see him. (This is putting it mildly) We opened a few more presents that had arrived at the house while I was gone, which was fun! I spent the afternoon and evening with Colton and had my first Mexican food dinner since I arrived back home. We went to Joe T Garcia's and sat on the patio, sipping margaritas and eating lots of yummy food! :)

I have had a couple of days to rest and now the wedding planning is slowly taking over my thoughts. I have lots to do in the next few weeks. We also have a wedding to attend this weekend as well as another shower and my bachelorette party next weekend. I will continue to update as we get closer to the big day. Suffice it to say I am glad to be home!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

last post from Poland!

I am writing my last post from Poland. It is a bittersweet moment but I am relieved to be going back to Texas. Four weeks away from home and all this is familiar is a lot to deal with. It makes you appreciate those who give up their time and private lives to serve our country much more. Life is much more difficult away from those you love.

We drove by bus back to Warsaw yesterday. We stopped in a small town to visit the Jasna Gora monastery, home of the Black Madonna. It was an amazing experience. The Black Madonna gets her name from the dark wood her face is carved from. There are different legends surrounding why her face is dark, one being the oil/incense burned in the church has darkened her face. The Black Madonna has special significance to Catholics in Poland and in Europe. She is an icon and is believed to have kept Poland safe from invaders throughout several attempts in history. She even emerged unscathed from Nazi occupation. A copy was made and the original was hidden. The Nazis never knew they were looking at a copy! The Black Madonna has become a symbol of the faith and survival of Poland. She was even crowned Queen of Poland!

People travel from all over Poland and Europe to visit the Black Madonna and worship in her presence. While we where there, a group of priests was having Holy Communion and they had traveled for eleven days by foot to get there. Many other groups arrive by foot as well to make this holy pilgrimmage. It was a moving experience.

The monastery itself is beautiful and there is lots of church history and Polish history to be viewed there. The crowds are so large it almost resembles a tailgating party before a college football game. There are food booths and tents set up where people sleep. Its a really moving experience to see the faith of so many people displayed at once.

We arrived back in Warsaw after 7 p.m. so my friend Gaea and I decided to have dinner at our favorite restaurant in Warsaw one last time. Its a German restaurant, Adler, and we had the Russian style pierogi, pierogi Heidi. Its like a dumpling stuffed with cheese and potato. Delicious! I had a milkshake for dessert and it was the best shake I have had, besides my mothers! It was vanilla icecream with actual pieces of chocolate mixed in! Yum!

Today, we visited the birthplace of Fryderik Chopin, a famous classical musician. The gardens around the home are being redone so there is not much to see right now. We toured the house and it was beautiful. We had a free afternoon so I spent it napping and preparing to go home. I am trying to figure out how to haul home all the souvenirs I bought for family.

Tomorrow, we have a wrap-up session at the Fulbright office and a reception at the Consulate General's house. A farewell dinner tomorrow night will conclude my trip in Poland.

My flight leaves Warsaw at noon on Saturday and we will be back in the States, in Chicago to be exact, at 3 p.m. I should be home in Texas by 8 p.m. Saturday night! It has been fun, meaningful, and interesting! I am ready to get back to my life, my love, my family, and my friends in Texas!

Good night from Warsaw! A final goodbye from Poland!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Last Day in Wroclaw

Hello from Wroclaw! It is my last night here and then we are back to Warsaw until Saturday. I leave for Texas then! Woohoo!

I am very excited to be home. Of course, I am very grateful and appreciative of my time here in Poland but I am ready to be back with family and friends.

We have been in Wroclaw since Saturday and it is a nice little town with a unique history. Since it was under German control until 1945, you would think there would be a significant German population in the town. Wrong! After the war, Stalin annexed Poland into his territory and so Germans living in this territory were forcibly removed. They were sent back to Germany. With such a rich German heritage, there are less than ten Germans in Wroclaw today. It is unimaginable to me how an entire population can be removed but then again I have never lived through a war period like that of WWII. In addition, it was not just Stalin but also Roosevelt and Churchill who helped to divide up territory after the war.

An interesting topic to explore would be the treatment of Poles and later Germans by the Soviet troops. It was a topic I had never really considered before. The Holocaust, especially the story of Auschwitz, tends to be the focus of history surrounding this period. Later, we learn of the gulags and Soviet torture of their own citizens. But the treatment of people during those years of war and then immediately after does not receive as much attention. For an interesting perspective, look up the article Holocaust: The Ignored Reality by Timothy Snyder. It was printed very recently in the NY Times book review section. This is something I hope to explore more in my research when I return home.

This brings me to a different point. I think I have decided on what I would like to pursue as far as my personal education. I am really interested in pursuing my master's degree in studies of the Holocaust and genocide, past and current. I would love to create a curriculum to put into high schools in Texas which focus on teaching the Holocaust and genocide studies along the themes of tolerance and leadership. Its such an interesting topic, one that bring about so much discussion of human behavior and choices. I have a list of books to read upon my return home that I have collected from fellow teachers here.

So....now for the events of the last few days.

Sunday, July 12:
We took a tour of lower Silesia in Poland, which was a major zone of industry for the USSR. Its a beautiful part of the country with lots of hills and trees. It was also once part of Germany. Its located in the southwestern part of Poland. We toured a castle and visited the Peace Church which was built after the Peace of Westphalia Treaty in 1648. The Catholics allowed the Lutherans to build a church in Wroclaw but it had to be outside the city limits. They offered no building materials so the entire church was built with clay, wood, and sticks. No nails. Most Protestant churches tend to be less ornate than Catholic churches but this church is an exception. In an effort to show the Catholics that even though they made it difficult for them, the Protestants were proud of their church and their religion. It is one of the most beautiful churches I have stepped foot in. It was an awe inspiring experience for me, one that left me feeling moved by the Holy Spirit. It is amazing what the human will can endure in the name of God. It is one of my favorite churches I have visited in Europe and I hope to come back again someday. I think Colton would enjoy seeing it. Here is a link to the website of the church if you are interested. It is a world heritage site listed by UNESCO.


We attended a concert in a Jewish synagogue that evening of a famous Jewish singer and then had dinner at Casablanca!

Monday, July 13:
We had two lectures in the morning and met with the Vice President of the city of Wroclaw after lunch. My favorite part of the day was a visit to an exhibit which will travel throughout Europe called Europe: Its our history! It was a wonderful collection of film, music, interactive exhibits, documents, and artifacts collected from major events in Europe. It culminated with a tribute to the efforts of the EU to integrate Europe into one body. I really enjoyed it!

We had dinner at a restaurant on the river, which was very nice. Most of the city of Wroclaw is made of a complex of rivers so there are lots of bridges and boats.

Tuesday, July 14:
Today, we had two lectures in the morning. We visited a panorama of the battle between Poland and Russia after lunch. We then took a river boat tour of the city, which was fun. We sat on the top patio on the boat and had drinks. It was very nice.

Tomorrow, we leave for Warsaw. We are stopping at a monastery that is home of the black Madonna, which gets her name from the oil or wood burning that leaves black marks on the statue. She is a major symbol of importance in Poland. I will give more accurate facts once I have visited.

Good night from Wroclaw!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Krakow and Wroclaw

I am behind again! This blogging deal is fun but difficult to keep up with. I think I avoided writing after my trip to Auschwitz since I could not really find words to describe the experience. So...here is what I have been doing the last few days in Poland.

Tuesday, July 7:
We took a bus out to Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camps. It was a long and difficult day. There are not words to describe the feelings you have when you walk the grounds where so many perished at the hands of the Nazis under Hitler's Final Solution. Most of the camp was destroyed by the Nazis as they tried to hide the evidence of their mass murder so a lot of what you see has been reconstructed. Some has been left as is so you can see the damage. Here are a few of my thoughts:

**I felt like the most difficult part of the trip to Auschwitz was seeing the materials- shoes, toothbrushes, human hair, leg braces, shoe polish, and baby clothes- brought the most emotion for me. It was difficult not to tear up when looking at the massive amount of belongings and realizing these belonged to real people who had most likely died in this camp. It was unreal.

**Graffiti- In one of the most sacred places I can think of, a cemetary for so many, you would see graffiti everywhere. Why people feel the need to write their names on the walls and the dates they visited along with other things is beyond me? Can you not respect the history of the place? It was unreal to me that people would defame such a sacred place.

**The vastness of the camps and the proximity to the town was amazing. Birkenau is so large it goes as far as the eye can see. You see rows and rows of barracks and you can imagine the thousands of prisoners as they walked in the cold and snow each day. The lack of heat during the winter was apparent due to the lack of heaters.

**The train tracks going into Birkenau literally traveled halfway up to the point of the gas chambers. People getting off of the train cars would be divided into two groups-those deemed healthy enough to work and those who would go straight to the gas chambers. They literally walked to their deaths, most unknowing. It was unthinkable to them that they would really be killed, even after they had heard the stories. By the end of the war, 5-6 trains arrived each day with a few thousand prisoners on each train.

** The Nazis often forced Jewish prisoners to work the gas chambers and to burn the bodies in the crematorium. I did not realize this. The Nazi officials realized at the beginning of the war that their soldiers who were involved in this process where having mental and emotional difficulty doing their jobs.

**There are people who worked at or were prisoners of Auschwitz who return to visit the camps. Many do not identify themselves but some do. Soon, though, there will no longer be anyone left from that era. The story will be left to the rest of us to tell to future generations so nothing like this can happen again. What a huge responsibility we have to our youth to make sure this incident is not forgotten nor repeated.

Final note on Auschwitz Birkenau- I am very aware that I did not see everything in this camp. It would take several days to go through the camps and see all the exhibits and to process it all. If you ever do get a chance to visit, take at least two days to really see the camps. You will appreciate the extra time. I hope I can someday go back.

Lighter note about July 7th- Colton turned 28!

Wednesday, July 8:
We had a wonderful lecture in the morning by a professor from Jagiellonian who spoke to us about Poland's position in the EU and NATO. He was actually a sociologist so he spoke from the viewpoint of the Polish people and not the political viewpoint. We talked a lot about Poland's reasons for joining the EU and NATO and the effect this has had on the identity of the Polish people. Poles love America and usually support most of what we do. They are fiercely loyal allies, partially because they hope in being so loyal that those feelings/actions would be reciprocated by the AMericans should they ever come under attack again. In his opinion, so this is not hard fact, the professor said Poles view America as the only true protector of the world, the only country capable of coming to one's defense. It was an interesting thought to consider.

We had a free afternoon set so I shopped some and bought some souvenirs. Traditional souvenirs from Poland include hand carved wooden boxes, hand painted eggs (similar to fabrige eggs), and amber. Of course, I made sure to purchase these! I also purchased a set of stacking dolls...the little dolls that you open up and inside is a smaller doll. These are traditionally a Russian gift but I figured I may never get to Russia so I bought one now!

I ended up attending an optional lecture by the former Prime Minister of Poland who is a candidate for the President of the Council of Europe. It was a great opportunity to see someone of such merit in Polish and European politics.

Thursday, July 9:
We had the second part of the lecture on NATO and the EU in the morning and a lecture on Polish literature in the afternoon. Both were good but the highlight of my day was my trip to the Jewish quarter to see a movie at the Cinema City. I saw Angels and Demons (in English with Polish subtitles) and it was almost like being at home at the movie theater. ALthough I will say, my experience with the Polish version of the American hot dog was not so pleasant. Laura and I saw a sign for American hot dogs at the mall so we decided to try them due to our limited time available before the movie began. (There was a Jeff's American restaurant, too, but sadly we did not have enough time to try this because it was sit down.) So...we order a plain hot dog. The man proceeds to try and dump every Polish condiment on my hot dog. If you know me and how picky I am, this is totally not going to fly. Let me give you an idea of the condiments available.....a yellowish green mustard (maybe...that is what I am guessing it was), saurkraut, chili with CORN in it, and mushrooms. Umm no! Finally he gave me my hot dog (With only a hint of the green mustard) on a french baguette bun. Lets just say it was no American hot dog. I enjoyed the movie but I have not read the book. It was just nice to sit and relax watching an American movie.

Friday, July 10:
We took a guided tour of Wawel Castle, home of the Polish kings in Krakow while it was capital for 500 years. It was a beautiful castle and has some of the original walls still intact. Many of the items inside the castle have been donated and do not necessarily belong to Polish royalty. Many of the items of Polish history and art were stolen during the several periods of occupation by the Nazis and the Communists as well as when Poland was divided between Prussia, Lithuania, and Germany. We also took a tour of the cathedral of the castle where many Polish kings are buried in the crypt.

We had a free afternoon so I spent it shopping (again) with Gaea, my Texas Tech buddy. I had already purchased gifts to bring back but of course I cannot resist a good deal. I bought another hand painted egg. I also purchased a set of teacups and saucers along with a dessert plate. One set is of traditional Polish pottery in a blue and white pattern. The other is real Polish fine china. I got the idea from a friend who was going to purchase a place setting of china whenever she traveled to a different country. Once she had built up a collection, she would use those dishes as her fine china for formal dinners and holidays rather than buying a matching set. I thought this was a wonderful idea but I have changed it slightly. I plan on buying a teacup with saucer and dessert plate from countries I visit to use for serving all the yummy homemade desserts I will make for holidays and dinners! I can now check Poland off my list!

Saturday, July 11:
We switched cities today. We traveled by (old) bus to Wroclaw, which is in the western part of Poland. It was actually under German control until 65 years ago with the end of German occupation after WWII. I am excited to explore the city because of its cultural diversity and German influence.

We took a tour of Wroclaw University and several churches this afternoon. We even saw two brides as they prepared to enter the church to be married. (This made me homesick and wish I was in Texas about to get married) We also toured the botanical gardens of the university, which were beautiful! We had dinner as a group tonight and Shelby and I ordered hot chocolate after our meal. It was the thickest hot chocolate I have ever tasted. It was good but the consistency was closer to hot chocolate pudding than hot chocolate! Still, it satisfied my sweet tooth.

As of today, I have 6 more days in Poland. I will enjoy them to the fullest and I will enjoy even more returning home to Texas to my family and COLTON.

Good night from Wroclaw!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Krakow & Zakopane

Hello! I am very behind on my blogging. We have been very busy and, when I get home to my hotel room in the evening, I am so tired. We moved to Krakow last Wednesday and I think it is my favorite city thus far. Yes...it is very touristy. It is much more common to hear English here on the streets, with various accents of course. However, even being touristy, the city has so much character. It was the capital of Poland for 500 years and was basically left intact during the war period. I will attempt to cover the last few days briefly so here goes!

Wednesday, July 1:
We arrived in Krakow midafternoon and took a short tour of the city upon arrival. Its a beautiful city and we are staying right in the center of the city near the Old Town. It is only a 5 minute walk to the main square where there is live music, restaurants, and street entertainment. After our tour, we headed to the National Museum in Krakow for the American Dream exhibit. They had a huge celebration because it was the opening of the exhibit and our Ambassador Victor Ashe was on hand to give a speech. It was unreal! Think Coca Cola, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and lots of photos from the American past. Cowboys and Indians, Andy Warhol paintings, and even a Woodstock exhibit. Through the center of the main floor of the exhibit, there was a paved road which paid tribute to Jack Kerouac's novel and America's obsession with mobility. For food, Coca Cola, beer, and wine were served with a Polish version of pigs in a blanket. I accidentally bit into one that was more like salmon in a blanket. EEWW!

Thursday, July 2:
We started off the day with a tour and lecture at one of the oldest universities in Poland and Europe, Jagellonian University. It was the home school of Nicolas Copernicus! The school is beautiful! I think I would love to sit through lectures in the ornate halls and rooms. Only doctoral students actually have classes in the Collegium Mass, the main building. Most of the building is a museum which honors past scholars and materials used by the university. We also had an introductory course in Polish. Let's just say I am no where near fluent! :) Polish is a difficult language to learn but, luckily, many Poles speak English. It was fun to try and learn!

Friday, July 3:
We had a wonderful lecture on the history of Poland at Jagellonian University in the morning. In the afternoon, we took a tour of the Kazimierz district of Krakow, the old Jewish district. This was where Steven Spielberg shot the movie Schindler's List. There were 7 (I think) active synagogues in Krakow before WWII and now there are only 2 active. We toured one and the cemetary behind it. The cemetary was used as a dumping grounds by the Nazis during WWII so the headstones were destroyed. After the war, the fragments of headstones left were put into the surrounding walls. The headstones still intact were re-established in the cemetary but they were just put up on random lots. There were no records of where each headstone should go so the bodies buried there do not necessarily match the headstone. There was a man who helps run the tours through the cemetary and synagogue who had connections to Oskar Schindler. Schindler saved his father during the war! We walked all through the Jewish district and our guide pointed out more spots where Schindler's List was filmed. We also walked to Schindler's factory and past the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. The Nazis in Krakow left much of the city intact but were much more cruel about how they treated Jewish property, holy places, etc. For example, when they constructed the walls of the Jewish ghetto, they made them look like headstones from a Jewish cemetary so the Jews knew what was happening. We ate dinner in a Jewish restaurant in the Kazimierz district.

Side note- Colton's surprise birthday cake arrived in Crockett and he was definitely surprised! I am so happy I was able to do something for him, even if it was small.

Saturday, July 4:
Happy Independence Day! It was weird not celebrating the 4th of July with fireworks but we did get a chance to relax some. We headed for a quick weekend trip to Zakopane, up in the Tatras Mountains along the Polish-Slovakian border! We took a river raft ride on the Dunajec River and stayed at a wonderful resort with a beautiful view of the Tatras Mts. in Zakopane. Zakopane was the site of the Winter Olympics a few years ago. Saturday night we had dinner in a traditional highlander (Poles who live in the mountains) restaurant complete with highlander music, dancing, and tea! Now do not be fooled. Highlander tea has a homemade liquor in it that is 90% alcohol. We also played traditional highlander games (involving the homemade brew of course). I even danced a highlander dance with a man in wool pants! Haha! It was a lot of fun.

Sunday, July 5:
I challenged myself today by facing my fear of heights. I travelled up the Kasprowy Wierch Mountain (in the Tatras range) by cable car. I thought I would die! Heights is just not my thing! However, I did it and I walked around a little at the top. After that, I decided my adventuresome side had done enough for the day and I retreated to a cafe for some hot chocolate while the rest of the group went up to the summit!

We spent the afternoon shopping in Zakopane at the little booths along the main street. We traveled back to Krakow by bus in the evening.

Monday, July 6:
Today, I was very tired and homesick. It is day 20 of my trip and the exhaustion is beginning to set it. Skype is wonderful but I would love to see Colton, my family, and friends in person. I cannot wait to get back to Texas!

Today, we had two lectures this morning at Jagellonian University on Poland since communism and on Polish-Jewish relations. The latter was fascinating! I have really learned a lot about the Jewish community that I did not know before as well as about the Jews in Poland.

In the afternoon. we took a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, the oldest in Europe. We went down approximately 900 steps into the mine. It was very beautiful inside. There were tons of sculptures made of salt and there was even a cathedral and a large ball room where you could hold weddings! How cool!

Tomorrow, we are going to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I know it will be an emotional day for me but I am excited to go, if that makes sense. I think it is important to visit this place as a reminder of what can happen without tolerance of others. On a lighter note, it is also Colton's 28th birthday! I will wish him good thoughts tomorrow and try not to be sad I cannot be there with him to celebrate. My family has graciously invited him to dinner.

I will post pics of the events of the last few days later! Good night from Krakow!