Last month I finally decided to move my writings from our time in Poland off Facebook and onto my blog site as individual posts. (Sorry to those of you who got email updates before I remembered to turn off the notifications!) This was a long time coming, and although the process was a little tedious, I thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing about all our trips and experiences in Europe. Therefore, for this month’s blog post, I thought I’d do a little countdown of some of my favorite photos (and the memories that accompany them) from our beloved Polska. Enjoy!
#12 – St. Jakob’s Orthodox Church, Częstochowa
We had never heard of Częstochowa prior to moving to Poland, but after visiting, we fell in love with this highly-organized city of international pilgrimage fame.
#11 – Orłowo Pier, Gdynia
The Tri-City area of Poland might just be our favorite because it is filled with all sorts of unexpected sights and activities! For example: intriguing pirate ships, beautiful sandy beaches, and a lovely ferry to Hel and back.
#10 – Słowiński National Park, Łeba
The sand dunes of Słowiński National Park are also high on our list of incredible (yet unexpected) sights in Northern Poland. Is this even Poland? Tak, to jest Polska.
#9 – Market Square, Wrosław
Some cities have something so unique that they will always stand out in your memory. For me, I will always remember Wrosław for its legion of tiny dwarf statues.
#8 – Town Hall, Poznań
Poznań was another city of surprises with the legendary goat dance and the highly revered rogal świętomarciński, a pastry with its own museum. Smacznego!
#7 – Countryside, Silesia
Our main method of transportation around Poland was Polskibus (something I miss dearly). Views of the beautiful countryside from the windows of a double decker bus will forever be etched in my brain.
#6 – Wawel Royal Castle, Kraków
We were lucky enough to visit Kraków several times, but the bar crawl we did on a whim one night gave us more stories than any other singular event in Poland. My head still spins at the memory.
#5 – Oświęcim
Oświęcim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, was a sobering reminder of the horrific events that occurred here and the fact that those who do not remember the past are surely condemned to repeat it.
#4 – Motława River, Gdańsk
Another part of the Tri-City area, Gdańsk, has such an interesting history and local flair. Reflecting on it now, Gdańsk is probably the most likely candidate for a long-term return (other than Łódź, of course).
#3 – Tatra Mountains
Truly a Winter Wonderland, hiking in the snowy Tatras was utterly surreal. As was the fact that we traversed the 16km trail thick with fresh snow…in gym shoes. I can still feel my frozen toes.
#2 – Malbork Castle, Malbork
Europe has such a knack for making you and your life feel small in the face of so much history. This was certainly the case in Malbork, exploring the largest Teutonic castle in the world.
#1 – Główny Rynek, Kalisz
Regardless of destination, the memories (and photos) that mean the most often have to do with friends and family. For me, walking around one of the oldest cities of Poland with my parents falls directly into this category.
What an incredible country! I love reminiscing about all the things we did and saw while living in Poland (thanks for humoring me, by the way). One of the most shocking things about this little project was realizing that this was 7 years ago! We’re clearly long overdue for a trip back. Fingers crossed it happens sooner rather than later! Naprawdę tęsknię za Tobą Polsko.
It’s December! Only a few days from the official start of winter! You might already know this about me, but I absolutely love this time of year. Of course, I know not everyone feels the same way, and I also know that this year is different (in about every way possible). Typically, during the holidays, Tucker and I do some traveling: we disconnect, explore someplace new (often somewhere we can play in the snow), but alas, 2020 has kept us pretty tethered…in Florida of all places. So, for this month’s post, I ask you to humor me as I look back at some of my favorite winter destinations of years past. I’m aiming to turn this pining into planning, and I invite you to do the same. There’s always another winter coming!
Tatra Mountains, Poland
This is the trip I always find myself looking back on around this time of year. Magical is the best word I have to describe our snowy hike in the Tatra Mountains. It felt and looked exactly like a fairy tale (well at least until our inadequate clothing choices had us pondering the effects of frostbite). Zakopane was the little mountain town we based our trip around, and the mulled wine, grilled oscypek (a mountain specialty), and the handmade wooden crafts in the local markets made it all the more beautiful.
Even if you don’t like the cold, you should still be able to appreciate the incredible Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin, China. I’ve never been to the North Pole (or any city that associates with it), but I definitely got Santa’s Village vibes while we were there. Snow sculptures as far as the eye could see, entire buildings and playgrounds made of ice, and, if I recall correctly, there was even a VR experience with penguins. Definitely worth the icy eyelashes!
New York, USA
A post about winter trips must include New York City. It’s truly lovely any time of year, but bundling up on a ferry crossing the Hudson, drinking hot chocolate while watching the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and feeling the fierce winds tunneling through the skyscrapers are some of my favorite memories of this iconic destination. I also feel pretty strongly about the fact that it smells much better in winter – no baking garbage or sweaty subway seatmates. Bonus!
We actually booked our trip to Bergen on a bit of a whim because we found cheap tickets from Warsaw and we had the time off. In hindsight, I can’t believe we hadn’t already had such an amazing place on our travel list. We loved strolling down the snowy cobblestone streets and the fjords and scenic train rides were absolutely breathtaking. If you ever find yourself in Norway debating whether or not to do one of the “Norway in a Nutshell” tours – do it!
Perhaps a somewhat surprising winter location, but as Chengdu is known as one of the “Furnaces of China”, I vowed to stay away in summer or anything summer adjacent. Thus, we visited in January and had the most amazing time! Pandas are adorable year-round, and I found the outdoor tea houses and consumption of extremely spicy food much more enjoyable in cooler temperatures. The mountains (and yaks) just outside the city were also extremely beautiful covered in a pristine blanket of fresh snow.
Just for fun, let’s say you’re like me and would love to have TWO winters in a given year. A trip to Australia can grant this wish! The Southern Hemisphere, of course, has their winter from June-August, so one year, we spent July in “wintery” Sydney. It was a mild winter to say the least, but the general vibe was there as we walked by ice rinks and snowflake décor all around the city. Like NY, Sydney is an amazing place to visit any time of year, but the less touristy off-season was perhaps even more enjoyable.
Another, slightly warmer location we really enjoyed one winter was Lisbon, Portugal. The city is incredibly gorgeous, but really hilly, so we were very happy for cool weather/less sweaty hikes. The local wine and food we had was also very fitting of the season: thick stews, warm egg tarts, and strong vinho verde, just to name a few of our favorites. I’m also a big fan of quiet oceanside walks in winter, and Lisbon’s coastline did not disappoint.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
And finally, because I realize many people take vacations to hotter climates in order to escape winter, I’ll include Chiang-Mai on this list. We were there in January one year, and let me tell you, it can definitely be considered a “hotter climate”. While Bangkok and Phuket might be the more famous of Thailand’s must-see destinations, Tucker and I fell in love with CM. The temples, the mountains, the food (omg), and the small-town feel with some of the friendliest, calmest locals we’ve ever encountered, Chiang-Mai is a great place to relax during one of the most stressful times of the year.
So many memories, so many possibilities! My mind is spinning thinking about future winter trips! But for now, I’ll make do with reminiscing and enjoying a quieter, calmer winter. Happy holidays everyone!
It’s hard for me to believe, but this month marks five years from when Tucker and I first embarked on a long term, overseas adventure. It’s hard to say when exactly we decided that life abroad was something we wanted for our future, but I do remember asking if we could just stay in Finland indefinitely when we took our first international trip, just after our wedding/university graduation. I was immediately hooked on the adventure, but for Tucker, I think having a set plan and an entire, relatively stable year of not only living but also working in another country gave him the insight he needed, which ended up shifting our life plan pretty drastically.
At both Dalton State and Georgia State we had wanted to study abroad, but it was just way too expensive, even with scholarship help. However, in grad school I learned about Fulbright. An exchange program that provides grants for individual research projects, or in the case of the ETA program, specifically assigned teaching posts. It was obviously an amazing opportunity to not only experience another culture, life abroad, professional development, etc. but to also make money in the process – something extremely valuable to those graduating with student loans. However, before you can apply for a highly competitive Fulbright grant, you first have to choose a country/placement that interests you (and that will hopefully give you a good chance of success). For us, this was another easy choice and an incredible opportunity; we chose Poland.
My heritage ties, solid grades, and excellent letters of recommendation (thanks again mentors!) eventually pushed us across the almost year long application/waiting process. We got the “congratulations” email in March, with a departure date in September. It was our first experience with a State Department exchange program, and it made a lasting impression. Meeting my fellow Fulbrighters, the Fulbright Commission staff in Warsaw, and eventually my mentor and colleagues at the University of Łódź completely solidified my respect for cultural exchange and soft diplomacy. I learned so much about Poland, the United States, history, politics, teaching, you name it, but I think what surprised me most was how much I learned about myself.
Being in a completely new environment always shifts one’s focus, and I would argue that living in a new environment (such as in a new country/culture) shifts it permanently. I absolutely loved that every day was an adventure. Going to the bank, setting up our internet connection, grocery shopping: it was all exciting and gave us new insights into everything from security and privacy to historical ties and familial influence. For problem-solvers like me and Tucker, it was a constant string of puzzles and challenges to work through often with the most amusing results and exciting successes. It also allowed for exceptional personal growth – interpersonal skills, patience, dealing with ambiguity. These skills I now cherish were addressed and honed day after day as an expat.
Then there is everything we learned about Poland and about my family and my heritage. Seeing some of the “quirks” of my family represented by an entire culture, experiencing the long-lasting effects of World War II, celebrating Wigilia with new friends, eating as many pierogi and kopytka as humanly possible – we tried to soak in as much as we could. In fact, there are many habits we picked up in Poland that are still a part of our everyday lives. I discovered my love of both herbata (tea) and piwo (beer) in Poland. Tucker and I developed an interest in history and politics that we didn’t really have before. We saw firsthand how important fresh, wholesome food is and we learned how to shed some of our homegrown laziness, both of which have influenced our daily lives ever since.
Another unexpected gain from my time with Fulbright was a shift from a strong interest in teaching language (an obvious passion of mine) to an even stronger passion of teaching and discussing culture as well. After Fulbright I learned about the English Language Fellow Program, which allowed me to continue this combined effort of teaching English/language skills while at the same time learning from each other as our mutual understanding and friendships grew. Tucker and I are now considering taking this idea one step further and potentially joining the foreign service in order to continue developing meaningful intercultural relationships with people from all over the world. Fulbright gave us a glimpse into the many incredibly powerful things exchange programs can do.
Looking back at this seemingly small part of my academic/professional career, it’s clear to see it definitely had a huge impact on my life. It changed the way I view myself and my culture as well as how I see the world. From Fulbright 2015-2016 right up to the craziness that is 2020 and hopefully beyond, I plan to continue sharing my experiences in exchanging culture and shifting perspectives, whether with the help of specially designed programs like Fulbright, through my online teaching of international students, or throughout my life as an expat anywhere in the world. These five years have absolutely flown by, but I will forever be grateful for every step along the way. Thank you, Fulbright, and dziękujemy, Poland.
Lodz, Poland and Hefei, China are two cities that 1) not many people have heard of and 2) don’t really seem like they’d share many similarities, but I feel it’s my job as a former resident of one, and a current resident of the other to share some interesting information about these two beautiful places, perhaps increasing their notoriety and proving that two very different cities can actually have quite a lot in common.
Similarities: For me (and Tucker, as I’ve enlisted his help with the following comparisons), the most prominent similarities lie in the locations, reputations, and inhabitants of the two cities.
Location: Both Lodz and Hefei are somewhat centrally located within their respective countries. They are cities that are not known for their tourist attractions, but are instead used as transportation hubs. All the train routes and major highways, for example, seem to connect through these large, regional capitals. We have absolutely loved this feature in both locations because it has made our travels around Poland and China significantly easier (and cheaper). We have also found that both cities are surrounded by farmland. Unlike the US, which seems to be the land of never-ending suburbs, both Lodz and Hefei have a very clear line between city and countryside. This clear division never fails to amaze me as we ride a train out of the city, and I look down for a moment only to look up and see fields and tractors rather than high-rises. While, we knew both cities were geographically in the middle of their nations, the ease and plethora of transportation options and the stark city to farm transitions were not something we anticipated finding in one, let alone both cities.
Farmland outside of Hefei
Train travel in Poland
Farmland outside of Lodz
Reputation: Another similarity we’ve run into is what the two cities are most known for. Lodz was described to us as the Detroit of Europe (or the Manchester of the Continent), a place where industry was king. In Hefei, it is and has always been about business as well; whether the tea or other Anhui specialties from the past or the engineered or technological goods of today, Hefei is also place where industry has thrived. Both cities are also well off-the-beaten track as far as travelers are concerned. Many people travel to Poland and to China, but far fewer have made it to Lodz or Hefei. For that reason, I think the two cities share a sense of undisturbed cultural “essence” that places like Kracow and Shanghai can’t quite advertise. We often joke that we live in “real” China as opposed to places like Beijing or Hong Kong, which have many international residents and conveniences that might not feel that different from any other large city. Lodz also felt like a part of “real” Poland, and no matter which country we’re in, Tucker and I have definitely preferred being one with the locals.
Fitting in in Hefei
Fitting in in Lodz
Cityscape in Hefei
Inhabitants: A third similarity that has appeared in so many ways is in regards to the people. Both Lodz and Hefei, possibly as a result of their lack of tourism, are fairly homogeneous cities. I remember in Lodz feeling like I was missing out on the diversity that, to me, made a city like Atlanta something special. Hefei is similar in that the vast majority of people fit a very similar mold. Even the names fit very specific standardizations in both locations. In one of my classes in Poland I had six students named Marta, four Michals, etc. In China it’s the same but with the last names, I have seven students in one class with the surname Zhang, five with Liu, etc. We’ve also found hospitality to be very highly valued by the inhabitants of both Lodz and Hefei. People in both cities have been extremely welcoming towards us whether we have a connection (via friends or work) or not. From snack offerings and dinner invitations to personal tour guides and assistance with even the most mundane tasks, strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike went out of their way in both cities to be friendly and hospitable to us, the newbies on the block.
Dinner in Hefei
Dinner in Lodz
The last similarity that I want to mention, which may even be the reason I’m writing this post, is that people from Lodz (Lodzites, as we call them) and people from Hefei (Hefeians) both regard their cities as “nothing special”. When people asked me what my favorite city in Poland was, truly my answer was Lodz, and they didn’t believe me! Now when I talk about all the things I like about Hefei, I’m met with suggestions for other cities to visit in China. Maybe this can be boiled down to the “grass is always greener” adage, or maybe some form of modesty, but really I think both Lodz and Hefei are great places to visit or to live.
Honorable mentions for similarities: Some other things that stick out as oddly similar between the two cities include:
The prevalence of shopping malls, the of ubiquity of uneven pavements (it’s unclear as of yet whether I’ve tripped more often in Poland or in China), the common appearance of cars on these uneven pavements (i.e. sidewalks, store fronts, etc.), and the the popularity of duck (as opposed to other poultry).
Mall in Lodz
Mall in Hefei
Differences: I don’t think my information about the cities would be entirely complete if I didn’t at least briefly outline some of the differences we’ve encountered as well. When thinking about the ways the two cities are not alike, interestingly, I still come to the features of location, reputation, and inhabitants.
Location: The size of the two cities is quite different. Lodz has a population of about 100,000, while Hefei has between 6-8 million. With the population difference, of course, comes a difference of area. Lodz was fairly walkable; usually we chose to take buses or trams, but if it got too late, we could walk home if we needed to. We were also able to walk to the grocery store, a nearby mall, several parks, etc. In Hefei there is no way to get around solely by walking. It takes us over an hour to get to the other side of the city in the best of circumstances, several hours by bus. In Hefei we end up taking taxis a lot more than we ever have before (cheap, reliable, and fast – can’t be it!). Another locational difference is the fact that Poland is surrounded quite close on all sides by different cultures. Europe, in general, has been mixing the cuisines, festivals, etc. of its various nations for quite a while. China, while also surrounded by other countries/cultures, is much larger and only newly “open” for mixing. The difference these facts have made on the cities is quite evident. In Lodz we could go to an Italian, French, Turkish, German, Chinese, or any other restaurant we might want on any given night, while in Hefei, it’s pretty much Chinese all around. There is variety to be had (Sichuanese, Canton, Beijing-style, etc.), but ultimately to me, it’s still all Chinese.
Reputation: Another difference would have to be the government systems, and perhaps even more than that are the views towards the government systems. In Lodz, I talked about politics more than I ever had previously in my life. We talked about Poland’s history, laws, elections, etc. all the time. I learned that Poland had the world’s second democracy, I heard the word “solidarity” more often than I would have thought possible, and of course, I observed all the negativity surrounding the ideals of communism (which is really no wonder given Poland and Russia’s history). However, now that I’m in Hefei, politics are pretty well avoided. Solidarity has perhaps been replaced with “CPC”, and communism is viewed completely differently, which makes sense, as it is completely different than the former Russian system we’ve all read about. Another large difference in regards to reputation is the presence of religion in Lodz and the almost complete absence of it in Hefei. I took hundreds of photos of churches during my time in Poland, and I think I’ve seen maybe four over the past seven months in China. It’s also interesting to note that in Poland many people loved arguing over the influence the church had/has on the government, but in China that’s just not even possible.
Inhabitants: Finally, there are definitely some differences among the people of Lodz and Hefei. While I mentioned both populations were incredible hospitable, their ways of showing it are completely different. In Poland people had a motherly way of treating guest: Did we want something to drink? Something to eat? Are we cold? Etc. We were asked over to people’s houses for the holidays, and we had no trouble connecting to people on a casual, friend level. In China, we’re treated more like honored guests. We are given the best seats in the house, gifts, toasts, red-carpet treatment (sometimes literally). While hospitable, occasionally we feel a little isolated by this guest-treatment, which has taken a bit of time to overcome and finally allow us to reach the friendzone. Another obvious difference would be lifestyles. In Lodz it seemed like a quiet life was desired. Most people in the city kept to themselves and enjoyed quiet activities like reading or silently playing mobile games while making it through the day (the great exception to this being when a Polish sports team was on TV). In Hefei, however, I’m not sure there’s ever a truly quiet moment. Cars and buses blast their horns around the clock, people listen to surprisingly loud audio messages wherever they are, and with the singing street sweepers and an abundance salespeople armed with loudspeakers, it’s safe to say people here aren’t concerned with the quiet life.
Grocery store in Lodz
Grocery store in Hefei
Honorable mentions for differences: Some other notable differences include:
The amount and importance placed on alcohol as a form of socializing, the ability to regulate indoor temperatures (in Lodz we couldn’t cool down our apartment, and in Hefei we can’t heat it), the emphasis placed on the quality of food, and last but not least, the language (there’s way too much to say about the differences in this aspect, so I’ll save it for a later post).
I’m not sure if anyone really wanted quite that much information about Lodz and Hefei, but when I start talking (or writing) about these two places I always find that I have so much to say! Ultimately though no matter the similarities or differences we’ve found, the most remarkable things we’ve taken away form our time in both Lodz and Hefei are the things we’ve learned, the memories we’ve made, and the people we’ve met. And personally, I can’t wait to find out which city we’ll be adding to the comparison list next!
New York City, Rome, and Bangkok are amazing places to travel. There is so much to see and do in these cities, and all sorts of information available for planning a trip there (and many other cities on the same scale), but sometimes we want to try something new, go somewhere equally interesting, but perhaps not as well-known. I’m a big fan of this type of travel, the less expected places where I usually learn more from the locals themselves than any possible book or website. If you also like exploring lesser-known destinations or just want to try something new, here is my list of 8 underrated travel destinations that I think everyone would fall in love with.
#8 Milwaukee, WI
Okay, I realize Milwaukee is not the most glamorous or exotic city on anyone’s list, but hear me out. This smallish city, famous for its breweries and cheese, is only about an hour north of Chicago. Perhaps because of this, it can sometimes be overshadowed by the fame of its neighbor; however, in addition to the flavorful brews and delicious cheese curds, the city also lies along Lake Michigan with a river running straight through its center (sound familiar?). It also has a very strong European influence, which can be seen in the architecture and abundance of towering cathedrals. It might be less than half the size of Chicago (and about half as expensive!), but this city has been modernizing in a way that would make any European enthusiast proud. Many historical neighborhoods have been beautifully restored, the additions of a city Riverwalk and a new park have livened up the outdoor scene, and if you’re brave enough to endure the temperatures, the city is absolutely breathtaking in the winter.
Things to see/do: walk along the Milwaukee Riverwalk, test out some local beers at one of the many breweries (I recommend Lakefront), eat the squeaky cheese curds (available everywhere!), and if you’re there in winter, head to a bar for tailgating and transportation to one of the state’s football games.
#7 Kiev, Ukraine
The capital city of Ukraine has had a bit of a bumpy ride over the past few decades, but that isn’t so evident when traipsing around the city as an excited tourist. Although Ukraine is not in the EU yet, you’ll find many of the same European conveniences backpackers and travelers alike have come to expect: wonderful public transportation, many downtown hostels and hotels, and a slough of monuments, churches, and parks to wander around. The city is known for its monasteries and domed, Orthodox churches, but I remember it most for it’s extremely cheap and delicious food! Most signs are in Cyrillic (like the Russian alphabet), which I think adds greatly to the city’s charm, but if you’re worried about language skills, the English spoken is quite common and understandable, especially by the younger generation.
Things to do/see: visit the caves and monastery at Pechersk-Lavra, have some Chicken Kiev and varenyky (a local dumpling), marvel at the ornate metro stations, and make the climb to Sky Park, where you can zip line across the river.
Extremely colorful city
#6 Huangshan, China
“Huang-what?”, you might be asking yourself. Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is not particularly well-known outside of China, except perhaps by avid hikers or mountaineers. However, this city and the mountain it takes its name from are spectacular places for anyone to visit. Lying about 4 hours west of Shanghai (by train), Huangshan is a destination that really has it all: beautiful nature, historical sites, and modern shopping. It might not be one of the largest cities in China (or even close), but it’s still pretty large from my perspective, with a population of 1.5 million. Just outside the city, accessible by bus are the mountains (to the north) and the preserved ancient towns of Hongcun and Xidi (to the northwest). All are worth a visit, and will remind people why China is often referred to as a traveler’s dream.
Things to do/see: wander around Hongcun and Xidi marveling at the bizarre street foods, hike Huangshan itself (or take a cable car up and hike down), shop for souvenirs and local teas on Tunxi Old Street, and eat some local Huizhou dishes, including the famous noodles.
#5 Skopje, Macedonia
Known officially as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Macedonia is a small country in southern Europe that most people wouldn’t be able to pick out on a map. The capital city of Skopje, lies in the north of the country and is completely surrounded by mountains, giving it spectacular views from every angle. The city was heavily influenced by ancient Greece, which you can easily see in the large stone bridges and plethora of white columns, but it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russia) and also claims one of the largest numbers of mosques in Europe: talk about a melting pot! The culture there is a unique mix all seeming to revolve around food, the incredibly refreshing šopska salad and potent rakija (locally produced alcohol) for example. While winter brings heavy snowfall to this mountain city, the summers can also be pretty steamy. If you’d like to split your time in the city with time in-touch with nature, a city bus can take you about an hour outside of town to the beautiful canyons around the Vardar river.
Things to do/see: take a ride to Matka canyon, spend an evening in Macedonian Square watching the fountain lights, try the šopska salad, and walk up to the Kale Fortress for panoramic views of the city and mountains.
Beautiful at night
Tomatoes, cucumbers, and lots of cheese
Old Stone Bridge
#4 Bergen, Norway
Ah, Norway! Land of trolls, fjords, and the midnight sun. When I hear people planning a trip to Norway, usually Oslo and other cities in the southern part of the country are the first to be mentioned. However, I would much rather choose Bergen, a little further north, nestled into the fjords on the country’s west coast. This city in winter or summer is a great jumping off point for further exploration of the fjords, but it has enough to do in town that you might not even want to leave! From town squares and colorful row houses to funiculars and downhill sledding, Bergen has a lot to offer for those who prefer to spend their time on activities that don’t break the bank. However, when the time comes to spend a little cash, a great way to do it is on the food! There is a wide variety available here from traditional Scandinavian specialties to a TGIFridays; the choice is really up to you!
Things to do/see: take a fjord tour (I’m usually not a “tour person”, but these are worth it), ride the funicular up Mount Fløyen and sled down, sample extremely fresh seafood at the Fisketorget market, and walk around the quaint Bryggen Wharf.
Sunset from the mountain
#3 Savannah, GA
Another destination from my homeland (home state even) is Savannah, GA. This seaside city is always equated with the “old south”: plantation houses, buttery foods, and a slower pace of life come to mind. However, this city is a lot more than that. It can cater to a younger crowd nowadays with its bar streets and beaches, but there are also tree lined avenues, old cemeteries, and little antique shops that are great for the traveler with varied interests. Savannah is not as famous as perhaps New Orleans or Charleston, but maybe for that reason, I found it to be less affected by outside influences. It is a city that it uniquely itself: beautiful and eclectic, much like many Georgians I know.
Things to do/see: have brunch at any of the restaurants along River Street (I recommend Huey’s), have a drink or two at one of the bars on Broughton Street, amble under the large oak trees at any one of the numerous parks, head over to Tybee Island for the lighthouse and beautiful beaches.
#2 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
One of my more recent discoveries, Ulaanbaatar is an unexpected gem of the travel world. A unique combination of different cultures set in a landscape like no other I’ve seen. The city itself has plenty of sights and traditional Mongolian activities and foods, but just outside the city is a completely different side of life in one of the largest landlocked countries in the world. A nearby national park gives breathtaking views of the mountains and vast plains of Mongolia, while wild horses and yak stand on the side of the road grazing in the fields or drinking from the winding rivers. It’s a bit more rugged outside the city, but no less friendly. Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked highly by travelers who are lucky enough to go there. The lamb dumplings alone are worth the journey!
Things to do/see: walk around the ger district, view a temple or two at Gandantegchinlen Monestary, watch the wedding parties taking pictures in Sükhbaatar Square, try a modern twist on Mongolian food at Modern Nomad, and make the trek out to Terelj National Park.
Terelj National Park
#1 Tricity, Poland
This destination (and the whole country really) is near and dear to my heart. I spent a year living in Poland and made it my job to explore every corner of the country. What I found was a series of destinations that many people gloss over in favor or Warsaw or Krakow, the more international locales. However, when I think of places to visit in Poland, my mind first goes to its Baltic Coast. Just across the Baltic sea from Sweden, Poland’s “Tricity” of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia sits about four hours north of Warsaw (by car). These cities have an incredibly interesting history, which has allowed them to retain their distinct and varied atmospheres. Gdansk, formally German, has an industrious feel, an international airport, and an impressive city center. Sopot is a resort town with Europe’s longest wooden boardwalk and many fancy shops and hotels. And finally Gdynia, the most Polish of the three, boasts beautiful beaches, several hilly parks, and a ferry to Hel and back. Who wouldn’t want to to see all of that?!
Things to do/see: take the ferry to Hel for the seal sanctuary or the beaches, walk the pier in Gydina to see sailboats alongside pirate ships, watch local artists working in Gdansk’s Long Market, and in winter, enjoy a cup of grzane piwo (mulled beer) at any one of the pop-up Christmas markets.
Last year around this time Tucker and I were finishing up our year spent in Łódź, Poland. It was an absolutely amazing experience that I did my best to share with all my friends and family via social media. Perhaps one of the most expressive ways I found to share what we were experiencing was through the “Notes” I wrote each month on Facebook. Unfortunately, due of the nature of Facebook, they weren’t terribly easy to find, especially after some time had passed, so as I prepare for our next adventure abroad (and the sharing that will surely follow), I wanted to make my previous posts more accessible. So here are the links to the ten posts I made last year during our time in Poland. Enjoy!
*Update: It has now been 7 years since I originally wrote these “Notes” and 5 years since I compiled the links here. As to be expected, things have changed since then, and Facebook might not be the best option for accessibility anymore. Therefore, I have created individual pages for each of these posts, which can be found freely on my site as well as in the original, public FB Notes via the links above.
It’s Christmastime once again, and I find myself pining (see what I did there?) for Poland. This time last year, Tucker and I were decorating our apartment in Łódź and brushing up on Polish Christmas traditions (of which there are plenty). This year, while I’m very excited to be celebrating Christmas with my family, American-style, there are definitely many things I’m missing about life in Poland. For example:
Drinking Tea with Friends
I miss Polish tea culture! In the United States, coffee is generally the warm drink of choice, and, unfortunately, I really hate coffee. In Poland, I was gradually forced into drinking some form of hot liquid (especially on cold mornings), and eventually, I learned to love hot tea. Although at first I fought it, now I find myself missing the constant drink (and snack) offers at every Polish gathering (from dinner at a friend’s house to a meeting at work) as well as always getting the choice of coffee or tea. In the past few months I have done my best to bring this tradition to my life in the US, but sadly all I’ve done is become known as the weird, coffee-hating, hot tea-drinker.
I’m very sad that I will not get to use my well-practiced “Wesołych Swiąt” this year (or the even more challenging “Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku”). Instead, I have to waver with the very difficult “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” debacle. Not only am I missing Polish greetings, but I’m also missing the intensive grammar practice. I know that sounds crazy to most people, but I loved it – and it’s just not the same outside of Poland. I’m really doing my best to continue studying the complex Polish language, but it’s not nearly as gratifying without the unsuspecting strangers to practice with.
I miss not having to worry about driving. Weather, distance, gas prices: there are so many things we consider when deciding if it’s worth it to leave the house in the United States. However, in Poland, I never worried about that. I had trains, trams, buses, sidewalks…plenty of methods at my disposal; thus, we found ourselves out and about much more often. I used to think having a car meant having freedom (and to an extent in the US it sort of does), but it’s definitely a limited freedom. Access to a good public transportation system is real freedom.
Proximity of Destinations
Somewhat related to public transportation, I also miss the nearness of points of interest. Poland (and Europe in general) has so much to see (mountains, castles, seas, etc.), and it’s not nearly as spread out as the United States. It was easy for us to go to a different region of Poland or even a different country just for the weekend. I miss being surrounded by the diverse histories and cultures of Central Europe. It’s only a 2.5-hour flight from Warsaw to Rome, Athens, Paris, or London. Location, location, location!
Where do I even begin when talking about the food? I miss everything about Polish food. I miss the buffets at the university cafeteria; I miss the cheap ham sandwiches sold at train stations; I miss the home-cooked feel of everything we ate in Poland. The żurek, rosół, pierogi, kotlet schabowy, kopytka, even the surówka, I miss it all! This is another aspect I tried to bring back to the States, but alas, it’s just not the same. Atlanta doesn’t even have a Polish restaurant where I can get my fix! At least when I was in Chicago I was able to get some fresh kabanosy and wash it down with a cold Żywiec.
Perhaps most of all, I miss the people. I miss my Polish friends, and I miss the friendliness of Polish strangers. Poles are very genuine, and in my experience they make great friends and mentors. I miss the conversations we had – always very intelligent and rarely superficial, and I miss the interest they took in learning anything they could about US culture and the English language. After spending some time back in the US, I’ve witnessed so many differences that I didn’t realize existed, and I love sharing them with the people I left across the Atlantic. I have a feeling I will be making realizations about Polish and American culture forever!
Of course, there are many other aspects of Polish life that I find myself missing – seriously, I could go on. Fortunately, I have been able to incorporate a few Polish customs into my American life. Things like drinking beer with a straw (and on occasion fruit juice), not taking off my jacket as I shop for groceries, wearing slippers around the house, and you better believe we’ll be watching “Home Alone” on Christmas Eve! 🙂 In short, my time in Poland changed my life. I’m still so grateful for that opportunity and am ready for my next overseas adventure (soon to come)!
There is no question that Tucker and I have been extremely fortunate this year. It honestly feels like a dream. I’ve talked a lot about Fulbright, the University of Łódź, and all the amazing experiences I’ve had with such wonderful people and organizations supporting me, but I’ve not really discussed the places we’ve been able to go. I have always loved exploring new places, comparing them to what I’ve read or heard from others, and my time in Europe has allowed me to do that and then some. Traveling is an incredible luxury, and unfortunately, it’s not something everyone can do. I hope in the future international travel becomes more accessible because I have learned and developed a great deal through it, and want more people to be able to do the same (if they want to). Anyway, since several friends and family members have expressed interest in our travels, I’ve decided to share some of our experiences this past year: the destinations, of course, but also some lessons and laughs we had along the way.
One of our first mishaps in Poland (of which there have been many) occurred on our second day in Łódź. We were on our way to meet my supervisor at the university for the first time, but had a slight issue on one of the trams. We really thought we were ready; armed with złoty (Polish currency) and a chipped credit card; however, Poland is both too outdated and too modern for either of those means of payment! On the tram we could only use coins or a tap-and-pay card to buy tickets, neither of which we had. Oops! Normally this wouldn’t be a much of a problem. We would just get off, buy some tickets at a kiosk, and get back on, but (of course) with our luck, the secret transportation police (who seem to follow me) were on the tram watching us as we failed. Once they were sure we had run out of ideas, they yanked us off and gave us a 140 złoty fine ($35). Needless to say, we were late to the meeting…
Gdańsk and Sopot, Poland
In December we had some time off thanks to the holidays, so one weekend, we impulsively decided to visit Poznań, a city about 3 hours from Łódź. We didn’t know much about Poznań, so on the way there we googled the main attractions and read several suggestions to see the goats. Waking up the next morning in Poznań, it was snowing (yay!), but I was sick (boo!). Runny nose, streaming eyes, chills – it was awful, but I was not going to let that stop me. We bundled up, braved the cold, and walked and ate our way around Poznań. Eventually, it was time to see the goats. We were super excited as we crowded around the Town Hall in the main square with about 50 other goat-seekers. As the clock struck noon, the tiny, mechanical goats slowly came out of their little doors at the top of the tower. They turned towards each other, butted heads a few times (among oohs and ahhs, of course), and then retreated to their home. What did we just witness? Why goats? Is that all they do? So many questions left unanswered.
Bergen, Voss, Gudvangen, Flåm, and Myrdal, Norway
Lisbon and Porto, Portugal – Madrid, Spain – Rome, Italy – Vatican City:
Traveling to new countries can be a tad confusing at times. There can be different ways of doing things or different laws that must be upheld – many of which are unknown to tourists. We experienced a bit of this when we got to Rome. We arrived fairly late, so there was no one to let us into our room. Luckily they left a post-it note on the door with a number to call (odd). We called, and eventually a guy showed up and took us down the street to a different apartment building (also odd). He showed us the room, gave us the key, and then asked for money because Italy imposes a “special tax” on renting rooms. What?! We had already paid for the room, and I wasn’t even sure we were in the right place with the right person anymore – should we really be giving him more money? Well, we did (with no receipt or proof of any kind). But luckily he wasn’t a scammer; Italy really does impose a tourist tax for each night you stay in the country, and it’s generally paid after you arrive. Weird.
Szczecin, Gryfino, Płoty, and Resko, Poland
Wieliczka and Zakopane, Poland:
You know what Atlanta doesn’t have much of? Snow. Obviously, Tucker and I had a few things to learn about Polish winters, but on our trip to Zakopane, a mountain town in the Polish Tatras, we proved to be slow learners. Our goal while in Zakopane was to hike to Lake Morskie Oko. We had a few difficulties getting to the starting point of the hike due to the time of year, and once we were there, I realized I had made a huge mistake. I thought someone had told me it was a two kilometer hike, but it seems they might have said it was a two hour hike. Oops. We also failed to take into account the fact that elevation changes the weather a great deal, so we left to hike 18 kilometers (11 miles) uphill, in the snow…in gym shoes. I’m pretty sure we almost lost toes. After about 20 minutes our shoes were soaked and soon we couldn’t feel our feet at all. That made walking up the steep mountain extremely difficult, not to mention all the slippery snow and ice. But at least now we will forever understand the importance of boots!
Brussels and Ghent, Belgium
Prague and Turnov, Czech Republic
Sieradz and Burzenin, Poland
Częstochowa, Miedźno, Katowice, and Oświęcim, Poland
Minsk and Mir, Belarus:
One of the coolest experiences we had during our travels was riding an overnight train from Warsaw to Minsk. It was such a great trip for so many reasons, including, but not limited to: our amazing travel companions and the breakfasts we shared, the traditional Belarusian dinner with many, many toasts, and the experience of being lifted into the air as they changed the train wheels at the border. However, by far, my favorite part occurred on the way home. We took another overnight train (this one was a bit older), and upon entering our compartment, it seemed we were missing a bed. We searched around the tiny room looking for the elusive bed until we spotted what looked like a door. Thinking this must be the last fold-out bed, we yanked it open and unexpectedly found ourselves looking at the gentleman in the next compartment, who rather promptly and enthusiastically said “Hello!”. No one could stop laughing!
Reykjavik, Selfoss, Hella, and Vik, Iceland – Belfast, Northern Ireland (UK) – Galway, Cork, Blarney, and Dublin, Ireland
Gdynia, Hel, Lębork, Łeba, and Malbork, Poland
Tallin, Estonia – Riga, Latvia – Vilnius, Lithuania:
I like to be early: early for class, early for appointments, early for buses/trains/planes, etc. However, sometimes it’s just not possible. Particularly when you accidentally add an 8 hour “snooze” to your alarm for the morning (why is that even an option?!). Before our trip to the Baltic States, we were graciously invited to an Independence Day party at the US ambassador to Poland’s house. We didn’t get home from the party until fairly late, and had to catch a bus the next morning at 4:50am. Before going to sleep, I responsibly set my alarm to make sure we woke up with enough time to shower, pack our things, and get to the bus station. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. At 4:34am Tucker woke up to get a drink of water, and realized (much more calmly than I would have) that we were late. Beyond late. He woke me up, and we legitimately threw our stuff in our bags and ran out of the hotel and all the way to the station. Only 16 minutes from waking up to the bus pulling away! We were sweaty, unshowered, and shaking (okay that was just me), but somehow we made it. Now we set alarms on both phones.
Stockholm, Sweden – Skopje, Macedonia – Bratislava, Slovakia – Budapest, Hungary – Vienna, Austria
Berlin and Potsdam, Germany
Rzeszów, Poland – Lviv and Kiev, Ukraine
So, this is where we’ve been this year: 21 countries, 66 cities, collecting endless memories!
I have truly tried to take advantage of every opportunity I’ve been given this year, and traveling in and around Poland was a big part of that. Throughout this process, I know my posts and pictures have been endless, but I hope they have never seemed discouraging or boastful. I wanted to document everything we did this year, so one day Tucker and I can look back and remember all the details of these stories and places, which will surely escape us as time passes. The places we’ve been and the people we’ve met during our travels this year have definitely changed how we view the world, and that is exactly why I love to travel. Here’s hoping this is only the beginning! 🙂
This week my Fulbright grant came to an end, and all the “lasts” are starting to hit me. I taught my last class at the University of Łódź, we had our last conversation club meeting at the American Corner, and this past Friday was the last Fulbright event. With these milestones behind me, I’m find myself treating every experience as the last – the last time we eat at this restaurant, the last time we buy znaczki, the last time we see so-and-so, etc. It’s always difficult to say goodbye, but for so many reasons this experience has been much harder to let go of. Tucker and I have had an incredible time this year. We’ve seen and done more than I could ever have imagined, and the experiences we’ve had and the people we’ve met have truly changed our lives forever. Let’s reminisce!
We arrived in Poland last September jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, but it didn’t keep our jaws from hitting the floor when we were taken to Sarnia 2, m.23, which has truly become our home. The city and the apartment we live in are absolutely beautiful. This has been our view for the past year, and I will sorely miss it!
Next we met the other Fulbrighters in Warsaw, and perhaps finally realized that this was real. We got acquainted rather quickly, getting lost in the underground passages of Centrum and having shots of hazelnut vodka while learning people’s names. Now I feel confident that there’s no amount of vodka that would allow me to forget their names! Hopefully. 🙂
Eventually, we returned to Łódź and got down to business: meeting my new colleagues, beginning classes at the university, studying Polish fervently, etc. Throughout the year we attended many conversation clubs and other events at the American Corner, we visited primary and secondary schools across the country, and even gave conference presentations in Minsk.
Through each of these experiences I’ve been able to develop as a teacher, a presenter, a researcher, and as a person. There is always so much to discuss and even more to learn! Tucker and I participated in everything possible, and we have never been disappointed. We looked into our futures on Andrzejki Day, we marched in support of women’s rights on Piotrkówska, we shouted “POLSKA! BIAŁO-CZERWONI” at a hockey match, and we even attended a party at the US ambassador to Poland’s house.
In addition to all of these amazing events, we were also lucky enough to spend our free time traveling around Poland. We hiked the Tatras near Zakopane, visited castles in Kraków, Malbork, and Łęczyca, walked along the Baltic sea in Łeba, saw the legendary goats of Pozńan, took a ferry to Hel and back, and so much more! Poland has incredibly beautiful and diverse geography – there is so much to see, and we’ve only just scratched the surface.
And while we were busy completely immersing ourselves in all things Polish, we also had the privilege of making some of the most incredible friends! We really cannot thank everyone enough for welcoming us into your homes, your lives, and your cultures. We have learned so much from you all! I have no doubt we’ll be friends for life, and Tucker and I can’t wait to host you in whatever country we end up in next!
So, what is next? Fulbright is over, but we still have a month left in Poland. And that can mean only one thing – travel! We have three more trips planned, plus as many events as we could squeeze into our last few weeks in Łódź. After that, who knows? Many people have been asking about our plans for the future, but for now, we’re happy to be mulling over our options. We do know that we’ll be back in Atlanta for at least August and September, but after that, it could be anywhere!
It’s time for the topic you’ve all been waiting for: Polish food! One of the best things about travelling, living abroad, and life, in general, is the food, and I’m happy to say that even after seven months, we are still loving everything Poland is dishing out. I wish I could send everyone reading this a heaping plate of pierogi or some spicy kabanosy to sample, but as that’s just not possible, we’ll have to make do with the power of description.
The first thing that must be mentioned when talking about Poland’s food is their produce. It is honestly head and shoulders above what we usually get in the US. Not only is it much cheaper and overall tastier, but it’s everywhere! Good quality produce in Poland can be found at any of the large chains (like Auchan or Real), at pop-up stands in the cities or on rural roadsides, and sometimes even in a local parking lot, out of the trunk of someone’s car. This availability, of course, comes with the season, which is part of why the produce is so good. It’s extremely fresh (mostly grown locally) and only ever includes what’s currently in season. When we arrived in Poland, apples were everywhere (in fact, on one of our first days here, we offered a lady our seat on a bus, and as a thank you, she gave us each an apple). After the apples, came an influx of pumpkins and squash, then the potato section expanded, and now we’re rolling in berries and green veggies.
The quality of produce is very important to Poles because most everything they eat is made from scratch using these ingredients. I’ve mentioned before how grocery shopping in Poland has made me feel more like a lazy American than anything else, and this is exactly why. In the US, I buy soup in a can, croutons in a box, cookie dough in a tube, sauce in a jar, and the list goes on. In Poland people prefer to make all of the components themselves. This is why you’ll hear people raving about the mushroom soup their mom makes when they’re sick, or the ketchup their grandpa made when they were a kid. Every family, every person has a slightly different way of making even the most traditional of Polish dishes.
The idea of “traditional dishes” is actually a bit difficult to nail down for Americans. Many of our most “patriotic” dishes are not truly from the US. It’s extremely hard to justify the saying “as American as apple pie” when every culture has a version of apple pie! (For example, in Poland it’s called szarlotka, and it’s delicious). However, Poland is quite a few years older than the US and definitely has some dishes that are both nationally and internationally known, such as: żurek (a sour rye soup), bigos (a stew of sauerkraut and meat), pierogi (dumplings usually stuffed with potatoes), naleśniki (thin, stuffed, savory pancakes), rosół (chicken noodle soup with carrots, generally served on Sundays), kiełbasa (which the generic word for sausage of which there are many, many types – trust me, I can’t list them all without losing a few of you), kopytka (my favorite little potato nugget-dumplings), and surówka (a variety of coleslaw blends) just to name a few.
While it’s true that cooking at home is the norm in Poland, rest assured they also like to eat out on occasion. Restaurants are quite popular in Polish cities; however, in the smaller towns the options are very limited. Luckily for us, lazy Americans, we live in Łódź (one of the largest cities in the country), and have a huge variety of restaurants to choose from. Just like in the US there are “fast food” restaurants such as McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, North Fish, Döner Kebab, and Solo Pizza. There are also a few of what I would consider “casual dining” restaurants like Greenway (vegetarian cuisine), Mañana (the Polish version of Chipotle – minus the bacteria), and a unique variety of pay-by-weight restaurants. These pay-by-weight places are all around Poland and at first glance look like buffets, but instead of all-you-can-eat, it’s something like 3 żółty (less than a dollar) per 100 grams of food. I particularly like these places 1) because I’m a picky eater and 2) because it allows me to try a tiny bit of everything without fear. Also worth mentioning are the milk bars (bary mleczne) of Poland. These are restaurants leftover from Communist times that look and function like cafeterias. The most authentic milk bars serve mainly dairy-based dishes (hence “milk”) and do not serve dishes with meat, as meat was rationed on and off during the height of milk bar popularity.
However, if you come to Poland for the food (and really, why wouldn’t you?) you’ll want to eat at a true restaurant, a sit-down, atmospheric event. In Łódź alone, you can find restaurants that specialize in Bulgarian, Ukrainian, French, American, Mexican and many other national cuisines, but by far, the best restaurants are the Polish ones. Generally, you start your meal with a plate of pickles, bread and lard, and finish with a shot of liquor. Ah, Poland! Another specialty in Polish restaurants is the soup. In most restaurants, many types of soup are offered and are often the reason people return to a given restaurant again and again – you’ve gotta try them all! However, if you’re not into “rustic food”, Poland also boasts some of the most incredible, modern eateries I’ve ever experienced. There is certainly no lack of good food in Poland, no matter what your style or taste.
There’s even a solid option for those days when you don’t want to get out of bed. In Poland, delivery, like all things food-related, is quite cheap. There are the obvious Chinese and pizza options, but in Łódź there are also companies like Pyszne and Pizza Portal, which after you order online, will go to any participating restaurant, pick up the food, and deliver it to your doorstep. This is how I’ve eaten hot wings and bacon cheeseburgers in bed – don’t judge.
Okay, are we all sufficiently hungry now? I really hope that I’ve made each of you consider Poland as your next vacation destination because if you aren’t traveling for food, then you aren’t fully living. Come see me in Poland and smacznego (bon appétit)!