We have finished our nine months in Europe and are enjoying our summer at the lake house in Canada. We came back to the US at the beginning of June and had a nice visit with Greg's family before heading up north for our annual retreat. Be looking for recaps of our visit to Budapest, our very successful Small Group Trips to Tuscany and a wrap up of the whole adventure in the coming weeks! In the meantime, here is a recounting of the time we spent in Poland.
About a year ago we received an email through WorkAway from a family in Poland who was interested in having us come teach English to their children. They were attracted to us in particular because 1) We have North American accents and 2) Greg also teaches music. We had never been to Poland and were really excited about experiencing a new country and a new culture. I have to say it was a remarkable experience! I’m not quite sure what we anticipated, but the experience was different than what we expected. We learned more about Polish history and the Iron Curtain than we imagined when we said yes, and that was a very good thing. The following recommendations detail how to get the most out of this kind of experience:
1) Get to Know your Host Family
We were in Kołobrzeg, a city in northwestern Poland, right on the Baltic Sea. Our super nice host family has 2 children – a 13 year old boy, Janek, and a 10 year old girl, Marianna. Their parents are both language instructors at a local high school. The father, Maciej, teaches English and the mother, Ewa, teaches Spanish. The kids are already very well versed in English and we were there to help them practice English conversation and writing, because this will give them a great advantage as they seek employment outside their home country someday. The kids and the dad also play accordion! Yes, you’re right – Greg does NOT play accordion – but he was able to give them some great music lessons anyway and he accompanied the family trio on flute.
We ate most of our evening meals with the family. They kindly included us in a fantastic Sunday afternoon luncheon with the father’s parents where we enjoyed fresh rabbit, as well as a healthy dose of vodka. What better way to get to know each other? We enjoyed lively discussions on Polish history, Communism, teaching schedules, parenting and international perspectives over the dinner table. We enjoyed getting to know our host family and it made our experience there much more meaningful.
2) Enjoy your work
Our host family also taught private language lessons in the afternoons after teaching their classes at the high school. While we were there, we took over the English classes. We got to meet about 12 additional students between the ages of about 12 – 30. It was so much fun asking them questions about their lives, school, families, hobbies, and understandings. We also answered their questions about us, our travels and living in the US. We played games with them that helped their conversational English, showed and discussed video clips and used other exercises to allow them to improve their skills while we were there. We discussed everything from school cafeterias (they don’t usually have cafeterias in the schools in Poland) to global politics. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting each one of these students and were so impressed with their motivation to learn English. Our world is in good hands with this next generation.
3) Explore your surroundings
We taught about 5 hours a day during the week. I also spent a lot of time teaching my business classes online and we worked on Euro Travel Coach when we weren’t teaching – but in our time off we walked all over Kołobrzeg and the surrounding area. We shopped in the local grocery stores, tried to speak Polish (we can say “hello” and “thank you”) cooked pierogies and sausages, walked the beaches and investigated the town. We stayed in an apartment that was about a 10 minute walk from our host family. It was a pretty modest apartment but it had everything we needed. We slept on a futon and the bathroom had a bathtub with a hand sprayer for a shower. The kitchen had a small fridge, a few cooking utensils and an older oven and stove. We didn’t need more than that. We shopped in the Polish grocery store for many of our supplies and the woman at the check out recognized us after a week or so. She was very nice even though we had no language in common. All this helped us get a feel for the local culture in a way that we would not have been able to experience had we been passing through as a tourist. It was truly unique and special.
4) Take side trips like we did to Gdansk
The kids had to take exams in Gdansk one weekend and our hosts let us tag along. We stayed in a local hostel with the family. The cost was $9 per person per night. I’m pretty sure we were the only people there who were not from Poland! While the family was involved with the exams, we explored the city and it was fantastic. We really loved Gdansk! We went to the tourist office and bought a small map and guide for $3 that gave us a walking tour of the city. We explored the town and the buildings and learned a bit of history.
The best experience was the Solidarity Museum. It is a relatively new library and museum that is focused on the Polish trade union and civil resistance movement prior to 1989. The exhibits are devoted to the history of Solidarity and also include other opposition movements of Communist Eastern Europe as well. It was fascinating and I have to say that I left informed, but ashamed of my ignorance. I was an adult in 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell. I knew about it – sort of – but I did not understand much about it or comprehend the significance. It is unbelievable what people suffered through. Their persistence and dedication to making their lives better through peaceful protest were inspirational. I would like to go back and spend even our time here. Having a chance to take a side trip really helped us get the most out of our time in Poland.
5) Experience the Culture
The Polish people really do emphasize art and culture. We got to attend 2 movies in town while we were there – one was in French (Normandy Nue) and the other was in English (You Were Never Really Here). These were in a local performance venue where they have concerts and movies and other events regularly. We also got to travel to Koszalin to attend a concert at the Filharmonia Koszalinska. The program was Beethoven and Shostakovich. It was really good! The tickets were 31 zloty or about $10 each. It’s amazing to have the chance to see this quality of music for such a reasonable cost. Relative to local salaries, this is a high price, but still makes music and culture accessible to a lot of people. Enjoying the local culture as much as possible made such a difference in our experience here.
We thought we would be able to visit Warsaw and Krakow while we were in Poland but that was before we understood the train system. We were told by our hosts that there are 2 types of trains in Poland – slow and slower. It was going to take us 12-14 hours to get to Krakow. It’s about 430 miles, which is not a short distance, but we did not think it would take that long by train. In any case, we only had a weekend to go so we decided that we will have to return another time. There is more to see in Poland. We are grateful to our host family for a great cultural experience and we are confident that we will return.
Are you planning a trip somewhere in Europe? We can help with that! Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, England and all of Europe. We also still have spots available on our small group trip to Tuscany and our small group trip to Piedmont! We'd love for you to join us! You can always reach Betsy at email@example.com. We would love to help you make your travel dreams to Europe come true!