Good morning (at least it is in Kraków) and welcome to a blog cooperatively composed,
Alexandra Miller, a senior honors student who is studying ASL and Spanish, is jointly working on today’s entry to provide a dual perspective on this trip to the cities of Eastern and Central Europe and the time spent in classes at the Polish School of Language and Culture. This is the 5th year for the joint venture between here and Bloomsburg University, and the number of students traveling to receive credits for their class work at Jagiellonian University has grown to 40, after a first year of about a dozen. Bloomsburg’s Dr. Mykola Polyuha has almost single-handedly grown this amazing venture in terms of contacts and logistics, and the Global Studies office has provided invaluable assistance. This year a significant continent of honors students are also on the trip.
The first thing many might ask is if they are required to speak Polish. While the classes are taught in English learning how to say things like good morning (dzień dobry), thank you (Dziękuję) and thank you (nie ma za co) are a good place to begin. Having some background in another language is certainly helpful according to Alex, who speaks both Spanish and German. She finds herself wondering about the connections between the different families of languages. Whatever the case, you will certainly be able to manage in English in major cities. It is always strange to not be able to read signs or understand things in the grocery store without a picture; however, when the Polish złotys are about 4.23 to $1.oo, there are two things happening. If currency conversion is something new, it takes some time to get a handle on it, but this exchange rate makes being in Poland very affordable. Alexandra, Clarissa, and I had dinner and a drink along with mineral water for about 30.00 total between the three of us. So . . . finding something to eat at a great price is commonplace. Second, when the Christmas Market is still in full force, the food at the street vendors is beyond anything you might ever imagine at the Bloomsburg Fair, and, not to sound snobbish, both better and cheaper.
The Christmas holiday and New Year’s Eve are quite an experience. First, Europeans celebrate the 12 days of Christmas for exactly what it is: the Christmas season. Encountering one of the most important events of the church year in a country that is 95% Roman Catholic certainly is different than the typical American season. Again, in our conversation today, a reflection of this difference was aptly stated as “while Christmas in America is about commercialism, Christmas in Europe is about culture.” People from around the world, but even more so certainly from around Europe come to Kraków for New Year’s Eve, cramming 150,00 to 175,000 revelers into the main town square. The friendliness of people and the number of languages you will hear screaming out Happy New Year in this relatively small space is unlike anything I have ever experienced and students each year walk away with life-long memories. However, there is more to this experience than food and people. Most days after breakfast, the 40 students and 3 faculty here this year gather at the university for two classes, which meet for about 3.5-5 hours almost daily, including some Saturdays.
The first class, starting mid-morning is titled History 405 Jews of Europe and is taught by Dr. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, a world renown social anthropologist for her work in this area. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the Jewish question will astound and captivate you. The second class, titled Russian 214 East European Film, Literature, and Culture is perhaps the more difficult class as the 16 films watched both inside and outside of class are in foreign languages (mostly Slavic), with subtitles. As we spoke at dinner among ourselves, the work to wrap our heads around what some of the films are saying or what we should understand certainly takes work. Certainly some of the challenge is language, but the film genre is so different from the typical RomCom or Drama/Action films to which we are generally accustomed, these films are realistic and much darker than some might find even comfortable. The professor for this class, Dr. Maciej Stroiński, is both avant garde and brilliant. He is considered to be one of the best film critics in all of Europe. Pushed to think a bit differently than many of the classes taken back in their own majors, students are asked within a few days to come up with a significant paper proposal for the Jews of Europe class, with at least a pretty thoughtful outline. In addition, they are to write two critical reaction papers. After returning to the states, there will be a 8-10 page paper due by the end of the month. Similar requirements are due in the East European Film, Literature and Culture course, with a major paper due at the end of the month. The film writing is perhaps the most difficult because very few students understand the significance of a post-Soviet understanding of the an individualistic or transnational Eastern Europe. From my experience last year, however, both professors are simultaneously academic and kind in their responses to the Bloomsburg students.
It is interesting to me as a writing professor to see how students, most of whom are strong students in their majors back at Bloomsburg (if I am not mistaken, all students on the trip this year have GPAs above 3.0), work to manage the compact schedule of academic requirements while trying to experience the remainder of the immersion called Kraków or Prague has. In addition, there is the reality that coming to Europe and spending time is a literal walk through a history book. For instance, Jagiellonian University was established in 1364. That means it has a few centuries on any university in North America. Trips to the Wieliczka Salt Mine in the next day or to the Jewish Quarter, Schindler’s Factory or Auschwitz are not something you ever forget. Too many times students believe that study abroad is too expensive or not worth the effort, but as the three of us spoke at dinner this evening, nothing could be farther from the truth. As I have walked around this city for the third time, and am working on arrangements to come back for an extended period, I have been once again reminded that there is so much that is happening in the world that matters, but we have little to no clue about.
What has happened in our own recent politics, or perhaps not as recent as we might think, actually mirrors much of what has happened in a number of countries here in Europe, and while I am certainly not a social scientist, nor a political scientist, it seems that our sort of xenophobic/right-leaning/nationalism is the consequence of something we use every day. Globalism is more than an economic phenomena; it is a social phenomena and the ability to reach across borders, continents, and time zones effortlessly has had consequences unforeseen and perhaps unimagined. That might be one of the most important things that students on the trip might learn. Whether it be Budapest, Vienna, (two cities added to this years itinerary), Kraków or Prague, most people are merely trying to make their way in the world, but a world that finds people from different cultures, languages, and religions reaching out on a New Year’s Eve or on an U-Bahn, or standing on the corner hoping for a world with less violence and more understanding. Sharing dinner with students who appreciate another language, having breakfast with our Russian Fulbright Scholar (did you know we had one at Bloomsburg right now?) or listening to students who are studying Russian are great reminders that the world is much larger than the drive from your home to school and back, or from home to a major city. We live in a complex and amazing world. 40 students and 3 faculty are living that reality each morning as they face both experiences and classes during this Winter break in Poland.
Dziékujé za przeczytanie i pozdrowienia z Polski.
Alexandra Miller and Dr. Michael Martin