anything but the tour guide: poland part 1

On Tuesday, I flew through Prague to Krakow. I had a pretty long layover in Prague, which was frustrating, because it wasn’t a long enough time to actually leave the airport and see any of the city, but it was way too long to sit in the airport without getting bored. I settled for having lunch at one of the restaurants in the terminal and window shopping.

Upon my arrival at the tiny Krakow airport, I was greeted by Niki, and we both chilled in the terminal for about an hour while we waited for her mom’s flight to come in. Her aunt picked us all up and took us to Niki’s family’s house, and I was met with my first true language barrier of my trip, because everyone but me spoke Polish! I knew about 3 words. (I did double my vocabulary this trip though, and now know about 6.)

That evening, even though several of our party were suffering from jetlag, Karolina, one of Niki’s cousins, took us on a tour of Nowa Huta, the section of Krakow nearest to the house. This is a neighborhood that was “created” by the communist regime as the “model community.” It’s impeccably organized into blocks of identical apartment complexes, each of which had their own school and all the other amenities needed for a living community. Perhaps because the communist lifestyle and oppression were so apparent here, it was also a place of great unrest during those days: it saw many protests and marches, some of them violent. Now, one of the main streets there is named after the Solidarity movement, which helped to break the iron grip of communism, and another is named after John Paul II, who as archbishop of Krakow was instrumental in the movement.

One of the coolest parts of Nowa Huta is the Catholic church there, which looks like Noah’s Ark from the outside and was built as a joint effort of the universal Church. Since there was such resistance from the regime against the idea of any church being built within the “model” atheistic neighborhood, even after permission to build the church was granted, no materials were supplied by the government. Since the government was really the only source of such materials, Catholics from around the world sent stones and other building supplies to help the Catholics of Nowa Huta build their church.

After a good night’s sleep to kick jetlag and sickness, Niki and I headed to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of Krakow’s biggest tourist destinations and historical sites. A tour of the mine takes you to 3 different levels of the mine, up to 100 meters underground, and is about 2 hours long, but the really crazy thing is that the amount of the mine we saw during those 2 hours was only 1% of the mine’s total area. It’s absolutely insane how big it is!

We got to see a lot of art that miners have made out of salt over the years (read: centuries): models of famous visitors to the mine, reflections of miner folklore, chapels… it’s pretty incredible what amazing pieces these amateur artists created in their spare time. Adding to the intrigue was our hilarious tour guide. Here are some direct quotes (all said without cracking a smile):

“Photography is only allowed if you have paid the extra zloty for camera privileges. If you have paid, you may photograph anything on this tour… except the tour guide.”

“If you look around, you will notice that the walls, ceiling, and floor are not white like table salt. That is because the salt contains impurities. But everything you see here is salt. If you don’t believe me, lick it. You may lick anything on this tour… except the tour guide.”

Got 'em!

We wrapped up our tour with a Polish lunch (food was a recurring theme of this trip) and then headed into downtown Krakow to meet up with two of Niki’s cousins. We saw all the sights in old town… well, most of them, and kind of from a distance because of a weird bike race that was going on in the square. But still, I saw Florian’s Gate (one of the old city gates), the Basilica (whose spires don’t match at all), Jagellonian University (where Nicolaus Copernicus studied), St. Ann’s church (where Niki’s parents were married, all her siblings were baptized, and her sister got engaged. Oh and it’s named after a pretty baller saint too), the cloth hall (where all kind of vendors sell their wares daily), and a bunch of other sights on the Main Market Square, the biggest of its kind in Europe! On our way back to the train station, we stopped at this fancy little chocolate store and treated ourselves to drinking chocolate, which I’d never tried before but enjoyed immensely! I had white chocolate with strawberries. Mmmmm.

The legend behind the two differing towers involves family intrigue, betrayal, and the use of a knife that now hangs in the cloth market across the square.

Back at the house, we enjoyed a Polish dinner with the rest of the family, including some more aunts and cousins I hadn’t met yet. Afterwards, we all headed out to the backyard (thanks to the prompting of Dr. Demkowicz) to pick some ripe cherries from the cherry trees. This ended up being a pretty hilarious (and delicious) undertaking. It’s kind of funny to watch how different people pick fruit. Some like to get as many as possible into the basket, without stopping to eat any, while others adopt a “one for the basket, two for me” approach. Either way, the cherries were delicious.

We ended our day appreciating the comedic talents of Amanda Bynes in She’s The Man (which reminded me how much I freaking love that movie), drinking tea, and eating chocolate. Little did we know what the next day had in store for us…

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the best week in the history of ever

First of all, a very Happy Easter to everyone! He is risen and He is so, so good.

I started off my morning with Mass, Easter Vigil at 4:30 at the Uni-Kirche. It was inhumanely early but also supernaturally beautiful. I have gone to my fair share of Easter Vigil Masses, and it is one of my favorite liturgies of the year, but something about celebrating it in a different language, in a different country, made this one significant. Also, one of my best friends was concurrently becoming Catholic in Austin at the UCC’s Easter Vigil, so that was another great reminder of how awesomely UNIVERSAL the Universal Church is!

Besides the greatest thing to ever happen to the world, I am excited about this week for a few other reasons. First of all, I (finally!) get to register for classes at UT. I know you’re excited about that. I can hear you all celebrating from here.

But what’s really exciting is that I get to go on an awesome adventure this week! I am beyond pumped. Because of this adventure, I will probably not get to post as often as I have been doing recently, so I’ll give you a pre-departure run-down of my week so you know what’s up.

Tuesday morning, I depart Freiburg for the great city of Munich (or, auf Deutsch, München). My plan as of right now is to take myself on a walking tour of the city, go to the city museum, and see one of the palaces of the old imperial family. I also have a few restaurants and biergartens picked out, and if time permits, I might go over to the famous Cinderella castles (aka “Mad” King Ludwig’s castles, aka Neuschwanstein and Linderhof). We’ll see about that… if I don’t get there this time, I will definitely go later on in the summer.

One site I’m passing on this time is Dachau. I definitely want to go at some point, if not to Dachau then definitely to Auschwitz while I’m in Poland, but a trip to a concentration camp by myself does not sound like the most solid choice for my mental health. Regardless, I would appreciate the intercession of Fr. Kentenich and St. Maximilian Kolbe for safe travels, please!

Now, München is supposed to be a cool city and all, and I’m really excited to spend a few days exploring there. But it’s kind of an after-thought to this trip, to be honest… the main event begins when I fly out of München to ROME, ITALY!!! The eternal city!

Once I get to Rome, the plan is to immediately leave. No, really. I’ll be spending the night in a small town about 3 hours outside of Rome where my friend Melissa is finishing up her semester. Because Melissa has an exam on Thursday and can’t make it to Rome yet, I’m going to spend that afternoon and evening with her. We’ll head into Rome the next morning to meet up with our other friend, Monica, who is studying in Milan. (My friends are so international… love it.)

The rest of the weekend is, for us and for thousands of other Catholic pilgrims, devoted to the amazing life and witness of Pope John Paul II, who is being beatified on Sunday, May 1 (the Feast of the Divine Mercy… I can’t get over how perfect it is!). The weekend will come to a head on Sunday morning, when Pope Benedict will celebrate the Beatification Mass.

I am so incredibly honored and ecstatic that I actually get to be in Rome for this event and to attend the Mass proclaiming the greatest man my generation has seen to be “Blessed.” (I mean… tell us something we don’t know!)

I can’t wait to spend some time with friends from back home, to explore two of Europe’s greatest cities, and to celebrate my last week before classes start! This is going to be a great week, y’all. Stay tuned for pictures!

Reasons Why I Included This Picture: 1) I am roughly this excited about this week. 2) Melissa is second pretty lady from the left! 3) I got to dance to Katy Perry with Michael Noriega via Skype this morning. 4) I am currently wearing this dress. 5) Why the heck not?

P.S. A very happy birthday to my Dad, who has made all of these adventures possible!