So much has happened over the past two weeks since my last post. I have explored new places, met new friends, ate new foods, tried new things, and fallen even more in love with this beautiful country.
One thing that I find so stinking cool about Poland is that there are palaces with giant gardens in almost every town. Some of them have castle walls and towers, while others have long walkways that lead to the front doors. A couple weekends ago Kamil, Grzegorz (my host dad) and I visited a few in the area. We walked through gardens, climbed up grand staircases, and peered into giant ballrooms. That same day we attended a concert of Chopin’s music at his childhood home. The pianist was a student at a local university, and he was amazing! It really made me wish I had stuck with piano lessons back in the day (what was 5 year old me thinking?)
Last week Kamil, Urszula (my sweet host mom) and I went on a road trip. We woke up at 4:45am, loaded up the car, and began our trek South to Częstochowa, home of the magnificent Jasna Góra monastery. Thousands of pilgrims visit this beautiful shrine every year to see the Black Madonna (also known as Our Lady of Częstochowa), and I have to say, I understand why. The shrine was unbelievably beautiful, and because we visited on a Wednesday morning, we were almost the only ones there. We spent a couple hours walking through the narrow streets within the monastery walls, and exploring the different chapels we found around every corner. While wandering around, we found an exhibition filled with artifacts from not only Jasna Góra, but also various important events from Poland’s past. Kamil was my personal translator and teacher, patiently explaining the deep history this country holds.
After a little while we jumped back in the car and went to Kraków. This charming city was once the capital of Poland, and is home of the Wawel Castle. I felt like a little girl pretending to be a princess as I strolled through the castle halls and rooms. It was amazing imagining what life was like for the royal family who once lived in the giant castle, which is complete with a mote (and dragon). Our next stop was the city square, which was filled with street vendors, tourists, and my favorite ice cream. We sat, ate our ice cream, talked, laughed, and tried our best to take in the beauty of the old city.
The day was quickly turning into evening, but we had one more stop before finding our hotel for the night. We headed to Łagiewniki home of the Basilica of Divine Mercy, and the convent where St. Faustina spent much of her life. I was so excited to visit because I have always had a love for St. Faustina and Divine Mercy. When we arrived at the Basilica Mass was being said, so we sat in the back and I was in complete awe. After Mass we walked around the church and gardens, and saw signs pointing towards the chapel where St. Faustina is buried and the miraculous image of Divine Mercy is displayed. Unfortunately, however, the chapel was closed for the day. I was disappointed, but still so happy to see the Basilica and walk along the same paths St. Faustina walked along not so long ago. We were about to leave when Kamil told me to follow him and we headed towards the closed chapel. He talked to a man who was locking the chapel doors, and the next thing I knew we were inside. We were literally the only people there and I was able to kneel in front of the miraculous image and St. Faustina’s tomb and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I have goose bumps now just thinking about it. (Seriously the coolest thing ever, so thank you Kamil!) By this point we were EXHAUSTED. I mean waking up at 4:45am will do that to you. We found our hotel, and went straight to bed, fueling up for another busy day.
The next morning we drove to Wadowice, St. John Paul II’s hometown. We visited his childhood home, which has been converted into an awesome museum. It was surreal to stand in the room where St. John Paul II was born and lived for many years. Later, we visited the church where the saint was baptized and received his first communion, and then ate his favorite cake at his favorite local bakery. It totally rocked.
The next part of our day had a much different mood. We visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, where about one and a half million people were murdered during World War II. I will never forget stepping through the gates into the concentration camp and seeing the train tracks, barracks, guard towers, and gas chambers. Birkenau is much bigger than Auschwitz, but most of the buildings were destroyed towards the end of the war by German Nazis, who tried to hide the terrors that took place. The buildings in Auschwitz have been converted into exhibits that show the tragedy of the Holocaust. Many of the rooms were filled from wall to wall, floor to ceiling with possessions of the victims. One room was filled with pots and pans, one with suitcases, one with hair, and another with children’s shoes. My stomach was filled with knots and my throat was swollen shut as we slowly moved through each building. The last one was the gas chamber. Most of them were destroyed by soldiers who tried to hide evidence of the murders, but one is still in tact. As we stood inside we could see the grates on the ceiling where Zyklon-B was poured into the room, and nail marks on the walls where people tried to escape. I have read dozens of books and seen countless movies about the horrors of World War II, but standing in Auschwitz-Birkenau made it so real. I will never understand how or why the Holocaust happened, but I will forever pray for a RESPECT FOR ALL LIFE.
Tuesday night was the shortest night of the year, and Poland holds an extremely old tradition for this special night. Young people all over the country meet and light a giant bonfire and watch the sun set and then rise. The sun sets here around 10:00pm and rises around 4:00am, which is something I am still not used to. I had so much fun talking and laughing with my new Polish friends. It was about 50°F, so we were all bundled up and standing close to the fire to stay warm. It reminded me a lot of a Fall Friday night at home.
The weather here is much colder than at home, so it is feels so strange to be wearing a long sleeve t-shirt and jacket almost everyday. My Polish vocabulary is slowly growing and I can now say yes, no, good, thank you, really, ice cream, sausage, water, right, left, straight, and shop (in other words my Polish is very very bad).
The time I have spent in Poland has taught me so much more than I could have ever imagined. I am beyond grateful for my host family who has opened their hearts and home to me, and all of my new friends that treat me like we have known each other for years. I miss my family, friends, and hot sauce, but I am going to have a hard time leaving in just a little more than a week. So until then…
Kisses from Poland,
Jezu ufam Tobie