The Erasmus experience in Krakow
Author: Alejandro Tendero Delicado
Most people describe their Erasmus period as the best year in their life, or at least, in their student life. Once you are here you realize why. Even if that exchange program has the fame of being a year off when the student is almost all the time drunk or hangover, that is far away from reality. I think there is no university student who can call a year off, useless for his or her formation, the best one of their life. It is true that we like to go partying, getting drunk, meeting people, trying to flirt and all that things which build our Erasmus fame, but nobody (I hope) can spend an entire year just doing that. The truth is that here we discover ourselves, we switch all our perfectly built reality and life for a small bubble of one year in a place we do not know, with people we do not know, doing things we had almost never done and speaking a language that is not our mother tongue. In that new reality you have to start again, to make new friends, to deal with new problems, to see yourself trying to be understood in a different language and trying to introduce yourself in a new culture (or in a lot of cultures at the same time). All those experiences, after one year of working in them, make you grow up and look at yourself from a third point of view, evaluating what have you done and what do you want for the future. But it cannot be explained without examples, and there is no better example than my own experience, so let’s start from the beginning:
I think it all started when I received the e-mail with that sentence: “Congratulations, you have been assigned for the international scholarship 314/15 – Economics, University of Jagiellonski, for a 9 months period”. I think that was one of the best news I have ever received, I was literally jumping in my bedroom of happiness, I called my parents, my friends and everybody because I knew that it was going to be a unique experience for me. From that moment on, which was in February, and the moment I arrived to Krakow, I did not enjoy that I had been chosen again, because you have to start doing all those papers, solicitudes, certificates and documents that your university needs from you, and that means hours of queues, going to different places, collecting signatures and paying for certificates. That can be part of our improvement of skills; I could say that all Erasmus students are experts bearing bureaucracy.
The first challenge is pack a big suitcase with all the things you think you will need in that year out of your home. I am proud to say that I prepared my suitcase fairly well, but I can do an advice based on my experience: take some posters, photos and memories to decorate your new room. I just took a pair of small pictures and a photo in September and it was terrible to see the walls of my room white as a laboratory, so after Christmas I brought with me lots of posters and flags. It is strange to say it, but maybe the most important thing that you can bring with you is a laptop, it becomes the window to your home country, to the activities in your new city and the basic tool of communication. It should not be necessary to be said, but, if you like to read, do not forget to bring with you books in your mother tongue. The new bubble is very comfortable, but it is also a very lonely place if you are not connected with your family and friends.
But the good part starts once you are there. I arrived to Krakow, just spending there one day before I went to Katowice, where I had my Erasmus Intensive Language Course during September. I arrived two squares away from the hotel, and it took me almost one hour to get there. Why that? Firstly, I have always been very independent, so at the beginning I did not want to ask anybody how to get there, and once I realized I could not do that by my own, I started asking people. Now I know that young Polish people use to speak English very good and it is easy to find somebody who can explain you how to get to your destination, but I started asking adults, and they do not use to speak English as well. Somebody told me that adult people in Poland speak rather German than English if they speak a second language, because of the history and the geographical situation of the country.
September was the first month of my Erasmus, and also the best one, even if I spent it on Katowice, which is not as beautiful and cosmopolitan as Krakow. I was in a dormitory in Ligota, which is 30 minutes away by bus from the center of Katowice, and it is a complex in the middle of a forest with wild pigs and one bear (I saw it one night even if people do not believe me). The place was as wild inside the dormitory as outside, we decided to celebrate our Erasmus almost all the nights, and Spanish people introduced the tradition of make a thematic dinner and party about all our home countries, so we could taste food and alcohol from different countries around Europe. But the best part of that month was not just the party, we developed a strange sense of empathy with the people, does not matter where was each one from, and that is something that opens your mind a lot. To see yourself talking, going to lessons, sightseeing new places with people from Germany, Italy, Hungary, France, Turkey, Portugal and other places is a unique experience. We were around 40 people there, and I think that almost for everybody it was an amazing month.
At the end of September we were separated and spread across Poland, with a little knowledge of Polish language. I always say that we learn enough to survive and impress the guests. So I went to Krakow, a wonderful city, with other members of the EILC. The second, and one of the biggest challenges, was to find a place to live. I always wanted to live with people from other countries, because I thought that it was going to be one of the best ways to improve my English, and it actually worked. The offers for Erasmus people are very expensive, and we had to start looking for places on a Polish website. Looking for a flat is not easy; we wanted to have a flat with three separated rooms, a good kitchen, not so bad located and cheap. We needed the help of my mentor to deal with that issue; we negotiated the price of the flat with the owner, and also the conditions of the contract and the furniture that we were going to have here. We finally did it successfully, and we still owe an “Italian-Spanish” dinner to my mentor as reward for her help. The life in a flat in Krakow is very different than the life in a dormitory; we still miss how easy it was to go downstairs, knock on few doors and organize something to do all together. But it also has its advantages; you can be more independent, invite friends to your home and cook your food in better conditions (you cannot believe how dirty can be a shared kitchen in a dormitory). Another good point is the experience living with people from other countries; it is very interesting how different daily life can be. I have tasted the best Italian dishes and the strongest Hungarian alcohol sharing that flat, and I have known little pieces of those cultures. But I think that the most useful part of living with foreign people is how English becomes your daily language, and you can see very quickly that use it is not difficult anymore; there is a huge difference in comparison with other people while using oral language. Even if grammar is still resisting to be correctly learned, speaking becomes easier, and it helps a lot.
Another new experience is to go to the university. My faculty is a big building with a mix of different institutes where you can find economy, communication, psychology and other branches of knowledge. I am studying economy in Spain, but coming here and learning about communication, negotiation, media policy and other complementary things is very good for my knowledge and the improvement of my professional skills. But I think that the most useful part of attending lessons here is the opportunity of working with foreign people in an academic way. Trying to introduce your way of working in a group of people from other countries is a good experience. Dealing with the complications you can find doing your essays or presentations with foreign people instead of doing with people from your country is something that really is worth to improve your skills. There is something else I really liked to see: I was able to do, and it was to do a public speech in English. It was just 15 minutes in front of a little group of students and the teacher, but trying to apply all the techniques, tools and abilities you have to speak in public in a new language is a big challenge, and I could face it successfully. I actually realized that those abilities work in all the languages, and the main problem is just to find the necessary works you need to explain your topic.
When I came back to Spain for Christmas I could see little ways in which I had changed. It becomes really strange to understand again what people are saying on the street (even if Krakow is full of Spanish students), and I was a bit embarrassed about the slum-dweller behavior that some people have. Some people also told me that I used to speak louder before go to Poland, and I think I changed it because I had been surrounded by foreign people, and Spanish people have the fame of being very loud speakers. But the main difference was come back to that built life when you have been four months in your bubble, you do not feel completely at home, maybe because you had been disconnected for too much time to understand again what is going on. It is difficult to change, even if is just for 20 days, your flat with other students for your parents’ flat. But Christmas was good, staying away from your family or from your friends makes you feel happier when you can see them again after such a long time. The time with family and friends become more valuable, maybe because it is not a daily feeling and it is something special that you have terribly missed.
Something that Erasmus students really enjoy about our exchange period is seizing the chance of visiting our new country and the countries around. I think it has been one of my favorite experiences. Inside Poland I have been in Krakow, Poznan, Gdansk, Warsaw and Katowice, I still have to visit other cities like Wrocław or Łódź. I could see that Polish people are really nice, very helpful and friendly; it is true that sometimes you find somebody who is incredibly rude and impolite, but that is not normal at all (they use to live in places called “Kasa biletowa” in the train stations). I found Polish trains a really personal sign of this country, I think that I have never seen trains like the Polish ones called TLK; you are never sure if you will have a place to sit, so sometimes you have to sit in a cold corridor for 6 hours till you get to your destination. From other countries I have just seen Latvia and Lithuania, those countries are more beautiful than I expected and going there was a really good idea.
I also have big plans for trips during next months, I am planning to go to Ljubljana at the beginning of March, rent a car with my friends and travel to Zagreb, Sarajevo and Mostar. It would be an exciting trip to the Balkans; I really want to see how those places are, because they have become very famous just for the Balkan War. I also would like to see Austria, Germany, Hungary and Check Republic before come back to Spain. I think that those places are not as touristic as Germany, France, Italy or Spain, and now is a good moment to seize the opportunity to visit them. Looking for a good destiny to travel is as important as choosing good travel mates to go there, and I have had a really good ones in my trips.
I have talked a little about Poland; I think that country deserves more from me. One of the things I have seen here is that this country is changing, but in my short time here, I was not able to understand the mayor aspects of the of Poland’s identity. That is a very complicated topic, but I can try to explain it with a few examples. One could be the fact of seeing in the same city a KFC and a traditional Polish milk bar, the huge differences between the center of the cities (all together, restored, beautiful and very touristic) and the suburbs, where you find streets without pedestrian way (as the way to my home), pieces of wild nature between the buildings and nobody working to free the streets from snow. It is also very curious to see as enormous commercial centers like “Galeria Krakowska” or “Arkadia” in Warsaw, as little markets like old grocery shops.
I should talk about the Polish food too, it is amazing how difficult is to try it at the beginning, because it is very spiced and it has a lot of cabbage, even pierogi is something weird when you try it for first time. But later you realize that it is not worse than Spanish or Italian food, just very different. Polish soups are really good, sometimes the best part of the meal, and it is very popular to have a soup as starter and then a main dish. I remember now that one of the most important Polish words I have learned is “niegazowana” which means still, because in Poland sparkling water is more popular than still one. I also have to say thanks to the popular Zapiekanka, a piece of bread with mushrooms, cheese and a topping of your choice. It has saved us in lots of nights of starving; giving us the energy we needed to continue dancing. I could say that it is the kebab of Poland.
Talking about dancing and the night, it is also a very important part of our Erasmus life. I have to say that the nigh life has become better since I was in Warsaw two years ago, I remember that at this time I was kicked out from a disco, without jacket, and almost beaten by the security staff without any reason. I have to say that it has changed a lot, or at least it is completely different in Krakow now. I think that go out in Krakow is safer than go out in my own city; I just had one incident in four months, a girl who tried to steal the purse of a friend and it did not finally happen, my friend had her purse and cell phone back and the police finally had that robber inside their patrol car. Krakow has a lot of good places to go out, and also very different. If you want to take a drink with some friends and talk quietly you can go to Kazimierz, which is full of nice pubs to have a beer in a comfortable ambient. But you can also find your place if you want to go out to dance and drink, Krakow is full of different discos with all kinds of music you want. In summer there is another good place to stay, the main square, where you can have a drink in a terrace while you see Rynek becoming alive with all the people there.
I can conclude that I am enjoying this experience, I like Poland, I love Krakow, and I want to show it to my friends, who are coming in the next months to visit me, as I did with my parents, who I think liked that city too. There are lots of places to see and lots of things to do here. This city is screaming to be seen, the people here are asking to be known and this country is full of opportunities and experiences to be lived. This place has been built over lots of historical events, over years of deep changes, over wars and over peace, and you can see it both in the structures of the cities and in the behavior of the people. Coming here was a good choice, maybe the best I have ever done.