April 1, 2010
By Kaya Yurieff
When most people think of Poland they think of an impoverished and rural nation, still helpless after World War II. In reality, Poland is a vibrant and flourishing country.
A member of the European Union since 2004, Poland is an example of a successful transformation from a post-war communist regime to a free market economy, offering an intriguing mix of traditions, modernism and history.
I had the opportunity to spend the semester in the country’s capital and largest city, Warsaw. My mother was born in Poland and the majority of my family still lives there. I decided to go because I wanted to understand my heritage and get to know my family better. Growing up, I was taught how to speak, read and write in Polish. Although I felt confident speaking, I wanted to improve my reading and writing. I also wanted a change from Vermont and saw this as the perfect opportunity.
I arrived in Warsaw in August. The weather was warm and sunny. I settled into my grandmother’s house, just outside of the city. My school was located near the center of Warsaw, about an hour away. I attended an International School, which had the International Baccalaureate Programme, or IB. This worldwide program is taught primarily in English. However, I did have some classes conducted only in Polish. The school was private and very small; there were roughly 40 students in my grade.
I went into this experience thinking that it would be easy. I had an advantage over Polish students as a native speaker of English and I knew Polish fluently. I did not think that I would have any problems communicating with teachers or classmates. However, this was not the case. At the very beginning of the school year my class went on a trip to a northern city of Poland called Gdansk, on the coast of the Baltic Sea. I remember stepping onto the Premiere Bus, not knowing a single person, feeling extremely nervous and out of place. My classmates around me chatted and laughed, catching up after a summer apart. They shot me curious glances and the braver ones introduced themselves and asked where I was from.
Although I had visited Poland many times before, I had never really paid close attention to the cultural differences between the United States and Poland. My semester abroad and particularly this field trip made me realize how different the people and customs are. Generally, Americans are very open and friendly to strangers. Contrast that to Poland, where people are usually reserved when approaching new people. However, once Poles get to know them, they are extremely friendly and hospitable. Although my classmates were curious and interested in me, they did not immediately bombard me with questions as Americans tend to do. At first, it was difficult for me to understand what people were saying because they spoke so quickly and used slang that I had never heard before. It felt like they were speaking a completely different language and I had to ask them to repeat phrases multiple times.
As I got to know my classmates, I was shocked at how well they spoke English and how sophisticated and mature they were. Every one of my classmates was bilingual and learning either a third or fourth language. Most of them already knew their career paths, which country they wanted to live in and what college they wanted to attend. Almost all of them had spent a year abroad visiting places including England, the United States, Portugal and Romania. However, the most surprising thing about my Polish friends was that they did not gossip. In the five months that I was at my Polish school I did not hear a single rumor or bad word said about anyone.
Teachers and students had a very proper relationship. We had to address teachers respectfully and formally, such as calling them sir, ma’am, etc. This was a big change from the friendly and informal teacher-student relationships I was accustomed to at Champlain Valley Union High School. The academics were rigorous and I was assigned absurd amounts of homework from each class. The school system was focused primarily on memorizing facts, rather than a more creative and individual approach that is present at CVU.
By the end of my trip, I felt that I had accomplished everything I had hoped. My Polish improved immensely, I no longer had to ask anyone to repeat anything and I learned both slang and formal language. I read sophisticated novels and wrote essays in Polish for the first time in my life. I also created strong relationships with my family. Through family, school and simply living in the country, I learned about my heritage and culture. And finally, I made friends that I will have for my entire life. Although I had my doubts at the beginning, this experience turned out to be the most amazing and interesting five months of my life.
Kaya Yurieff, a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School, studied at the Raszynska High School in Warsaw, Poland during the fall semester.