My First experience with the polish language was meeting some friends from Poland in 2008. I heard the sounds they were making and thought to my self, “I HAVE to learn that,” so naturally, I signed up to take Polish 101 at the U of I.
My first day was incredibly challenging, and the heritage speakers who already understood what the teacher was saying did not make me feel any better. It took a while to get through the beginning, but I eventually got all the way through not only 101, but also 102 and 201. Then I decided to try to win a FLAS scholarship to study Polish for the summer of 2011, in Poland. After that application process and hearing that I had indeed won, I was ecstatic. I found a program to spend this past summer in Krakow, and it was one of the best experiences I have had.
I flew from Chicago to Warsaw and spent a few days at a friends’ apartment. We had a great time there, and luckily it gave me a chance to warm up to speaking Polish every day. After those few days, I took a car ride from Warsaw to Krakow, and couldn’t help but thinking that the roads were not nearly as bad as I heard they are in Poland. Well, at the end of my trip, I got a good taste of the traffic form the south of Poland in Zakopane, all the way up to Warsaw, then getting in to the city wasn’t much easier on the road. Noticing that this traffic was due to lack of roads, I finally realized the value of busses and trains in Poland. This experience in Poland made me see public transportation from a different perspective. Previous, I knew that public transportation in Europe was more popular, but in Poland my new view is the reason why. I learned that in Poland, it felt like the train was the normal way to travel, and it is just like getting in the car in the US, we rely on our cars; they rely on their trains.
About 30 minutes before getting to Krakow, I had a sudden rush of anxiety. I realized that I had to call the Prolog language school to
arrange for someone to meet me at my apartment and let me in. After about 10 minutes of telling myself “I’ll call in one minute” and formulating the easiest sentence possible, I finally decided to go for it. This first time talking to someone who I didn’t know in Polish turned out to be a disaster for me. It turns out I had the wrong number; the number I had was actually the mothers of the person who I was trying to call. I don’t know how I got that number, but she luckily understood that I was trying to get ahold of the school, and gave her daughter my number. We eventually got everything worked out and I got all settled in.
In Krakow I met a lot of friends, and am still in touch with a few. It was an amazing time, with experiences ranging from hiking in the Tatra mountains to staying out in the city until 5 or 6 am, and from accidently ordering an unreasonable amount of deli meat (a few pounds), to meeting new family member I never had met before. One of my most important lessons from this summer in Krakow is that the Polish people are some of the nicest people I have ever met. I luckily had a few chances to visit families in Poland, and they took me in as their own, providing me with rides between cities, weekend trips, and delicious meals until I couldn’t even think about eating anymore. I also managed to improve my language skills enough to be able to speak Polish without using any English.
Most importantly, I began to understand the Polish people, and knowing that Poland is a country that was totally off the world map for a period of time, began to realize just how they were able to come together and become a country again. It would be impossible to write about all of my experiences in these two short months in Poland, but I hope that this give a good idea of how I lived my life abroad. Since returning, I have decided to look into a graduate minor in eastern European studies, and hope that it works out. I cannot imagine leaving my Polish studies in the past.
After my experience in Poland I feel that study abroad programs should be a standard in all higher education programs, simply for the fact that through them, people tend to learn both the value of other people and that the world is indeed a great place. From there, I have many ideas of what I can do, but am focusing on getting there first. I am extremely thankful for my family and friends, and everyone who has helped me get to where I am today.
Zachary Grotovsky is a 2011 summer graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a 2011 undergraduate FLAS fellow. Grotovsky studied to be a German teacher, earning a BA in German Studies. Growing up Grotovsky had some exposure to polish when his grandma, who was originally from Poland always spoke Polish to her dogs. Grotovsky never really paid too much attention to this until he studied abroad in Austria, but now he is very glad to have one more reason to be closer to his grandma. Grotovsky is spending the 2011-2012 academic year in Regensburg, Germany as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. After his year in Germany, Grotovsky will return to the University of Illinois to complete a MA in Germanic studies, and hopes to achieve a graduate minor in Eastern European studies.