Three Months / Four Countries

I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s resolutions.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the traditions that accompany them. My family always goes for brunch on January 1st. We start off our outing with the ceremonial opening of an envelope containing all of last year’s aspirations, reading them off one by one and casting accusatory, teasing glances each time somebody falls short. We spend the rest of the meal coming up with a new list of goals and laughing at the inevitable amnesia we know will hit us in six months when we try to remember the ambitions of our earlier selves. It’s great.

But, traditions aside, I’ve always been a firm believer that if there’s something in your life you really want to change, you can’t wait around for a trivial shift in numbers on the calendar to make it happen. Before this year resolutions always felt forced and the goals I chose never seemed to stick. Forgetfulness would kick in and I’d end up crossing my fingers at our New Year’s brunch hoping I’d accomplished something by accident. This year, though, New Year’s happened to coincide with my pre-departure preparation for Switzerland. So, bags packed and mind spinning with thoughts of travel, I resolved to make the most of my work term by starting a blog and visiting at least three new countries while I was away.

You’re here and reading this post, dear reader, so you already know I’ve checked off one of the two. But, as of late March, I have also successfully visited my fourth new country of 2017. Mid-March marked the start of Spring break at LAS, so on the 18th I (over)filled my backpack and hopped on a plane with Poland and the Czech Republic awaiting me.

My first stop: Warsaw. I arrived in Poland’s rainy capital at four in the evening, tired, demotivated by the torrential downpour, and mentally drained from traveling alone for the first time. It was tempting to deflate into my hostel bed but, determined to be a “good” traveler, I forced myself to trek off into the night to take in Warsaw and track down some vegan pizza.

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old town, warsaw

I filled up the rest of my three days in Warsaw hunting for pierogi, going on some free tours, visiting the Warsaw Uprising museum, searching for the best photography vantage point, and getting to know other voyagers staying in my hostel.

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love lock bridges made an appearance in every polish city i visited

Next up on my list was Kraków. After spending time in Warsaw traveling solo, I was glad to be meeting up with Anthony for a few days.

As a city which is very tailored towards young adults, I couldn’t help but love Kraków. Anthony and I spent most of our time seeking out the best local hangouts including ‘kiełbaski pod hala targowa’, a spot where sausage is prepared outside an old Communist van over an open fire. The two men who run it don’t start serving up food until eight at night until about four in the morning, but locals flock to it at all hours in the evening. We also came across some cool cafes, explored the Salt Mines, tried Obwarzanek (a type of bagel that can only be found in Kraków), and wandered the Jewish Quarter.

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old town, krakow

The most memorable part of my stay in Kraków, though, was the day trip we took to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Standing at the site of  one of the largest mass murders in history isn’t something I know how to easily put into words.

Shocking.

Nauseating.

Heart-wrenching.

All of these come to mind, but even at their best they fall short. A sign reading “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (work sets you free) hangs heavily over the entrance gate of Auschwitz. The old housing blocks, once ‘home’ to the persecuted, are now filled with pictures, stories, quotes, and staff offices that feel busy and misplaced in the stillness. Scratch marks tear at the concrete walls of the gas chambers.

Being in Auschwitz is being surrounded by remnants of human cruelty that are impossible to make sense of entirely. It’s an overwhelming visit, but a must if you’re spending any time in Poland in the future.

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auschwitz-birkenau memorial and museum

My last stop in Poland was Wrocław (which I learnt embarrassingly late is actually pronounced ‘Vrot-swav’). After Anthony and I parted ways I was excited to check myself into my next hostel and meet some new people. Much to my dismay, however, I quickly discovered I had the massive six-bunk room I booked all to myself. During my first hour in Wrocław I was hit hard by loneliness; it was jarring being on my own after the high expectations Warsaw and Kraków set out for me for meeting fellow travelers.

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cathedral of st. john the baptist

So, I hastily unpacked my things, eager to make my way into the city, find some dinner, and shake the feeling of isolation. And let me tell you, dear reader, Wrocław didn’t disappoint. I hadn’t heard much about the city before I visited so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I soon discovered just how full of culture and charm it is. Wrocław is made up of rivers and bridges, so my days involved a lot of island-hopping and photographing cathedrals and colourful buildings. Buskers also line the streets, serenading tourists with music, small gnome statues (commemorative of Poland’s anti-communist movement) are hidden everywhere, and marketplaces and restaurants are scattered all around. By the end of my stay I was completely taken by Wrocław and, loneliness forgotten, found myself only wishing I could spend more time there.

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plac solny

The last stop on my itinerary brought me to Prague, making the Czech Republic my fourth and final new country. After a rough start navigating public transport I was so glad to arrive at my hostel (which was built into a beautiful old palace from the 17th century) and be greeted by Jessie’s smiling face.

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st. vitus cathedral

Jessie, having visited Prague before and being infinitely more directionally-savvy than I, was the best tour guide I could have asked for. She and I picked out the top places we wanted to see (Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, Petřín Lookout Tower, Strahov Monastery, and Old Town) and were able to fit them all in with several spontaneous gelato-outings and nighttime wanderings mixed in.

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a hunt for starbucks led me to this view

On the way back to Leysin Jessie and I had decided to stop in Zurich, but our time there was cut short. After a brief stop at the hospital and a general feeling of unwellness for both Jessie and me, we figured Zurich was best left to be discovered at another time. Despite the rough ending though, my March break travels proved to be a great experience. It forced me to learn how to plan my own trip, be by myself, navigate foreign public transport, ask for help when I need it, make new friends from all around the world (Pakistan, Brazil, Australia, England), and embrace different cultures.

It’s good to be home in Leysin again and back to some routine, but March break definitely left me itching for more adventures…

On that note, stay tuned friends, I have some exciting news coming up! But until then, do widzenia / na shledanou!

Emily

P.S. The past few weeks haven’t been narrated by any playlist in particular, so for now you should just give “twelvefour” by The Paper Kites a listen because:

  1. It was written and recorded exclusively between twelve and four in the morning because Sam Bentley, the band’s lead singer, wanted to test the theory that those hours are when the human mind is at its most creative. Which is super cool.
  2. The. Lyrics. Are. Gold.
  3. The music videos tell the stories of what people get up to after midnight. They’re all based on simple concepts, but each is unique and well worth watching.
  4. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like “Electric Indigo” or “Holes”.

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