This past weekend, I traveled to Warsaw, Poland, to see my friend Zuzia! I met Zuzia in September 2013 at a Rotary Youth Exchange Conference. At the time, I happened to be preparing to go abroad as an Outbound (student leaving the United States for exchange) and Zuzia lived in the United States as an Inbound (student living in the United States for exchange). Zuzia, funnily enough, happened to be sponsored in a city close to me, so myself and other Outbounds and Inbounds would meet up frequently to do different things together. After Zuzia left in summer 2014, I did not speak with her at all. The only contact I had with her happened to be whatever she or I posted on social media.
With one open weekend left of the semester to plan, my mom suggested I reach out to Zuzia and see if she would like to meet up. Fortunately for me, Zuzia said yes and I flew to Warsaw on Thursday night from London and reunited with her!
Quite honestly, I find myself surprised when I meet up with exchange students for a weekend and we are able to pick right up from where we left off. Despite not having really spoken in 5 years, Zuzia and I talked about anything and everything like the years of silence hadn’t gone by between us. Exchange students have a bond with one another that is indescribable to someone who hasn’t studied abroad themselves. I will forever be grateful with how Rotary Youth Exchange “ruined” my life in the best way possible by exposing me to new cultures and wonderful people. My life is so much richer and fuller because I went on exchange in high school and from my family opening our home to exchange students.
So…back to Warsaw, Poland!
Zuzia and I began Friday morning with some homemade crepes her mother had made, which is called naleśniki z twarożkiem. They were a savory crepe and contained some type of Polish cheese. On top, Zuzia instructed me to place sour cream and sugar. The combination sounds a bit unusual, but the crepes with sour cream and sugar were delicious!
The weatherman’s prediction for the day was cloudy and slightly chilly/rainy. Zuzia told me we would hit up the museums and do the more outdoorsy things on Saturday.
With our plan in place, our first museum of the day was the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Zuzia, funnily enough, had never been to this museum so we both opted for audio guides since we weren’t sure what we would be seeing and learning during our visit.
The POLIN Museum covers roughly 1000 years of history of Polish Jews. 1000 years ago, the Jews still endured persecution by Christians and Polish Kings. This happened to be new knowledge to me. Historically, I believed the genocide and injustices experienced by the Polish Jews during World War II was an isolated incident. Not the case! Other exhibits presented information on Hebrew, which is read right to left like Arabic, and homeopathic medicine practiced by the Jewish people hundreds of years ago. Zuzia and I learned so much that we ended up spending three hours in the POLIN Museum.
If you happen to visit Warsaw, I think the POLIN Museum is a must! I felt the museum provided a lot of historical context for Poland and gave me insight as to why Warsaw is a hodgepodge of new and old. The audio guide speaker did not talk too much and provided an great overall explanation for each section of the POLIN Museum. If you decide to go to the museum, budget your time to stay a while. Zuzia and I both agreed another hour would have been the perfect amount of time because some exhibits we rushed through so we could get to the end.
After spending three hours at the POLIN Museum, Zuzia and I were ready for lunch. Zuzia took me to a Polish Milk Bar. These are cheap restaurants in Poland that have traditional, homemade Polish food. We both had mashed potatoes, cabbage stuffed with meat and rice with tomato sauce on top, beetroot, and a berry compote to drink. This translates to gołąbki with buraczki and kompot in Polish. All of the food I had below rang up to about $5 USD!
Once we filled up on lunch, Zuzia and I walked to Old Town. In Warsaw, this is the most touristy part of the city because the buildings are colorful and old! Surrounding Old Town are the remains of a brick wall that fortified the city’s castle back in the day.
I would like to note that this is NOT the original Old Town of Warsaw! During WWII, Warsaw as a whole was razed to the ground. Then, with being under communist rule following WWII, the architecture of the city became replicated with the same box-style buildings. With having a tumultuous history, the country has worked to restore some of the happier parts of the city like Old Town, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Other portions of the city have been torn down to erase the more bitter parts of Warsaw’s and Poland’s history. Zuzia informed me even today there are people who want more communist style buildings destroyed.
Once Zuzia and I finished exploring Old Town, she took me down by the Vistula River. There, we enjoyed the sunshine and view while walking across the bridge to the Praga district of Warsaw. This area is a more run-down portion of the city, but filled with beautiful street art! Zuzia and I found a peaceful park with murals on a wall that ran parallel to the river. She had never been to either of these places too.
After Praga, Zuzia and I hopped on the tram to head back to Warsaw to the Palace of Culture and Science. This particular building is one of the controversial buildings of the city that some feel should be torn down since it is communist-style and history of being the “Stalin building.” However, the building is architecturally stunning, in my opinion, and provides a great view of Warsaw, which is why we went. Zuzia and I chose the perfect evening to go because the sunset was gorgeous!
When the sunset, Zuzia and I headed back to her family’s apartment for dinner. I had a Ukrainian dish called pielmieni. Zuzia’s father is originally from Ukraine and her mother had made the meat-stuffed “dumplings” by hand. Julia, Zuzia’s sister, told me to put mayonnaise on my plate and dip my dumplings. I also ate Polish pickles, which go on the side of the dish.
After dinner, Zuzia, Julia, and I hopped into Zuzia’s car and we went around the city. Zuzia and Julia taught me about more history of specific areas of Warsaw while we jammed to music. We topped off the night by grabbing hot chocolate at a cafe.
That’s all for day one! Stop back tomorrow to hear about day two and my departure!
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