WATW was the first time I had travelled abroad. I knew the reason for going on this trip was a dreadful one, yet I was thrilled to be going. The Holocaust is something I’ve always been interested in, along with my mom. To be able to see the places these terrible things happened was a once in a lifetime chance! I couldn’t possibly pass up this opportunity. Seeing the places… it was horrific. Something that, to me, had always been something terrible from the past now has become real to me. A great friend of mine once said, "It is one thing to know a lot about something. It is a completely different thing to know something." I feel like I know the Holocaust now. Obviously I didn’t experience the same things they did, and probably never will. But I have seen the places, I have heard the stories… I have now made a connection with what happened. Even if it is only a small one.
Visiting Auschwitz I and Birkenau is something I will NEVER do again. N-E-V-E-R! I can’t emphasize the word NEVER enough. I felt sick to my stomach just being there. Some friends of mine had gone the day before, and pointed out that there wasn’t an animal to be seen. Not even a bird in the sky. One of the things on my "to-do list" that day was find a bird. It didn’t happen. I looked specifically to find even TRACES of a bird. I couldn’t. It was cold and wet that day. Almost unbearable. And I had many layers of clothes on! To visit Auschwitz in that weather made the experience even more real to me. I couldn’t help but think how terrible it must have been being forced into the camps at that time. They had barely any clothes… no shoes… they were literally starving to death… yet some of them survived. As easy as it would have been for me to complain that day, I felt it would be rude and an injustice to all those that lived and died there. If they had been there while we were… heard us complaining… they would have laughed in our faces! We were so lucky to only be there, visiting for a couple hours, living like millionaires compared to how they lived. I will not go into detail about what I saw there, because I know it is a very sensitive subject. But I will tell anyone that asks. It is something I am grateful to have been able to see, but something I won’t do ever again.
The history in Berlin is quite interesting. I’m glad I got to go when I did, because I fear in a few years, a lot of that history will no longer be there. Sure Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin wall will probably live forever there. But things as simple as changing all the crosswalk lights to the infamous "Amplemann" is something that will change Berlin. A Berliner there informed me of the differences between East and West Berlin, and the lights at the crosswalk was the easiest to spot. Any time we were touring Berlin I would always look to see which lights were there. Even the architecture is different between the two. The stories of people trying to escape to West Berlin are amazing! Clever things I couldn’t even dream of! They are working hard in Berlin to keep the history alive and I really enjoyed that.
I absolutely loved the snow in Warsaw! It was the most beautiful snow I have EVER seen in my 20 years of being alive! And it was perfect for making snowballs as well as some on the trip learned. While in Warsaw, Courtney and I were just walking around the Old Town square and we came upon this magnificent church. We decided to see if it was open, and it was! We walked in and heard people. When I opened the second set of doors I realized it was a Catholic church and they were having Mass! I am a proud Catholic so this was a big deal for me! We decided to go in right as they were kneeling down. Courtney is not Catholic so I understood when she wanted to leave at that point. I asked to stay just one minute and she was okay with that. I have had friend travel abroad before and they told me that one of the cool things about being Catholic is that you can go to Mass anywhere in the world, and even if you don’t speak the language, you know what is happening because it is the same as at home. I got to experience this for myself! I knew exactly what the priest was saying even though I didn’t speak Polish. I participated right along with everyone else there. I even got to pray the "Our Father" with them, though we spoke different languages. It was an extremely moving experience for me and it brought me to tears. It is something I will never forget. (Warsaw was also our sighting of Prince Charles!)
Krakow had a very special meaning to me because that is where Pope John Paul II is from. It was exciting to me that every corner we turned was a new reference to him. I got to see where he went to school, where he lived, where he was priest… I got to be where he had been! Walked where he did! Since Pope John Paul II is a hero of mine, this is a really big deal! I know other students on the trip thought, "Oh. Well that’s cool that he was here." But for me it was a whole other level!
Prague was a beautiful city! I was happy to see that it had not been damaged by the war. And the people there were so friendly! In Prague, I got to see some pretty interesting things, such as medieval torture chambers. I couldn’t stay there very long before I got too creeped out and had to leave. Not before getting lots of pictures though! Including one of me in shackles!
Throughout the trip there were stories and legends being told that were unique to each place. I loved hearing all the stories and see them live on in the city. And of course I couldn’t leave without bringing a part of each of them with me. :-) The food was AMAZING! I would go back just for that! I ate pierogies probably half a dozen times in Poland and I cannot shut up about the bacon there! Oh my! DELICIOUS! Schnitzel was a favorite of the group, too… or maybe just Caleb. :-) But it was very good! I can’t even remember… or pronounce the names of most anything I ate there but it was so good! I set out to try a bunch of new foods while I was there and I did. I don’t think I had a meal I didn’t like. Anything they sat in front of me I scarfed down and savored.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, but one of my favorite parts of the trip was all the new friends I made! I didn’t visit a city without making friends. And I am in contact with all of them! Every single night I came back to the hotel at night with new stories. And every time, anyone that wasn’t with me that day would look at me and get jealous. Pretty soon I was the new guide and had a group following me just so they could be part of the fun! This is no joke! And I have tons of pictures to show it! I made things as simple as doors… windows… statues… trash cans… and police cars fun! When I went, I wanted to be submerged in the culture and everyday life. Sometimes, because of the itinerary we had, this wasn’t able to happen on the tour. However, during free time and after dinner, I was able to submerge myself. I learned a lot and made new friends in the process! From all over the world!
Coming back to the States there are things I have to be very grateful for. Probably the biggest one (and I think everyone can agree) is the ability to use a public restroom and not have to pay! In Europe, for the people that clean the restrooms and keep them in order, the only pay they get is what people pay to use the public restroom. (It also keeps all the bums from making it their home.) It makes perfect sense, but when you’re not used to it, it comes as quite a shock! And it REALLY stinks when it is 11:00 at night, you REALLY have to go the bathroom, and the public bathrooms are REALLY locked. It does make for some humorous pictures though! The other thing we have to be grateful for, is being able to find drinks without carbonation. Apple juice… orange juice… WATER! IT’S ALL CARBONATED! We had to order "Water without gas" any place we went.
We all had a great time and learned a lot! More than we could ever learn in the classroom. I recommend to anyone that has the chance to travel and/or study abroad to take it. I very literally wiped out my bank account for that trip, but it was so worth it! I would do it again in a heartbeat! And actually am planning on the 2011 WATW trip. It may be something you only get to do once! Don’t skip it. You’ll regret it later.