Krakow, Poland. You’ve maybe never even heard of it. I just knew it was a city in Poland, a country with a lot of pirogies.
The locals tell an old legend of a dragon haunting the town, eating all of the beautiful young women— classic. Dragons are spattered throughout the city in the form of rainspouts, t-shirts and keychains and the town feels magical and medieval and like a book you read.
Krakow is alive. Even though only an hour from a city of death, this place feels good. According to Hindu legend, 7 stones were thrown into the air, reflecting points of positive energy (chakras) on the earth. One of these stones landed in a corner of the courtyard in the Castle. I stood there and breathed and believed it.
Krakow doesn’t feel as westernized as most other cities I’ve visited so far. Though it is a large(ish) city— second biggest in Poland— it felt quaint. There was an Easter market set up in the Old Town Square selling Polish scarves, flowers, painted eggs, cheeses and of course— pirogies. So I had 10.
A city of history, much of it catastrophic, Krakow moves. There’s so much healing there. There had to be.
Many people come to Krakow for one horrific reason. Auschwitz. The former extermination camp is about an hour outside the city limits. I can’t say much about my experience here because while I love to use words, I don’t think they do that much here. I can say it is important. I can say it is terrible. And that’s a junction that we cannot ever confuse. You should go. You shouldn’t go. I don’t even know what to recommend here. It is a place where you can still feel the evil and fear that lived there. So learn.
There is more life than death in Krakow. Look for it.
We were sitting in a cafe in Copenhagen, eating traditional Danish pastries that we couldn’t pronounce. There was some loud talking in the background, something unusual for the quiet, happy peace of Denmark. At the counter there was a man arguing loudly with one of the employees. I rolled my eyes. People who create messes for service industry workers are my biggest pet peeve so I turned back to my pastry. Eventually the yelling got louder and my ears pricked up again. We couldn’t hear much, just snippets of anger and arguing but eventually pieced together that the cafe manager did not want him to stand at the counter, rather sit down and wait.
“I’m asking you to leave sir.”
“But why, what did I do wrong?”
“I’m asking you to leave.”
“I need you to leave.”
“But why? What did I do?”
Another boy at the counter tried to reason with him but still couldn’t tell the man why he was being asked to leave.
The man slams his fist on the counter. He’s bleeding.
Copenhagen is white. Almost all of Europe is white. The kind of whiteness you notice because you haven’t seen this kind of homogeneous pool since you lived in a small town in rural Ohio. The angry man was the first person of color I’d seen in days.
“Not all white people are racist! But you are being racist!”
People pick up their croissants and move away. No one says anything.
We sat waiting. Waiting for someone to pull out their smartphone to record what was happening. Waiting for police to come and calm everyone down. Waiting for the manager to explain what he’d done wrong. Waiting for someone to speak up.
We’d almost finished our pastries.
The man demanded to pay for his coffee, he would not take it for free he insisted. Finally, the manager complied and the customer stormed out the door. Police cars arrive and they run into the metro to find him. We wait still. Hoping there would be no handcuffs. Feeling guilty, uncomfortable, awestruck, angry, we should have said something, we should go home, why didn’t we say anything? One of the girls I’m traveling with is crying.
I’ve lived my whole life in a country with racial tensions, escalating in the past year or so. I’d always pictured Scandinavia as a utopia of socialism, equality and progressive values. But here in the 3rd happiest country in the world, I witnessed the most outwardly racist interaction I’d ever seen in my life.
It happens everywhere. Nowhere is safe from intolerance and injustice. I needed to see that.
Every society could improve. Every society has good things happening. It’s important to be aware of all this good and all this bad. We cheat ourselves when we act like everything is good. We cheat ourselves when we act like nothing is.
We can’t become apathetic but we can’t become so paralyzed by negativity that we stop pushing to improve.
And a lack of discussion of problems does not mean there are no problems and talking about our problems openly does not mean that’s all we have.
This incident was a wake up call to me on both fronts. It is easy to point fingers at the US and all of our protests, conflicts and debates on the news and call it bad. That’s what happens when you’re standing on stage. And it’s easy to live in the US and get caught up in all the “fixing” that we stop trying to fix things anymore because it’s just too overwhelming. I dreamed of a place like Denmark, the promised land of tolerance. And while it was overwhelmingly kind and beautiful and wonderful, there are still dark corners. Just like anywhere.
We saw the man later outside talking to the police officers. Everything seemed okay. They were not arguing, the officers seemed to be taking his side. I looked at the smiling Danes all around me, working on a better future, counting on a better future. And I breathed out and knew that’s exactly what it could be.
I had no idea what to expect from Copenhagen, Denmark besides some really, really cold weather mid-March. I hopped off the plane into a world of seafood, socialism and inherently nice people. Like really really nice.
Like the kind of nice people that ask you if you’re okay when you’re at the metro station alone or the kind of people who joke with you like you’re old friends when you walk into a bar for the first time or the kind of people who help you with directions before you even ask because you look kind of confused. A type of niceness that made a girl from a small town in the midweek feel exactly at home. Danes are happy; authentically and genuinely and actively and so were we.
If you’re looking for an AirBnB in Copenhagen, we had an amazing host linked here with the cutest family and a perfect little basement suite. We had a separate entrance to the house and it wasn’t far from a bus station that we would take directly downtown.
The public transport in the city is pretty easy to figure out and relatively inexpensive, buy a three day pass because it’s worth it!
The food scene is Copenhagen was incredible but $$ so if you’re ballin’ on a budget it’s important to do your research before just sitting down in any restaurant on the street.
We loved the brunch at a place called Neighbourhood so much that we went two days in a row. Excessive. It’s right off of the main metro stop Norreport and is served tapas style so you get to try a million amazing things at once. 10/10 recommend the savory waffle, it might have changed my life.
Dinner can be especially pricy so we found a deal that included a up to 5 tapas per person + unlimited beer and wine for roughly 41 USD at Mat (they use koruna in Denmark but almost everywhere takes card so I didn’t even exchange cash). The tapas were phenomenal and the unlimited wine and beer weren’t too shabby either. That’s a good deal even in the US so in Copenhagen it is essential!
The nightlife scene was actually fascinating. The music was a deep haus combination of 70s music and techno like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was like a movie. We went to Jolene’s and Bakken, two local, young bars located almost next to each other in the Meatpacking District. The drinks were reasonably priced and the vibe was definitely worth it.
The Design Museum of Denmark was a must because Scandinavian design is everything. One of the best museums I’ve been to in Europe and students get in FREE with a student ID. What. A. Day.
Nyhvn is the iconic spot in Copenhagen for photos, colorful little houses and charming boats dockside. I fell in love with the city here, it truly feels like the best of a small beachtown and a living, growing city.
Tip: People in Copenhagen generally wear a lot of black so if you don’t want to stand out too too much as you do incredibly touristy things like jump on trampolines at a park by the water then pack your black on black.
The language barrier was one of the easiest parts of Copenhagen. Every single person we ran into spoke English and WELL. Like possibly better than I do. We learned a few Danish words like hej for hello and tak for thank you because I want to be Danish now forever.
While I would probably recommend visiting Copenhagen in the warmer months because it’s frigid that far north, it was still a blast even in 20 degree weather. I definitely get why Denmark is consistently ranked one of the happiest countries in the world. Tak Copenhagen— I’ll be back!
wanderlust. travel. seeing the world. all the buzzwords.
everyone claims to want to do it, to love it, to have done it. picture sparkling instagrams of far off places and a life that looks like adventure.
but here’s the thing no one tells you about studying abroad.
it’s like really frickin’ hard. for every perfect picture posted online there’s 7 hours of looking gross and sitting on the airport floor because your flight was delayed again and you probably lost your wallet or broke your phone or haven’t washed your hair in four days and that’s why i’m wearing this headscarf, not to look trendy. for every magical moment with a view you could write a book about, there’s 9 frantic moments when you almost miss your flight or bus or buy the wrong ticket or get locked out of your airbnb. for every blog post about a wonderful weekend in a foreign and fantastic city there’s about 3 squished bananas in your backpack or angry airport security agents screaming at your about taking off your shoes in a foreign language or a dead phone with no outlets for miles. i miss my mom and chipotle and free water and my bed all while having the time of my life.
this is important to realize before your embark on your next great adventure. and it’s important to realize when you’re sitting at home wishing you were staring at some great sea like your facebook friend. and it’s important to realize when you’re just not in the mood for magic anymore. that’s reasonable and normal and half of traveling is screwing it up anyways. it happens. and at a much more frequent rate when you’re living out of a suitcase and don’t speak the language.
studying/traveling abroad is life changing. i am privileged and grateful and so, so, so lucky. 99% of the time i revel in this blessing and soak in this chance of a lifetime. but don’t feel crazy if there are days or nights when you just want to go home, lay in your own bed and not move for months. don’t feel guilty if there are moments when you are not jumping for joy.
enjoy your adventures but know that not every second will be perfect and that’s not on you. make the most of your time, be positive but if shit hits the fan it’s okay to feel like a mess.
that’s the great adventure.
I’ve officially been living in Prague for an entire month, life is crazy. This is a quick update so that my friends and family know that I’m alive and well and eating way too many pastries. After 4 weeks, I finally feel like I actually live here and it’s not some weird vacation dream thing. I speak enough Czech to survive, can successfully navigate the metro, know what butter looks like at the grocery store and understand that “dort” is Czech for cake. Little victories but big victories. I feel comfortable adventuring on my own in Prague and am slowly learning enough cultural norms to kind of blend in—as long as I don’t open my mouth.
Once a week I volunteer at a local elementary school in Prague assisting in a classroom of Czech 2nd graders learning English. They are actually so perfect and cute and curious and stare at me in awe because I’m the first native English speaker + American they’ve ever met. They ask me questions like if I like hotdogs or what my house looks like and I realize how far from home I am. Their education system is so different from the US and I see posters on the wall of New York City and places that seem very distant from this little elementary school.
American music plays in all of the stores, though most people don’t understand the words. Portions sizes are smaller, on my desperate days I order two meals instead of one and the waitress thinks I’m crazy. Even McDonalds is different here—it’s way better. Post-communist buildings are painted light pink or blue, not torn down making way for something bigger. You have to pay for tap water at restaurants here and if you don’t specify they will give you sparkling water and it’s never not shocking. Beer is cheap, so cheap and the cuisine is built around the beer. They don’t hate Americans here like you’ve heard. Most people just want to ask us questions and assume that we’re from New York because that’s the only city in the US to them. KFC is actually inexplicably amazing in Europe.
Some days it is hard. I just want to walk into a store and understand everything the cashier is saying. Or be able to find the salami. Or ask a question without stuttering. Or sleep in my own bed. Or walk into my best friend’s room. Or not be perpetually confused.
But that’s not most days. Most days I look up in class and there’s a castle outside and nothing feels real. Most days I wander around endless Czech bookshops and pick books up and try to recognize words. Most days I order dessert that tastes like heaven. Most days I notice magnificent buildings that are older than my home country. Most days I take it in and realize how big and small the planet is at the same time. Most days I am in awe that I’m lucky enough to be alive in this exact moment in this exact place.