“Do you mean ‘home’ or ‘home, home’?” is a phrase often uttered when trying to differentiate between Czestochowa and Chicago in our conversations. We’ve developed a confusion between our “homes,” but it wasn’t always that way.
In the last post we talked about our daily home life on sabbatical – the ups, the downs and the in betweens. This time we’ll give you a peak at our home town and surrounding area of Czestochowa, Poland. At first glance its architecture is communist and industrial, it’s filled with churches (60 plus!) including the renowned Jasny Gora, a gazillion grocery stores and more dental offices than I’ve ever seen, but there’s definitely more here than meets the eye.
The first few months, as we mentioned were a bit tough. The weather was less than ideal and there was a definite lack of green space, no evening paseos and few places to walk. But there were many reasons we chose Czestochowa as our home base, among them, we wanted a place away from tourist sights, away from large groups of expats and a place where we really had to learn to find our way.
At first we struggled, people on the street weren’t as openly friendly as we were used to, English was harder to come by and the atmosphere was much more serious. Fortunately, we quickly made friends through Mike’s university and they welcomed us with open arms into their homes and lives. They treated us to homemade Polish meals, helped us find grocery stores, took us to the mall, pointed us to good restaurants, told us about different gyms, and helped us find places for the kids to play. While Czestochowa is very different than our home, they made us feel at home.
Mr. N and Miss A became fast friends with the neighbors and our friends’ children (you may recall Miss A has a good friend with whom she corresponds from her window). Despite our kids’ lack of Polish and their kids’ lack of English, they all share one common language – play. They use the words they each know respectively to get by in their games, which range from chess and Guess Who, to soccer, trampolines and XBox. They play at each others’ houses and in our backyards. They get to share toys from different parts of the world and find those they have in common. They even manage to watch TV – alternating a show in English and then a show in Polish. They’re creating many memories and hopefully building lifelong friendships.
But it’s not just the kids that have formed friendships. Traveling for extended periods of time in foreign places is amazing, but not always easy; and settling in a foreign land is certainly ripe with challenges. I cannot imagine doing it without our friends. The support they have lent us is priceless. From helping us to set-up our internet and wifi (which was surprisingly challenging), to showing us the best local foodie finds, to planning day trips to the countryside, and of course feeding us (and oh do they feed us!).
The feasts we have enjoyed!!! Unbelievable!
The fair they introduced us to this spring alone was a varitable feast! (Not to mention a great place to shop for some local souvies!)
Needless to say we’ve made our way back every time it’s been running! The sausages are delicious, the beer cold and the desserts a-plenty! (And Mr. N is a huge fan of the tripe stew – adventurous boy that he is!)
Honestly though, the biggest gift from our Polish neighbors, is their friendship. Whether it’s been sitting around a dining room table, a living room or a backyard barbecue, having people to talk with, laugh with, and share a beer or wine (or several shots – oye!) with has positively shaped this experience and exceeded all of our expectations and hopes. It’s been easy, relaxing and honestly, like home. And the ability we can have to intuitively understand each other, even when words are hard to come by, is amazing. I cannot imagine this experience without our new friends.
It’s funny to me – our friends – they worry a lot. They worry that we won’t like the food. They worry that their English isn’t good enough (never mind our Polish is terrible!). They worry that we’re bored here. They’re worried that we are homesick and that Czestochowa won’t live up to what we hoped. They worry it’s not as beautiful a city as Krakow or like in Spain. They worry that we didn’t get enough to eat. The list goes on…
So more than anything, what I hope we can convey to them before we leave, is that they need not worry. We appreciate their concern for us and love them all the more for it. But that’s just it – we love them and we love it here. They have brought us so much happiness. They have hugged us when we needed hugs, taught us so much about their culture and history, and have shown us all the local beauty that can be found. They talk to us in English, which we don’t expect and find very humbling. I can’t fathom how they do it with such ease – especially when it’s not something they often use. It really blows my mind and we are so appreciative. They have truly changed us, made us better people for knowing them, and I can’t say it enough, they made us feel at home. They became family – and they are the true hidden gems of this Polish city.
So while our first impressions of Czestochowa may not have been the most glowing of reviews, like anywhere, once you get to know a place – truly know it – there is beauty to be found everywhere. And since spring has finally arrived we’ve been discovering all the more from castle ruins and forest hikes, to outdoor dining and evening walks. As we said, we wanted a place that wasn’t going to be easy, but would be a place we could learn to really live (not vacation). Czestochowa has proven to be all of that, and then some!
We learned early in this trip to not make comparisons, but rather, observations. You simply can’t compare cultures, countries and histories. It’s apples and oranges. Sure you can make observations, but comparisons are too ripe with judgement. Every culture, city, country and history is different and we believe should be learned and understood on its own merit. We all come from unique places and have both individual and collective stories that make us who and what we are. And like people, some places are easier to understand and get to know, while others take some time to peel away the layers. One way isn’t better or worse than the other, it just is. But what is certain across the board, at least as we’ve observed these past few months, humanity is beautiful in all its differences, complexities, similarities and nuances; and it most definitely has something to teach us.
Had you asked me on a cold, gray day in March if I thought Czestochowa was going to be a highlight of our trip, you likely would have gotten a snarky response from me. (Like I said, I wasn’t always in a good place and I don’t do well with weeks of gray skies.) But over three months in, I can honestly say, this portion of our trip will be more life changing than any other. We have all learned more than I ever anticipated and we’ll leave here with an experience that is truly priceless – and friendships worth even more!
I think Miss A said it best of all one evening on our way “home” from dinner, “I like Czestochowa. I could really live here.”