What I learned from 12 months living in Poland

What I learned from 12 months living in Poland

At a really young age, I had the wanderlust gene. I spent time daydreaming about being in places far around the world. I would research places (with dial-up internet and in library books) and would print out gorgeous pictures of old towns in Europe and tropical scenes from southeast Asia. The world is so big and I wanted to see it all! Although my parents were really good about taking us on long road trips, we couldn’t necessarily afford international travel.

What I learned from 12 months living in Poland — Bydgoszcz

Through high school I became familiar with the Rotary Youth Exchange program. I knew I wanted to do this! I didn’t need a lot of money, but it would give me the opportunity to live somewhere else around the world!

Long story, short, I applied and had to rank 40 countries – 40 countries! I had to rank them from my top choice to my least favorite choice. Then they would assign me the country that I would spend the next year in. I cannot describe how exciting it was!

That’s what brought me to a small Eastern European city: Bydgoszcz, Poland. It was a dream. Being an exchange student changed my life.

I spent the next year living with 2 host families (in Rotary it’s customary to rotate to 3 host families throughout the year). I went to Polish high school, made Polish friends, adored my host families, got to know the 30 other exchange students in the country from all around the world. I traveled throughout Poland, traveled throughout Europe, and really adapted to this culture.

If you’re curious about traveling to Poland or if you’re curious to know what you could learn from living in another country for a year, read on! Here’s my list of what I learned from 12 months living in Poland.

What I learned from 12 months living in Poland: Part 1

  1. How to slow down: “slowing down” has become a trendy health term. After living for 12 months in Poland, I learned how to slow down, smell the roses, taste the food, and just… be. I came from a very productive, goal-oriented, driven, fast-paced, high school life: sports, part-time job, studying, college entrance exams, clubs, etc. In Poland, I chatted with friends after school, walked home through the old town, met friends at the pub, ate late lunch with my host families, and debriefed on the day with a hot cup of tea. It was a welcome change, and really changed my outlook on what a healthy life looks like.
  2. What makes Poland so beautiful: To many Polish people Bydgoszcz was “Brzydgoszcz” or ugly. To me it was beautiful, it was historical, energizing, and it felt so European. I got lost in the history, the old town, the numerous trams, and the many people speaking another language. To me it was perfect. One thing that made Poland so perfect were the people — the amazing host families I had, the friendships I built, and the strangers that welcomed me into their homes.
  3. Confidence: I was shy! I am still quiet — it’s my personality. But after living in Poland for 12 months I came back to the U.S. with so much more confidence. I learned another language, experienced embarrassment from wrong pronunciation, navigated a foreign public transportation system, and built relationships cross-culturally. I became fully integrated in another country, another culture, and another language. After all of this, I felt like I could do anything!
  4. How to drink responsibly: This topic may be somewhat controversial, but I will explain. The drinking age in Poland was 18. While living there, I learned about the country’s approach to drinking at a young age. It is not uncommon as a 18 year old to have a beer with dinner with your family. It’s not uncommon to meet your friends at the pub — and then take a bus or a taxi home. It is not uncommon to attend a holiday party with your friends and family and have a shot of Polish-made vodka with a toast. This seems to create a culture of trust and moderation. I’m not saying that Poland doesn’t have their drinking problems. For me though — I learned moderation, something I think a lot of young U.S. adults could benefit from.
  5. How to make pierogis: Pierogis are delicious! I have great memories making homemade pierogi with my host mom and host sister. Ugh, my mouth is watering thinking about it!
  6. What fresh bread and cheese should actually taste like: Another reason to make your mouth water. Bread and cheese are both staple meal ingredients throughout Poland. But I’m not talking mass-produced, tasteless, sliced bread that we all know from the U.S. grocery store. I’m talking fresh, rye, dark, dense, yeasty bread that you pick up every other day from the bakery. Have this for breakfast with fresh butter and cheese. This was the reason I gained weight 🙂

What I learned from 12 months living in Poland: Part 2

  1. How to travel (exploring all of Poland and Europe with friends): When I was 16 I was sitting at my school desk in America dreaming about traveling to Europe. 2 years later I was doing that! Travel is easy in Poland and throughout all of Europe. It’s easy to get on a train or a bus, to cross country borders, and to find affordable places to stay, whether you’re with friends or traveling solo.
  2. How to speak another language: I never thought languages came easy to me, they still don’t. But when you’re fully immersed in another country speaking another language, you pick it up much quicker. I went to school every day where each lesson was in Polish, I had to speak Polish at the store, bus stop, on the tram, at the bakery, and with my host family. Ever since my life in Poland, I have noticed that languages have become easier for me.
  3. How to appreciate coffee: I wasn’t a coffee drinker before living in Poland. I was only 18! But it quickly became a staple, something that I drank in the morning with milk and my breakfast, something you drank with your family after an afternoon dinner. And this wasn’t really weak-diner-coffee. It was dark, strong, and brewed on the stove. I will forever have a Bialetti/Moka Pot/stove top coffee maker.
  4. What it feels like to become fully immersed in – and part of – another culture: This was one of the best parts of the Rotary Youth Exchange program. There is something so special and gratifying about becoming fully integrated in another culture. This isn’t something that always comes by just traveling, but only by truly living in another place. This is the reason I’ve lived in 2 other countries since then (India and Swaziland). For anyone considering living in another country, I HIGHLY recommend it!
  5. That I really loved Europe: I think some Americans can get tired of hearing so much about Europe. Some love it! But after living there for 1 year, I can confidently say there are so many wonderful things about Europe. I learned so much from living there (I also missed things about my home). It was so hard to go back to the U.S. after 12 months of living in Poland….
  6. Needed to make sure travel continued to be a part of my life: As you can see through my blog, traveling is so important to me. I’ve gone through different stages in my life of doing more travel or less travel. But it’s always on my mind. Check out my About Me page to learn more about why I created this blog. I’m not a single-23 year old anymore — so traveling looks different than it used to. But it’s important to me to re-write what it means and how it fits into my current and future life.

I hope this list was interesting. I wanted to express what I learned from 12 months of living in Poland. I hope it’s helpful for anyone that’s interested in traveling to Poland or for anyone interested in living in another country. Feel free to share with me what you have learned from living in another country for a period of time.


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