Minnesota-native Sara Kate Egan first experienced Europe as a child. Years later, her fascination with the continent brought her over to Krakow, Poland, where she is enrolled in an International Relations graduate program at the Jagiellonian University, one of the world’s oldest higher learning institutions. She has been chronicling her European experience on StudyAbroad.com and Twitter.
When chatting with Jetting Around, Sara Kate shared her thoughts about studying in another country and expatriate life, explained why she immediately felt at home in Krakow, and talked about her favorite things about the city.
What made you decide to study in Krakow?
The graduate program I am taking is based in Krakow, so that was how I originally decided to live here, but of course the city itself was just as important to me (if not more, ha ha) as the academic program.
Even though I had never been to Krakow or even Poland at all before coming for school, I made sure to do all the research I could, so that I might get an idea of what to expect if I ended up going.
How else did you prepare for the move?
I also stocked up on items that I thought I would miss, could pack, and didn’t think would be available abroad. Trying to figure out how to stuff all of this into two suitcases was a whole other story, but somehow I got everything over here that I needed, and thankfully it turns out that there isn’t much actually that falls into that category anyway.
What were your expectations about Poland before your arrival?
I guess it was strangely how I expected it to be, because of all the researching I did for over a year. I had visited several neighboring countries, so I was expecting something similar.
Is there anything that surprised you?
It wasn’t a huge surprise, but something that fascinates me about Europe is how in just a short distance so much can change culturally, like the language, customs, heritage, clothing, food, etc. So, even though I had been to some countries around Poland and there are overlapping elements between them all, Poland (and the other countries too) has its own, very unique set of characteristics that can only be found here.
Do you have a favorite Polish food and drink?
I have a lot of them now, but as far as foods, I’m always up for a zapiekanka, a type of pizza bread. I also love pierogi, especially in colder months, with cabbage and mushrooms or cottage cheese and potatoes being my two favorite varieties.
The drink that is currently my regular order stars the classic Krakovian/Polish Wiśniówka/cherry vodka – my favorite liquor of all time, one that makes any other cherry-flavored vodkas seem like cheap, flavorless knock-offs. I prefer it mixed with sparkling water as a cocktail. This is an extremely tasty and refreshing combo and is rather similar to cherry Kool-Aid, which can be good and bad all at once!
As the city’s official website says, Krakow is a magical place! It deserves this particular description not just because it has the look and feel of a setting for a fairy tale or whimsical children’s storybook, but because of what it possesses.
It’s a city where many worlds collide – where East meets West, new meets old, traditional meets progressive, where different cultures come together – and it has been this way for many centuries. It’s a center where ideas are born and brought to life and anything is possible – and from the looks of it, things will hopefully continue in this direction in the years to come.
The city has many legends. Do you have any that you like?
My favorite one is about the dragon of Wawel Hill, especially because he has made quite a turnaround throughout the years and is today a beloved and major symbol of the city. I love the dragon festival that is in early June, with its parade of elaborate dragon floats and the impressive night show on the Vistula River.
There’s also the legend about Wanda, the princess who sacrificed her life to preserve the city’s safety and freedom. Now that’s selflessness to the highest degree!
What do you enjoy most about Krakow?
I never tire of taking photos of charismatic Krakow – it’s one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever been to. I always have my camera with me, as there’s something constantly catching my eye, and I always seem to be out of space on my camera’s memory card because of this…
From the ornate historical buildings and the quiet, cobbled streets they line, to the random things I spot while window shopping, and the funny pigeons and myriad of characters in the Main Square, there’s enough material to keep snapping away endlessly.
Your school building is in the Main Square, the heart of the city. Tell us about it.
Yes, it is very convenient to have my main building right in the square, along with my other two buildings that I am in this semester. This way I can walk to class in 10 minutes or less and am nearby all sorts of fun stuff when I get out of class.
The views from these classrooms are unbelievable too, and along with the sounds of the trumpeter and clock bells of St. Mary’s church, street musicians and horses clip-clopping by, it makes for quite a grand atmosphere to learn in.
Back in Minnesota, you studied International Relations (USA-European Union), now you’re studying the same in a European country. How has this affected your outlook on the subject?
Having been able to study this particular subject in both the US and the EU had for sure given me quite a well-rounded perspective on it, so I’m very glad I got to do it that way. Generally, in the US I was getting a viewpoint more from the US looking out at the EU and focusing on the things affecting us, while here it is naturally the opposite.
The one ironic exception is that my advisor and my main professor at the school I attended for my undergraduate studies (Minnesota State University, Mankato) was Polish, so back then I was already getting extra information on Poland’s situation and their stances on certain issues.
Was there anything that was hard to get used to when it comes to student life in Krakow?
UJ (The Jagiellonian) has over 50,000 students and numerous schools and departments, so I don’t know exactly what it’s like in these other areas, but my particular program was definitely a change for me. There are only 18 students total in the graduating class in my program and most of the classes in the first year are shared with these same students. It felt a lot like it must feel going to school in a very tiny town, and I was not used to this situation at all.
This year I am able to take classes from other departments and they are larger and a mixture of students and more the type of set-up that I am familiar with and prefer. The grading system was also very antiquated last year, but has since been updated and digitalized, thank goodness!
Have you learned any Polish? How easy or difficult is it to go around your day?
Tak, ale mowie slabo po polsku… OK, so that didn’t include a few necessary Polish characters and may have other mistakes, but any Polish speakers should be able to decipher that it meant, “Yes, but I speak badly in Polish…”
I have taken classes on and off for a while now and despite the speaking part being difficult for me still, I do find that I am able to understand and read quite of a bit of Polish now. And luckily, there is SO much English everywhere, especially in Krakow, that I haven’t really had much trouble at all on the language front. It also helps that since I am enrolled in an English-speaking graduate program, most of the people I have met are either native English speakers or fluent in it.
The city has seen an influx of foreigners in the past several years. Do you hang out with other expats or Polish friends?
It’s a mixture of both, which I really like. Even several of my friends are a mixture of both themselves, as they have Polish parents and are fluent in the language, but were raised in North America. This is helpful to me for when I need them to translate/explain things for me, which is pretty often, but I’m working on that!
It’s awesome knowing locals too because not only do they of course know the city and its ins and outs so well, but living in Krakow would not be complete without befriending some true Krakovians!
Is there anything that makes you feel at home?
The climate and landscape here is almost identical to the Twin Cities, besides two things that I like better about Krakow – it has slightly milder winters and slightly cooler summers, so it’s pretty perfect weather to me!
There are also so many American exports over here, from restaurants and stores to food and drinks to movies and music, that I really don’t feel all that far away most of the time. I can maintain my Peanut M&M’s addiction without a hitch here!
So many things about this city and country feel homey to me though, so that’s why I would like to stay longer.
I could definitely see myself living in Europe for a long time. Who knows if I will be ready for another change down the line somewhere though – even splitting time between more than one place would be nice.
Despite being an expat and feeling so at home in Europe now, I am still a proud and grateful American and that will always be my roots and what I identify as, so I wouldn’t rule out being back stateside at some point, even if not year-round.
What’s your advice for those considering studying abroad?
Do it!!! Seriously, if you have any desire to study in another country, or even just do an exchange with another college in the US (this is possible), go for it!! You won’t regret it and will literally have the experience of a lifetime…Yes, it sounds cliché, but it’s really the best way to describe it.
Getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new pays off greatly and will only make you want to continue seizing opportunities like these and making the most of your studies.
After graduation this doesn’t have to stop either, with all of the work, internship and volunteer abroad programs that are available out there.
(Photos of Sara Kate come from her collection)