the trip that changed my life

When I tell people I chose to study abroad in the Czech Republic, the usual reaction is for them to ask, “Why there?” I explain that, in many ways, I was unsure of what I was getting myself into, but as a history major I was extremely interested in the history of the Cold War and its effects on Eastern Europe. With this in mind, I felt studying somewhere in that region was the best choice for me. After weighing the options, I decided on Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, because it is somewhat centrally located in Europe and one of the region's most beautiful cities.

My first three weeks there were spent tackling the language and getting acquainted with my new environment. Everything, from living in the city to attending classes at the very large Charles University, was new to me. Before long I had a grasp of the tram system and my ability to speak Czech was slowly improving. Our academic schedule was set up so classes ended on Thursdays, leaving us with long weekends to venture out and explore. Looking back, I can say some of the best experiences came from having the freedom to travel to many countries in close proximity. I had a host of excellent choices at my disposal. Would it be a weekend trip to Vienna, Austria, or an afternoon excursion to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in Plzen, Czech Republic, the birthplace of light beer? Or, perhaps, on a Thursday night at 10:30 p.m., I'd hop a train to Budapest, Hungary, for the weekend.

One weekend trip in particular not only opened my eyes to the history of the region in a way many students only read about, but it also awakened feelings in me I never imagined possible. Because I am of Polish descent, one of the big draws to studying in the Czech Republic was that it bordered Poland, and I knew I would have a chance to visit that country. The organization running the program I was with, the American Institute for Foreign Studies, had included a weekend trip to Krakow, Poland. A few days before we left, I e-mailed my father and asked if he knew the town where my great grandparents had lived before moving to the United States. He e-mailed back with the name of the town, which was Cerekiew, and explained he knew only that it was located approximately an hour east of Krakow.

A friend and I left for Poland by train the night before the other students. We arrived in Krakow at 5:30 a.m. Little did I know this day would change my life. In Krakow we found a bus heading east to a small town about 30 minutes outside the city. Once there, we ventured to the city's main square in search of a taxi driver who had heard of Cerekiew. Before long we found a driver who had heard of it, and we were on our way. I can remember thinking as we left the center of Krakow that we were headed to the middle of nowhere and may have just made an unfortunate decision.

Eventually, we found ourselves in Cerekiew, a tiny farm town with about 25 houses, a small store, a church and a cemetery, all on one road. I began going house to house with a paragraph I had had translated into Polish before I left Prague. It explained to the residents that I was trying to find my family. Soon enough we came to a two-story house with a detached barn. We were politely greeted by a young woman who looked at what I had written and shook her head side to side, telling me no. Figuring we had exhausted our options, we went to the one bus stop in town, which was nothing more than a small shack on the side of the road. Once there, we realized we would be spending the next two to three hours in 30 degree weather waiting for the next bus. After waiting for about ten minutes, we noticed an older gentlemen walking toward us. We figured he was going to join us in waiting for the bus, but instead he walked up to me and asked, “Skoczenski?”

I was dumbfounded. “Yes,” I replied and began to take out every piece of identification I had on me. He stared at my passport for a few moments and tried, none too successfully, to explain his purpose to me in Polish. Finally, he motioned for us to follow him and led us back to the house where the young woman had turned us away. He introduced us to two young men who had taken English in grade school and who understood what I was saying. After talking for a few moments we began to realize that we were actually cousins. Their names were Michal and Bogustav Skoczynski (my great-grandparents' name had changed slightly when they were admitted to the United States). The older gentleman who had found us at the bus stop was my grandfather's cousin, Bronistan Skoczynski. The young lady we had talked to earlier was another one of my cousins. Soon, many other relatives joined in welcoming us. My friend and I were then led to the living room where we were given some tea with rum while my cousins went into the closet to retrieve some photo albums.

On the first page they opened there was a picture of my father and uncles and aunts on a Christmas morning years in the past. My cousins explained that my great-grandmother had sent the pictures during the 1960s, but had lost communication with them soon after. We continued to talk the best we could with the little amount of English my cousins knew, and I tried to explain where we lived and how large the Skoczenski family was in the United States. They made us a meal of potatoes and kielbasa, a sort of casserole, which was extremely delicious. After a few hours, we figured we should be on our way and got a ride from my cousin back to the train station which would take us to Krakow.

On the ride back to Krakow, I lapsed into silence as I tried to sort out the emotions I had been experiencing for the last few hours. When we returned to Krakow and began the usual sightseeing, things felt different to me. It felt as though I had a greater connection to the city. The emotions of that day were made even more intense when the next day I traveled to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. My perspective of Poland under Nazi rule took on a whole new level of understanding. Deeper and more heartfelt. Without a doubt, it was a weekend that changed me and one I will never forget.

During my last month abroad I decided I was going to take advantage of any opportunities that came up, and my friends found something that completely raised the bar as to how far I was willing to go. They located a skydiving company about an hour outside of Prague, but the only information they could tell me about it was that “it is really cheap.” They had gone ahead and signed us up for the next day. When I woke up that morning, I decided to send my parents an e-mail, which said simply, “Good morning, going skydiving today… hopefully I'll call you later. Love, Brian.” According to reports from them later, they found this a little scary to read. My five friends and I drove to the desolate town where I would soon find out why this little excursion was “really cheap.” For starters the company's name translated to “Impact” and the safety course lasted all of five minutes. It included only making sure all of us knew how to lift up our legs when we were tapped on the shoulder. After this, the sky divers with whom we would be jumping in tandem came over to get us into our jumping gear.

Then the craziness level of this experience just about doubled. As we were suiting up, one of my friends asked one of the jumpers how long he had been doing this, and the jumper answered, “Yes.” This clued us into the fact that none of the men we would soon be strapped to thousands of feet above the earth in a free fall through the atmosphere spoke a word of English. I assessed the situation and came to the unarguable conclusion that, at this point, we had no safety course, no way of communicating with people we were entrusting with our lives, and, to top it off, the plane we would be taking into the wild blue yonder was a very, very old Soviet bi-plane. The only thought I had at that moment was maybe I should have written a longer e-mail to my parents.

As we took off and gained altitude, a relaxed feeling came over me. It lasted until the door opened. The next thing I remember is running out, doing a flip and seeing the most unbelievable view I have ever seen. Other than that, the ride back to mother earth is a blur. I did land safe and sound and do remember sitting and laughing for about five minutes, as it fully dawned on me what I had just done.

When I look back on my time abroad, I realize some of the best experiences I had were the times I was faced with tough situations and found myself able to work through them. I had gone door to door in a small farm town in Poland searching for relatives, had repeatedly gotten lost in countries with little or no knowledge of the language, and had worked my way through complex cultural differences, all the time learning what a wonderful and diverse world this is. Every experience helped me to grow, and, since returning, my confidence in my personal life and academic work has reached levels I never could have imagined. I feel proud that, for the first time in my life, I really took a chance and it paid off. Travel abroad is an opportunity many college students have, and, after my experience, it is hard for me to overstate the importance it can have in helping one to mature emotionally and intellectually. The four months I spent abroad helped point me in the direction I plan to take after graduation, when I will begin an intensive language program in Krakow, Poland, and go on to a master's program the following year.

My time in Prague was the best time of my life, and I am eager to return. I experienced the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Sicily, Malta, Poland, England and Austria, and made many cultural discoveries. This experience has left me humbled and enthusiastic to spread the word of the benefits of study abroad. Now, when my travels in Eastern Europe come up and I'm asked, “Why there?” I have to take time to sort through the many answers from which I have to choose.

-Brian Skoczenski