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Travel, Poland

Back to School Season: Scuba and Seminars

Monica Wojciechowska

Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia

I’ve been meaning to share some reflections for quite some time now, but (as has generally been the case since my time in Poland) there’s so much to do that reflection and writing take a back seat. Or, more accurately in my case, a train seat :)

This past weekend I was in Szczekociny (towards the west of Poland) attending a wedding. I’ve heard about Polish weddings for as long as I can remember, so it was incredible to finally experience one! Almost twelve hours of food, dancing, and drinks later, I can say that expectations were met. (I think I would’ve slightly tilted the food-dancing ratio towards dancing, but then again, I would always tilt the scale towards more dancing). Also included in my trip to Szczekociny was a visit to Jasna Góra in Częstochowa – home to one of the most sacred portraits of Saint Mary in the world, an exploration of medieval ruins in Olsztyn, a bonfire, and a traditional (and super tasty) cast-iron-pot potato-kielbasa concoction “pieczonki.”

The amount of activities you can pack into a couple days will always astonish me. And speaking of packing activities into every day – nothing quite brought that notion to life like my recent trips to South East Asia and Slovakia.


My backpack and I have covered quite some ground in the past couple of months. Among countless weekend trips within Poland, my recent trips to South East Asia and, shortly thereafter, Slovakia, were an incredible reminder of how exhilarating it is to learn. Not the type of learning where you’re sitting in a classroom and taking exams, exactly, but learning like a three-year-old – learning through curiosity, learning by living.


From mid-May to mid-June, my incredible friend and travel partner, Rachel, and I were fortunate enough to have spent a month in Thailand and Indonesia. If adventure is what you’re after (it is certainly what we were after,) South East Asia is the place to go! Our “classroom” in Asia? The cliffs of Railay Beach, the elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, the reef-break of Nusa Lumbongan. From rock climbing, to surfing, to scuba, to sunset-paddleboarding (if you decide to add this to your bucket list, just remember – “sunset” activities generally include after sunset as well. Paddle-boarding on black waters, surrounded by a black sky with two Thai men that speak little English is not exactly the relaxing evening we were expecting…) to volcano-trekking – our list of experiences was more than we ever realized we would have when we bought flights to Bangkok.
Rather than giving you a minute-by-minute playback of the experience, I’ve put together a little summary site: Bangkok-to-Bali for those interested in reading more! What started as my way of seeing if I still remember what I learned from the coding bootcamp back in April, came out to be a little project sharing our destinations and recommendations. If you’re planning to take a trip to the area, take a look!

And in the spirit of learning, here are a few lessons learned from the trip:

  • From learning to scuba: communication and the importance of eye contact + the power of regulating your breath and relaxation + the unknown is scarier than the known (even if it’s scary)
  • Don’t just look where everyone’s looking – look around (staying off the beaten path let’s you experience life like the locals – even to the point of commuting with the locals on an overpacked, beaten down boat)
  • Sitting on shore together is better than swimming alone. But swimming together is best. (a lesson I technically learned snorkeling in middle school, but confirmed when Rachel saw a huge jellyfish (which ended up being a plastic bag)
  • Don’t drive a scooter too fast. Or downhill. Or in the pouring rain. Or at the very least – don’t do all three at once 
  • Elephants are big and strong (I realize this one may not apply to life in general, but given my almost-getting-stepped-on-when-hugging-a-baby-elephant incident, couldn’t help but add it to the list)


Tour in Banska Stiavnica (small mining town in Slovakia)

Now if Asia was an adventure, Slovakia was a blessing. There’s no other way to put it! In the week that bridged the end of June and beginning of July, I attended the Free Society Seminar in the Bratislava region of Slovakia. In the organizers’ own words, FSS, hosted by the Faith & Reason Institute in D.C., focuses on engaging an international group of young adults in discussion “on various political, economic, and moral-cultural questions” with a foundation in philosophy and theology. It is safe to say that FSS not only met, but far exceeded my expectations. If you’re curious to learn more about FSS, my friend and fellow participant, Bino, wrote a fantastic article summing up our experience.

You rarely have the pleasure of joining in intense intellectual discussion with a group of other young adults and experienced instructors, swim in turquoise Slovakian lakes surrounded by sunflowers, tour new cities, attend Mass, and spend each night with the company of a guitar, dancing, and good conversation.

So many intellectual seeds were planted during that one week, that reflection on the seminar will likely be a lifelong effort.

Unlike the fruits that have been in such full bloom in Poland this past month, my ideas are still a little too fresh to be harvested. BUT while I wait for them to bloom (hopefully not all at the same time, because that’s be a lot to handle), all I can do is work the soil from which they’ll grow.

I don’t exactly know whether these fruits will be sweet or sour (likely sweet to some and sour to others, i.e. controversial), but here’s a taste:

  • Be brave in sharing your thoughts. Be respectful in listening to those of others.
  • Ancient wisdom and tradition is not weaker because of its age, but stronger. It is strong precisely because of how long it has been applicable to the today – the today of yesterday, the today of today, the today of tomorrow.
  • Be productive even when you’re not productive on someone else’s account (e.g. have aspirations and interests above and beyond your day job) But don’t measure your – or someone else’s – value by utility.
  • There are real truths in life. Not my truth and your truth, but truth. There are also opinions. But opinions are not truths and truths are not opinions.
  • We as a society are faced with a problem: lack of openness for discussion, lack of individual critical thinking. My Penn Engineering senior design team and I tried to tackle this problem a little while back, but there have to be remedies to group thought and bubbles out there that don’t require an app or a website or a portal. I’m an engineer, businesswoman, and programmer, but even I don’t believe that an app can fix everything. Fostering an openness to conversation is not a matter of lack of information, but a matter of immediately dismissing the information that you do not want to hear. In a way, differing viewpoints are a little like the common responsive to constructive criticism: we might not enjoy hearing it, but it is helpful to hear.
  • Individuals are by nature associational beings, it is the relationships that matter most. This was true in Systems Engineering – one of my majors at Penn – and it is true in life. Why do we care about each part of a system? Because it does not exist in and of itself. It is connected – to other things, to people, etc. Why do we care about someone? Because each person has inherent dignity and one life does not begin and end with itself alone. We come from others, and we can live on by and through others – especially The Greatest of all others. And since we’re talking of the Greatest – replace “others” with “love” in that last sentence. How incredible a notion, right?!
  • Language is so important to get right. Humans across professions are – more often than we realize – involved in the game of persuasion. Lawyers, candidates for office, reporters, sales people. The trade? Influence. The tools of the trade? Words. Deform those words enough, separate them from their original meaning and classic connotations, and you might get what you’re looking for. As informed individuals, we have a responsibility to be wary of the *“semantic gymnastics”* that can be employed in this pursuit.
  • We need to revive a healthy Personalism by treating each person, foremost, as a unique person rather than a subject of preconceived notions. When we reduce a person to physical features, we reduce their full personality: body, mind, and soul.
  • And with Personalism, comes fostering identity. There are two types of classification that can be used to form identity. The first is by association – Family, Church, Community, Country – seeks to foster identity by preserving institutions. The second – identity removed from community (e.g., Race, Gender, Class) seeks to foster identity by removing belief or tradition from the picture. I’d imagine the logic in support of the second classification looks a little like so: “History has shown that there is a potential danger in excessive religion or pride in one’s country or family. Because these are potentially dangerous, it’s better to eliminate these institutions (or at least control them as much as possible through centralized power) and promote causes based on the superficial – race, gender, and class. These are “safe” to use to as proxies for identity.” However, would you rather be Monica, the white, middle-class, female? Or Monica, the US and Polish citizen, with roots in the Subcarpathian region of Poland, born and raised in NJ, proud Roman Catholic seeking to live by her faith. There is so much more depth to the latter. But if we fail to support the traditions of the deeper classification through a healthy pride (not boastful, but grateful) then we rapidly lose who and what it is we are, thus becoming defined by our aesthetics, rather than our associations.
  • You’re never too old to learn. Or to learn philosophy. Or to learn theology. Or anything for that matter.
  • And of course, in the wise words of one of our lecturers when asked whether he has any advice for us as we leave Slovakia and return to our day-to-day: “More reading, more dancing.”

And to round out the picture, here are a few other things I’ve picked up over the past couple months in Poland:

  • how to make homemade babka + apple szarlotka
  • how to de-seed Mirabelki (little plums) with a chopstick
  • how to remove a tick (sadly, multiple times..)
  • how to dance a Polka
  • how to drive stick-shift
  • how to saddle a horse (and unsaddle and re-saddle… practice makes perfect!)

A big thank you to all my teachers around the world.

And now that “school” has been covered, time to think about what generally comes after: work. I’ve been freelancing in data visualization / front-end development for the past couple of months, but I’m excited to share that I’m officially on the full-time job hunt… in Poland! I’ve been so happy here the past six months and would love to continue the adventure, so please keep your fingers crossed for me!

© 2022 — The Polish American