Merry (late) Christmas and Happy New Year! Sorry for the delay of my report, I was out of town without internet access and I am just now getting back to Bydgoszcz. Warning- my next report will be a little late also, because at the end of January/ beginning of February I am going on a ski trip in Italy! December was a very memorable month for me.

            

 
In the beginning of December, we got a LOT of snow! It all melted within a week but it was very beautiful. My Canadian friend laughed at me when I asked if it's normal to wear ski goggles while walking around, because it's so painful to have snow blowing in your eyes! Haha- I guess I will just get used to it. (Snow picture attached)

            Our third district conference was the second week of December in a city called Wroclaw. It was great to see all the other exchange students and we had a lot of fun together, as always. Wroclaw is definitely one of the prettiest places I've been in my life. I felt like I was in a fairytale story as I was walking through the town. (Photo attached). On the second night of the conference, we had a Christmas party with all the exchange students, Rotarians and local people from Wroclaw who wanted to join. Everyone dressed up very fancy and all the exchange students wore our blazers. It was located in a  beautiful building which was decorated very nicely for Christmas. For the main program, they had chairs set up around the room and the exchange students sat in rows by country. Some of the exchange students had little performances… one of the girls read a Christmas poem in Polish, the exchange students from Wroclaw sang "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" and did a funny dance, and the exchange students from Bydgoszcz and I sang Silent Night in all of our languages (Polish, English, Portuguese, and Spanish) along with reading a Christmas wish before switching languages. We had been practicing this performance for about 3 weeks in our extra Polish classes. One exchange student played the piano along with us and one played the guitar which made us sound even better. Everyone was very impressed and some people even cried. Some of the Polish Rotarians also sang solos. After all of this, a Rotarian started playing "We Are The World" on the piano in the center of the room. He played the main chorus probably 20 times, and at first we all just sang along, but eventually we all put our arms around each other and swayed together while singing loud and proudly with big smiles on our faces. It was magical! This was a moment that I'll definitely remember for the rest of my life. Most of us started crying and almost everyone else watching us started crying too. Now, whenever I hear this song on the radio I get a little emotional!

            I loved Polish Christmas! The main celebration is on the 24th and there are a lot of different Polish foods which are traditional for Christmas. My host mom spent about 2 days in the kitchen and my host sister and I helped her too. The food was delicious, especially peirogies. On Christmas Eve, the cousins of my host siblings also joined us. We all dressed in fancy clothes and gathered around the table to eat. I hadn't eaten so much since Thanksgiving last year! Another tradition is for everyone to give each person a Christmas wish. Everyone holds a white wafer-type thing and after you exchange wishes you break off a piece of the other person's and eat it. It really meant a lot to me when my host parents told me how much they've enjoyed hosting me after saying their wishes to me. After that, we all exchanged gifts. 

            My family from Texas (my mom, dad, 3 brothers, and grandparents) visited me in Poland a few days after Christmas! With my host family, we all traveled to a city in the south of Poland called Krakow. Wow, it was absolutely stunning!! It was also so full of history. We took a tour and visited old Jewish villages which was where parts of the movie "Schindler's List" were filmed, and we saw beautiful castles and many amazing churches. We also took a trip to a salt mine which was about 30 minutes outside of Krakow. It was amazing and it was also interesting to talk to other people in our tour group who were from all over the world! We spent New Year's in the "Old Square" of Krakow, where they had a New Year's concert. It was awesome! (Photo of Krakow attached). On our last day before heading back to Bydgoszcz, we visited Auszwitz. It's one thing to learn about the horrors of concentration camps during World War 2 but it's completely different to actually be standing there in the same place, where victims of the holocaust once stood. It was very interesting to visit, but also very terrifying. 

            At the hotel where my family was staying in Bydgoszcz, I joined them for breakfast one morning. I overheard a table of people talking in English, which is pretty rare for Bydgoszcz so I asked them where they were from. All of the younger men and women said they were from England but that their grandmother who was with them was originally from Poland, which is why they were in Poland. My mom and I both started talking to the elderly woman who had perfect English since she had lived in England for over 50 years. She eventually started telling us about her childhood. She and her family of 7 were arrested by Russians for no reason in 1939 when she was just 10 years old, and sent to a work camp in Siberia and eventually to other camps in Russia, and all parts of the Middle East and Africa, before ending up in England. Her family got separated and despite the horrible conditions, they all survived and found each other in England. She wrote a book about her life which she gave to me and my mom, and I already read the whole thing. Its and AMAZING survival story and I really, really recommend reading it. It's called "Slaves In Paradise" by Leokadia T. Majewicz. I've always loved Historical Fiction books, but reading this book was totally different since it is a true story written about a lady's life who I talked to face to face. I also really learned a lot about things that happened during World War 2, from the Russian influence. 

            This month, I've really realized how lucky I am to have been chosen to go to Poland this year. Poland generally isn't a very popular country choice among future exchange students, and I think it's because we Americans watch movies that take place in Italy, France, Germany, etc but never see any about Poland or other eastern European countries. I always hear about people taking vacations to Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, etc but never Polish cities. When I return to Texas, I will try my best to get the word out about Poland to people interested in exchange because I really can't imagine being anywhere else and I can't imagine having a more interesting exchange. It's also really amazing to see how much Poland has transformed and is now thriving, with the end of communism just 20 years ago. After my family spent a week here, my parents told me that they have traveled to many different places all around Europe, but never felt like they enjoyed a place so much that they really wanted to make an effort to return again. But, at the end of the week, both my mom and dad said that Poland is the first place that they would really love to visit again. I've been to many cities around Poland and all of them are charming, beautiful and unique. A few weeks ago, as I waited for the bus with 2 other exchange students, we were discussing our departure dates for next summer, and we all started crying thinking about leaving this beautiful country and everyone we've drawn close to in just 5 months! 

            I've heard that the second half of exchange goes by even faster than the first. These past 5 months have just flown by, so I am really trying to make the most of the last months as I know they will fly by too! Carpe Diem! 

 
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