No more Eastern Europe

I am the son of Polish immigrants and have had the joy of traveling to Poland 19 separate times during the first 22 years of my life. These numerous visits—many of them spanning several months at a time—have been foundational to my dual identity as a Polish European and an American, firmly planting my feet in both countries and identifying with each equally.

In my experience, Poland has proven to be a bit of an enigma for most people around Concordia, which is understandable considering that the area’s Polish population is virtually nonexistent, and I rarely hear of people at Concordia traveling to Poland. I am accustomed to hearing tiring Polish jokes and stereotypes repeated and, even worse, inaccurate or ignorant ideas about Poland’s recent history.

Today, Poland is a developed, thriving and increasingly prosperous nation and is enjoying its best days in living memory. Since the transformative revolution of 1989, which led the communist world out of the Soviet bloc and into a new era of parliamentary democratic elections and economic reform, Poland has successfully integrated itself into the dynamism and modernity of the modern era.

Its economy has soared to new heights, recently overtaking Belgium, Norway and Austria in size and producing a highly educated workforce that has attracted intense investment from the world’s most innovative and pioneering companies. During the height of the 2009 financial crisis, Poland was the only European state whose economy did not enter into a recession.

Among policy circles, Poland is widely acknowledged as a new heavyweight in European (EU) politics and attracts highly skilled immigrants from recession-struck, aging EU states like Spain and Greece, that are continuing their slide into economic crisis and political fragmentation.

The traditional “west-east” divide that characterized the way Americans talked about Europe during the Cold War era is an outdated anomaly that has no relevance to the real divisions in Europe today. Geographically, Poland is firmly a central European state. Culturally and developmentally, it belongs to the West.

So what’s the point of all this?

As I mentioned earlier, people around here generally never visit Poland when they are in Europe. There is a tendency for Concordia students, when in Europe, to visit old tourist mainstays, such as France and Germany. Unfortunately, my sense is that there remains an old perception that anything east of western Germany isn’t worth visiting, for when thinking of formerly communist countries, people think of lands that bear the gray scars of the Soviet bloc and that are totally devoid of wonders such as Neuschwanstein or the Louvre—yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Poland is a land of art, music, natural beauty and exciting dynamism that today attracts record numbers of tourists from around the world. From Frederic Chopin to Copernicus and Marie Curie, from Joseph Conrad and Henryk Sienkiewicz to Pope John Paul II and Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Thomas Jefferson’s close friend and a key military strategist during the American Revolution), Poland has produced storied individuals whose influence and legacy continue to define the essence of the human story.

The fact is that Poles have a thousand years of history as members of the European family of nations, and they love to share it all with visitors. For many years now, I have taken Americans to Poland, and after each visit, I have been told, with bewilderment, that it is one of the best places they have had the opportunity to visit.

There has never been a better time to go to Poland and to get to know this gem of a nation at the heart of Europe. As a Polish-American, I would like to take this opportunity to warmly invite the people of Concordia College to visit Poland. As wonderful as all of Europe is to see and experience, please take the challenge to learn about countries not often included in Concordia’s study-abroad opportunities or in the traditional circuit of western European travel. I am very passionate about bringing Poland and Americans together and hope that the day will come when my ancestral homeland will be as familiar and beloved to people around here as it is to me.

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