Sometimes, trips are terrible and it’s easy to explain why. Other times, they’re great and it’s so easy to talk about it with friends and make them want to go have the same experiences. Other times, you can have the most amazing time, but all attempts to explain why come down to, “you just had to be there.”
My trip to Germany and Poland in 2012 definitely falls into the last category.
I’ve made multiple references to it being one of my favorite trips, and made an equal number of attempts to write posts about it that I end up ditching because it’s hard to make a very rigorous academic program that was mostly great because of the people involved seem relatable or interesting. Also, I didn’t take many pictures while I was there, and descriptions of crossing the German-Polish border to get to class every morning along a gorgeous street filled with currency exchanges just don’t have the same resonance.
After so many attempts to start writing those stories, I’m beginning to think the best place to start may be at the beginning, and the beginning of this story is my struggle to find a thesis. I was getting pretty desperate when I saw on the Yankee website that a deal had been struck between the Yankees and Manchester United regarding some kind of cross-promotional marketing campaign. After months of researching various aspects of international sporting culture, I decided to write about nationalism and soccer/football in the UK. The success of my thesis is debatable, but I had decided on a topic just in time to watch the English team participate in the Euro Cup 2012, and just in time to be offered a spot at a German University Summer program focused on said tournament.
A former professor at NYU was co-charing a summer session on “The Culture of Football: Passion. Power. Politics” and when the Assistant Director of my program heard of it, she immediately thought of me. The deadline had already passed, but they made an exception as I rushed to get an entire application packet including transcripts and original essays done in 48 hours. My acceptance came equally quickly, and I turned around and immediately booked a flight for a trip that was just over a month away. The process was so hectic that by the time I was on the plane, I still wasn’t quite sure what I’d signed up for. I’d gotten a syllabus that looked very demanding, and was assigned to a group project before I got on the plane. Honestly, I was expecting a unique experience, but a largely academic one that didn’t have much fun built-in.
The program was hosted by European University Viadrina and funded by the German Academic Exchange Service, making this my one trip aboard that resulted in a net profit for me! The university is located in Frankfurt(Oder) (aka not the one you’re thinking of) and Słubice, Poland. The dorms we stayed in were in Poland, and the University itself was right across the border in Germany. Like many border towns, there weren’t many cultural distinctions between the two cities, except that they use different currency. I needed both Euro and Złoty during my month abroad.
The best part about my trip was the people. There were two other Americans, a Canadian, and a Brit, but no one else in our program of about 25 was a native English Speaker. There were an additional 10 or so German students taking a concurrent summer course, so there were always friends to help order in the cafeteria or find what you needed in the store. I have never been a part of such a diverse, smart, and interesting group of people in my entire life.
The program was also NOT the strictly academic program I was anticipating. It was a lot of reading and seminars, but there were also many acclaimed speakers, homework included watching matches in pubs, nights spent celebrating, and weekend trips to Berlin, the Spreewald, Poznan, and Warsaw.
It’s hard to believe I did so much in a single month. I’ve never slept less or accomplished more, and it was largely thanks to the great friends I made while there. While I’ve barely kept in touch with others in the program, I know we all feel very fondly about each other. On our last night, a few of us were outside talking and saying our goodbyes, as I was on one of the earliest flights out. My friend Jim (the Brit) was talking about how he was so glad he got to meet us, and how he genuinely meant it. It seems like such a simple thing, but he was right, and it’s so rare to be part of an experience so wholly positive with so many likeable people. While I’d love to go back to both Germany and Poland, I know I’d struggle to recapture the magic of my first trip as much as I struggle to write about it now.