Julia Stearns – Israel, Austria, & Poland (2013) ‡

Unforgettable Experience

I had the plan, the drive, the excitement, and the cultural interest necessary. The only thing lacking were the funds. My best friend of eighteen years and I had been planning a post-graduation trip to visit Israel and Poland (where we had family), and wanted to take a small detour in central Europe on the way.

Baha’i Gardens lit up at night, Haifa.

First up was Israel. I was quite tense upon my arrival, given the recent threats and unrest between Israel and Syria; we had even rescheduled our trip slightly to have less time in Israel. Inbar’s parents both grew up in Haifa and we did extensive touring of the town from her family’s local perspective, covering everything from museums and Baha’i temples to cafes and beaches.

One of my most memorable evenings in Haifa was a sponsored language night we attended at a local pub, where everyone was encouraged to speak foreign languages with one another. Being fluent in Polish, I was ecstatic when I met a young man who knew a few words from his grandmother. Additionally, I conversed entirely in Spanish with another enthusiastic language night attendee.

Cat enjoying atmosphere and culture at Nachlat Binyamin, Tel-Aviv.

On a one-day trip to Tel-Aviv, we visited Nachlat Binyamin, the famed avenue in central Tel-Aviv, filled with street vendors selling unique handmade paintings, sculptures, jewelry, soaps, pottery, and other crafts. It was an incredible mecca of creativity and energy. After perusing the stands for a few hours, we found respite in iced coffees and shaded ourselves from the 100-plus degree heat. I was amazed at the different artistic styles of the craftspeople, and was happy to be able to purchase a small hand-made fabric bowl from a kind young girl selling beautiful fabrics and sewn items. This artistic experience was truly eye-opening as well as loads of fun.

Sunny day at the Jordan River bank, by the Sea of Galilee.

Inbar’s aunt lives by the Sea of Galilee, in an ancient small town called Tiberias. This is the location of many legendary biblical stories, such as where Jesus turned the bread and fish into enough food to feed the hungry, where Jesus walked on water, and the River of Jordan that Jesus bathed in. I was fortunate enough to visit all of these locations! They were incredible experiences, particularly so because I’d heard of these stories at mass throughout my childhood. Yet, there I was, standing right where Jesus bathed in his white robe. It was no longer some fantastic and magical place beyond imagination, it was right where I had my own two feet.

Admiring an old cave-like arch in the port city, Caesarea.

Next we took a day-trip to Caesarea, an ancient port town between Haifa and Tel-Aviv. The history behind the old port was incredibly interesting and extensive, as the ownership and rule of the port changed frequently. Built by Herod the Great for the Roman Empire, it dates back to 90 BCE. It underwent countless rulers from all corners of the world, and by association, religious affiliation. I’d never been in such a place that had a Roman Temple turned into a Mosque, then turned into a Byzantine empire temple, then the foundation turned into a Muslim Mosque, then into a Christian house of worship by the Crusaders. The amount of history and religious importance that this one foundation had to so many different ancient rulers was amazing.

Taking in the beautiful Schloss Schönbrunn.

Prized view after a long walk up a very large hill at Schloss Schönbrunn!

We decided to take a few days to visit Vienna, Austria between our trips to Israel and Poland. We spent the entire first day touring the beautiful and breathtaking home of the Hapsburgs and Viennese royalty, Schloss Schönbrunn.

The history of families that started in there was incredible, not to mention the art and beauty of each and every room. We also visited the Belvedere, a beautiful museum where one of my favorite artists of all time, Gustav Klimt, was featured. Seeing Klimt’s artwork that I had worshiped for years firsthand was powerful, and I spent a long time admiring and cherishing each piece individually. Vienna’s Stephansdom was also a special experience, as it is an important landmark in Christianity as well as in history. My favorite part of Vienna, however, was not the lavish and sophisticated aura that encompassed it, but the smaller Viennese charm that was found down little side streets in which we easily and pleasantly got lost. I found a special love for St. Peter’s Church, which is a smaller and more intimate church, located just a few blocks from Stephansdom. I loved the oval shape and warm feeling of the church, compared to the grandeur and coldness of Stephansdom. Walking around the city center at night, Inbar and I got a great feeling for the people of the city, fun, yet sophisticated. I also loved and cherished all of the food – from wiener schnitzel and goulash to apple strudel and chocolate torte!

Lighting a candle in Stephansdom to remember loved ones who had passed away.

Although Inbar and I had planned to stay in Prague for three nights after our two nights in Vienna, we found out that Prague (along with most cities along the Danube) was flooded on the morning before we were about to leave. What a complete disappointment to me, as I was ecstatic about all of the travel advice and day-by-day plan I’d had for the magical and bohemian city.

In Poland, I spent much of my time with my grandfather of ninety-five. Each day he would recount stories about the times before the war, when he was a soldier, when he was injured during and after the war, and the times after the war. I was amazed at how brutal parts of his life were, yet how gentle and warm his personality stayed. Poland has been through many long and difficult times throughout his lifetime alone, so his experience and perspective is so incredibly valuable and interesting.

My grandfather, Tadeusz Pacanowski, in Ostrzeszow, Poland.

We made a few important stops around Poland: Czestochowa (the religious mecca of Poland), Warsaw (the busy and exciting capital), and Wroclaw. In Czestochowa we visited a church-run orphanage that Inbar’s family records indicate hid her grandmother as a child during the war. What a powerful experience for all of us, especially to see what the sisters did to protect the children of Jewish families. The orphanage was also incredibly sad and emotional; I wanted to take home each and every one of the little boys and girls who clung to my legs in need of attention and love. Perhaps one day I’ll go back and bring one home with me. In Warsaw, we did the main tourist sites, particularly the old town which had been largely rebuilt after the war. One afternoon between day-trips, my neighbor came over to my grandfather’s house and taught us how to make a few classic Polish recipes, such as Pickle Soup, and a delicious cake dish with jam and pudding fillings. This authentic Polish cooking experience was new to the both of us, and will certainly stay with me (hopefully well enough for me to reproduce the dishes!).

Warsaw’s old town, with many of the buildings rebuilt from old plans.

I simply could not have had these experiences this summer without the generous donations to the Globetrotter Grant. Receiving a grant allowed me to finance the trip – I wouldn’t have been able to go without it, and the grant covered approximately one third of my expenses, the other two parts were covered by my job and a few small donations from family members. I was able to pay for food at restaurants and cafes, buy little souvenirs, such as postcards, and pay for museum entrances (some of which changed my view of art entirely, such as the Belvedere). It also allowed me to pay for trains from Vienna to Poland, as well as from Ostrzeszów to Warsaw and back. In the grand scheme of things, the Globetrotter Grant allowed me to take the trip of a lifetime, and provided me the opportunity to learn about other cultures and languages as well as my own family history. Perhaps most importantly, I would not have been able to see my darling grandfather for what was likely the very last time. I am incredibly thankful to the generosity of the Globetrotter Grant for providing me with an unforgettable and life-changing summer travel experience.

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