Petersburg High School senior, Maura Sullivan returned home in July after a year long exchange student experience in Poland.
“I lived in Warsaw, the capital and I loved it,” Sullivan said. “But coming from Petersburg to the capital where there are almost two million people was quite a culture shock.”
Sullivan went into this experience with only a few phrases of Polish to her credit and enjoyed every moment of her time in Poland.
“I didn’t really speak any Polish except for a couple of phrases and they were all very hospitable and treated me very nice,” she stated.
Traveling is one of Sullivan’s favorite pastimes and she was able to take advantage of this love while there.
“The second host family I stayed with loved to travel and they took me all over Poland,” Sullivan said. “I was able to travel all the way to the Baltic Sea to the southern end of Poland.”
She also explained that her first trip while in Poland was with the Rotary Club.
“I was able to take the Euro Capitals Tour,” she stated. “I got to visit Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Berlin. It was a wonderful 10 days and was my first experience traveling around in Europe.”
Sullivan’s first host family was a little more traditional and lived close to the high school she attended while she was there.
“I went to a typical Polish high school and it wasn’t very big, just a little bigger than Petersburg and the high school had about 400 students,” she said. “I had eight classes for 45 minutes a day with a 10 minute break between classes.”
She explained that her Polish friends were all very smart and they all spoke three to four different languages and they took some very challenging classes.
“They were all taking advanced physics, chemistry and biology on top of taking German, Italian, French and English,” she said. “They take classes that people here wouldn’t even consider until college.”
According to Sullivan, Polish students begin learning English at age 10 and by the time they are in high school they are almost fluent in English.
“They were really shy about speaking English with me,” Sullivan said. “I finally had to tell them that their English was way better than my Polish would ever be so they may as well talk to me. I made some wonderful friends that I keep in contact with even now.”
Sullivan originally wanted to travel to India or the Czech Republic but the paperwork was not ready for her to take an exchange trip there so Rotary sent her to Poland.
“I didn’t know much about the country before I got there,” she stated. “But learning the language and the traditions was a lot of fun and it is just such an amazing place.”
Sullivan has spent the majority of her life in Petersburg so the big city of Warsaw was a big change for her.
“It was really scary to think about getting on a bus or a tram to go anywhere,” Sullivan said. “Even though I love to travel, I get nervous around strangers and so getting on the bus and learning to buy a ticket was the biggest challenge at first. Once I learned though, the whole place just opened up to me and I was never at home anymore.”
Before heading to Poland, Sullivan considered herself a vegetarian and she has resorted back to those beliefs again, but while in Poland, she enjoyed the native fare.
“They have a lot of traditional dishes made with pork and potatoes, there are potatoes with almost every meal,” she said. “We also had about five meals a day.”
She explained that breakfast consisted of rolls, cake and tea and then she would go to school and have a late morning or early lunch and then lunch before heading home to a dinner meal at 3 p.m., which was the big meal of the day. Supper would come around 7 or 8 p.m. that would consist of an open-faced sandwich, cake and tea.
“There was a lot of food,” she said. “But it was actually pretty healthy.”
Sullivan spent the holidays in Poland as well and discovered the Polish traditions to her liking.
“They celebrate Halloween very different over there,” she said. “It is called All Souls Day and they go to the cemetery and light candles and place flowers. There are also little stands where people are selling food in front of the cemetery.”
The Petersburg Rotary Club sent Sullivan a package for Thanksgiving with turkey stuffing, piecrust and all manner of things to prepare a Thanksgiving meal.
“I made them Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “It was fun, but I was the only one to eat the pumpkin pie. They thought it was strange.”
The Christmas traditions were also a bit different for Sullivan.
“Christmas isn’t as commercialized over there as it is here,” she stated. “They have only two or three gifts for each other and they are opened on Christmas Eve.”
According to Sullivan, Christmas Day and the next two days following are spent eating.
“We spent Christmas Day at home eating all day then went to one grandparents’ house the next day and another grandparent the next,” she said. “I sat next to my host mom’s grandmother during one of these meals and she watched me so intently and every time I would finish something on my plate she would put more on. I was so full I finally had to tell my host dad that I just couldn’t eat anymore.”
Sullivan returned home with a new language and many new traditions to share with her friends and family.
“I love the fact that I brought back knowledge of somewhere else to my friends,” she stated. “Every time I share a story about my experience it is an eye opener for them and shows them that there is so much more out there. I’m glad I could bring that home with me.”
Sullivan hopes to participate in the exchange program again at the college level.
“My plans are to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks to get my degree in musical theory and composition and then hopefully transfer somewhere down south to get my doctorate,” she stated. “My ultimate goal is to use my degree to write scores for movies.”
The music of Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore and Chopin drives her toward her goals.
“My favorite scores are those from the Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean and Avatar,” she stated. “Music, to me, has always been something that is really consistent in my life and it is really good for me. I don’t think there is anything else I would like to do.”
Sullivan will return to Poland with her mother and grandmother this summer to revisit her host families and show the country she has come to love to her