Earlier this year I looked into taking Polish language classes in Poland. No one I talked to at the Polish school or the Polish community association knew of any such classes, but I found the Jagiellonian University Summer School of Polish Language and Culture on the internet and decided to try it. Now that I have seen this school, I am amazed that nobody in Calgary knows about it.
The school is in session for six weeks every summer. This year they had about 600 students although most did not stay for the full six weeks. The school has been operating every summer for twenty years. The majority of the students are American college students with Polish relatives, but with little or no knowledge of the Polish language. The school is very much geared toward attracting these students. With 600 students each paying over US$900 to enroll, this program must be a significant money-maker for Jagiellonian University. I paid US$1,555 for the six-week program. Whichever program one chooses, the price includes a shared room in the Piast student residence, three meals a day, three hours of Polish language classes five mornings each week, lectures in English in the afternoons about Polish history and culture, sightseeing trips on weekends, and a "help desk" for advice on getting out and about on one's own in Krakow.
Students of the summer school stay in Dom Studencki Piast, reputed to be the nicest of the many student dorms on the west side of Krakow. I was disappointed when I saw how far this was from the center of town (a 35-minute walk to the Rynek Gl'owny), but it turned out to be okay. It's a five-minute walk to the nearest tram stop, trams are frequent, and Stare Miasto (the old town in the center) is five tram stops away. The language classes were held in a liceum (high school?) a five-minute walk from DS Piast. It was a longer walk to the culture classes. The accommodations were clean and otherwise adequate. Each "suite" (for lack of a more modest term) in Piast has a balcony, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a telephone for calls within the building or incoming calls from anywhere which are forwarded through reception. There are two beds in each room. Four people per bathroom was okay most of the time, but in the morning with four people having classes starting at the same time it left something to be desired. It is possible to pay extra and have a room to oneself with the adjacent room also occupied by only one person. Once a week maids changed the bed linen and towels. A laundry facility exists in the basement at the rather outrageous price of 18 zloties to wash one load and another 18 to dry. The room has staff who handle your laundry for you. The facility is fairly big, but it is not big compared to the size of the School, so if you leave your laundry late in the day, you may not get it back the same day. The food was Polish and generally excellent, although eating a big meal in the middle of the day was not to my taste. The quality of dining companions varied. I met students from America, France, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Hungary, Ukraine, Korea, and Taiwan, as well as Polish students who worked for the School. Unfortunately, most students in beginner classes had no interest in practising Polish outside of class.
There is a post office in Piast, and a very small branch of Bank PKO. There is an ATM outside the supermarket next to Piast. There are four payphones in the lobby of Piast that work on cards which one can buy at newsstands. A fifty-credit card costs about 20 zloties. One credit is good for a three-minute local call. Calls to cell phones consume credits at about ten times that rate. A digital display on the phone indicates how many credits remain on the card.
I met one student in the language classes who was staying somewhere other than DS Piast. I also met one person in Piast who had been in the classes previously but this summer was staying at DS Piast and getting individual language lessons separate from the UJ Summer School classes.
If what I've heard about private Berlitz lessons is true, that's probably the most effective way to learn Polish, and probably outrageously expensive. Other than such extreme measures, I expect the Polish language classes at the Summer School are the best Polish language training one is likely to find anywhere. Overall the classes were very good, but even so, there were a few major oversights in the teaching. Class times are roughly 8:30 to 10:00 and 10:30 to 12:00 every weekday morning. There are about ten students per class. There is a placement test on the first day so that students are in classes in which everybody is at about the same level of proficiency. In the first few days students are free to try different classes if they think the class they have been assigned to is not the right level for them. Students have different teachers for their two classes which I think is very helpful. In my class our teachers were Pani Marta for the first class each morning, and Pani Dorota for the second class. Pani Marta spoke excellent English. Pani Dorota conducted her classes entirely in Polish. At first I assumed (as did everyone in the class, I think) that she considered this to be an effective way of teaching. It took some time for us to realise that in fact she did not speak English. She communicated very effectively, though. Sometimes Pani Marta spoke at length in Polish. Unfortunately, I found her totally incomprehensible when she did this. Although she spoke clearly, she did not speak slowly and she used a much broader vocabulary than I was familiar with. There were some major oversights in the teaching of grammar. The pronouns in cases other than the nominative were not covered until the last week of classes, likewise the adjective endings in the different cases. The distinction between perfective and imperfective verbs was not covered until after a few weeks - I think this should have been covered as soon as we started conjugating verbs. The formation of plurals in the nominative case was not covered until near the end of the course and as far as I recall, we did not practise using plurals in other cases at all. Several classes concentrated on vocabulary that should have been a lower priority - topics such as fruits and vegetables, clothes, and parts of the body. There were times in the class when keeping up required knowing things that we had not learned in class. Maximising the effectiveness of the classes seems not to be a higher priority than keeping the classes enjoyable. This seemed especially true of the beginner class to which I was relegated for twenty minutes after I admitted to finding Pani Marta's ramblings in Polish incomprehensible. If you are a beginner in Polish and you want to go to UJ Summer School and really make some progress in speaking Polish, I strongly recommend that you learn enough Polish beforehand that you don't have to be in the beginners' class.
The textbook was quite bad. There are many sample dialogs, but useful grammar information is spread fairly randomly throughout the book and is hard to find. It seemed a lot of important grammar wasn't in the book at all. If you go to UJ Summer School, I strongly recommend that before you go you buy a textbook here with a good description of Polish grammar. The textbook I had was _Colloquial Polish_ by B.W. Mazur. I do not recommend it particularly highly, but the ten-page "grammar reference" appendix was invaluable. Also, students must have a Polish-English dictionary. The required textbook is sold in DS Piast but dictionaries are not. In class we actually worked from handouts more than we worked from the textbook.
The majority of UJ Summer School students are American university students, and most of them arrange to get credit for the classes at their home university. I don't know how one would go about doing this at the University of Calgary. I know that a full-time student from another university can transfer to U of C and get credit for courses already taken at the other university, and U of C has arrangements with some other universities for U of C students to take classes at those universities for credit at U of C, but I have not heard of anyone trying to get credit for a course at a university that did not already have such an arrangement with U of C. One might have to start by finding a sympathetic professor of Russian (since U of C has no Polish classes). In my language class, I got a grade of B+. I have taken four German courses at U of C and I think I got A- or better in all of them so I was a little disappointed to get a B+. My grade suffered because of my lack of fluency in conversation. I think my limitations were mainly a result of how far behind the majority of my classmates I was at the start of the course. I think that during the course I learned about as effectively as possible. The written part of the final exam was very merciful. Assuming you make a reasonable effort in these classes, I think you don't have to worry about wrecking your grade point average at your home university if you take these classes for credit. Even so, my roommate who was in the most advanced class managed to get a D. His mother is Polish and he speaks Polish perfectly, but he claims to be illiterate in Polish and he seemed less than enthusiastic about his doing his assignments. He was very amused by his grade.
Before the School, I knew some Polish words and my pronunciation was good, but I could not say any complete sentences. After the School, my Polish was good enough to have simple conversations in Polish, at least with Poles who were patient enough. I think my most ambitious conversation was the one at the Belarussian Embassy in Warszawa to get a visa. The consul only spoke Russian and Polish.
In the afternoons, there are lectures in English about Polish history and culture. I had registered to take two of these courses for credit which required writing a term paper for each course. It quickly became apparent that with the language classes every morning with associated homework, this would be too much work, and I had no need for university course credit, so I did not write term papers. In fact, with the amount of effort required to keep up with the language classes, I find it hard to imagine how anyone could get good grades in both a culture class and a language class. There is a library in DS Piast that students can use to get material for their term papers, but practically all the books are in Polish. Descriptions of every day's culture lectures were posted in DS Piast and I just went to the ones that looked interesting. During the six weeks of the School, mainly in the latter half, about a dozen films of Andrzej Wajda were shown in the evenings.
The sightseeing trips included with the Summer School were guided tours of the old town of Krakow, Wawel Castle, Wieliczka Salt Mine/Caves, and Auschwitz, hiking around Zakopane, and a raft ride through Dunajec Gorge. The tour of the old town was rather a waste of time, I thought - seeing the old town is not a waste of time, but I didn't think much of the tour guide. Dunajec was fantastic, but only because the weather was fantastic. Other groups went on days when the weather was miserable and found the trip miserable. An additional tour was organised at a cost of 30 zloties per person to see the steelworks at Nowa Huta. There are reasons to find Nowa Huta appalling, but as long as I suppressed those thoughts, this tour was pretty amazing. If you go to the Summer School, I recommend asking whether such a tour can be arranged.
I think the School tries to have one talk by a famous Pole every summer. This year the speaker was Andrzej Wajda who got an Academy Award for lifetime achievement last year. He spoke in Polish and headsets were provided with simultaneous translation.
There are smaller summer schools in Warsaw and Lublin. It seems to me that Krakow is a much better choice than Warsaw because there are more and better places of interest to see in Krakow, and Krakow is a more pleasant city to spend time in.
Some rooms in DS Piast are available to anyone anytime on a hotel-type basis. A room for two costs 110 zloties a night. During the summer when the building is not so full, one person staying alone in one of these rooms pays 60 zloties a night. This is handy if you want to arrive before the start of the School or stay on afterward. I checked hotel prices in Krakow and found them rather shocking. Hotels are numerous, but any nice room costs over 200 zloties a night.
One small highlight of Krakow that most sources of information won't mention is the gallery of Andrzej Mleczko in Stare Miasto north of the center.
Krakow must be about the cheapest place in the world to exchange currency - at least if one is exchanging US dollars and one checks around to see which of the numerous kantors (exchanges) have the best rates. When I left Krakow, the best kantors sold 100 US dollars for 457 zloties and paid 453 zloties for 100 US dollars. There was no commission or service charge. It is easy to exchange Canadian dollars, too, but the less popular a currency is, the bigger the spread between buying and selling prices. Unfortunately, I did not check the spread for Canadian dollars. There is an American Express office in Rynek Gl'owny (the central market square) of Krakow so it is easy to cash Canadian dollar American Express travellers' cheques there for zloties. Most times that I did this, I did not have to show my passport. In Poland in general, though, I think cashing travellers' cheques is quite a problem. Kantors only deal in cash. I got cash advances on my Visa credit card at two locations of Bank Pekao (PKO). When I was in Poland three years ago, it seemed all ATMs were on the Cirrus network but only about a third of them were on the Plus network which was what my ATM card required. Since then, Plus has got their act together and now it seems all ATMs are on the Plus and Cirrus networks. I paid my registration at the School by electronic bank transfer before I left Calgary.
Long-distance telephone calls are easy to make from any payphone without the outrageous surcharge that one pays in this part of the world. Local numbers have seven digits, except for cell phone numbers which have ten digits starting with 0. To dial long-distance in Poland, dial 0, then the area code, and then the local number. Area codes are often printed with the initial zero included. Dial only one zero at the start of the number for a long-distance call within Poland. For a long-distance call to another country, dial 00, then the country code, then the area code, then the local number. The country code for Canada and the US is 1.
I did not know how long I would stay in eastern Europe, so the cheapest way for me to go was a one-way charter ticket to Frankfurt-am-Main and train the rest of the way. It took some checking but when I came back I was able to get a good one-way fare from Krakow to London Gatwick and London Heathrow to Vancouver on British Airways. It was just under US$400 and I bought the ticket only three days before leaving. In Canada it seems scheduled airlines never sell one-way tickets for less than the price of a return ticket. Also, usually in Poland and always in Canada, one has to buy a ticket at least a week in advance of departure to get a good price. Strangely, when I asked at the British Airways office in Krakow about the price of a flight to Canada, they told me a much higher price (US$600) than I got from the travel agent for the same ticket. British Airways has daily flights between Krakow and Gatwick. Other western European airlines fly from Krakow but do not have good connections to Canada. Many "travel agents" in Poland are nothing like travel agents here and only sell package tours, mostly by bus, to warm countries relatively close to Poland. For booking plane tickets, the two travel agents I recommend in Krakow are both in Stare Miasto:
1. Fregata Travel, ul. Szpitalna 32