Trip no.7: Life of an Erasmus Mundus student: a week in Krakow

Keywords: Erasmus+, Erasmus Mundus, student, student mobility, education, Poland, Krakow, Othering, Auschwitz
Borders crossed: 1

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            I spent the last week of June 2017 in Krakow, Poland, as part of an obligatory intensive week for my Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree (a tough life, right?). This was my first venture into Poland and one I’d been hugely looking forward to, for two reasons. Firstly, I had chosen the UNESCO World Heritage city of Krakow as my second preference for my semester abroad (after Uppsala) and I wanted to see for myself what it was like. And secondly, given the tense relationship between many Brits and the estimated 831,000 Polish nationals who have arrived in Britain since Poland joined the EU in 2004.[1] Poles are the largest non-British population in the UK and they unfortunately had to endure much of the xenophobic abuse that surfaced in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum in Britain. I’m told that Krakow is not representative of the whole of Poland, but I personally loved Krakow so much that it left me wondering whether or not I’d made the right decision to go to Uppsala over Krakow!

            The intensive week united all 101 students of my Master’s degree in one city, comprising a total of 33 different nationalities from all over the globe – a great opportunity for us to exchange ideas and all learn from one another (and surely also a fascinating social experiment for any psychologist of intercultural interactions).

            Krakow’s long history dates from its origins as a small market town on the River Vistula back in 965 AD and, thanks to its academic and economic prosperity, it developed into the cultural centre of Poland, with the 13th-century Wawel Castle and the impressive Main Square as just two examples of its historically rich architecture. Poland at large has had a tumultuous past, and in the 20th century alone the country disappeared twice from the map.

         Krakow is also famous for the Kazimierz district, once a separate royal city of its own, which became the Jewish centre of Krakow. Once Nazi Germany occupied Poland at the beginning of World War II, the 68,000 Jews living in the city were forcibly relocated by the Nazis, either outside of Krakow or into the dreadful Krakow Ghetto, and thence on to the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp. We visited Auschwitz, where the concept of walls took on a new meaning for me: of persecution and imprisonment. Whether the brick walls of the Jewish Ghetto, or the barbed wire fences of Auschwitz, the connotation of defining borders in order to restrict individuals’ freedom of movement was a powerful one. Thankfully in 2017 we are not dealing with walls that keep people trapped inside an area, rather we’re discussing walls that keep people outside of an area: namely “hard” or “soft” borders.

           A classic concept of sociology is the process of ‘Othering’. This concept describes the way that we define ourselves and our own identity by highlighting the differences we have from ‘others’; the way we divide the world into groups of “us” and “them”, into “in” groups and “out” groups. Othering is an easy concept to spot – just think of the linguistic mechanisms of exclusion that native Britons often use which, either consciously or subconsciously, ‘other’ the rest of Europe, with phrases such as: “on the continent” and “over in Europe”, whereby Britain is framed as geographically outside of Europe, due to its coastline, and therefore naturally separate from its European neighbours. We might dismiss odd phrases like these as innocuous and unwitting, but the Sapir–Whorf theory of linguistic relativity states that language has a powerful influence on a speaker’s worldview, affecting the way we behave and even vote in elections or referendums, for example.[2]

          My week in Krakow was both a fascinating history lesson and a painful reminder of what walls and borders can lead to if taken too far…

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[1] Nicola White, “Population of the UK by Country of Birth and Nationality: 2015,” Office for National Statistics, August 25, 2016, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/ukpopulationbycountryofbirthandnationality/august2016.
[2] Virginia Stuart-Taylor, “An island drifting away into the Atlantic: Understanding the role of the sea in the tide of British Euroscepticism,” The Well-Travelled Journal, last modified July 24, 2017, https://thewell-travelledpostcard.com/portfolio/an-island-drifting-away-into-the-atlantic-understanding-the-role-of-the-sea-in-the-tide-of-british-euroscepticism/.

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