Monday, August 1, 2016

And just like that -- it's over

This will be my last post to this blog, and I'm writing it from my office at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Robin and I have been back from Poland for two weeks, trying to imagine how our 10-month stay in Poznan was over so quickly. We loved our lives in Poland, but it's appropriate and natural to be back in Charlotte. The transition back has been a bit more challenging than we anticipated -- so much to do to resume our lives here. But I have the delightful and energizing benefit of starting in a new position with the university -- assistant dean in the Graduate School. Robin will focus more on spending time with our two granddaughters, 3 and 5. Charlotte is a wonderful place to live and work, so we're glad to be back. Nevertheless, we'll miss Poznan so very much.

I have received comments about the many photos I've posted depicting Poland's magnificent beauty. To be fair and balanced, I post this photo of really ugly buildings in Poznan. The five towers on the left are remnants of the Soviet-influenced architecture of former times.  There are places, I must admit, where these eyesores still exist. Thankfully, they are increasingly rare

A New Generation of Poles

About 25 years ago, from 1990-1993, I was serving as a senior officer (U.S. Air Force) with NATO's military headquarters in Belgium. It was an interesting time, to say the least. It saw the ending of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the reunification of Germany, and the introduction of democracy and market economies in Central and Eastern Europe. I recall a conversation I had with a senior diplomat with the Polish Embassy in Brussels during that time; I had not visited Poland yet. I asked the gentleman what he thought the prospects were for Poland's adaptation to the emerging economic and political environment. He had a very interesting answer. He said: "I'm an educated person -- I have a Ph.D. But if you gave me a wheel barrow full of money and told me to start a business, I would have no idea how to do that. The generation that was engaged in business in the 1920s and '30s is gone. We will have to educate a new generation to navigate these unfamiliar waters. It will take time."

During this past year, I was privileged to interact with Polish students who have no memories of the "former times." They have always lived in a democratic, market economy. This is the generation that Polish diplomat in Brussels was referring to. I can tell you they are fearless. They are optimistic. They are bursting with ideas. They are innovative. They are business savvy. I have every confidence that they will propel Poland to even greater economic success than it is already experiencing. Moreover, they are attuned to social issues, and they have lofty personal values and standards. They demand a great deal of themselves, and they associate focused, diligent effort with achievement. They do not expect to be given anything they have not worked for. They are willing to sacrifice immediate gratification for long-term reward. They are inspiring. That Polish diplomat in Brussels was remarkably prescient. Poland has been and continues to do so many things right: modernizing airports and rail stations, improving roads and ports, advancing telecommunications, focusing on quality education, and creating a conducive environment for business investment. At the same time, it has remained faithful to the finest dimensions of its cultural fabric: excellence in the arts, pride in its history, a spirit of optimism, and a collective resilience. Perhaps I'm biased because I love Poland, but my assessment is that great years lie ahead for this great and proud nation.

The Value of Global Connections

Many of my contemporaries are retired, but I continue to take great pleasure in professional and personal international exchange opportunities such as this Fulbright fellowship in Poland, now completed. The students I met and taught from throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America during this appointment were delightful, and I will continue to track their careers in the years ahead, thanks to social media. An example of the enduring value of these connections is provided by my former graduate student Vladimir (nickname "Vova") from Ukraine. Vova was my student in a master's degree program at UNC Charlotte around 10 years ago; he took several of my classes, and I was his thesis adviser. We stayed in contact after his return to Ukraine, and last month Robin and I traveled to Lviv, Ukraine, for several days. Vova, now living and working in Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, traveled by train to Lviv where we enjoyed two days together, exploring the beautiful city and recharging our professional and personal friendship. It is inspiring to travel 6,000 miles from Charlotte to reconnect with a highly successful alumnus and hear him describe how his academic experience has contributed to not only his achievements but also the advancement of ideas in Ukraine. Further, also joining us in Lviv was a Ukrainian student, Anastasia, who completed two classes with me in Poznan, Poland, where she was an exchange student during the spring semester. Now, Anastasia and Vova are connected in Ukraine through their shared experiences in my classes, and they will support and encourage each other in the years ahead -- this is what makes teaching great.

Vova (middle) joins Robin and me for lunch in the old city district of Lviv, Ukraine. The restaurant is in the courtyard of  a former mansion built in Spanish style.
Lviv is popular tourist destination in western Ukraine, just a 1-hour flight from Warsaw, Poland. The Old City district is packed with cafes, restaurants, magnificent churches, museums, a beautiful opera house and pleasant parks. The center of the market square is the City Hall, and a climb to the top (no small feat!) rewards the intrepid with scenic views of the entire city.

A typical scene in Lviv's Old City.

The view from the top of City Hall.

One of several impressive castles in Lviv. This one contains an extensive art collection.

Just one of countless elaborate church interiors in Lviv.

This wall-size painting in one of Lviv's museums depicts the 1410 Battle of Grunwald in Poland. See my previous blog post, which included a visit to the site of the battle.

The menu for this restaurant in Lviv includes no prices. Rather, the bill is negotiated between the waiter and the customer after the meal is completed. It's all done for fun, and the bill we agreed upon was quite reasonable. The food was exceptionally good. 

Anastasia, one of my Ukrainian exchange students in Poland, joins us for coffee in a unique cafe in Lviv.

The stunning Opera House in Lviv

Reluctantly, I now end this blog series. I hope these posts have stirred your interest in visiting magnificent Poland. Robin and I will most assuredly return often, and we value the extraordinary opportunities we had to spend six months (2012) then ten months (2015/16) in Poznan, thanks to the Fulbright program. The relationships we cultivated are substantive and will benefit both nations in the years ahead. We hope the people whose lives we touched are pleased that our paths crossed. We know that we have been changed forever by the experience. Thank you most kindly for visiting and sharing this blog. As always, do widzenia!