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Chasing Dwarves and Changing Lives: My Time Living and Volunteering in Wroclaw

I first arrived in Poland after being on the road for about 2 months on a motorcycle trip that would change my life. Coming from North Germany, I entered the country by boat, and it was the first time I really felt as if I had left all familiarity behind me.

The first road signs I saw were incomprehensible, full of consonants and barely a vowel in sight, and there wasn’t a single place name that rang a bell. I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

Excellent, let the adventure begin.

The road to Wrocław

I had a map, a phrasebook, but no other plan than to see where the road took me. I spent the first week camped out on the Baltic coast with my motorcycle in need of repairs.Once my bike was fixed, my mindset had switched from ‘gotta keep moving, lots to see’, to something more like ‘scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a lot more than if you keep passing through’

This was the first time I was forced to stop and ponder where my travels were taking me. So far I was having a great time, but my funds were by no means limitless. I had been in Berlin previously and fallen in love with the city — I began to wonder if it’s not a bad idea to stop once in a while and enjoy a place as more than just a traveller.

Once my bike was fixed, my mindset had switched from ‘gotta keep moving, lots to see’, to something more like ‘scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a lot more than if you keep passing through’. As I rode south from the coast, I decided that I’d keep moving, but if anywhere in particular felt good, I’d stick around a little longer.

After 2 days taking my time on the road and camping out by lakes and forests, I arrived in Wrocław, and instantly had a good feeling.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

Wrocław, a traveller’s perspective

My first night in Wrocław was a magical experience in which I was able to discover parts of the city that tourists seldom visit. Myself and another guest at the hostel I’m staying were taken to an Armenian restaurant by one of the receptionists.

We tucked into fire roasted shashlik, drank spiced Armenian coffee and brandy, and enjoyed each other’s company. The restaurant was a tiny place, located underneath a railway bridge, so every time a train passed, the whole place shook.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

Shashlik, a skewered meat dish

We spent the night somewhat tipsy after one or two vodkas, and after our receptionist had pointed us in the right direction, myself and the other guest headed back to the centre.

To our drunken delight, we discovered hundreds of tiny bronze dwarfs dotted about the city. My friend was something of a photographer, and we spent the night hunting down as many as possible and taking their pictures.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

The Wrocław dwarfs are somewhat iconic, coming in various guises, from the chimney sweep to the banker, there are around 163 official statues to seek out, as well as many more unofficial ones.

Besides hunting for dwarfs, there’s a lot for the traveller to love about Wrocław. The city has a rich history and is full of historic buildings, museums, and cathedrals to explore.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

As a university town, there’s a thriving nightlife, and a huge array of bars, cafés, and restaurants to enjoy. Surrounded by rivers, it’s a city of bridges and canals, and is known as the Venice of the north.

The Polish way of life

I made many Polish friends during my 9-month stay in Wrocław, and they taught me what it was to live like a local. None of us really had a lot of cash, but we always had spare change for vodka and a good time.

We spent evenings climbing rooftops and scaffolding, discussing everything from the rich Polish history, to our individual personal grievances. We saved money by eating in milk bars (Bar Mleczny), a throwback to pre-1989, where homemade, traditional Polish food can be enjoyed for pennies.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

Polish Barszcz, an earthy beetroot soup is another must, while Zurek is the ideal hangover cure. The city is full of milk bars, as well as non-stop bars that serve traditional Polish fare like pierogis all night long, alongside large measures of vodka and small glasses of beer.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

Zurek, Polish soup with egg and sausage

We’d frequent a variety of underground clubs and events, showcasing street art, modern theatre, and live music. There’s a real sense of making the most of your youth and freedom that is somewhat contagious.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

On sunny evenings, we’d all head to Słodowa Island, aka Student Island, where we’d huddle around campfires and buskers would provide the entertainment.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

View of Słodowa Island

Becoming a part of the community

One of the girls working at the hostel had just started a new job at an NGO in the city. The NGO was looking for volunteers to work for 9 months in the city, and they offered accommodation, food, and a monthly stipend.

So, besides partying, there was plenty of work to carry out during my stay as a volunteer. I was extremely lucky to have been given this opportunity to work with the local community as we carried out numerous projects and initiatives to improve the quality of life for some of the poorer residents.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

Old apartment complex

We worked with the locals, who were admittedly wary at first, but grew to trust that we weren’t a threat. My final project was to create a free English language school for the local adults. I was amazed at the variety of people who attended, including some of the “shadier” characters from the neighbourhood. All of them were keen to learn, and while I might have taught them basic language skills, they taught me so much more.

Within a few months, most of us were known to the locals, who would give us extra servings at the milk bars, or buy us a beer at the pub. While it would have been easy to dismiss these people as cold and unapproachable, when you get to know them, they really are the salt of the earth, and it was an honour to live among them.

Eventually, my time was up. One by one my volunteer colleagues left the city until it was just me. Even most of Polish friends were away for a national holiday, which in a way made leaving a little easier. On the other hand, it was a hard blow to take to lose the community I had grown used to being a part of, and exchange it for the life of the lonely traveller.

explore, travel, chasing dwarves and changing lives: my time living and volunteering in wroclaw

However, I knew that it was time to leave and explore pastures new. In the years since I left Wrocław, I have returned to Poland, and it’s always felt like returning to a safe and familiar place.

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