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His taxi smelled of stale cigarette smoke and summer sweat. The car, an ancient Honda Civic, bounced along the cobblestone; its worn tires should have been replaced years ago. Bob from Krakow, as he has since been dubbed by my family, cornered our group in a Polish bus station and convinced my father that his taxi tour would become the highlight of our trip.
And it was.
The summer after my sophomore year, my family took a trip to Eastern Europe. We had planned to visit Auschwitz while in Poland, but we'd missed our bus tour and were stuck in a sweltering station with no source of transportation and no knowledge of the language. Bob from Krakow keenly singled out our bewildered faces from among the throngs of tourists and motioned us away from the gargantuan buses. In one swift moment, he crammed our apprehensive group of five into his four-person taxi.
He had milk-white hair and a belly bulge that would have been inviting to a child seeking presents, but I was wary of this stranger and his Civic-turned-tour-bus. I was skeptical of foreign customs and situations, especially ones involving a stranger, a run-down sedan, and a promise of an “off the beaten track” tour. My parents are great judges of character and more often than not would exchange glances and hurry us along in these sorts of situations, so I felt betrayed when my dad willingly hopped into Bob from Krakow’s taxi. I was sure we were about to be scammed or murdered.
As the engine sputtered to a start, our impromptu guide began to speak animatedly of the history of World War II, the Nazi conquest, and ominous extermination camps. I had pretentiously assumed that my recent year of World History would have made me fully informed about these events, but Bob knew the history of his country as if it were his own life story. He was appalled by the Nazi invasions, and he conveyed his country's history with a level of emotion that could never be reproduced by an American textbook.
Bob from Krakow's proud enthusiasm for learning and his deep historical knowledge were matched by his anecdotes of everyday Polish life. His stories, which mostly stemmed from his career as a taxi driver, were enticing and adventurous, and they consumed the entire broiling car ride. He said he'd shuttled numerous crew members to the set of Schindler’s List for months on end, and that he'd been invited to the movie's premiere by the director himself. He'd grown up in Communist-occupied Poland, he spoke 11 languages, and he had eight notebooks filled with kind words from riders in 2003 alone. He drove the same taxi route for a fixed price, and he didn’t charge extra to take another lap around the neighborhood so his riders could hang on to every last word of his heart-wrenching stories.
Bob from Krakow's history lessons and personal narratives allowed me to gain intimate insight into Poland's culture and identity — a starkly different experience from the humdrum tedium of museum guides or the tiny print of guidebooks. In the belly of a Polish bus station, we found a man who lived exuberantly, who threw any inhibitions out the window of his Honda Civic.
Just as Bob from Krakow had gained this expansive perspective over the course of his extraordinary life, I hope to gain similar insights through my collegiate career. Accumulating facts, memorizing class lectures, or even comprehending a new language are worth little without the opportunity to meaningfully apply them to one's local, and even international, community. I hope to be like Bob: a person who blends knowledge with experience, who is molded by interactions with others, and who perpetually observes and absorbs cultures dissimilar to their own.