As the wheels to the tiny jet hit a small runway south of the Baltic Sea, I never thought I’d be so happy to be in a country that I know almost nothing about.

We had left Dallas/Fort Worth yesterday, and one sleepless trans-Atlantic flight, two horrible in-flight Christmas movies, and one brief encounter with the EU German bomb squad and an ambiguous-looking electric razor later, we finally made it.

For those of you who don’t know, this trip, the SMU Human Rights tour of Polish Holocaust sites, is a 12-day tour-de-force, where our group travels by bus, train and finally by foot across most of the Polish countryside viewing the remains of some of the most heinous places ever conceived by man.

Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz/Birkenau – at this point, these are just names and numbers to me with as much meaning attached to them that I could derive from my professor and guide, Prof. Rick Halperin’s Human Rights class this last semester. Hopefully, when this is all said and done, I’ll be able to say a lot more about them.

For those of you who also don’t know, Poland has a history that is unparalleled in the modern world with the grief and suffering of millions still weighing on its shoulders today. In an attempt to buffer something awful, World War II was kind of like a long road trip for Poland, except instead of older brothers, Poland was stuck in the back seat between two of the worst and most bloodthirsty dictatorships in history, and is still recovering. And you thought those annual road trips cross-country to Grandma’s looked hopeless.

Gdansk, Poland: square one in our zig-zagged checkerboard tour across Poland. Our tour guide Kate meets us at the airport, where we waltz out the front door, devoid of customs searches and passport stamps and straight into a van. As we make our way through hills covered with thick forests of pine and white birch and down along the Vistula River, Kate begins to divulge some of the colorful history of Gdansk to us.

Formerly known as the free city of Danzig, so appointed by the League of Nations during the war with Bolshevik Russia, this was once one of the richest and most prosperous cities in Poland and Europe. For the sake of the reader and in an attempt to reduce any confusion or mental images with a certain goth-rock, bodybuilding bozo, though, we shall be referring to this city solely as Gdansk.

The city has a strong connection with its pastoral and sylvan surroundings, fiercely proud of both its organic farming industry and the rich amber deposits, courtesy of the heavily wooded forests and a long-standing source of pride for the city. Everywhere you go, signs for “burszytn,” the Polish word for amber, pop out from stone stoops and storefronts along the old streets.

Merchants line the foot-travelled roads, selling it set in figured silver rings and necklaces from boutique windows, and the older generations revere it for its healing qualities and medicinal importance. It’s even put into alcohol, which brings to mind a much cooler, less cinnamony cousin of Goldschlager.

Lush green fields and humble farm houses made of stone and wooden beams back up right to the outskirts of the city, still using dirt roads, mud roads I should say, for everyday transportation. These back up to plain geometric, faceless apartment buildings, where the old plaster is cracking, revealing the steel girders and huge cement bricks in the walls. The Soviet thumbprint still lingers everywhere in eastern Poland and eastern Europe, Gdansk is no exception.

But, despite its history and longstanding tradition and heritage, Kate assures us that Gdansk is a very young city. After its almost utter destruction at the hands of the Soviet Army in 1945, Gdansk is like a phoenix of civilization, rising from the ashes to new life, a symbol of the traditional trying to reinvent itself, embracing and pushing for advancement. Home to some of the region’s finest universities and institutes, the area draws in young fresh minds from all around Poland, particularly the eastern portion, and breathes new life down old streets and through the train stations.

Don’t let the Napoleonic-era fortress and Dutch architecture fool you, Gdansk is a progressive beacon in a country that so honors its heritage and clings strongly to it. Exhibit A: the Holiday Inn that we’re checking into, smack in the middle of a city square just down the street from the Solidarity movement museum. Need I say more?