I heard about IAYC almost by chance. During my first year as a Physics undergraduate, I received an email offering 3 weeks of astronomical adventure in the Polish mountains. Intrigued, I did some digging and contacted some past participants - all of whom were very enthusiastic. Unfortunately, I only received the information with a fortnight to the application deadline, so I hastily filled in the form and sent it off. Fast-forward a few months and I had been accepted, paid the fees, booked my flights and had some emails from my working group leader. All very exciting, but I still had no idea what to expect - was everyone going to be super nerdy? Would the language barrier prove to be a problem (as a stereotypical Briton, my grasp of languages stretches to bad French)? I had arranged to meet a couple of other English folk in Krakow so with a bit of luck I would at least find the place.
The flight passed without incident and at the airport, I met David - an IAYC veteran - and James, a fellow newcomer. We took the train to nearby Katowice and bumped into about 20 more IAYCers, some new, some not. All were full of smiles and laughter and it became clear quickly that I had nothing to worry about. As the “official” language is my mother tongue, I didn’t have any difficulty and it was a surprise just how well spoken everyone was (this may sound crazy, but in England most people barely get past one language: English). We arrived in Hala Miziowa in the evening - I say at Hala Miziowa, there was still a walk and a cable car to go. Thankfully we didn’t have to take our suitcases up the mountain - these were driven up - so we (now around 50) of us strolled up towards the camp house. The house itself was large, the accommodation was comfortable and the views were just incredible.
By now I had been chatting to everyone like they were long lost relatives, regaling stories of science and imagination. The variety of people that apply to IAYC never ceases to amaze me, it’s a fantastic place to learn about other cultures and share your own perspective on the big wide world. After a brief introduction to the leader team, we had dinner, got the chance to unpack properly and meet the rest of the working group members. Some of us also took the opportunity for a much needed shower. As the days ticked by, it became easier and easier to settle into the cycle of eating, sleeping, working and observing.
IAYC operates on what I term “holiday time” - wake up around midday, work during the afternoon, “non astronomical program” (NAP) in the evening, more work and then a bit of observation before bed sometime after 3am. The NAP is as it sounds - a light hearted break to get you out of science-work-mode and into happy-fun-mode. Activities included games, quizzes, competitions and possibly the best treasure hunt I have ever undertaken. There was ample opportunity for adventure and free time, be it walks up the mountain into distant lands (Slovakia), a trip to see Krakow properly or a visit to some local caves (when you spend three weeks looking up at the sky, sometimes it’s nice to look down).
The night sky is something that you don’t appreciate until you’ve left the confines of your city and observed somewhere where you can’t just see the moon. The skies were breathtaking (when not cloudy) and all the more fun when you have lots of close friends to share them with. If, on the first day, my fellow participants were distant cousins, by the end of two weeks they were like brothers and sisters. We partied like there was no tomorrow (in reality it was usually tomorrow by the time the parties ended) and worked until our fingers bled. Ok, I made up the bleeding. IAYC is very simple. Work hard, party hard. Amidst all the fun and games, there is serious work to be done. Some people learnt general relativity from scratch, some people learned about the history of astronomy and for some, simply learning the difference between the moon and the sun was an achievement (I am reliably told that Erik has to be taught the constellations again every year).
By the time three weeks was up, things became first stressful as we rushed to finish our reports, ecstatic as we finished and partied and then sad as we realised IAYC was finished for another year. Although it’s never any fun saying goodbye to your friends, it should be a good indicator of how good IAYC is that roughly half the participants return the following year - not to mention the copious number of reunions. Saying I learnt something new every day is an understatement, at IAYC I never stopped.
PS: I’ve managed to miss out quite a lot, like the national and poetry evenings, the shower game, the table football tournament, the angry backpacking guy, the astronauts in the bathroom space capsule, the purple dinner… but I’ll be here all night typing this up if I keep going.