Two years ago now, Matthias Kenkel and Szymon Gutaj decided to set up a weekly international meeting called 'Tower of Babel'. Since that first event, hundreds of people have taken part and the meetings have even featured on Al Jazeera news. How have the weekly meetings have thrived for so long? To find out, we got in touch with Tower of Babel co-founder Matthias Kenkel.
Welcome back to Wrocław Uncut Matthias! When you first set up Tower of Babel did you ever envisage it would be still be going strong 2 years later?
I had been mulling over the idea to create something like Tower of Babel for a couple of years by the time I finally decided to make it happen in Wroclaw. I knew that similar concepts elsewhere had worked pretty well, having been one of the first people to attend the Tandem Krakow Language Meetings way back in 2005. Based on this experience, the initial idea was to set up a similar weekly multilingual language meeting. Over the time the focus shifted to an international meeting based rather on the social aspect and languages serving as a not only popular but also required means of communication.
We did not really know if ToB would be a success story, however, we thought it was worth giving it a try. Thanks to Szymon Gutaj's exceptionally good connections we gathered around 30-35 people at the very first ToB meeting in June 2012. That initial success was the foundation from which Tower of Babel Wroclaw was (and still is) built on.
Why do you think it's managed to stand the test of time?
I think there are three major reasons for ToB not having tumbled down so far.
The first is our openness. We are open to everybody who is interested in joining and we provide them with an easy way to kick-off their personal ToB story – and often also their stay in Wroclaw. Several people have told us they made their first friends in the city at a ToB meeting – friends they keep spending their time with not only on Thursday nights but also on other days of the week.
The next factor is the frequency of which ToB meetings take place. ToB has been a weekly meet-up from the very beginning, with exactly one exception over the year: the week during/after Christmas. This way it is not necessary to check Facebook every week just in order to find out that the next meeting will take place only next week or the week after. The same is true of the location. We have always been meeting at Chopper Bar/Bunkier 42, both located at Kotlarska Street 42.
And last but not least, once an "ordinary Wroclawianin/Wroclawianka" (not in terms of nationality but in the meaning of people living in Wroclaw) gets to like our meetings, they often tell their friends and other people in their surroundings about our meetings, making them curious enough to eventually join us. Sometimes as soon as the next Thursday, sometimes a couple of months later. These personal recommendations and invitations are no less important than our weekly invitations on Facebook. In fact, they are arguably even more important and also more successful.
What kind of decisions (if any) have you had to make to freshen things up and keep the numbers healthy?
In June 2012, we started with a group of predominantly young professionals and almost no students or Erasmus students. While young professionals are still a significant part of the 'Babelonians' attending the meeting every week, students have become an important group for us as well. The initial fear that this might lead to ToB vanishing during vacation period turned out to be completely unnecessary and wrong so we decided to actively invite and integrate them into the community.
Another crucial decision was not to surrender to the small number of people who wish to change either the location or the character of the meetings. A person supporting such approaches shows up once in a while, however, we are strongly convinced that such a fundamental change to the very basics of ToB in Wroclaw would rather have a negative impact on the numbers of people showing up and the commitment of the regulars – without whom we would need to directly compete with all the other interesting events taking place every Thursday night. It is both the regulars and the new joiners who create the ToB atmosphere.
Besides the Thursday meetings, we are totally open to co-operate with other people and initiatives around Wroclaw to create a larger offer for everybody. I have in mind events like clubbing on a Friday or Saturday night or going for a weekend trip to a different place. However, fellow Babelonians already do that type of stuff. It seems we don't need to add a ToB label to these events.
I rather see ToB as a platform for people to get to know each other and organize their own stuff together with fellow Babelonians as well as other people – and share this information with people who might potentially be interested in joining these additional activities.
What's the chances of Tower of Babel being around for another 2 years?
As long as there will be people who support the idea and like meeting in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere on a Thursday night, then I think there is a good chance that ToB will last another couple of years. 🙂
I'd also like to give a huge thank you to the Bunkier 42 and Chopper crew, who do an awesome job every Thursday and add a lot to the positive atmosphere – and not only just that! 🙂
Thanks for speaking to us Matthias – your support of the Wrocław Uncut project is also much appreciated!
Thinking about coming along to a ToB meeting? Here's what a few regular attendees have had to say:
Fernando Wieliczko: "ToB is a good place to integrate with open-minded foreigners and locals – especially for people who have recently moved and are willing to make contacts."
Dagmara Koryluk: "For those who have just moved to Wrocław and don't know anyone here, it's a fantastic opportunity to make new friends."
Peter O: "From telling my friends in other cities about what we have with ToB, I know that they'd be already happy to have such meetings once a month. We have them every week!"
Anna Kurowska: "ToB is a great opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people, both locals, newcomers and tourists, make new friends among polish people as well as foreigners, exchange experiences, talk about anything we want, in English, in Polish – so it's training, networking, and just hanging out with great people. Put simply, it's a chance to have some really good time."
Anna Trzuskolas: "There is no better place to meet and integrate with international people. You can practice many languages you know and learn a lot about other cultures and about yourself too. For me it's not just a meeting, I have found many wonderful friends thanks to ToB. The first time I went there was actually by accident and it was the first ToB anniversary Then I learnt about other language meetings that happen regularly in Wroclaw. I had been living here for 30 years and I had no idea about these kind of meetings:) ToB works because of all the people who meet but first and foremost the organizer Matthias, who makes us gather regularly and who keeps the tradition going on. Thank you Matthias for giving us this wonderful opportunity."
Ravikumar Chandrashekar: "After I started attending ToB many people got to know me and we often hangout with each other. ToB has made my stay in Poland an awesome one."
Tower of Babel takes place every Thursday from 19.00 onwards in the beer garden of Chopper Bar and Hostel and in the pub's basement bar named Bunkier 42 (during winter or poor weather) .