Places that “Made” Me: Installment One

By Troy Headrick

My mind works in mysterious ways.  For example, three or four days ago, for no particular reason, the following question popped into my head:  I wonder who said, “Clothes make the man”?  I then almost immediately forgot that I’d asked this question—my brain having its own unique way of functioning—and went about my daily business.

This morning I got online and found out that Mark Twain was the originator of the “clothes” proverb that had grabbed ahold of me days earlier.  In fact, the full version goes like this—”Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society.” 

I’m not for sure how much influence clothes have on people, nor am I well versed on the relative powerlessness of those who go about in the nude, but I feel comfortable proclaiming that places certainly do “make” us.  When I look back over this batch of years I call “my life,” I see that almost every town and city I’ve ever inhabited has left its mark, has played its role in making me the person I’ve become. 

Many moons ago, I exited my mother’s womb in a hospital located in a metropolis called San Antonio, Texas, USA.  That was the first time I was born.  Years later, I experienced a rebirthing in a city called PĨock, Poland.

PĨock—pronounced “pwotsk”—is the place I was sent to do my Pre-Service Training (PST) once Uncle Sam had accepted me into its Peace Corps program and then flown me off, over land and sea, to the wonderful European country of Poland, or Rzeczpospolita Polska (as the Poles like to say), to do my two years of service.  Before a person can be fully accepted to serve as a volunteer, she must complete a very intensive, three-month training program to determine if she is made of “the right stuff” to live alone (and often isolated), in a foreign country, under what can be very trying circumstances.

Before applying to join the Peace Corps, I was in a dark place in my life.  I had a really good education but was unemployed, on the public dole, and eaten up by anger and self-pity about my situation.  Plus, I had only made two brief travel forays into Mexico and Canada but knew there was a wide world out that I wanted to see.  I felt frustrated and stunted and hungry to do something truly unique and transformative.

PĨock was magical.  It was a beautiful city with a lovely old town situated on the banks of the impressive Vistula River.  During the day, I, along with sixty other Americans who were part of my “Poland IX” training group, learned Polish, trained hard, were challenged in many ways, and then went home to host families.  By night, we pub crawled, drank too much Polish beer, and had one crazy adventure after another.  On the weekends, we were encouraged to travel to nearby cities so we could see more of the country and practice our Polish.  (By the way, during my two years, I got really good with the language.)

I see my life consisting of two phases—my pre-Peace Corps phase and my expatriation phase.  The latter lasted about two decades and took me to Europe (twice) for nearly three years, Asia (twice) for nine years, and Africa (once), for a seven-year stint.

I think of PĨock as my second birthplace because as soon as I landed there, I felt like an old version of Troy had died and a new one emerged.  In many ways, during my earliest days in Poland, I was a baby again.  I spoke the babbling, incoherent Polish of an infant and viewed the world through the wide eyes of a bedazzled child.

I see this as the first in a series about places that have shaped me.  I want to hear what you have to say about this first installment.  Thanks so much reading. 

See Thinker Boy here and Troy Edits and Writes here.

56 thoughts on “Places that “Made” Me: Installment One

  1. I’m told that Poland is a beautiful country. My parents visited there and traveled through the villages near Gdańsk, where my fathers ancestors were from. Someday, I hope to re-trace their footsteps. My great grandparents came to the US as young children. They insisted on the family speaking only English ( short of a few curse words And prayers) because “We are Americans now” Those days are long gone, unfortunately.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    1. Indeed, Poland is beautiful. And because it was my first time to ever be in Europe, a continent I’d always been fascinated with, my time in Plock was magical. By the way, I traveled two or three times to the Gdansk area. Actually, I went everywhere in Poland during my years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. If your family is from that part of the world, I highly recommend that you see the place. Cracow (Krakow) is probably the most beautiful large city in the country. Any trip to Poland would have to include a visit to that jewel of a city. Thanks for sharing your family story!

  2. Wow! A lot of experiences I wish I’d had.

    Of course, everyone has the same amount of experience at the same age. Not all of that experience is equally interesting or useful.

    Mark Twain wrote a number of times on the folly of clothing when the environment didn’t call for them. As a nudie myself, I tend to agree with him.

    In his works, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were always getting naked to swim or run around in play. One of the early reasons why Huckleberry Finn was censored and banned was because we had a black man and a white boy naked together on a raft for extended periods of time. Later, instead of the racial issue it was that the age differential suggested child molestation even though it was written as innocent as something can be written.

    “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.”
    – quoted in More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

    “Modesty died when clothes were born.”
    – Mark Twain, a Biography

    “We must put up with our clothes as they are — they have their reason for existing. They are on us to expose us — to advertise what we wear them to conceal. They are a sign; a sign of insincerity; a sign of suppressed vanity; a pretense that we desire gorgeous colors and the graces of harmony and form; and we put them on to propagate that lie and back it up.”
    – Following the Equator

    1. You always write the most interesting comments. One of my favorite clothes quotes was given to us by Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden. He said–I may not get it exactly right because I’m writing it from memory–something like this: Be wary of all activities that require the purchase of new clothes. That’s a pretty close paraphrase. Actually, now that I thinking about it, he said a lot about clothes and most of his sayings were pretty disparaging. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Thoreau was a bit of a nudist himself.

      When I apply Thoreau’s words of wisdom to my own life, I’d have to say that he was pretty much on the mark. I’ve owned quite a few business suits during my time, and I often bought them just before important job interviews. And I remember my parents buying me new clothes before Easter Sunday and the start of a new school year. There’s something about the buying and wearing of new clothes that one associates with the need to make money or become more “civilized” (or less sinful). The more I think about it, the more I think Thoreau was on to something…

      Thanks, Fred, it’s always a pleasure when you drop by.

  3. One country that really made me was Nepal. It’s amazing to see the humbleness of the people who are clearly living in limited means but are thriving as people nonetheless. It’s also quite interesting to see the contrast between Kathmandu City, a dusty metropolis crumbling under ongoing earthquake damage, and the tourist city of Pokhara, Nepal. Compared to Kathmandu, Pokhara is a fresh and vibrant city on the edge of a lake.

    1. Now you’ve piqued my interest. I’m going to need to hear a bit more about your Nepal story. For example, why were you there? Were you a PCV in the past? Bhutan, like Nepal, is super interesting. You’ve probably heard that Bhutan has a Ministry of Happiness. What a wonderful idea. America (and many other countries) could benefit from such a ministry. Thanks for your wonderful comment, and I hope you’ll come back and tell us more about Nepal.

  4. I enjoyed this, I gave Polish ancestry but never visited (yet 😉), thanks for sharing. Loved the comment about being a baby again 👌

    1. Poland is still relatively undiscovered when compared with some of the European hot-spot tourist locales. You’ve got to put Polska on your bucket list. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Lovely first installment – I’m completely drawn in, and I love how you have found some structure to your life by looking at it through this lens.

    1. Thanks, Hezaasan. I’ve been looking at your writing too. and might be reaching out to talk further with you about your blog. I was at a bad time in my life in those days, but, in a sense, it was a lucky time too. I likely never would have joined the Peace Corps had I not felt the visceral need to escape. I guess there’s some truth to the old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” It was necessary for me to find a new path at that time, and I’m so happy I was courageous enough to step beyond my comfort zone.

      1. Critical moments, for sure … isn’t it fascinating when you become the protag of your life. I look forward to more exchanges with you – one of my favorite parts of blogging is connections like this!

      2. There have been moments where felt more like I was the antagonist of my story than the protagonist. Actually, in this case, leaving America was likely one of the very best decisions I ever made. In fact, when I look back over my life, I think of the pre-PCV Troy and the post-PCV Troy. Definitely two very different versions of the same person. I’ll stay in touch.

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words. You must be a lot like me. I really love reading memoirs, and I’m not talking about the stories that famous people write about themselves. I like stories of the downtrodden, the marginalized, the people who’ve struggled. Those kind of autobiographical pieces.

  6. I enjoyed this first installment. As I read, my mind wandered to the statement of being rebirthed. I couldn’t help but wonder if you have also experienced the greatest second birth to experience?

      1. The one Jesus referred to when talking to Nicodemus in the gospel of John chapter 3. He said we must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s a spiritual rebirth through faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God.

  7. Very interesting. You have lived in so many unique places! I always thought it would be awesome to join the Peace Corps. I bet you have lots of stories from that experience.

    1. It’s never too late to join the Peace Corps. Are you retired? Are you at a point in your life where you could take a couple of years off and do something that would transform you forever? If so, why not look into it? In my group, we had people of all ages. Thanks for stopping by. If you’d like to know more about being a Volunteer, let me know. I can tell you about the whole application process and all that.

  8. “I spoke the babbling, incoherent Polish of an infant and viewed the world through the wide eyes of a bedazzled child.” I love this analogy as I feel like that often as a 50-something year old living in Croatia after a lifetime of living in Louisiana. My Croatian is really bad, but I’m like a kid in a candy store enjoying the history and beauty of this gorgeous country. Truly feel reborn.

    1. Fantastic! Croatia! I’ve been in many European countries but I’ve never visited Croatia. What took you there? I’d love to hear more. Is it affordable? Is there a large expat community there? I’m very intrigued. I especially love those European locales on the Med Sea. For example, ive been to all of them with the exception of those that used to be called Yugoslavia.

      1. Retirement, a love of the sea, and a dream to live in Europe took us here, and yes, it’s extremely affordable and yes, there is a nice size expat community as well. And it’s so beautiful. We live in Istria, formerly an Italian territory so it’s very similar to those locals, but it’s definitely uniquely Croatian as well. I highly recommend a visit to the Northern part of the country as the people here are extremely friendly and open-minded. The south is nice as well, but we really love Istria. My blog tells of some of our experiences here and around Europe. Unfortunately as Americans, it’s hard to get more than a year residence permit without leaving Croatia for three months, but we just spend that time visiting family in the USA, so it’s not so bad.

  9. Absolutely agree. I moved to Ireland at 18 and it shaped me more than I can express. Poland is beautiful and fabulous, visited three times and extremely inspiring for a creative mind. I look forward to your next instalment ⭐️

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. Living an international lifestyle is absolutely the best! I was so narrow in my thinking and experience until I started living in other countries (and I didn’t even realize this about myself). It’s a shame more people don’t live abroad, far away from familiar places and faces. I often tell people that I didn’t even know America (my birthplace) until I had a chance to leave it and look back from afar.

      1. I’m from India, moved to the The states 14yrs ago because of my husband’s job.I was extremely reluctant to come here leaving my family and friends.Initially ,I couldn’t work because of my visa status so wasn’t happy at all.But, just after a year things dramatically changed as I started exploring life with a completely different perspective out of my comfort zone and with that came understanding of my own self.Now, I think it is one of the best things happened to me.

  10. I like it! It’s amazing how changing your location can change your outlook! This is one of the reasons I love to travel, the fresh perspective is priceless.

  11. Wonderful first instalment. Eager to read more. As a bit of a nomad myself I could relate wholeheartedly.

    Poland is indeed gorgeous by the way. One of my favourite memories was when I was living in London and came across a cheap fare to fly to Gdansk (and by cheap I mean five pounds). I booked it spontaneously and left the next day. Spent the weekend wandering around. The city is lovely, a mini Krakow of sorts.

    Also, I agree that places make a person. I think I’ve left my heart and memories in a bunch of cities, towns, and villages around the world. Makes revisiting them all the more beautiful.

    1. Hi. It is possible that you set the world record for cheapest airplane ticket ever purchased. I love your use of the term “wandering.” It is an apt term for the way I like to travel too. I’m not the sort to buy guidebooks and such. I’ve even taken international train trips where I arrived several countries away from my point of departure without having a plan or hotel reservation in hand. There’s nothing more delightful than happening upon a wonderful cafe located in an off-the-beaten-path alley. Such places would never be included in something as official as a guidebook. Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing your wonderful Gdansk story.

  12. The places we’ve been can play such a big part of who we are. I feel like there are many of us who experience a ‘rebirth’ of sorts if we find a place which speaks to us of home. Almost as much as the people we come across in the places I would say. I haven’t lived anywhere but New Zealand, but in my travels overseas I have been thankful of the people, their kindness, and their willingness to share their culture.

    1. Hi, Hamish. I’m curious where you’ve traveled to and which places made the strongest impressions. Thanks for stopping by, and I apologize for the lateness of my reply. It’s always nice to hear from you.

      1. I have been to a few places in the United States, and a few places in Europe. Ireland, the old buildings of London, and Switzerland were three places that spoke to me. The quietness of them all allowed me time and space to think. (London is loud and busy, but the old churches interiors are not.)

        I’m looking forward to living in a house which has a nice, but small yard, in a smaller town than I live in currently, where life moves at a slower pace I am comfortable with.

        Thank you for replying. No apology necessary, but I appreciate it all the same. 🙂

    1. I feel like I’ve had even more rebirthings than the one I wrote about in this blog. I often wonder if it’s possible to live several lives during a single lifetime. The idea intrigues me. If we totally change our ways of being and the way we see the world are we the same person we were before this transformation took place? Interesting question! Thanks for the comment.

      1. Interestingly indeed! I think that’s a great part of being human, you can transform into whatever as you change your mind. Mindset automatically brings change. You can live a several lives during a lifetime, either by transforming yourself or by being a conman (Reminds me of Frank Abagnale) 😅

  13. Lovely phrase-making in “I was a baby again. I spoke the babbling, incoherent Polish of an infant and viewed the world through the wide eyes of a bedazzled child.” I’m really missing travel: particularly the way it enhances our mental health and takes us out of the – at the moment, not at all good – quotidian.

  14. I’ve never been there, but polish people are so great and they have a huge heart! I could work and study with some of them when I was in Ireland. I’m looking forward to reading the next chapters!

  15. I love reading about life and travel, no doubt places make us what we are, so many memories to cherish, so much of reinventing oneself! Travellers are knowledgeable seasoned people just like you 🙂

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