Repost: Places that “Made” Me: Installment Three

My greatest regret during my Peace Corps experience is that I wasn’t into taking photos at that time.  I was into living life, though, as hard as it could be lived, tiptoeing right up to the line of being wildly self-destructive.  It’s just that I don’t have much of a photographic record of all that living beyond the boundaries.  I do have memories, tons of the most vivid sort.

I almost immediately began to explore Tarnόw, my new home-away-from-my-American-home, and of course, one of my earliest discoveries was that there was quite a rambunctious bar scene.

To get to “old town” (otherwise known as “cool town”), I had to travel by foot—I was just embarking upon a twenty-year period of time when I didn’t own an automobile—from west to east on Ulica Krakowska, one of the major streets that eventually narrowed and became a pedestrian throughfare.  The farther I went on Krakowska, the older the city got and looked, the more it came to resemble something out of a fairytale.  (I swear on everything that’s important to me, that parts of Tarnόw are so amazingly beautiful—so ancient and cobblestoned and spookily atmospheric, especially after midnight—that it would be the perfect setting for a vampire movie.)  Eventually, the winding streets became winding alleys, and then, suddenly and spectacularly, they opened out into the 13th-century market, the town square, what the Poles call a “rynek.”

I spent a lot of my time in that part of the city, mostly because it was so beautiful and partly because it was full of funky pubs.  I’d spend my evenings getting a little (or a lot) tipsy—as a way of losing my shyness—and would practice my Polish with anyone who’d want to converse.

It just so happened that I arrived in Tarnόw in August, but that colleges and universities don’t open until October, which meant that I spent weeks, by myself, and feeling just about as isolated as I’d ever felt.  In fact, I went more than a month without speaking a word of English to anyone.  Being so nonverbal really messed with my mind.  I actually had odd dreams at that time.  They consisted of nothing more than me having conversations in English with all sorts of disembodied voices.  These dream-talks were not about profound subjects; they were, in fact, nothing more than chats.  Clearly, I was missing using a language that felt comfortable.

When I left America, I had a good chunk of a PhD in English and was used to using language at a fairly high level.  I’d spent a lot of my professional life conversing about all manner of philosophical subjects with others who were skilled at talking about these same sorts of things.  Suddenly, overnight really, I found myself in Poland and reduced to a kind of infantile babbling in a new language.  I’d gone from being very skilled at expressing myself to grunting and gesticulating.

I would recommend that every human being spend at least some time living as a stranger in a strange land.  They should have their language taken away from them and be plopped down in a part of the world where not a single thing is familiar, where they have nothing but their own resourcefulness to get them through.  It’s in such situations that a person comes—maybe for the very first time—to have a deep understanding of what he or she is made of.

I look forward to hearing your stories of expatriation and travel.

21 thoughts on “Repost: Places that “Made” Me: Installment Three

  1. I love the photo, and can relate. I spent a year (well 11 months living in France) and about 6 weeks in Seville, Spain. I studied French and Spanish for my undergraduate, so living abroad was part of the curriculum. At the time I was in Seville (about 1998) very few locals spoke in English so I really was immersed in Spanish. It was hard. Its exhausting having to think and speak in another language but I agree you get such a different experience and I too would recommend being thrown into that kind of environment

    1. Hi, Brenda. Your study abroad experience sounds fantastic. I have been to both Spain and France, the latter several times. In fact, Paris is one of my favorite cities in the world. I love that semi-scary feeling of flying to some new place to live. I’ll never forget the first time I stepped out of the airport in Abu Dhabi and on to the streets of that Middle Eastern city. I spent four years in the UAE, and at the time, it was the most exotic place I’d ever been to. Thanks for reading and responding.

      1. I think something like the UAE would have been so different because its such a different culture.

  2. That place looks stunning! I can’t say I’ve done what you’ve done, and truly immersed myself in a foreign culture and country. It sounds like you had a wonderful, eye-opening experience.

    1. Hi, Ben Berwick. If you get the chance, you should give it a try. Are you an American citizen? You could join the Peace Corps as I did. I know the organization likes having volunteers of all ages and from all backgrounds. Thanks for commenting.

  3. The thought of walking down cobblestone streets into a village market place that is almost a thousand years old is a surreal one.

    I can’t see myself voluntarily leaving the English speaking world without learning the basics of another language first. I have been making a half hearted attempt to learn French. I should start taking that more seriously.

    1. Hi, surrealartpsychonaut. By the way, I love your user name. How did you come up with that? I’d love to hear the story.

      I think you should really get serious about French and then book a trip to France. Where, in that country, would you like to go?

      Thanks for commenting.

  4. The recommendation to spend time as a “stranger in a strange land” rings true. Most growth happens outside of our default environment and way of being. While difficult, challenging established patterns and relying on inherent strengths provides profound lessons difficult to learn otherwise. Thanks for sharing .

      1. Yes , I have lived abroad for a year and travel often and I feel each new travel helps me explore different aspects of my personality . Culture , people , food all contribute. Thanks

  5. The summer I turned 18, I went to France to study in a French language program for International students. My French was decent enough after studying it for 6 years, but I quickly learned it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. One of the best things about that experience was meeting students from around the world. French was the common language so we had no choice but to get better at it!

    1. Hi, Michelle. There’s book learning of a foreign language and then there’s suddenly finding yourself in a faraway place where the people around you are using that thing you’ve been learning in an abstract way. At the time I moved to Poland, Poland was just opening up to a new post-Soviet reality and the Poles weren’t used to foreigners being among them. It was a hard, jarring experience walking around all the time and planning what I was going to say before I said it, but it was one of the best things I ever did. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. Troy, I agree, 💯 about spending time in a different country.

    My only experience out of the country is spending two weeks in France. It was during sophomore year in high school, and it was part of the group trip, but it was an opportunity to “see how they live in another part of the world.”

    I can understand some regret about not taking as many photos; but today, I think that there’s an awful lot of people who live life through the viewfinder of their smart phone. It’s good to hear that you didn’t do that.

    1. Hi, rebuilding rob. Thanks for sharing your story. It seems that quite a few readers have spent time in France. I’m not surprised, really, since it’s such a magical place. Yes, like you, I watch people spending lots of energy trying to capture the perfect photo of themselves so they can prove to others that they went somewhere and did something. I often wonder if they’re even seeing their surroundings in such situations. I was too busy living to think about cameras in those days. Thanks for commenting.

  7. I’m really enjoying this post series Troy! I can see how that language swing you described would be a tough thing to adjust to.

      1. Hey Troy! It’s a pretty busy time for me too but even though it’s tiring, I am really enjoying it. I hope you get some relief soon-hang in there.

  8. Someone said that traveling is the best school for life. And I cannot agree more on that. It opens up your mind, models your personality and changes deeply your vision of the world. You know about me Troy, from Italy to France, from France to Estonia to land finally in Brussels. 14 years of intense and interesting experiences, that have been teaching me a lot about people and places.

    1. Yes, crisbiecoach, I do know about your expat experiences. For me, it’s amazing to think that I spent one third of my entire life living outside the country where I was born. It’s no wonder that I have such a hard time now that I’m back in the USA. How do you feel about Italy now, when you go back? Do you find it boring or what? I find America terribly dull. Thanks for sharing and commenting.

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