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.