Places that “Made” Me: Installment Three

By Troy Headrick

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.


Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here and his business page can be found here.

34 thoughts on “Places that “Made” Me: Installment Three

  1. This sounds like quite the immersive experience though it truly proved to be a valued time of growth. I have never travelled abroad and envy your experience. How wonderful that your isolation proved to be a time if strength.

    1. I wouldn’t trade my Peace Corps experience for a million bucks. It’s never too late! Once this whole virus things gets a bit more settled, you could buy a ticket some place and jet away. What sort of destination would you be interested in? I’ve been everywhere except South America and Australia (and Antarctica, of course). I’d be interested to hear what’s on your bucket list of travel destinations. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Such an amazing experience you had Troy. I echo your thoughts about travelling – putting oneself in a foreign land for a time. You can gain so much from it. Very rarely do I meet a well travelled individual who doesn’t have an open mind about the world. I spent a summer in Toulouse once. Was forced to talk French everyday with my (then) girlfriends mother who couldn’t speak a word of English. I wasn’t deprived of English to the same extent through but I could speak conversational French by the end of that summer! Thanks for sharing Troy. I’m really enjoying this series of posts. Wishing you well, AP2 🙏

    1. Thanks. I’ve been wanting to ask you about your avatar photo. Is that you skydiving? I’m terrified of heights. What was that like? It’s weird; when I’m in an airplane, I’m not so scared. I think it’s because I am totally enclosed and know that there is no way I could fall out–unless the plane crashes. The last time we were in Paris, my wife went up into the Eiffel Tower by herself because I simply couldn’t do it. I’ve flown over the Atlantic Ocean more than 40 times and have only had a handful of terrifying experiences. Got caught in an amazingly power storm once and spend nearly 30 minutes with the plane plummeting and then rising. All the passengers were screaming. It was the worse travel experience I’ve ever had.

      1. No – although I have been skydiving before. Amazing experience. I’ve been bungee jumping as well and felt that was scarier. I think because the ground comes at you a lot faster! Anyway the avatar is a joke. Picture is suppose to be from an aeroplane window. The guy is holding up a sign saying “I was your pilot.” I found it on the internet. That flight sounds scary. Sometimes we hit areas of severe clear air turbulence and there is little you can do except ride it out. Not much fun for anyone involved!

      2. One of the loneliest feelings in the world is to be mid-Atlantic, with no land in sight, and to hit an ugly patch of really bad weather. I’ve been there, done that more times than I care to mention. My dad likes to call airplanes “tin cans with wings.” In my most recent flights, I’ve noticed that it seems that more and more planes seem to be bouncing up in the air upon first impact with the runway. I wonder if this is a thing or if it’s merely my imagination.

      3. I prefer flying over land for that reason – more options! I‘d say your experience of bounced landings is simply a coincidence. Sometimes it happens but very rarely. We are well trained to deal with all sorts of landing scenarios. Most of the time a small bounce on landing isn’t a big deal – you can continue to land. If it’s a big bounce we will abort the landing, fly away and come back for another go.

  3. This is exactcly why I went to Russia, I was out of my comfort zone in every area! It was so liberating. It is unsual for a woman to travel alone in russia so maost knew I ws American. The hotel where i stayed spoke English but outside of there I was on my onw. I knew one word, goodbye. It was the best trip of my life. I can’t waait to go back to St. Petersburg, Russia. 🙂

    1. I’m an American who grew up during the Cold War and thus developed a fascination with the then-USSR and all the Warsaw Pact countries. I have never been to Russia but would love to go. I used to be close friends with a guy who spent two years in St. Petersburg and he told me many fascinating stories about the place. If I had a chance to go to Russia, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d also love to see the Ukraine. Even a place like Belarus would be wonderful. (I also have this weird part of my personality; I enjoy being in places during times of political unrest–I was in Egypt during the deposing of Hosni Mubarak.) Thanks for sharing your travel experience with us.

      1. I sometimes wish that I had been one of those journalists that report from war zones and such. I guess I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky in that way.

      1. I can’t wait to go back! The people were so friendly and helpful. I went in 2001 right after 9/11 happened. People were so nice to me, saying how sorry they were for what happened to America.

      2. I was there in 2018, just for a few days. We stumbled into a cafe with a cat theme, and it turned out to be a shelter for homeless cats! It was so cute. And yes, the people were so nice. 🕊

      3. So you’ve been to Poland? Not many Americans think of it as a possible holiday destination. Such folks are really underestimating the beauty of Poland.

      1. I teach, yes. It’s a pleasure to know that you’re into literature and writing ☺️ I write as a side hustle, basically I’m a teacher.

  4. Another wonderful post, Troy. I could not agree more with your thoughts on the importance of travel. It truly changes us. Your series is giving me the itch to book a flight! (But not until the pandemic is over, of course.) 🕊

    1. May I also recommend Lisbon, Portugal, and Valletta, Malta. Far too many people overlook those two European cities. They flock to Paris and Rome and such, but some of the other capital cities are real gems.

  5. “Places that made me”, we pick a thread that we find in the tapestry we call life. Some threads are long, some are colourful, and some have texture. We weave stories around these threads. I have lived on three continents and each have left their plot; but end of the day, it is the characters in the plot that shape the warp and weft. It is the missed patterns in the treadling I find interesting.

    Regarding photos, yes more would have been nice, but I’m at the stage where I’m thinking of the person who ultimately will have to discard them. But you are right … maybe I will go back and look at the albums; some going back over forty years.

    1. As I mentioned, my one regret is that I didn’t have the foresight to take more pics. I’ve noticed, though, that some see tourist photography in the same way some see wild game trophy hunting. I’ve even known some who worked very hard to get the right photo but didn’t actually “see” or experience the place they were visiting. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. I appreciate your story. When I travelled I did not take photos either. I could kick myself. When I look back I didn’t want to be “touristy” and make the experience about me. I agree there is something magical about walking on a 13th century street, let alone communicating with the people. It really rocks your perspective if you allow it.

  7. Honestly, if your greatest regret of the time is not taking more photos, it sounds like it was an awesome experience. It’s in some ways the opposite of the insta-worthy travel that happens today (well, when travel was possible), when the goal is to get the most incredible photo.

  8. Oh boy, does this remind me of my China days. I spent 7 long months teaching ESL to kids and adults, where I was thrown into a “village” of 5 million people (!) and got stared down every time I walked out of my apartment. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alien as I did when living there. Though like you said, you quickly discover what you’re made of.

  9. Learning about your travels in Poland has helped me dive into learning about a different culture. In particular researching Shinto, and Japanese mythology and culture to help me sharpen up my fantasy book manuscript.

    Your recommendation at the end to live as a stranger in a strange land. This is something I struggle with. When travelling I don’t do very well alone, but I do enjoy meeting new people in small group contexts as opposed to large events. Thank you for sharing more places that made you.

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