“Wait! Give it back! I’m sorry!” The words had hardly escaped my lips when I began to think, “What am I doing? What about my job, my apartment, my upcoming student loan payments, and, most importantly, my dog? I’ve really done it this time.”
After nearly two weeks in Poland, I found myself intentionally skipping my expensive flight back to the U.S. and stepping into a previously unfathomable life of adventure. After graduating from university in Boston, I was yearning for a single solo escape before starting my “real life”: that of rent, a career, and the socially enforced adult responsibilities.
I’d been working a miserable job that had started as an internship nearly three years prior and had fully accepted the inevitability of my situation. I figured I had the summer, one last summer, to finish my work, apply for more jobs, and maybe get the chance to do something awesome. While browsing the internet for cheap ways to get to Europe, I came across a volunteer opportunity in Poland.
I was immediately drawn to it not only because my ancestors came from there, but also because it was a solid deal: a free bed and three meals a day in return for speaking English all day. I emailed the provided and, after a few weeks of back-and-forth, booked my flights.
I’d be gone for the last few weeks of August, ensuring a literal last hurrah before jumping into the deep-end of commitment in the fall.
Quitting My Life to Start My True One
I’d never left the country by myself before and found myself experiencing an array of emotions as I took off from Logan International. My nerves calmed themselves a bit somewhere over the Atlantic when I realized that maybe I wouldn’t die in a tragic crash.
After an anxiety-provoking mad dash through Amsterdam Schipol, I found myself ogling at the beautiful Polish countryside as the plane descended into Chopin Airport. For the next couple of days, I meandered around Warsaw like the ultimate tourist, hitting museums and walking around with my nose buried in a map of hot spots.
I planned to complete my week of volunteer work before heading south (via train, of course) to Krakow for a few days. Little did I know how two weeks could change everything.
Tour of Old Town
The director had arranged a tour of the Old Town for the day before the program began. As a history lover, I thoroughly enjoyed being guided (safely and with little chance of getting lost) around historic sites. After two hours and 45 minutes of a three-hour tour (no pun intended), I noticed a blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy sneak nonchalantly into the group.
We had sat down to eat lunch and I wasn’t positioned in a great spot to chat with him; I was also still pretty nervous about speaking with the group. Once the meal had finished and most of the volunteers parted ways, a few of us decided to head for drinks. It was at this time that I mustered up the courage to speak to blue-eyes.
The conversation was light and friendly and easily transferred over into the outdoor pub. He had been hitchhiking around Europe for several months and was happy to share his experiences; I was happy to speak to someone who was, obviously, a total nut job.
My sensible, norm-sculpted self-thought that he was reckless, irresponsible, and most importantly, crazy. My soul, however, was truly inspired and envious of this free spirit who put his faith in the kindness of strangers on a daily basis. Maybe he was onto something?
Getting to Know a Stranger
Over the following days, we spent most of our free time together, chatting about everything and nothing at all. I began to feel more and more comfortable with, even drawn to, his (as well as all of my new friends’) stories and experiences from the road and the world.
When the program finished, he agreed to come to Krakow with me, as he’d left most of his things at a Couchsurfing host’s apartment there. My two solo weeks in Poland very quickly turned into a partnership that I wasn’t yet ready to let go of.
And yes, I felt equally as crazy for wanting what this random stranger had: a few changes of clothes, a backpack, and whichever road suited his fancy. “And why can’t you have it, too?”, he asked me.
It was after these two intensely emotional roller coaster weeks that I found myself shouting for my bag back at the airport. I’d bid him farewell nearly an hour before, but I’d found a game-changing note in my wallet just as I was handing over my bag. Among other things, it said, “In case of escalator scenes/discussions about changes of flights with airlines, call – – – -“.
This was my “sign”, the thing that I needed to push me over the brink of doubt, and it did. I found a nice man who let me use his phone and, after 25 minutes of unanswered calls and much panicking on my part, he answered. He was still there and he would wait for me.
Two hours later, I found myself standing on the side of the Polish equivalent of a highway with my thumb in the air. Everything that awaited me back home seemed so trivial and meaningless now. I was free, and I felt like myself for the first time in a long time.
In the coming weeks, I traveled to places I’d never dreamt that I’d go to in my entire life, let alone in such a short span. I embraced fear and opened my arms to all that life had to offer, and it was liberating. I still had my financial responsibilities to deal with, but where there is a will, there is always a way…some way or other.
Three months later, I gazed around at my surroundings (the English countryside) wondering how I could have been such a different person a few weeks earlier, how my life had changed completely (and forever) by a single choice to jump and the simple utterance of “Wait!”. And I smiled the truest smile my face has ever known.
Two years, 21 countries, a handmade raft, months of freeganism, a cross-continental cycle journey, and a lifetime of memories later, I still wear that smile.
A 24-year-old American hailing from Detroit, Michigan, Leah’s passion for travel and trying new cuisines developed after visiting Poland for a two week holiday and quitting her job to hitchhike around Europe. The next few years were filled with adventure, cycling and rafting around Europe, living in Turkey, and finally moving to Asia. She now shares those adventures and culinary experiences on her website, www.thevegetariantraveller.com.
You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter. Leah is currently teaching English on Jeju Island in South Korea.