"Shit," I think to myself. "She hates me. I'm not even here an hour and she completely hates me. She hasn't even said a single word to me. She won't even look at me! Shit. Shit. Shitty shit shit."
I glance over at my four-year-old cousin, Pola, sitting silently in her booster seat in my uncle's Murano. She is sizing up the packaged Barbie doll my father and I brought her from the Great Land of America. She doesn’t look impressed.
"D--Do you like... Her?" I ask. I'm struggling. I have barely any practice with kids, let alone tiny little ones I'm related to that don't speak English. That don't seem to speak at all. She nods solemnly and we ride along in silence. "It's going to be a long three weeks sleeping in this kid's room," I think.
More than three weeks later, Pola is crumpled on the floor in front of the open refrigerator; endless oceans of tears are pouring from her eyes. Her little blonde head is thrown back and her mouth is agape. The sounds of agony coming out of her seem barely human. She is slowly turning the color of a tomato. We seem to be out of the exact flavor of ice cream bar that she'd had her heart set on. Her brother, flitting tantalizingly between the living room and us, has taken the last one. He commands we shut the door so as not to melt the rest of the ice cream. The little shit.
"Pola," I try to explain, using my nicest tone and picking my brain for the best way to say this in Polish. "Crying won't do anything. You can either have a different flavor of ice cream, or not. But your crying won't make the kind you want happen."
She pauses for a minute, her tear-streaked little toddler face concentrating on mine as I am speaking. I think I might be getting through to her. The instant I finish, though, the animalistic sounds make their wretched, ear-slicing return. How does she do that? One minute she's the cutest little four-year-old you've ever seen, picking out princess dresses and singing songs from "Mamma Mia" (her favorite movie), and the next she's an uncontrollable little tiger, blind and deaf to reason and doing exactly what she wants instead. Here's where I pause.
"Oh shit," I think. "She's kind of like me."
Well, okay, so "Mamma Mia" isn't exactly my favorite movie, and I'm definitely not that picky about ice cream. ("A lot of it," and "more, please" are my two favorite flavors.) Princess dresses I save only for very special occasions, and I consider myself more of a puma than a tiger. But still. Her caprice is somewhat shockingly familiar, and I think I know why.
A little over three months ago, I flew to Poland with my father to visit Europe for a three-week tour. (A three-week tour.) And, just like Gilligan & Co., I found my stay extended for longer than I'd anticipated. Much longer. As in, indefinitely longer. No, I haven't been detained in Central Europe due to some sort of unresolved passport or legitimacy issues. And, contrary to what you may have heard, I didn't get caught bootlegging in Bratislava. (I wish.) In fact, quite the opposite is true: As the possessor of dual American and Polish citizenship, I am fortunate enough to claim the freedom to travel and/or live in a pretty little collection of countries. (Thanks, European Union! Too bad 'bout that currency, though, huh?) When my parents proposed the concept of me staying in Europe for longer or potentially living there, though, I reflexively balked. ME?! Live in POLAND?! Uhhh, gross! Yet here I am, months later, writing this from my aunt and uncle's dining room table just outside of Warsaw. I can say, with full conviction, that I never saw this coming.
Sure, I was familiar with the concepts of a quarter-life crisis (thanks, John Mayer), and of post-college backpacking around Europe (thanks, uh, Eurotrip? I guess?). But I didn't realize mine would be more or less one and the same. At least, not until I got here.
Here's how it was supposed to go down: Dad and I fly to Poland for my little cousin Maks' First Communion. (For those of you heathens unfamiliar with Catholicism, this is when little kids get dressed up in white and eat and drink Jesus.) We'd spend a week traipsing about Poland, visiting various family members I may never have met before, or others who I last saw a whopping seven years ago on my prior visit. Then, I'd visit two dear friends in Paris and travel with them to Amsterdam, while my dad enjoyed more family time. After that, I would come back to Poland, see my dad off back to America, and spend my last week in Krakow and Prague, after which I’d return to my meager life living in my parent’s house outside of Boston and sending out scores of pleading resumes and cover letters a week. (It wasn’t much, but it was home.) Things went more or less according to plan. Until Paris.
I'd hate to say that my Boston University friends Aaron and Perrine, who moved to Paris from Boston to live in Perrine's grandmother's apartment's closet-sized maid's quarters, were the sole reason I decided to deliberately miss my return flight back to the States and have a go at living in Europe. But they definitely introduced me to the idea.
Paris is a roiling madman of activity. A city with the outward cool of James Bond and the style for miles that you'd expect from a place that gave us the most sought-after and most difficult to pronounce names in fashion. (I find it helpful to pick a few key consonants and mumble the rest.) There, I was treated to a beautiful room in Perrine's grandmother's apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Together, Aaron, Perrine and I explored all the touristy destinations that a first-time visitor simply had to see and then some: Notre Dame, the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, the Louvre. The Moulin Rouge, the Arc de Triomphe, the eclectic and graffiti-covered Montmartre: It's all incredible, and French is a language I could get used to hearing every day. I met their friends, some of whom had also transplanted to Paris from BU for work or school or otherwise, and found myself wondering at their ease with the culture, the language, the... Not living in America. There was something beautiful and attractive and, I suppose, romantic about it: Here were these smart, young, talented twentysomethings, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap bottles of wine and kissing each other on the cheeks in greeting.
I thought, "I could do this."
But I still wasn't 100% sold on the idea. I had good friends back home. Friends who'd gone to the Middle East in Cambridge one of my last nights in town to give me what they thought to be three-week goodbye hugs and well-wishes. I had a boyfriend who was moving from Atlanta to New York and could use all the support I had to offer. I had a job. Sure, it was one that I hated, but still, it was a job. I doubted my ability to succeed in a transcontinental setting, and though my Polish was pretty on par, my dear nine-year-old cousin Maks pounced on my every verbal stumble. And hey, wasn’t America supposed to be, like, the greatest country in the world? Why should I live in Poland, when my parents fled it in the ‘80s in search for a better life? I remained defiant. And plus, I only packed for three weeks.
So, with ephemeral thoughts of a potential future European lifestyle dancing around my brain, I set off for Krakow and Prague. I picked Krakow because it has long been my favorite city in Poland, and I was dying to go back. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow is still colored and characterized by its deep-rooted and unique antiquity. Legend has it, centuries ago, a trumpeter stationed in the tower of the church in the Main Square alerted the town to an attacking army of Tartars with his trumpet’s song. His signal was cut short when one of the enemy’s arrows pierced his throat. Now, every hour on the hour the same signal is trumpeted from the tower, breaking off at the supposed moment it historically did, to commemorate the trumpeter’s sacrifice for his city. If that’s not pretty cool I’m not sure what is. Prague I picked because a few years back, my brother visited it on a trip with his school. He brought back these sepia-toned photo prints of the Charles Bridge that simply enchanted me. It was so beautiful, and so close! Additionally, Perrine’s BU friend Farah, whom I met in Paris, put me in touch with another former BU student who now lived and studied in Prague. A few reservations made and it seemed I was good to go.
The morning I was to leave for Krakow, a little more than an hour before my train was to depart, I got a call from Ewa, the daughter of my mom’s friend with whom I’d made plans to travel. I won’t go into details, but she basically just flaked on me. Determined, and pissed off beyond belief, I said fuck it, and set off on my own.
Here’s the thing about traveling solo: While it can most definitely be lonely at times, it is also completely, entirely and thoroughly liberating. The week I spent traveling by train from Warsaw to Krakow to Prague and back was like breathing clean air again after years of nothing but smog and dust. I became more alert, more aware of my surroundings and myself, and navigated my once-uncertain self through unfamiliar territory. I didn’t lose my passport or miss my connecting train. I didn’t make an unforgivable cultural faux pas or get “Taken,” like in that horrible movie. On the contrary: I was enjoying myself. Seeing, doing, eating and drinking exactly what I wanted, where I wanted, when I wanted. I realized it had been a long time since I’d felt that kind of freedom. Life in the States wasn’t too bad: at least I had free food and rent in my parents’ house and friends to hang out with, but there was undoubtedly something missing. My life in Boston bore a kind of stagnancy that was hard to shake without some substantial action. I up and moved to Atlanta last year for a change of pace, so why not Europe? The worst that could happen was another reluctant return to my parents’ home, but at least I would have tried. And hey, didn’t I have generous family members who said I could stay with them in Warsaw while I figured it out? And, well, didn’t that whole dual-citizenship thing mean I could eventually find work? And wasn’t Farah’s friend in Prague pretty cute?
So I decided to stay.
Next time: The Aftermath of Opting to Live in Europe Indefinitely After Having Only Packed and Planned for a Three-Week Visit. Also Lust, or Something Like It.