The Wilderness Years

Well, hello again.  No, I have not abandoned the blog but I had some business to attend to.  First, I decided to digitize all my old pre-digital stuff, after they’d been sitting in a couple of drawers at my parents house for over a decade.  This was quite the undertaking but TBH, I could have sat there and scanned those negatives for hours on end and really that’s what I did and it took about a month and a half to go through all of it.

Second, I got a new computer.  Not as big of a deal as other new computers but my old machine, much as I loved it, I had to close for now.  But I will never stop loving it.  I say this so the computer doesn’t suddenly decide to break down or something.  I love the old computer and the new one equally!!!!  

Anyway, while going through all the old stuff, I found a lot of pictures I took in Poland when I was studying there and it led me to the title of this blog entry — the Wilderness Years.

So what were the wilderness years and how is Poland connected to that?  Well, read on and you shall find out.

In 1997, I went to study in Denmark and I didn’t know it at the time, that began the Wilderness Years for me.  I went to Denmark and everything changed for me and I traveled quite a bit too during that time period.  I came back to the United States having visited four countries in a short period of time.  Here I was this person who had had all of these experiences back at a college I didn’t particularly like, among a group of people I really did not fit in with.  Nothing much really made that much sense.  I remember being in my dorm at college and wondering if anything would ever make sense again.  To make a long story short, it did but not in the way that I expected.

It was around this time that I really started to question where I lived and definitely who I was around.  It got really confusing for me about where I belonged, even life wise.  My parents lived in a place called Westchester that I utterly hated.  They had moved away from where I had lived when I was in high school to another part of Westchester so I didn’t even really know anyone from there anymore.  My parents had also turned my old room into a gym, which hey was totally their right so there wasn’t a real spot for my stuff.  I was off in the wilderness, in a way.  I knew where I didn’t want to be but I didn’t know where I was supposed to land yet.

The summer after I returned from Denmark, I decided to go to Poland for the summer.  At that time, I visited the country quite frequently.  I had always thought I would return to Poland at some point for school just to get in touch with the roots.  I also always thought it would be weird if I didn’t speak the same language as my grandparents and family.

My university had an exchange program with Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.  For a couple of weeks before the program began, I spent time with my family.  My cousin is the same age as me took me on these hiking trips with her friends that would last days on end.  Those trips were also some of the key features of the Wilderness years.

She had this very interesting group of friends to go with.  We’d carry these enormous backpacks and hike for hours and I’m not going to lie, get utterly and totally lost at times.  One time we stopped to rent a room from this woman who had this huge upstairs full of just beds.  All six of a us slept in there.  I wanted to take a shower because I was sweaty and hot and the woman told me she would turn the hot water on for me.  Turns out the hot water was only on for about 30 seconds.  Another time we stayed in a “hotel” from the communist era with the faucets reversed.  Again I was just trying to take a shower and fiddling with the knobs until I gave up.  Turned out the hotel had switched them to keep people from overusing the hot water.  In yet another hostel, there was an enormous, mismatched picture of a waterfall in this dining hall whose menu included items like “the taste of the Witch.” I’m not sure which part of the witch they had used in the dish.  I almost forgot to include the time we slept in a converted utility closet in a school.  Again, the wilderness years.

I guess I should say some words here about how this all shaped me but really it was seeing this country I was born in from this funny perspective and enjoying being hidden away from everyone and off doing my own thing.

Going to Krakow for school also turned out to be a key experience in the wilderness years.  The program was so bare bones and not flashy but really good at the same time.  We were in this dorm that chronically overfed all of us, so after classes and lunch, there was dorm nap time.  All of these grown people were napping at 2pm like children.  

Everything was so spartan.  There was nothing in the dorm rooms besides beds, a table and a chair.  No televisions.  One phone for four people.  But I don’t remember ever being bored or lacking anything to do.  I had a roommate whose family had moved to Germany from Poland in the 1970s who was one of the coolest people I have ever met.  We became best friends and she was someone I talked to for 15 years afterwards.  Every night people would be heading to the center of Krakow to go out or just watch some soccer in the main square.  Then on the weekends, they would put us onto a bus and drive us to some interesting place near Krakow.  Everything was so simple, but so nice.

My Polish class was taught by one of the best teachers I have ever had, Pani Dorotka.  Pani means “mrs” in Polish.  The classes were in a junior high near the dorms.  Every morning I would walk over with this coffee I would drink from a plastic cup.  I could speak Polish fine but I could barely read and I couldn’t write at all.  Pani Dorotka helped with all of that.

The school also had the program of my dreams — an art class taught with Krakow as the backdrop.  The teacher would talk about a certain period in art history and oh over here we have an example.  Outside, sweaty with a camera wandering around all day.  HEAVEN.

In total, I ended up in these study abroad programs for a year.  They shaped me as a person but it never, ever, ever, ever crossed my mind to work in the programs.  I had no idea what I would even do in them.  It seems crazy now when I say it, but you know, the wilderness years.  Time to figure out where it’s all going to go.

Going through my old photographs recently, I realized how grateful I was for the wilderness years and how much those years ended up meaning in the course of my life.  I felt lost as a student in the study abroad program and thought — I don’t want other people to feel lost in their lives.  It’s funny how these seemingly insignificant experiences can clue you into what you will do in the future.  

Here’s to what shapes us and how the wild, unstructured times in our lives help us become the best version of ourselves.  Here are pictures from the beautiful Krakow.  Hashtag Wanderlust!!!!!!!

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