Peace Corps Poland by KC Peek
I spent several hours picking all the miniature chocolate chips out of the box of chocolate muesli cereal. I was listening to Great Expectations on audio cassette. I had read the week’s issue of Newsweek cover to cover – twice and finished a cross-stitch within the last week too. The 15 postcards and three letters I had written did nothing to relieve the aching emptiness. I also attempted to chat with my neighbors and went shopping for dinner every afternoon. And I was still going crazy trying to find things to do. I couldn’t find enough to occupy my brain, my brain that never stopped. The room was too quiet to read a book. I listened to every novel I could find in English, but I needed to occupy my hands too. I had all the potential energy of a ball dangling over the edge of cliff. Except, I wasn’t waiting for anything. So…I decided to make chocolate chip cookies and the local market didn’t have chocolate chips. Which is why I was plucking tiny bits of chocolate from rolled oats.
I was the only Peace Corps Volunteer in my city, or even within a couple hours train ride of my city. My Polish colleagues, Konrad and Magda were kind souls. They knew very little about what to expect from me or the Peace Corps. Which translates roughly into: there was nothing for me to do and Konrad kept looking at me expectantly. I kept looking at the clock expectantly. When I was at work, I couldn’t wait to go home. But I wilted every time I walked into that empty room. The spark of hope that something would have changed, dying when I walked in the door.
Tortured. That is a good word. Full of self-loathing. Every day was like a yo-yo. I was getting whiplash. Should I stay? Should I go? I hated myself for wanting to leave. But I couldn’t stand the loneliness. Or the feeling of uselessness. I was exhausted. I was battered. I was so close to the edge I could see the abyss below.
I lived in a single room with an attached bathroom. The stair landing outside my door served as my kitchen with a stove and sink. It was November, so the window sill was quite handy at keeping my milk and cheese cold. The strange smell of burning coal hung heavy in the cold air and clung to everything. I spoke just enough Polish to find a bathroom and buy my groceries. Not even that really. When I asked at the corner store, what were the cheeses in the display, they looked at me as if I had a mental condition. After all, they were clearly labeled biały ser and żółty ser, white cheese and yellow cheese.
I wrote in my journal every morning about the lack of personal space in Polish lines, about the monoculture of Catholics, about the individual cows quietly munching on small patches of grass next to the busy city streets. My journal did not write back. There was no voice of reason. There were no logical arguments to my emotional outbursts. As tormented as I was, I was making decisions every few hours and yo-yoing back a few hours later.
When you’ve spent so much time so close to the edge that you forget how close you are, that the precipice almost feels normal, it really takes nothing to push you over. A gust of wind, the wrong step, a moment of distraction. Some chocolate chip cookies.
The chocolate chip cookies did not turn out. When the cookies came out of the tiny, Celsius only oven, burned and raw, I collapsed into a heap on the floor. I didn’t sob or moan or cry out. Fatigue claimed me. Sleep. Oblivion. A temporary reprieve from the endless inane chatter in my head.
In my dream I’m clutching the outcroppings, my fingers bleeding with the effort. And nobody helps me because they think I’m rock climbing. I’ve forgotten how to cry out for help. I curse my fingers for not being strong enough to pull me to safety. I blame myself for being so close to the edge in the first place. But I don’t let go. As effortless as that would be. Something keeps me clinging. A hint of a face, an aroma, a melody, a future. . .
The rest of my time in Poland was much more manageable. Games of giant chess with the old men at the local park. A surreal field of spider webs glistening in the early morning sun. Babcias (grandmas) beating rugs on the hot, windy, summer days. My Polish improved and so did my relationships. I had gained a sense of purpose. From that point on I made my life happen, I didn’t wait for it to happen to me.
The first thing I made when I got back to the US? Chocolate chip cookies.
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