A little over 5 years ago (I missed the actual day because of my move), I went to Krakow, Poland. I had received a grant to do 6 weeks of intensive Polish study. The trip completely changed my life, but not at all in the way I expected it would.
I went to Krakow with a lot to prove. I started grad school feeling like an utter failure as a jazz musician and a sub-par ethnomusicologist. I watched my colleagues who were only a year or two ahead of me get prestigious research grants to travel the world while I got stuck with quarter after quarter of TAing.
In spring 2011, I found out I’d be going to Poland in summer and teaching my own course in fall. I felt like I had made it as a scholar and was now en route to a marketable dissertation on contemporary Polish something or other.
I’d also just recently been dumped by both a long-term partner and a close friend. I had no idea that once my life started to unravel a few months later – these would become the first of many relationships to fall apart.
I left Seattle putting on the front that I was a serious scholar and not at all heartbroken. Once I got to Poland, however, a completely different side of me came out. I did all the necessary work for my studies, but also engaged in enough manically-hilarious-rockstar-comedian-antics to fill several one-woman shows and/or self-deprecating memoirs.
My highs became wonderfully, euphorically high, but my lows became deeper and darker. I successfully hid my sessions of curling up into fetal position on my dorm floor or sneaking down to the dorm lobby (for internet access) at 3am to listen to 808s & Heartbreak on loop.
I only tell a small group of people my most awesome/embarrassing Krakow stories, but there is one thing I’ll tell almost everyone when my trip comes up: throughout Krakow, there were lots of extended golf carts dubbed The Party Bus (in English) carrying boisterous passengers and blaring loud club music. The Party Bus advertised several destinations, the most disturbing of which was Auschwitz. Taking The Party Bus to Auschwitz remains one of the most spot-on metaphors for manic-depression that I’ve ever encountered.
My trip set off a domino-effect that culminated in a full-scale breakdown that fall. While it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time, it was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. I was lucky enough to have the support system in place to not only put my life back together, but to create the life I wanted.
The biggest mistake that I made by trying to do fieldwork in Poland was that I put success before happiness. I though that international fieldwork would make me a prestigious ethnomusicologist with my pick of tenure-track jobs. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of the fact that I truly loved playing jazz, even if I still hated myself for not measuring up to other people’s standards. I ignored the fact that I enjoyed teaching way more than I enjoyed research. I also was in denial about my own limitations – that 9 months of being thousands of miles away from my family and friends would’ve utterly destroyed me.
Ultimately, I kept the best parts of who I was in Poland – funny, adventurous, and playfully defiant – and (mostly) jettisoned the worst – insecure, dishonest with myself, and blindly ambitious. I’m thankful for my time in Krakow because it forced me to assess my life and make some difficult changes. It gave me enough really good memories to serve as a reminder that my life and happiness were worth fighting for. It also gave me one of the best playlists of awesomely bad music that I’ve ever compiled but I’ll save that for a later post…