Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I left my heart in Eastern Europe

This photo was taken almost 13 years ago. I was just 18, sleep deprived (it was the day after my year 12 formal) and nervous with excitement. A group of five of us had flown to Poland to stay in a 500 year old castle in a tiny, poor village near the German border. We would teach English, hang out with the local kids and families and drink a lot of sweet black tea.

I remember arriving that first night. It was cold and white and mysterious, driving along the little lane to that big old palace. Inside was warm and inviting. I remember feeling surprisingly at home. (Later, when I traveled to other parts of the world, I would expect that same feeling, thinking I was just a born traveler. But it was reserved for that part of the world alone.) We were welcomed in, we were shown around. The castle had been used as a German army base during the war, left in ruins and bought for a steal by Australian missionaries who had cleared, cleaned and rebuilt 3 storeys of rubble into a warm haven for recovering alcoholics, the local poor, the disabled and anyone else who happened to travel through. I wanted to stay forever.

I almost did. At the end of our six week trip, I called my parents to ask them to cancel my ticket. I wasn't coming home. There was a position supervising the resident missionary kids as they completed their homeschooling. Mum and Dad so generously helped cover the cancellation fee and gave me their blessing. We drove the other Aussies back to the airport, waved goodbye and came home. My own little flat on the third floor of an old castle. My first time living out of home.

Immediately I fell in love with the people, the language, the food, the life. I'm sure I was a terrible teacher. I was 18, my oldest student was 14 and became a good friend. I was disorganised, fun, well meaning. They knew how to walk all over me and I let them. But gosh, I loved them. I felt like I was living in some amazing novel.
There was a beautiful Polish family living next door to my apartment. They had a new baby, the youngest of five. And whenever I heard her cry, I would knock on their door and ask if I could cuddle her and we would look out the window and sing. I would enjoy the chatter of her three and six year old siblings. (Later, people would laugh at my 'three years old's accent' when I spoke Polish. Now that I have my own three year old, I laugh at how it must have sounded too!) And then, I started to enjoy the attention of her oldest brother. Tomek.
We dreamed of marrying into this beautiful country, beautiful family, raising Polish children, staying in this fairy tale forever. I called my parents again. Told them I wanted to stay longer. I would come home for Christmas and fly back. To marry, to teach, to drink sweet black tea the rest of my days. This time, my folks were less excited.
Once home, back in the familiar sweltering Christmas heat, they convinced me to stay, to study, to grow up, to wait. I went out to Bourke, in outback Australia, to work on a cotton farm, and study about life and culture and the Bible and decide what I wanted to do with my life. It was there, incidently, that I met Tim, though we wouldn't marry for another five years. Life looked and felt so different back in my own country. I was so different. Tomek and I broke up. And I decided to do youth work in central west NSW. Then I decided to go to uni. Then I decided to marry Tim. And each year a new decision, none regretted, would take me further and further away from that little village.

Just after Tim and I married, I was awarded a scholarship to study Russian in St Petersburg. After almost 3 months in Russia, we travelled through Poland so I could show Tim where I had begun adulthood.

And it all came back. The language, the smells, the taste for tea without milk. I saw Tomek and his family again for the first time in ten years. We spent the day with him and his beautiful wife and son in Prague. I was home again. And again I wanted to stay.

But we didn't. We continued on our travels, came home, stayed at university, had babies. And here I am! Living on the coast in a house in the suburbs, sewing and raising children. I'm so glad I'm here. But I do hope, one day, our decisions will take us there again, for longer than a couple of weeks.
Getting ready for Christmas this year, I wanted to do something that expressed my love for those people and my heart for those who have so much less than I. Each year, The families in the castle and an American church in Germany put together Christmas hampers of food, staples and special luxuries, for the local poor so that they can celebrate a joyful, warm Christmas also. For the month of November, I will be donating 20% of all money from my sales to contribute to these hampers. Now when you buy your special Christmas presents from my store, you'll be giving twice!
You can read more about Elim Christian Center in Poland here. Over a decade later, many of my friends, Polish and Australian, are still there, welcoming all kinds of people, promoting tourism to boost the local economy, training local women to sew the most amazing nativity scenes to sell to bring in an income for their families, providing care in the local orphanage.

I have been astounded at the response to my little Etsy shop in the last two months. Thank you! I look forward to being able to pass on the blessing.


  1. Um marrr- you just made me completely itchy for traveling again! So nice to remember the days growing up and seeing the world :o)

  2. Great story! I know what you mean, some places are just magic - they make you want to just stay.... I'm sure you'll be going back ;)

  3. Seems like a lifetime ago. Love what you've done with Tickle and Hide...

  4. I thought you were going to tell me you married tomek and lived happily ever after in your castle!

    What's a hamper?
    In the US, a hamper is a tall basket where we throw our dirty laundry. I don't think that's what you are donating though.

  5. what a great story, thanks for sharing

  6. I know how your heart feels. A part of mine is in Sweden. I have been there twice and would like to go back someday with my kids along too (especially since the first child came back as extra baggage).

  7. by the way: I feel the same about Australia! :-) we were there in '99 for 7 weeks with our daughters. drove from Adeliade through the outback to Darwin, from there we drove to Cairns and flew back to the Netherlands. Waht a magnificant experience that was....sigh... :-)

  8. I loved reading your story - I'll have to check your blog to see it you have some others I can read :)

  9. The language, the smells, the taste for tea without milk. I saw Tomek and his family again for the first time in ten years. We spent the day with him and his beautiful wife and son in Prague. I was home again. And again I wanted to stay.So I hope this read :)


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