Freedom comes from unexpected places. To wake up on a mattress as the morning sun leaks through hand-crocheted curtains, undoubtedly haggled from one of the local markets, and open a huge window to feel the pleasant, familiar smell of fresh bread from the bakery less than a football field away is freedom. To walk for hours and rest in fields of flowers is beauty, even when walking all the way home seems an unattainable task. Nature transcends calendars, alarm clocks, and computers and all necessities are within reach. The last time I visited my first hometown of Olsztyn, an enticing feeling of independence colored my young soul and illuminated my surroundings in a light that would bring me to what I am today. I found my most treasured aspects of life in a small Polish metropolis.
At the beginning, Olsztyn was simply another place to which my mother brought my older sister, Julia, and me. I always felt like a stranger to Olsztyn, unlike my sister, who was raised by the city itself, from her early years of playground-play to the beginnings of her teenage angst. After all, she was born there. My love for Olsztyn, however, began to grow only after my admiration for Julia, who slowly began telling me more and more stories, until my capacity of nostalgic thought was equally overflowing with memories of that northeastern city in Poland. I began to believe it was a truly magical place.
In June 2006, a week after my 8th grade graduation, I happily, yet anxiously, boarded an airplane, from Chicago to Warsaw. The unusual combination of my emotions that day allowed me to leave Chicago with ease and excitement. I knew the upcoming summer would be spent very well. It was my first solo vacation and I was ready. My mom’s friends scooped me up at the airport when I arrived and we drove together in their enormous white van for four hours along roads of poppies, grasses, and road merchants until we finally reached our destination. Arriving at the curb of the street I once lived on, my body, exhausted from the trip, leaped into sheer contentment and at once, I felt I was at a comfortable place.
Realizing that not much had changed since the last time I found myself there, I was reminded of the longevity of life; unlike the scenery of Chicago, which transformed nearly every month, there was a comforting aura of permanence. I spent the next several weeks exploring niches of Olsztyn I had only heard about when I was still too young to see them firsthand. Back in Chicago, I yearned for an atmosphere so gentle and subtle. The hills, endless foliage, and modestly beautiful architecture brought my spirits up every time I went outside. Though I forced myself to lock both front doors tight once night fell, because drunks often wandered the hallways of the brightly painted apartment building, I became braver than ever before, knowing the splendor outside my windows. At last, I felt independence poking out of me.
Many teenagers recall summer vacations with words such as “awesome” and “amazing,” conversing endlessly on the subject of how much they saw and did. I, however, experienced a summer of tranquility, characterized by the bittersweet loneliness of growing up and real-life struggles that urged me to learn what it means to be satisfied with being alive. I brought back to Chicago the liveliness of heart and indestructibility of spirit through which I have found my own personal freedom.