When I was living/studying in London in early 2002 I attended a protestant church down the street from my flat. Coincidentally, I knew one of the guys who was working there, and I began volunteering with the youth group. Every Wednesday night I showed up to hang out and chat with the middle school and high school kids. The group was also in the midst of planning a trip to Poland in March to work with Habitat for Humanity, and they needed more adult chaperones. Not being one to turn down a free trip to Poland (or anywhere else for that matter), I enthusiastically accepted.
Now let me tell you something about Poland in March: It is C-O-L-D. I mean, really cold. I didn’t own the kind of clothing I needed to keep me warm. So I spent a week shivering, shoveling dirt, shivering, placing drywall, shivering, wandering around downtown Wroclaw, shivering… well you get the idea.At the Habitat for Humanity house, (called “Nasz Dom” in Poland), we were instructed to work with an extremely serious and demanding project foreman, called Ziggy. His name was clearly not Ziggy, but something in Polish that we couldn’t catch or pronounce. Naturally we embraced cultural insensitivity and simply referred to him as Ziggy. Perhaps it was the nickname that made him so disagreeable. Or perhaps he actually knew what he was doing and he didn’t want some silly young people screwing up his perfectly aligned drywall. Either way, Ziggy was a difficult man to please. After showing me how to carefully place the drywall, he would allow me to complete a section, and then he would walk back over to assess my work, frown, and then take it all back down and tell me to start over. However, I’m proud to say that by the end of the trip, I could place the drywall and mix the mortar with the best of them. By the time we left I think I was even able to coax a slight lip curl out of Ziggy that resembled something like a grumpy, reluctant smile.
As it usually happens when you volunteer, you realize that you’re probably more affected through the experience than the people that you are “helping.” The family whose house we were building had been working together with other volunteers for months already, and perhaps even years. The progress was slow going, but their excitement about their future home was almost palpable. They were incredibly appreciative even for the meager amount of work that we were able to complete with the (sometimes unfocused and silly) high school kids. It was incredibly humbling. I felt even more astonished and sheepish when I learned that this small home would be able to house four families at once. How spoiled and impatient I am!
One evening the family wanted to show us their appreciation by hosting a dinner for us. Before the meal, they prayed in Polish through a translator. I always love hearing prayers in other languages – it makes me remember that what I believe transcends any one particular nationality, culture or tradition. It’s beautiful to witness. After the prayer, the meal was served: real handmade Polish sausage. Now, those of you who know me know that I’m not the biggest fan of “meat in tube form,” as Anthony Bourdain lovingly calls it, especially not when it is made by hand in someone’s backyard with real intestine casings. However, I couldn’t bear to offend that sweet family; I ate as much as I could muster.
It was an eye-opening, exhausting and yet satisfying week. I saw a little bit of the world that I had never seen, learned some words and phrases in Polish, honed my drywall skills, and was overwhelmed by the kindness and humility of the Polish people. I returned a little more thoughtful, and a little more convinced that the world is a much larger place, and at the very same time a much smaller place, than I imagined it to be.