Countless people ask me this (myself included). Sometimes I’ll shrug, sometimes I’ll launch into an exhaustive play-by-play on all my adventures from last September until now.
I’m a recent grad from Seattle, USA, now working and living indefinitely in a hostel in Warsaw, Poland. In exchange for accommodation (in a 6-bunk dorm), I lead nightly activities for guests from all over the world, who wonder why on earth a random American became the “Warsaw guide.” By day I work as an English teacher for Berlitz Co., without any prior experience, certification, or Polish language skills. What began as a 1-month post-grad holiday turned into 8 months (and counting) of adventure – all on a shoestring budget.
I’ve made it my mission to work and travel as long as I can without breaking the bank. It’s possible if you don’t mind a bit more grit than glamor!
OK, here comes the “play-by-play”:
June 2014: Graduated very confused about pursuing anything to do with my undergrad degree in speech therapy. Worked at a pizza place in West Seattle over the summer. Lots of thumb-twiddling.
July 2014: Read blogs on solo backpacking. Decided to embark on a cliché Euro adventure before settling into some “real job”. (Ha.) Saved up and budgeted a max of 2k. Figured I’d stay no longer than a few months… but still booked a one-way ticket!
August 2014: Spent sleepless nights researching European cities and planning an itinerary for the first two weeks (“Oh that’s what a hostel is!), browsing travel blogs and price-comparing all sorts of trains, planes, and buses. Purchased an epic carry-on backpack and obsessively downsized my packing list (as advised by the travel blog gurus).
September 2014: Landed in Amsterdam, joined by my best friend Kelso, and we took Europe by storm. Crashed in party hostels and night trains to Prague, Munich (bigger-than-face beer steins at Oktoberfest), then Paris. After two outrageous weeks, she flew back to the States and I was off on my own!
October 2014: Fell in love with the everyday spontaneity of solo travel. Met countless friends, hostel-hopping my way south through France and Italy. Time to reevaluate the budget; managed to live on just a few euros a day (lots of bread and cheese), avoiding restaurants and touristy areas. Opted for the cheapest, stenchiest overnight buses.
Made it down to Naples to stay with my friend Jaqi, whose father worked in the U.S. military base nearby. Confirmed cliches about Napoli: heavenly gelato and pizza di mozzarella bufalini, gesticulating Italians, and chaotic train connections (oh wait, that’s just our sense of direction).
I’d just been traveling for a month, but it felt like a year. Cheesy as it sounds, every day was a new adventure and growth opportunity—from orienting myself in new cities, scrounging for cheap meals, finding hostels in the black of night, deal-hunting for a ride to my next destination, and living in the same stinky boots and jacket every day.
But no matter how much I pennypinched, I couldn’t go on forever without an income. It seemed impossible to land a (legal) paying job in Europe, so I decided the best way to prolong my travels was to do some sort of work “exchange”. I emailed as many hostels as I could in my next random idea: Spain!
Luckily I found an opening in the fairytale-esque city of Granada. In exchange for accommodation, I’d make beds and do various cleaning at the Granada Inn Hostel. Jaqi and I parted ways in Barcelona – infamous for pickpockets – where predictably my purse and phone were swiped right under my nose.
November 2014: Continued via bus along the Spanish coast, through velvet-beached Valencia, and then a sweaty 13-hour journey to Granada. Finally arrived in this breathtaking city – snug in the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas by the ancient Moorish palace, the Alhambra! Spent a month bedmaking and getting chastised by the maids (“Más rápida, más rápida!”); in my off-time, I enjoyed 1 euro cervezas with tapas (jamon!), hiking through hills and cave dwellings, street-performing, hosting jam sessions with travelers, and slumber-partying in the attic with fellow volunteers from all over the world.
December 2014: Sadly departed the hostel life – more sadly, with a plane ticket home. Figured I should return for the holidays and sort out a job. Had my last adventures in Málaga, Sevilla, buzzing Madrid, then Dublin via a $10(!) RyanAir flight. Clinked pints of Guinness with old drunks and fiddlers, then hopped a bus west to Galway and the Wild Atlantic coast. Reflected on how lucky I’d been this whole trip – then, ironically, back in Madrid I picked up the most God-awful zombie disease of my life (later diagnosed “Hand Foot and Mouth Disease” – yetch!). Switched my flight to return home sooner, skipping the last leg in New York where I’d intended to visit family on the way back west.
But there was some silver lining to rebooking my flight: Strangely, it was cheaper to buy a round-trip flight than a one-way ticket home! The adventure didn’t have to end after all – I could be back in Europe after Christmas! That is, if my wallet could stand it; I needed to find work right away.
Holidays/January 2015: Devoted my month at home to furiously typing emails. If I could secure a job in Europe before my return flight in the end of January, I’d board that plane. Researched work visa requirements in European countries – options were limited, unless I chose an organized program, which usually cost money or had restrictive contracts. (I wanted to do my own thing.) Most countries required me to fly to the nearest embassy (L.A.) with a fat check and 50 kilos of paperwork. No thanks.
My surest option was teaching English; I’d met tons of American teachers in Madrid and heard about native speakers teaching and traveling. Besides, I’d always wanted to give teaching a try (something vaguely relevant to my speech therapy studies in university). I sent my C.V. to about 100 different language schools, crossing my fingers someone would take a visaless American without any official teaching certification. As expected, I got many rejections, mainly because I wasn’t an E.U. passport-holder and employers didn’t want any legal issues. (As some bloggers preach, it’s “no longer the 90’s”, when any English-speaking loser could roll up in a foreign country and be handed a job).
But finally – a positive response! Berlitz Corporation, a huge language education company, has schools in Poland that offer work permits for foreigners. I had a Skype interview with my future supervisor and we connected immediately. I didn’t need any official teaching certification, aside from a short online course provided by Berlitz. The school was in the Polish capital, Warsaw, which I knew virtually nothing about (besides, you know, WW2 stuff) – but my gut told me to just go for it.
As far as the hostel gig, I thought it would be a good place to start out until I got my feet on the ground. By now I was used to sleeping among strangers so I didn’t mind the idea of living in a hostel! I emailed a few hostels in the heart of Warsaw and heard back from the city’s most famous backpacker destination, Oki Doki Hostel. I expected the same sort of cleaning-related tasks as in Granada, but not this time… My job was basically to party with travelers!
End of January/February 2015: Back in Europe with the same trusty backpack. Sweat my way through the Parisian border (I’d exceeded my 3-month limit in the E.U. zone) but faced no problems. Planned to avoid the E.U. and bum around the U.K. for a month until my Polish work permit was ready. Bantered with Londoners, tightened the reigns on my bank account, then picked up a 5-pound(!) bus ticket to Scotland.
Cleaned toilets in a Hogwarts-like hostel in Edinburgh for 3 weeks while I finished my Berlitz training. Hitched a lift north to the Highlands, where I befriended some local musicians and was basically adopted by a random family in a small village in the Isle of Skye. Ah, homemade flapjacks!
End of February 2015: Arrived in Warsaw (thanks again, RyanAir) to a proper Polish greeting from the hostel staff: “pierogi” dumplings, good laughs, and plenty of vodka. Started teaching shortly after, petrified and partially hungover. Thus began my current adventure!
A day in my life today? At Berlitz, I teach mostly one-on-one lessons with Polish business people (and sometimes hilarious kids). I still feel a bit like I don’t know what I’m doing, but my students are awesome and appreciate working with a “native speaker.” I teach about 25 hours a week, a schedule which varies day-to-day, balanced with my evening activities at the hostel – at times taking a toll on my, um, teaching performance. I’m able to save money since the hostel takes care of my expenses (including beers).
Most of the guests are young party-going travelers, so I lead them around the city from pub to pub (“But… you’re not Polish?! At all?!”). Nightly events range from these “pub crawls” to dumpling-making workshops, karaoke nights, roasting sausages along the riverside, and more. Then I crash in a dorm with 6-8 strangers – and scramble to class the next day!
Of course it’s easy to feel like a doofus when you’re suddenly a “teacher” who has to Google the names of verb tenses, and a “tour guide” in a city you can hardly pronounce (try it: “Warszawa”).
Every day is a brand new and borderline-ridiculous experience; my comfort zone is kind of like an… infinitely expanding supermassive black hole?
I may not know what I’m doing in 10 years (or 2 months), but I’m certainly not letting life pass by before I’ve decided. I’ve learned far more about other cultures, people, and my own potential than I ever could behind a desk. And I won’t be stopping anytime soon – next adventure to be determined!