“Do you want to go to Poland?” I asked in place of a greeting. I walked down the sidewalk toward my rented house in Colorado Springs, the 7-11 sign beaming in the distance. A close friend from home and I had browsed through WorkAway‘s listings for over two years, but school and work commitments always got in the way — until now. Upon finding a hostel listing on WorkAway that seemed like a good fit, I gave her a call.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. Recently graduated, we had a summer ahead of us without any obligations. The hostel, situated on the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains, had open positions for twenty-five hours of work a week in exchange for accommodation, most meals, and a small stipend. We exchanged a few messages with the owner, had a short video chat, and then booked a flight across the Atlantic to work at a hostel of whose existence we were unsure.
“It’s real,” I said as we lugged our baggage up a steep hill. The hostel’s wooden frame came into sight — a quintessential mountain home, surrounded by trees and distant peaks. We had initially discussed working at the hostel for a month and then looking for another WorkAway in Europe; after our first day, we decided to stay for at least two months. Almost instantly, it felt like home.
Trust came in all forms here, from the owner barely questioning or vetting us before agreeing on our arrival date to the stories of the people we met. In the lamp-lit common room, people share tales of the kindness of strangers, from recovering lost belongings to hitching rides across country borders. A local taxi driver found a wallet one of our guests had left behind in his cab and tracked him down to return it. When another guest came without any cash, a woman he had just met lent him some with the belief he would pay her back.
Unlike any commitment I ever had in the States — jobs, college, volunteering — the hostel position has no forms or contract. As staff, we get access to the necessary keys, and live behind mostly unlocked doors. Often, while at work, guests offer to help with simple tasks like cleaning the kitchen or taking out the bins. But you’re paying to stay here, I think. Why would you offer to do my job? I had grown accustomed to a give-and-take kind of lifestyle, not a give-and-give. And yet giving is mostly all that happens here.
Often, I leave my valuables out on the kitchen table or in the unlocked attic or behind the reception desk. During two months of working, I only lost a couple of chocolate bars. My laundry hangs outside on the drying rack for a day or two at a time; my phone charges on an empty table while I clean rooms upstairs. Some would call it carelessness, but I call it trust: of the goodness of the people who choose to stay and eat and laugh in this place.
After a coworker left the hostel to start her job back home, she told us she would try to come see us again before we left Poland. We had spent a month working together, then a few days at her home in Warsaw, followed by a tearful goodbye. I initially viewed this as a wistful plan rather than something that would actually happen. Then, after she asked about our work schedule, I began to wonder if she would come back. But I knew she worked full-time, so when she threw open the front door with a huge smile at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, I cried tears of happiness and surprise. She took two night trains to make the visit feasible — the testament of a strong friendship, but nevertheless unexpected. She had said she would come back, and so she did.
After spending most of my life in a culture filled with well-meaning but empty promises and wishes, I’m still getting used to the idea of, “I said I’d do something, so I will.” When some friends and coworkers began talking about a reunion for Christmas and New Year’s, it seemed like the kind of idea that would never take off, until they started to look at trains and flights and boats from their respective countries. My friend from home and I dreamed of traveling together, and we made that happen, beginning with this hostel.
During my last week at the hostel, I think about all that I’ll miss: the embers of a bonfire around which near-strangers from a multitude of countries sit, the slow trickle of people returning from their hikes with aching muscles and never enough beer, the common room’s flow of conversation from international politics to pets back home. It’s easier to breathe here, to open myself up to those I meet without hesitation.
“So there aren’t keys?” guests will sometimes ask upon arrival. There are, of course, but unlabeled in desk drawers or stored in unlocked cupboards, not given out to most of those who enter. I feel safer without them, their absence ultimately opening more doors.