Spotlight on Julie Vassilatos

by Tracey on April 21, 2014

Julie Vassilatos writes with a rhythm that feels, to me, almost poetic. We gave all of our cast free reign to write whatever they wanted for their spotlight pieces and she took the “What is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?” prompt and ran with it. I am SO glad she did!

by Julie Vassilatos

The scariest thing I’ve ever done lasted entirely too long.

For my PhD dissertation I got it into my head that I should go to Warsaw for a research trip. On this seven-week extravaganza of continuous fear, I learned much more about myself than my topic.

I learned that I cannot do math on the fly, finding myself unable to cope with a currency reform whereby 5 zeroes were being removed from every bill. When I needed to buy something, I would hold out a sweaty handful of bills and change, and let the vendor simply choose the proper amount of cash.

I learned not to heed guidebooks, which steered me wrong on just about every important issue. A great astonishment of Warsaw was the beautifully dressed women who carried off gorgeous colors, cuts, and fabrics with flair, and, I am positive, also shaved their legs. Nothing at all like the hairy-legged, brown-scratchy-wool-clad peasant I was led by the guidebooks to expect, and emulate, which I did easily and with pleasure since that is my own personal style. My host, an elderly woman, informed me too late that Warsaw is more fashionable than Paris. Bad guidebook.

The book also warned me never to eat dairy products (on account of encephalitis) or any fresh produce without cooking it (toxins in the soil). So when my host brought me shining, tiny fresh strawberries from her friend’s garden plot, I was aghast that she might actually expect me to eat them right then and there. They loomed larger and more menacing as the hours, and then days, passed. I fretted over what to do with them. Finally I boiled them. My host happened into the kitchen just as I dropped them into a bubbling pot. “I always prepare them this way! Mmmm!” I lied, knowing she knew I was lying. Fresh strawberries, boiled to limp perfection, served warm, and eaten with an unconvincing smile. I do not recommend this dish.

The guidebook also didn’t explain Polish pronunciation. So all those times I was politely attempting to say please, thank you, and a general polite greeting and parting (all the same word), by a minor vowel misspeak I was actually saying “piglet.”

Beyond the epic guidebook fails, everything else was just plain scary—at least to an anxiety-wracked phobic such as myself.

My main purpose in Warsaw was to use the resources of a university library to find, request, and translate passages from crispy antique tomes in Latin and late medieval Dutch. The librarians tried so hard to find a common language with me. Polish? Forget it. No Russian either. French, German, Italian? Nope, nope, nope. What, doesn’t anybody speak a dead language around here? I copied titles of texts, mutely handed slips of paper to the kindly librarians; they went and fetched. I stared at my volumes, marking down parts to copy, taking occasional notes, and hoping never to have to use the bathroom, make a phone call, or buy coffee—three things which posed, to me, a herculean challenge.

How can a toilet be difficult? How can it be scary? How? For starters, every single toilet was different. Some had buttons, some had strings, some had no discernable moving parts at all. Making an overseas phone call in a public place in that pre-cell-phone time was so traumatizing I wailed about it every day. My host rejoiced whenever her phone rang and it was “Mr. Peter,” whom she seemed to miss as much as I did. Buying anything saw me resort to the nod-shake head-shrug shoulders-wince eyebrows-half-weak-smile foreigner face while I held out those sweaty hands full of coins, hoping they wouldn’t take me too bad.

Riding the city buses was a little harrowing. The system was simple enough, and my travels were not long. But periodically a large man would board, grab some poor fool by the collar, haul him off the bus and commence to hitting him with a short club. The fact that my bus rides brought me to beautiful places almost made up for my concern that I might be the next poor fool on the bus.

And in all of this, I was alone, well and truly alone. For some weeks I found no one to speak English with. There was no facebook to keep in touch with pals. There was no friendly interaction with shopkeepers, the flower seller, the old man selling newspapers at the kiosk. There was only my daily quiet routine: walk to library, page through volumes, translate, go home.

And here is where the plain, routine scary morphed into—well, terror.

I’m the sort of social creature whose stability in the cosmos depends on all the small connections made in chitchat and coffee dates. All my life I’ve taken pains to stretch out a net woven of a thousand such interactions with my fellow humans in order not to plunge into the empty abyss I knew was below, a blank void where there is no other company but my own. I’m not talking about avoiding simple solitude. I’m taking about avoiding, at all costs, the confrontation with my own blank, stark, emptiness.

But in Poland that taut net disappeared in a puff of vapor, that finely-honed avoidance crumbled to dust. I tumbled down into the dark.

And there I was. Sitting down there in the bottom of the abyss. That place I’d sought consciously to avoid my whole adult life. It was dark, and echoey, and isolated. But when my eyes adjusted to the light, I also found out it was fine down there. No place I wanted to stay—but astonishingly, no place I needed to fear.

As the weeks unfolded and I rattled around down in my new hangout, slowly I found a few expat Americans, slowly I made friends with locals who spoke English. I traveled, I researched. I bought an ice cream cone—to hell with brain spores. I spent all my money without ever figuring out how to order a coffee. I came home with boxes and boxes of photocopies. Despite the great weight that I brought home with me I can say with assurance that I left Warsaw far lighter, having finally abandoned the burden of a pointless fear.



Julie, this story fascinated me! Thank you for sharing it!

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love the piece she is reading for the 2014 show. Tickets are available HERE.

Tracey April 21, 2014 at 7:53 am

Julie, I loved this look into your past! Thank you for sharing and for being on the show!

Melisa April 21, 2014 at 8:00 am

I love your writing, Julie! Thank you for sharing this story!

Jill April 21, 2014 at 10:35 am

Perfect Julie…just you, and perfect…so proud of you dear friend!

Shannan April 21, 2014 at 11:26 am

What a great piece, Julie. So glad you wrote it, and so excited to see you in the show!

Elaine April 25, 2014 at 9:00 pm

Great recap. Probably most important thing you ever did. I remember thinking how BRAVE you were! XO

Lori April 29, 2014 at 9:46 pm

Loved this, Julie. Looking forward to the show!

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