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Central Europe Poland

It’s not what you think…

Dusk came early that evening, the sun dipping below the nearby snow-capped peaks, enveloping the little town of Zakopane in a restless pre-winter chill. It was the first holiday we had since moving to Budapest, and we were in Central Europe, so the mulled wine still held its nostalgic appeal (and probably always will). We ordered a cup from a nearby stand. Wrapping our mitten-clad hands around the steaming mugs, we wandered while we sipped.


The valley in Zakopane surrounded by high peaks.

Zakopane is a popular destination amongst Polish holiday seekers. Its near perfect location, nestled in a golden valley surrounded by the impressive Tatry Mountain range, offers endless recreation all year long. It’s where one of my favorite travel memories occurred (along with this one, of course). But this was the first week in November, and the sleepy town was enjoying its short break between the two high seasons.


Autumnal colors shining bright in Zakopane.

We strolled down the quiet main street, lined with shops selling kitchy souvenirs and expensive winter garb. We found a secluded area at the top of the street, a small bridge crossing the creek that twisted its way through the valley. We stood on the bridge, musing over everything we could: how lucky we were to be standing in this very spot, how tough the move had been, and the challenges of acclimating to a new culture. It was just the two of us, under the wispy dark sky, stars glistening and us shivering.

Our peaceful moment was interrupted by a quiet voice from behind, muttering in rapid-fire Polish. We whipped around, startled. Seconds before, we were the only two in sight. We glanced down from the bridge and saw a young woman, bundled in every type of winter gear imaginable, hugging a clipboard to her chest.

Assuming it was a solicitation, we attempted our best form of sorry in Polish, then explained, in English, our embarrassing lack of language skills. As we began to turn back around, a wide smile spread across her face. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed. To our initial dismay, she spoke perfect English. There was no escaping this sub-zero solicitation.

If you know me, you know I’d normally be irritated by this twist of events. But I was relaxed. I was in Poland, in a mountain town, half-way through our first vacation in Europe. You could have probably told me anything and I would’ve happily listened, nodding along. My heart was open and welcoming. But you would not believe our faces when her smile turned into speech, and her mouth formed the word “musterbation”.

This young woman, I wish I remembered her name, was a university student, studying in nearby Krákow. She was pursuing a degree in sociology and had an assignment to help 100 people. We were one of the lucky recipients. Her act of charity was to share wisdom… wisdom she had acquired in her 19 years of life. Remember, my heart was open, so although my eyes wanted to roll, they did not. Fire away college student, enlighten me! Well, I can safely say she did more than that.

I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. “Musterbation” sounds a lot like… but her laugh assured us it was not. Musterbation was, in fact, a bit more philosophical. It is the act of completing tasks and making decisions based on the idea that we must accomplish those obligatory tasks, or we must make a certain decision in a particular way. Must was taking over our lives and it was, according to her, causing endless resentment toward ourselves and others. If we are always doing things because we feel like we must, where was the joy?


Every fall color imaginable aboard the Butorowy Wierch chair lift.

Good point, but where was she going with this? Her advice: turn musterbation into wanterbation! Okay, she didn’t really say “wanterbation”. She just advised us to change our thought process: stop thinking that we must go to work, we must help our coworker, we must attend that event. Instead, exchange the word must with want and think about all the reasons that make you want instead of must. Tell yourself that you want to go to work, you want to help that coworker, you want to attend that event.

Easier said than done, of course, but she had an interesting idea. Of course our minds have a lot to do with our happiness. If we can train our brains to think in a more optimistic way, we would feel very different about the mandatory activities in our lives.

This was particularly relatable to our situation at the time. We were beyond joyous for the opportunity to live, work, and travel abroad. But there is a hard side to all of that, one that many people don’t talk about. We needed the reminder that we were lucky. That we were fortunate. That we can want to challenge ourselves each day in our new culture, despite the difficulties and frustrations that come along with it.

We thanked her and she disappeared almost as mysteriously as she had arrived. We were left alone again, in the dark shadows of a hazy winter night, stars above struggling to glitz and gleam. We were silent for awhile, looked at each other, and smiled. Then laughed uncontrollably. When she said musterbation… were you thinking — Yes, of course I was!!


Zakopane – one very peaceful little town.

We turned toward the creek, listening to its rush as it meandered below our feet. Sipping the last of our mulled wine, now chilled by the night air, we walked back through the town. As cheesy as it was, you can bet that I will never forget the moment I first learned about musterbation, nor will I ever forget to practice it. When days, inevitably, get hard in this line of work, I laugh at the memory and I try my best to musterbate.


  • Reply
    November 19, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    Certainly a catchy way for her to get your attention and you ours, but I agree the message was a little deeper than expected and quite good advice for me at the moment! (I also wish we’d made it the whole way over the Tatras and to Zakopane this fall; it looks like a charming place from all I’ve read.)

    • Reply
      November 19, 2017 at 9:03 pm

      Yea, even though we mostly laugh at the memory, it is good advice that we still think about! 🙂 Did you see the Tatrys from the Slovakia side? I think it’s prettier than Zakopane, but if you ever get the chance to go back, the trip over the mountains is really lovely!

      • Reply
        November 19, 2017 at 10:03 pm

        Yes, we hiked near Strbske Pleso in Slovakia and in a couple of other smaller areas. Loved every minute in Slovakia!

  • Reply
    From Poland to Slovakia – Cairn and Compass
    November 25, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    […] brought freezing temperatures. It was a nature oasis that we had nearly all to ourselves, and where we learned a very interesting lesson. And it was our first introduction to the incredible beauty of the High Tatras, a place we would […]

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