I am aware that what follows is the most self-indulgent piece of writing I have ever committed, and also that it is about ten times too long for a blog piece, but it makes sense for me to keep it here.
This was first published here in July 2018, when it made even more sense.
I am re-posting it now on special request. I love special requests.
6 July 1988 was the day my life changed for ever. People often say this sentence for effect, others rush into using it without much thought, but in my case it would be hard to argue against its suitability. On that day I arrived at Heathrow on a British Airways flight from Warsaw, and what was planned as a three months’ students holiday turned into a lifetime of an ever expanding ever changing devotion first to London and in time to the whole of Britain.
Now that it is coming up to a round anniversary of my English landing, I have decided to commit an abridged version of my first 30 years in England to keyboard. The main reason for this is that as time goes by I find myself doubting my own memory of my English beginnings and I think, was it really me sitting on my own, on that plane one row ahead of the smoking section, excited to the point of bursting? Well, I must have got here somehow so chances are it really was me, but just in case my ageing memory mangles actual events beyond recognition sooner than I am dreading, or I forget large chunks of it beyond rescue, I came to the conclusion that now is a better time to write my English memoir than it will ever be.
The second reason for writing this story now is the sudden urge to tell my children how they came to be what they are and what their mother was like when she was not much older than some of them are now. There is a little more to this reason, and it’s a bit morbid, in the memento mori sort of way. Both my parents died in the last few years, and I have recently come to a painful realisation that I had always known relatively little about their younger years, it was always just fragments of stories without proper beginning or end, of incomplete people and places, and now I will never know any more about any of these stories, people and places, in any greater detail. So, dearest children, I am writing this for you, ready or not.
As I retrace my early steps around London, I might, belatedly, notice and acknowledge significant milestones along the journey and spot, retrospectively, that elusive moment, if indeed it can be pinpointed to a single moment, when I became British, and I know it was a long before the day the Mayor of Wandsworth sealed it with a limp handshake.
I know that despite living in England for the majority of my life, technically, I am not and never can become English, an accident of birth or some other cosmic glitch successfully prevents me from it, I am reluctantly aware of it and I have learnt to live with it, the same way I’ve learnt to live with my frizzy hair and rather large nose, but I prefer not to dwell on any of these irritations in the hope that the hair, the nose and the technical non-Englishness do not define me.
The final reason is pure vanity, I simply love the sound of my own typing on the keyboard.
In July 1988 I had just completed year three, of five, of English and Linguistics Master’s degree at Lodz University. During that academic year a group of young graduates from University of York visited our department and worked as our teachers for the year. In our student jargon we called them natives, short for native-speakers of English, a relatively rare species in our English department and as such coveted by all students, as a much more desirable alternative to being taught Conversational English classes exclusively by Polish born and bred academics.
The York natives of 1988 were also more or less same age as us. This presented an opportunity I was not going to miss. As Poland was still a communist country at that time, it was not exactly easy for Polish citizens to travel to England, and before this current opportunity presented itself, I was slowly resigning myself to the fact that after graduation I would settle into teaching English to children and adults of Poland, talking to them about great monuments of British culture without having seen them close up. The route to Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Wembley Stadium was tricky and remained firmly beyond many people’s reach at the time.
First, I needed an official invitation from a British host, somebody who would be kind enough and bothered enough to go to the Polish consulate in London, complete the invitation form, have it signed, stamped, ‘ authorised’ and then post it to me. With the invitation in hand, I could apply for a British visa at the British Consulate in Warsaw. The visa section of the British Consulate in Warsaw was only opened a couple of hours a day and so it was accepted as norm to queue for weeks until you were seen at the counter. There was a queue manager, a new one every week, selected from fellow lovers of Britain in the queue. Their duty was to make sure everybody on the waiting list reported regularly to tick off their names confirming they are still in the running. Applicants from outside Warsaw were allowed to tick their names once a week. I remember making three trips on three consecutive Wednesdays, a two hour train journey from Lodz to Warsaw just to tick off my name. There was no other way to remain in the game, or at least none that anybody thought of at the time. Once you were at the visa application desk, the process was surprisingly simple and my passport was stamped with something called a promise of a visa within minutes. The actual visa was only given on arrival in the UK. This provisional visa allowed me to go to a LOT or BA office to book a flight. Airlines were not selling tickets to people without a visa promise.
I set off to work in early October and as time was limited, any subtlety of approach had to be abandoned. I began courting the York natives aggressively as soon as I learnt their names. There were two girls and a guy. I briefly evaluated my chances as well as the wisdom of trying to become a romantic interest of the guy, decided against it as leading to a potentially messy outcome and instead, zoomed in on one of the girls. Cecilia became a frequent guests at my parents’ flat, where I regularly inflicted my mother’s baking and my father’s broken English on her. We spent weekends in Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk together. I regaled her with history of Łódź. I was very thorough about the origins of local textile industry, its German and Jewish influences, the full caboodle. I dragged her through darkest, dreariest recesses of the city’s museums, remembering to read up on their most impressive exhibits the night before so I could bore her numb with minute details of their provenance and significance.
I allowed Cecilia a short Christmas break but as soon as she was back I engineered a New Year’s trip for all the young natives to the pride and joy of every Polish travel agency, Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains. We spent a few merry days hiking in the snow by day and drinking raspberry vodka by night. We welcomed 1988 in at a forest clearing, having been driven there in an actual one horse sleigh, jingling all the way. Good time was had by all. So much so that when the new term started I assessed that my friendship with Cecilia had reached sufficient depths for me to casually raise the subject of The Invitation. She was only too happy to help me, glad in fact to be able to repay me for all my hospitality. Cecilia’s mum did the deed and I was suddenly one step closer to eating fish and chips from the back pages of the Evening Standard.
A word in mitigation. You know the type of films set among American teenagers where a guy pretends to like the girl for a bet and then gradually falls for her? The same happened to me and Cecilia. I did not fall in love with her, but what started as my shamelessly calculated campaign to elicit the invitation had with time evolved into a real friendship and we had stayed in touch for several years afterwards. Also, as she revealed to me much later, she had been fully aware of what I was doing all along but as she was new and more than a bit lonely in Lodz at the time, she actually welcomed my overzealous attention. Win win.
I was on the first available BA flight to London as soon as I summer exams ended.
I was picked up at the airport by Renata. I am not entirely sure who she was exactly and how long a chain of acquaintances separated her from my parents was, but somehow they managed to find her, and there she was, whisking me all the way to Willesden Green in her clapped out white Astra. She proved to be a true life saver in those first days and weeks, as she took it upon herself to mother me discreetly but firmly. I never learnt much about her, except what I could see for myself. She was a rather shy, reserved Polish lady in her late thirties, with a considerably older possibly second generation Pole for a husband. They had a teenage daughter who was away on holiday at the time of my arrival, so Renata let me stay in her room for a couple of weeks, charging me £20 per week. I had brought 640 US dollars with me from Poland, which my dad had somehow managed to conjure up from the same box of his magic tricks he pulled out Renata from.
Nothing could have prepared me for that first evening at Renata’s house, the ambush was complete.
As soon as Renata unlocked the front door, I became aware of a rather large group of people chatting loudly in the living room and kitchen. I was ready to feel really bad, as it looked like Renata had gone all the way to Heathrow to pick me up despite having a house full of guests, but just then Renata announced, in Polish, her face beaming with joy and excitement, hey, everybody, she is here now! Everybody greeted me like a celebrity, they guided me towards an armchair, I was given something to drink, and then all these people suddenly gathered around me and looked at me with a mix of curiosity and something approaching tenderness. Awkward, was all I managed to think, but then an elderly man said, welcome to England, child, now tell us all about Poland, what is the national mood really like, how are people bearing up, anything in the offing? I stared at him blankly for several seconds to buy time. I then hastily arranged my face into the most patriotically concerned expression I could convincingly pull off and said something non-committal and vaguely cheerful, how people are keeping strong and hopeful and they pray a lot. It transpired that Renata had invited all her friends and relatives for an opportunity to meet a young Polish woman fresh from the boat, plane, same thing, from Motherland who would no doubt impart all the latest political news and gossip, undistorted by censorship and media’s sensationalist take on it. Little did they know that my life in the last year had revolved around courting Cecilia, fantasising about London, and stressing about essay deadlines, leaving me no time to pay attention to politics or social mood in the country. I did not know anybody in either pro, or anti-government movements, and despite my best attempt to bullshit my way out of, it had fast become glaringly obvious that Renata’s guests had wasted a journey to her house that day.
I realised that all these long-term expats knew more and cared more about what was going on in Poland politically and socially than I ever did. In the summer of 1988 Poland was still a Communist country, it was to be another year until a well-liked Polish actress bizarrely announced the end of Communism on national television. I had lived all my life under the rule of the Polish People’s Party and that was the only reality I’d ever known. I didn’t question it, I was never unhappy about it, I didn’t fight against it, I just enjoyed a carefree, contented childhood in what I considered sufficiently comfortable surroundings.
As far as I could recall, politics had invaded my safe cosy world only twice during my childhood in Poland. First, on the day Martial Law was declared one grey Sunday in mid-December, as my parents listened with silent dread to the general’s long sombre speech, I could hardly contain my joy on hearing that school was out from now until January. Christmas break was usually just a short few days’ affair at the time and three extra weeks sounded almost too good to be true! I was 15 at the time.
Second time the side effects of the regime burst brutally into my carefree existence a couple years later, again in December. On that occasion I got frostbite after I stumbled upon a queue for lemons and spent four hours standing outside a fruit and veg shop in sub-zero temperatures. Lemons was not something you walked away from in those days. I have suffered from red nose and rosy cheeks in cold weather ever since, but it hardly qualifies me as a victim of oppressive Communist regime. I still drink black tea with a slice of lemon every night, which might have a symbolic meaning, but I think it does not go any deeper than the fact that I do not enjoy tea with milk.
The General and the lemons both flashed through my mind now as I sat in the middle of Renata’s living room in NW10, but I had nothing more current or remotely relevant to offer the small expectant crowd. I felt a fraud and a big fat failure as a Pole. This feeling, which lodged itself in my brain on that day had grown alarmingly with every passing year. It has since acquired the size of Poland itself and is being permanently stored in the darkest corner of my guilty conscience.
I reminisced about that evening several times over the next couple of decades, as it marked a starting point in my ongoing uneasy relationship with so called Polish diaspora in Britain.
Now, however, as the sun set on my first day in Britain, Poland and its political woes were the last thing I wanted to think about as I was getting ready to explore London the following morning.
… And cut!
My story is still only just beginning. However, my publisher (yes, really) advised me to stop here, and to say that those of you who would like to read more (who wouldn’t?), can look forward to the book version of my English beginnings in mid-2020.