I am foreign. Ever since I came to live in this country, I have been foreign. Not Polish, not European, not non-British, I have just been foreign. Sometimes, rarely, I have also been Eastern European. You know, it’s this place far away to the east, where you can meet polar bears in the streets.
As I attempt to keep the so-called middle age spread in check, I go to the gym. One day, I was changing and all of a sudden we (the other men in the changing room and I) heard a woman’s voice. After 10 seconds of panic, one of us decided to face the problem. I should, I suppose, add that the self-elected rescuer of the situation was just about the only one of us who could show himself half-naked without any embarrassment. Anyway, ‘Mr Perfect’ charged to the rescue and indeed he met a woman having mistakenly entered a male changing room. He explained to her where the female changing room was and that was it.
As Mr Perfect returned, he explained what had happened in the following way:
“She was foreign. “
My first thought was: “[Censored] Wow!” Is this really the explanation? The fact she was foreign?!
It’s because being foreign is about little things. It’s about receiving unsolicited phone calls with the caller asking whether they can speak to Mr Ga, ga, ga, ga….. (have you actually noticed that my surname consists of three English words: gala – sin – ski?). Or the city council writing to tell me that my name is not really ‘Dariusz’, but, in fact, it is ‘Darius Z.’ (it really did happen). Or perhaps threatening to sue my son’ s school as they decided that pronouncing his name right was not really an issue and it was beyond the teachers’ capacity. After ‘I’ll see you in court’, incidentally, it all miraculously changed, overnight. And it’s also about explaining that just because I have an accent does not mean I’m stupid (no, it is not a real example, it is a zillion real examples!).
And a zillion questions in supermarkets where I am from. It goes something like that:
- I’m from Poland.
- Ahhh, Holland.
- No, Poland.
- Yes, that’s what I say, Holland.
- No, Poooolaaaand.
- Ahhhh, Pooooland.
- Ohh, it’s interesting.
And I think – what’s so [censored] interesting about it? Occasionally, I say: Then go visit! I was even once chased by a shop-assistant after I’d left the shop. She stopped me in the street asking me to settle a bet – she thought I was French, her colleague bet on Swedish. For goodness sake, am I really that bloody exotic? In case you wonder, yes, I can see the funny (soemtimes perhaps even friendly) side of it all. But believe me, when it happens every day, and you are the only one in the queue who’s asked such questions, you want it to stop.
But it really hits you with something like this. A few years ago, I heard a boy (5-6 years old) say a few syllables that made no sense; something like ‘Ble, ah, gheee, booo, la, cooo, reee’. ‘What are you saying?’, I asked. ‘I’m speaking foreign’, the boy answered. Yes, in that boy’s world there was a language that represented the ‘foreign people’. All these people that were not ‘us’, presumably. And, obviously, the language had to consist of strange, no, foreign sounds!
And this was supposed to be the end of this post. But it can’t be. Two weeks ago I had a conversation with a young Pole (born here). We were talking (in Polish) in a café in London. And he asked me something like ‘Is it me, or has the climate changed?’. Ever since Brexit was on the cards, he has felt more unwelcome, somehow he’s become more foreign. Yes, he, speaking perfect, middle-class, posh-ish English! But his Polish name betrayed him – this is the example he actually used. As he was saying this, it dawned on me, it’s almost impalpable. But yes, the climate has changed. I am also more foreign.
The European Union allows me to be here and my foreignness is more or less accepted. Yes, I am foreign, but it’s OK. I can see the funny side of being the object of a bet. But when I hear so many say about ‘us, British people, finally standing on our own, making our own decisions…’, I worry. As they don’t include me, no, they don’t, will I become a ‘bloody foreigner’? Or is it more of the polar bears?
Of course I shall survive. I am a professor, I now speak with very little accent, with good grammar (ironically, I speak using much better grammar than most people I meet!), and, apparently, I sound posh. I’ll be alright, even if I’m more foreign. But I still worry. About the little things.
Added 17 June. Except they are no longer ‘the little things’.