I’ve left the UK. After almost 30 years, I boarded a plane that took me away and Britain is no longer my home. The decision to leave was very difficult, complex, mutli-factorial, it was taken over the course of at least a couple years and then the move had to be prepared. In this post I want to say goodbye to the country that has been my home for the last 3 decades.
When I came to the United Kingdom, all those years ago, I found Britain very different from what I had expected. I didn’t think that I would find men in bowler hats supporting themselves on very thin canes, but I did expect a country much more affluent that I saw. I guess this was my first shock. After all, I came to the much coveted, mythical West, where everybody was happy, rich, much like they showed it on ‘Dynasty’ (I am exaggerating, but not that much).
The other shock was the way everybody spoke. I was already fluent in English, but I still remember asking the way in London and not understanding a single word that was said. Did the Underground attendant speak English? When I eventually got to Lancaster, things got even worse. Bloody hell, I don’t know who spoke English, they or me, but we certainly didn’t speak the same language.
I hated so many things about the UK. But they were mostly (fairly) insignificant. Like two separate taps (as apparently people on the continent, when wanting to splash water on their faces, bang their foreheads on the mixer tap), constant dampness (heating was apparently bad for you), rectangular pillows (I became partial to those) and the default milk in tea (Prof. Geoff Leech put milk in my tea when I met him first – I didn’t dare protest, but the idea of milk in my tea remains as repulsive as it was then). Incidentally, I recently noticed in a Star Trek Picard episode that Picard offers his guest milk to put into an Earl Grey. This is abomination. This is the world upside down, too scary to contemplate.
But then I did appreciate that people were polite. Thank you when you give, thank you when you take. The constant hellos which were baffling (I need write about my inability to greet people). Still, so nice. In contrast to the barely postcommunist Poland, people didn’t talk about politics all the time. You could talk about the weather. I really enjoyed it. It also turned out that Mrs Thatcher was not really such a great national hero after all….
To be honest, I went to the UK for two, maybe three years, after which I would become wealthy and would go back to Poland with the newly acquired riches. Alas, it was not to be. My initial salary allowed me to rent a house and buy an old car (Volkswagen scirocco!), but the life I expected was nowhere to be found. Life turned out to be much more difficult and complex than I had thought. But the UK has been my home for all those years and, on balance, it has been a very good home.
This is a farewell blog (and not a personal confession), so I am skipping the 25 or so years in between and I’ll write about the last few years. Obviously, the last few years have been dominated by discussions about Brexit. From a country that didn’t care about me much, the UK became a country that started looking at me with hostility as I talked Polish on the phone. I was never called Polish vermin, I was never told to f…off to my country, but boy, things have changed. It’s enough to follow Tanja Bueltmann’s Twitter account to see how it has changed.
I’ve always felt a foreigner in Britain, but to a considerable extent it was my choice. Yes, with some regularity I was reminded that my name was waaaay too difficult to pronounce or that my English was soooo good, but most of us are in one way or another visible. It was not really a major problem. The Brexit referendum changed that completely. Being unwelcome became palpable, both in the public sphere and, occasionally, in individual exchanges.
I recently realised that the journey I have had in the UK has been something like that. When I came to the UK, I was mostly exotic. There were few Poles around (apart from those who had come after WWII) and this foreignness was attractive. And, I must admit, the regular appreciation of Polish soldiers in the Battle of Britain was nice, also when peppered with the (almost inevitable) joke that Polish servicemen ‘married our women because they were more handsome’.
But more and more Poles started coming which resulted in the exotic attraction quickly wearing off. No one really cared any longer. I stopped being asked where I was from and I welcomed that invisibility. And then came the referendum. From not caring all that much, the UK became a nasty country. All of a sudden, we, foreigners, became a problem.
I was asked whether I would miss Britain. Yes, of course, I will. I went there as a young man, I left well into my middle age. The best part of my life happened there. So many successes, so many failures, so much joy and sadness. Life was happening. There are things I will not share here, they belong firmly to the private part of my life, but I have become much more English than I care to admit. Britain is now part of me and even though I am apparently ‘returning’ to Poland, I don’t think I am. Poland I left no longer exists and the Pole who left for the UK all those decades ago doesn’t exist either. It seems that, to quote from Sting’s song, I will continue to be a legal alien (of sorts). My life will remain to be that of inbetweenness, except I will now in the other place. I will never be British/English (whatever that might be), but I am not certain I am Polish any more. My twitter handle will continue to sport the words ‘immigrant’ and ‘foreigner’. This feeling of not really belonging continues, it’s just changed the perspective.
So, what will I miss? I will miss the comfort of British politeness, hospitality. I will miss that in Britain usually things are done usually. I like the British practicality. For me Britain is a place of greyness, not very cold, not very hot, always lukewarm, always more-or-less. I love this in Britain, well, perhaps I should say I did, as the referendum and Brexit did much damage to this, too. I despair at the idiocy of producing your passport to certify that you have the right to work in the UK, as if your university was a racket employing illegal immigrants to teach the kids, with the dean passing your salary under the table.
I will miss the seduction of the security of British life. Things will be OK. Reason will prevail. On balance, roads will be treated in winter, first class letters will get there quicker that second class ones, and people will continue to be rather polite. (Yes, yes, it’s disappearing quickly too and I do know that I say this from the point of view of someone who is middle aged and has had the security of a permanent professional job, but please bear with me).
I will also miss driving on the wrong side of the road, bus drivers refusing to drive because of a smattering of snow, as the news will tell you about 10-centimetre ‘drifts’. Every winter news of a few flakes of snow represented as a catastrophe has been a source of much merriment. But it’s endearing, to be honest. And complain all you want about the BBC, but I for one will miss it. As I had watched Mary Beard’s account of nudity in Western art, gosh, I so wish the Polish national broadcaster offered something at least in the same league as the BBC. As I hear people complaining about BBC bias, I want to scream: you know not what you do. And I am so sorry no longer be able to watch the BBC’s iPlayer.
And so, as I write these words, I am already sitting in my house in Poland, part of me has remained in Britain. You can take me out of Britain, but you can no longer take Britain out me. And I do look forward to visiting, to spending time again. Perhaps occasionally someone will think it would be a good idea to invite me to come over.
And so, goodbye, Britain. You will not cry for me, but I will occasionally shed a tear for you.