Permanence of migrancy

As the year comes to its end, people start taking stock, I thought I would also try, although I hadn’t made it before the year’s end. It’s the second year I’ve been in Poland (first full year), after all those years in England. But I don’t want to focus on the obvious (pandemic and all that). I want to focus on the permanence of being a migrant.

When I moved back to Poland at the beginning of 2020, I decided to keep the word ‘immigrant’ in my Twitter profile. This is because I was quite certain I was not ‘returning’ to Poland, and not by a long way. In my mind, I was moving countries again, but, as it happened, this time around I was moving to a country in which I was born and used to live in the past. Having spent here almost two years, the feeling of being an immigrant has not left me.

Let me start with a brief account of what happened all those years ago in the UK. I still remember landing at Heathrow in September 1990. The immigration officer was giving me a hard time about what I was doing in England and to my shock I could barely understand him. I was fluent in English (or so I thought) and I was finding it hard to follow the man. Needless to say, understanding porters in Lancaster was nigh impossible.

And then it was the default milk in tea (it’s still revolting), rectangular pillows, politeness that was so over the top I kept wondering whether everybody was pulling my leg, saying hello all the time and, of course, everybody calling me by my first name (bloody hell, that was difficult). Getting used to all those things took some considerable time, yet, more and more Britain (or England, I never know) was becoming my home. No, the feeling of being a stranger had never left me. Not that it could leave me, incidentally. People commented on my accent (from posh to Polish), my name (Oh, I can’t pronounce thaaaat!), or my children’s names, daily. Still, 29 years is a long time, especially if it’s almost your entire adult life.

And now, I am back to square one and I am trying to make a new life here. Covid, lockdown, local politics all don’t make it easy, but I am trying to think about day-to-day life, from visiting a shop, to going to work. And things are hard, particularly in how I communicate. I am fluent in Polish, and yet, I am not. I continue to miss the social dimension of how we (or is it they?) speak in many contexts.

Ironically, what gave me a really hard time after I had moved to the UK, continues to do so here. I continue not to be able to get the hang of….terms of address. For me, the use of first names is inappropriate in contexts where many of my fellow Poles now consider it OK. I found it strange that all my neighbours introduced themselves by their first names, using them as default. But at least there is a rationale behind it – after all, we’ll be meeting daily and good neighbourly relations are important. So, I didn’t mind all that much.

But I keep noticing that sometimes I am the only person who addresses others with the polite form (there is a spectrum of kinds of relationships constructed by the polite form in Polish, from fairly informal to very formal). But I do feel like an idiot when I start being ‘Darek’ to everybody. No, I’m bloody not. For me ‘Darek’ in Polish is reserved to my friends (in English it’s different). And having spent so much time abroad, I have not been part of the process of change.

Another such change is telling the time. 30 years ago, people normally used the 12-hour clock. The 24-hour click was reserved for formal exchanges or institutional contexts. Indeed, children had a hard time understanding what time is 15.00, after all there is no ‘15’ on the clock. That has changed, it’s the other way around now. Now ‘everybody’ uses the 24-hour clock, while children have a hard time understanding what time 3 pm is. After all, on their mobile phones, they read 15.00.  That’s a change I’ve been able to accommodate quite easily, yet, it continues to sound stilted and formal.

What drives me round the bend, however, are the changes in linguistically marked social graces. Instead of using the Polish equivalent of ‘good morning/evening’, now ‘everybody’ is welcoming each other, saying something like “I (wholeheartedly) welcome you.’. I just can’t bring myself to uttering it, it’s so silly. The same is in writing. We all used to write “Dear….” (well, the equivalent in Polish), now it’s ‘Welcome’….My non-prescriptivist linguistic soul is screaming.

And then there are shops, I so miss the ‘thank yous’ and ‘pleases’ in shops, offices, buses and wherever else in the UK, that shopping in Poland started being a journey through impoliteness. But as much as I perceive ‘them’ as impolite, they probably perceive me as aggressive. Only the other day, I was asking an Apple shop assistant to look at my watch bracelet, and got an impatient, aggressive response as if I had asked for something illegal. It’s like I am not allowed just to enquire. I also made a mistake of saying thank you when giving the money – in Poland it tends to mean that you don’t want the change, rather than politely ending the transaction, as in England.

Visits with doctors are even more difficult (there are a couple of posts on it). Asking questions seems an anathema, shared decision-making is unheard off, sometimes, I feel it’s a war, as the medic tries to put me in my place and I refuse. But one trick keeps working – the moment I weave into the conversation that I am a professor, the attitude changes (worked like a dream in the UK too). I am given more conversational space.

And I keep observing the one crucial difference between British and Polish medicine, it’s also expressed in language. Brits hate false positives (let’s just keep an eye on it, shall we?), Poles can’t stand false negatives (have this prescription just in case). I keep wondering whether the difference means a different kind of relationship/communication with the patient, and I don’t know. As I struggle when I talk to doctors I see, I probably miss quite a lot. Incidentally, I am gratified to see that many Polish medics still sit on the other side of the desk, and the nonsense of the practice of seating the contorted patient at the side of the doctor’s desk hasn’t taken off, yet. I’m sure it’s coming, though.

Let me end with one last déjà vu. I have no idea how many times I had got to the left-hand side of my British cars before I got the hang of getting in on the side with the steering wheel. Now, the nightmare has come back. Again, I get into my car on the side where there is no steering wheel, I’m sure to the bewilderment and/or delight of the onlookers. It happens even when I think very hard what to do, which worries me somewhat.

There is no lovely conclusion or a moral. This post is just a reminder that when you start on the path of migration, you might not get off easily. Daily I am reminded of my former home in West Midlands, now occupied by a young man, of my neighbours, colleagues, friends. Of the hundreds and hundreds of times I made my way to the university, driving on the wrong side of the road. And so, just as much I thought, all those years ago, that you might take a young man out of Poland, but you can’t take Poland out of the young man, now I think that you can take a not-so-young man out of Britain (or England, I’m never sure), but you can’t take England (Britain?) out of him.

I think I am properly in-between.

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