Exactly ten years ago, Poland joined the EU.
Exactly eleven years ago, I moved to England with my family. When I first arrived at London Heathrow, I had a big, fat UK visa in my passport and very little working knowledge of English. Britain's illuminated motorways, two-tap sinks and ubiquitous carpets seemed illogical, and I nurtured the growing suspicion that Brits, with their morning baths (baths, not showers), morning tea and odd sense of humour were an eccentric people. So, for a while, I cursed the carpet in the bathroom every single time I saw it, found the humidity unbearable and blamed all my spots on the British climate. I defended my Polishness fiercely and took any opportunity to criticise the UK.
Some other kids like me spent their Saturdays at the Polish Embassy School in London, because it was one of the few of its kind in the whole country. In 2003, Poles still made sure they brought back their favourite Polish food and products whenever they went back home, because the institution of the polski sklep was non-existent back then. There weren't many Poles around in that year before the accession of Poland to the EU, not even in the now-infamous immigrant capital of Slough, which lies a few short miles from where we lived.
And then everything changed. On 1 May 2004, Poland finally joined the EU.
After a couple of months, we suddenly had a polski sklep in own town, and several more nearby. In Slough, the polski skleps soon turned into polski supermarkets, and Polish food started popping up on the shelves of British supermarkets. These days, pierogi and bigos are nearly as common as feta cheese and tzatziki, although, admittedly, much less popular among Brits ('interesting', said a friend as she tasted my grandmother's bigos and shuddered).
In a similar frenzy, Polish schools started opening in the region, with teachers of Polish history and language moonlighting there on Saturdays, after their weekday shifts as 'unskilled' manual workers. Kids also moonlighted there, posing as ordinary Polish schoolchildren. On Sundays, Polish priests preached Polish sermons in Polish churches across the UK, with congregations in Scottish churches increasing by 50,000 between 2004 and 2006.
Yep, I can now picture those cars, buses and planes crossing the Channel, crammed with people in search of better things. But back then - and this stays between us - I wasn't all that happy about my fellow countrymen arriving on the wyspy ('Isles') in the thousands. I could sense an attitude of animosity forming around the Polish community, and felt like the accidental victim of a higher process, where my passport, and not my growing love of tea or English grammar, defined my value in British circles. I have a faint accent, so it's always been impossible for me to conceal my foreignness, but I could - and did - take on other personas. For a while, I even took to telling people that I was half-Chinese.
I was scared of the 'label'. Sure, Poland may have had single-tap sinks and tiled bathrooms, and in that respect it was clearly superior to the UK, but the label was, and still is there. 'Polish' has become such a strong descriptor that it almost overshadows the identity of the person to whom it's ascribed. And while all nationalities come with a set of preconceived stereotypes, 'Polish' seems to be much more unforgiving than 'German' or 'Swedish'. In the UK, 'Polish' is not merely a word, it's a field of associations conjured up by ten years of heated immigration debate and a huge, new workforce that materialised in the UK in the 2000s.
But ten years have gone by, and the workforce has evolved and changed. Poles cannot be described in absolute terms anymore: they have received promotions, spent countless hours learning English, they're used to the humid climate and two-tap sinks. Poles in the UK are poets, novelists, managers and journalists. The second generation is now growing up, and they may not even mind British sinks and carpets.
And while 'Polish' will always remain a label of some sort, language is a strange, dynamic machine capable of driving paradigm shifts.