There is the North Pole, the South Pole... and all the other Poles are in London!
Years ago, while on my Erasmus exchange in Rotterdam, I met a Black British boy, the first Londoner I knew. A group of us went dancing: the night's theme was "The White Party" (I kid you not), and he looked especially delicious in his white shirt and mischievous grey hat. So I told him the above joke - and he didn't laugh. It told me something that I then chose to ignore.
Fast forward a year and a half - in June 2012 I left Poland with the intention of Moving Elsewhere, on semi-permanent basis, because I did not like it much there - or rather, I did not get on with Polish people. In the light of this, coming to London might not have been an especially bright idea. Yet London was to me this epitome of international society, where - I fancied - me being Polish would be something of no consequence. It would not matter at all. Nowadays I consider myself well-rid of the delusion.
Don't get me wrong, I love London. I do. Coming here was a good decision, which led to new experiences and learning. I performed in industry showcases, I wrote and showed off a monologue Immaculate conception, blissfully unaware - and uncaring! - of the play of a similar title (to be sure, my monologue does not feature Lucifer and does feature mutated GMO sperm, so I can still consider myself original). I fell in and out of love, wrote and performed stand up about my sex life and a play called Girlfag and in general broadened my horizons. What I did not do is: I did not sort out my relationship with my home country. I did not become a "citizen of the world" - instead, I'm more Polish than ever.
In Poland, London is jokingly called "The London District", in addition to the sixteen which are situated within the actual borders of the country. Despite avoiding Polish events, not hanging out with Polish people overly much and (never!) dating Polish men (I'm allergic, I break out in a rash), I found myself perceived by my nationality. Vodka, kielbasa and pierogi seemed to dictate my life, mocking me from the windows of Polish delicatessen. I had an accent, an odd surname I grew accustomed to spelling (British readers, how would you pronounce "Suszek"?) and a number of eerily similar conversations.
- So you're Polish? My word, there is so many of you! Ahahahahaha!
- Do you know, you can actually write! And you're Polish!
- It is very cold in there, is it not? You brought bad weather to London! Hahaha!
- Where are you from, Warsaw or Cracow?
Tired of explaining Polish seasons (most of the time we have nicer weather than London, which vacillates between "cloudy", "drizzle" and "fully-fledged rain" - my first summer in the UK was a surreal one-day experience), Polish geography (extending beyond Warsaw and Cracow) and the curious phenomenon of being a writer despite writing in a second language (because that has never happened in the history of literature), I grew (bitter), (exasperated), slightly weary of those interactions (yes, British habit of withholding emotion and couching it into tortured politeness is catching). Still, I soldiered on (keep calm and carry on, anyone?), caught up into everyday life of work, love, taxes and friends - learning to interact with this society and following - if not participating - in its politics. And yet. Identity confusion aside - it does creep up when you live Somewhere Else - the issue of Not Belonging Here kept showing up in different ways, large and small.
Gradually, I realized that, even though I was something "strange" back in Poland (suffice to say I left for a reason), I was no less strange (Other) here. The high point came when I was working as a promotional staff member of a photography studio that offered costumes.
Clad in a Victorian dress, armed in a hand-held fan of leaflets, I was approached by a gentleman, who inquired:
- Are you meant to be a courtly lady?
Slightly baffled, I replied in affirmative, referencing my very obvious costume. At that, he exclaimed:
- But you can't be a courtly lady. You're Polish.
They should have gotten a real courtly lady.
Next to considering "I'm just doing my job, sir" and "I never pretend to be a Victorian lady in real life, 'cause I'm not that kinky - sir" (or even "P*** off, SIR!") responses that could apply here (much, much later, after I was done looking like deer in the headlights), I came to see that moment as nadir of my denial, which - fear not - is now over. Now, in true AA fashion, I raise my hand. Hi! My name is Rita, and I am Polish.
Don't judge me on it.... much.