For a long time, I didn’t know where I was from. Born in the UK, Polish from my mum, English from my dad. We moved to America for neutral ground so that both of my parents could be homesick together. Strange logic, no?
For years, we lived a sort of limbo land. We were always meant to be returning to the UK. Then we could have headed for California for my dad’s work. In the end, his job stayed in Washington D.C.
I’d visit my grandparents in the summer holidays. First with my brother, cousin and then on my own. I’d visit one set of grandparents in Poland followed by the UK, or vice versa. Whichever, American school summer holidays were always generous with time. I got to know both my sets of grandparents this way. I loved them. My English, retired Police Superintendent grandfather with his oiled-back black/grey hair and lovely smile. My English grandmother calling me in from playing with the neighbourhood kids, her salad spinner swinging in her hand to get rid of the excess water. She was the queen of salad. I don’t care who tells me salad cream is disgusting. No way.
My grandparents in Poland were more an eccentric brand of grandparent. More interesting too. Here there was aristocracy (my grandfather) versus peasantry (my grandmother) – with lots of love and bickering thrown in. And a chicken, since my grandmother had smuggled it on a transatlantic flight from New York to Warsaw. It lived in their second floor flat for seven years, alongside their sausage dog. My grandfather used to name the dogs after the constellations. This one was Castor. They had Pollux next. The chicken was Henrietta. Visiting these guys was like coming to do an evaluation – both cultural and psychological. There was always that feeling they lived on the edge. The edge of the system, the edge of democracy, the edge of sanity.
At the end of every summer, I’d go home to America. This felt like an escape. After the two different cultural experiences, I felt America was our place. Except of course it wasn’t. My mum, cousin and I were to leave a few years later, never to return to live there again. For me, moving back to the UK presented an identity challenge. I struggled with it for years afterwards. Where did I belong? I speak like an American – even now people think I’m either American or Canadian. But I’m not American. I’m not really Polish either – unless half of a country counts. That leaves being British. Nationality-wise I’m definitely British. Got the passport to prove it. Growing up however, I was encouraged to criticise this place. The UK had old rules, inefficient systems and was backwards-looking. People from the Old World who move to the New often take this stance. Then we actually moved back to it … and all hell broke loose for me.
These feelings always return as we’re about to set off – this time flying to Florida next Monday and to Trinidad the following Friday the 13th, I find myself belied again by my old identity sea-sickness. Increasingly now though, I think of my grandparents. The question of where I belong doesn’t matter as much as whether I did them proud. The answer to this is belonging enough for me.