Beneath a full, crisp, Polish moon, I stepped onto the airport tarmac, glad to be back home, in Krakow. A moment later, the shuttle bus was whisking me efficiently the thirty or so meters from the aircraft to Customs. Although welcome, I always think this 15-second hop quite unnecessary. Is it a piece of classic British health & safety stowed away to Poland via an Extraordinary Rendition flight, a nod to a full-employment Communist past or, and this I suspect, a simple act of kindness to us, the weary travelers? Either way, it is infinitely preferable to the 15-minute slog through the Essex countryside when arriving at London Stansted.
Owing to my somewhat old-fashioned and probably reactionary English attitude to standards of public behaviour, I have, for as long as I can remember, always adopted a sedate, almost langorous, pace when joining a queue, considering any unseemly jostling or scrambling for position to be rather barbaric, certainly not ?British’. However, I’ve been an expat for over two years now and, hopping quickly first off the bus, I found myself the first to stand before the guard at passport control, looking just over his shoulder with a carefully-constructed mix of innocence (me, a terrorist?) and affected boredom in an effort to convince him I feel just the same as he does and the sooner he lets me back onto Polish soil, the sooner both he and I can go home. He appears not to notice my subliminal attempt at camaraderie and merely slides my passport back to me, his gaze already transferred to the babcia behind me, who is already digging her passport into my back, in mute defiance of both regulations and what was once-upon-a-time known as ?personal space’.
On the bus, I’m immersed, cocoon-like, into blissful ignorance as the still largely-unfamiliar Polish language begins to bubble all around me. I’m tired of being shouted at from invisible speakers to buy Ryanair scratchcards and to choose from the exclusive range of in-flight purchases. Now, as the familiar houses and blocks slip past in the night, I relax, safe in the knowledge that whatever inanities and profanities are being muttered, most of them will slip harmlessly by.
I close my flat door behind me, disconnect myself from my rucksack (na koncu!) and, as my granny advises, try to ?feel how I feel’. It, in fact, feels good to be back in Krakow. And I like my flat. A little cold now, but a small adjustment to the brown ceramic sentinel standing guard in the corner will soon sort that. I switch on the kettle and fire up some BBC radio comedy on the laptop.
Windows XP appears rudely disturbed by my presence. It yawns, rubs the sleep out of its eyes and staggers slowly out of hibernation.
Under the streetlight outside, an alcoholic shakily proffers his mate a cigarette and receives, in exchange, a swig of something nameless and purple from a clear glass bottle. I wonder, once again, just how many broken, middle-aged alcoholic men there are in Krakow. Tens of thousands? Maybe. For every one on the street, you can bet there are another ten creeping about in dosshouses and soon-to-be redeveloped attics and basements. Where do these poor souls go when they get their marching orders? Where now, for example, are all those dangerous individuals who, we hear, made it impossible to walk safely through Kazimierz before the fall of Communism began to reunite kamienicas with long-forgotten landlords?
Because of the passage of time, and the passing of both generations and title deeds, some of these nouveau landlords, of course, have little connection to the city and have probably never even set foot here. Strangers from afar remoulding the country and its economy. I’m an immigrant myself, of course. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Me, an Englishman, an immigrant. ?Funny how we all prefer the term ?expat’, when the name we give to the rest of the world is immigrant. Is it because many of us “expats” consider ourselves only temporary Krakowians, ready to skip off to the next country in a year or two or is it that the word ?immigrant’ suggests a search for money and material gain while we are, in contrast, so wonderful, talented and comparatively affluent that ?expat’ is so much more appropriate: empowered, assured, cosmopolitan, safe?
If the truth be told, I am three things in one: expat, immigrant and asylum-seeker. Firstly, I am an expat, by which I mean that I am an educated Westerner who is blessed with opportunity and choice. Imagine, as a native English-speaker and teacher with money in my pocket, I can actually choose just about any country in the world to live in! Like most expats, I am fairly affluent by Polish standards. Also, I am able to skim along the surface of everyday Polish life without getting bogged down in details. It’s easy to be invisible in Poland. It’s easy not to pay taxes (or so I hear). It’s easy not to understand the language and remain aloof from day-to-day life. There is, to use Milan Kundera’s phrase, a ?lightness of being’ in being an expat.
But if immigration is about seeking a better standard of living, then I am also an immigrant as well as an expat. Currently, I am in the process of buying a flat in Krakow and have also begun working for a company that never, never pays cash.
After two years, I have this week officially become a resident, I have a tax number and I shortly intend to start my own business. Why this sudden loss of social invisibility? Money. I want more of it and I want it here, in Poland, where I don’t have to work as hard as I would in England, just like any other immigrant.
Oh, yes, I said I was an asylum-seeker, too. OK, maybe not in the real sense of the term but, come on, have you seen your country lately? Americans love America and I sure love England, but, to misquote Shakespeare, I fear that England has become quote a country afraid to know itself unquote. I am happy to be back in Poland. Sure, Krakow’s not all Rynek Glowny and beautiful Planty: outside the old city dogshit, graffiti and alcoholics assault the eye at every turn while the city and its people struggle to find a sense of self and of pride after generations, if not centuries, of humiliation and subjugation to foreign powers. But at least Poland is moving, slowly and painfully, in the right direction, not squandering its inheritance, afraid of its own shadow like England.
I am here seeking asylum, not from oppression or tyranny, but from cultural ignorance, mental slavery and moral and political cowardice.
Now of course Eastern Europe (like much of the world) is seeking to emulate the west in so many ways: its embrace of free-market economics and the attendant fracturing of once-supportive communities, for example. Poland is not a paradise and I am very glad I don’t understand the moronic television news or the foul-mouthed teenager standing next to me on the tram. But I am lucky: in England, it would be nigh-impossible to escape such things.
Here, I am an expat, an immigrant and an asylum-seeker, and am thus largely able to cherry-pick from Krakow and Poland only those experiences and realities I wish to.
One thing that definitely is “expat” and not ?immigrant’ or “asylum-seeker” is that sense of difference, the feeling of otherness that we all enjoy so much. I suspect that, for many of us, besides the wanderlust and sense of cultural inquiry that first sent us from our shores, there is also a desire to be a little out of focus, just a bit off the radar in a way that we could never be back home. We enjoy being the foreigner, the one looking in instead of out. As we wonder, marvel, gripe and groan about our new surroundings, we sometimes also stop and learn things about ourselves and those around us: things we’d never notice in our own cultures. And that’s worth a hell of a lot of dogshit!