In 1995 I fly to Poland where I was born to bury my mother.
I was thirteen when in 1980, my family had left the country to find a home elsewhere. By now, I have my own family in the Southern Hemisphere where we speak English everyday. I no longer think in Polish. I think in English.
Translating my world into Polish borders on clunky and impractical. Objects, situations and adult concepts miss their equivalents in my mother tongue, let alone technical terms and commands that I whisper to computers in a language all their own.
When my children are born, I speak to them in my native tongue. It’s not difficult. Their needs are simple and so is their experience of life. As a thirteen year old I am good at communicating with babies and little children. As they get old I loose my footing, my confidence. I question the benefits of passing on Polish. My determination wanes. I give in to the overwhelming odds against expressing myself and teaching my kids the language of my heart. I drift into a stance that demands pragmatic not sentimental. I let this choice creep over me. My mind and heart initiates a partial shutdown. I’m aware of it, I don’t like it but can’t see a way out.
Speaking a silence
If you were a tennis player and rackets, balls, courts and sparring partners were to vanish, how long a good player would you remain?
I’m the only speaker in an Outback desert that makes no Polish sounds or echoes. I speak and nothing happens. Some years later, I meet a second generation Pole. He is a fly-in fly-out pharmacist and already time and distance eroded his Polish. He struggles with certain sounds that are tongue twisters for non-native speakers. We are both excited to meet one another. While he is filling customer prescriptions and I pretend to look at medications, we let our tongues run and trip in Polish with an occasional English phrase, a crutch to prop up the unsteady flow of our conversation. It’s fun, like re-learning to skate. My wife is ecstatic for me for the opportunity. But she’s also sad, because I’ve been losing my pleasant European accent.
Finding a broken tongue and looking for a parachute
I fly with the Polish Airlines and I’m terrified after mouthing a handful of sentences. I stumble to admit that my Polish is broken. My tongue is sore, so unfit. My thoughts are awkward, crawling like sludge of molasses. The concepts which I never experienced in Polish are a puzzle to translate. I feel like an amateur, a rank beginner that needs to take ‘Polish 101’ course next semester.
The Polish that lingers and possesses my mind is that of a well read tween kid. I’m an adult now. I hardly know any colloquialisms, idioms and none of the fast social chitchat that elicits laughter and warm comradary. I lack the flowing language that others throw about with ease. I merely get by with terse retelling of facts and information. I no longer am able to use words to build relationships from scratch or to create a social impression. I lack in-vogue phrases. I don’t know how to weld words together. Inside I curl up with shame as I hear myself speak. I wish this flight was all in my head.
I would like a label, please
In conversations between flight staff and passengers I hear various accents. I don’t realize that Polish people have accents, as much as English speakers do. Though, with forty million people spread across regions with various degrees of historical and foreign influence it would make sense that groups would pronounce and emphasise the same language differently.
Listening, I hear clearly that I myself do not possess my own identifying accent. Whatever intonations spills out of my lips, it is not part of anything known to anybody else here. Nobody can label me like, ‘Oh, he’s from the Tatry Mountains’, ‘Is he from Warszawa? No, must be the Coast’, and so on through the multitude of regions which are precisely defined in geography and culture. We’re still in the air and then I get it! A crater gapes in my understanding. I actually don’t possess any identity! I’m Polish but where am I from? Yes, I know where I was born. Krynica. I know where I spent my childhood. Albigowa. I know where my grandparents live. Wroclaw. Yet none of these are enough to vouch that I’m of one place or another, or that I belong to a specific people. My discovery daunts me. I don’t even know whether I’m still a passenger.
English speakers would ask me, ‘So, where are you from’? I say, ‘Poland’, though with my accent they hear, ‘Holland’ and look confused. How does that work? But for some that’s not good enough. They are the the diggers, the traveling types, the accent experts. Theirs are ridiculous attempts at pinpointing my american-midwest-kiwi-aussie-lived-in-austria-kid-from-poland accent I splat about. Sorry, people, don’t get ahead of yourselves. Your pompous pronouncements are just so annoying and assinine. You are all so out of your league! Just stop it, will you! I’d love to pin myself to some place, but I’m unplaceable and you have no better chance of pigeon-holing me than I do myself.
To others a firm ‘I’m Polish’ is sufficient. Odd, unusual but enough. I know I’m not one of them, and they know that I’m not one of theirs. Not the ideal, but hey, we got a workable arrangement here. All good. Good as gold but for me this casual response fails to satisfy me. It is not enough to state that one is of this or that nationality, ethnicity or color. It doesn’t cut it. It leaves too much unanswered. Its ambiguity is an affront.
‘Where do I belong’? Where is my specific location where I can just let loose and be myself. Somewhere where I can know and be known. Where is it?
As much as my Australian friends wish me, ‘Safe travels and enjoy your time at home. Say hello to your folks in the old country’, I am flying to nowhere. I’m on my way to a foreign place that does not know me and that I no longer recognize.
For some there is no belong
The home that I once knew is gone. The locality exist but everything about it is changed. For me.
The school I attended, expanded. I was not at the opening ceremony.
Kiosk, the newspaper outlet where we used to buy chewing gum with coins pried from drains and found near bus stops, boarded up. I was not around to hear the news of its closure.
The old village road, once full of icy puddles with the eyes of frozen fish in winter, muddy in autumn and spring, and hard and great for jumping on bikes in summer, paved. I was not there to watch the road crews crush and bury my memories under layers of road fill, gravel and tar seal.
Houses that I visited, gone, and the ones I now see have no hold on my past.
This is no longer my place, these are no longer my people. I want this trip to be over. I want to fly away from this place that once was home but now leaves me bitter and disenchanted and it lets me know so. Oh, so precisely in the language of my own mother.