Portable home: Where are you from?
Updated: Jul 9
I was in a meeting the other day. We had a new colleague and we went around the table introducing ourselves. On the way out, the new colleague asked me where I was from.
I was born and raised in Poland, but spent a lot of time in France growing up. I did my undergrad in the Netherlands and have been in England for roughly five years.
He put his hands in his pockets, leaned back on his heels, and said, I see. And then he left.
After about a week at the office, this new colleague went on holiday. When he came back from touring Northern America, he said that when we first met, he was really excited to tell me about his trip. He said, I thought you were Canadian and that you’d be thrilled to hear I was going. Then you said you weren’t Canadian, so I didn’t tell you. I didn’t think you’d be excited.
What does being Canadian have to do with being excited? Of course I would have been excited! In fact, I prefer it when people go places other than my native country. Whenever anyone goes to Poland, they go places I’ve never been. I feel silly.
This wasn’t the first time this happened
When people meet me, they often tell me about their Canadian trip, ask about my Canadian parent, or how long I’d lived in Canada. When I tell them where I’m from, and that I have no connection to Northern America, they take a moment and then they say, well, okay, but you’re not that Polish anyway.
I was born and raised in a strictly uniform environment: one language, one religion, one colour. I travelled from an early age, so I knew people looked and lived differently in other parts of the world. But, I still remember the first time I saw a black person in my hometown. He was a young man and he was on the bus I took home from school. I was eighteen and I stared.
Then, I thought, okay, cool.
I moved away at twenty-one. I spent my adult life away from where I grew up. I built a career using a language my parents don’t speak. The people I love reside in over twenty countries and when anyone asks, where is home, I don’t know what to say.
Inside my head whenever anyone asks where I'm from or where home is
My grandmother died last year
I was getting the keys to open the door. The streetlight had gone out a couple of days before and I needed my phone to see the lock. It was raining. I took out my phone to shine it on the lock and I saw the message through the droplets broken against my screen as I tried to wipe it with my thumb.
My grandmother died.
Inside, my housemates were having a party. There was music, smoke, laughter. I got to my room and made arrangements.
My grandmother had lived in three different countries without ever moving away. After I moved abroad, she always asked, when will you come home? This is your country. We fought for this country. Why don’t you live here? There, all these people, they’re not like you and you’re not like them.
Here, you’re one of us. One of our own.
My dad explained to his mother that things were different for my generation. He said that, though he himself couldn’t get a passport for over half his life, I grew up to be a citizen of the world, a multilingual cosmopolitan; a person free to move who feels at home anywhere.
For a while I agreed. But the more places I’d lived and the more people I’d met, the less it rang true.
When I last saw my grandmother, I decided that next time I’d visit her alone. We’d talk about country, and what it means to be from somewhere. I’d ask her, why she was so attached to a country that she’d known under three different names; a country that didn’t even exist seven years before she was born, and didn’t become itself for another sixty-plus. A country that not only didn’t do anything for her, but took from her everything it could.
We never had that conversation
I arrived at the funeral. Most of my family don’t speak to each other, so waiting for the service was really strange. I walked behind the coffin, but after the burial my immediate family didn’t invite me to receive condolences. My extended family didn’t know who I was.
On the flight back, I flicked through Polish papers. I read about Polish leadership refusing Syrian refugees. I read about initiatives to protect Polish values; values rooted in a form of Catholicism that goes against the teachings of Pope Francis; values under threat from migrants and refugees and people who thought that migrants and refugees were as good as local citizens.
I wondered what my grandmother would have said. This wasn’t what we thought being Polish was about. But then, I couldn’t help but wonder, did we get here because people open to diversity moved away?
Either way, I was relieved. I lived abroad, away from this reality.
I got back to England exhausted. The streetlight was still out. My housemates were having another party. I went to bed with a pillow pressed against my ears. At 5 am I asked them, please keep it down.
They told me to get out
Back at the office, I browsed the news. They wrote about me. The Eastern European migrant forcing the English working class out of jobs, benefits, houses. I was working a professional job; paid taxes; had never made a benefits claim. I too couldn’t find stable and affordable housing. I was living the problem I was allegedly creating and the solution was for me to get out.
I didn’t know where to go, but time was running out on my address and I had to ask friends for refuge.
Some evenings, my friends came home early enough to sit in the kitchen and talk. We talked about our day. We laughed about distracted bosses, projects without managers, and colleagues whose tea habits gave rhythm to our day.
We shared our dreams
All any of us wanted from life was to grow trees, have a pet, or just enough time for a long shower. We told each other about the cities we were from and the cities we had lived in. We wished for a place where we and all our friends and loved ones – and their friends and loved ones – could live safely and happily in one neighbourhood.
I remember, at some point I looked up and realised that we were five people with seven passports; we spoke eight languages and worked in four industries; the colours of our skin were different and so were our accents and our beliefs; our attitudes differed on money, politics, religion, in fact, there was barely a thing we agreed on, and yet, there we were, in a kitchen full of steam rising from a pot of pasta, talking.
I rarely felt more at home
I eventually found a place and moved, but wasn’t quite settled. I had questions I couldn’t let go. I asked my friends around the world:
Where is home when the country you were born to no longer exists?
Where is home when you’ve lived in nine different countries before turning 21?
What’s your first language after growing up speaking five?
Can you feel loved by someone who speaks only one?
Over time, I expanded my definition of a friend. I asked everyone around me: Where's home?
I learnt about what's most important.
I suddenly felt protected
My grandfather on my mother’s side told me a story of when he and his family were forced out of their home. It was 1940 and my grandfather was only ten. One night, a truck pulled up in front of their house. Nazi officers put all of my family’s possessions onto a platform trailer. Then another truck pulled up and someone else moved into their house.
During the war, my family laboured on an estate. Being Polish was outlawed. When the war ended, they packed up all their stuff and came back to the same house. It was like a portable home, my grandfather said.
When I move, it’s by choice. I leave most of my possessions behind and when I close the door, I know I will never come back to that address. Wherever I arrive, people tend to embrace me. After all,
Don’t we all love Canadians?
I was born and raised in Poland, but spent a lot of time in France growing up. I did my undergrad in the Netherlands and I lived in England for over five years. Now, when people ask, where is home, I say, it’s right here, between us.
Project Neighbours is a home in conversations. And it’s a wonderfully portable home.
Zuzanna Fimińska is a writer, editor, epidemiologist and host of Project Neighbours.