It’s been ten years since I started my big foreign adventure. In this loose series, I talk to the immigrants I met in 2005 and those I’m only meeting now. They all tell me a bit about the changes that the last decade has brought for them.
When I arrived in 2005, in the midst of an immigration wave, Ben had been living in the UK for two years already. He’d followed his British girlfriend to Northwest England and married her, thus gaining the right to stay a little earlier than most of his Polish compatriots did. The marriage failed, and he was living in shared accommodation when we met. Had he not found a job, he says, he’d gone back home, as quite a few of the new Europeans would do over the next few months. But there was plenty of agency work right then, he had the legal right to remain, and his brother had moved to England a year earlier. So Ben stayed on.
Over the next ten years, life happened. An apartment was found, an even better one next. The jobs got better, too. After starting all over in 2005, Ben acquired a car, a steady job, a wife, two kids and a house in the course of only a few years. Not a bad achievement by any means, but given that Ben, like the majority of his fellow first-wave immigrants, was young, it’s safe to presume that all those milestones would have happened wherever he had chosen to live. When I ask him if he thinks his quality of life is higher here than it would have been in Poland, he hesitates. As a Polish native speaker, he would probably have a more prestigious job back home, and a better chance of promotion. But he thinks life in England is easier, with a lot less bureaucracy and a feeling that the state doesn’t make it unnecessarily difficult for a regular citizen to make a living.
He doesn’t miss home, he says. Unlike a lot of the Poles I’ve met, he doesn’t sing his country’s praises. His wife isn’t Polish, he doesn’t have a lot of Polish friends, and he generally doesn’t feel the need to mingle with his compatriots. A lot of his current work colleagues are Polish, but he’s worked in all-British companies before, and says it doesn’t make any difference whether someone starts a conversation in Polish or English. Ben speaks very good English, and doesn’t seem overly sentimental about his mother tongue. His children don’t speak Polish, and he regrets not having had the opportunity to spend longer periods at home with them when they were younger. They’ll be fine speaking English and their mother’s native language, he says, but adds that he wishes they too could enjoy the Polish language movies he grew up with. I understand this particularly melancholy; I’ve found that sharing your roots and stories with your children becomes even more important when you live abroad.
Asked about the things he doesn’t like about England, he has one quick answer: “People parking on double yellow lines.” Do Poles not do that, I ask. “We don’t have double yellow lines,” he admits with a laugh. But it’s about following rules, which is important to him personally, even if it’s not something Poles are quite as notorious for as Germans. He doesn’t understand how people can drop their litter or walk their dogs on a cemetery. It’s small things like these that have started bothering me too, if only over the last couple of years. For me, it’s a sign that my rose-tinted glasses have finally come off. Of course, I wanted to love England, whereas Ben simply happened to end up here. It’s that way for most Poles, he thinks. “Ask a Pole about his dinner, and he’ll tell you how Polish potatoes would have tasted much better. They only thing that’s better here is the money, and that’s why they stay.”
I’m not sure that’s true for all of them. As the labour market has become more competitive, and jobs have become sparse, there’s been something of a shift in immigration from eastern Europe. The numbers of those coming to make a lot of money in a short period of time have dwindled, and those who come now intend to stay and make life in Britain work for them in the long-term. While life has been good to Ben, others made a deliberate effort to stay in the country that promised so much in 2005, even if they quickly realised that it wouldn’t be easy. Maybe I’ll find one of them to talk to me about it.