Lost in Europe
I am a Romanian who has been living in Poland for almost five years.
Before moving to Poland, I would never have referred to my nationality when introducing myself. Where I was born was an accident, and other features described me better. I was a journalist or an environmental activist or a cinema lover or an aspiring boxer (or whatever occupied me the time), much more than I was a Romanian.
But after five years of living in Poland, the fact that I am Romanian ended up saying more about me than other attributes. It is shorthand for being a foreigner in this country: for missing things left behind and for feeling only partly at ease with my surroundings; and for being assaulted (discreetly but systematically) by the Polish nationalism cultivated by the current government.
One year ago, I decided to stop and confront the fact that being a foreigner made me somewhat unhappy. I prompted other foreigners to tell me their stories and share their burning questions and ways of coping. I conducted over twenty interviews with people who lived abroad. Most of them were in their thirties. Like me, they were what I would call ‘voluntary migrants’, people who had decided to leave their country to study or to work or because of love, and had not been forced to flee war, persecution or poverty. I wrote a text quoting those dialogues, in which I discussed some of the themes that can obsess foreigners: living in a new language, mixed families, the illusion of one day returning ‘home’.
Below are a few excerpts from the essay, starting with what for me is one of the most crucial issues: can we, as foreigners, ever become full members of our host societies and feel that we have a voice in, an understanding of, and an involvement in their politics?
Foreigners and revolutions
In 2013, what was dubbed ‘the revolution of our generation’ erupted in Romania. Starting on 1 September, tens of thousands of people took to the streets weekly across the country to protest against the destruction of the village Rosia Montana in the Apuseni Mountains to build Europe’s largest cyanide-based gold and silver mine. At the time, this was the biggest popular mobilization in post-communist Romania since the anti-communist protests at Piata Universitatii in the early 1990s. I had been in Poland for almost two years when the protests started, and I had been waiting for them.
Even from 1,000 km away I could feel the anger growing back in my home country. My feet were restless. I was spending long evenings reading news from Romania. In response to a call for solidarity from the organizers of the protests in Romania, I put together a small action in Warsaw on 1 September: a handful gathered in front of the Romanian embassy for a symbolic show of solidarity with the villagers.
Yet, to me, this still felt too much like an approximation of what I should have really be doing. So, in expectation of the next nationwide protest on 8 September, I flew to Bucharest. One of the best decisions I have ever made. The protest happened to be the biggest in the series of weekly demonstrations which lasted into December. In Bucharest alone, 20,000 people took to the streets, marching for kilometres into the capital’s neighbourhoods, gathering others on the way and occupying main squares in the centre past midnight.
I consider how I felt that weekend in Bucharest to be one of the biggest obstacles to my successful integration in Poland. I imagine that anyone taking part in any of the protest movements rocking countries around the world in recent years – Occupy and indignados, the Arab Spring, Greece, Bulgaria, the Western Balkans and other places where people called for an end to malfunctioning democracy, for citizen empowerment and more social justice – might understand my statement. I had found my home.
People were shouting to the government ‘we are watching you’, and this is what they did: during that time, everyone was listening to the news, reading legislative proposals and discussing to make sure they understood what was going on. On the streets of Romanian cities and villages, a sense of community and solidarity prevailed that was unprecedented in post-communist Romania. For my generation, this was the first time we had experienced such hope, empowerment and communality. Those a decade older than me had 1989. To them, this felt like 1989 reloaded. For many of us it was a premiere.
Years earlier, while I was studying, I used to joke with my Greek boyfriend at the time – his mother had been tortured by the police in the early 1970s for anti-fascist activities – that our generation lacked a revolution. Our parents had looked to the end of dictatorships (communist in Romania, fascist in Greece) as the beginnings of hope. Our generation, we said to each other back in 2005–2006, was immersed in a neoliberal consensus and had no hope for a change. History was supposed to be ending.
Less than a decade later, we got our revolutions. In Romania. And in Greece too. With a vengeance.
I didn’t stay in Bucharest after September 2013. I had barely begun life in Warsaw and it made sense to see where it would take me. I had just started speaking a little Polish, I was almost able to keep in my head the map of the city and I had made a few friends. I didn’t think relocating my relationship made sense at the time. So I tried to get involved in Polish struggles. They were interesting and worthwhile. But none of them made me feel like Rosia Montana did.
I often wondered, while trying to help out with some food sovereignty initiative, or demonstrating in the annual anti-fascist march in Warsaw, why I was unable to feel at home, despite the importance of the causes and the like-mindedness of fellow activists.
In a way, it’s an unfair comparison. Contemporary Poland hasn’t gone through an exhilarating episode of social mobilization like Rosia Montana. Nothing that happening here felt to me like ‘a revolution’. Perhaps its time has not yet come. Maybe, had I lived in Spain and taken part in the indignados actions, I would have found a home for myself there and then.
However the likelihood is that I’m more attached to causes in Romania. I know the places and people for longer and I followed the story for many years, no matter where I lived. Whatever the Rosia Montana villagers say, with whatever turn of phrase, I understand it. But mostly, I’m not much of an activist in Poland because it’s in the nature of activism to be local, contextual, language-dependent and ridden with social norms.
I’ve tried painting demo banners together with Poles. In their kindness, they translated for me the whole discussion about the best slogan. Including the plays on words. But I was only really useful for painting the letters.
I’ve tried taking part in meetings of my food cooperative. I followed the discussion in Polish and when, in their kindness, I was allowed me to make my intervention in English, I could feel that I was losing the audience. Never mind trying to hang out for post-meeting small talk, where relations are forged, ideas born and plans for the future made between laughs.
‘Everyone has a part of society that they belong to, you find them in all societies,’ said my German friend Sven. ‘But for you as a foreigner, if you don’t speak the language of the group – and I don’t mean just the national language here, I mean the dialect specific to that group – you have no chance of belonging. To learn that dialect, you need to spend a lot of time with those people. Now, when we’re in our thirties and have families, it seems impossible to find such time.’
I now speak Polish, and it’s getting easier to be involved, but it still doesn’t feel quite right. Sven and I sound pretty defeatist. Perhaps we’re weren’t made to be activists after all?
Five years ago, when I moved to Poland, I found a public space where the agenda was set much more often by nationalist and ultra-conservative voices than by progressive ones. The strength of nationalist discourse can be gauged every year on 11 November, when Poles have their national holiday. Tens of thousands take part in Warsaw and Wroclaw in marches organized by far-right groups, holding racist banners and chanting anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, anti-gay or anti-feminist slogans. Since I have been in Poland, participation is consistently high (in 2015, some estimates put numbers in Warsaw at 70,000). Participants are mostly young and male, and the energy of the crowds is huge (sometimes I think of it as the twisted equivalent of the Rosia Montana movement vibe).
Ever since Law and Justice got to power in 2015, racist attacks have intensified (the office of the Ombudsman reported that they now get complaints weekly). People feel entitled to express hatred. Much is to be done in Poland to resist an authoritarian regime that breeds this.
In the months after Law and Justice came to power, tens of thousands took to the streets of Warsaw and other cities in defence of the rule of law. But few of the protesters cared for the plight of those who had voted Law and Justice because of its promise of economic help. The winners of the Polish transition make no effort to understand its losers. This is a very split society, and without a reconciliation it will be hard for democracy to flourish.
Sometimes I reflect on the irony of those Poles marching on 11 November, hating me for being a Romanian, while it may be that I understand better than many Poles what’s it like to feel excluded. Sometimes I feel closer to Poland precisely because it’s such a fractured, battered society. Out of solidarity.
Sometimes I remember that the fault-lines nowadays, whether in Poland or elsewhere, seem to be the same. Societies divided. Large portions of the population economically and politically marginalized. Almost everyone feels betrayed by the political class. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia spreading like wildfire, with enormous costs. Whether you live in Poland or Romania, the UK or Austria, we are all desperately looking for convincing models for democratic and just societies.
Here’s what Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Law and Justice, had to say about the refugees at the height of the crisis in 2015: ‘I fear infectious diseases that could be brought by Syrians and Eritreans. There are fears that diseases which are very unsafe and which were long ago eradicated in Europe will reappear. This doesn’t mean that I am discriminating against anyone… But we must check this. Certain parasites which may not be dangerous for those people could be threatening over here.’
The day Kaczyński said those words, I walked down my street in Warsaw suspicious of people around me. I couldn’t help wondering how many of them would have preferred that I didn’t live in their country. After all, 40 per cent had voted Law and Justice, which ran on a strongly nationalist platform despite steering away in public from such blatant racism as exhibited in Kaczyński’s statement.
Stepping into the library where I went daily to work, I met one of the people who made it possible for Kaczyński to rule Poland: my librarian. The one who swiped my library card and handed me the internet password every day.
My librarian – a friendly, talkative person. Clearly interested in me because I was Romanian. At first, she asked me about the mountains and the food. Then she asked me whether Romania, like Bulgaria, was ever part of the Ottoman Empire. Then she shared with me the view that Greeks were historically blonde and that it was only because Greek women were systematically raped by Turks during the occupation that today they are dark. I could imagine her listening to Kaczynski’s statement and raising a worried eyebrow.
‘Viktor Orban is right,’ she told me one day. Until then I had mostly mumbled something in response to her racist comments. I was rushing to get work done and didn’t want to waste time on those conversations. However this time I replied: ‘I am really saddened you say this,’ I said. ‘You seem to like me and the other foreigners who work in this library.’ (We were in Warsaw’s library for foreign languages, where many foreigners, including refugees, come to borrow books and use the internet.) ‘Orbán wants a Hungary for Hungarians. There is no place for me in a Poland for Poles.’ ‘No, that’s just propaganda,’ she insisted. ‘That’s not what Poland for Poles means! Poland for Poles means that Poles come first. But others are welcome too, as long as they prove they can integrate here.’
‘Poles come first.’ I thought a lot about that sentence afterwards. I wondered what it really meant. Perhaps it meant, ‘Poles are being taken care of,’ or ‘the needs of Poles are being met’. Unlike in the real Poland, where people like her were feeling insecure, dissatisfied. She dreamed of a Poland where her needs would be given priority. And she was right to do so. Where she was wrong was in thinking that it was her ethnicity that entitled her to that attention. And I could hardly blame her. It has been the official story for so long.
I didn’t say that. Instead, I asked: ‘Don’t you think that refugees should be helped?’ ‘Yes, of course they should be, poor people. Just that Poland can’t do it.’ ‘Sure it can. Poland is equipped to take on hundreds of thousands of refugees. The authorities organized these resources for Ukrainian refugees but never used them. The Ukrainians were not given refugee status so they ended up in Poland as economic migrants. Supporting themselves.’ ‘Well, if we have the resources, then we should help, by all means. We should welcome the refugees. But many of them aren’t refugees, they are economic migrants. There are many of them. And they are very different from us. They would never find their place here.’
It is the sort of conversation that must have repeated itself hundreds of thousands of times across Europe in 2015.
The truth is that I was not especially persuasive. I could not prove to her that if large numbers of Syrians were to move to Poland they would find a place in the country. I have doubts about it myself – there’s just too much xenophobic propaganda, and it might eventually break their hearts.
For once, it mattered little where I was from. As long as I was on this side of the barbed wire that kept out people fleeing war. It was as if the notoriously elusive European identity had finally come into existence, but as a nightmarish vision, not the one dreamed of by the architects of the EU.
Many eastern Europeans rejected their governments’ line. Central and eastern Europe is no longer so poor, we said. Our countries have the money to help, we said, and we supported this with calculations. There were empty buildings, beds and food. We want to give, we want to open our doors, we know this can make a life and death difference. We know what it’s like to be a refugee. Just a few decades back, our parents escaped criminal regimes. We know what it’s like to be an economic migrant. Our relatives are in the West looking for a more prosperous life. And even if we don’t know what it’s like, we want to help because otherwise we would not be human. We are not afraid of Syrians, Muslims, Africans. They are our brothers and sisters.
We sent clothes and money, signed appeals and went to demonstrations to say to our governments ‘not in my name’. But we were too weak. The fear propagated by our governments and media was too strong. We did not fight hard enough. We failed. We went on with our lives while refugees froze at our borders.
The Hungarian philosopher G.M. Tamás describes the situation well: ‘While the (refugee) tragedy is happening, western tourists are strolling around (in Budapest), admiring the pretty young women, all the cafes are full, music is playing… As I wrote in a recent article, the same thing happened in 1944. Some six hundred Jews had just been taken to Auschwitz – and in the newspapers of the day you could read about the new premiere of cabaret operettas, musical comedies in the cinemas, and the football championship that was on. Everyone was enjoying themselves – while the death marches were going through town. People picked up their newspapers, opened the sport pages – and nobody gave a toss. It’s the same thing now. Nobody cares. Well, of course, when the Keleti station was occupied, that was unpleasant, because people couldn’t travel… But now everything is back to normal. The trains are running to Vienna. Mr Orbán has won.’
But refugees are still knocking on our doors. We must still do something.
I should probably continue my dialogue with my librarian. Dismissing her for buying into xenophobic propaganda is an easy answer, but of little use.
If the battle is international, why do I feel I should be fighting it on the Romanian and not the Polish front? Why do I sleep worse during elections in Romania than in Poland (results tend to be exasperating in both places)? If Bucharest is a dirtier and more stressful city than Warsaw, why does it sometimes feel that it’s there that I should be? Why is it so important for me not to forget Romanian? Why am I getting my daughter a Romanian passport in addition to a Polish one? Why do I desperately want her to learn Romanian, why do I make plans for her to spend time there? Why do I want to instil… Romanianness in her? What do I even mean by Romanianness?
Sometimes the answers seem obvious, pragmatic. I understand Romanian society and history better, hence it would just be easier for me to function there. And to contribute something. It’s only in Romanian that I know idioms, rhymes and word plays, so it’s the language in which I can express myself most fully. I want to share this language with my daughter because I like the idea of us having a language all to ourselves. Because I want her to be able to speak to her grandmother from Brasov. I want her to be Romanian too, not just Polish, because this would enrich her. Because it’s something she would have in common with me, always.
It’s all true. But there is another reason too.
‘It’s because, despite thinking we are above nationalism and all that, we still think Germanness or Romanianness is somehow more pleasant than Polishness’, says Sven, who also wants his little girl to preserve her Germanness, despite having a Polish mother and being born and raised there. ‘That’s how we grew up ourselves and therefore what we think is best.’ We look at each other with a mix of shock, guilt and irony.
But it’s more. It’s also that, somehow, we bought the adage that being Romanian, German or Polish comes with belonging to a community that needs us and that we need to be happy. A community identified by my school textbooks with the Romanian nation. In school, I never learned about the history of Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Roma and others who for ages lived on what is today Romanian territory. ‘Romania belongs to Romanians’ – this is what we were taught.
Whenever I feel alone or alienated abroad, the idea of that imagined community lights up in my head. Like a lost home, an ultimate reference point, a permanent utopia.
I use the phrase ‘home country’ (my preferred phrase for that imagined community) without having any idea what it means. It’s certainly not the Romanian nation, as the textbooks say. I don’t feel a special allegiance to Romania. It’s not the nation state, either, because Romania should not be one, if you ask me – it should be a multicultural place, acknowledging and celebrating its diversity, or whatever is left of it after the world wars and communism. It is not even a geographical space, since I am familiar with only about a third of it.
When I try to spell out what ‘home country’ means to me, the concept dissipates. It slips through my fingers like sand. Saying ‘home country’ is an automatism, it comes to me because I’ve been socialized to think of myself in a national context. ‘Home country’ really stands for some people I love (and especially people I’ve loved my entire life), known places, memories, my mother tongue, some social realities I understand well, familiarity. ‘Home country’ signifies my need to belong.
Despite the innocence of what it stands for, whenever I get too stuck on the label, I confirm the stereotype of the exile who roams the world, cultivating in her heart the image of a country left behind against which nothing can compare.
The more time abroad, the more idealized and ossified the image. The more battered the lives abroad, the stronger the grip on it. Longing for a time and confusing it with a place. Missing youth, childhood, the womb, mistaking it for a country, a nation. Becoming more nationalist than those left behind.
From afar, our countries call us back.
Sofyia, a Ukrainian woman living in the UK, describes a feeling shared by many eastern Europeans living in the West: ‘My life is here now. But there are moments when I feel that it’s my duty to go back to Ukraine. I received my education there, paid for by the people, and like many of my peers I left for a better life abroad. Indeed, the fact that so many of us left is partly responsible for the deterioration of the situation of our society.’
‘After Maidan, the mainstream has moved strongly to the right in Ukraine, which makes it very difficult for people like me, holding anti-nationalist and pacifist views, to be taken seriously. I believe in non-violent resistance and I condemned the part of Maidan that turned violent, and I am also against waging war in the East. This means that I’m labelled a traitor… especially while living abroad. At the same time, I feel a deep need to establish a connection with Ukraine, because I think the space for discussion there needs to be opened and I could contribute to that.’
Iro, a Greek friend living in London, has experienced what it’s like to live in the UK capital, keeping both a utopian and a dystopian image of Greece in her mind: ‘When I thought I would be in London just for a short while and would go back to Greece, which I missed, I had a very negative attitude towards London and I couldn’t really appreciate anything. I felt very much like a stranger or a prisoner counting days inside.’
Unhappy with her London life, she went back to Athens, just when her country was seeing the first effects of the financial crisis. Back home, she was overwhelmed by the despair of people, which was sometimes pushing them into immoral behaviour. After two years she returned to the UK. ‘Now, after being disappointed by Greece and having been forced to look for something else, I am more open to notice and even admire some things which in Greece we don’t have, such as the politeness of people, the parks, the nice things happening in the city.’.
‘The first time, it was as if I had a line connecting me to Greece. When I cut it, I started seeing things as new and unique. It didn’t make sense doing what I was doing, comparing two very different things: the reality of London and the utopia of Greece.’
Still, she says, ‘Whenever I think about living in London for good, I am worried that some part of me would never be satisfied here, that I could not have here the life I would really like to live. It’s because of being a foreigner, but mostly it’s a cultural thing. Here the pace of life is fast, it’s just more difficult to hang out with people, you have to plan everything, schedule in advance any appointment, life here doesn’t have the free flow that I’m used to.’
For the last couple of years, my Bulgarian friend Desislava has been living out my secret dream: she went back to her country after many years abroad. Only that, in reality, the dream was more complicated.
‘I don’t like life in Sofia: it’s crowded and stressful, it’s hard to ride my bike. I’m thinking about going away again, maybe to somewhere in France.’ This is what Desislava was saying after a year of being back in the Bulgarian capital. She had lived for ten years in western Europe without, like me, ever meaning to leave for good. She had finally decided to return, but it was looking like a failure.
‘I can’t say that I’m really happy in Bulgaria. You know how it is, you can have a certain image of a place and then… it’s not the same. I think my ailment is to always want to be in two places. The world is just too small. I think I need to be on the road to feel alive.’
‘We messed up, Claudia.’
This tiny phrase Desislava uttered during our meeting in Sofia was one of the things that got me into this whole process of interviewing people and writing about being a foreigner.
Had we really messed up? Was it really our fault that we would never be able to find our place?
During my conversation with Iro, the Greek friend, I pushed her to answer one of the questions that bothers me the most: Is it impossible for us foreigners to feel complete while living abroad? Or are we just using difficulties with integration as the excuse not to live the lives we want?
‘It’s very hard to distinguish between what is objective and what are just our insecurities and fears. Comparing all the time and finding only negatives in my current life can also be a way or refusing to accept responsibility for doing something good with my life. It is just easier for me to say it is bad here,’ Iro replied. ‘But some things are objective. We will probably never be completely at ease with being in another country. We may always have to live with some degree of difficulty. But how much we turn this difficulty into an excuse, that’s up to us.’
I agree with her. We make too much of our ‘home countries’ out of fear. If we cannot cope with the present, we escape into the imaginary. But it’s also true that, no matter how much I resist having ‘home country’ as a reference point, the image somehow stays in my head. It’s real in that sense, too.
As foreigners, we probably have to accept the fact that we will always be a little melancholic. As if in a permanent, low-intensity state of mourning for the lives we could have had at home