The road of life has taken me away from Hamburg. Actually, I chose to take myself away from there, and I did not see that coming! However, before we get into that story, I owe you a long overdue introduction to my search for home.
I was born in Canada and lived there until I was 18. However, I never felt Canadian – to be honest, I don’t even understand what feeling Canadian means. My parents were also born in Canada - as were my grandparents, which will come as a shock to some. How could I not feel Canadian? Well, I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because Canada is part of the New World – a land of immigrants (minus the lovely First Nations people that have paid the most horrific of prices for this New World that they didn’t ask for). In my experience, when people move to Canada one of two things generally tends to happen. 1) They arrive in Canada, learn the language, assimilate, and describe themselves as Canadian often letting go of their heritage depending on the age they arrived in Canada. Or, 2) They arrive in Canada and remain true to their heritage describing themselves as Polish or Ukrainian or whatever. Whatever makes people happy in this regard is what I believe they should do. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve discovered that the flip side to all of this exists for people born in Canada: 1) Many feel 100% Canadian despite their parents being from a different country. Again, whatever makes you happy and feels right makes sense to me. 2) There is a group of people who, despite being born in Canada, don’t feel Canadian. They feel a strong connection with their heritage. Usually, this group has parents or grandparents from another country. However, this is the group that I fall into for whatever reason – a soul connection, some strange DNA…it doesn’t matter why to me. It’s just the way it’s always been. My father’s family is British, and my mother’s family is British and (as I later found out) Ukrainian. Though my grandparents died when I was very young, I can look back with my current cultural knowledge and see how influenced they were and I was as a child by British culture.
I always felt like there was another cultural element missing for me, and I discovered it when I was about eleven years old. My mother’s side of the family had Ukrainian roots. Eureka! Learning this suddenly made things click inside me. My grandmother had always said that her family was from Austria, but that was all she would say. It turns out that they were Ukrainians living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My grandmother knew that she was Ukrainian, but she fought it with every fibre of her being, and I only found out why after she had passed away. When she was a teenager, her mother died, and her father “sent back” to Ukraine for a new wife. The new wife arrived in Canada and proved to be even worse than the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. My grandmother was Peggyella. The height of the horror was when my grandmother’s stepmother tried to kill her. That was the final straw. My grandmother was 16 years old. She left her family, changed her religion, stopped speaking Ukrainian, and started a new life without any connections to Ukraine and her evil stepmother. I understand why she did all of this (she was a brave woman), but by hiding her heritage, she took mine away from me. How was she ever to know that heritage would be more important to me than it is to some? It was very important to me though, so I started learning Ukrainian as a teenager and reading about the history and culture of Ukraine. The more I learned, the more I made sense. I innately understood the nuances of Ukrainian culture. It was as though I was born with some sort of understanding of the essence of Ukrainian culture within me. Whether she knew it or not, my mother espoused so many of those cultural traits as well, so I experienced them growing up. (Yes, we had cabbage with every meal.)
By the time I was 18 and ready for university, I had one certainty inside of me – leave Canada and go to the UK. I ended up at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. I felt so at home there. In a matter of months, my accent changed. My university and work life involved working closely with people who had a variety of British accents, and mine morphed into more of an English accent for some reason. I remember being on a bus in Edinburgh when a tourist asked me for directions. She told me she was from Canada, so I told her that I had grown up there. She pulled back and looked directly at me with a look of disgust asking why I didn’t have a Canadian accent. The only answer that I could offer was that people’s accents often change when they move into a new language at a young age. While she was adamant that 18 was too old for that to happen, I got off the bus with the same thoughts that I’ll share with you now: Linguists will tell you that it is not overly common, but still possible for one’s accent to change at the age of 18. Some people pick up on other accents and take them on more easily because of their musicality. I don’t know why my accent changed (I bet on a subconscious level I might have wanted it to), and I didn’t choose for it to change. It just did. It happened. Let’s accept it and move on. (The tourist on the bus was so angry with me! I wonder what her story was.)
After 4 years in Edinburgh, a job opportunity came up in Warsaw, Poland. I had been working for a theatre company in Edinburgh owned by a Polish actor and his wife (the loveliest of people I might add), and I had been to Warsaw once on holiday. Something about the opportunity felt right, so I moved to Poland. I lived there for two years from September to July, and came back to Edinburgh for July and August each year to work for the theatre company during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. While I had immediately fallen in love with Warsaw, there was a comfort in coming home to Edinburgh for the summers. At this point, I was going to Canada every year or so to visit for a week or two at Christmas, but almost from the moment I left Canada at 18, Europe was home.
At 24, the opportunity to work in London, England came up. It seemed the right time to make a change (and pursue a potential love interest – that didn’t pan out), so I moved to England. I had spent some time in London in the past when I lived in Scotland, and I knew it was a place I could feel at home in. I was there for about 5 months before I had to go back to Canada for a short period of time. When I returned to England, the company I had been working for had moved from London to Lincoln, England, so that’s how I ended up in Lincoln. I did not feel at home in Lincoln. The owner of the company and I both felt that way. He had a German passport, I had a Canadian passport, and we both sounded like Londoners. In Lincoln, we found that people are not overly fond of Londoners or foreigners, so we were doubly screwed! I remember coming home one day and jubilantly sharing that I had found a friend for us – a Belgian guy worked at Starbucks and he was willing to be our friend! Now we had 3 – the Belgian Starbucks guy, the UPS guy, and the postwoman (both of whom we had won over because we saw them daily and they were just lovely people). We took every opportunity to go home to London. I repeat. Lincoln did not feel like home. (However, it does have a beautiful city centre and very kind Starbucks baristas.)
At 26, life in my pseudo-home in Lincoln and home in London came to an end. I wasn't able to renew my work permit, so I had to return "home" to Canada, which was horrific on so many levels. Home was England, not Canada. However, opportunity came knocking very quickly, and I was grateful. Word got out that Genya was floating freely in the atmosphere looking for a home, and a great job offer came from Warsaw. So, back to Poland I went. After being evicted, so to speak, from my home in England and spending two months in a foreign land (yes, I mean Canada), I was home again in Warsaw. That city and all of its bureaucracy welcomed me with open arms (and mountains of the red tape and hoop jumping that I’ve lovingly described before).
Fast forward four years to a conversation with one of my staff members who had recently lost both of his parents. He put his hand on my arm and said something that chilled me to my bones: “Make peace with your parents before it’s too late.” Just like his parents, mine were aging (my parents had me later in life), and this conversation got me wondering…..my parents are in Canada…I was born in Canada…was I meant to live there?...my life-long best friend is in Canada…as her children’s guardian, it’s important to me that I really know them...am I really meant to stay in Warsaw?...is there a reason I haven’t built a life with someone here?...and so on and so on. And so, I turned down the offer that was on the table to buy the company I was working for, packed my bags and two Polish cats, and moved to Canada. Here’s some advice for you – don’t quit your job and move across the planet during a major global economic collapse! That is yet another story.
My plan to spend one year in Canada before going back to Warsaw became seven years. Oh, there are so many stories here for the future. I will say, however, that it was not my desire to stay in Canada for so long, but that’s what the universe had in store for me. In those seven years, London, Canada never felt like home. In my mind, Warsaw was still ‘where I was from’ and where home was except that it wasn’t truly home in the sense that my residency status had expired and I don’t have Polish citizenship.
As you know if you’ve read my earlier posts, I left Canada at the start of 2016 and moved to Hamburg, Germany. We’ll come back to that story later. So many stories…
So, there we are! That is the nutshell version of how I came to be a woman on a search for home. While my intention all along was to put down roots, it never really happened. My desire was not to move around as much as I did, but that’s what life brought me, and I accept it. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. The end result is someone who feels more British and Ukrainian than Canadian, and who can never find the right words to answer the common question, “So, where are you from?”