I am Polish born. When we used to ask people that question in Poland, a quarter of a century ago, it meant “why, of all countries, did you decide to move to ours?” It was a sign of our insecurity, we were desperate to hear something pleasant about our homeland, especially from a westerner.
Nowadays, it is in fact a cheeky observation, “You westerners look down on our part of Europe, and yet you chose to move here, eh?” One thing does not change – we like the answer. It is still good to receive a positive view about our country for a change.
The same question carries a completely different value when it’s a British person asking an Eastern European why they decided to move to Britain. British people, of course, have none of those insecurities. On the contrary, more often than not, they firmly believe that their country is great (it isn’t, really. I have a whole podcast about this if you are interested). And this is when they are usually disappointed with the answer. Because the British assume that since hundreds of thousands of people from new EU member countries flooded into the British Isles after 2004, their country simply has to be some kind of promised land for them.
But this is not the case. True, I love Scotland, where I lived for 17 years. I fell in love with its people, landscapes, culture, the Outer Hebrides and the Glaswegian mixture of heavy Scottish accent and the Scots language. But I knew nothing of the country when I arrived.
My first impressions of Glasgow were, in fact, quite negative. I was surprised to find that a large city in Western Europe, which we had heard so many good things about, can be, in reality, a dirty, grey, dilapidated urban jungle with a post-apocalyptic feel – the crumbling remains of its former glory. Don’t get me wrong, Glasgow is a great city, but it takes time to discover its gems and fall in love with it. The city definitely did not give those “vibrant, colourful vibes” to a hitchhiker who was dropped off, by a not-exactly-fragrant driver of a rusty LDV Convoy, at the corner of Argyle Street under Kingston Bridge one rainy summer evening.
My own migration story
So why did I come? Because of two people. Natalia and Tony. Natalia was my girlfriend at the time. We’d been together only very briefly, but this relationship tied my life to Scotland for most of my adulthood. We were students who wanted to make some money by working abroad. And she already had some contacts – her family and friends were working in Glasgow. Migration works in one of two ways. Some are highly qualified professionals in a sought-after field, headhunted and offered a good incentive to move.
Others just look for someone who is already living there, and who agrees to let you sleep on the sofa in their living room and try to build your life from scratch. That was us. Natalia had those contacts. Her family moved to Glasgow because their friends were there. Their friends were there because their friends were there before. They were all from Gorzów Wielkopolski, so initially nearly every Polish person I met in Glasgow was from this city too. I guess in LinkedIn-speak you could call it “networking”.
But it’s not just turtles all the way down. How did those first Gorzów people end up in Scotland? Why in Scotland, and not in Germany, which is less than one hour’s drive away from their home city?
Tony believed in Freedom of Movement
This is where Tony comes in. His second name is Blair, and he was the British prime minister who decided that the UK would be just one of three countries (along with Ireland and Sweden) that would allow the citizens of the new 10 EU member countries – mostly from Central and Eastern Europe – to exercise their freedom of movement in full from their first day of accession to the EU.
So, there you go. Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t come to Britain because it’s so great. We came, because we had very limited choice and it was the largest of the two English speaking countries that had invited us to come in 2004. And this is where disappointment lies. Because if a Briton asks, “why have you come here?” they won’t always have confirmation of their existing beliefs that their country is the best. The response will be “well, we didn’t really have that much choice,” and this is not exactly the answer they were hoping for.
I live in Helsinki now. I was asked the “why Finland?” question, too.
“I lived in Scotland before, but then, after Brexit happened…” I began…
“Ah, I see,” my interlocutor interrupted. That was all the information they needed.
Brexit explains everything, as the author’s Finnish friend in his story realises. But still our politicians refuse even to mention it.
Next week: as backing for Brexit dwindles further, Simon Pease warns of a desperate attempt we can expect soon from some politician to use the flag to shore up support.