“Are you from the Ukraine.” The man sitting next to me on the bus says this. No questioning tone. It is statement-like, accusatory.
I’ve only asked this stranger if he knew where the correct stop is because I don’t know this city and he thinks I am from the Ukraine.
“No. No, I’m not from the Ukraine, ” I utter. I laugh too quickly and loud as if the mere suggestion is absurd as well as insulting. “I’m from Holland, ” I add, sitting up a bit straighter.
I glance out of the window, unsure if I am missing my stop because I really don’t know this city and it makes me nervous. It’s a city which is demure compared to cities I’ve lived in before; a pussy, yet big enough to intimidate me. That thought adds to my nervousness, the realization that a change in mindset can creep up on you unnoticed. What other things have changed without me noticing?
“Oh, ” he says. “There are a lot of people from the Ukraine here.” Another statement. He sounds as if he isn’t entirely convinced of the fact that I am Dutch. Or I’m reading too much into people. But when you communicate mainly with villagers, speaking to city people is different. I speak Village Galego. I don’t speak city Spanish. I try, but I mix it up.
“They come here for work, ” he continues.
I nod. “Yes, I’ve heard about that.” Maybe I look like a tatty immigrant. If it hadn’t occurred to me that a small city could intimidate me until now, but then maybe I just don’t realise I look like a tatty immigrant.
I asked my grandma once what it was like to look in the mirror when you were old, if it was horrible, and she reassured me it wasn’t because the changes happened unnoticed. She lied, it occurs to me. Changes never happen slowly. They tend to announce themselves rather radically. I glance at my reflection in the window. Haggard. I look away.
“Lots of people from other countries.” The bus slows down. I half rise from my seat. “This isn’t your stop yet. It’s the next one.” Embarrassed, I sit back down again.
“Someone thought the other day I was Portuguese, ” I say.
He nods. “Yes there are lots of Portuguese here too. For work.”
“I used to live in Portugal for a while. Lots of British and German people, ” I laugh.
He is slightly balding. I think about Milan Kundera who wrote something about someone who had the possibility of a bald patch and he wrote it so well. I think how odd it is that I remember it impressing me so much but for the life of me cannot remember the essence of it.
My mind does this when it gets nervous. It diffracts.
The bus driver announces something, I don’t understand what he has said and glance at the man. “This is where you need to get off.” The bus slows down.
“You are from here now, ” Villager J said the other day. He was being nice. And he knows I am not from the Ukraine.
Photo by SlapBcn, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Barbara.
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- Writing in Place: Where Are You From? - July 3, 2013
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Barbara Mounier says
Changes announce themselves rather radically – I can relate. Thanks for sharing, and so beautifully put.
I was glad I could put it to good use. It was such an odd experience.
Will Willingham says
“You are from here now.”
The very sound of that warms me. It’s good to be from somewhere. 🙂
Love this piece, Barbara.
Thank you ..:-)
Sophia Moseley says
I had a feeling of intimidation when I read this, almost threatening. And who is ‘Villager J’? I suppose he was being nice but in a condescending sort of way?
Very poignant post.
Villager J is one of my neighbours, he is a regular in my blog I write about the village I live in. He can be condescending, but he wasn’t at that moment. 🙂
Courtney - Maui Jungalow says
You’ve captured an awkward moment perfectly.
You’re making me blush Courtney. x
Bridget Whelan says
Where are you from can be such a loaded question. If nothing else the questioner clearly see you as an outside, not one of us…I’m a child of immigrants and it opens up issues of identity…as always a beautifully written post…
Thank you Bridget…Yes it is a loaded question isn’t it. It gets confusing in my case anyway because I’ve not lived in Holland for many years and lived also in the UK. So saying “I’m from Holland” makes me want to add “but I’m a Dutch person dating back to 1997” The moment you leave your country, you remain locked in that cultural timeframe.
Charity Singleton Craig says
I just read this poem by Wendell Berry today: http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/resources/wendell-berry-reads-a-poem-about-hope-and-place.
Your post brought to mind these lines:
“Speak to your fellow humans as your place
Has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
Before they had heard a radio. Speak
Publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.”
I am living in a new place, and it has struck me that being in a place does not always mean you are from there. Even after a long time. No one in my small city has told me I am from here now. We all know it’s not true.
This was lovely. I am glad you said in the piece that you are from Holland. I read this with a Dutch accent.
It’s exactly like you say, “we all know it’s not true.” I have a friend who once told me “The promised land is a state of mind.” I always smile when I think about that. x
I think people’s personalities are so fascinating and rich – and mysterious. I love how theirs and ours blend together and form reactions that sometimes urge a bit of temperance while we wade around in the water together and figure out if we feel okay – and other times we BOLT. But you didn’t bolt. You stayed, warily at first maybe, and maybe irritated… maybe. But you stayed and he really seemed to need that I thought. I felt like you were saying (to us) “stay sometimes, if you can…” and “you might be surprised sometimes”. This is a really cool piece and it gets me thinking … it reminds me of people who have seemed “off putting” but really they wanted in. And yes… it is so good to belong somewhere. What a great piece. Thank you for sharing it with us.
(I realized that you were on a bus and so physically you had to stay… but not really… you could have moved I supposed, or emotionally you could have bolted… I guess I’m just feeling happy that you stayed.:) )
Thank you Donna 🙂
Nicely paced and structured.
Jon Lewis says
I liked this very much, I’d like to read more about your day. Where you were going?
I imagine you meet someone for lunch.
A quaint place, rustic and earthy.
The walls drab and floors a little grimy.
But the smells from the kitchen wafting out,
Onion, Beef, Parsnips and bread, good hard crusty bread.
I imagined the man went home to a small apartment with drab walls and grimy floors. No elevator, he has to tramp up stairs to the 4th floor. I can hear him wheeze when he nears the top of the narrow stairs, too many cigarettes. He can smell the food, Onion, Beef, Parsnips and bread.
I imagined you enjoyed your meal and the company of your friend. There is laughter and noise from the otehr diners.
He and his wife talk in whispers, there is nothing new for them to talk about.
I like your follow up of the story better than mine. 🙂
Alison Ashford says
Thank you Barbara for this beautifully described cultural ‘awkwardness’! After 20 years (half my lifetime) of living in south-east England, I still get asked if I’m going ‘home’ for Christmas. I say yes, I’m staying here – at home. Confusion as the other person asks me where I’m from, referring to my very slight Scottish accent. Yes, I’m from Scotland, but this is my home now, I say light-heartedly 🙂
Thank you for reading Alison. 🙂