My mum and I arrived in Melbourne in late November, 1981. I was thirteen and a half.
We left Warsaw amid great big wet flakes of snow falling from the sky and arrived to huge blue skies and ridiculously bright sunshine. The shadows were stark and deep, the light was blinding.
As we drove from the airport I was mesmerised by the garish advertising everywhere, car yards full of shiny cars and butcher shop windows displaying mounds of fresh meat.
We had left a communist country where food rationing and shortages of everything were the norm and arrived in the land of plenty.
I was yet to experience culture shock, bullying and depression. All I could see that day were the riches and bright colours of the promised land.
My father had left Poland some two years earlier in search of work and money. He spent some time in Vienna working illegally, doing menial work, before being recruited by Australian immigration officials as part of the skilled migrant immigration program.
He’d been here perhaps a year before we were able to join him after struggles with the Polish bureaucracy in obtaining passports and permission to leave the country. I had been “leaving for Australia” for months and was almost a celebrity at my school, even getting out of the school choir because I “had English lessons”. My mum and I milked it for all it was worth, just to give us a break from the various obligations put upon us by the school. I wasn’t able to get out of Russian and German lessons however, which horribly confused my English progress.
Once we obtained permission to leave, packing became our way of living. Not just packing, but getting rid of most of our possessions. All our furniture and furnishings, even things like the bathtub were sold, because when we rented our flat, it didn’t have one in it. And my mum wasn’t about to leave it behind.
Crates were made out of shelving timber and our most essential possessions packed and dispatched as freight, not to be seen again for three or four months. I still remember the joy of unpacking my dolls and books and bedding when our chests finally arrived. Ahhh, snuggling under my doona when autumn and winter finally came.
After living in various migrant hostels and backyard bungalows, my father had rented a two bedroom unit for us in Springvale. It was about three times the size of our two room flat back in Poland and it had a back yard.
I don’t remember seeing our neighbours much though, which was a huge change after living in a high rise with a common stairwell where we constantly ran into our many neighbours. But that was just a minor adjustment.
The first weeks were marvellous. Everything was bright and shiny and abundant. Australia was everything I had dreamed of. The food was plentiful, the bread was soft and white, jam was sweet and there was Nutella. The landscape was extraordinary. My dad ferried us all around Melbourne and its surrounds showing off his new country. I loved the ocean. The huge waves, the clean sand, the rocky shores. I loved it all.
But then, I was but a child. I had no idea of our financial situation and did not understand the even greater culture shock that my parents were experiencing.
I started English classes at the Noble Park Language Centre. I met kids from all around the globe. There were Italians, Dutch, Vietnamese and others. I couldn’t understand any of them and my English was nowhere near as good as I thought it was. I could not understand people in the street, barely understood my teachers. I knew English pretty well on paper; verbal communication wasn’t quite so easy.
By Easter, my English was deemed good enough to send me to a mainstream school. My parents, advised by my teachers, sent me to a school two train stops away, because it had an ESL program. Alas, my English was too good for ESL classes, so I struggled in standard classes, confused and miserable. Again, the paper English tests showed more proficiency than I actually had.
The school was a migrant melting pot. I quickly discovered another Polish girl and hung out with her as much as I could, but there was no avoiding the need to speak and understand English. Worse, I had to learn Aussie slang. At times it felt like I was in a nightmare, where you can understand the words people are saying, but have no idea what they mean.
Remarkably, I did well academically. Well, not remarkably. I had always been a good student. Schooling in Poland was more advanced than the grade equivalent here and my maths and science skills were above those of my classmates, even if I still struggled with English. This warranted that I skip a grade and I was moved to Year 8 mid-year. Clearly, this didn’t win me many friends. Both the Year 7s and Year 8s thought I was an upstart and too good for them. Never mind that I was closer in age to the Year 8s and even more advanced academically. The Year 8s soon warmed to me, though as they learnt that I was their age and knew what they knew, but I didn’t make any bosom friends.
I hated school. I hated not fitting in, not having the right uniform (my parents couldn’t afford it), not understanding what was going on around me. I didn’t know what a curriculum day was and came to school when no-one else did. I did not know what a casual day was and was very confused when everyone came to school out of uniform. I hated travelling so far every day, when back in Poland, my school was two minutes away.
I had to grow up very fast. I had to learn to take care of myself, because as much as I didn’t know what was going on, neither did my parents. The only reason I managed to skip a grade, was because they had a friend in the education department who came along to the parent teacher interviews and translated for them.
My mother became pregnant soon after we arrived and I was not happy. I felt my status as an only child slipping away and I did not like to share. I was convinced it was some kind of plot against me, to make my life even more miserable, when in fact, a faulty IUD was to blame. Remember, I was thirteen. And a half.
My sister was born in September, 1982. She was a squished little red thing that I was required to babysit and who cried at night. I was not impressed. Ours was not a love at first sight. I desperately wanted siblings when I was 5 and 7, but not when I was fourteen.
During that summer, we were allocated a Housing Commission flat in Ashwood. It was awful, especially when compared to the lovely, clean and carpeted unit in Springvale. I cried when we went to look at it and saw my awful room. Life could not possibly get any worse.
Image by pontla.