Poles apart

Carolyn Smith teaches English in Poland - Pawel Bak
Carolyn Smith teaches English in Poland - Pawel Bak


I live in Silesia, near the Czech Republic border, in the southern part of Poland.

It’s way smoggier than the northern part.

I would say I come from Maraval, where I grew up completely (and have) lived most of my life, but I was born in Stockholm, Sweden.

My father, a Trini, met my Swedish mum when they were both living in London. She went back to Sweden to have me because she had no family in England except my dad.

We came to Trinidad when I was about a year old. I grew up completely in Trinidad.

My father, Brian, died 12 years ago, when he was 66, from lung cancer, from smoking.

My mum, Biritta, won’t leave Trinidad. Everyone calls her Bibi.

I got married at 25 and had my son and daughter in the three years my marriage lasted. Nick is 31 now, Mariel is 29.

I’d rather not say my ex-husband’s name, for his privacy.

It wasn’t hunky-dory after the separation but we made a decision that we had to be good parents for the children and we ended up being good friends. I spend time with him and his girlfriend, no problem.

I live with my boyfriend Pawel Bak. Pawel is the Polish for “Paul.” It’s kinda pronounced “Pah-vow.”

He was one of the few people my age in Poland who actually spoke English. Since being with me, his English has vastly improved. Because I constantly correct his mistakes.

I only know about three words in Polish. I couldn’t even order food.

But younger people are learning English at school. If there’s a young person in a shop, I’m all right. If I can’t get across what I want to an older person, I will leave.

Even on Facebook, old Bishop’s girls remain proud.

And look the same! I could recognise everybody from my year.

Neither of my parents was religious but my father forced me to go to Catholic church, I think because it was his family tradition.

When I was 16, I was told I could stop. So I stopped.

I am agnostic/atheist. I don’t really believe in anything.

I’m mixed race but was considered a white girl in Trinidad.

But I did experience a little racism, especially from the French Creoles. I looked one way and then they would see my father and it would be a whole different story.

But it was okay for me.

Carolyn Smith, centre, at ESL school dinner. - courtesy Pawel Bak

I went to school in England from 1974-76, between the ages of ten and 12, ‘cause my father was studying there.

I experienced racism then. Like a boy spat in my face.

I changed my accent to English, to see if that might help. It was a small village in Buckinghamshire, eh, not London.

Poland is not diverse at all, in any way.

Yes, BC Pires, they are very bigoted. They have “gay-free zones.” They are very religious. The church is in cahoots with the government!

I don’t hear anything about anti-Semitism now but I know it was bad during Communist times. There’s a whole Jewish district in Krakow.

I started playing mas with Edmond Hart in my late teens, did Panorama, the whole Carnival thing. But I somehow, always ended up with the children for Carnival! It was way more important for my ex-husband to play mas!

When my children came back from the US and (established themselves) I decided, right, I need to do something for myself. I’d been in (a series of middle-management jobs) and I never really liked any of them. It wasn’t me.

I only started teaching English as a foreign language (ESL) as a way of travelling.

I did a month-long ESL teaching course in Vietnam and stayed on four more months. But I couldn’t handle Vietnam. The culture was too different. Nobody spoke English.

And I looked different to them. There were people there who had never seen curly hair, so they would come up to me and push they hands in my hair, and pull it and take selfies with me! Oh, it was torture!

After Vietnam, I went back to Trinidad and then to Colombia on an amazing five-month contract, in a very rural Caribbean coast town, Lorica, part of a World Heritage Site.

Two months after that, I came to Poland. I don’t get jobs through an agency, just go online and look for placings. There are lots.

My plan was stay in Poland for a year and then go to Barcelona, but next month it’s four years I’m in Poland.

It’s not so much because I like Poland (as I like) my Polish boyfriend.

We do
a lot of travelling from Poland. We just went to Budapest for a weekend. We went to Georgia – the country – for Christmas. Prague is right there; we go often.

If BC Pires says he’s amazed he survived the excesses of his youth, I reply, I know! I can’t believe I’m 57 and here I am, still! I had some self-inflicted challenges in my life.

But even my daughter Mariel tells me, “Mummy, you’re living your best life now.”

When my father died at 66, I thought he was kinda old.

But now I realise that’s only nine years away from me! Not so old at all!

For me, there is absolutely no similarity between Poland and TT. Not the people, not the TV, not one single thing, nothing.

It is lovely and I have very nice Polish friends. But it is very different.

The first thing my students ask me is, why would you leave the Caribbean to come to Poland? I think I’ve answered that question at least 150 times, honestly.

I tell them, yes, I understand the Caribbean is exotic for you. But, living in the Caribbean, Europe is exotic for me.

I’ve had enough of sweating. Yes, I miss the beach, but I’d never experienced winter before and I enjoy it.

It’s not so cold. Since I’ve been here, the lowest it’s gone down is, like, minus eight. Ten years ago, Poland was known to go down to minus-30, minus-40. So global warming has worked out for me in Poland.

The best part of the job is meeting people, hearing their stories and them asking me questions about Trinidad.

Truly, I can’t say there is a bad part of it. It might be having to walk to school in the snow or rain.

The thing I miss most about Trinidad is my children.

But I speak to Mariel every day and Nicholas at least four times a week.

I also miss Maracas, the food, hearing pan and the liming in general.

For me, especially now being in Poland, where people are very serious, I can really appreciate that a Trini is always a warm, smiling face, always ready to have a little ole-talk.

Even if you don’t know the person. You go to the bank and everybody is friendly and talking to one another. I appreciate that warmth much more in the cold.

Especially after being in Poland, Trinidad and Tobago means the diversity of the people and everybody living happily all together. No religious wars, no people being shot down.

I like how we appreciate all the cultures and religions. Whether you’re a Christian or a Hindu, you celebrating Eid, you know? I’m an agnostic and I celebrating all that!

Read the full version of this feature on Friday evening at www.BCPires.com


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