Thursday, 7 July 2016

Kataryna and the sad tale of lost English opportunity

Kataryna left her home in central Poland to establish herself in Brussels because, she told us, she was “in love.”

The object of this love was a fellow Pole, and they married in Belgium. But it didn’t really take. Two or three years later she decided that it was time to call it a day: they had no kids, nothing that really tied them to each other, and there was no point in struggling on with a marriage that wasn’t going anywhere.

It was a hard decision for her to take. “I’d said for the rest of my life, and I meant for the rest of my life. It was difficult to change that.”

Her Catholic Polish upbringing was against it, but she went through with the divorce.

Her family clamoured for her to come back home. But she resisted.

“I had a life here. And I felt something was waiting to happen for me in Belgium, which wouldn’t back in Poland.”

Kataryna in her Polish bakery and café
So she stayed on. She works in a Polish bakery and café in the mornings – that’s where we met her – but, in term time, she teaches Polish to children in several schools in the Etterbeek district with its large population of Poles.

“And there really was something waiting to happen for me. I fell in love again, with a Belgian, and we’ve been married ten years. He’s 50, thirteen years older than me, and my friends all warned me that he would betray me and leave me. But he hasn’t, not yet. At least, I always feel he’s there behind me, supporting me, and I don’t feel he’s ever been unfaithful. Maybe I’m a fool, but that’s what I feel.”

It seems that she gets physically ill when he’s away, and then miraculously recovers when he returns. Apparently he also feels lonely and incomplete when he’s separated from Kataryna.

Her husband brought her a ready-made family of three. His first wife left him with all three soon after the birth of the last. Kataryna finds the youngest easy, since he has only known her. The other two were more problematic, especially the middle child, a girl now entering teenage.

“It isn’t simple,” she says.

We wished her well. I hope the marriage is as good, as solid as she believes it is. I hope life continues to treat her as well in Belgium as she feels it has so far.

Her café drew us to it on both days we were in the area. Our breakfast was all the more pleasant for listening to her story, although it was surprising that she should speak so openly to strangers. Surprising but also cordial and friendly.

Many more Poles will be able to follow in Kataryna’s footsteps if they wish. And Belgians will be able to go back in the other direction: as my wife and I know from several trips to Kraków, the flows are beginning to reverse, with other EU citizens seeking careers in Poland.

Sadly, in the future, neither Belgians nor Poles will find it as easy to choose to settle in England. Brexit will see to that. Equally, English people who might want to pursue a dream, or love, or just simply a job opportunity, elsewhere in Europe, will no longer find that an easy option.

In England, sadly, we’ve chosen to give up the right to free movement. A freedom, not an obligation. We gave it up so that we wouldn’t have to grant it to our neighbours. We have restricted ourselves in order not to be generous to others.

With her ready smile and open spirit, Kataryna was a living symbol of how valuable a liberty England has decided to abandon.

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