It’s halfway across the intersection — as I’m mid-turn, on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the car, with the gear stick having inconveniently turned into a window winder — that I realise I have no idea what’s going on. So I revert to a trick I’ve perfected in my two years of driving in Poland: I plant my hand on the horn, close my eyes, and hope everyone else gets the hell out of my way.
The curious thing is that this latest encounter was when I was on holiday in Ireland. Where, supposedly, I’m back on the right side of the road. By which I mean, of course, the left.
You expect moving somewhere new to be unsettling. What I didn’t expect to find is that, after a while, going back again feels just as strange.
It’s fair to say that life in Poland took me a while to get used to. I couldn’t seriously believe I was going to get all my stuff into my little European apartment, for a start — 100 square metres being small by Australian standards. Although not by Polish standards, where it’s about three times the size of an average apartment.
At a Polish supermarket, the choice of sausages is so overwhelming as to be paralysing, yet you can’t buy tinned soup. Taking your dog to a restaurant is perfectly acceptable, as is getting him there on the tram. People can enthuse wildly about a nil-all soccer draw, yet think cricket is boring (OK, they might have a point there). Eggs come in cartons of 10, and bi-carb soda comes in little yellow packets. Which I guess isn’t that strange, it’s just not how I thought things worked. And the average 20-year-old can recite the most intricate details of World War two history. Asking for milk in your tea is practically a criminal offence, yet drinking beer with ginger syrup — which should actually be against the law — is just fine.
And don’t even get me started on being a vegetarian in a land of pork.
It all adds up to constantly being reminded, subtly and not so subtly, that you’re somewhere foreign. If you were in any doubt, all you have to do is open your mouth and try to make Polish come out. When I first arrived, it seemed beyond comprehension that I would even manage to feel confident enough to cross the street, let alone take to driving on the right side. By which I mean, of course, the wrong side. Yet after a couple of years, I realise that somewhere along the way, driving on the wrong side has become so natural that it does, actually, seem like the right side.
I last set foot on Australian soil last more than a year ago now, after two years away. Finally, home.
Where I can say “I’m vegetarian” and not have someone check, “but do you eat pork?” (yes, that happens). And eggs come in cartons of 12 and bi-carb soda is back in its little blue box and soccer is universally frowned on, as are dogs in cafes. In other words, where everything is how it’s supposed to be, for better or for worse.
Except that when I got there, everyone was talking about some show called MasterChef I’d never seen, or a multitude of other shows on a dozen new TV stations I’d never heard of. Shows which feature people speaking with strong Aussie accents, which I can now hear. Which disturbs me as I secretly suspect I may sound just like that.
Some of my friends had moved to a coastal suburb that didn’t used to exist. I drove for an hour on some new freeway to get there. And as I passed suburb upon suburb of dry, dusty brick and tile ‘4 by 3s’ (or ‘5 by 4s’, or even ‘6 by 6s’, these days), I wondered how I’d never noticed before how much space each of us takes up. When, actually, 100 square metres now seems plenty. And when I asked for lemon with my tea, people looked at me oddly.
There are things about Poland that make no sense to me whatsoever and, no doubt, there things about me that make no sense to Poland. Maybe that’s what life as an expat is really about; not just living somewhere strange, but after a while having everywhere feel a little bit odd, and no place quite like home.
It makes me wonder if I’ll always feel like this, or if one day, driving on the right side of the road, being the left side of the road, will seem as natural as, well, driving on the right side of the road. I’m definitely convinced about the value of apartment living. I don’t even notice the dogs in cafes. Maybe one day I’ll even decide beer and ginger syrup is not such a bad combination.
Although, probably not. The way I drive, I doubt I’ll live that long.