Today we resume the Finding Your Niche series with a post from Olga Mecking. What I love about her essay is how this global upbringing is embedded in her DNA. Read on and you’ll see what I mean! Her story spans generations and nations. You can read more about Olga at the end of the piece.
I like the idea of seeing places as possessions, of something that you can collect and show off to everyone. I felt the same way when Poland wasn’t a part of the EU yet, and I revelled in seeing the number of stamps in my passport, steadily growing.
Now, as an EU citizen, I don’t get stamps anymore, but I collect other things. Someone once described me as a language collector because I love learning languages, just for the sheer pleasure it brings me. Another thing I collect, is memories and family stories.
When I tell my story, I don’t even know how to begin. I usually can’t tell it without mentioning multiple countries, languages and cultures, which confuses my listener to no end. But today I will start with my grandparents.
Both sets of them were diplomats. No, let’s go even earlier than that, to the place of their births. Or should I say, places, in plural? It should definitely be “places”. My paternal grandmother was born in Kiev, Ukraine. She married a Polish man- my grandfather and after a while, my father was born.
My maternal grandfather was Polish, and actually Jewish but he was born in Lviv, a city that used to be Polish, is now Ukrainian, and when my grandfather was born, belonged to the Austrian Empire. That’s European history for you.
As diplomats, both sets of grandparents travelled a lot, but for the time frame that’s of interest to us, they settled in two different but neighbouring countries: my mother’s parents in the Netherlands, where she went to an International school and learned to speak perfect English on top of her native Polish and my father’s parents in France, where he attended a French school and fell in love with the French way of life. My mom and my father led separate lives until they both came back to Poland, my mom with her family, my father alone. They met at school. They started working at the university. They got married. And years later, they had me.
When I was 3, they got the chance to go to Germany for two years. They were both working at the University so I went to a German kindergarten where it took me a mere 6 months to speak perfect German. My parents spoke Polish to me at home, and German when we were outside.
And then we came back home. We spoke German every Sunday, and I think this is the first time it was clear to me that I somehow had an obligation to keep this language alive. I didn’t like this idea but I agreed and spoke German, only to continue learning it at school and later studying it at University.
Speaking of University, I had the chance to learn Dutch there. And I very clearly remember saying: “I’ll never ever need Dutch so why should I learn it?” I can laugh about it now, obviously, because where did I end up? In the Netherlands, of course.
But before that, I went to Germany for a study exchange. I met a German man, whom I later married. He found a job in the Netherlands and moved there. Our first daughter was born in Germany but we moved to join my husband in Holland when she was 6 weeks old.
And so I found myself in a country that to me was at the same time new and old. New because I have never lived there before. Old, because my mother had lived there as a child and still remembered some Dutch, reminding me of that heritage.
My other two children, my little girl and my son were born in the Netherlands and are now 1 and 3 years old. All of them feel very comfortable here and speak fluent Dutch but they have a heritage of languages and stories – so I hope to retain their multilingualism and their multiculturalism (as they also speak Polish and German and my eldest has begun to learn English).
Sometimes it is very confusing, not knowing where you belong, or not belonging anywhere but feeling that you should. Other times I feel history’s breath on my back and I wonder about the intricate ways that everything got woven together to being me where I am now.
But my family story is a huge part of what I am now, a Third Culture Kid, among other things. I have a niche within that family history. I’ve realized that I feel at my most comfortable with people with similar experiences: having lived abroad, speaking multiple languages, passionate about raising global citizens. This is my niche, the place where I thrive most. This is my home.
Olga Mecking is a Polish woman living in the Netherlands with her German husband. She’s a translator, trainer in intercultural communication and blogger. She blogs at The European Mama about raising multilingual children, expat life, and culture. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.