Unlike most Londoners, I used to be rather chummy with my postman.
We discuss the weather and politics, exchange gifts (well, he provides and I receive graciously), and he gives me advice on how to tend to my Begonias. One day, however, as he was handing over my latest pointless Amazon purchase, he stopped and glanced at the package.
“Blimey, your surname is long, isn’t it?” he announced, gawping at my name, Caroline Saramowicz, written on the label. I giggled nervously and politely bid him goodbye.
The second time around, he elaborated. “Don’t you just wish you were called Smith or Jones? You should get married or change it to make it more pronounceable.”
He laughed, awaiting my reaction. I was stunned; surely as a postman he has seen his fair share of unique names? After experiencing the encounter twice more, I became uncomfortable and the casual chatter slowly ceased. Now, we are no longer chummy.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve been told to anglicise my name, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I became angry – why should I have to change my name because others find it too lengthy, too foreign, or too inconvenient?
Maybe it’s the fact that it’s 10 letters long and contains letters of the alphabet that are infrequently used in the average British conversation. With a combination of w’s and z’s, people look at it and automatically feel anxious; how does one even begin to try and say something so complex?
I don’t blame people for not knowing how to pronounce a name that doesn’t adhere to the rules of the English language – in Polish ‘w’ is said as ‘v’, and ‘cz’ as ‘ch’ – but on more than one occasion my surname has automatically pigeon-holed me as ‘other’, despite supposedly not looking Polish at all (what does a Polish person look like, I wonder?).
As a child, my name was a lot more difficult to accept. Despite growing up in London and attending a relatively diverse school, I was one of only two children in my class who had a surname longer than six letters, the other being a fellow Pole (who, in turn, became my best friend).
I longed to be called Brown or Frost, to not feel my stomach churn as the teachers puffed and struggled each time they called the register or I was asked to read during assembly. I was teased, my name subject to scrutiny by the other children. “How do you say your name again?” they would ask. I repeated it incessantly while they laughed and pretended they didn’t understand.
For many years, I resented my father for the surname he had bestowed to me. I felt frustrated and unfortunate, wishing I was born to English parents so that I didn’t have to deal with the constant mispronunciation, the puns and the mockery. When I look back, it seems so trivial to feel alienated by something as simple as a name, and yet, the cruelty of young children ensured that I never forgot who I was - a foreigner.
My father, on the other hand, found it hilarious. He would relish the moment when a telemarketer would call up and spend ages trying to pronounce our name; he would never correct or interrupt him, but wait patiently until the poor caller would abandon efforts and titter nervously. As much as we found these incidents humorous, I know that deep down he was just as insecure as I was. He was known to many as Victor, a simplified version of Witold, his Polish forename, simply because of the permanent exhaustion he felt whenever he attempted to explain the phonetics. Despite his evident but not outwardly Polish pride, it grated on him to have to explain this.
After the results of Brexit became known to the public, the Polish centre in Hammersmith was defaced by vandals, who sprayed ‘F*** OFF HOME’ in skewed graffiti on the front of the building. The Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK), which has been the cultural centrum for Poles all over London for decades, was one of many community hubs that were targeted in Britain following the referendum.
It felt like a personal attack; suddenly a community that I had been raised in, and a place where my parents went to jazz evenings or socialised in the upstairs bar before I was born, was being condemned for no reason other than existing. I never imagined feeling rejected by the country I was born in, and yet, Brexit had managed to bring out the ugly side of Britain – the prejudice, the hate, and the dismissal of ‘other’. Suddenly, people were talking about passports, marriage, leaving the city all together. London, which was always such a warm and tolerant melting pot of cultures and identities, suddenly felt dismissive and hostile.
Almost a decade ago my aunt, who is the glue that holds our family together at the seams, managed to collate enough information about our clan to build a family tree. Stemming back to the early 1800s, the tree can span an entire door if printed and is an absolutely phenomenal piece of my history.
For the first time, I was able to see where I came from, what I was part of. The backgrounds of my ancestors, which ranged from Italian and Dutch to Ukranian, were diverse and intriguing. Many fought in the wars, others were acquaintances of the royal family. Some were even part of the criminal underworld. I learned that my relatives were the only family in the world to possess our surname, which gave me a feeling of pride; I was part of something unique, exceptional, and filled to the brim with history.
When my father passed away in 2015, I came to the realisation that I was the last remaining fragment of him that existed in this world. Although he never mentioned it, I know he had an undoubtable fear that I would get married one day and eradicate the one connection I have with my Polish heritage forever. He was old-fashioned, with a belief system that was based on his Catholic up-bringing; while men continued legacies, women diminished them.
However, when my partner proposed to me last year, my initial thoughts weren’t regarding choice of venue or bridesmaid dresses, but whether I was comfortable enough to leave my surname behind forever. After years of yearning to erase it, the option was finally being presented to me, and yet, I felt sorrowful. I felt like I would be eradicating not only my father’s legacy, but his honour.
After countless years of discomfort and shame, I finally found solace in my name and came to the conclusion that I loved it, because it connected me to my father and my family back in Poland. In a post-Brexit world shrouded by instability and uncertainty, my insecurities have finally turned to pride; I am a Saramowicz, and I always will be.
This feature was originally published in November 2018