Alina Myszka was my colleague, flatmate and friend. She played a starring role in my first and most important year in Poland ten years ago and when I walk around Tarnowskie Gory she will be in my mind now and forever. As long as I have memories I’ll have Alina.
We had never met before coming to Golden Gate, but we had a lot in common. Like me, she had a Polish grandfather. As her Dziadek was on her dad’s side she ended up with the surname Myszka, because mine was on my mum’s side I was boring old Williams. Alina was a year older than me and from growing up in Britain in the 80s and 90s I can tell you Poland was not thought of as a glamorous country. For me, having Polish blood was just something that made me a bit different, like having a sixth finger. Poland was a country you read about in history books, you didn’t watch it on holiday shows. Nobody actually went there. Why would you? But by 2005 we had both finished university and wanted to teach abroad. We lived in very different parts of Britain but both were pulled to Poland because of our interest in our past. ‘Why Poland?’ became ‘Why not?’
At the age of 22 I landed for the first time in the country that I would get married in six years later. Alina was the first person to meet me at Katowice Airport and seconds later she introduced me to my new boss, the enigmatic Rafal Drewniak. The Original Golden Gatemobile took us to Tarnowskie Gory and I had my first Tyskie. I waved goodbye to being thin. Rafal then took us to our flat in the mystically named Balkanska 4, in an area of endless concrete and blocks nicknamed Ohio. Alina had arrived a few weeks before me so she introduced me to the important places in town, like Tesco and Onyx. Back then I think going to these places and keeping busy stopped us asking ourselves the obvious question – What the Hell are we doing in Poland?!
As the weeks went on there was a small problem that neither of us spoke about in the flat or at work – we didn’t really like each other. We were different personalities living and working together in a strange country with a strange language and, I’ve got to be honest about my opinion back then, pretty strange people. But we were British so we were polite about it. We never had an argument or a falling out, but we just didn’t gel.
A major problem for us was the weather. We obviously knew Poland would be cold but the doom of that winter from the end of 2005 into 2006 was unbelievable. The deep snow lasted about four months and was unlike anything I have ever experienced, and I never want to again. Also we felt so distant from our friends and family back home. Only ten years ago there was no Skype, no Facebook, we had to walk to town to use the internet and text messages to the UK were expensive so we often wrote letters. When was the last time you wrote a letter? When your dinosaur died?
So we had the snow and the strangeness and at times it was hard to think of reasons to stay. I’m sure our mutual dislike actually helped us stick it out. During low moments of that snowy first year I said to myself ‘Well, I’m not quitting before she’s quitting…’ and I think she felt the same.
The turning point came when she told me of her trip home during the February break. At Nottingham Airport, as she waited for her flight back to Katowice, one of her potential boyfriends asked her not to go back to Poland and to stay in England and be with him. Alina said she thought about it briefly, but she had made a commitment to stay at Golden Gate for a year, she was halfway through the year and owed it to everybody to finish the job. I gained a lot of respect for Alina after hearing that. Also she didn’t really like the guy anyway.
After the February break we agreed we had made it through the hard part and should enjoy ourselves while we could. We formed a group of friends with some girls – Asia, Karina and Kasia – and Roger, the American teacher from the rival school Pink Apple. It was easier to be friends when we were part of a group and we realised we had a similar sense of humour and enjoyed each other’s company. But the snow was still there. Oh, the bloody snow. It made life very difficult and we just weren’t used to it. By April it had been sunny for weeks but the snow still wasn’t going. I was sat watching TV in the mystical Balkanska 4 when Alina came home and ran in with her big smile.
I can still hear her saying it.
“I can see grass! I can see grass in Ohio!’
I jumped up, put on my shoes and she took me to by some steps across the road from the Gymnazium where some snow had finally melted and you could see a patch of grass. It was the greatest thing we had ever seen! We hadn’t seen grass in Poland for four months. I forgot Poland even had grass. That week it rained heavily for a few days then turned into a roasting summer.
The sun shined on us and by now Alina and I were good friends and went out as much as we could. We watched the 2006 World Cup matches all over town and I remember her in the Rynek, smiling in the sun in these big sunglasses telling me how she had decided she was going to be a successful businesswoman and earn a fortune. She said it would be so easy!
At the end of the school year Alina moved home and I stayed at Golden Gate. We said we’d keep in touch but we never did. That’s life, sadly. I last saw her in late 2006 when she came back to visit some of her friends from our group. You could tell she enjoyed her time in Poland because a year or two later her little brother Jozef was teaching in Katowice after her recommendation.
Over the years she stayed in touch with some Golden Gate teachers and through them I heard she had become a primary school teacher, she had a baby and then finally I was sent a link to a newspaper article. I read that Alina – now Alina Roberts after getting married - was driving with her young son and she parked her car in a street on the way home and died. She was thirty-three years old and pregnant.
Her name was in British national newspapers for all the wrong reasons. The teachers at her primary school were quoted as saying how they loved her laugh, her smile, her personality, just like the teachers who worked with her at Golden Gate would say. Everybody liked her. Everybody.
I was a part of a small chapter of her life so I can’t pretend to know what her husband is going through, I can only think of our year together. I remember her as the person I first met in a country I now love and who introduced me to a town I feel is my home. I always respected how she stayed to finish the year, that guy at the airport wasn’t the only boy in England who wanted her to come back, but she stayed through hard times because she had given her word.
When I think of Alina my mind always goes back to that April when she showed me that, even when life is tough and cold, if you stick with it you just might get to see the grass in Ohio.