Christine Lawrence has been going out onto the streets of Portsmouth to meet the extraordinary people who live and work here. Trying to explore areas that are often neglected by those promoting the city, she has discovered a rich variety of characters. First stop is Feed, a small cafe at The Hard, where she meets Martine, a young Polish woman with a great smile.
I’m in the small cafe, Feed, tucked under the railway arches outside Gunwharf. Next door is a tattoo artist’s studio. Both cafe and tattoo studio have been in this location for as long as I can remember, at least sixty years. I remember passing both when I was just a girl, on my way from the Gosport Ferry to Commercial Road, whilst out shopping with my Mum. The tattoo studio always fascinated me in a kind of ‘don’t go there’ way. This was back in the day when tattoos were for sailors or men of a kind that I was hurried away from.
Today, the studio is closed so I sit in the cafe next door and am served a good mug of black coffee – the place is spotlessly clean and busy. It’s eleven on a Wednesday morning and they offer British, American or Continental breakfasts, burgers and hot dogs. On the comprehensive drinks menu is ‘builder’s tea’ as well as a range of coffees, speciality teas, soft drinks and alcohol. I watch as the chef works in the open plan kitchen area whilst I am served by the waitress, resisting the breakfast but making a note to come back at a later date to treat myself.
I begin writing in my notebook, sipping my coffee as I scribble, the building rumbles and shakes as a train passes overhead on its way to The Hard or back to Portsmouth and Southsea’s main station. The waitress clears tables as other customers leave and as she nears my table she speaks to me, asking me if I am writing my diary. This is the opportunity I’m hoping for, as I’m finding it difficult to ask a stranger if I can interview them and I’m wondering how I can start a conversation with someone whilst they’re busy at their work. She smiles when I tell her I’m writing about people who live and work in Portsmouth and says she would love to talk to me. Before long she is on her break and asks me to join her outside for a chat.
Martina is a young Polish woman who lives in North End, Portsmouth. She is from Poniatowa which is near the Russian border; it’s a small town with a population of 20,000, surrounded by lakes and forests. She tells me that she misses her home and finds living in Portsmouth can be difficult for her at times as the City life is so different from life in rural Poland. I ask her what brought her to England and she explains what I’ve heard so many times before from our European friends, that she wishes to have a better life, to earn good money whilst here but to eventually return to her home when things get better there. She studied in Poland and is qualified to work in the hospitality sector but work there is scarce and doesn’t pay enough for her to cover her rent. Martina’s brother and sister also live and work in Portsmouth and as there is a growing community of Polish people in the city, she is not alone here. Her mother has also left Poland but now lives and works in Italy as a carer so life back in Poland had become difficult for Martina to manage, with all of her family away. I wonder fleetingly how things could improve in a country whilst many of the dynamic, younger workers are leaving to find work abroad.
Martina’s English, as with many Polish people, is excellent. She tells me that she has worked in Feed for two months and enjoys the work, serving meals and drinks to 40 covers. Previously she lived and worked in Bracklesham Bay, just along the coast from here, close to The Witterings. She says that she preferred living there as it is a smaller town and she finds Portsmouth intimidating at times. She reminds me of the recent stabbing in North End outside a bank. It’s incidents like this that makes her feel unsafe in the streets in the area near to where she lives.
I ask her which parts of Portsmouth she likes the best and she tells me that Gunwharf and Southsea are her favourite places – she enjoys socializing and going out in the evenings with friends from time to time. She met her Polish boyfriend in London and he now also lives here in Portsmouth.
We talk about how Britain leaving the EU will affect her and those like her and she wonders whether she will have to go back to Poland sooner rather than later. She hopes that if many of the people who live and work here go back, this will help improve conditions in Poland in the long term. She feels that the people of Poland need to work at making their home a better place to live and work, and whilst she appreciates the opportunities that she, and many like her, have had in making the most of working in England, she says that there is a marked difference between life here and at home and looks forward to the time when she can return to her roots. ‘Everything is different here,’ she explains. ‘Not worse, or better, just different.’
Ironically, it is partly the multicultural factor of English society that she finds uncomfortable. In her home town in Poland there are few foreigners. Personally, I believe that the broad variety of cultures and peoples that make up our community is what makes it so exciting. I truly hope that people like Martina will continue to come to Portsmouth as without them our city would lose much of its richness.
Image by Sarah Cheverton.