What's in a Name?
My surname, Toczek, is full of meaning for me and it is, in part, the inspiration for my most recent cycling adventure. Growing up it created a connection with a place I did not know. I have lost count of the amount of times I have been asked "How long have you been here for?" or "where are you from?". These days I play a little game to see how long I can draw out this question for, do you mean Pontardawe where I live now? Wales where I have lived for 11 years? Derby where I grew up, or Sussex where I was born?
My Dziadek (Grandfather) was Polish and I am extremely proud of my Polish heritage, but in the UK these questions can be charged with prejudice. There are 1.4million Eastern Europeans living and working in the UK, with 916,000 Poles. Between July and September last year hate crimes against Polish people grew by more than 50% after the vote to leave the European Union. I identify as a European and like so many others, the Brexit vote has left me feeling angry, disillusioned and defensive of my Polish roots. I wanted to explore my family history while the UK is still a part of the EU, which is perhaps another reason why I started planning this journey.
Dziadek settled in the UK after WWII. He fought for the Free Polish Army but as a result of the deal made with the Soviets, it was not safe for him to return home, not even to visit his family. So Dziadek settled in the UK, he met my Nana and got a job at the British Celanese factory in Derby alongside two other jobs. He was respected by his British colleagues and refused promotion many times to stay with his workers, and he committed himself entirely to integration. This commitment stretched to my father and his siblings, who were encouraged only to speak English, not Polish. When I was a child I attempted to learn but as I grew up the language faded, something I regret today.
It was only in later life that Dziadek began to engage with the Polish community in Derby, becoming a regular at the club and singing in the church choir. Dziadek went on to be Guard of Honour for General Sikorski - Prime Minister of the Government in Exile - when his remains were finally returned to Poland.
Through all of this, Dziadek never lost his thick Polish accent, and I remember the ease at which he switched back to Polish whenever a relative from the farm called to speak with him.
It was not until the early 70's, once Dziadek received British Citizenship, that he felt it was the right time to return. In 1974, when my father was 18 - the same age as when my Dziadek left Poland - they travelled together to the farm to meet our family. My Mum and Dad went together again in 1985 and my Dad went with Dziadek 5 years ago in 2012, shortly before he passed away. We feel that Dziadek's final visit to the farm was his last goodbye to a place and people who were separate for much of his life, but together at the end.
My name, Toczek, is tied up with this complex history, making me feel connected to the journey my Dziadek took, the family I had never met, and the farm, where I had never been.
Later, my Dad told me that Toczek means Wheeler or Wheel maker, which also has a special relevance to me. Dziadek cycled everywhere and for about ten years my Dad ran a bike shop, Cyclone, in Belper town. He made custom bikes, and importantly wheels. We cycled frequently during this period, youth hosteling around the UK, and heading out on regular weekend rides. I vividly remember the smell of oil and metal in Dad's workshop and some of my earliest memories are of spending time there.
We both drifted away from cycling over the past 15 years; Dad sold the shop and later got into sailing, and I became a walker and a climber. But in the last couple of years, in a period of upheaval and change, my Dad returned to his bike, as have I. Dad has since competed in a number of endurance races around the UK, including the Tour of the Peaks and the Welsh Dragon Tour, which consists of 3 days and over 300KM around my home in South Wales. My return has been to touring, first Pembrokeshire, then Scotland and then ideas for bigger plans started to form. I started plotting my longest journey yet, from Derby to our Family Farm in Poland.