In my University home, a bottom floor and basement of a house in Toronto’s Annex, my three housemates and I had many tokens of appreciation for each other. A lot of those tokens doubled as cost effective decor. We had a designated wall on which we Sharpied a growing collection of inside-jokes and a diminishing, but still existing, tradition of printing photos of good-times gone by to put on the fridge or pin to our vanities. Three of Four of us were Theatre majors so many good times were had.
In the bathroom on the main floor, which had a dramatic clawfoot bathtub, my craftiest of housemates (though that is a point to be argued as they were all crafty in their own way), Maya, had mounted ‘Certificates of Excellence’ from Dollarama (I’d suspect) on the wall. They were made out to us from our heroes. My other roommate Emily had one from acting guru slash ghost Uta Hagen. Mine was from George Stroumboulopoulos.
I adored George. At that time, and since his Much Music days, he was the incarnation of complete and utter perfection manifested in a male human being. He was good looking, smart as hell, funny, and just accessible enough (i.e. from Toronto) that he could definitely one day be my husband and the father of my children.
I joked that I would marry him, hyphenate my last name and become a kindergarten teacher. I’d force my students to write out my full name every single time, on every paper. None of this Mrs. S.R. crap. They’d grow up to become the best spellers in the province of Ontario. Stroumboulopoulos has 17 letter, Remplakowski, 12.
I credit my last name for having made me a top speller early on and an advanced reader from JK-2 (no ‘exceptional’ progress happened after that). See, Remplakowski is phonetic so by the time I could spell my last name, I had half the alphabet in the bag.
In my second year of acting school I had adopted my mother’s maiden name, Nowak, anglicized it and made it my own. I changed the w to a v to ensure the correct pronunciation (because I’d had enough of name butchery) and began to doodle my fresh moniker on all my notebooks. I loved how it looked typed out in various fonts. I loved writing it down. I loved that it was an alliteration. I loved spelling my name out at the cash register to retrieve my shopping profile at stores at the mall without the anxiety of holding up the line. I dug deep for dirt on Greta Gerwig to see if that was her real name. It is. I thought, wow, her parents really had some forethought into her career. Same with Miranda July. I thought, no way, well thats just too good. I knew about Natalie Portman and her real name ‘Hershlag’. I knew Meryl was Mary, so I thought what the hell, I’m doing what I want.
In a way though, I always felt like I was lying. I’d introduce myself at parties with a firm handshake as Natalie Novak then feel the urge to pull that person aside and say as they leaned in awkwardly to hear me, “well actually, it’s also Remplakowski”. Their smile would freeze, and they’d breathe out through their mouths as their eye-brows fell further towards their nose as if to say, “What the fuck do I care?” But I cared.
It didn’t matter to anyone else, but it mattered to me. My agent would roll her eyes and say ‘just pick a name’, my acting teachers would reiterate that it was completely irrelevant and it could be whatever I wanted, but I didn’t really know what I wanted and why I wanted it. My mom and dad didn’t care, except the voicemails I’d get from my dad that would playfully make fun of my new pseudo-Hollywood name. I went on with my initial enthusiasm to start a business in my new name, get a logo designed, all of the adult notebook doodling of affirming an identity.
Daily overthinking- a habit already drawn up by my Eastern European susceptibility to existentialist crises made me ask myself countless questions on what my deal was. One of the questions that stood out was; would I change my name if I was male? Answer- probably not. That’s the most embarrassing one. That’s the one I’d say while knowingly losing half my audience mid-conversation at a party. It’s also the point I grapple with the most. I truly think that as a male, I might have felt less inclined to simplify matters on my end by making a name anyone could pronounce on their first try. I might even be okay with taking up more space, correcting busy Assistant Director’s on their call sheets, spelling out twelve whole letters to the sales associate at a busy line-up at Aritzia, and correcting acquaintances at parties when they say ‘Remplowski’. Maybe I’d feel better about correcting people rather than giggling it off. Or maybe I’m just a pansy and I should be banished from society as a submissive fragile bird.
However, with Nowak/Novak, I loved that I could fully embrace my mom’s side of the family. Even as a kid my grandmother would call me ‘Nowaczka’ which is the babified word for Nowak-girl because I physically took after that side of the family. My eyeballs looked like my mom’s family, their voices like mine. Their career paths, similar to where I felt I was headed. It’s a strange feeling to look into someone’s eyeballs and see your own in a way. It wasn’t until 2009 for me, when I got to meet a whole clan of my relatives in Poland as an ‘adult’.
There was also a sense of coolness that came with my new identity. Nothing feels less cool then having your name butchered over and over. What was it though about my deep feeling of un-coolness that caused me to want to embellish… myself? There was slick sexiness I was buying into as well. Always something I knew I couldn’t quite get away with.
A good friend of mine always reminds me when we discuss romantic relationships at length; that the person you’re dating is always infinitely more interesting than the person you think they are or especially who you wish they were, which is what makes listening the most important aspect of being in relationship. It occurred to me once, during one such conversation, that I should take that advice and apply it to the relationship I had with myself, the person that I already was was infinitely more interesting than the person I thought I should be.
What surprises me most when I talk about this subject is just how much mental space this has occupied over the years. Mental space, something I used to think was infinite I’ve grown to realize is a finite thing. I need to be done with this to reallocate my brain to more pressing issues. “People get married-and change their names all the time. What’s the big deal?” Is some people’s response. This statement doesn’t resonate with me in the least. I’m more-so contemplating identity at-large.
All this inner turmoil but then, in 2011, in the summer between my fourth and then final year of acting school, I was a hostess at a popular Indian restaurant in Toronto, on King West’s Restaurant row, a popular dining strip downtown, mostly for tourists. I was working as a hostess while I was waiting for a serving job to come through uptown- which it did, so my time there was short. There I was, people watching and alternating my weight between my legs as I stood there when lo and behold, there he was directly across the street from me; George Stroumboulopoulos.
Now I’ve since seen him many times since roaming the streets of Toronto being casually accessible to the general public, but at 21 I was dumbfounded.
I somehow escaped my hostessing post for enough time to cross the street to go talk to him. He was at a gallery opening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox building where I believe the gift shop is now. He was there with a male friend about his age. I ran up in my little kitten heels all twenty-somethings were wearing that year. Although this moment of encounter had run through my head in a loop since the moment I had set out to go talk to him, I immediately defaulted into this ungrounded childlike creature I was in acting school to try to unlearn.
I said something to the like of, “Excuse me, hi.”
“Hey, how’s it going?” he responded with the kindest most present- actually listening- brown eyes you could hope for from not only a Television host but your idol.
“I have a name like your name and I was thinking of changing it but I’m having a hard time with it and I’m an aspiring actor so I feel like I should…” I said probably with my index finger in my ear and brief milliseconds of eye contact.
— “What’s the question?” Interrupted his friend who in that moment exuded the highest intensity level of ‘smug’ one could muster.
“Oh, this is my friend, Mark (let’s call him) we’re just heading back to his photography exhibit that opened today.” he exclaimed proudly
“Oh, cool” I mustered looking over at his friend obligingly. I didn’t care.
“What did you say your name was?” asked George. I didn’t.
“It’s Natalie Novak but actually Remplakowski.” I stammered.
He listened. ‘And you’re an actor?’
“Yuh-huh.” I said grinning.
I quickly came up with, “So what advice would you offer someone with a last name like mine?”
He appeared to have switched modes to answer my question. It was satisfying in that it had felt like he had given this some thought himself. He went on to a perfectly eloquent and concise explanation.
“When we keep the last names of our immigrant family we honour the people that came before us, those that paved the way for us to be here. Changing your name may erase the history that comes with your heritage.” Or something.
I was skeptical.
— “but …?” I stammered while staring. In my mind rushed back memories of being called Rempelstilskin and some how I didn’t feel like I was Kelly Kapowski hot enough to own that shit.
“I think he answered your question.” quipped Mark, the photographer friend.
He was mean. Like he was jealous of his friend’s attention at his gallery opening. Could you leave us alone for just a sec, k?
But I got my answer as dissatisfied with it as I was.
Sometimes my last name gets cut-off on government paperwork. Um, how in the hell has the system not been updated for long last names? A standard Tamil last name has at least thirteen letters, like; Sooriyaprakash or Subramania-gopalakrishnan.
But also, let me tell yah, with the more generic name, the joy of googling yourself, is gone. Multiple murder cases come up with my ‘new’ name.
Perks of a unique last name:
- available domain names & email addresses
- it acts as a password, especially if you go by your ‘other name’
- proper spelling ensures your identity (at 19 I once had a bouncer ask for me to spell my last name really fast to make sure my ID wasn’t fake. I passed).
- you don’t get mixed up with murderers or celebrities ie. all the Michael Bolton’s and those with the initials O. and J. with last name ‘Simpson’
I’ve gone on to use both last names. Many hispanic families hyphenate ad infinitum to continue everyone’s sir name legacy. I think that’s kinda nice.
I feel like I’m lacking something now when I don’t include one of my two parents names. And as for when I marry, I see myself as having enough names to debate over…will I hyphenate my kid’s names? Perhaps, not sure. Unlikely. I’ll likely keep my name is as if just to spite the man at the passport office who urged I only renew my passport for five years instead of the ten I opted for because I’ll “likely get married in the next decade”….😒.
Also, having five nieces and nephews, four of which are little Remplakowskis. They are getting to an age where they will start asking why I changed my name and truthfully I don’t feel like I have a good enough answer to give them.
I just want to let go of the debate. I’m both and hyper self-aware of my relationship with both of them.
If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read please give me a clap or four below to let me know. Thanks so much for reading.
You can find me @natalieRnovak on Instagram as well as Twitter but not really on Twitter.
Check out www.natnovakfilms.com for upcoming projects and my email contact. If you write me, I will respond.
Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.