We arrive in Calais around 5pm and head straight for the industrial estate where a local charity has a collection point in a large warehouse. There are about a dozen people, mainly English, sorting through stuff and preparing bags with selections of foodstuffs. There are mattresses and sleeping bags piled high, shoe shelves, clothes,
fire-wood and a lot of food. Everyone looks very tired. Vans keep coming and going, people loading up food or clothing and going off towards the ‘Jungle’ (which the many makeshift shelters for thousands of refugees stranded in Calais has become known as) to distribute. We drop off our stuff and follow a group of people who are heading there.
It’s a sunny day and a group of young men are playing football on the road at the beginning of a ‘city’ of tents and makeshift structures covered with tarpaulins and plastic sheeting.
We strike up a conversation with a group of Sudanese men who sit in the sunshine. One man is reading a book. He tells us he was a nurse in his home country.
They tell us a little about where they are from and how long they have lived in the Jungle. We meet one young man, impeccably dressed, who has been there for over a year. Despite the desperation emanating from his story, he has a smile. One man offers us some water. Even though I don’t want to deprive those who have so little of anything, I suddenly feel it’s important for this man to be able to give something to us, so I say yes please, and he goes off to fetch two bottles of water.
We walk into the jungle. We see almost exclusively men, so when we come across three women, I walk up to them and ask them why there aren’t more women here. It turns out there are many women, and children too, but they consider it very dangerous to go out, so they just stay in the tents. One of them is coughing badly and we introduce them to the fruit of the sea-buckthorn which grows in abundance all over the site and is very rich in vitaminC.
There are basic water supplies, some chemical toilets and a large skip, but the facilities are VERY basic. It looks like Glastonbury gone horribly wrong. There is a lot of rubbish strewn about, including many items of clothing. We wonder why – maybe deliveries came in and people just discarded what didn’t fit, or since they can’t wash clothes, they just throw them away when they are dirty?
It is incredible that people can live here for any length of time. But despite the difficulties, we see smiley faces and receive many friendly ‘hello’s. Some enterprising people have opened a shop or a restaurant, and there are barbers cutting people’s hair by the side of the road. The mind boggles what anyone would do here if they’re ill or injured and without access to medical help, how single women can survive the jungle, or how anyone can turn themselves out so smartly dressed as the young Sudanese man we met.
Frank and I drive away from Calais in silence. For now, our thoughts are beyond words.
Unfortunately there is a post-script to this blog post: The day after our visit, the camp was disrupted by the French police who without warning forcefully evacuated a nearby warehouse which had been used as a shelter by Syrian refugees, who then joined the other refugees in the jungle. But the police followed them and moved a number of tents that had spread out under and past the bridge, using random and aggressive force – beating people, firing teargas into the camp indiscriminately and bulldozing their tents and meagre belongings, destroying valuable documents which people had taken months to gather to use in their applications for asylum. The local charities were at their wits end, sending out desperate pleas to the local government to involve them rather than sending in the police, but to no avail.
Here are three videos. One is showing an aerial view of the whole camp and the police moving tents without giving people a chance to collect their belongings, the next one is rather more violent and involves the camp being teargassed and the third one is a charity worker sending a plea to the mayor of Calais. This is uncomfortable stuff to watch, but please open your heart and don’t look away.
For more photos of our visit, go to flikr
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Once more, I get the feeling of struggling to fly, like a swan, flap-flapping the water with its wings and finally rising, lifting itself up an out. We’re on our way!!!
We visit a good friend in Portishead for a late lunch, and by 5pm we are on the road towards Dover. Emma is purring and we enjoy the dusk settling and a beautiful starry sky gradually appearing. When we get near Dover, we turn off the road to stop for the night just outside a little village called Leeds. We can’t quite believe we’ve done it – all the hard work of the last weeks still swirling around in our minds. Last year, it took us 6 weeks to find the traveller’s rhythm; let’s see how long it will take this time.
In Dover, we meet a British fellow traveller who talks about the recent developments re border controls in Europe, due to the large influx of refugees. We feel uncomfortably lucky that we, just by chance of birthplace, have passports that will allow us to cross all these borders that are impassable to those in need. It seems so arbitrary.
We will stop off in Calais, as we have a few things to deliver to one of the many organisations that help the refugees.
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….not yet gone! But nearly. The last three weeks have passed very quickly, with sooo many things to do in Totnes and Cardiff in preparation for our departure.
Emma had a leak in the roof, so I took her to down to Devon and visited Terry Hackwith at his workshop, for a day of scraping the sealant off the roof and resealing it. Having navigated across remote places in Spain and Portugal, the road down to Terry’s workshop still tops all others for narrowness. Emma slipped down it like a finger into a glove!
Terry and I spent a day together on Emma’s roof, working in the sun, catching up with news and once that was done, we did some other little things, like repairing locks, adding an interior light and finding a nice way of storing our beautiful fire-wok.
Frank has worked like a man possessed for three weeks, repairing things in his house, getting a new carpet laid and transforming his garden from the jungle it had become in our absence into the beautiful haven of peace that it is now.
While Frank had his hands in the earth, my head was crunching figures, getting both our tax returns ready.
We snatched a couple of breaks from work, precious hours to meet friends and share a meal, or go for a walk. We also drove up to Birmingham to see Sylvie Guillem, the extraordinary classical and modern dancer on her farewell tour. My god-daughter Maya came to Cardiff to visit me for a few days and we went to the Gower with Emma, enjoying the last of the summer days and going on a day-long horse ride. On one of my weekends in Devon, I joined Wendy at her fundraising event in support of Room to Heal, a healing community for refugees and asylum seekers who have survived torture and other forms of organised violence.
Wendy asked me to contribute a couple of songs to the evening. This got me thinking. What personal experience do I have of refugees? I don’t remember ever seeing a refugee in my childhood. Wait, yes I did. Two of my parent’s best friends were Czech, having arrived in Germany just with the clothes they were standing in. Also, when I was 12, a young Afghan engineer moved in upstairs on a student exchange. Then the Russians invaded Afghanistan and he couldn’t return. I clearly remember the drama, the uncertainty about his family, the longing for his homeland and culture. Every night when he couldn’t sleep, I listened to him playing the Robab, an Afghan lute. I often went upstairs to listen more intensely to the mesmeric music. His flat was decked in carpets hanging from the ceiling, and he was sitting as if in a tribal tent, longing for home, playing the most haunting music. Slowly, one by one, his family arrived, having walked from Afghanistan to Germany! The younger ones learnt German in record time and went on to study or work. But when his parents came over, they could not acclimatise. I remember his mother, holding a bag of grains, which she had carried across the mountains, saying a prayer over each grain. She wanted to make bread from it, to share with her children before returning to Afghanistan. The parents could not imagine living in the West, despite the uncertainty and war in their own country. Or maybe their asylum was not granted – I don’t know. In fact, although I knew about their terrible plight, none of these people registered as Refugees with me, I saw them and interacted with them as people, and I was curious about their culture and felt their sadness. They seemed a very noble family.
What happens to us when we become adults, that we start thinking of a human being as a category – refugee, black, homeless, handicapped etc. – and lose our original openness and curiosity? Why do we close down? Do we feel threatened and if so, what do we feel threatened by?
During the fundraising evening at Sandwell Manor, three members of Room to Heal shared their personal stories about the process of applying for asylum – in one case being in limbo for 18 years and still not having been granted asylum. Having no right to work and living side by side with hunger and homelessness – the dehumanising and painfully slow process of it all. All three impressed on us that the journey did by no means end when they arrived in the UK and they were unanimous in their praise of ‘Room to Heal’, which gave them a safe haven, a place where they could go and be welcome, where they could experience the peace of a garden and meet other people. Working in the garden helps them to heal slowly, to connect once more with life and beauty after the very traumatic experiences that have driven them from their homes.
What really struck me in Mark Fish’s talk (the director of Room to Heal) was the realisation of the importance of creating a Community to help heal the trauma that these people had experienced in their lives.
The next day, we went to the sea in two cars. It was good to spend the day together – connecting, chatting, enjoying the sun and the sea breeze together, then piling in the car once more to go and have tea at Hazelwood House. What a contrast this must be to their daily lives back in London, so full of uncertainties.
Room to Heal is looking for donations to support their work. Do check out their web site!
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While I’m teaching in Norway, Frank takes Emma to the MOT, where they discover a leak in the fuel tank! Luckily it’s very tiny, but nevertheless, it involves draining and removing the tank, steam-cleaning it inside and out, welding it, painting it and fixing it back on again. One day, we will need to get a new fuel tank made to measure – the originals are obsolete. We are very lucky to know a good mechanic down in Devon who is willing to help with this kind of thing! Walter has helped us on many occasions, first when we bought Emma, but also during our travels. He was our ‘phone a friend’ option whenever there were mechanical problems.
Coming home from Norway, Frank and I meet up like secret lovers on a romantic tryst – I drive the car from the airport straight down to Crediton, where he meets me with Emma, who passed the MOT while I was on the plane. The next morning we have a meeting with an advisor in Crediton, after which we intend to drive up to Cardiff. But when I try to start the car, there is no sound, not even a blip or a light of the ignition. We call out the AA and within the hour, Paul arrives. He’s a godsent, an experienced mechanic of the old school – he diagnoses a faulty alternator and consequently a completely destroyed battery and offers to replace both of them there and then, rather than towing us to a garage. Getting the parts is a little tricky, but still, two hours later, the car is as good as new and we are ready to set off on our journey, Frank in the van, me in the car. In true secret lover style, we arrive in Cardiff separately, at different times and under cover of darkness.
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The weekend after the Tango Mango, I am off to Norway to teach in Lillehammer. It is lovely to see familiar faces in the little Tango scene there. Stories of one famous ‘Lillehammer Winter Tango’ are remembered, when over a decade ago, 26 Tango dancers from Totnes came to visit, and we danced, went skiing, and had barbeques in the snow! This is a small but enthusiastic Tango community, happy to immerse themselves and work hard, participating in11 hours of workshops across a long weekend, plus some private lessons. On the last night, we meet for a teacher training session too. I return to the UK tired but feeling satisfied that I have given as much as I could and in a format that will help them to keep practicing and developing what they have learnt.
I am lucky with the weather – Norway is all bright and sparkling, not a cloud in sight, with temperatures approaching 30 degrees, while it is bucketing down in England. The day I return home, rain arrives in Norway, and the sun comes out in England
A big thank you to Sissel for organising the weekend, and especially to EllenÅgot, who was a lovely host. We really connected on a deep level, sharing stories, food and dancing. Her home-made bread is exquisite – here is a recipe:
EllenÅgot Solberg’s Bread
1.3kg roughly ground wheat
0.2kg rye flour
0.2kg crushed wheat
a bit of salt
some linseeds and sunflower seeds (possibly walnuts too)
1ltr sour milk or kefir
800 mltr water
Mix the dry ingredients, including the yeast. Add slightly warmed liquids. It will make a sloppy mixture. Leave to rise for 20 mins. Put baking paper in bread tins and pour mixture into tin. Leave to rise for at least 1.5 hours. Put in cold oven and switch to 180 degrees. Bake for 1.5 hours. Cover the top if it gets too brown.
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