First things first, can we please have a moment for the visual accompanying this entry that perfectly demonstrates me leaping into the unknown? THANK YOU.
If I had to estimate, I would say it’s 45 degrees right now and there is a 30% chance that this is horrendously inaccurate. Still, for the purposes of entertainment, let’s imagine it is Sahara desert temperatures: the sweat pooling on my upper lip seems to suggest so.
I am sitting on a balcony in Calais at 11:36 on a Saturday morning, empty cafetière at my feet, weird South Park mug in my hand. A trickle of sweat runs tear-like from my elbow crease, my shins glower in the sunshine as I recline, half-respectable in bikini top and knickers combo, on rickety garden furniture. A market unfurls below me.
I can see fennel, hunks of impossible cheese, a queue shuffling along the awning demarcating the boucherie. I am struggling to decide which croissant will be the first in a long line of French clichés I will revel in today.
BONJOUR, my spread-eagled form shouts to the slightly perturbed citizens of this gentle French town.
JE SUIS EN FRANCE.
J’AIME MANGER DU FROMAGE ET DES CROISSANTS.
Turns out, four years after my parents forked out inordinate sums of money on my French undergrad degree, I have the fluency of a disinterested Junior Cert student. It is disheartening and mortifying in equal measure, made infinitely worse by the fact that my main recourse to feigning comprehension in conversation (be that in English or French) through the salve of lip-reading, has been grossly taken away by stupid face-mask demanding coronavirus. Every shopping experience has ended in the dead eyes of the Carrefour cashier widening ever so slightly at the frazzled and sweaty foreigner stuttering out wild guesses of responses that she hopes answer whatever their simple question was as her Apple Pay is declined for the fifth time and she is left trying to explain that, actually, she didn’t bother to bring her wallet with her and is there any way they can mind her bags?
Ohh to be living la vie en rose.
Today it is one week and one day since I arrived in Calais. It is one week since I undertook my volunteering work with Care4Calais – an organisation providing vital services to the hundreds of refugees abandoned on the margins of this tourist French town – and my first day off. And I wanted to write to you, to tell you of this next step, because I cannot end these diaries without an explanation and end these diaries I must.
I have come to Calais because I was always going to come to Calais. Three and a half years ago, I arrived in Northern France for the first time, beginning a ten-day volunteer stint in what was then the Dunkirk refugee camp. I worked as an English and French teacher for adults in a makeshift settlement shoved between a railroad and a motorway – an irony that remains as perverted to me now as it did then. I remember, several days into this trip, as I lay on my mattress on the floor of an Airbnb shared with other volunteers, exhausted and frozen and completely overwhelmed with everything I was seeing and hearing, deciding that I wouldn’t be going back to Ireland. I couldn’t leave, it didn’t seem even vaguely logical. It appeared so obvious, so simple: there was no question of my returning to the little Quay St apartment in Galway, no possibility of standing at the Guinness tap of the pub I then worked in, making small talk and flirting with every fedora-wearing artsy type that walked through the door. To hell with it all, I said.
After being talked down by loved ones, I did, at the end of ten difficult, profound, life-changing days, come home. But I came home to leave again; I came back to tie up the loose ends, sublet my life and return to the several thousand people it felt that most of the world had abandoned to freeze and struggle and endure and die trying to hop on lorries in the vain hope of a better life.
Less than two months later, I was back in Dunkirk where I spent three months running education classes for men and women. Three months amongst the bravest, wittiest, most resilient, generous and open people I’ve ever had the honour to meet. To this day, their faces are the ones I still seek out on the street; the jokes we shared, the small victories we scrounged together between us, the wintered days of despair we weathered are the one constant of my temperamental memory.
I came home again. Fell in love, moved to a new city, started a postgrad and to all intents and purposes did all of the things one does when 24. I gradually put distance between myself and the Facebook messages of my students – the constant calling and messaging too painful for both of us it seemed. I couldn’t help, I couldn’t give them what they wanted, I had all of the power and none of the solutions to give. I felt guilty every single day: I continue to feel guilty every single day.
I drank a lot of Guinness and grew accustomed to the present tense of feckless debauchery.
Then, over a year since I’d returned from Dunkirk, I went to Lesvos – the once-tourist destination that is now home to Europe’s biggest refugee camp; teeming with 11,000 refugees (allegedly – I would wager there’s significantly more). For three weeks I worked in a women and children’s shower project (sexual assault in bathrooms and showers in these camps is commonplace: most women in Dunkirk used adult nappies at night as it was simply to dangerous to risk using the toilet, even with a protective husband in tow) and then, in the early hours of the morning, I would sometimes work a graveyard boat spotting shift, driving along the coastline from 3am to 7am watching out for the small dinghies filled to a point of mortal danger with people that daily made their way from Turkey into EU waters. I never saw these boats on my shifts but I did see the trawling coastguards and EU Frontex shifts patrolling like menacing sharks in the darkness.
Again, I left. I went on holiday with a sister and then came back to Ireland where I transitioned from counting pint money to two-coffee brunches (the pinnacle of middle class adulthood) as I found routine and a “real” job and settled for the first time in my adult life.
If you’ve been following these diaries, you’ll know I’ve since quit this job and thus by extension that lovely life of total and blissful autonomous hedonism. You’ll know that I planned to chuck it all in and throw myself at chance and adventure and move to Australia or anywhere that would take me. But, in these plans that to me feel incredibly self-serving and privileged, there was always the knowledge of what is going on here in Calais, on almost every Greek island, in Turkey, Lebanon, Serbia, Italy, Jordan, Syria and, let’s not forget, Ireland.
And so I decided to come back to Calais for an open-ended volunteer stay while I wait for the dust to settle on my life and for myself to come to grips with all of the changes the past few weeks have wrought on both my personal and professional orbs.
Mornings are spent in a big warehouse with 25 volunteers sorting through donations, making food and hygiene packs, loading vans and cars with tea, coffee, kilo upon kilo of sugar, oranges, dates, blankets and water. The afternoons are spent parking up in PPE and face masks in deserted industrial parks around the old Calais jungle where, beneath the glaring sun, hundreds of men from Syria, Kurdistan, Sudan, Iran, Eritrea, Senegal, Afghanistan come out as if from nowhere in search of food, water, and shelter. Most have nothing except the clothes they are standing in. The CRS police are often there, weaponised and cruel, watching with arms folded as we pick up rubbish and chat about the small nothings we can in the language abyss.
Most of the people who love me don’t understand why I would put myself at so much risk to come here. When coronavirus is still terrifyingly omnipresent, why would I go out of my way to find it?
As one person said to me, there’s always going to be problems in the world. You can’t solve them all.
Reader, for all of the facetious jokes and body hair shite talk we’ve shared together, I hope you know that I don’t and will never believe this. Hardship is a part of the human existence, problems and inequality are unavoidable because such is the nature of both life and our inherent human nature but knowing this does not excuse a failure to ignore our civic responsibility to fight against this in any and every way we can. It is my obligation, as someone young, fit, financially secure and healthy – and now with free time on my hands – to help how I can. This is how I know to help.
Four months ago, we began a journey together. In some ways, we’ve been through a lot ensemble (French for together, don’t worry if you didn’t know that). In others, I wonder if perhaps I was too glib, too facetious. Such is the nature of exposure, I suppose.
I’ve put off writing this entry because it feels difficult to admit the end of this, this mad odyssey of leg hair and sibling cans, lust for someone far away in times of a global pandemic to all-consuming infatuation with a 3,000 piece jigsaw. However, like all mediocre and unnecessary things, it’s time for this chapter to close.
Time for me to learn not to immortalise every random notion online, time for me to focus on being HERE. And here is hard, all-consuming, and confronting.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s also really, really fun. I am currently navigating the jarring parallelism of hard graft and the trauma of this crisis by day and then weirdly feeling I’m on holidays by dusk. I was out boogying until 2.30am the other night, chatting up French locals by getting into an argument about nuclear energy (about which I know virtually nothing by the way); yesterday ended with a sunset swim, beers on the beach, hot chips on the boardwalk.
I am drunk on the novelty of NEW people – hearing voices and opinions and accents that have not been the soundtrack of my life since birth, seeing places that are completely unusual and unassociated with the parameters of lockdown.
This is GOOD. It is FREEING. I feel WHOLE.
And the two things can exist. Trauma and fun. Dedication and self-preservation in flippancy and flirting. There is space to care and self-preserve; to work and still feel the yearning to play. It’s taken me 27 years to learn this but I think on this trip I’m finally getting there.
Ok, it is 12:52 and I still haven’t eaten (NOT ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOUR IN FRANCE) and the legs are alarmingly red. I need a croissant and I told my housemates I’d buy fat tomatoes from the market. Time. Time to go.
Dear reader, thank you for letting these writings be a small part of your quarantine. Thank you for letting me into your mornings or evenings; thank you for choosing, in the avalanche of things to consume, for choosing to consume this. I will be forever baffled and forever grateful.
Goodness, anybody else chopping onions/ eye-dropping vinegar, pinching themselves to a point of excruciating pain? Because I am absolutely crying now. Which, considering I’ve disintegrated from human on chair to inanimate inanimate sea creature prostrate on impossibly sandy living room floor made barely decent with granny knickers and gleaming with sunburn and the sheen of someone already dehydrated enough to qualify for sunstroke, is not a great visual to bid adieu on.
I promise to keep the anecdotes rolling in on an adhoc basis – my equal needs for constant expression and validation mean I cannot stay silent for too long.
Until then, here’s sweating at you, kids.
I thought for our final TREE TINGS THAT BRING ME JOY, I would share with you my three favorite diary titles that, due to my forgetfulness (and the fact I’m super busy and popular) never made it to publication. I hope they leave you with as many unanswered questions as they do me.
- Day 26: You can Harris me any time, Simon
- Day 12: I still think carbs are bad – is that bad?
- Day 33: Reunited with my vibrator and it feels Oh. So. Good.