Meet the Migrants

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Park Guell, Gaudi 1

photos from Park Güell, Barcelona © petrahilgers 2015

The other day I’ve been hanging out with Anita for an hour, talking art: she asked me about my trip to Barcelona and we conversed about Gaudi, our shared soft spot for Art Nouveaux and about ceramic art. Anita revealed that her big love are the Post-Impressionists and told me how she went to Amsterdam once and like a child awaiting Christmas she was eagerly anticipating her visit to the Van Gogh museum – only to find out that many of the pictures she had been looking forward to see in real had moved homes and were now in the Louvre in Paris while the remaining ones were difficult to see properly through the crowds of visitors. Disappointedly, she began to make her way back out and then happened on a small and quiet Gauguin section and fell totally in love with his work: I liked to imagine some art-lover in the Louvre at exactly that same moment being disappointed when discovering that some of the Gauguins they had been eager to see had moved to Amsterdam and then accidentally finding some Van Goghs and falling in love with them…

Anita has moved to London from Poland. Aside from loving art she’s also my hairdresser. She’s actually only been my hairdresser for about six months – taking over from Klara who’s cut my hair for over five years. Indeed: f i v e years and hence an un-ignorable sign that I’ve been very settled in my life and Klara leaving the salon was a bit unsettling. Klara is the most un-hairdresser-like hairdresser I’ve come across in my life; before Klara I did everything to avoid going to hairdressers: in my teens I grew it long and simply didn’t have it cut very often; during my university years my friend Dagmar used to cut it in exchange for sauna vouchers; and when I lived in rural East Africa I bowed to necessity and learned to cut it myself (not without the odd finger injury while getting used to the mirror-inverted perspective) – years of dodging salons with those stifling hours of not knowing how to do small-talk and feeling out of place with my taste for more alternative hairdos.

I don’t know what made me even enter the salon where I discovered Klara given that the shop-window was screaming adverts at passers-by for fashionable beauty treatments promising whiter teeth & darker tans, slimmer bodies & thicker make-up and somewhere at the bottom also hair extensions, highlights, blow dries and, finally, hair cuts.

But enter I did. And ended up with Klara in her goth outfit, husky low-pitched chain-smokers voice, infectious blunt laughter and unrestrained sense of humour. Klara only does big-talk with the occasional swear-word (without confusing things with the add-on ‘pardon my French’) which suits me very well and is everything but stifling. The most talk-provoking thing we had in common was that we are both “EU migrants”: like Anita, Klara is originally from Poland where she started a degree in journalism but somehow along the way discovered her love for hair and beauty and became a hairdresser instead. Half her family lives in Germany so we often compared notes about our nieces (in my case) and nephews (in Klara’s case) growing up in Germany, ideas for birthday presents and how to be a good aunt.

The best thing about Klara was that she always came up with very funky hairstyles (she was the one who – in Year Three in our hair-relationship – insisted on shaving one side of my head and by then I had learned to trust her or maybe I had simply resigned to her but in any way just let her get on with it and was so positively surprised with the outcome that I kept that hair style for several years): at some point in Year Four she confessed that she normally always advises women to have long hair. I don’t know why she never tried with me, never even just hinted at the idea. Needless to say that it wouldn’t have worked and probably made me abandon her.

From one month to the other Klara left to help opening a new branch somewhere on the edges of East London. I went through an unhappy phase of being passed around to different new hairdressers at the same salon and had just reached the point of finding a new salon altogether when Anita appeared. Aside from also being from Poland and always dressed in layers of blacks she’s many things that Klara is not with her soft voice & features, quiet manners & humour, kind diligence and precision. And so her haircuts are a bit softer, too, and that’s just as well because I’ve now outgrown my half-shaved look and am after something different.

So she cut, calmly, as we were talking art. She comes from a city with a lot of Art Nouveau so it’s in her genes and probably not surprising that she might have a real yearning for Barcelona. Still, it almost shocked me that she remembered my trip: after all that was now three months ago that I went and she hadn’t seen me since.

Park Guell, Gaudi 2

It also shocked me to realise that as someone who so clearly loves the art she doesn’t get to see much art in London: she works long days six times a week and after that there’s not much time and energy left. Still, she’s happy here: back in Poland she wasn’t able to find a job that paid enough for her to be able to rent a flat so despite being somewhere in her late 20s she still lived with her parents and didn’t see any chance of ever moving out and on. It doesn’t need much for me to be sympathetic given how eagerly I moved away from my family a month after finishing school and never moved back.

I didn’t ask her what so many people both in the UK and back in Germany often ask me, ‘Do you think you’ll ever go back?’, because I always find that question a bit discombobulating. And maybe it’s a reflection of people finding the idea of ‘migration’ discombobulating? And maybe it’s easier for people to accept the idea of ‘migration’ as long as migrants have deep down in their heart a sense of ‘back’ and of belonging and loyalty to that place?

It seems that Gaudi had exactly that, a sense of place and pride for the land he was born in and his heritage – and so it’s maybe no wonder that there is so much of his art work on show in his home region.

With Van Gogh it’s already a bit more blurry: born in the Netherlands, he later lived and worked in Brixton and then Ramsgate for many years with some short spells of living a Belgium before moving to Paris where he eventually died.

And Gauguin’s sense of home it’s outrightly nebulous: born to a mother of Peruvian heritage and a father who had broken with the family tradition of gardener life in Orléans by becoming a journalist in Paris, the family moved to Lima, Peru, then later back to Paris. Gauguin himself married into a Danish family and lived in Copenhagen for some years; when those relationships crumbled he moved back to Paris. He went travelling to Panama and Martinique, later to Tahiti and finally made a small island in French Polynesia in the South Pacific his home where he lived until his death.

I guess if anything it just goes to show that some people are born to travel – migrate – and others are born to stay deeply rooted in the area they are from. That we are more forgiving to those migrants that are already dead and can’t migrate – and claim benefits – no longer than to local hairdressers (even more so when those deceased migrants have kindly left behind a legacy of stunning art work). That ‘migration’ isn’t anything new – perhaps not even a ‘crisis’ as the media likes to label it these days. Although it might possibly cause moments of crisis for the migrants themselves: for example when their home of choice decides to have a political referendum the outcome of which could undermine the right to stay of the very migrants. Maybe I should encourage Anita to take up painting and next time I see Klara I’ll suggest she takes up writing…

Park Guell, Gaudi 3

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The Author

Writer, Photographer, Craftivist, Facilitator, Mediator, Trainer, Founding Director of deep:black. Passionate about equality & empowerment. And about anger & vulnerability.