Two things came together like two rivers that merge, becoming one. Both things have a somewhat blurry start somewhere way back like those rivers that must have been streams before, and before that little trickles, and a breaking out of the underground at some distant beginning.
One of the things was prompted by my friend who I first met when we both returned from having lived abroad – Madagascar in her case, Uganda in mine – and attended the same kind of retreat for uprooted people like us who wanted a bit of space and time to make sense of our journey and where to go from here. We quickly found a number of crossovers – the fact that she was good friends with one of my oldest friends was a big one, but also that she had lived in Uganda at some point in her life; that we both loved the mountains; that she was born and had grown up on the ‘Schwäbische Alb‘ a small hilly and rough rural region also called the Swabian Alps which is very near to where my mum and sisters now live. My friend later moved to Duisburg, the city that was my grandmother’s home for as long as I can think back (and I can still remember Dad driving us in our yellow Ford with the black faux leather seats from rural North Germany into the heart of the Ruhrgebiet for Sunday visits). My friend has at some point even met my uncle who still lives in Duisburg with his wife and has been first a volunteer later a trainer with a charity that runs a telephone support line for which my friend started volunteering.
It was my friend’s 50th birthday in August and she decided that this time it wasn’t going to be Uganda, Duisburg or the Schwäbische Alb: she wanted to go mountain hiking in the Upper Bavarian Alps – a region I knew very well from the five years I lived and studied there. Starting point was going to be the mountain resort town Garmisch-Partenkirchen where our joint friend now lives; another friend who they both knew but I didn’t was to join us as well. It all almost worked out only that we ended up across the border in nearby Austria where there was a mountain range much more suitable for two of our group with knee injuries who wanted the possibility of a cable car to take us back down instead of an arduous steep descend.
So I set off last week by train from London via Brussels, Köln and München all the way down to one of the Southern-most towns of Germany – and that’s where this river merges with another river, the water molecules blend, mix and combine, forming new currents, creating a new force.
Because the first stretch of my journey took me through the Eurotunnel, a journey I’ve done at least thirty times by now. But it was the first time since groups of refugees that had stranded in Calais and in sheer desperation to get to the UK caused a ‘crisis’ leading to the tunnel closure several times over the summer. I noticed this word appearing: ‘crisis’. When it was first used it seemed to be done so with reference to the turbulences on the train route and motorways: the crisis of the lorry drivers and train passengers. Then it seemed to become the ‘migrant crisis’: the possibility (or threat?) of ‘them’ arriving in the UK, a crisis then for us UK residents in our safe homes. It’s only recently that I seem to see the word ‘crisis’ used to acknowledge the crisis that the refugees themselves might actually be in the middle of: after long, exhausting, traumatic journeys across half of Europe now caught in inadequate emergency camps hoping for the possibility of safety. I’m intrigued to discover the ‘cry’ in ‘crisis’ and worried that we’ve cried ‘wolf’ – ‘crisis‘ – too much in this context to still see the genuine suffering of people arriving on our door steps.
This journey took me actually right into the centre of that crisis: for the first time since I’ve travelled this route my Eurostar actually stopped in Calais which has become synonymous with refugee camps. I was weary and expected to be faced with the tragedy of people stranded that nobody wants – but I actually saw only lots of fences (and presumably those that had nothing to do with a border and all to do with railway health and safety regulations) followed by lots and lots of empty green fields. It was the absence of tragedy all along the way from London via Calais to Brussels that struck me: I could easily pretend this all didn’t happen some few kilometres away from where I was chauffeured through Europe with the speed, comfort and ease of a sharp knife cutting through cheese. Less then twenty-four hours later I found myself hiking up a mountain in Austria – having crossed three borders by then and two of them barely noticeable because there’s not even a ‘Welcome to Germany’ or ‘Welcome to Austria’ sing post with flag or coat of arms. The crisis of the refugees felt almost unreal in the beauty of the Alps and an unexpected outburst of summer with awe-inspiring blue-sky views and a sense of space and freedom out there on the mountains. A flock of para-gliders that was cruising around us only added to that – high up on about 2,000 meters we eventually got very close to them and saw people taking off right into the air. When I recently read in the Guardian about routes that refugees from Syria take – involving trekking across Serbia through rivers, across mountains, often for days with little water and even less food – then I can see the point of recommending a hot air balloon to cross from Russia into Norway.
My weekend was one of my summer highlights and I cherished every minute of being outdoors and with people who like me love nature and a good sweaty hike; I enjoyed wearing my 20-year old battered mountain boots and my 2-day old super-functional rucksack stuffed with food and water; I was touched by the magic of the full moon rising over a mountain range and the faint chiming of bells in the dark telling us where a herd of mountain sheep was grazing. I’m also acutely aware that I can enjoy these things because of my freedom – that someone else dragging themselves and their family across a vast alien country fearing for their lives would possibly find the very same full moon to be distant and treacherous, the very same summer sun scorching and merciless, and the thought of a flock of graceful para-gliders teasing beyond bearable.
The rivers-turned-one have now gained in strength and wildness and I don’t know that I could still navigate them – on Monday we walk down into the 700m long gorge where the River Partnach (which is part of the town’s name, Garmisch-Partenkirchen) forces it’s way through walls made from solid rock, at points up to 80m high. The water is so wild and full of sharp rocks and sudden gradients that the ‘danger of death’ signs are almost unnecessary. But the river is beautiful in its wildness, singing and dancing its way through the rocks with so much noise it’s almost impossible to have a conversation. Everything around is wet and alive and somewhere up there is more blue sky and certainly more para-gliders. I feel refreshed and deeply nourished from my weekend – and start my long return journey back to London across all those borders with a new appreciation for my freedom. Only when I’ve already arrived back in London do I realise that at the same time as I was changing trains in München Main Station thousands of Syrian refugees had arrived outside that very train station from Hungary and pitched up camp temporarily on the station’s forecourt; again I did not notice any sign of their presence that was yet so very close I probably could have almost smelled the sleep, sweat and smoke of their clothes.
Instead I had an uninterrupted journey all the way up to Brussels where ‘interruption’ was in the form of a distressed passenger who tried to find his seat number 35 which didn’t seem to exist – indeed it turned out it really did not exist together with seats number 36-40. He luckily realised at some point that he had actually misread his ticket which had seat number 33 on it and, slightly bemused, settled down in the row in front of me. The mystery of the missing seats opened up conversations and I engaged in a long chat with my seat neighbour, a fellow EU migrant on his way to Glasgow to visit his mum, brother and sister. We were fascinated by our journeys: he had set off that morning from Lübeck, one of the Northern-most cities in Germany which is right on the North Sea coast and strangely famous for its marzipan – and I had come from all the way South right in the mountains from a region rather infamous for having hosted the winter Olympics under Adolf Hitler. We ended up speaking a curious Kauderwelsch (gobbledegook) of German-English, his with a Scottish accent, mine with the odd Bavarianism. He had left Glasgow decades ago in search of work and tried his luck in Berlin – still West Berlin then. He fled further North when the Wall came down and Berlin was transformed from dead-end enclave to magnetic hub for everyone and everything. I was fascinated by the fact that he had experienced more of Germany’s recent history first hand than I had – while he was interested in my experience of London, the new Tories-led government and the impact of austerity on the communities. He was disillusioned with the Scottish Referendum and carried a sense of optimism about the EU Referendum: that UK voters will decide to stay in, that in the course of it the EU will change for the better and that one day he will be able to receive his German pension no matter whether he lives in Germany, the UK or (an independent) Scotland. What touched me most was his willingness to see the potential in every situation – whether that was to leave Scotland in the first place when there was no work to be found and plenty of it elsewher
e or whether that was to take on his mum’s advice who comes to visit him once a year and instead of fretting about him not being around as much ‘back home’ marvels at the fact that he’s got two homes. The way his eyes sparkled when he spoke of the two homes: I could see that this feels like a richness to him and not a dilemma, a being torn between tow places or a lack of belonging; and I found that very infectious. There was something very uplifting about our encounter: we shared a lot of similar experiences in opposite situations and found a lot to laugh about – it was the same lightness that I had felt when watching the para-gliders above me with their brightly coloured wings, to some extent able to steer and determine their direction, at the same time dependent on the thermal, weather and a good deal of luck and faith.
I know for the many refugees arriving in Europe at the moment this freedom seems a far away dream – but certainly they are driven by that same faith and determination and hopefully find a willingness among us to hear their cry and share some of our freedom.
The river continues to run, maybe it’ll join another river later or the sea…
From the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/29/syrian-refugees-europe-arctic-circle-russia-norway