Refugee Train across Europe

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

Campers Kitchen

‘Happy hour’, said the hand-written notice on the door of the campers’ kitchen. ‘Relax, meet other travellers, share your adventures, dream of new places to visit: 5:30 to 6:30 pm’.

No-one was there when I arrived, so they were obviously not happy yet. I was sweaty, overheated and busted after riding my loaded bicycle for almost 100 kilometres, having ridden from Tamworth as part of a longer summer ride. Through the seemingly endless Goonoo Goonoo plain I had peddled, with its vast cattle stations and relentless sun. Just when I had almost hit my ‘wall’, the plain came to end and I was faced with an unforgiving and grinding climb to the top of the Liverpool Range. Sure enough, the drop on the other side into the first reaches of the Hunter was glorious, with my speed generating enough wind to drop my body temperature a degree or two below boiling. Murrurundi was as far as I would ride today. It was as far as I felt like riding for a few days.

While waiting for the party animals to arrive, I undertook a familiar ritual: pacing about to choose the best spot for the tent, pitching it, unpacking the bike, wiping it down and locking it, folding out bedding in anticipation of a comatose sleep, and – when all is done – finding a welcome shower. Al last I ambled back, a little stiffly, to the campers’ kitchen. Now the happy people were present: a red-faced man with a gold chain around his neck, a wrinkled and energetic woman, an expanding man with a grey beard and constantly moving mouth, and his chain-smoking partner. They sipped beers, breathed in cigarette smoke (willingly or unwillingly) and seemed to be happy enough, in obedience to the requirements of the hour.

‘We almost stopped to offer you a lift’, said the mouth. ‘We saw you on the climb and thought, “How can anyone pedal up that!” But we were struggling as it was’. I was later to find out why: their ‘campervan’ was a mansion on wheels. I was sure one would need a special escort for such a vehicle, with flashing lights and a sign, ‘Warning, wide load ahead’.

Indeed, much of the talk was over vans, maintenance, prices, good deals and bad. Not a topic one which I had much to say, given that the only thing in common between my steed and their heavy-movers were wheels. So I cooked a meal on the stove, a mix of beans, tuna and instant noodles – keen to build up my store of energy for the day to come. I joined them with my billy full of steaming sustenance, but as I listened to stories of vans and places visited, of plans for further travel should health hold (for they were not at the youthful end of life), my thoughts drifted to other campers’ kitchens.

This one had been recently built: half open-air, half enclosed. Unwittingly, it invited you in, to sit a while and ponder the universe, especially if those present were holding forth on matters of life and death that seemed strangely of great interest. But I have encountered other kitchens with far less appeal. Great caverns of concrete and steel and glass, they are as enticing as a family barbeque with one’s in-laws (or out-laws as the case may be). Function may have its – well – functions; something to be used without further thought. A stove, a kettle, a table, especially if it is raining – all are useful. But if a television is present or even – God forbid – an internet connection, then the place is clearly aware that it has no inherent appeal.

Yet three over long decades of journeying have stood out, for very different reasons. The first was a few lifetimes ago, tucked away on the edge – in Frankston – of Melbourne’s sprawl into the Mornington Peninsula. Perhaps it was more the turmoil of my own life at the time that made it seem like a sanctuary. Amidst the neat rows of tiny cottages, the permanent van dwellers, and the occasional tent, I had the campers’ kitchen to myself. Here I could cook in peace, read a little, shelter beneath the awning, even survey the ancient and empty fridge that stood proudly at the centre. A worn table and a couple of chairs completed the furniture of my home for a night or two.

The second was on the coast road between Sydney and Melbourne. Here it was less the tumult of my life than the unexpected discovery it provided. On the headland of the fishing town of Bermagui stands the council-run camping ground, with terraced areas for tents and vans. Bermagui itself evoked ancient memories, of camping with my father and my two brothers in the bush nearby, of the legendary hills and green slopes of Mount Dromedary and Tilba Tilba, of journeys through on the way to Tasmania. But I had not been in Bermagui itself for three decades. With dusk falling and the tent pitched, I went in search of the kitchen. Eventually I found what seemed to be a kitchen: it boasted a partial roof and a plank or two for sides, a picnic table and a solitary and rusted gas burner that had seen service in at least three centuries. That was it – forget any other unnecessary appurtenances. With the coastal wind cutting straight through, I struggled to keep the gas flame alight under my billy. An eon seemed to pass as I awaited the contents to cook, but the eventual meal was one of the best I have eaten.

Yet the one I recall in almost legendary terms was on the north coast of Tasmania, many, many lives ago. We – for then I was married and two young daughters were with us for a few weeks of exploring Tasmania – happened upon a village called Stanley for our first night. Stanley’s claim to fame was its fishing and The Knot, an outcrop into Bass Straight. We rolled into town, seeking a spot to camp. One appeared, miraculously, right beside the water. Who could refuse? We soon found out why anyone with a tent would refuse: the upper reaches of the roaring forties do their thing in these parts. Included in their thing is the flattening of any tent that foolishly tries to stand up to the gale. By morning we were sleepless, having endured the flapping, banging and popping of wind-blown tents for the long hours of the night.

So we sought sheltered parts. At the back of the camping area was one such part: vast spreading trees provided a wind-break and a timber structure a refuge. It was painted yellow and red, with solid walls, tight-fitting doors and a sign, ‘Campers’ Kitchen’. One would not describe it or its contents as new, but they had endured the times, and I hope they still do. From its walls I strung a washing line, where clothes would dry in an instant in the wind. Inside we cooked, talked, read, played games, enjoyed a cup of tea or, in the evenings, a beer. And since our tents sat tight by the wall in the lee of the wind, we also slept.

Pleasure of Departure

I love departures. Not because I can’t wait to leave or because I can’t wait to get to the next place, but because departure is always caught between the hold of a place and the pull of road.

As the train rolls out of the station or as the ship leaves the harbour, I look longingly at the familiar lie of the land, at the streets and people and spaces that have become so familiar. I want to stay a little longer, savour the pleasures I am farewelling. But I am also filled with excitement about the journey begun, new places to see, chance encounters to experience, unexpected turns to negotiate.

The deep enjoyment of leaving is found precisely in this tension. Even more, the ability to appreciate a place, fully and deeply, depends on the fact that I know I will leave. It may be today or it may be weeks, months or even years down the track. But I will leave. And so I look at the placei which I am differently, feel the undertow of my emotions. Experiences – people met, vistas pondered, quiet corners – gain an intensity that is missing from the ordinary run of life.

But I also wonder what it is like to live in the same place for the whole of one’s life. I recall a conversation with an older woman, a grandmother of many. Hearing that I was leaving, yet again, she was absolutely fascinated at distant and exotic places.

‘I’ve never been much of traveller’, she said. ‘I have travelled on a couple of occasions – went down south for the Melbourne Cup, but that was enough’.

I have also tried to imagine what it was like for my parents and grandparents to make that crucial decision to emigrate half-way around the world. Not so long ago (some 60 years) but it seems like an eternity, for then you made the journey never to return. What would it be like to leave a place, an ancestral home? Some never make the transition fully, longing for what was lost. Some still feel, deep in their bodies, that home is still back there. But others do make the shift, thrilled by the new place, knowing that in but a short time they will have changed too much to return.

What would I have done? I would have emigrated as well.

But where is home? On the road, I feel another tension. It is a type of homesickness, a longing for home, but not in the conventional sense. In each place travelled, I wonder, ‘Could I live here?’ ‘Would this become home?’ In some places, the answer is ‘no way’. But in others, the ‘maybe’ may well shift to a ‘why not?’ To these places I have a tendency to return. Yet, before I get too carried away with such desires, I remind myself that there are too many places in the world like this.

After all, is not home always elsewhere?

Immigration

In 2010 I was following – by ship – the same route that my mother’s family had taken when immigrating to Australia in 1957. Except I was voyaging in reverse, sailing from Australia to Europe via two oceans, five seas and the Panama Canal. Six weeks it took them on an immigration ship; five weeks it took us, on a container ship from Melbourne.

Passing through the canal, I thought of my maternal grandparents, enticed to immigrate for a host of reasons – a country still recovering from war, Oma keen for a better climate for her health, Opa focused on overcoming thwarted ambition and impatience with his career. They were a couple of years younger than me at the time, with a family of seven children ranging from 18 to about 3. How did they manage six weeks on a crowded immigration ship (bunk beds) on the ocean? What dreams and expectations did they have? How much was based on propaganda and sheer lies? What did they think of the home they had left, to return only once many years later?

As we passed into the Caribbean, I looked up some photographs. Someone had taken some shots with a simple Box Brownie camera, a gift perhaps on departure, like a digital camera these days. Shots of the farewell at Rotterdam, a stop in the Dutch possession of Curacao, the passage through Panama, crossing the equator, a Pacific Island. I wondered what was going through their minds, what feelings of loss and regret, what hopes and anticipations. In one photo, my mother and her brother stand at the railing as the ship was about to leave Rotterdam:

She was 18, he 17, with deep roots already in the Netherlands. A last look to catch a face or two in the crowd on the dock, full of promises to keep in touch, the confidence of young people setting out on the journey of a lifetime, their best winter clothes on for departure. Following Roland Barthes’s advice to identify the punctum of the image, I cannot help notice the contrast between their smiles and the faces beside them. These reflective faces, not without trepidation, know it will not be possible to return easily, that years, not months would mark the absence.

My grandparents, in the middle of this picture, have similar faces:

As land creatures, we tend to take photographs of times at port or on shore, or at least when land is in sight. Although this photograph of the Panama Canal passage brought home a very different time, feeling more like something out of Joseph Conrad:

Birthdays pass on board, people try to find space on a crowded immigration vessel, families are crammed into tight cabins, especially since the Australian government was paying for passage:

My eye is drawn first to my uncle’s face and his birthday cake, but then quickly to the portholes and the sea, the small shelf in tight space, the chipped paint on a no-nonsense working ship, a book (a Bible?) in the corner. What possessions do you take with on a voyage half-way around the world in order to start again in a land about which you know relatively little?

Yet two photographs still strike me, one taken just before departure, the other after a year or more in Australia.

With money to pay for a professional photographer, good clothes and with photo faces on, they cannot help give the impression of anticipation and promise. Of course, the Australian government loved these images for propaganda purposes, a large white family coming to shift the fabric of a small Australia away from its closed English heritage. However, after a year or two in Australia:

The image is grainy, taken with a Box Brownie, only a couple smile, the rest grimace and look a little glum. The reality had turned out to be grimmer than the propaganda given to potential immigrants. Unlike many immigrants, my grandfather actually found work – a coal mine – but accommodation was basic, in a garage for a while, and money was scarce. Thoughts had turned to returning to the Netherlands, but my grandmother’s health was better in the Australian climate and my uncles and aunt had already made friends, my mother had met and married my father.

And I had been born – held in my grandmother’s arms.

Ship’s Log: Day Twenty Seven (Melbourne to Tilbury)

I was following the same route that my mother’s family had taken when immigrating to Australia in 1957. Except I was voyaging in reverse, sailing from Australia to Europe via two oceans, five seas and the Panama Canal. Six weeks it took them on an immigration ship; five weeks it took us, on a container ship from Melbourne.

Passing through the canal, I thought of my maternal grandparents, enticed to immigrate for a host of reasons – a country still recovering from war, Oma keen for a better climate for her health, Opa focused on overcoming thwarted ambition and impatience with his career. They were a couple of years younger than me at the time, with a family of seven children ranging from 18 to about 3. How did they manage six weeks on a crowded immigration ship (bunk beds) on the ocean? What dreams and expectations did they have? How much was based on propaganda and sheer lies? What did they think of the home they had left, to return only once many years later?

As we passed into the Caribbean, I looked up some photographs. Someone had taken some shots with a simple Box Brownie camera, a gift perhaps on departure, like a digital camera these days. Shots of the farewell at Rotterdam, a stop in the Dutch possession of Curacao, the passage through Panama, crossing the equator, a Pacific Island. I wondered what was going through their minds, what feelings of loss and regret, what hopes and anticipations. In one photo, my mother and her brother stand at the railing as the ship was about to leave Rotterdam:

She was 18, he 17, with deep roots already in the Netherlands. A last look to catch a face or two in the crowd on the dock, full of promises to keep in touch, the confidence of young people setting out on the journey of a lifetime, their best winter clothes on for departure. Following Roland Barthes’s advice to identify the punctum of the image, I cannot help notice the contrast between their smiles and the faces beside them. These reflective faces, not without trepidation, know it will not be possible to return easily, that years, not months would mark the absence.

My grandparents, in the middle of this picture, have similar faces:

As land creatures, we tend to take photographs of times at port or on shore, or at least when land is in sight. Although this photograph of the Panama Canal passage brought home a very different time, feeling more like something out of Joseph Conrad:

Birthdays pass on board, people try to find space on a crowded immigration vessel, families are crammed into tight cabins, especially since the Australian government was paying for passage:

My eye is drawn first to my uncle’s face and his birthday cake, but then quickly to the portholes and the sea, the small shelf in tight space, the chipped paint on a no-nonsense working ship, a book (a Bible?) in the corner. What possessions do you take with on a voyage half-way around the world in order to start again in a land about which you know relatively little?

Yet two photographs still strike me, one taken just before departure, the other after a year or more in Australia.

With money to pay for a professional photographer, good clothes and with photo faces on, they cannot help give the impression of anticipation and promise. Of course, the Australian government loved these images for propaganda purposes, a large white family coming to shift the fabric of a small Australia away from its closed English heritage. However, after a year or two in Australia:

The image is grainy, taken with a Box Brownie, only a couple smile, the rest grimace and look a little glum. The reality had turned out to be grimmer than the propaganda given to potential immigrants. Unlike many immigrants, my grandfather actually found work – a coal mine – but accommodation was basic, in a garage for a while, and money was scarce. Thoughts had turned to returning to the Netherlands, but my grandmother’s health was better in the Australian climate and my uncles and aunt had already made friends, my mother had met and married my father.

And I had been born – held in my grandmother’s arms.