Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Borders of the mind.

What with everything that has been happening in America (Trump's latest provocation about visa's) I was thinking about borders and papers.

I didn't get enough opportunities to travel myself and when I did I usually didn't have much money. As a result, many of my trips were by coach and because of this, coach travel has always triggered great feelings of freedom in my mind.

There's no feeling on earth like getting on a coach at midnight in some deserted part of West London, catching  a ferry in the pitch dark at Dover and waking up to see the sun rise golden on the coast of France.

It was exciting and romantic and sleeping on a coach seemed a small price to pay.

The problem was always the long and tedious return journey, made much worse by the horror of getting through British Immigration and Customs at Calais.

This involved the coach stopping at an isolated, windswept building at 3-00 am in the freezing cold, so that we could get out and queue for a lifetime to be grilled by Immigration and have our passports scanned, while at the same time customs were going through the coach looking for drugs.

When the Immigration officer scanned my passport there was always an imperceptible pause........while his or her mind worked out whether Special branch needed to 'Have a quiet word' with me.

And I always used to get angry as they picked on anyone who looked in any way 'foreign', to give an especially hard time to.

Although the building where this all took place was actually in France, legally you were in France when you entered and when you came out on the other side to meet your coach you were in Britain, waiting for the ferry.....even though we were all still in France until we got on the boat.

Complicated stuff.

One time, Immigration fussed about so long we missed our ferry. As a result we were left standing about on the cold tarmac or sat in the coach cramped and irritated, waiting for the next boat.

Suddenly I was desperate to go to the toilet and the only option (I felt) was to walk back to the immigration building.

I went back in to the British side of the border and started looking for someone to ask directions from - it was completely deserted.

It looked as though everyone had gone off for a cup of tea.

I was desperate and started to wander around. I went up a staircase that looked promising, into an office complex above the Immigration concourse. I was right - I soon found a toilet.

The problem was that when I came out I couldn't find my way back. I started wandering through the building until I saw a staircase that looked just like the one I'd gone up.

I went down it. 

Unfortunately, when I got to the bottom I came out into the area that would forever be part of France - complete with French Gendarmes wearing Kepi hats and carrying sub machine guns.

Worse, I had left my passport in the coach!

I was suddenly stateless without documents, trapped forever in France, the coach disappearing with my passport when the next ferry came in. The French would have been cool about this - not so British Immigration. I had visions of spending weeks in some hotel in Calais while I tried to persuade The Foreign Office to send me replacement documents.

There was only one thing to do - I gave the Gendarmerie a cheery wave coupled with a suitably French greeting, in my very best pretend French accent. I turned on my heels and went straight back up the stairs. I disappeared into the office area above border control.

It seemed to work - no one shot me!

At this point, because I couldn't get through British Immigration without a passport, I made my way through the offices and managed to find the staircase I had come up and came down on the British side.

Luckily Immigration, who always gave me a such a hard time, were still drinking tea and I was able to walk back out of the side door......to Britain, the coach and my passport.

But it could have been very different.

And if you ever need to wonder why desperate people climb mountains or risk their lives getting on rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean in the dark of night perhaps this wonderful poem by Reza Mohammadi, an Afghan poet will give you some idea; 

You Crossed the Border

You crossed the border: your homeland had no language,
or maybe it had nothing to say.

You crossed the border: imagine it's your homeland.
What did your homeland have that the whole world lacked?

First, you were greeted by tears.
This kind friend with an unkind face,
Sorrow, embraced you out of dirt and dust,
a friend who clasped you closer than others.
The sick old man who welcomed you so tenderly
was exhausted by travelling from village to village.
You longed to buy happiness
but only smugglers offered it for sale.

You crossed the border: imagine it's your homeland.
What did you homeland have that the whole world lacked?
Oh poet! You have come to the kingdom of misery,
to a land with no sky,
a land where poets trade in humanity,
where the mouths of prophets are stopped,
where dogs are ministers and donkeys are imams.
No calls to prayer issue from its mosques free of bribes.
What on earth did you expect from your homeland?
That its banquet tables weren't piled high with bones?

Poet! Your homeland is a vanished past.
Now it offers nothing but insults, greed, boredom and grief.
Instead of poetry, would that you had gold and power -
that sacred talent does no good here.

Many thanks to the Poetry Translation Centre for their work;


Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
Home: helpmesortoutstpeters.blogspot.com
Contact me: neilwithpromisestokeep@gmail.com

1 comment:

  1. As I was reading about your adventure I could picture you and hear you cursing yourself. LOL