Sunday, 2 July 2017

A small act in a large cause

It’s not often you get the chance to make a gesture of refusal, however small, to the Trumpists, Brexiters and other xenophobes. 

A recent business trip took me to Imperia in North West Italy. The most convenient way to get there was to fly to Nice in Southern France and then take a train for the short trip across the border and down the coast.

On the way back, I had to change at Ventimiglia, in Italy but just a few minutes by rail from Menton in France. Really. It feels as though if you ignored the rules by wandering off the end of the platform and along the track a bit, you’d have inadvertently crossed the border.

I haven’t entirely mastered the train system between Imperia and Nice. There are Italian trains, there are French trains, there are regional trains that could belong to either country without my having the faintest idea which. Delays on the way back only deepened my confusion. At 11:22, was the train at platform 2 the delayed 11:14 or would that be the one drawing in to platform 6? One way or another, I managed to miss the regional train I was booked on for Nice.

In the meantime, I’d started a conversation with a young man as lost as I was. He addressed me in broken English.

“I am Younis. I from Libya,” he assured me earnestly. I nodded. “You see? Black?” he added, pointing to his arm. 

There was no doubt about it. Not just his arm but all parts of his skin exposed to view were dark enough to qualify for what we call black.

Younis at Ventimiglia
I hope he gets to Paris safely
“Libya not good now,” he continued, perhaps with a view to furthering my education. I told him I’d heard reports to that effect.

“I have brother in Paris. At one o’clock from Paris.”

Did he mean an hour from Paris? I didn’t pursue it as it hardly seemed useful to debate expressions of time in English. He was, after all, heading for France where they were unlikely to be helpful

“I go to Nice. I get to Nice from here?”

I told him yes, I thought so, that we were on the right platform as far as I could tell. I didn’t add that I’d been wrong before. I felt we both needed our optimism kept up.

Eventually a train pulled in. Judging by the name of the company on the side and the direction it was travelling, I felt emboldened to go out on a bit of a limb.

“I think this is the Nice train.”

“Nice?” he said. He had a fetching smile and turned it on me at full beam. Then he leaped through the nearest door onto the train.

I was more cautious and walked up the platform to check with a guard first.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is the Nice train. But you can’t use your regional ticket on it. You’ll need a new one.”

I got on and found a seat.

A few minutes later we pulled into Menton.

“This is a service stop only,” the loudspeakers announced, “do not leave the train here. The stop is only to allow the police to carry out security checks. Please have your documents ready if asked for them.”

It occurred to me that things might not go well for Younis, who had assured me that he had “no papier”, that “in Italian they just…” and he made the pantomime of taking a photo, “and they…” with a pantomime of taking prints of all his fingers.

Just then he reappeared and I waved at him. He gave me another beaming smile and walked down the carriage to sit opposite me.

“Where we are?”

“Menton,” I said, “France.”

“France? We in France?”

I didn’t think the beam could be increased in intensity but it was.

“Why we stop?”

“The police are checking papers,” I said, and the beam switched off.

“I no papier…” he repeated, “Italian just…” and he did the finger-printing thing again.

“I know,” I said, “we just have to hope.”

“I no trouble with police,” he assured me, by which I think he meant that he had committed no crimes.

“I’m sure,” I replied, disinclined to explain that to police forces around Europe just being black and undocumented was more than crime enough. He would probably discover that quite soon – I only hoped it wouldn’t be in the next few minutes.

I looked up the carriage. There were no police in sight though there was someone almost as baleful: a ticket collector. He reached us.

“I think I have to buy a new ticket,” I told him, showing him the one I had.

“I’m afraid so,” he said, “that’ll be €12.50.”

A corporate card backed by a company that is tolerant of its staff, even when they get things wrong, put me in a position of some privilege. But then the collector turned to my travelling companion.

“Your ticket, please?”

“What he want?” he asked me.

“A ticket for this train. It’s twelve euros fifty.” I looked at him expectantly.

“I don’t have it,” he said, apparently as distraught as I was unsurprised. 

He’d got into France, a big step towards realising his dream of joining his brother. He’d avoided the police. And now he was going to be plunged into trouble with them, for want of the cost of two coffees in a station cafe.

“I’ll buy his ticket,” I told the collector, pulling out my personal card.

Once the transaction was complete, the collector told me I was very kind, without any obvious trace of sarcasm.

That surprised me. Most officials, in my experience, disapprove of helping people in what was obviously Younis’s position. But, in any case, I didn’t feel I’d been kind at all. Real generosity would have been to make a long-term commitment to help Younis, and I was doing nothing of the kind. I doubt our paths will cross again. Besides, the sum I’d parted with wouldn’t get me from Nice station to the airport. It wouldn’t cover the price of the meal I had there. I’m not sure it would feed my dogs for more than a day (and they’re little dogs).

Instead, for a small price, I was enabled to do three things that mattered to me:

  • Distance myself from Brexiters who, for all their rationalisations, are merely offering cover to xenophobes if they’re not xenophobes themselves
  • Reject the Trumps, Farages, le Pens and others who feel they can loudly proclaim their defence of Christian values, despite having had their sense of human compassion surgically excised
  • Provide a little assistance to a man who had struggled across the Mediterranean and was now attempting to travel several hundred miles on no money, to make a better life for himself in a nation which, along with my own, had militarily meddled the heck out of his.

Cheap at ten times the price. Now I only wish I’d thought of buying him a ticket all the way to Paris. A missed opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Still living a dream land and only scratching arounf the high profile left wing big issueless with the young nieve voters. Each nation earns and deserves its relative position. I have no hate of non UK nationals but. Will do every thing I can to protect the inherited rights of my generation. Why is that wrong?

David Beeson said...

There's nothing wrong with it, as long as you realise that those rights belong to every human everywhere, irrespective of their national roots, religion, skin colour or any other of the many features that are frequently used to divide us from each other. You also need to realise that when your own nation goes needlessly to war with another nation and throws it into chaos, it has an obligation to help the victims of that ill-thought out action.

Kit Grindstaff said...

Lovely, David. Thanks for this heartwarming tale. Have shared to FB as my positive post of the day! (Lord knows we need the balance, in these times.) x

Zitouni said...

Remember to buy that ticket to Paris next time ! Bravo for what you did -and for publicizing it!

Anonymous said...

Well-done, you!

Simon Wade said...

Why do you want to encourage illegal and uncontrolled immigration, why not support controlled and legal migration. Sounds like a simple and reasonable question.

waggledook said...

you're right. Let's control access for women, black people, Jews, and you know... people you don't like. That sounds equally reasonable, right? How is it any different? I hope you would fight against discrimination against people based on skin colour. That anybody accepts it based on country of birth is the hipocracy we should somehow address.

David Beeson said...

I will certainly by that ticket to Paris next time. Thanks Kit and Anonymous for the congratulations - though I wish I'd done what Zitouni suggests, and earned them more...

Incidentally, Waggledook, I think it's a great idea to control access to the country by people I don't like. Trouble is most of them are already here and running UKIP and the Tory Party

Anonymous said...

So sorry to have upset all who support illegal immigration, exploitation of boat people, totaly illegal crime, copy cat actins exploitation of the week, illegal esidncy where you don't dare register forheqlth aid and are scared of the police, and rejection of he accepted and internationally agreed immigration procedures. Gret you have just voted for continued exploitation by supporting it have a good day.