To Ventimiglia and Beyond – Part 2

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To Ventimiglia and Beyond – Part 2

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If you want to experience extremes I have some suggestions.  First organise a collection of clothes, food and other things for people who have walked through the valley of death, faced true evil and emerged scared and shaken on the other side.  Then sit back and wait to see what happens.

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Chris and I after loading on Friday night, just before the rain started.

Reactions range from “What do you need?” and “How can I help?”  To “What are you doing that for? They’re all terrorists!”  And finally to this little gem, “All they want is money; they are not interested in clothes.  They already have fancy clothes and smart phones.  In Calais they are burning all the donations!”  [The author of these informative statements then went on to confuse me totally by saying, “Why do they have to build golden bloody elephants all over the place?  I’m English and like England to be English.”  Between you and me, and this is not a lead in to a discussion about religion but purely a passing thought on imagery … I must admit that I prefer a healthy looking golden elephant to the sight of a man being tortured slowly to death.]

Next, in your search for extremes, borrow a transit van, fill it with assorted donations for the refugees and drive it gamely down to Ventimiglia (or other refugee camp of your choice) during the worst storm the region has seen for years.  Then, after six and a half hours of driving rain, zero visibility and the often terrifying gusts of wind which seem determined to impose a diagonal trajectory on your vehicle, arrive at your designated hotel.   For the full adrenalin feel, make sure you are staying at a hotel entirely populated by police sent down to “deal with the migrant problem.”

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We did this last weekend and I can recommend it.

We pulled down the shutters and slept through the rest of the storm, waking bright and early to blue skies, sunshine and calm seas.  Given that the two charities, Caritas and the Red Cross, were closed until Monday morning, we decided to treat Sunday as a day of fun and took our son to Monte Carlo.

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On the road to Monaco

The drive along the Riviera is fun, even in an elderly blue transit van.  Azure water and vegetation more varied and exotic than we have at home in Lodève worked their magic.  But Monaco/Monte Carlo is something else entirely.  After barely two hours there we all felt vaguely sick, rather like geese waiting for their livers to be extracted.


The absurd luxury and abundance is, quite simply, revolting.  Yes, many of the buildings are beautiful and indeed yachts, like F1 cars, are superbly crafted pieces of engineering, but in the great scheme of things they all mean nothing.  Do I need any of this opulence?  Does anyone?  No.  Would having any of it improve my life, make me a better person or make me happier?  I think not.  It is all, what I can only describe as ‘eff-off money’.  So after a sandwich and a drink we did just that and effed-off back to reality.

Back at the international frontier between France and Italy we paused.  I had wanted to come to this precise spot for months.  This was the site of the No Borders Camp, where refugees and migrants had set up temporary homes, both on the unforgiving black rocks of the shore and under the arches of the Ponte San Ludovico.

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By all accounts, the camp was a well organised cooperative.  There was a kitchen area, a school area, dormitories and so on.

As it was:

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What is left:

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But now it has all gone, cleared by the same police who were staying at our hotel.  Reports of their methods have been mixed.  On one hand I read that (unlike during the brutal clearings in Calais) the refugees had been given time to collect papers and personal belongs, on the other I also heard that their tents were scooped up into dump trucks before they managed to salvage a single thing.  I image the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Some people were put onto planes for the Southern Italian town of Bari, while others managed to make their way back to the Red Cross camp at the railway station in Ventimiglia itself.

The area under the bridge has now reverted to being a car park, all traces of the former camp eradicated.  We found only three weary men sitting on the sea wall.  Chris sauntered up to them and struck up a conversation.  Only one spoke some English, none of them spoke any French.  They were from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.  I have no idea of how or why they ended up on that Italian wall gazing longingly at France, but they looked dead beat and hungry.  “We are going to France… we are going to France,” the one English speaker repeated like a mantra.  We looked over our shoulders past the armed border guards to pretty little Menton and sighed.  “How? Do you have papers?”  He shrugged his answer.  “Where else can we go now?”  With the memory of the heartless Riviera glitz still fresh in our minds we wondered what sort of welcome they would find there… if they got that far.  Perhaps some kindly, benevolent Russian oligarch would employ them?   Feeling suddenly totally useless we gave them the picnic food we’d brought with us and left them sitting there, heads bobbing in thanks for our tiny gesture of good will.

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The frontier between France and Italy

Back in Ventimiglia we heard there was “No Borders” rally happening at the railway station.  “I just hope they don’t destroy the shops, like they did in Genoa,” said someone ominously.  The rally, it turned out, was peaceful and considerably smaller than I had expected.  While the police staying at our hotel all looked small, young and harmless the authorities had clearly been saving the big ones for use in crowd control.  Helmeted, shielded and armed with automatic guns, batons, tasers and tear gas they had every exit from the square covered.  The few refugees and migrants who were at the station were spectators like us.  Sensibly they were keeping well back and silent.  The only people making any noise were the enthusiastic Italian activists, who banged drums, sang, chanted and made speeches rendered incomprehensible through hand-held megaphones.

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At one point three Red Cross workers arrived to a round of applause, but the cheers soon turned to mockery as the aid workers rushed past the rally and into the station itself.  The activists had wrongly assumed that the Red Cross guys were ignoring the event.  It turned out that they were dealing with a medical emergency at the refugee camp and we saw them a few minutes later loading someone into an ambulance.

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We left the demonstration soon after.  Either it was going to develop into something quite unpleasant or it was going to continue to be a rather ineffective display of noisy bravado.  I say that quite cynically, because to be honest I couldn’t really see who the activists were supporting.  I got the feeling that just like in ancient Roman, where professional mourners were hired for funerals; these were professional activists eager for any cause.  I wondered whether they had given any thought to what the needs of the refugees really were.

That brings me to the donations.

Of course many people use a call for donations as an excuse to have a good spring clean and clear out of their old junk.  Some of the more bizarre donations are testimony to this.  My ‘colleagues’ across France and I have had some amusing moments comparing the oddest offerings.  We have been given ice-skates, broken high heeled sandals,  pink feathery slippers, extremely well-used thongs, Wilma Flintstone dressing up costumes, non-halal pig-skin jackets circa 1970, Hugo Boss and Armani suits and taffeta ball gowns; not to mention electric food processors and kettles.  The prize, however, goes to the lucky volunteer who was given a box of human teeth (roots ‘n all).

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However, mostly people have contributed thoughtful items that will make life a little easier for the eventual recipients.

I was sent money and used it to buy food, basic medicines, toiletries, camping gear, shoes, new underwear and socks (because let’s face it no one, no matter how long they’ve been on the road, really wants to wear someone else’s discarded Y-fronts).   Other people have gone out and bought sleeping bags and food.  Pristine winter jackets and sturdy walking boots have been passed on as well as freshly washed warm woollies and bags and bags of duvets.

Many people have asked us since whether our donations were appreciated and whether they actually reached the people who really needed them.  I imagine media reports of discarded (or burning) donations have worried many people.   All I can say is this:

We made two drops on Monday morning.  The first to Caritas consisted mainly of clothes, shoes, toiletries, detergents for washing clothes and a drying rack.  Stan, our son, with the help of a volunteer called Miroslav, happily ferried load after load of donations, past the inconvenient road works, to the waiting charity staff.  The Caritas stocks were running low.  I heard one gentleman say to a Caritas worker, “Please, lady.  Do you have shoes?  I can’t walk.  My feet are so painful.  Look.”  I looked down at his bare feet, crammed in to ill-fitting dress shoes.  The Caritas volunteer looked at me sadly and said, “We’ve run out, I don’t suppose you brought any shoes?”  I can’t tell you how good it felt to be able to show her the boxes containing at least 30 pairs of new or nearly new shoes, trainers and hiking boots.  Within seconds I had pulled out a pair of brand new socks and Stan’s favourite pair of trainers.  Francis – the man with the sore feet – put them straight on.  His smile was enough for us, but he thanked us repeatedly and went off happily; if not exactly skipping, at least no longer hobbling.

As she checked though the bags of jackets, t-shirts, jumpers and other items the boss of Caritas started to cry.  “I’m sorry,’ she said, “I do this every time we get a delivery.  You are all so generous.  You have brought exactly what we need.  Thank you, thank you.”

The second drop was to the Red Cross.

This time we managed to drive straight onto the forecourt.  A troop of Red Cross workers efficiently emptied the van of all our remaining donations: food, medicines, bedding and assorted camping supplies (tarpaulins, tents, sleeping bags, ropes, tent pegs, mallets, wind up torches, etc).  Valter the boss came down from his office and showed us round the facility.  We saw where all the goods are first logged into the data base and then kept on well ordered shelves until needed.  There were lots and lots of empty shelves as the daily demands are constantly depleting supplies.  Food and medicines are checked for sell by dates and these are noted both the outside of the storage boxes and in the computer log.  We saw the dormitory where Red Cross staff sleep and were offered the chance to visit the refugee camp itself.  This last offer we declined, all of us reluctant to engage in ‘poverty tourism.’  There was nothing to be gained for the refugees from a visit from well-meaning little us and no value to us other than to make us even more aware of the enormity of the problems facing them all.

So we said our goodbyes and received hugs from Valter and his secretary Patrizia (who also became a little tearful with gratitude) and were ceremoniously given three rather splendid commemorative t-shirts.

We hit the long road home.  We had to go via Biot to pick up a load of glass cullet (broken glass for re-melting) from one of the verreries there.  Although we had been told that Biot had been particularly badly hit by Saturday night’s storm, nothing could quite prepare us for the scenes of utter devastation that greeted us.  Again, taking photographs of the misery was unnecessarily voyeuristic and inappropriate.  Many people appeared to have lost everything.  Even though you know this is an affluent area, that the people will have insurance and that it is not a war zone, it would take a particularly heartless person not to feel sorry for those affected.  A big consolation must be that there is no one taking pot-shots at them as they drag their sodden possessions into the sun for drying.  Neither the French government nor any rebel group is trying to kill them as they search for belongings and loved ones.

Two interesting little facts that I learned while I was there waiting for Chris to find a working cash point to pay for the cullet (he ended up having to drive half way to Nice to do so) were:

One: Of the six glass blowing studios in Biot, only three actually still make glass themselves.  The others import from China and stick Biot labels on them…. Just like Murano.

Two: A Ferrari does look quite funny in a tree 🙂

I would like to say at this point that none of my trip would have been possible without the support and donations from Languedoc Solidarité avec les Réfugiés and certain friends who wish to remain anonymous.    Other Facebook groups doing excellent work are: Refugee Aid Cote d’Azur, Soutien aux réfugiés Syrians and Calais and Beyond.

It is worth doing.  Extending a hand of friendship and kindness is always, always worth the trouble and it really doesn’t take much to make a difference to someone.  You may not be able to solve everyone’s problems, but everything you actually do will help someone.

Source: Rachel

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