On the morning of my group’s trip down to Calais, I awoke to the news of the terrorist attack in Brussels. It didn’t register straight away. I was in a hurry to get to our meeting point on time. But once we were on the motorway it was all anyone could talk about: we were listening to every news broadcast, following the live updates on our phones, counting the death toll and discussing each new development in specific detail and with reference to how it affected the wider context.
All in all this sad event exerted a very particular force on the journey. Recounting the experience provides a telling example of the difference between being near to an event and actually experiencing it directly…
Before going on the trip, I had expected the four-hour journey to provide a helpful middle ground between everyday life in Amsterdam and the utterly different environment of a migrant* camp. But due in no small part to the Brussels attacks, the trip in the van was tense. We found ourselves in a heightened state of awareness throughout, imbuing even mundane things with a sense of significance and noticing a whole load of slightly weirder details in the passing landscape: a car turned upside down, Breda’s voluptuous spires, a Harley Davidson inside a cardboard box, KKK on a number plate. And on top of this, we were faced with the serious prospect of not even being able to get to Calais, considering it required passing by Brussels.
As it turned out we had no trouble passing through each border (a fact that dismayed the French police we encountered at the camp). But the awareness of being near to two highly topical events (Brussels and Calais) conjured a weird sense of being almost inside the news and being acutely aware of it. The feeling grew as we drew closer to Calais.
As we approached the camp, in our ongoing heightened state of awareness, we were quick to notice the distant sight of small groups of young men looking decidedly on their guard as they made their way across road-side fields trying to escape the clutches of an ever present police. The juxtaposition of French countryside, modern motorway and this insidious game of cat-and-mouse was quite striking, and really strange.
Where the hell were we? We had suddenly stumbled into some sort of liminal space between the mundane surface of our modern landscape (the motorway minivan journey from Amsterdam to France, through typical European surroundings) and a raw performance of the power-geometry implicit in globalisation, where different social groups embody the gross disparities in power produced in our globalised world. It was all the more affecting for the altogether casual demeanour of the game’s players, the police and the migrants.
But this direct and unmediated encounter was in fact the beginning of the end of my anxiety. We soon passed the new, state-sanctioned migrant camp in Dunkirk and shortly after we arrived at the Calais camp. Proceeding effortlessly past the police guarding the camp’s entrance, disembarking and continuing past the occupied south sector to the dismantled and conspicuously desolate north sector, it became apparent that life was hard in the camp but not without its routine rhythms as we encountered groups of men busy at work in the makeshift shopping street, building new structures or carrying materials from town and others just wandering around the place, talking amongst each other. Amid a miserable landscape I found myself perversely at ease compared to how I had felt in the preceding van journey.
What changed once we got into the camp was the sense that reality is more mundane, less acutely felt and only fully grasped upon reflection. The reality of a place which has found infamy through its media representation is always greatly removed from this representation. And it’s no surprise that I only felt ‘inside’ the news when I was close to but not directly seeing it. When I was actually there this somewhat silly and anxiety-laden sentiment gave way to a feeling almost akin to harmony. I only felt tension when we were still detached from the actual scene. Being in the camp was totally different to thinking about being there.
* I use the term “migrants” advisedly. While “migrants” has come to be a problematic descriptor for those seeking asylum due to wars in South West Asia and North Africa (suggesting those thus-labelled are opportunists seeking economic gain), the inhabitants of the camp are not refugees, they do not wish to claim asylum in France, England or any other country. Speaking to a representative of l’Auberge des Migrants while we were there, it became clear that the aim of the overwhelming majority of inhabitants of the Calais camp is to gain entry to the UK where they hope to be able to work informally.