Τρίτη, 4 Νοεμβρίου 2008

Oune jour in France (Voyages in Dangerous Times Part I)

Having just spent the last twelve hours in Brussels International, after saying goodbye to my friends and desperately tryinng to find a flight into spain, or some place near the Iberian Peninsula for less than 200 euros one- way (a thing wich can be quite common when looking at the last minute for flights in the middle of August) at around 7 am I had decided that I should try reaching spain by rail. The target was Barcelona, which had been my watering hole for my last month of crisscrossing around Spain (before my short political trip to Genk where I followed the cwi summer school for some days). And the way to do so was to catch the Thales to Paris, cross town from the Gare Du Nord to the Gare d’ Austerlitz, where I would catch the train to Barcelona. So I jump on the train to the central station, where I catch the Thales to Paris. Within an hour and a half I have zipped across the fields of Valogne and enterred the Northern Suburbs of Paris. The only memories I had of Paris were the ones I had collected as I kid tourist there in 1991, when I was staying with my mom at a cozy wee guesthouse in the Quartier Latin and about a zillion movies that had been filmed there. This cast on my mind a fairy-tale like image of Paris, the city of love.

I arrived at about nine in the morning local time, and jumped on the first train to the Gare d’ Austerlitz. The heat was unbearable and the train was full of commuters triyng to find their way to their workplaces. That means that the wagon is packed and even breathing is very difficult a task in there. After about an hour I finally arrive at the station….

Then I discover that the only train that travels towards the area and is not fully booked is the 8:30 PM train to Narbonne, where I have to change for the regionnnal to Portbou, and then for the RENFE Regional Express to Barcelona. Plus that, my phone has no roaming whatsoever, I am broke (bar the tickets I am left with 16 euros) and my family is away from home, so they can’t send me any money at all untill the next day, when I shall reach spain and be able to call them. Things can’t get worse than that, can they?

So I stick to my only option. Keep my sandwiches for the train ride, save my sixteen euros to be able to eat something at the station and email my folks once I reach Barcelona. Plus to that I am tired and dirty, in need of a shower and sleep……this looks way bad. I gather my strength to give a smile to the cute french girl (of african origin that is quite helpfull-the fact that she speaks some spanish makes things easyer) that sold me my ticket and make my way towards the departure lounge, which actually is a wide and open area ajaccent to the train departure points.

The next thing that I did was find a spot near the walls, drop my backpack and my bag,lie down,use them as a pilllow and read my book (The grapes of wrath). Within a few minutes of starting to read my book my eyes shut and I surrendered to the sweet hug of Morpheus. This is going to last only for a few hours, until I get an especially abrupt and rude wake-up call. In fact I wake up to the sound of two blue uniform clad and armed to the teeth Neanderthals standing almost over me and yelling at me something that I can’t understand, wich seems to be something like “monsieur this and monsieur that”.

Barely keeping my cool I try to reason with the two pumped up neanderthals, that are in reality members of the Grendarmerie (Something like the Carabiinieri in Italy), explaining to them that I do not understand any French at all, but I speak quite fluently English, Spanish and German. They seem to speak some spanish so they start to question me using barely basic sentences like “Tu hace Francia?” (You what do France?). Their questions seem to revolve around my business in France, my time of departure, my point of arrival (hello! No border controls between Belgium and France!) and my nationality. Of course I am trying to explain to them as simply as I can that I am a poor Greek tourist that is trying to get to Barcelona, and that I am in Paris just in order to catch my train, which leaves in a few hours…...They don’t seem to believe me, and ask me the same questions over and over again. So my next sane thought is that I should produce them with some documents (my passport and my train ticket), which are in my travelbag. So I turn around, and actually stick my hand into it’s front pocket, in order to pull them out. BIG MISTAKE! The exact same moment that I turn around I hear a sudden click (one of them actually armed his G3 semi-automatic rifle), a voice yelling “NO NO NO NO NO!” and another one sending a dispatch from it’s radio wich seems to sound like “ WE NEED SOME BACKUP!”. I am actually held at gunpoint by the french police! Argh! Shit! What the hell am I? An international terrorist?????

Natirally I get scared to death and freeze. I can’t really move, because I know that if the guy holding the gun gets the wrong idea, the only thing the paramedics WILL be able to do is……..clean my brains and blood off the wall. So I decide to grab the tickets and the passport, and hand them over to them, while turning around really slowly…in fact the speed in wich things happen over the next two minutes, resembles more a Bergman or an Aggelopoulos movie thatn some ultra violent cops v bad guys movie. I take my hands off the pocket with the speed of a turtle, and produce my documents with a small sigh of relief. They take them and start looking at them with suspicion, while asking me again to verify the truth of what I was saying. In the end the two self-appointed Sherlocks with the iq of a Neanderthal decide that my documents and what I say actually check out, and decide to leave, but not before delivering the final blow.

“ We will leave you now, but if we catch you again sleeping here we will send you to prison where you know what they do to boys like you”, one of them (the brains of the operation) actually says to me before they fuck off to wherever they go. Only the thought of being the victim of a Abou Ghraib style prison meat sandwich is enough to keep me terrified for the remainder of the hour. But everywhere I look on that corridor, I see other terrified or sympathetic faces with a “this can’t be happening” expression painted across them. In a conversation, some older fellow backpackers that had witnessed the whole event actually informed me that in the nineties, when the station was closing at around midnight, the authorities would dispense teargas through the air vents in order to prevent the homeless from spending the night there. But I have this notion that there are more dark reasons for this vulgar display of power. The situation in the french ghettos has reached boiling point, and France is unusualy calm these days, a thing wich actually shows that some real violence is to come. In fact a few months later the ghettos will erupt violently, in a chain of events sparked by the misstreatment of two teenagers from Clichy-sous-Boise at the hands of the police. But there is also the wave of fear cast by the London and Madrid-Atocha bombings. And this makes the people and the authorities edgy, epsecially those elements of the french authorities that belong to the Gaulist- Lepenist and Charkozy –friendly part of the political spectre. If you add up the threats posed by Al-Kaida because of the banning of religious symbols from public schools and services, then you understand that the authorities feel that they have to be very aggressive towards anyone who seems to look like a threat to public security. France and Europe live in a state of fear imposed by the way……. European governments actually behave towards the poor countries of the world.

The next few hours seem to pass in slow motion. But there is a lot to notice in this busy station. Commuters come and go, faces move around, trains arrive and depart all the time. Two smiling faces distract my attention. They are actually the two black girls that work in the bakery. And what actually gets my attention is not their amazing looks, but their smiles and their general behaviour. They just keep smiling all the time, share jokes, dance around the bakery to grab the things that their customers ask for, and even take a little bit of time to flirt , or share a joke, with the Morrocan waiter from the bistrot that is next to the bakery. Damn, I wish one of them was my girlfriend, or that I could just hang out with them….They seem to unbelievably sweet. I buy a baguette from them, and decide that since the only language they speak iis french, getting close to them for the day is inevitable and try to move my attention towards other things. Shortly after my train comes in and I move towards my compartment. I share it with a non-descript French guy, a girl from California and three Canadian college girls. I try to establish some contact with them, but they are way too tired, like me and we soon fall asleep in our couchettes. We wake up early in the morning, on arrival to Narbonne. The amazing landscape is a rewarding view after a 36 hour ordeal. At around 10 we catch the train to Portbou and finally enter the french part of Catalunya, after passing Perpignan. Th scenery is just breathtaking, and I make mental pictures every second, trying to grasp every sight and feeling. And thank god for the sandwiches (the ones I made and the veggie bieces of bread the girls shared with me) I have enough energy to stay awake through the final steps of this trip, wich will end at around 1 PM in Barcelona, exactly 48 hours after my departure from Genk. And once we clear the customs control at Portbou, out comes a sigh of relief. Finally left France, and I am on my way to my final destination….Barcelona