015. FERRY TIMES & FRENCH DIGS / by Cara Hines

Journal from 16-17 November continuation from "Canterbury Tales" (this is a long one!):

I left Canterbury later than I’d planned, placing me on the ferry at near dark. My intention was to reach Dover with plenty of light left so I could get footage as I crossed the English Channel. I contemplated spending the night in Dover so I could take the ferry in the morning, but there was a twilight still in the sky, and I thought I should go on to Calais for easier travel to Reims the next day. I got a few shots inside the ferry port, despite the office telling me I couldn’t film when I asked their permission. I simply turned Z1-Kenobi on to sneak some quick shots while I was taking the equipment apart and putting it away. What a rebel.

Once on the ferry, I took him up to the top deck and did what I could from there without having quite enough light or a dead squirrel. I’ll explain that part for those who think I might have a hidden fascination with taxidermy. A dead squirrel is the big, fuzzy thing you sometimes see covering a microphone. It helps block the wind. In the case of the English Channel, however, I believe half a dozen dead squirrels wouldn’t have been sufficient. Apparently it’s always incredibly windy, part of what makes it one of the roughest waterways in the world. It lived up to its reputation during my crossing. There were a couple of times I thought I might be woman overboard or parasailing without a sail.

Back down in the lounge level, I met up with Michael, a guy from Indiana I’d met on the shuttle ride to the ferry. Neither of us had sleeping arrangements in Calais, so we tried accessing my internet to look up hostels. Unsuccessful, we chatted for a bit until he decided to nap. Poor guy hadn’t had much sleep and looked like he might collapse at any moment. We landed in Calais at 7:30pm, which is apparently after the shuttle to the town center stops running. Honestly, 7:30pm? So we had to walk a distance to get there, and once there, had no idea where to go. We passed several hotels, but they were more expensive than either of us cared to pay.

I thought we should find a spot for a cheap bite to eat and to look up on my laptop potential places to stay. I also wanted to check my email in case by some miracle the couchsurfing host I’d emailed had gotten back to me at the last minute. It seems, however, that very little is cheap in Calais, and before we could find a place to plop down, this adorable young Frenchman came straight up to me with the biggest smile on his face fully engaged in blithe conversation as if he’d known me his whole life. I was confused at first but quickly realized he was drunk…or something. He wasn’t trying to grope me or my bags (pickpocket posing as friendly drunk boy), so I decided to amuse myself with him for a bit. I could tell Michael wasn’t too keen on the situation. I’m not sure if that’s because he was so tired and wanted to find a place to sleep, or if he simply isn’t as willing as I am to converse with a signpost…or a strange and intoxicated Frenchman.

The boy was soon joined by two friends who arrived apologizing for him. They did their best in broken English to point us in the direction of an internet point and a hostel. The efforts to gather any real information were futile, so soon we exchanged our European double kisses and went on our way. Turning the corner we passed a bar that spoke to me. We weren’t making any progress otherwise, so I entered with Michael in tow. Unfortunately, they had no food, so we bought beers and sat down to open up the laptop. It was my first brush with the French language on this trip, and it hit me immediately how much difficulty I was going to have. I hadn’t prepared for it in the least. The female bartender, well-endowed and unafraid to display them for everyone, was friendly enough but made it known she couldn’t understand why we refused to “parler Francais”. But there was a nice man at the end of the bar who spoke to us in English and invited himself to join us at our table. I was thrilled. I love people. Have never met a stranger. Michael…not so much. This stranger’s name was Pascal. We started telling our stories, and his turns out to be quite interesting. From what I understood, he works as a tourist information attendant. This is why he can speak English, among other languages. But it’s what he does outside of work that’s most interesting. I hope I’m able to provide an accurate description of it here. If I misinform in any way, I hope he or someone else will correct me.

He is involved with an organization working for the humane treatment of Afghan refugees in Calais and against their deportation. In Afghanistan, you either join the Taliban or you and your family run the risk of being tortured and/or killed. Most Afghans want nothing to do with the Taliban or any extremist group. He described them as a generally kind people who want to lead simple, peaceful lives with their families. They want to be happy. It’s those few, very loud and dangerous eggs that has made life there hell for everyone. This has led to the flight of many Afghans, mostly able-bodied men and boys. They are fleeing their native soil in hopes of starting over in a place where they’re free to pursue the life they want and perhaps to send assistance home to their families. But they have generally become the world’s unwanted. Outside their homeland, they’re seen as terrorists, freeloaders, and useless pests. Most of them are seeking what we all seek: freedom, peace, and happiness. The UK is high on their list of places to escape to, and since Calais is a major port of entry into Great Britain, it’s just one of several places where they are accumulating in large numbers. Pascal became involved in the organization that ran a shelter for the refugees helping to house, feed, and protect them. Then last year, he was asked to organize a large public educational and interactive exposition about the issue. By his account, it was a massive undertaking and one that was successful. He’d never attempted anything like that, and apparently he discovered he’s quite good at it.

Eventually, the powers that be shut down the shelter, and the refugees had nowhere to go. You can find them camping wherever a tent will fit or someone will allow them. Police come and run them off. They’re sent away, arrested, sometimes mistreated, and often deported back to Afghanistan where they face further persecution. Activists and volunteers come from all over the world to help them. They assist them in finding food and shelter; they document their plight, tell their stories, and rally on their behalf. It became apparent this would be an ongoing situation, so the organization decided to lease an apartment to house the activists. Pascal was instrumental in making that happen as well, and continues to help manage it. As is turned out, there was no one staying in the apartment that night, and he offered for Michael and me to sleep there. “Of course!” was my answer. My eyes met Michael’s, who had a look somewhere between mild discomfort and sheer terror on his face. Apparently I make people like him nervous. I don’t have much of a maternal instinct. In other words, you’re responsible for yourself. I’m here to experience everything I can. If someone offers me a place to stay for no charge that promises a good story, I’m going to take it as opposed to wandering aimlessly to find a hostel or a hotel costing more than I care to pay, teaching me nothing new, and giving me nothing to remember or talk about. Soon Michael excused himself to go find a reliable place to sleep. It was probably better given how utterly exhausted he was. He was making his way to Germany to meet up with friends there. I hope he made it safely and well rested. I gave him my email address and website, but something tells me I won’t hear from him.

Pascal introduced me to Thierry, also a local activist for the Afghan refugee cause, and who was involved in the making of a film on the subject. He wrote a poem in my journal in French. We ate peanuts and drank beer. The buxom bartender played pool with the other customers. One man came in with his Jack Russell Terrier, with whom I quickly bonded. And soon we went on our way. Pascal insisted upon cooking dinner for me rather than my spending money on going out. We enjoyed his delightful cooking, a dish of pasta with beef and tomatoes, wine and coffee.

I wanted to do some filming at the ferry port and along the boardwalk where the Via Francigena passes the next day; all of this before leaving on my train to Reims in the afternoon. I stopped into a seaside café for coffee and a dessert. I had a chocolate éclair (mmmmmmm) and a coffee…only two of the four major food groups in France. The other two are wine and “everything else”. Pascal joined me and was the perfect tour guide. As we walked, told me stories and bits of history about the place. Calais is a very old seaport. Until the decline of this way of life in the last century, many people made their living as fishermen. Now there are only the large corporate fishing companies. Those few small fishing boats still in existence typically belong to people for whom it’s a pastime.

We walked out onto a pier where fishermen were lined up baiting their hooks and casting their lines. One almost hooked me at which point I had another opportunity to be woman overboard. The P&O and SeaFrance ferries were coming and going. A few sailboats bobbed nearby enjoying the sunny day. Birds in every size floated like clouds on the sea breeze next to us, alighted on the water, or squawked at each other from the tops of the rails. There was a small lighthouse at the end of the pier surrounded by more fishermen. One of them let me film the fish he was putting into his catch bag. Pascal told him his fish was going back to America with me, and he replied that the Americans wouldn’t be so impressed. I guess he was less than pleased with his capture. I had a rare treat in the form of a clear day, allowing me to see the White Cliffs of Dover across the channel. My tape finally ran out, and I was pleased with what I’d gotten. The unfortunate part I realized later was that in my determination to get the video, I neglected to take any still photographs. I have no images to share with you at this point. After I return home, I can clip some from the video and post to the site. Soon, I said good-bye to my new friend and Good Samaritan, and made my way to the train station.

I had a 3-hour itinerary with a change in Paris, arrived that evening at the Champagne-Ardenne train station on the southernmost part of Reims. My couchsurfing.com host, Patrick, was there to pick me up in his car and drive me to his family’s home nearby. He and his lovely wife, also named Pascal, live in a nice suburban home with two of their three sons. Their oldest is currently traveling around the world, having spent a great deal of time in various parts of Asia and, if my memory serves me correctly, he’s now in New Zealand or Australia. Patrick is a veteran couchsurfer. He’s hosted people from many countries and has surfed all over the world.

Pascal is the librarian at a dental college, and Patrick is an archaeologist. I was fascinated by this fact. Opportunities for the profession of archaeology are limited in North America, and much of what is useful is actually paleontology, the study of life forms from prehistoric or geological times (think dinosaurs and fossils). As such, the only one I’ve ever met stateside was an assistant at the last design firm I worked for in Houston. She was an archaeology major who specialized in ancient Roman antiquities but had no intention of living in Europe. I never quite understood that. As far as I know, the Romans never made it to southeast Texas. The profession is much more common in Europe as the history of man there is so much older. In fact, it’s beyond comprehension if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. I say this from my own experience because it wasn’t until I first came to Italy in 1996, sleeping and eating in buildings erected long before Columbus sailed for America, that I could taste how relative the term “old” can be.

Apparently, any new building or landscape project in France is required to have an archeological survey. Think of it like the standard procedure in the US of land surveys and soil tests. Companies like the one Patrick works for are hired to make a certain number of test digs dependent upon their location, size and importance of the project, and the mood of the public official that day. This part is the same in America. No matter where you go, there will always be bureaucrats who were bullied in 7th grade, burned their toast that morning, or who just don’t like the way you look, and are bent upon making life difficult for you. If something is found in the dig, that’s deemed as important and new information, they can close the project for more extensive digging and study. The shocking thing for me was Patrick’s estimation that some 25-30% of test digs result in findings significant enough to extend the research. That seems like a high number to me, but then, I’ve personally never found even an arrowhead. It’s difficult for us, with all the land we have to sprawl out on that’s rarely if ever been occupied by other humans, to grasp how many layers of societies and history have stratified in these places. It’s staggering to contemplate. Can you imagine telling Mr. McStain he can’t build his development just yet because you found a little piece of pottery?

Soon after arriving from the train station, we gathered with their two sons and a girlfriend to enjoy an actual sit-down family dinner. That’s somewhat of an archaeological phenomenon of its own. I recall these from my childhood. While they came with their own set of annoyances and trade-offs, overall they were nice. Their replacements have arrived in the form of televisions and other artificial diversions. I propose that these distractions are strangling our society in a slow, almost unnoticeable asphyxiation that’s rendering us incapable of relating to each other with presence and authenticity. I can imagine a time far in the future when archaeologists unearth our civilization, discovering our televisions and the shrines we build for them. It’s highly probable they’ll deduce these contraptions were gods, to which we committed a great deal of money, time, energy, and devotion. I think this conclusion would be a fairly accurate representation of our reality. 

I’m grateful Patrick’s family reintroduced me to the rather archaic experience of the family dinner. I enjoyed myself.