beneath your feet

“No man is an island…
…Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

– John Donne

2015_08_09_03665

I have been very lucky in life, in some ways.

You may choose whether you agree. Or you may not.

I have circumnavigated the globe by air. Twice. In both directions. In Business Class. Pampered and spoiled. Wined and dined. And once, just once, in First Class, been plied with glass after glass of Krug until wheels up, before flying across half the world under a goose down duvet with tea served in a china cup by a flight attendant who actually appeared to genuflect.

As a senior official in the Federal Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, I found myself invited by Qantas to pass through the hidden portal of the Chairman’s Lounge, rubbing shoulders with Ministers of the Commonwealth, riding the wave, full of a sense of my own self importance. One of the chosen few.

And, as I flew across the world, this way and that way. Did I know the plight of those below? Did I?

On Sunday morning, during a drive across rain storm riven France, weary with a headache, I stopped, tipped the wrappings of my sandwich and empty plastic water bottles into the bin, walked into the Flunch franchise, ordered an Americano and two croissants. Slid my slice of plastic into the offered orifice. On this occasion, for everything else, there wasn’t Mastercard.

Card declined.

The barista looked at me, mouth curling, eyes turned away. Do you have cash? No.

The labels, the badges, the false friends, gone.

I found myself worrying, not merely about the (unattainable) coffee rapidly cooling in front of my eyes, but of the prospect of being marooned in France when my fuel ran out.

Poor me?

Just over a week ago, I visited Belgrade, a place that, despite my early negative feelings, has won a special place in my heart.

I rode the dvojka, the number two tram, around the heart of the city. As the tram rattled past the train station and then the bus station, before it approached the brash flags and even brasher promise of the Eagle Hills “Belgrade Waterfront” development, I was shocked to see the people in the park. Sleeping rough, young and old, men and women, babes in arms. Sleeping in the park off Karadjordjeva, in front of the Faculty of Economics. In a country where the average wage is around 300 euro (and most survive on far far less), where the government impose austerity measures on its battered electorate, in a city where the shoeless children of Roma people bathe in waste bins flooded with hydrant water and build houses from discarded cardboard, a city bombed and blasted by the West, a proud and decent city, a city with its own problems, here were migrants desperate for a new home, huddled under trees. Sitting in despondent groups, waiting, and for what?

The people in the park are reported to be migrants en route through Serbia to the promised land, north, in the European Union in Germany, Sweden, Holland or wherever they believe they can find shelter, food, safety. Most are believed to have walked from Syria or Afghanistan, many have scant clothing, no shoes and the children are poorly prepared for the journey, the intense heat, the privation of a long march. The people in the park are falling sick, they have no bathrooms, no real hygiene. Friends of mine, back in the city, who run the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club, are working hard to help them in whatever way they can, so also, as they did when the floods came, are ordinary Serbian citizens, folk who, by our standards, also need and deserve our help, they again are reaching out to help these migrants. But, for every one person they help, two more arrive on the following day. And, in a scene worthy of the Game of Thrones, there are reports that Hungary is erecting a wall, physical or virtual it does not matter, but a wall nonetheless to keep the marauding bands of migrants out of Fortress Europe, or at least their part of it. And back in the UK, the government buy more barbed wire, and worry about the economy in Kent.

But these are not ravaging monsters, they are desperate people, children, people fleeing from oppression in countries where Europe has intervened with scant regard for the consequences for the ordinary people that live there. Remember Libya, the cries of delight in certain quarters of the Western media when Gaddafi was “eliminated”, well what of that country now?

So, when I hand over the keys to my company car in a month’s time, surrender my company iPhone, and mourn the loss of my once privileged status, maybe I would do well to remember that I have a bed to sleep in, I don’t have to walk in bare feet half way across a continent in fear for my life, or rip through barbed wire, break into a lorry, to be safe.

All I need to do is look, smugly, at my passport.

And, what does that make me?

Us?

(for wordpress weekly photo challenge – beneath our feet)

39 thoughts on “beneath your feet

    1. Thank you, I agree, we rarely even think about such matters. But, I have a feeling that these issues are going to get bigger, the gap between those of us who live in “rich” countries and those who do not is getting bigger and bigger and we can’t just keep building a bigger and better fence?

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      1. I also believe they are getting bigger, and closer. We live in a district where many refugees get stranded when they first come to Berlin and that certainly makes it more difficult to ignore that things are not as good in other parts of the world. I don’t know if there is any solution but it pains me to read comments that show no compassion with these people. I liked your post for it does show compassion and not fear, and it’s great that you took the photo prompt in such an unexpected direction.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Beautifully and thoughtfully written Andy. And how true. How easy it is to take for granted all of those luxuries and “false friends”. A timely reminder for us all, thanks for sharing.
    PS I assume you made it out of France ok😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Desley, this post has been bubbling away in my mind for a long time, something as trivial as the feelings that are triggered as Frequent Flyer status drops from the cosy private lounge back to the world where passengers are treated like cattle or numbers. And then reinforced by seeing the people in the park, for real, not on a news reel behind a screen. And seeing the people in Serbia, who have their own challenges, reach out and help these people while various EU states build walls and barriers and sharpen the razor wire….

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    1. Thanks John, I think you are right, it is those fences in our mind that are the real challenge for us, we all live in the same world, a speck of dust on the outer spiral arm of a relatively small galaxy in a very big universe….maybe we could all remember that some time and stop defending our tiny little back yard and help those who need our help rather than build walls and characterise them as the enemy?

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      1. I wish it were an ideal universe and I wish that we all had a less parochial perspective, but unfortunately some of those motes believe there is only one path to enlightenment. That’s something we all are guilty of.

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        1. I agree, and I am as guilty as the next person. I have only recently (another story) experienced the shock of realising my own cultural experience is quite different from that of a friend and caused harm through trying to do the right thing from my perspective whilst failing to see the “other way”. Painful.

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    1. Thank you Debbie, for me the thought occurred as to how close to the edge we can come. The trivial issue with my credit card being rejected (it was simply a connection problem at the particular cafe) made me realise how thin is the veneer of civilisation that supports us. Once those badges and labels disappear, we very quickly become nothing…

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    1. Thank you Lois, it is something that has been increasingly on my mind, growing sense of outrage, and to see the people in the park in Belgrade tipped me over to write about it. Trouble is writing about it is not nearly enough.

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  2. Well done, and I agree with other commenters–painfully hard to read and imagine, put myself in their no-shoes position. I had a similar, but different glimpse Sat eve right here in the US, not far north of Seattle–an older woman, probably around my age, hard to say, standing near the grocery store holding a “homeless” sign, begging. I have been bemoaning my living situation all year, and longer–but in that glimpse I saw how blessed I was to have a place to live with hot water, stove, fridge, toilet, bed, lock on the door, plenty of food, cable TV/Internet/phone. Suddenly the issues with “riff-raff” neighbors paled in my gratitude.

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    1. Thank you, so far all I have done about it is write about it.

      Makes me think I should do more. I guess it is all too easy for those of who live (relatively) privileged lives to turn our back on those less fortunate, to roll up the car window when the beggars hand is extended, and turn up the volume of the music..

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      1. Though better off than these unfortunates, I do live on meager resources (compared to the middle class)–and generally give 10% to a local food bank/church. It seems so little, but if we all did “a little”–it would multiply greatly. I confess I find it difficult to get “up close and personal”–not sure why–it’s easier to write a check.

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  3. Andy, your post leaves me with a familiar feeling, one that I refuse to get used to. I want it to keep hurting my eyes and ears so that like you, I keep talking about it and helping to spread awareness of the grueling reality of refugees, and all social issues of our era.
    You articulated objectively and factually what is happening. We are all witnessing this in Europe and most are annoyed to see misery and pain around them, but not because it’s happening to other human beings. The classical selfishness in full motion.
    Those who can take decisions either at country level or European level, are listening to the ‘suffering’ to the sight of the voters, instead of evaluating the long term consequences of no action towards this unstoppable human flooding at European shores.
    I wish there had been more people with the clarity of your mind and generous and compassionate heart.
    Thanks for this touching and yet sad post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucile, thank you for this moving response to my post. This issue has bloomed in my mind recently, most recently because of the trip back to Belgium at the weekend and the trivial incident that caused me to think. But also, when in the UK, listening to the media reports on the BBC (which I love) which seemed to spend far more time worrying about music teachers in Kent whose pupils couldn’t get to their lessons on time due to the queues of lorries than addressing the question, why are these people here / there and why are they resorting to such desperate measures, and at the same time what time was spent looking at the migrants seemed to be devoted to characterising them all as illegal and criminals, or worse ‘non people’, some kind of monster at the gate. The whole issue also reminds me of King Canute attempting to push back the tide, we can’t simply keep complaining and building a higher wall or sending unmanned droves to do our bidding because we are too scared to face the consequences of our actions.

      And, for all of us in Europe with the EU passport, a lucky break on our birth, how long can we assume we can ignore what is happening “out there”.

      Finally, I spent time discussing, with my son, the probe that recently passed by Pluto. About how amazing the photos of that rock so far away were. If only those NASA scientists had spun the camera round and took a shot of the insignificant lump of rock on which we all live, maybe then a few more people might get things in perspective and realise we sink or swim together. Also, occurs to me that one day New Horizons or Voyager or Pioneer may come across the barbed wire in the sky where our neighbours in the Universe may declare that we too are illegal….

      Sorry *rant mode* now off. Thanks again Lucile.

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      1. Thank you, Andy, for illuminating my mind with your brilliant post and commentary.
        Once again I am delighted to read every single word you used here. Perspective, intelligence, depth, critical and analytical thinking, and again humanity, is what is lacking and you illustrated it perfectly.
        It’s beautiful to read how well you educate your kid. At least he will not grow up thinking like the many mindless ones we see everywhere.
        Heartfelt thanks.

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        1. Thank you Lucile again, I hope that the world into which he grows can become a kinder one, he has a heart the size of a planet and that beautiful innocent belief in humanity that too often gets brutalised and beaten out of us. I have let him down badly in many ways, I just hope, that whatever my future circumstance I can in some little ways help him to make a difference, even if I can’t.

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          1. Andy, I’m sure that his giant hug has already forgotten any let down event as your heart is equally big and full of love for him, and he knows that.
            It’s part of our experience growing up, to see both sides of life, and it’s our parents who help us go through it. There isn’t a safer place to be let down than with family. We are not perfect nor are our parents.
            I’m sure you are a great father.

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