“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
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.
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.
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?
(for wordpress weekly photo challenge – beneath our feet)