This is the second installment in my short series about volunteering in a refugee camp in France. You can read my first post here.
I have now been in France for six days. It is my first day off (we will normally work 9am-9pm daily, with one day off a week). Even the decision to take a day off seems ridiculous when I know there is so much work to be done. I don’t even know if I would have taken today off apart from the fact that Hurricane Irma is barreling toward my family in southern Florida, and if I have to have a day off I’d like it to be a day when I can update the storm path.
I have a lot of things to say, but none of them seem enough. If I write about my experience here I feel that I am being naive and self-centered and how privileged to make this devastation into something about myself? On the other hand, if I write about the stories I hear every day, the frightening interactions and the sweet interactions, I feel like I am stealing someone else’s story. I do not feel it is my place to tell these stories because how can I possibly understand? They are not mine.
Instead, I fall back on poetry. Not necessarily the writing of it, but the cognitive process behind it that has become my coping mechanism from years of writing. And this mechanism? I notice. Every day, every small thing, I notice. I write it in my mind in short stanzas or couplets. From the swaths of mud, the dusty warehouse, the oily vats of curry, the paint stained knees, the children who hug my waist or the men who shake our car as we drive into the jungle. The wet tarps and every greeting: hug, kiss, kiss, warmth. So much warmth.
The weather is shifting into Autumn, well it feels like more of a thrust than a shift. Every day there is downpour and wind that wakes even my heavy sleeping. In my sleeping bag in my thin and disheveled caravan I live in, I think about gratitude. Partly because I am constantly behind but trying (one day) to take part in Carolann’s gratitude project. Partly because how can you not think about gratitude when it is pouring rain and you are dry indoors whilst every man, woman and child you met that day is lying in a forest. Surely even those with tents are still wet.
Last night we went to another volunteer’s caravan for dinner: vegan pasta and olives and Auchan brand Sauvignon Blanc. On the walk home I stepped in a puddle – the kind that is more a pond than a puddle and your foot doesn’t land as soon as you expect. I swore at my one soaked shoe and laughed as I took it off in the doorway. I lay in bed, feeling the Sauvignon Blanc and listening to my roommate speak softly in the kitchen, the rolling brew of the tea kettle. On the flat roof, I heard the patter of rain. After living in England, this has become my most comforting sound. In Plymouth, I pushed my double bed across my bedroom so I could fall asleep by the window, wake up to raindrops on the glass. I love the sound of rain, a bizarre love among my British friends but one that I nevertheless find comforting.
Last night, as I listened to the steady patter, I felt guilt in my stomach. Knowing this rain that brings me comfort is the same rain beating down on hundreds of refugees, lying in their thin and broken tents, beneath plastic tarps, or beneath nothing at all. I know at least three new families, families with tiny babies who have no tent at all.
So what am I grateful for? I am grateful for roofs, I am grateful for dry-ness and sleeping bags and the opportunity to help those who are without.