On Tuesday 23rd April I set off with some friends in a minibus filled with cooking equipment to the No Borders Activist Camp in Calais. Held in a field bordered by a motorway on one side and a residential area on the other, it was a less than idyllic setting for a few hundred activists from France, Belgium, England, Germany, Spain, Austria and Slovakia – possibly more, but these were the places I heard mentioned – to gather together for a week of workshops and meetings, planning towards a big demo on the Saturday.

I had decided to just come to the camp and cook, stay out of trouble and maybe go to the odd workshop. On coming to Calais I had little idea about the situation there. I knew there were migrants living in slums known as ‘The Jungle’, that their situation was not good and that most of them were trying desperately to reach England. What I did not know was the scale of the problem. There are actually more than two thousand people living in Jungles. There are different jungles for different nationalities, some of which have better facilities than others. I have heard of one jungle that has shops and a mosque, while the ones we visited had shack-type dwellings made mostly out of wooden pallets and bits of tarp. They did not look unlike many of the protest sites I have visited – minus the tree-houses, the brew crew, and of course the fact that these people are not really living this way out of choice. There was no water supply in the Jungles we visited and we heard that somebody had recently died trying to wash in the canal.

Helping ‘sans papiers’ migrants in any way is a criminal offence in France. Despite this, there are two humanitarian organisations that have been feeding people in Calais for free for several years. The food distribution points are fixed and it seems there is a begrudging acceptance of it from the police. The local authorities are supportive inasmuch as they allow the food to be distributed and they allowed the camp to happen. I was initially surprised that we had the support of the local government (although not the mayor apparently), but then realised the council probably don’t want thousands of starving people on their doorstep either and would be more than happy for Britain to open it’s border – the only closed internal E.U. border, making it in theory legal to apply for asylum here, but giving no legal means to actually get here.

La Belle Etoile have been feeding migrants in Calais for free at 2pm every weekday for the past fifteen years. They said a few of us could come with them on the Friday and help to see how they do things. On hearing that there was no lunchtime food distro at the weekends, a few of us had decided to see if we could take some food down there ourselves, given that there were three kitchens onsite and we had more than enough food for the people there. So we went to help. As well as the food, they give out these little plastic bags filled with a few slices of bread, a bit of patisserie, an apple, a plastic spoon and a toiletry item. We set up an assembly line. I put a toiletry item into each of the bags handed to me. There were mini and full-sized tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes, sample sachets of face cream, body lotion, small bars of soap, plastic razors… I had images of people getting their daily plastic bag and peering inside with dismay to find the 5th tube of toothpaste that week, when all they needed was a bar of soap. I wondered if people swapped with each other, or if most of it ended up in the bin.

When all of the 500 bags were full we walked down to the food distribution point as there was not enough room in the van. We could easily see why it was in the best interest of the police for them to let it happen there: a large open car park right next door to the Gendarmerie. A few almost-undercover cops stood around the edge or sat in cars staring at us. The food given out was not the most appetising I have ever seen: basically stock-based soup with butter and rice in. Not very filling, and some people travel miles by foot to get there from the furthest Jungles. La Belle Etoile get a bit of funding from local government and some donations, but it hardly seems enough for them to feed so many people. The whole thing felt a bit like a soup-kitchen. I have been on both sides of a soup kitchen so this was something I could relate to. The whole thing is a bit demeaning, with people being basically herded into lines.

Of the migrants I spoke to on site, most were Afghan, Kurdish, Iraqi or Iranian. We also met some Eritrean guys living in a large squatted house near the food distribution point and also about six women, who came along late and went straight to the front of the queue along with any injured men. These are the only migrant women I saw for the entire duration of the camp.

There were lots of meetings. I went to one. Usually I would go to lots, but it just didn’t feel appropriate for me. It was heartening to see migrants going to meetings as well as the usual activist types, and that there were an increasing number of languages being translated. It seemed more worthwhile for me to just hang out with people. I made friends with a small group from Iran and we had a lot of conversations. Listening to people’s stories taught me more about the situation than any meeting I’ve ever been to. Dancing and hanging out taught me more about their cultures. Visiting the Jungle and sharing food felt more to me like solidarity than going on a demo. So I didn’t go on the demo. Instead we cooked up more food than the camp could possibly eat and took the excess to the Jungle. We went first to the food distro point and fed the people who live nearby. We bought a bit of fruit and chocolate and tried to make sure there was a good amount of protein in the food we cooked. Then we went to the Jungle. The first day we went to one near to the ferry port, relatively small and hidden away in the sand dunes. After serving the food it felt odd to just stand there watching, so I crammed in my second portion of food that hour. Sharing food felt more natural than just serving it.

The second day we took food to a different Jungle – a massive one. I asked how many people and was told 700. Some others from camp had been trying to build a tree-house with the idea that it would be harder for the police to evict it. It took a while for them to get across the language barrier, but it eventually seemed like a welcome idea. Every day the police come and take people – 10, 20, or 30, sometimes 100. Migrants in Calais are used to constant arrest. Sometimes they are put in detention centres, sometimes beaten or tear-gassed. The police often trash jungles and the people we spoke to had been told that this would happen there soon.

It seems the great cultural levellers are food, football, dancing and American pop stars. The day after Michael Jackson died, everyone was talking about it. We went to a Jungle where only one person spoke English, but all of the others told us ‘Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson!’ eyes wide, hands making slitting motions across throats. One of the Iranians I made friends with was into Britney Spears. He asked what ‘gimme gimme gimme’ means. I tried to explain ‘give me’. But he refused to believe. No ‘gimmmmmeeee gimmmmmeeeee…’

My two favourite moments: the Iranian disco on the second night and the traditional Pashtun dance – there must have been over one hundred people dancing: a rare glimpse of a threatened culture.

Now that I have used the word ‘migrants’ a lot, as well as referencing several nationalities, I should point out that there was a bit of controversy over wording. I’m using the words ‘migrants’ and ‘activists’ to relate to people who were at the camp for very different reasons, with different degrees of privilege, etc. I’m mentioning different nationalities as I believe it gives a more thorough picture of where people are coming from, and also because that’s the way those people labelled themselves and I think that imposing our Western anarchist ideas against nationality onto people is a bit arrogant. At one point I was basically told that it’s racist to say that there are cultural differences between different countries. From what I saw the cultural differences were very obvious to everyone.

Gender was a particularly overt issue. About halfway through the camp a feminist security team formed to respond to some of the problems that were emerging as a result of very young males getting very drunk (often for the first time) and dancing with women (often for the first time!) There were a couple of reports of men trying to get into women’s tents, although it is unclear whether these people were actually just looking for a space to sleep in. More cultural misunderstandings? It’s easy to speculate. The vast majority of people I spoke to were very respectful.

The other kind of misunderstandings were also awkward. Having to explain to people that we were only there for a week. That we would be going home to England. That we could not open the border for them. We were there to protest, but ultimately have no more power than they do – just a little square document that allows us freedom of movement and restricts theirs. I have never felt my privilege so strongly as walking to the ferry with a cardboard sign saying ‘England’ and bumping into some of the people we had shared food with. ‘Yes, we are going home now. No, you can’t come with us. Sorry. See you in England. Good luck!’

Something I keep being asked by people when I talk about this is why all these people are so desperate to reach England. I’m not completely certain I know the answer. Some have family and friends here. Some were in the Uk for years and have since been deported and made it all of the way back to Calais. Most of the people I spoke to have a very high regard for England. ‘You are from England? Very good country, yes?’ ‘Hmm… sort of’ was the only reply I could muster. It’s difficult telling people that even if they do make it across the water, their lives may not be much better. Only 30% of asylum claims are actually granted. Many people will be deported or locked up in detention centres. Many will be killed trying to cross the channel. A lot of people we spoke to had their fingerprints taken crossing the border into Greece – often the first EU country if you come by land from the Middle-East. I had to break the news to one man that as his fingerprints were now on record in Greece, he can only legally claim asylum there. He was devastated. He said he had paid 4,000euros. Undeniably there are many people traffickers around making a lot of money by misleading people.

The camp ended on a sad note. All of the activists were packing up to go home and people with the wrong coloured skin and wrong coloured bits of paper in their pockets were becoming less and less. Some stayed to help prepare food and to tat anything not needed from the structures being dismantled. Unfortunately a lot of other stuff went missing too, including several mobile phones, mp3 players and a couple of wallets. Also the donations tin from one of the kitchens. A boy of about twelve years old was seen coming out of my tent. A friend and I made a vague attempt at confronting him about it with the aid of two translators. What followed was bizarre and I can’t say I understood it completely, but we were made to wait while the men went off and spoke together with the boy, one or other coming back every now and then to ask a question. There was much apologising and this seemed to put even more of a downer on the mood as word spread around the camp. We saw the thefts as the actions two or three people, but the men seemed to feel shame on behalf of their whole community. More cultural differences!

The camp at Calais deeply affected me. I felt a strong emotional connection to the people I was there with – some of the activists who I am now closer to, and some of the migrants I made friends with. That we had to just leave them there seemed ridiculous and selfish. I am still processing my emotions about all of this but I am committed to going back there soon to do something else. What can I do? I don’t know.

There is another personal account from the camp –>here<–

Further reading:

The Weirdest Meal

A few of us have decided to start a monthly foraging trip and today was our first jaunt out. None of us have a great deal of knowledge, but armed with a pocket ‘Food For Free‘ book and some second hand advice we cycled (yep, I’m really getting into that now but my arse is *really* sore!) down to… the seafront. A strange place for a foraging trip you may think, but near to Brighton Marina we found a huge amount of sea kale, sea beet, samphire and rosehips, which I have now discovered were rosa rugosa.

The rosehips didn’t really look like the ones in the pictures yet. They were still a lighter orangey colour, so we decided to leave them and come back again later in the year when the book says they will be at their best, but we each gathered bagfulls of the other stuff. The book says sea kale is very rare but there was so much of it, I don’t think we even took a fraction of a percentage. According to a web resource it is one of the few vegetables native to Britain. The book also says to only eat the stalks, not the leaves, which is a shame because the leaves are these huge great cabbagy things and are really abundant. It was only later that I reaised the flowers I collected all had tiny black insects living in them which marched indignantly around the polythene bag I had unwittingly rehomed them in. Alas, I will have to put the sea kale out with my compost tomorrow as I don’t really want to drown a whole village of insects just so that I can eat their homes. My rather more experienced friend now tells me the leaves are in fact fine to eat and delicious in a stir fry – next time!

So, my meal tonight was one of the strangest I have ever had. It consisted of…

A mixture of three different kinds of pasta (ends of bags), served with tomato and basil soup (free from FareShare) with chickpeas and sea beet flowers and leaves cooked in it, samphire (also known as sea asparagus) blanched and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and locally grown lettuce with tahini dressing.

All rather nice other than the samphire, which has a ‘distinctive’ taste. It’s strangely chemically and not all that great really. We are going to try pickling it to see if that helps.

I’m looking forward to hearing what Beth has made with her samphire, being one month into her year long 100 Mile Diet.

Post Peak Panic?

One of my ever-growing volunteer ‘jobs’ is an organic wholefood co-op at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project. We get stuff through the Infinity Foods catalogue and sell it at not-for-profit prices, plus people can order stuff at the wholesale price.
On Thursday morning last week while ‘working’ there (more like shopping while helping others to shop really), I possibly witnessed my first post-peak-oil-panic-buy. A guy came in and spent £69 on three 25kg sacks of rice to put into storage. He openly admitted he was doing it because he’s uncertain how much longer rice will be available. Eeek!
If this turns out to be the first of many panic buys, surely that will hasten the food shortage and inflate the price of grain still higher?
If you don’t know what I’m talking about please read this and then this. I know the basics of peak oil but it will be much quicker and easier to understand if I just refer people to the experts rather than attempt it on here!

Meanwhile I have now made it to the allotment twice. I now know how to plant peas and also how to ‘green mulch’ (I think that’s what it’s called). I’m also growing some stuff on my windowsill at home… well, the mint hasn’t completely died yet so there is hope… and I’m sure the tomato plant will keep it company now, even though they are only about an inch high each and can’t see one another over the tops of the pots yet. Still need to buy some potting compost for the basil, lavender (I know you can’t eat that but it will make my flat smell lovely) and thyme. Does anyone know where I can get veganic peat free compost???

Hen’s Angels

Tap tap tap tap… the rhythm of beak on welly. You get used to it after a while. That and the gentle murmur of clucking. It’s actually quite soothing.

We are four girls from Brighton come to Henfield (yes, really!), to help Linda with her few hundred (thousand?) chickens for the day. They are everywhere you can imagine, roosting on piles of dust-laden furniture, atop decomposing vehicles, in barns. Imagine a post-apocolyptic-Mad Max-style future, after the world has become over-run by chickens. Imagine a surreal version of those easter egg hunts they put on for kids. At Hen Heaven the hen’s can lay whenever and wherever they like – sometimes in some very obscure places! A lot of the birds have stopped laying altogether, meaning they would be dead if they hadn’t been saved by Linda. In fact almost all of these birds would have been killed by now if they weren’t here. Unfortunately they can shit wherever they like too and we had the thankless task of scrubbing and scraping and getting covered in chickenshit dust.

Linda made us omelettes for lunch. I have been vegan for over a year. Obviously I had thought about this before coming. I can see no ethical argument against eating these eggs, but it still felt strange. Even as I ate the omelette I questioned if it was the correct thing to do. Am I still a vegan? What does that title mean? Should I follow guidelines in order to call myself that, or am I to follow my own ethics? Is there a word for my new dietary behaviour? Perhaps it’s time to leave these labels behind, but of course that doesn’t mean I am to change my principles.

I became vegan because I want to live as much as possible in accordance with the principle of non-harm. I would not eat eggs from anywhere else. Even ‘free-range’ does not really mean ethical – the birds have marginally more room but they still get slaughtered after a certain age. I had been hearing about Hen Heaven for a long time and know a few otherwise vegans who eat these eggs, but I still wanted to come and work here and see them for myself before I ate them. My pondering continues.

Foiled by Cake

It was a vegan strawberry and peach cake that did it. It broke my will. It stared at me all day while I worked in the cafe, but I ignored it. I thought I was stronger than the cake. Why is my willpower so much weaker when I have friends around me? It’s not peer pressure, nobody wanted me to do it. They were quite encouraging actually. I was working with Dave, who has given up sugar. He wasn’t supposed to eat the cake either, but he managed not to. Not like me. I scoffed it in a cafe meeting while my friends looked on in horror.

So, I must regrettably announce that I have broken my New Year resolution. I have partaken of wheat. Sometimes, I really shock myself.

The alcohol and caffiene bans are still in full-force until the end of the month. I will not relent.

The Vegetable Dilemma

In an effort to further green my food intake I’ve decided to try and go local and organic for the majority of my veg. Trouble is, organic food can be pretty pricey. Am I going to manage on my ever-decreasing monetary supply?

Since I gave up supermarkets around the middle of last year I’ve been getting my veg from a mixture of places, mostly the Open Market which has very cheap fruit and veg, a fairly large selection and friendly staff/owners who recognise and reward their ‘regulars’. Trouble is, the business is local but the food gets shipped in from all over. So it’s a lot better than Sainsbury’s, but I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough.

After a bit of investigation I have found that there are a few veg box suppliers, some of whom supply local stuff. It’s all quite confusing though as some of them are apparently mostly local, but not completely and some are mostly organic, but not completely. I know I should probably just phone them all and quiz them but somehow that seems quite daunting, especially as to my shame I really don’t know a great deal about vegetables – except what they taste like!

Today I decided to try another angle: Local farmers markets. Brighton has three per month, all in different places. Today was the one near Hove station, so I plodded over there to meet my friend Beth, who knows about such things already.

Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately, as it helped curb my spending – a lot of the stalls were selling cheese, eggs and other stuff that I don’t eat anyway as I’m vegan. I’ve also decided to complicate matters somewhat by giving up wheat this month as an experiment to see if it will help with my breathing troubles. Apparently wheat is the second most likely allergen after dairy. There was one stall selling lots of fresh, nice looking vegetables though. I had to ask how much stuff was, as although it was labeled I’m not seasoned enough to know what a pound of carrots looks like. They were very friendly and helpful though so I bought a variety of stuff from them. I wanted to ask questions about how they grow stuff and how organic it is but it just didn’t seem appropriate for some reason. Isn’t that silly? A big bag full cost £7 which I guess is pretty good for what it is, but I’m used to spending about £4 and my total weekly shop rarely exceeds a tenner. I still have to buy a few things from the market like mushrooms and ginger but I am happy that I have nice locally-grown chemical-free veggies to eat for dinner.

I’m starting to think the only way to get cheap, local, organic, healthy food is to grow it yourself. Another New Year resolution: learn to grow food.