migrantvoice
Speaking for Ourselves

A diary of a Migrant…Goodbye France

A diary of a Migrant…Goodbye France

Al Moutanabi

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - A diary of a Migrant…Goodbye France

 

A diary of a migrant is written by a migrant in the UK about his time living abroad in France and Germany. 

It was almost 8pm when I looked at my watch, and as I boarded the Stansted Express heading back to central London, moments of serenity and peace prevailed for the first time in months. 

After spending some time in France doing work experience, I once again felt that sense of security that London offered. It seemed funny but it was almost like a feeling when a little child is embraced by his mother feeling the warmth and security. 


As the train made its way to London, I silently watched the racing trees and houses through the window. Memories of my recent experience flashed back in a form of photo slides, recalling the various situations where I felt uncomfortable or rather amused by the French mentality, the culture or the people in general.


I always go with the rule of “never generalise”, yet often in life this rule does not apply or if it does it has a limit. In fact, staying in France was an eye-opening experience. It was not merely a culture shock for me but it was sometimes challenging for me to witness the differences in attitude, behaviour or way of thinking in a country that lies just across the English Channel. 


One experience I had in France was with a fellow train passenger, as we exchanged a few words after he enquired about the time. He was from Marseille but lived in Paris and was on his way to visit his daughter, who happened to live in the South of France.

“I have never been to Marseille, is it nice” I said, to which he replied “It’s beautiful but there is a lot of Arabs there; I am not racist, it’s cool showing his thumbs up; I have no problem but there is a lot of them there” he added.

This was the first hint I got of how some if not most French people I met perceive migrants or ethnic minorities living in France especially if they were Muslims. Migrants with such a background were frowned upon and were considered unworthy. Their attitudes almost seemed to me like the thinking behind the Indian Caste System, but in fact we are in Europe.


Behind this man’s cool statement, I sensed deep layers of racism, discrimination, inequality and not accepting the other. Obviously, I didn’t comment on what he had said, and after a moment of pondering it, I did not want to give him the privilege of having an inflamed debate. I simply was not here to impose my ideas let alone implement them although I had the right to express them. However, in certain situations, where racial discrimination is involved, the consequences of such debates could get quite dire indeed. In this scenario, silence is an act of wisdom as fools are not meant to be argued with. 


The journey back to London went on and I looked at my watch again. Time seemed to move forward like a snail. I admired the magnificent sceneries of the French countryside that went by; at least that was something to give me solace… 
to be continued….

A diary of a migrant part 2 

My continued reflections on my time in France

My first destination was the centre of France, the heart of the French countryside. With breath-taking sceneries, unbeatable serenity and wheat fields that stretched as long as the eye could see. Was I in a dream; I wondered! No, it was real and I was yet to explore this eternal natural beauty. 

My host family lived in a small town and upon my arrival I was greeted with a big smile knowing I was coming from London and perhaps assuming I was one hundred percent English. One member of the family made some comments about how Britain is renowned for its delightful bacon, which I totally agree with. 

To their disappointment or rather my amusement, they later on realised that I have a migrant background. Trying to be honest, I added “You know; I am not purely English, I have some Arabic background”. The shock on the faces of some of them: their eyes looked like they would pop out at any moment. It sounded as if I had uttered a most terrible secret or as if they had just learnt that I was one of their enemies. 

I didn’t know whether to feel bad or just continue witnessing this farce. “Is your father Muslim?” One family member enquired. “No, he’s not," I said. A sign of immediate relief showed on their faces, and I sensed that it gave them further reassurance. 

Shortly afterwards, another member of the family added “Oh, you see, we thought you were Black because of your complicated last name.” 

Here comes another prejudice I thought. It seems that they were not fond of Blacks either. Silently, I pondered where or how this bigotry is going to end or for how long I will be able to cope?!
In the days to follow, things seemed to flow smoothly among us and everyone seemed at ease or perhaps pretended to be so. I could feel it immediately if people were tense, angry or unhappy, hence, as things seemed calm, I reassured myself and assumed that all will go well. 

As I got to know and closely observe this family, their relatives and friends, I realised that the main topics that occupied their minds were religion and politics, as to a certain extent, other parts of the French Society. I tried where possible not to engage in such debates or even if I did get involved, the views I expressed were neutral or more constructive. Well, at least the way I saw them. 

“Why do they care so much about such matters?” I questioned ceaselessly. “Does it really give them a sense of Joie de Vivre?” Certainly not, it seemed to me that these thoughts were needed for them to keep ablaze the never-ending debate of how to restore France back to its former Catholic status, and how we should get foreigners out of France.  

A diary of a migrant part 3

…. Days went by without any kind of tensions or unpleasantness, while I was still staying with my first host family. My work experience continued to go well and my French was also improving considerably. I was certainly getting confident in interacting with others. Somehow, I felt I was becoming part of this family now. However, it seemed almost inevitable to avoid individual who created a hostile situation. 

One particular lady in that family seemed to be on my back most of the time. In a way I felt undermined, it created a threat – not physically of course but mentally. She reminded me of some of those formidable characters I have known in life, whether some of my own family members or previous work colleagues and bosses, who seemed to despise whatever I did. This lady kindled those unpleasant memories and situations which had made me struggle throughout my childhood and adulthood life. 

As a result, she made me feel uncomfortable and hopeless in spite of other’s reassurances not to take any notice of her actions. Without those individuals in the family who respected and accepted me as I was, the journey would have been arduous indeed. Their support and understanding gave me courage to continue and remain strong. I was relieved that it was not only me, who thought of her as cruel.  

I was often asked to help out in tasks around the house, and for this particular lady my efforts were not commended. I wondered if I was doing something wrong, or if it was merely because I was a foreigner! Looking for an answer occupied my mind. “Were these mind games an essential part of my stay, or was it perhaps a challenge to help make me more resilient in dealing with other people or situations?” I asked myself.

I do analyse things way too much, which often makes me miserable. Disappointment, or rather seeing the true side of illusions, often becomes fairly evident when one reflects and analyses matters in detail. This tendency towards reflection might be considered a strength by others, yet it contributed but to my own unhappiness. 

Moreover, I felt lonely and it was hard to make friends similar to my age or at least closer to my way of thinking. Although I often met relatives and friends of that family, we didn’t share many things in common. Nonetheless it was a good practice for my French. 

One day I made up my mind and started searching online for another host family. I wanted to have a second go or perhaps give myself the opportunity of experiencing a different environment or a different mentality. “Perhaps I will be happier with the other family - they will be more accepting and I won’t need to experience any further nastiness” I thought. A few days later, I received a reply from one family who happened to live in a nearby town. The invitation was to spend a week with them at first to see how things went and then take it from there. The offer seemed fair enough for both parties. However, I couldn’t possibly tell the family I was staying with of my motives – I didn’t want to lose my place and myself on the street, in case this new adventure didn’t work out. 

Due to my financial restrictions having a bad choice was better than none! Hence, I made up a story that I needed a short break to relax and also to visit an old friend. I only took the most essential stuff that I needed for a week and took off …

A diary of a migrant part 3

…. Days went by without any kind of tensions or unpleasantness, while I was still staying with my first host family. My work experience continued to go well and my French was also improving considerably. I was certainly getting confident in interacting with others. Somehow, I felt I was becoming part of this family now. However, it seemed almost inevitable to avoid individual who created a hostile situation. 

One particular lady in that family seemed to be on my back most of the time. In a way I felt undermined, it created a threat – not physically of course but mentally. She reminded me of some of those formidable characters I have known in life, whether some of my own family members or previous work colleagues and bosses, who seemed to despise whatever I did. This lady kindled those unpleasant memories and situations which had made me struggle throughout my childhood and adulthood life. 

As a result, she made me feel uncomfortable and hopeless in spite of other’s reassurances not to take any notice of her actions. Without those individuals in the family who respected and accepted me as I was, the journey would have been arduous indeed. Their support and understanding gave me courage to continue and remain strong. I was relieved that it was not only me, who thought of her as cruel.  

I was often asked to help out in tasks around the house, and for this particular lady my efforts were not commended. I wondered if I was doing something wrong, or if it was merely because I was a foreigner! Looking for an answer occupied my mind. “Were these mind games an essential part of my stay, or was it perhaps a challenge to help make me more resilient in dealing with other people or situations?” I asked myself.

I do analyse things way too much, which often makes me miserable. Disappointment, or rather seeing the true side of illusions, often becomes fairly evident when one reflects and analyses matters in detail. This tendency towards reflection might be considered a strength by others, yet it contributed but to my own unhappiness. 

Moreover, I felt lonely and it was hard to make friends similar to my age or at least closer to my way of thinking. Although I often met relatives and friends of that family, we didn’t share many things in common. Nonetheless it was a good practice for my French. 

One day I made up my mind and started searching online for another host family. I wanted to have a second go or perhaps give myself the opportunity of experiencing a different environment or a different mentality. “Perhaps I will be happier with the other family - they will be more accepting and I won’t need to experience any further nastiness” I thought. A few days later, I received a reply from one family who happened to live in a nearby town. The invitation was to spend a week with them at first to see how things went and then take it from there. The offer seemed fair enough for both parties. However, I couldn’t possibly tell the family I was staying with of my motives – I didn’t want to lose my place and myself on the street, in case this new adventure didn’t work out. 

Due to my financial restrictions having a bad choice was better than none! Hence, I made up a story that I needed a short break to relax and also to visit an old friend. I only took the most essential stuff that I needed for a week and took off …

A diary of a migrant part 4

The journey to my next destination was about an hour or so by bus. As soon as I got on, I made sure to sit at the back as I always did in London, although buses here were much narrower than those lovely red ones. There were a few people on board and everyone seemed to be occupied with some sort of activity. A couple of people were reading, a couple was kissing and some teenage boys were simply making noise. 


I was having my sandwich and gazing through the window, I had mixed feelings as to what would happen next. 


It started to rain heavily despite the fact we were virtually at the end of June. It seemed almost like an English summer to me. Having said that, rain didn’t bother me much. In fact, I often walked under the rain and I seldom carried an umbrella. Not only because I enjoyed the feeling of being euphorically drenched, but also to hide my tears from passers-by. I rarely showed emotions in public.


“Was I scared to show my weak side, or perhaps I don’t know how to be natural?” I questioned myself. I continued to watch the rain drops and followed them all the way to the moment they reached the ground. Soon and by the time I reached my destination, the rain had stopped. “What a pity” 


The new family did not live far from the bus station, so I strolled along the main broad street lined with Honey Locust and Linden trees. The air was so fresh that I almost wanted to eat it. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling. What a wonderful feeling it was. It made me feel alive once again and filled with energy. 


I carried on walking with a sense of optimism and confidence feeling the warm rays of sun on my face. I was now standing in front of the main door, gazing at an old bronze lion door knocker, fixed prominently in the middle of the huge brown door. I knocked three times and waited. A man with a cigarette in his mouth, perhaps in his late thirties or early forties opened the door and asked me to come in.


“Please make yourself comfortable,” he said. He seemed a nice person and I must admit I felt at ease at first. 


The house wasn’t massive but cosy enough. It was a wooden house and was still in a good condition, although not the cleanest, I must say. It was a small family – just the couple, no children. We got on fairly well from the start and they seemed to be openminded and light-hearted. No racial or derogatory remarks, and no inquisition about my background or life. What mattered to them was the present. For once, the statement of not generalising fitted quite well. “What a relief,” I thought. The man worked as a chef so he often brought food back home with him. Every now and then I would help out as I didn’t want to feel as if I was a hotel guest, but as part of the family. After all, cleanliness was important to me and somehow, I felt I had the obligation to keep the place in order. Chaos generally disturbs my soul and I simply can’t function in a chaotic or unclean environment. I didn’t mind helping to clean as I was brought up this way, and it meant a lot to me having a clean and clear space. Thanks to my family or my personality, who knows? 


A few days had now passed and things went smoothly apart from one unpleasant fact. The man, despite his sweet character and gentle soul, was an alcoholic. Although I didn’t pay much notice at the beginning, this issue started to irritate me unconsciously.  

I don’t mind when people drink but I think when one lives with such a person, the sentiments are not quite the same. I had shared a flat with an alcoholic years ago back in England. It was an experience I did not wish to repeat again and I simply wasn’t going to put up with this no matter how desperate I was. My week dragged and seemed to go on for ever, but luckily we had agreed on having a trial period beforehand with no contract involved as such. How I would hate being trapped in such a situation with no way out but to suffer in silence!     

A diary of a migrant part 5

I knew that it wasn’t the right place for me and my pursuit for another place to stay should continue. 

While I was there, I got to know this couple fairly well but one thing I didn’t expect happened. The man was now in love with me. “Was this a joke or was it a way to express sincere affections” I asked myself. “Did it have some sort of sexual connotations, or was it simply a form of being over-emotional influenced by too much alcohol?” I wondered. Yet, as we talked and clarified the issue further, I found that it was indeed a sincere feeling, though it happened in such a short period of time. 

Without doubt I was flattered, but sadly this feeling was not mutual. This man had no friends and his relationship wasn’t heading the right way. He found in me that attentive ear, which at times I am proud to have. However, this didn’t mean that I could override my emotions and simple fall in love with a stranger. Yet it had opened my eyes and gave me a great insight: love wasn’t confined to certain people, and no matter how difficult one’s situation is, sentiments are always there, buried under layers of stress, fear and personal issues. In a way it is like when the sun hides under the clouds for months during an arctic winter!

It was such a difficult situation and a time for decision making. How I hated not only to say goodbye but to break this man’s heart. I was lost for words and I didn’t really know what to do. I found it hard, to be honest, to state what I thought of him. I didn’t want to have a confrontation that would end up with a fight. I dreaded the consequences and the role of diplomacy has to come into place. An important lesson one learns and must adhere to while embracing British Culture. 

This situation made me feel weak and unable to stand up to it. My own right of opinion had no voice or perhaps hushed. This question repeated itself many times before and yet once again “Why do I evade being true to myself”? Was it a cowardice or courage on my part”? I asked myself. The clock was ticking and I had to bid farewell somehow. I apologised reservedly and said “I have to leave, but let us stay as friends and talk once again”. This statement made me feel that I was either running away from reality, or perhaps a self-affirmation to be more assertive if we ever meet again.   

As we bid farewell at the door, I could see in his eyes a light of enkindled hope and aspiration. They seemed more alive and ready to conquer the world. I walked back the same street I took when I arrived, although this time with heavier steps. Nevertheless, the sun shone and the birds were singing happily, hopping around the linden and locust trees. Nature is so harmonious, contrary to man, who is often plunged deep in madness and troubles. “But why?” I wondered. 

Now back on the same bus, making my return back to my belongings and to the people I stayed with before. But before I left, I couldn’t resist but to buy an ‘éclair au chocolat’, my first favourite and an ‘éclair au café’, my second favourite. No one can beat French patisserie, they are the best in my opinion! 

A diary of a migrant part 6

I was now back at my previous lodgings. Everyone enquired about my recent break, although I got the sense they did so out of sheer politeness rather than curiosity. “It was quite relaxing,” I replied, knowing it was not quite so, but they didn’t have to know every detail. In fact, this short break, or rather adventure, made me realise that often one doesn’t realise the bliss of a situation until one experiences a worse one. 


Hence, I let go a bit and soon my worries or concerns of not feeling warm or at home slightly diminished, knowing that my stay there was a temporary.  I started seeing things from a different perspective and, somehow, I felt more positive and at ease. 


On my days off, I would often cycle for hours exploring the nearby towns and its surroundings. Also, jogging and running, especially in the early mornings, gave me a further boost and a sense of joy. I mostly ran barefoot on grass that felt as soft as a Persian carpet, what a sensation that was! I felt connected to earth feeling the cold morning dew drops both on my feet and soul. Words fail to express this cool and vigorous sensation, it must be experienced.  


The days went by so quickly and my training in the centre of France was coming to end. I now had to prepare and head for my next destination. The west of France “The Loire Valley”, a beautiful region dotted with rivers, lakes, castles and vineyards. - although this year they had terrible rainfall that led to a huge flood, thus causing chaos and destruction. A lot of places were submerged and many vegetable and rose gardens looked as if they were rice fields. My lodgings this time was in an apartment not far from the town centre. It was in a residential area that reminded me of council flats in London.  It wasn’t that attractive, but practical, and most importantly, functional. However, one thing I noticed while being there, the majority of residents in those blocks were immigrants and or of an immigrant background.


With such diversity, I came across many Algerian, Moroccan and East European shops and cafes nearby. Well, at least in this neighbourhood - not sure about the rest of France. One day, a French man said something rather amusing to me “If you have some trouble in these areas, just speak Arabic”. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was meant metaphorically or literally! A lot of children frolicked and screamed outside until their parents called them for supper or bed. It was often noisy, but what can one do? This brought back memories from many years ago, when I was preparing for my final exams at secondary school. The slightest noise would make me lose concentration. At the time I was staying at my grandmother’s, who would often laugh and say, “It’s impossible to make everyone quiet”. A tear went down my cheeks as her words and laughter echoed in my ears, remembering how I was unable to bid her farewell during her final hours. Harsh circumstances imposed themselves naturally, and fate meant that we would never meet again on this earth.  


This time, I was to share the flat with one person and not a family. To some extent, it was a relief. At least this person was closer in age to mine and many of his interests echoed with my own, from literature to music to travel. We often cooked, talked and discussed a wide range of themes that occupy people minds nowadays. It certainly helps, when sharing or living with others, to be on the same wavelength or at least have something in common. For the first time in a long time I felt I was challenged personally and intellectually. 


Every day we learn something new, and no matter how simple people may appear to be, there is always some form of contribution to the life of others. Without doubt, I was and am still a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason and often we get to meet individuals that will contribute to our personal development, spiritual and intellectual growth. No matter how negative an experience may be, I learnt from these past experiences. These people and these situations were trying to tell me something, and I had to pay attention and listen to my inner voice. Travelling and interacting with others of various backgrounds certainly made me wiser, more collected and more resilient.    

A diary of a migrant part 7 

My journey in the Loire Valley continued for some time. I was enjoying the magnificent surroundings and the tranquillity before a possible storm, as it is often said! 
During my stay in this region, I got to visit some castles and met some local people, who were friendly, different and perhaps lacked the sense of prejudice that others I have met have. After all, mentalities do vary from one region to another and it was great to witness this difference in attitude on a cultural and an educational level. The town was certainly bigger than those where I stayed previously, and there was a lot of movement. The streets were buzzing with people of all ages and nationalities. Tourists and locals alike, all went about on a fine afternoon under a clear azure blue sky. In fact, there is some magic about the atmosphere in France when the weather is nice and warm. The fresh and pleasant breeze somehow is reminiscent of a buzzing Mediterranean town. 


Though sometimes, people acted peculiarly especially on weekends. One full moon night, I found it hard to sleep and woke up around 3 am amid some unknown noises coming from outside. The window was open, as it was quite warm, so I popped my head outside to inspect what was going on. To my surprise, or rather, bewilderment, a drunkard couple had decided to park their car under the apartment and have sex there with the windows and doors open, as if it was almost a free after midnight entertainment show. There was no consideration for the residents, as the whole street seemed to belong to them, and they seemed not to care much, either. What a freedom!  


Alas, my perception of this temporary comfort and  safety in a foreign land didn’t last long. The person I was sharing with turned out to have a volatile character with a tendency to violence. He had developed a build-up of negative emotions and grudge towards life in general and certain people in particular. This of course didn’t happen overnight but in fact stemmed from previous experiences in life, which left a clear mark on his behaviour later on. I felt sorry for this lovely person, with whom I became acquainted and started to develop a friendship. I felt I ought to help, but I didn’t know how as it was a delicate matter, to approach with care and understanding. I wasn’t a psychologist, but he told me that my attentive ear was more than enough. I never liked to boast anyway or give myself credit, but I truly felt that I was perhaps helping in an indirect way and that was what mattered. As long as my presence and reassurance helped, why not.


However, after a while, this can be a tiresome and draining exercise. This person made me reflect tremendously and go deep within myself. Violence, a word that I hated as a child and made me so upset that I wanted to fly or wished that the earth would open up and swallow me. Violence, an act people commit for one reason or another. A tear dropped down my left cheek and froze half way through as I recalled how my parents fitted this category. It hurt me so much during my childhood and teen years; a turbulent period that was filled with angst and insecurity. It was not easy to cope and I often found solitude in silence and reflection. I couldn’t share these troublesome concerns with anyone, even with those who were closest to me, my aunt or my best friend at school. I simple couldn’t and the suffering had to be buried deep within my heart and soul. As I looked back at those memories, I questioned myself, why didn’t I open up? There was no answer. Perhaps it was not that easy to do so! A process that required healing and counselling later on in life. 


I was now in front of yet a new challenge in my journey that required urgent attention and a possible solution. Sometimes sharing with others can be a bliss, but at other times it can be a dreary experience. I knew it was time to move out perhaps and continue this endless journey elsewhere. Although I was not a target in any way, the negative emotions and instability of one’s wellbeing was not something to envy and certainly was not going make one jovial. I had only but to abandon this place once again, as I had done with my parents…

A diary of a migrant part 8

My last stop was the east of France near the Swiss border, where I meant to spend some time as part of my training before returning to London. Moving around and about so often had in fact become a norm, and I no longer had time to deal with worries of searching for new places. It seemed I mastered the art of wandering easily. It was another picturesque town, with lovely houses and majestic evergreen trees that spread all over the town, over the hills and the far snow-capped mountains. 


There were also a considerable number of refugees there, who came from all over the world. In fact, this town was a temporary stop for them before moving elsewhere for various reasons but mainly due to the hostility of locals towards foreigners. The majority of people here voted for Marie le Pen (the far-right wing politician), and based on what I witnessed, the local people there felt that their life was threatened by the presence of the increasing number of refugees, since Switzerland hardly welcomed any or very little. In fact, tougher measures were imposed on those who stayed in the country, that if they were not deported sooner.


Most people who lived in this part of France were farmers by profession, and the rest worked in shops and the like. However, it seemed to me absurd to claim that refugees would want to take their cows or goats, or even perhaps force themselves into their homes. It was sad to witness such an attitude but I think politicians are partly to blame for harbouring such attitudes that makes prejudice flourish. In fact, it is always the case, that a small minority of bigots affects the rest of the society no matter where - thus leading to giving the wrong perception of such a nation or culture.  


Once again, I found myself lodging with another French family, who were incredibly sweet, understanding and friendly. Words could not suffice to describe their characters and attitude. They had a couple of happy children, mature enough to go about their own affairs. I often helped them with their English although their attention span wouldn’t last more than thirty minutes. 


Since I am fond of cooking and baking, I shared these skills with them all including one of the children, who was keen on helping but also to lick the leftover cake mix from the bowl. We discussed various topics and shared many happy memories filled with anecdotes and laughter.  I finally felt almost at home and was treated like another part of the family. I no longer felt threatened by prejudice and derogatory remarks. There were no negative emotions or any tensions of any sort, even among themselves. What a relief that was! 


In fact, this family reassured me further and made my beliefs firmer of not to generalise, no matter how awful someone or some culture might be. One lives and learns, and as we tread on our long and winding path in life, we get to meet different people from all walks in life. Cultures can be like the soil in the field or in the garden, one type can be soft and fertile giving the opportunity for plants and flowers to grow and flourish, while other types can be hard, rough and impossible to cultivate, or in some cases its nature is so fragile, that it can trigger a collapse of the soil.


My stay in France has finally come to an end and what an experience that was. Travelling through various regions and meeting all kinds of people was very informative indeed. Despite the ups and downs that I went through and the emotional instability I endured, one thing was certain and that was "This adventure made me stronger, resilient and more patient - not to mention the development of my linguistic skills, which was the sole and main objective of my journey to France". 


My body was relaxed, my eyes were closed and my mind was on the clouds as those various memories of my stay in France flashed back like a lightning bolt. I could feel my heart beat slowly and then my pulse as I placed my fingers around my wrist. A feeling of serenity prevailed as I am finally travelled back home. "Home, sweet home". I smiled like a Cheshire cat while my eyes were still closed, only to realise the train conductor on the Stansted Express was calling me to wake up and advising me that we had finally arrived at London Victoria…