Half of France was on the road, it seemed. Our own route from the west was choked with holidaymakers returning to the heart of the country, and for every ten French cars, there were three or four Brits, and a German or Dutch or two. The problems only really hit when the autoroutes petered out around towns, or when we all converged on the toll stations. Our four spare hours to reach Calais melted away in bursts of minutes sitting in long lines of people like us, sealed in our air-conditioned bubbles, squeezed around the accoutrements of our temporary homes from home as the temperature needle ticked up towards 40 degrees. The traffic alerts on the radio grew increasingly apocalyptic. By the time we were clear of the worst of the pressure, the message was not even to try to get near Paris. “Find a services” the weary voice told us. “Let the children play, have something to eat, relax yourselves un peu. You’re not getting into the capital any time soon”.
The real fear that we wouldn’t make our train had receded by then, but I continued to worry, as is my wont; picking at the loose threads of a potential problem, teasing and fretting at them till things threaten to unravel, in the luxury of knowing that the worst will never be that bad. As we finally pulled off the motorway into the snaking network of roads that surround the Eurotunnel departures, I was jittery and anxious, mistrusting my ability to read the signs lest we take a wrong turning and lose a precious few moments. My husband was torn between laughing at me and, plainly, trying to hide the temptation to leave me by the side of the road. “There you go” he said, pointing at the signs leading the freight traffic off to the right. “That’s where you belong”. And “Terminal Fret” became a new shorthand for my penchant for catastrophising.
Before we’d set off on holiday, people had reacted to the news that we were going through the tunnel with approximately the same horror as if we’d said we were planning a sunny break down a mineshaft. There was much sucking of teeth and shaking of heads. There was no point in arguing that air controllers strike, Britain rains and that, in any event, we were talking about nothing more than the potential slight disruption to a holiday we were lucky enough to be having. There was still the fear, though. Not at the risk of delay, nor of any threat to us, but – if I’m honest – at the uncomfortable juxtaposition of our own fortune with the misery of others.
It is one thing to rail against dehumanising headlines and support humanitarian campaigns; another to drive past desperate people, comfortable car laden with the equipment we keep in our garage year-round so that we can spend two weeks having fun. Equipment which is a thousand times more luxurious than the conditions in which so many have no choice but to dwell. There was the grubby guiltiness of not wanting to have to explain the situation to our young children, while knowing that others much younger live – and die – in it. It’s easy to feel compassionate at a distance. Harder by far to take pride in that compassion or see it as anything more than a fig leaf when its object is on the other side of your car door as you glide past en route from nice to nicer.
Half of Syria really is on the road, and we can’t imagine it. How can we? We, I, can read stories and see photos and try to compel my mind to how it must feel to take your children’s hands in yours and turn your back on your home, your family, your job; running from the dangers you already know to the ones you can only dread. To turn everything you own or can lay claim to into the wherewithal to place your fate into the control of those you know you can’t trust – but have to. To ignore every instinct and clamour of reason to climb into a swaying, listing boat in the dark of night, or hear yourself locked into a black lorry hold. Dreaming, perhaps of better things, but surely just praying that nothing worse awaits than what you’ve already survived.
We watch and we pity, but the human mind is treacherous in its attempts at self-preservation. Despite all efforts at empathy, a small voice whispers that those who suffer war and famine and a crippling, chronic, insecurity must somehow be better equipped by that suffering to face it. The talk of migrants and swarms is abhorrent, but the mind that rejects it tries its hardest at othering nonetheless. How to respond to the needs of those affected by human-made tragedy without reducing them to simply its by-products? Though the sheer numbers in plight require a mass response, I’m wary too of an approach which lumps people together as one suffering mass. It’s easier to encompass the fact that “millions of people” feel compelled to embark on difficult, dangerous and uncertain journeys in flight or search than it is to grasp the fact that each one of them is the same complicated and unique individual we take as given that we ourselves are.
In the event, we only saw one person on the outside of the security fence at Calais. A young man, long and lean, in a thin green jacket and jeans, walking with purpose along the perimeter as we queued safely on the other side, protected by the magic little red books we have through no virtue but birth. I will never know his name. Even if told it, I could never know his nicknames, his foibles, the little shortcuts worn by love and life that make him irreplaceable to those he may never see again. And when I turn off my computer, and decide to stop worrying about things I assure myself I have limited control to change, and turn to those who are irreplaceable to me, he’ll still be walking.