Saturday, 24 October 2015

Clara's Travel Tales: Travelling in Times of Crisis

I wrote this about 6weeks ago, while I was gallivanting around Eastern Europe, so the political landscape might have changed since then... I spent about 10days in Serbia and Hungary, and as usual had some pretty weird things happen to me. I thought it'd make more sense to make it into a 3-part account, so anyway here's the first one. Enjoy.
I don't know if any of you has been following the news recently, but in the last few weeks, Europe has experienced a surge in number of people seeking refuge. Most of the people are Syrians fleeing the conflict in their country, and this has been a challenge for the European union, especially the border countries of Italy/Greece and Hungary for a variety of reasons.

One of the most important being the Dublin protocol, which states that people must seek asylum in the first country they land in. However, the sheer numbers this time meant that a change had to happen, and after lots of negotiations, an agreement was reached about how to redistribute the people fairly within the EU, based on factors like the economy, population, country size etc. In spite of this new agreement however, many of the migrants prefer to continue on to Germany and western Europe where they feel they will get better help. As you can imagine, the combination of thousands of people arriving daily, and the fact that many didn't want to seek asylum in the border countries (sometimes less welcoming), meant that things quickly heated up. The Hungarians responded to this by closing the main station from which people were transported on to western Europe.

Ok quick explanation, as an EU citizen, I have the right to visa-free travel within the community.  I also, as a Brit, have the right to stay visa-free, for up to 90days in Serbia (non-EU). Now with that brief introduction out of the way, I'll move on to the rest of the story.

One of the negative results of the recent refugee crisis, is that local populations in some countries e.g. the Eastern European and shamefully for me the UK, have shown increased hostility to people who appear non-native (they are also of course, many in these and other countries, who have shown love and given generously to aid the plight of these people). I was obviously aware of this, and had the slight worry that I being black and obviously foreign, might have some untoward experiences, but  I'm glad to say that contrary to my expectations I able to witness kindness from one or two Hungarians. Notably the guy who paid for bus tickets and helped a family of Syrian refugees we met at the night bus station.

I arrived in Budapest at 11.15pm and by the I got out of the airport, the last metro was shut, so the only option was the night bus. As I stood at the bus station together with the other travellers, a guy in his 20s, looking almost scared of bringing attention to himself, spoke quietly with a Hungarian man. Apparently, he had no clue where he was, and was trying to figure things out. He asked the man for the name of the country and city, and asked how he could buy himself a SIM card, so he could call the other people in his entourage. He'd managed together with some members of his family to arrive somehow at the train station/night bus station and wasn't quite sure how to continue from there, and of course had no Hungarian currency. He also seemed particularly worried about identifying himself as Syrian when the Hungarian asked him some questions. Anyway, the kind (but loud) Hungarian destroyed my stereotype of "Eastern Europeans," and revived my faith in Humanity, when he loudly stated that he didn't agree with the actions of his country/government, bought them tickets and then decided to go with them (out of his way), all the way to the main Keleti station where they needed to be for further trains in the EU.

The next morning, I got to the newly re-opened main station to find it a complete mess. They were people and tents everywhere, women and young children, in what looked like a mini UNHCR installation. The air felt palpably tense, and there was a very obvious armed police presence. Even entering the international ticket halls required passports with a valid visa! I had travelled a lot, and been to Budapest once before, and this was the first time in my life I ever experience something similar. The atmosphere was quite unpleasant, and made me extremely anxious for my well-being. It also made me question my ajala ways, briefly ;)

Just after boarding the train

Sustenance for the 8hr journey

Anyway after all the kerfuffle, I managed to catch my train, and settled in for the 8hour journey to Belgrade. 3.5hours later, we arrived at the border town of Kelebia where the scary border police got on and checked our passports. I knew I didn't need a visit for either country, but even I got scared as they spoke firmly with passengers and kicked  people off right left and centre. After a 30min wait, we crossed into Serbia and immediately had a repeat of the passport control event. The Serbs seemed friendlier, and the lady that checked my passport even seemed nice, but next to me was another border control guy who asked a fellow passenger for his ID card and kind of insisted on it. The thing is we Brits don't have ID cards! We can only use our passports as travel documents, unlike in many other countries. I luckily have a Belgian ID, as all citizens/residents must have one, but that's obviously not a travel document for me , especially outside of the EU. In the end he sha let the guy go, thank God!

Last Serbian town before crossing into Hungary

 The not so nice Serbian border guard

On the way back, T called me because he'd heard on the news that interesting things were happening at the border. Me, having been off the grid and dealing with other more pressing stuff, didn't know what was happening and so was completely calm. The journey went smoothly without any excitement until we got to Subotica, the last town before crossing into the Hungary. Here the previously friendly Serbian border guards burst into the carriages with some relish and started shouting "Syria, Syria!" When no one responded, they turned to some "Mediterranean" looking guy and screamed "passport!" at him. Lucky for him, he was Italian, and was let go fairly quickly. They then checked everyone else and the atmosphere became rather tense and I scared. For the first time in my life, I was specially glad about the normally unremarkable fact that I am black! It's sad to say this, but no one shouted at me or treated me weirdly, because I did not have the "Syrian" phenotype.

Tune in later for parts 2 and 3 of Clara's great Eastern adventure of 2015 ;) 

Friday, 23 October 2015


I got a request from the lovely Miss Pynk two days ago to update (thank you for the encouragement!)  and as an amenable somebody, I decided to acquiesce and put up a post. 

I know, I've been a super lazy blogger in the last few weeks and in fact I think the last time I put up a post was over a month ago, but I have a valid excuse. My life has been just cray cray! I've been travelling A LOT, and in addition to this, have had many life-changes occur in the last few weeks. I'm not sure if everyone knows this, but I moved here to Belgium last November, almost a year ago. At the time the move was meant to be temporary, a grown-up (working) Gap year if you will. I wasn't quite ready to move back home to England, and as we still weren't sure where T and I would settle, I decided to do a sideways shift from Paris to Brussels. I got a job as a maternity replacement and a flat for 9months, however as the time slowly elapsed, I realised that I'd probably stay here for a while longer, and needed to look for a new job and a new accommodation. The job search was relatively painless and I soon got myself something interesting, however, the situation on the flathunt front was completely chaotic. I had decided to give up my apartment, and look for a flatshare, because I wanted to save more money so I could pay back my student loans faster, besides, as I was never in my flat #ajalatinz, I thought it made more sense to get something smaller and cheaper. 

Easy peasy right? Wrong! From the hollywoodesque flat, with a swimming pool, where the en-suite rooms were bigger than my actual flat, to the super grotty room in the middle of nowhere, I was exceptionally unlucky. As in people would say yes, ask me to come sign the contract, then turn around and send a message retracting their offer. The last one was particularly painful, as I truly believed I had the place, only for the guy to send me a message at 11.50pm on the Wednesday night (I was supposed to move on Friday morning!), saying they'd decided to give the room to someone else. To say I was distraught was an understatement! Anyway, I remembered that I had details for another flat, so I sent the guy a long message explaining my plight and thank God he replied immediately and even agreed to show me the place the next day, Thursday after work. With the money, as well as all my paperwork (passport, Belgian ID card, work contract etc.) in hand, I turned up without a lot of faith, since I'd been burnt so many times. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and met the guy who being in a hurry, gave me a quick 5minute tour of the house, and then handed me the keys just like that. No payment, no paperwork! He was like "we can sort all of that out in the days to come". I'd found something only a few hours before I had to be out of the other place, I couldn't believe I wasn't going to be homeless! I had to stay up all night to pack and clean the old flat, then with the help of my amazing colleagues, moved into my new place at 9.30 the next morning, sleep-deprived but so so happy. That was last Friday, and I have been trying to recover since then, with working the weekend and doing all the admin stuff (medical visits, HR etc.) for the new job.

In other equally exciting news, I got the results of my German exams yesterday, and not only did I not fail, I did well!!! I wanted to get 4s in all the sections, but knew that I was probably realistically only worth 3s. I mean I only started learning in January, by myself, and I'd had moments when I was quite lazy and didn't do any work for weeks. Plus I kept reading online that the people who did well in the exam, often took classes for years, then attended special preparation courses and bought/used the practise books. Me, being a cheapskate couldn't be bothered with all of that, especially since I had already shelled out 175 for the exam and was taking it just "for fun" anyway (other people take it to prove that they have an academic-level grasp of German, for Uni). I sha did my best in the last few weeks, revised a lot and went off to spend 4days in Germany at T's parents place, and hoped for the best. And it worked! I got 4s in 3 of the sections, and even a 5 in the speaking part, meaning that I am now at the upper Intermediate/advanced level, after only 8months of self-study. I achieved the goal I set in January 3months early!!! The best thing about all of this is that the certificate is valid for life, and should I wish to apply, I will be exempted from all German university language requirements forever. Anyway below is a picture of the results, live and direct. 

So, I'd like to thank and dedicate this award I mean certificate to T's mum, the person who inspired me to learn German, and the most patient teacher ever. I'd also like to recognise the hard work of Hanna, my language partner who started with me "from the bottom" and accompanied me till I got "here." The poor thing had to deal with me shooting unimaginable grammar bullets at her, but she survived, and made it her job to encourage me at every turn. A huge vote of thanks also goes to Jen and Shahida, my blog readers, Instagram followers and Periscope audience, for the support and encouragement in those times when I was fed up of German and/or lazy. And last but not least, I'd like to thank God, my family, T (side-eye though for the times he laughed at me), the city of Cologne, the German TV channels online, the Conversation Exchange community, my poor colleagues who had to deal with my Franco-Germano-English words and phrases, my credit card for covering the (in no way negligible) cost of the exams, the various restaurants where I met Hanna every week to practise German and sample the wonderful range of Belgian beers, the Belgian train company for not doing their usual thing and striking on the day of my exam and Haribo for making the gummy bears given to me by the MIL as nerve-calming medicine. I will think of each person/party whenever I look at the certificate, and of course you should know that you each own a tiny piece of it ;)

Now I really am motivated to keep improving, plus I need to get back to my Italian. This has reminded me that I CAN do anything I put my mind to!

And, #godwin is definitely the phrase for this week!