Thursday, September 17, 2015

Refugees and Me

It seems there was an accident with the sideshow. A truck slammed into the stage and they're assessing the damage so now they don't know when (or if) I am needed for the Munich Oktoberfest. Which sucks since I thought I would finally be able to pay almost everyone back. Well, I obviously couldn't stay in Venice since I was nearly out of money and there are not many legal or ethical or remotely pleasant ways for me to refill my pockets in La Serenissima. So I emailed a friend who sent me money for a train ticket back to Berlin. But there was a grant deadline that day for an application that I was being paid to write and I ended up spending part of my train fare at the internet cafe. The arts organization paid me as soon as they could, but the ticket price had already leaped from €120 to €220. So I bought a train ticket from Venice to Munich, and then a bus ticket from Munich to Berlin.

And that's how I ended up stumbling straight into the refugee crisis.

The train ride was really pleasant at first with beautiful views of the Brenner Pass. I finished my novel and went to the dining car to see if there was anything I could afford. My first glance at the menu yielded the word früstück which filled me with dread and dismay. Oh man, German. After a week of enjoying crostini for €1.20 on the steps of crumbling 17th century palazzos overlooking sun-dappled grey-green water, I was going back with no money to Germany where I would have to eat €3 doner kebabs while staring at Soviet architecture. Remind me why? I had half a mind to get off at Padova and never be heard from again. 

When we reached Innsbruck in Austria, a new train conductor began his shift. He started to go through the train stopping at every dark person to ask for a ticket. "No ticket, no money, you go out to platform," he declared to a mystified group of four Africans. Two of them had tickets, two of them paid. He approached the next African, a lady in a pink sweater, who looked at him with incomprehension. A German guy across the aisle volunteered to pay for her. I suddenly realized that the conductor wasn't racial profiling, he was refugee profiling.

About a quarter of the people on the very full train were some sort of African that I wasn't familiar with. For the most part, they were small and thin. They had round eyes and a sharp nose, the kind of nose that is coveted in Asian countries, what my mother calls jiam jiam. Their skin was a rich shade of medium brown with a slight underneath yellow tinge. Most of them wore puffy jackets with a hood sprouting fake grey fur.

At the last little town in Austria, the train stopped for an inordinately long time. Finally, there was an announcement in German that confused all the Italian and English speakers. The guy facing me said that it was something about an unidentified bag. The woman across the aisle said that it was something about refugees. Sure enough, after a few minutes, three policemen with padded jackets and guns escorted a few Africans off the train. They looked like teenagers. We all craned our necks and peered out the window to the platform, where a dozen policemen had rounded up about two dozen Africans. Then the train left the station.

The train arrived in Munich half an hour late. At the end of the platform, there was a phalanx of policemen who were dividing up everyone who had just gotten off the train. The dark people were shepherded to the right where they had to show their travel documents and tickets before they could exit. The Europeans were shuttled to the left where they could exit unimpeded. I wondered whether I would be moved to the right or left. As we got closer, my feet of their own accord veered toward to the refugees on the right. A big German policeman got in front of me and pushed me to the left. Oh, okay, I guess I'm with the Europeans? A hundred years ago, you would've examined my teeth and asked if I had worms.

I had a doner kebab for €3 while staring at the lit up plastic signs of the Hauptbanhof and then I walked the two blocks to the bus station, passing by a shuttle bus where about twenty Africans (mostly men) were waiting to be taken to a shelter. At least that's where I assume they were being taken. They seemed relaxed and happy about it. Two seemed to be playing cards.

I got to the bus station and was pleased that I had timed it perfectly. Only fifteen minutes for the bus to arrive. Little did I know. I had chosen the bus because it gave me an hour and a half to transfer. But I had unwittingly picked the bus that was coming from Salzburg. My dumb luck. The bus was over an hour late because of border controls.

Some guy from the bus company finally showed up to tell us something in German. "What did he say?" I asked the big German guy standing next to me. He was in his 40s, I think, a curly haired guy about 6'5"tall in a white linen suit. He looked upper middle class, educated. "They are telling us to stand over there and the bus will come at 11:00," he responded, "but I am going to change my ticket. You see all these people? They are refugees. I don't want to sit next to someone like that for eight hours. You can catch a disease! They could have tuberculosis! You can sit next to a small boy who hasn't been vaccinated!"

I am not paraphrasing too much. This is what this guy actually said.

We waited and waited and waited. There were about five families camped out next to the bus station office where our extremely late bus was supposed to arrive. Moms and dads and crashed out two year olds in stretchy patterned trousers and clunky plastic sandals. These weren't Africans; they were some kind of Middle Eastern. The women were veiled, the men were bearded. I saw a few medics sporting vests that said Doctors Without Borders in various languages. I wanted to talk to them but a chatty Brazilian guy had buttonholed me with something about dancing the tango.

A bunch of policemen came and told the Middle Easterners that they had to go to the train station. Roused from sleep, the children began crying. The parents grabbed their wrists with a don't-you-start steely grip and yanked them howling through the station, following the policemen, who were power-walking to the train. One little boy tried to get into his stroller but his parents were too anxious to go. They left the double stroller in the bus station, toys still hanging on the lip of the hood.

At 11:20, the bus finally came. The upper level was full of Middle Easterners. I swear that besides me, there were only four other people on the packed bus who weren't from some Muslim country. I sat next to a 17 year old boy who had a slight funk like he had been sweating all day in his velour track suit. He looked at me curiously but he didn't speak English and I doubt if he speaks Chinese or Spanish. I don't think he even speaks German. What will school be like for him? What was school like for him where he came from? Did he manage to attend? I wondered who all these people were and what they were doing on an overnight bus to Berlin. The boy played a video game (pling pling pling) half the night and then he fell asleep, snoring softly. When we arrived in Berlin at 7AM, he was still snoring. His parents across the aisle yelled for him to wake up. But I thought they should let the kid sleep a little more, crumpled up in his velour suit like a breathing bath mat.

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