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ENTERING FORTRESS EUROPE

 

By Rosemary Ekosso

Wednesday, May 5, 2010.

Not too long ago, I left Phnom Penh for England, where I was going to spend last Christmas and New Year.

I have been looking forward to the trip not only as a respite from the rice-based diet I have been consuming in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but also as a means of escaping the office where, of late, I have been forced to consider making difficult decisions.

As we near my destination, I gathered my personal effects, strewn in characteristic fashion all over the bit of space the airline allows me for the price I paid. It has been a long twelve hours on this particular aircraft. I’ll be glad to stretch my legs.

But I am not at ease in my mind.

Each time I travel by air to or within Europe, I do not feel happiness or relief as my journey ends. This Saturday morning, as I look down on Europe, with its aseptic dusting of snow, as I gazed out of the window at the fuzzy geometrics of this systematic civilization, I asked myself this:

Why do I come to a place where I know I’m not wanted?

But if I’m not wanted, who it is that does not want me and why do they feel this way?

We are all familiar with the immigration debate. We know that Fortress Europe has girded itself about with barriers and seeks to allow only those people who will help it preserve the civilization it has developed. Because I am, in some way, one of those who have been allowed in on sufferance alone, I am acutely aware that I am, in immigration parlance, an alien.

I have the option, because of my personal circumstances, to seek British citizenship in a few years. But I am ambivalent about getting a British passport. For one thing, it would require me to live in Britain for a length of time, and although there are things I like about this country, living here is not one of them. It is unlikely that I would get the kind of work I enjoy doing. And the houses look so small!

For another, I feel it would be a betrayal of my country. But I am aware that I think this way because my circumstances allow me the luxury of such thoughts. Unlike me, many who come to these shores are at bay and the alternative is death or despair.

So I look at the snow covering central Europe, and my stomach tightens a little. My jaw clenches and I can feel myself beginning to grind my teeth. I recognize the signs.

I am afraid.

I am afraid of the subtle and not-so-subtle humiliations I may have to endure at airports, not particularly because of the colour of my skin, I don’t think, but because I represent the poor knocking at the door of the rich, who do not really like to share their wealth.

I am afraid because I feel I have to be careful when entering a shop carrying merchandise bought in another location that might be available in the shop. So I practice self-censorship (a couple of days ago, I elected to stay out in the cold and wait for my companion rather than enter a shop with my previously purchased merchandise – I was worried they might think I had stolen the newspaper I carried under my arm).

Then there’s the issue of breaching Fortress Europe. Nearly three years ago, I had a rather unpleasant experience at the airport in Rome. Although I was coming in on a European flight (we all know how the guards of Fortress Europe swarm over the luggage and passengers from poor countries), I was made to wait until everyone else had left, then my passport was examined minutely, discussed, set aside and discussed again. In the end it was flung back at me and I was allowed in. I do not think I have ever met such rude, churlish border guards before.

I remember being singled out for the sniffer dog when I was entering England from Amsterdam. I remember a great many unpleasant events.

My experience has not always been as bad, but it’s the feeling of rejection I remember, not the warm welcomes (and there have been many). The prospect of rejection is always at the back of my mind whenever I travel in Europe.

This is what I tell my relatives and friends back home: don’t come here if you can help it. There is some love and unqualified acceptance, but there is a lot of pity, indifference, contempt and sometimes even hatred. Better stay at home and be hated by the ones who know you. There’s nothing for us here that really matters apart from work and money, I think. But then what can you do without work or money?

I left my previous job in The Netherlands because I had a better-paying job in a new and exotic location. My decision to leave invited the tenacious ire of a superior at work and I was very glad to leave indeed. I was glad to stamp the dust of Europe from my feet.

But I carry Europe with me. I will have to return from time to time and quite possibly permanently one day. In any event, although I love Phnom Penh, I went there primarily to work and the challenge of work is no respecter of boundaries. Then things I hate about work exist also in Phnom Penh. And so, seeking succour and time off, I travel back to Europe, where I think I’m not wanted.

I think of myself chiefly as a technician in a given speciality. I enjoy the nuts and bolts of my job. But I do not like the politics and I certainly do not like supervising other people. As they say, be careful what you ask God for; he might give it to you.

My thoughts turn to food. I am sick and tired of the rice-based Cambodian fare, but what I pine for is not European food. What I want is fufu and eru and "sleeping" (overnight) mbanga soup with macabo. I want ekwang and pepper soup okra with liver. European food sometimes tastes good, but I know it does not agree with my waistline. What kind of place is this, I ask myself, where the food is prepared according to very high standards of hygiene but is so bad for me that I have to fight a pitched battle with it in order to prevent it from depositing itself into the nooks and crannies of my body, accumulating until it becomes a source of despair when I inadvertently catch sight of myself in a mirror?

What kind of place is it where even the food is my adversary? Why am I coming here?

Even traffic is my enemy. Or rather, public transport is. I can manage trains, but I do not like to speak to bus drivers. When I was in The Netherlands, I used to get off one stop early on a particular bus route because I could not pronounce the name of the preceding stop (it is true, though, that some wit said Dutch is the only language which does not sound cute, even in the mouths of children). Although the public transport system here is beautifully organized, I think I still prefer our anarchic approach back home. In our transport system (or the lack of one), there is a vibrant humanity and room for chance that they don’t have in Europe.

I do not feel a thrill at nearing the end of my twenty-three hour journey. It gives me a strangely exhilarating thrill to know I am returning to Cambodia each time I leave it. I find it unutterably exciting. Perhaps Europe does not excite me because I know so much about it. When I went to secondary school, we were the first batch to stop studying European history and start studying world history, and therefore a little of our own, for the GCE. But as a pre-teen, I loved the Punch cartoons in the European history books and that excited my interest in European history as a whole.

Anyway, I have filled out the requisite landing card and here I am. It is my turn before the guard on Europe’s frontier. I get through without a fuss. I collect my luggage, change into warm clothes and head out to meet Europe.

I am stopped by a border guard who sidles up to me and puts deceptively soft and sibilant questions. I answer them to his satisfaction, I think, since I am allowed to go free.

He’s black.

Welcome to Europe!

Rosemary Ekosso is a writer based in Holland. She blogs at www.ekosso.com

 

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