Surprise birthday party in the Pyrenees

Gorgeous setting, Aucun, France
Gorgeous setting in Aucun, France

About two months ago, I receive a message from one of my friend from the Antarctica trip. He was organising a surprise birthday party for his now wife for her 30th anniversary in the Pyrenees. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to catch up and get some fresh air and hiking. I made sure to count my days left in my Schengen zone visa so I wouldn’t run out before the birthday. Being Canadian, I’m allowed 90 days in 180. While I’m often tempted to complain this is not long enough for my liking, I’m acutely aware now that at least I am legally allowed in the country for 90 days at a time, which is actually pretty good. In order to get enough days, I took a week off from volunteering in Calais and went back to the UK. But of course I miscalculated my days and it turns out I had to leave France one day earlier than I would have liked, but nevertheless, I had just enough days to be there for the weekend.

I left Calais and stopped in Paris for a couple nights. At first, I thought I would go see if Paris had changed since the last time I was there years ago, but that was silly thinking of me. I was so exhausted I ended up sleeping, only getting out the hotel to get some food at the nearby supermarket before coming crashing down in my very comfy bed. I guess I’ll now have to go back to Paris to have a proper look at the city of love!

Lovely evening with my childhood friend.Both she and her husband love polaroid.
Lovely evening with my childhood friend. Both she and her husband love polaroids.

Quick catch up with a childhood friend

When I decided to go visit Audrey and Pascal in the Pyrenees, I realised I could hit two birds with one stone and also catch up with a childhood friend of mine who just happened to have moved to Bordeaux.

I always love it when you meet up with friends you rarely see, yet every time it feels like to time has passed at all. That’s how it is with Vero, and I love it! We had a lovely time, dinner, drink and walk by the river at night. Bordeaux seems to be a nice city and I’ll definitely have to add it to the ever-growing list of places to return to.

Surprise birthday party

I have to admit, by the time I arrived in Aucun, the small Pyrenees village we were spending the weekend in, I thought that for sure my friend would know by then that about 60 people were gathering to celebrate her birthday. Surely someone would have dropped a hint or something. But when she came back from a hike to have dinner with what she thought was going to be only her father, the look on her face said it all. She had no clue! She looked in shock for the whole evening, which included many challenges: eating insects, a geography challenge of some countries they had not visited in their three-year round the world trip, and a dance challenge. To say that she succeeded at all the challenges would be lying but she really gave it her all!

Met lovely, inspiring people

I met some of Audrey and Pascal’s families and they are so nice. I mean genuinely nice and interested in others. Something I definitely needed in order to land back smoothly into the normal world after Calais. I was not the only one having made changes in my travel plans to make sure I was there, there was a sweet woman from Colombia and another one from Singapore. It surely reflects on how much we love Audrey and Pascal, that we would all be ready to move our plans around to make sure to be there to celebrate with them. They are some of the nicest and most amazing humans I know.

Simply beautiful Pyrenees
The Pyrenees, simply beautiful

Hiking in the Pyrenees, simply beautiful

We couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was sunny and warm. Warm enough to be wearing only a t-shirt instead of 2 jumpers, a jacket and a scarf! I had never been to the Pyrenees and I must say, it is stunning.

The rugged mountains in the background, the colourful autumn leaves and the great company made for our first short hike a great moment. Plus I really needed to walk off some of the many, many calories ingested during the weekend! At one point it felt like all we did was eat. We had breakfast, lounged in our amazing lodge, joined everyone for lunch, went for a very short walk and it was already time to come back for dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating, but this was a lot of food!!

Shepherds shelter under a rock
Shepherd’s shelter under a rock

Finally back into the nature

I was not the only one needed to walk off some of the food, so much so, a group of 15 of us went for a walk. The sun was shining and the turquoise water sparkling. It was splendid. We made our way to a little cabin used in the past by shepherds. They would find shelter under massive rocks, and at one point they probably thought, why not build actual walls and call this a home.

Pyrenean Chamois
Pyrenean Chamois

After our lunch break, we kept going up the mountain and when entering a little valley we encountered a group of pretty cute chamois. I really don’t understand how agile they can be to climb up the mountain, but that’s definitely a skill I need to work on. There’s no way I could ever be as graceful as they were but I’m sure I could be slightly less inelegant!

After a few days, it was already time to head back to the UK and leave the Schengen area. This whole weekend, with all its gorgeous scenery, welcoming people, and the summery weather was definitely what I needed, even if I didn’t know it at the time!

Merci Vero and  Paul, Audrey and Pascal and all your friends and relatives, I had an amazing time!

Have you ever to organise a big surprise birthday celebration and managed to keep it a secret until the very moment the person walks in the room? If so kudos to you!

What are your favourite spots for a rejuvenating outdoorsy few days?

Volunteering with L’auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees – a human experience

Since coming back to the UK and writing this, a lot has changed. The French authorities decided to destroy the South half of the camp, and even though they promised it would be gradual, humane and respectful of the dignity of the people living in the camp and that the approach would be humanitarian, this is definitely not how things have been happening. You can get current updates on the situation here.

In the light of the latest terrorist attack, I also feel the urge to add a reminder that refugees fleeing countries at war are trying to escape the same people responsible for the attacks in Turkey and Belgium. They are not coming to Europe because they want to ruin your lives, but only because they want to increase their chances of survival and normal life.

Working in the warehouse

On my first day of volunteering in Calais, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was a bit anxious to find a ride to get to the warehouse when I went down for breakfast but I easily met people willing to give me a lift. We, unfortunately, arrived after the morning briefing consequently I was not assigned to a specific job. As soon as trucks filled with donations started to arrive, I quickly got to work unloading clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, tents, etc.

Once we finished with the trucks I didn’t know yet what needed to be done so I asked the first person I saw in the warehouse and it turns out they were sorting shoes. I spent the remaining of the day in that section. There are four categories for shoes to be kept: hiking boots, trainers, shower shoes and wellies (rain boots). It’s crazy what some people think is appropriate to send, for example, high heels slippers with fur. Of course, that’s what is most needed in a muddy camp, right?

The next few days I worked in different stations. Most days I would make what we call Men Full Kit. They contain a hygiene kit, a jumper or fleece, a long sleeve and a short sleeve t-shirt, two pairs of socks, a hat, a scarf, underwear, and gloves if all of this is available when we do the packs. If not, we make do with what we’ve got. We put each kit in a bin bag, close it and label it either small, medium or large. Hundreds of them are distributed two to three days a week, on Saturday, Sunday and sometimes Monday, when there’s enough stock.

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I loved my experience even if I was tired, sore and wearing that new cologne, dusty smell of warehouse, pretty much every day. One day, after helping to unload more donations, I was presented with an orange Hi-Vis vest. This meant that I was now one of the people to ask questions to. Orange wearing people are the ones to go to when one has questions or need any kind of help, because they either have been there for a while or they understand the different systems. Most of the warehouse jobs are getting everything ready for the distribution teams. One day it’s jackets, the next it’s trousers, shoes, Men Kits, and so on. Unfortunately, we often don’t have enough stock to send to camp as the charities relies solely on donations. Hiking shoes, clothing items in smaller men and women sizes, sleeping bags, blankets, and tin food items are always needed. The list is regularly updated on Help Refugees website should you want to make a much needed and very much appreciated donation.

My favourite thing about volunteering with L’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees was to see how many people wanted to help and how relatively smoothly things were running in the warehouse even though there’s a lot of different people coming in every day. I find this quite admirable. The managers are running a great operation and they are genuinely concerned with the well-being of all the volunteers and refugees.

Blanket distribution

One day I went on a blanket distribution in the Jungle. We got two teams ready and filled the cars with suitcases and blankets. When we finally managed to find the camp entrance, after getting lost in Calais while following the first car, we took a suitcase each, filled it with as many blankets as we could and headed into camp.As soon as we entered the camp, some people surrounded us wanting to help. A lot of people were asking for shoes and, unfortunately, we didn’t have any. Once our suitcases were quickly emptied, we went back to the warehouse to pick up more blankets. As usual, the supplies of thick blankets were really low.

As soon as we entered the camp, some people surrounded us wanting to help. A lot of people were asking for shoes and, unfortunately, we didn’t have any. Once our suitcases were quickly emptied, we went back to the warehouse to pick up more blankets. As usual, the supplies of thick blankets were really low.

We parked again in a street next to the camp entrance, filled our suitcases with more blankets before going back to the Jungle. This time, we knew where to go so it was a bit more effective. As we were finishing handing blankets some of the guys invited us to come in for tea. We said we needed to bring back more blankets but we would be back later. On our way back to the warehouse we were following the other car once again and they got confused by what looked familiar, so we ended up back at the hostel!

Banksy artwork in Calais

We had talked about Banksy and how we liked his artwork, so while we were now back at the hostel, we did a quick detour to have a look at the piece on the beach. On our third trip to the camp, two guys offered help to carry our suitcases. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea at first, but it was obviously fine. The two guys had arrived ten days before and they just wanted to chat and help. Once again, after distributing blankets, in typical fashion, we were offered tea from everyone. But because we had already said yes to a group earlier, we found their shelter and visited them. The shelter they lived in is about the length of a bed, square. And three of them actually lived in it. No electricity, only some roll mats and sleeping bags on the floor, and blankets to add insulation on the walls.

The guys were from Irak, Syria, and Koweit, all living together. A lot of people kept coming in and out to say hello. They were all so nice. Most of that group were aged between 22 and 34, all with family members in the UK and Sweden. I’ve never felt so much love and so much pain at the same time. At one point an Italian journalist poked his head in and started asking personal questions about the guy’s journey and it felt really intrusive. The guy’s attitude also changed drastically. They did not mind us asking some questions, but somebody coming in uninvited and starting asking questions about their journey was very insensitive and rude.

We enjoyed tea with all of them until it started getting dark. When it was time to leave we took pictures and exchanged contact info. I will however not post the pictures I’ve taken in the Jungle as it can affect the refugees asylum claims when they finally make it to the UK or any other destination. One of the young guys walked us back to the entrance and thanked us for the blankets once again. He was so grateful he was not going to be as cold at night from now on. At night, the main street in the Jungle turned into a little market and everybody was out, socializing, trying to make this experience as close to ”normal life” as possible. It felt just like the evenings I had experienced in Jordan.

Back from the jungle, however, I’ve never felt so privileged. I was not sure what to make of this. The shock from leaving the ”house” where we had tea with a very nice group of people to walking into civilization and the hostel hurt. To know that I was going to be warm not only that night, but all the following ones as well, and they wouldn’t really breaks my heart. I felt so powerless.

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Shoes sorting station

Managing the warehouse

When I arrived one morning, I was told I was doing the briefing and I was so not ready for that! I was very nervous and I didn’t know what to say or have a plan. I was more prepared the next day… slightly. The main warehouse manager left on a Wednesday. He kept telling me I would get the keys when he would leave, but I thought he was joking around. Little did I know both him and the front of the warehouse manager would be gone at the same time. Emma, the volunteer coordinator and my instant new best friend and I had to step in.

Briefing, dispatching and training people, welcoming new arrivals, receiving and sorting donations quickly became our new routine. The days started to blend together and go by really quickly.

There are a few times where I truly didn’t think I was going to make it. I ran like a maniac all day trying to get everything that needed to go out, coordinating the waltz of trucks, all with very little amount of volunteers and a lot of things to do. It was really hard work and even though everyone seemed to think I was handling it well, I felt overwhelmed every day, multiple times per day. It gets so hard to deal with the emotions associated with this whole ordeal. I think that’s why everybody here is so focused on work, work, work. It’s the only way to keep going and not fall to pieces.

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One of my very useful new friend

At one point, you get tired and everything seems worst than it actually is. And you become less patient. I almost lost it on two volunteers one day, but finally took a break and went to the kids section and sat with a teddy bear for a short while to calm myself down. No wonder the previous manager seemed a bit rude sometimes with people. Common sense is not so common after all!

One night, as everybody had left and we were closing the warehouse, I had to turn away a group of people bringing some donations. After all the volunteers were gone for the night of course. I was tired and unsure what to do, but I tried to keep my sense of humour. I asked if the donations were sorted and when they said they weren’t, I told them it was up to them really but there was a good chance of me growling and biting if they were delivering tonight but if they came back the next day with sorted donations I would welcome them with a smile and maybe even a happy dance! They opted for that sensible second option. There’s already so much to do in the warehouse when stuff arrives unsorted, or when it is inappropriate, it takes times and energy that could otherwise be spent doing useful things.

Dealing with the fact that I am free to go wherever I want

After my experience with L’auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees, I have mixed feelings about a lot of things: leaving the warehouse, going back to a ”normal” life in Scotland and reconsidering my work and life choices. Plus having to say goodbye to new friends and leaving yet another little bubble of parallel life.

It was so heartbreaking to be on the ferry knowing that just because I was born in Canada I could travel freely and that the lovely people I had met were stuck in Calais because they were not as fortunate as me. I feel so privileged to be born in Canada and to be allowed very easy travel between France and the UK without having to actually risk my life. I’ve met great people in camp living in terrible conditions, risking their lives daily with very little chance of actually succeeding in crossing when I can just show a little blue book with my picture on it and I can get across no questions asked.

Such a human experience

Volunteering for l’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees has been such a great experience. Very challenging of course when everybody left, but Emma and I definitely rose up to the challenge. I feel like I’ve met such amazing people who truly care and want to make a difference in some strangers’ life. It is truly inspiring.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I know some people in the camp have less than desirable agendas, but the people I’ve met all share a common goal. Fleeing war-torn countries and improving their life conditions. And as much as there are tensions in camp between refugees, police, and locals, there is also a lot of people working together, helping each other and trying their best to make this situation a better one for everyone involved.

I feel lucky to have met such amazing people doing amazing things just out of the simple fact that they care and want to help their fellow human companions.

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Some lovely messages sent with donations

Struggling to be back in the real world

When I was walking back from the train station in Edinburgh, a beggar told me to smile and as I walked away he added it could be me in his situation. He obviously assumed I had more money than he did as I was traveling, which may or may not be right but it upset me. He had assumed things about me. He assumed I was having an easy life, backpacking through Europe. He could not know that I had just arrived from volunteering in a refugee camp where I lived in a caravan without electricity, heating or water. (It was just easier to leave the hostel to be right on site after the managers left). This judging without knowing hurt me a lot. It’s the same judgment refugees face every day. People assuming they are trying to use benefits and get free housing in a new country, where in fact they had to leave their homes, their friends and family, just to try to get a chance at a better life. They do not want to live in the camp. They want to be reunited with family members who made it across, be safe, warm and have access to food, and maybe have a chance at starting a new life.

Call me an idealist, but I prefer to assume people are nice and don’t intend harm. And I truly believe compassion and understanding are what will change the world. One good deed at a time.