It is funny how a stranger insulting you in a foreign tongue in an unknown city can make you reconsider what you think you know about yourself.
It was Oct 05, 2015, three days after Shakil, my husband, and I had landed in Nice amid thunder and turbulence, receiving thoroughly soaked bags at the airport. Being used to better service back home, we hadn’t had the foresight to prevent something like that happening; in fact, I had wondered why our fellow travellers on the connecting flight from Istanbul were carrying suitcases wrapped in plastic sheets. So déclassé!
Next morning, we had braved worsening weather to visit Monte Carlo, almost missing what turned out to be the last train of the day back to Nice. We then somehow found the energy to catch a tram to the town square and then on to Plage de Nice Promenade des Anglais. It was pouring heavily, and the promenade was shutting down before time. All through this, never once did we imagine we were witnessing a natural disaster on a scale the Riviera hadn’t seen in ages.
We had kebabs and tea at a bistro owned by an Algerian couple; they were the only ones who had still kept their eatery open. Wading through knee-deep water, we reached our Airbnb apartment on Avenue Henri Barbusse, only to be told by Marie, our hostess, that all train routes and roads out of Nice had been blocked. No cars could be hired either.
“No!” we exclaimed, “We HAVE to reach Marseilles, we have a cruise to catch!”
“Bonne chance!” she replied.
Well, bonne chance, indeed, as Shakil was able to rent a Peugeot 107; and after gifting Marie a mauve Chanderi stole and clicking parting pictures with her, we were on our way! Finally!
It was a Sunday, we were driving through one of the most picturesque routes in the world, but the mood in the car was far from festive. The storm had already claimed sixteen lives, and we were expecting a roadblock any minute. That roadblock, it never came. Passing Antibes, and then Cannes, there was not the slightest sign of a calamity. It was shamelessly sunny and bright, and the world was going about its way like nothing had happened! After the uncertainty of the past twelve hours, it was unbelievable.
We reached Marseille in time and were at the car drop-off point at Gare de Marseille Saint Charles, the railway station, early the next morning. Now, this station is perched on top of a small hill and is connected to the streets by a daunting flight of stairs. We had a lot of luggage. So, it was decided that I would wait on the main road, while Shakil would finish the formalities at the station as quickly as possible.
Exactly a month before that mild Monday morning in Marseille, the death of Aylan al-Kurdi had shaken the world and directed its attention towards the Syrian Refugee Crisis. The Syrian Civil War had displaced millions, and the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was calling the crisis “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”. By September 2015, 8000 refugees were crossing into Europe every day. Even as the negative response of Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim countries to this crisis was being condemned, Germany and Sweden were taking on more and more asylum applications. Many EU countries, though, were still debating the economic and social costs of absorbing the refugees.
Back to where I was. Nearby, a municipal worker was sweeping the boundary of the parking lot. Another was replacing the transparent garbage liners on waist-high iron hoops. (I later learned that it was to deter anyone from hiding a bomb in a trash can.)
There were beautiful statues at the base of the stairs that reminded me of Victoria Memorial back in Calcutta. The neighbourhood mostly had cheap hotels, run-down apartment buildings, some cafes, and tour offices that hadn’t yet commenced business for the day. A coloured boy with earphones plugged into his ears zipped past me on roller blades. I clutched my handbag a little tighter. I looked around. Most people appeared to be pre-occupied office goers on their way to work, quintessential scarf in place, half-eaten sandwich in hand.
And then there were the slackers, lolling on the pavements, smoking cigarettes, staring at me. Naturally, it made me self-conscious. I tried to imagine how I would look to them, a lone foreign woman standing there with a mini-mountain of bags. I was dressed decently enough. I mentally rattled off the brands I was wearing, Mango, AND, Clarks, Calonge… Good enough for the French, I reckoned.
Suddenly, a loud and shrill female voice penetrated the scene. A stray dog yelped and scooted off. An old lady had emerged from one of the apartment blocks and was rushing towards me. Her wrinkled, sun-beaten face was scrunched up in an angry scowl. I looked behind me to check who she was upset with but there was no one there. Did that mean she was talking to me? But what had I done?
I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying to me, so I looked around to see if somebody could help. Most people looked away, visibly embarrassed. By then it was clear that the woman was not deranged. She most definitely was in a mood to give me a piece of her mind. And then it dawned on me. That woman was thinking I was a refugee. That I was there to steal her job and rob her benefits.
My first thought was to somehow explain to her I’m Indian and just a tourist. Do I look like a Syrian to you? But then what did I mean by that? How was a Syrian woman supposed to look? How was she supposed to be different from me? What are the markers of identity? What is identity?
She was now just across the street, and quite by reflex, I adjusted my hair so she could see the diamonds on my ears. I am not poor, you see! I took out my iPhone from my bag. You see that? But her rant continued. Perhaps seeing a smartphone in my hand just made her madder. I sighed, put my inscrutable Bombay face on, and waited for Shakil.