So we’re getting on the train at St Astier, ready to cross France for 8 hours to visit with an old family friend, and there’s some kind of problem on board with one of the other passengers. A young man, perhaps 25, dressed in black hoodie jacket, loose black pants, with a big, scruffy black suitcase. He’s white-skinned, sunken eyes, sweating slightly. He reminds me of a nervous dog, who got that way by being beaten.
The conductor is standing in front of him, arms folded, legs wide apart, telling him he needs a ticket to travel, and where is it? A younger conductor is standing further along, in exactly the same pose, blocking the exit down the carriage. There’s only the door to get off, and the tight corridor surrounding us. Other passengers are looking over and away, then over again.
Son ‘15’ and I are each lugging big suitcases, a small backpack, a bag of food, and my handbag, plus a 5 litre bottle of water. We are now in the middle of the action, burdened and stuck.
Another woman got on with us too, black-skinned, thirty-something. She hastily got out her ticket to show the older conductor, then squeezed on down the carriage. I felt him look at the two of us, then become disinterested, turning back to the young man with no ticket.
And thus I felt the instant shock of ‘white, middle-class, middle-age privilege’. A silver-haired, respectably-dressed woman, clearly travelling with her teenage son: no fare dodgers here!
I looked at the black female passenger who’d got on with us, and wondered about her history? She’d seemed really anxious to show her ‘papers’ to the authority, and then get out of harm’s way. Or had she heard something in the interactions that I just hadn’t understood? The air felt thick with struggle, and it sank into us.
I watched the young man, as we struggled to stash our luggage, and work out where to sit. He was shuffling through papers, clearly looking for something, and seemed quietly distressed. His hands were shaking; was he coming down from drugs, or had the flu? How was his mental health, or did he perhaps have a disability? He wasn’t talking back, just looked confused.
The older conductor told him if he didn’t get off here and now, the police would greet him at the next stop (my French comprehension is getting pretty good). Still he shuffled through his papers, and my heart tugged. What if he was trying to get home to see his family, and they’d sent him a ticket? What if he had no other money? What if he couldn’t speak the language, and didn’t know what was going on? Ten possible stories ran off him, like waterfalls, and I felt pulled to help.
But my spoken French isn’t yet strong. And no one else was jumping to his aid; perhaps he’d been disruptive, and everyone was glad he was being dealt with at last? I could feel ‘15’ wanting to get away, sit down, stay out of trouble.
All I knew was that I’d had 2 strong feelings tumble on top of each other: the supreme privilege of white, middle class, [assumed] respectable heterosexuality, and the simple, aching compassion for a stranger apparently in trouble, like a stray needing safety, with his tail tucked down.
I could do nothing about either insight, not on this train trip. The young man got off, and I watched him standing on the platform as we pulled away, taking the light and warmth with us, looking up and down the line, working out what to do next. I thought of all the refugees moving across Europe now, literally running across countries without tickets, without destinations, without families to welcome them in. Not knowing where they’re going; having no money, no plans, no safety. We’ve seen clumps of them under bridges, in dirty tents squashed together for shelter. How the hell does one build a life after that?
I just want to weep, feeling my massive privilege, grateful for it of course, yet trying not to also feel ashamed…