It’s not just that I’m a compassionate kind of girl. It’s that my great-grandparents took a fishing boat and headed for a better life across the Mediterranean. All those years ago. Their story is a story that does not belong to history books; you know, the school ones.
That bit of Balearic blood in my veins from these ancestors of mine is churning in my stomach. I see all these people on flimsy boats, portrayed as a group, and I think about each individual, the ones that we don’t see.
I can’t help it.
I think about that warm sea, holidays for so many, home to me, the view up the hill behind my sister’s home, the sailing with my brother, and I think about the people, portrayed as statistics because when far away from our own shores, we can’t relate to them, they are effectively numbers that need housing, feeding, jobs, land.
30 times more migrants across the sea this year than last year.
What next? What can we do?
We can’t help the whole world can we?
But my ancestors,
they were not numbers.
Nobody’s ancestors are numbers.
So I can’t help but feel sick about the whole migrants in the Med situation. My great-grandparents weren’t escaping a war, it was a case of economics. They were hungry. A country across the sea offered a better life, they took their chances. As millions have for centuries, across oceans, deserts and mountains.
Irish, Scots, English, Welsh, Spanish, French, the list is endless.
As sure as the waves on the shore come and go, so do people.
Off my great-grandparents went on a fishing boat, not sure where they would land, no idea what their tomorrow would bring. The winds and the currents determined where they and many more families landed, and settled. No trafficker heading for a specific spot, at enormous cost to the desperate. I have not researched my family’s history in great detail, their tomorrow, my past. But these migrants catapulted into my mind the very little I do know about my own history. Little snippets deeply buried. Painful past families do not dwell on.
Except when history books paint a different story. Out comes the past, shouted in anger in a free country, whispered with no witness elsewhere.
My ancestors’ new life brought land, something in short supply on a small island. They farmed the virgin land, created a small vineyard, had a few animals, a close family and they employed local people to farm the land; farming for them, with them, depending how you want to portray it, those little words that make all the difference to English meaning.
But that land.
Who did it belong to?
Politicians told my family it was theirs. Thing is, if you get offered a chance to a better life, and you’re seriously down in the dumps, you’ll believe the promises won’t you?
Something new across the sea; hope.
Then, some seventy years later, the president of the land came along in the main city and spoke to all who had gathered. It felt like the whole city was out, and the villages around had come to see him. On that balcony. As statesmen do, loud and clear, he addressed a large crowd who were worried for their livelihood; and most importantly, their life. I imagine his arms stretched open in front of him, reaching out to the people, voice commanding:
“I understand you”.
Said the big man. Big cheers from the crowd. Hope renewed. Oh yes, the man could talk to people. He’s got it, they thought. My parents barely in their twenties listening in hope. They applauded. He understands us. He’ll look after us.
Four years later, they were summoned to leave the land. After a civil war.
Not that the politicians ever called it a war. Oh no. It was ‘the events’. Events that killed my grandfather. Not the son of the ones that came on that Spanish boat. No, these expats had come on a French boat. And he was married to a woman whose family had come on a boat all the way from Malta.
So when I start talking about politics or the unfairness of the system, and I sound like I’m shouting, or I look like a mad woman possessed by some kind of way-out-there passionate ideal, when I get agitated, or I am perceived as rude, or preaching…
I am sorry.
Tis my Mediterranean blood. I can’t change that. It boils inside, and sometimes it boils over. Not with weapons. I’m civilised. And I’m a woman. And I’ve heard the stories of that war. Like any war, the family stories are never stories you want to dwell on. It’s just that I just boil over with words when I see a pattern of history. Said, or written.
Or I keep very quiet, and bite my lip. My soft lower lip.
But who cares about my personal history?
It’s just a story. It’s just what makes me who I am. Just like you.
I find every history interesting, it helps me understand the person, not judge the person, understand the person, or the nation, or the wars. Answer the why. Like a child that does not want to grow up.
We all think what we think, and think how we think, because of our personal history.
Understanding the past best we can, to untangle the present, helps get a better idea of what is likely to happen tomorrow. Non?
I have not learnt English history with no deviation from the accepted norm, nor French history for that matter. De Gaulle made sure of that. What I learnt at school was quite a different story than what I heard at home, as far as this colossus of French history is concerned. And that made me question institutions from a very young age. Not with weapons or thoughts of anarchy. I was lucky. I am lucky, I have never lived in a country at war at home. I just have observations, the very rare stories from my grandmother, the even rarer hints from my mother, the rage from my father whose father and brother were killed in the back whilst ploughing the family’s field, and coming across stories from survivors and from governments.
Just thoughts, just words.
De Gaulle let my parents down. He made a statement that gave his people hope. And meant nothing. “I understand you”. Still, they had to leave their home behind, my grandmother had to live with her children for the rest of her life, gone was her home across the sea, my grandparents’ home, the memories in the attic I never had, off they went to mainland France.
They were French in Algeria. That was the deal. Not that French people on the mainland saw it like that mind. Not welcome. Not one bit. Signs on shop windows making it quite clear that they could not enter. Each and every one million of them. All in one go. 1962. Quite a year in French history. Not that it was ever mentioned by my history teachers in the 70’s or 80’s you understand.
I was born on the mainland. Yet in France’s statistics, I am a Pied Noir descendent. Therefore a Pied Noir, a French ‘repat’ from Algeria (repatriated).
A forever outsider with Mediterranean blood in my veins.
And that’s absolutely fine by me.
My mixed blood makes me who I am, makes my ‘English’ children who they are.
There is nothing wrong with me, or them.
There is nothing wrong with any of us.
Whatever blood flows in our veins.
Wherever we happened to be born.
What’s the story of these migrants on the Med today?
I wonder what Bob Marley would say?