One of the standout experiences of this past year was taking part in the Transeuropa Caravans project organised by European Alternatives, a civic society and citizens movement. Over 12 days caravans in six different zones in Europe traveled documenting community initiatives and “connecting local alternative voices across the continent”. I was invited to travel with the North Western caravan as a cartoonist / illustrator documenting issues, conversations and personal stories along the way. In this post I will share my personal experiences and links to more cartoons and Vlad’s infamous video diaries.
Our team also included a filmmaker, logistics officer, communications officer and a coordinator – all pretty much strangers to me prior to the journey. So you would probably wonder how on earth we managed to get along. Well, our group dynamics worked out surprisingly well and we prepared by having Skype calls and even taking personality tests to understand how we might react when tired or under pressure.
Our journey started from Birmingham where we attended Future Shift, an absolutely brilliant festival discussing and showcasing civic action. So my first visual story came from a chance meeting with Aysha, a budding social entrepreneur with lots of enthusiasm:
After Birmingham and its car parks we continued on to Cambridge where we met with several groups working with mental health, learning disabilities and Transition Town movement. Again, I was blown away by one particular person, Alice, who openly discussed her negative experiences of mental illness in a workplace. She has since set up a local peer support group Make, Do & Mend for anyone experiencing mental health distress without limitations on whether you have been diagnosed with a condition.
We then visited Norwich, Colchester and Canterbury before heading over to France – I think we were all inspired by the communal spaces we visited and the young people in Canterbury.
After all these inspiring experiences we hit a bit of a downturn with a gaping hole in the ceiling of our motorhome, general tiredness and exhaustion and visiting a Calais migrant camp where we came face to face with urgent needs and our own perhaps naive expectations. It was a key point in the journey for me to be there, witness and listen to people tell their stories about why they have had to leave their homeland in search of something safer. We spoke to Jonathan, the eldest sibling of a large family in a country where in his words “everything is corrupt and there is no work”. He felt responsible for his family and was forced to travel to find work in order to support them. He walked from Eritrea to Sudan, got to Italy and had only just arrived to Calais that day, alone. What struck me was his positive outlook and a calmness that radiated out of him – he was keeping his eyes on the future and as a well spoken and educated man he remained confident he could find work in the UK. We were also approached by two other African men, shy at first, but who wanted to stress “we are not all like them” pointing at a group of more aggressive and rowdy young men. Later that day we visited one of the squats a group of migrants were using as shelter and also an educational space. There we met with several citizen initiatives and members of No Border network who had recently increased their support and show of solidarity.
After Calais we stopped at Lille to hear about Alternatiba and visit a co-working space and then we were on the road to Paris for the 1st of May demonstrations which was quite an experience with the atmosphere of solidarity. After Paris we stopped at Brussels right next to the European Parliament buildings to meet groups protecting the local neighbourhood and negotiating construction terms and hear about issues graduates are facing trying to get a job:
The last country on our list was Netherlands with a stop near Utrecht and then last two nights in Amsterdam – this time gave us some respite from overnight stays at petrol stations with showers (if we were lucky). In Utrecht we took part in a demonstration about civil rights and privacy and in Amsterdam we were part of a festival at the Tolhuistin and witnessed the traditional Remembrance and Liberation Days with public gatherings.
Then it was suddenly time to say goodbye after just getting used to living lightly on the road. It was a culture shock to come back and think about your own role in society, decisions you make and how they affect things. It has been heartbreaking to follow news of desperate migrant deaths in Calais but also inspiring to see initiatives gaining ground. All in all, I don’t think I will ever experience a journey like this in my life.
And finally, here are some of my photos from the road: