My flight landed in Paris in the morning so I could make the most of my remaining day ahead. After a tiresome journey from the airport to the hostel, because my alertness was abnormally high in a shared cab and the feeling unfamiliarity while I gazed out at the streets, I reached my unpleasant hostel. The worst one I’d ever seen after I stayed in 7 hostels across 7 countries.
I learned about the app ‘Couchsurfing’ from a Spanish friend I had the pleasure to meet in Budapest. The idea of ‘crashing on somebody’s couch free of cost’ sounded rather appalling to me because listening to things like these brings my guard up after my gear changes from ‘free Indian girl solo traveling and experiencing the world’ to a conservative Indian girl thinking about all the things that could go wrong in this setting.
Coming back to Paris, I opened this app not for the purpose of crashing on somebody’s couch but to meet and chill with a traveler (there’s a ‘hangout’ option too for travelers and locals to meet). Out of the many people I scrolled upon, some asking me for a beer as my profile showed that I am active and online and searching to hangout, I came across a very different profile. When travelling alone, it’s important to stay safe and follow basic rules for the same. However, it’s the most important to follow your instinct, your gut.
Azim (name changed) was 36-year-olds and he didn’t have a DP. (My thoughts- too old, and don’t know what he looks like).
The only information I had was that he currently lives in Paris, and has lived in Syria.
My thoughts overall- unsafe, blank profile, could be a serial killer for all I know.
We spoke. (curiosity kills the cat!)
We planned to meet. (Dad, if you’re reading this don’t be upset. I promise, it gets better and I was 100% safe)
He decided the place: To meet by La Sienne river, for a picnic to give me the ultimate local French experience. (My thoughts- public place- green flag!)
I met Azim at the metro station of arrival, from where we’d walk to the riverside. A short, bald man. He looked like one of those happy and jolly people if you ask me to judge the first few minutes. We comforted ourselves at a spot by the river in the middle of a French couple on our left and a group of teenagers smoking some greens on the right, behind us some more locals. On the far right, I could see the Eiffel Tower. I was happy it was far because I wanted to save the view to see it with my uncle the next day, with who I planned this holiday.
Azim kept an airbag between us and opened it. He took out French wine, local cheese, cheese crisps, and homemade hummus & pita. I questioned him as to why did he make so much of an effort, he told me because he’s my host and that entitles him to give me an experience of not just France but also his home country of Syria. My heart smiled at this act of kindness and my stomach sang a happy song as it hadn’t been fed in hours.
Our meeting was a combination of staring at the river for minutes without speaking and having some really nice conversations, talking about ourselves and the differences between our home cultures. He told me he is a videographer in a leading channel here (won’t be naming) and moved a few months or years ago, I cannot recall. I don’t know if this was insensitive, but I could not help but ask him the obvious –
“How is the situation in Syria?” To which he answered, “our houses are burnt down but we are glad to be safe. We will rise back stronger, we know”. I was, indeed, taken aback with the resilience.
I couldn’t resist to ask him something nosy again, as some would call it. “The journey in those boats… the escape from Syria… tell me about it?”
For your reference, Azim is not one of the refugees who came by boat 🙂 But he has covered it actively in the news, and hence interacted with tens and hundreds of refugees.
A- Those people want to escape, through whatever means possible. They pay all of their savings to the middle-man who assures them that they will get on the boat. Some never get on the boat because the man takes the money and runs away, but they knowingly have to take this chance because they are out of choice.
N- How do they get on a boat without knowing where they are going?
A- It is highly unplanned and random. A person points out a direction and they keep going, till wherever they can. Some boats never make it, of course.
N- Do they carry anything with them? How long are these journeys? (I was getting more inquisitive, picturing everything in my mind as he explained)
A-They carry a few documents. The journey can be 7-10 days and the boats are overcrowded.
I thought of things like what about food or releasing yourself, but I didn’t want to imagine more pain than already explained in the movie that was playing in my head.
A- I see people cribbing about life being hard. You know what’s hard? Staring at the water for days not knowing if you will even see the shore next, or whether you will be alive tomorrow. The uncertainty of sustaining a livelihood comes second but just think of being in that raft with many other people and just hoping that you will see a shore.
N- I’m sorry for this…
A- No, it’s completely fine. In fact, my tears are all dried which how much I’ve cried interviewing these people and listening to their stories.
<I wanted to move topics here, this was getting intense>
N- Let’s talk about you… so what’s next in life? Marriage? You’re quite old! In India we tend to get pushed into getting married when we touch the age of 30.
A- *laughs* No, I broke up with my long-term sweetheart. But I have saved money to pursue a course in college. It’s easier for me now that I am living here.
N- Did you learn English in school?
A- No! I learned it by interacting with people and watching videos… self-learning basically.
Here is a short excerpt from our conversation which was an entire evening long, which left me speechless. I was struck with my privilege of having had a home I can call safe all my life and my parents paying for my education – both things I’ve thought of as basic.
Azim, if you happen to read this- thank you for making me see a different side of the world through your stories, and thank you for the selection of fromage you picked and the homemade Syrian snacks 🙂 I will remember this forever.