I’m not supposed to be here. I’m fifteen minutes early and ahead of my time, that is, if my time should ever come.
It’s 2:45 pm, CET. That’s Central European Time and I’m in the Centre of Europe, literally. I’m pacing the lobby of one of the world’s most powerful institutions, the European Commission, no less, where the hopes, dreams and politics of a continent collide. How did I get here, little old me? But I’m not daunted by the steel and the glass and the history, yes, the history, as oppressive as the brutalist building itself. It doesn’t phase me and neither does he.
‘Are you ready?’ booms Pierre, my sexagenarian boss, appearing, like an apparition, out of nowhere. His question is completely rhetorical, of course. He knows full well that I’m anything but ready, which is why he’s making me do this in the first place. He’s rubbing his hands and sniggering with glee, revealing a set of tombstone teeth and a gummy smile that remind me of a champion racehorse. He shouldn’t smile, I think, picturing a thoroughbred in his place. I offer him an equally bogus smile in return.
Pierre’s tapping his big-man Rolex now to let me know that time is ticking, as if I don’t already know. I bet he was the schoolyard bully back in the day, herding the little kids into a corner to be lorded over by his hulking, six-foot frame (or its adolescent equivalent). Bullies always target the low hanging fruit and I’ve been ripe for the picking since I arrived in Brussels six months ago.
Today is a particularly low point among the many. I’ve been parachuted into a conference on a subject of which I have no prior knowledge with people I’ve never met and who I know nothing about. I’m not here as an attendee, to sit back and to listen, or tune out as my interest inevitably wanes, but as a facilitator and a speaker. This is how he got me this time, by catching me completely off guard and throwing me headfirst into the shit pool.
The subject of the event is simply “Mobility,” or, more specifically, “Job Mobility within the European Union.” Yes, I had to ask what that meant too. ‘It’s about helping Europeans who want to find a job in another European country,’ Pierre said, as if to say, Duh! What’s not to get, you slow thinking cretin? ‘In case you didn’t know, we’re in a recession. How could you not? You’re probably suffering too. Isn’t that why you came here to Brussels?’ No, Pierre, that’s not why I came here.
It wasn’t so much of a conference as a gathering. One hundred or so “mobility advisers” from all over Europe were getting together to discuss the thorny issue of internal migration in a continent where there are effectively no borders. Citizens of the European Union have had the right to move freely between member states for decades. That’s why I’m here in Brussels, in your native Belgium, Pierre. I’m exercising my right to free movement. I’m here out of choice not economic necessity.
But choice has no part in what I’m about to do, unless I want to join the legions of unemployed, and presentations have never been my thing. Believe it or not, I’ve never been one for drawing attention to myself, even though, over here, I’m often the centre of attention. Some people don’t need to do anything to attract the interest or suspicion of others. Some people just need to be.
Take this incident of me trying to leave Bulgaria after a short business trip:
Passport officer: What was the purpose of your visit to this country?
Me: I had a meeting at the Ministry of Labour.
[Silence. Cue her scepticism. Paper shuffling. Steely, intimidating glare.]
He, my male, Bulgarian-speaking colleague: Is there a problem?
She: Do you know this man?
Me: I do.
[Smirk. Snide remark in Bulgarian. Paper shuffling. Second snide remark in Bulgarian.]
He: Let’s go.
Me: What did she say?
He: Nothing. Let’s go.
Me: What. Did. She. Say?
[Deep sigh from colleague to allow space for thinking]
He: She said that the only reason she’s letting you go is because you’re my girlfriend.
[Rage. Frustration. Active rage. Aggression.]
Me: She shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that. If she has a problem with my documents, then she should detain me.
He: Are you mad? You don’t argue with the authorities in these former communist countries.
I’m a foreign woman in a foreign land that doesn’t recognise the diversity of my island people. I’ve been living “over here” in mainland Europe for just over six months during which I’ve been subject to constant inquiry. My “over there,” my island nation, my synonym for home, is Great Britain, and it may as well be on another planet, not another country on the same continent. But distance is an amorphous concept. Emotional separation can be as much of a barrier as physical separation, and cultural distance is an altogether more complex issue.
Over here, my very existence is an act of subversion. Yes, I have the right to be here but am I ever wanted? My every movement is an act of trespass. I enter rooms and the dynamic changes. I enter public spaces and they suddenly become claustrophobic. I cross state lines and both my passport and I are subject to forensic examination. The physical borders have gone but the psychological barriers remain and they’re agonisingly impenetrable.
[I return to my apartment building after a long, politics-filled day at the office, and am stopped at the main gate by a giant, putty-faced man in a black overcoat who is skulking beside the mailboxes.]
Him: You live here?
[I’m not sure if he’s asking a question or stating a fact so I point to the mailbox bearing my name.]
Me: Do you?
[A glossy French-speaking couple, engrossed in conversation, slip into the building and head straight for the interior door.]
Him: Sorry, but you can’t be too careful. I’m Aleks from Finland. And you are from?
[I balk at his casual impudence, but when he extends a hand in greeting, I reciprocate out of habit (I’m British) and he continues talking.]
Him: Have you lived here long? I’ve never seen you before. Do you work here? Are you a working girl?’
WTF??? I can feel my right hand tense into a ball and I contemplate the legal consequences of various retaliatory actions. But I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt for possible loss in Finnish-to-English translation.
Him: There are lots of good restaurants around here. Bars, too. The Monk is practically on our doorstep, that’s where everyone goes on a Friday night, and there’s Café Kafka at the junction of Dansaertstraat. Maybe we can go for a drink sometime?
Me: What about over there? I lean against the gate and gestured through the iron security bars towards the barren, graffiti-scarred land at the end of our street.
Him: Don’t bother to venture around there. There’s nothing over there. Civilization ends at the corner.
It wasn’t civilization that ended at the corner; it was people like him, white people. Yeah, I said it. Just because he couldn’t say it, doesn’t mean I can’t. Where halal butchers, storefront mosques and dusky women in skin-tight skirts and stilettos begin, is where, according to him, civilization ends. And I, by implication, was part of that civilizational void.
I later learn through a sordid episode involving something akin to stalking that he meant what he said when he asked if I was a working girl. I’m not supposed to be here in this plush apartment block and he couldn’t understand how I could afford to be there. My place was on the corner with the thousands of other sable women who are trafficked into prostitution in Europe each year, the very place where their civilization ends.
But back to the conference, the scene of my current hell. It’s 2:55 pm CET and I’ve made my way down to the eleventh floor where the delegates are all in their designated places, in theatre-style seating, facing me. I work out that there are about three women for every man and this is a bias that pleases me. A room full of women is a room full of allies, right? Potential powerful friends. We have so much in common, like... we’re all women???
I’m sitting at a high table draped in red cloth on a panel with four other speakers including another consultant from a rival company who’s looking over at me smugly, willing me to fail. Then there’s Pierre who’s decided to sit front row, directly in my line of vision. He’s sitting there among the stony-faced women, cross-legged and impatient, tapping his foot like an antsy child. I check my watch and fiddle with the dial. It’s precisely 3:00 pm CET. My time has come.
I elect to stand rather than remain seated and stride over to the lectern with my head held as high as I can stretch it, swan-like. I’ve been asked to sum up what has been discussed in plenary and offer on-the-spot recommendations for doing things differently, better. I take a sip of water, swill the liquid around my mouth, wait for it to wet my throat and part my lips to speak.
The entire front row squints at me as if they’re watching a movie but they’ve forgotten their glasses at home. They look askance at me. Is it their eyes that are deceiving them or their ears? Instead of a movie, they begin to think they’re viewing some Mexican telenovela in which the sound doesn’t quite marry up with the visual. Right now I’m in full oratorical flow. I’m channelling my inner FLOTUS - DNC-speaking Michelle Obama, commencement address-giving Michelle Obama. I’m resurrecting Maya Angelou, the phenomenal woman, and the more I speak in my cut-glass English, the more I compound their confusion. I can feel them analysing, deconstructing me. Their thoughts are resounding: Who is this? Who does she think she is? My own questions are: Who do they think I am? Ain’t I a woman?
I conclude my summation and retake my seat. The silence is so blaring that I applaud myself. Pierre is sitting with his mouth wide open, collecting a colony of flies. I was convinced that he was looking forward to witnessing my public humiliation, hoping I would sink in the shit and prove him right. But I not only waded through the excrement, I came out smelling of roses, a scent redolent to me if no one else.
I’m not supposed to be here, but I am, and this is me. It’s me who holds the power not some shell of a building and its insular staff, stuck in the imperial past while I’m living in the beautiful, diverse present. And the future doesn’t look so bad from up here on the eleventh floor. It’s only when you get down into the real world that things become blurry.
Sylvia Arthur is a journalist and writer whose work focuses on identity and place. After graduating with a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism from the University of Westminster, she worked as a runner for Sky News before becoming a reporter at NewsAfrica magazine. She freelanced for The Guardian, the BBC and the British Journalism Review and worked as a senior researcher/assistant producer for the BBC, ITV and Sky. She holds an MA in Narrative Non-Fiction Writing from City University, London.