The final day began with a game; trying to get to the warehouse. With the closure of the camp and evictions well under way, all the minor roads nearby were blocked by CRS police. I made a lengthy detour, boxing around the whole area and then doubling back.
The warehouse was as busy as I’d seen it. There was a sense of too many cooks. I went to the morning induction for new volunteers so I could be allocated a new job. There wasn’t going to be a Dunkirk distribution today. I began in the food packing area. Hundreds of bags of food had been prepared for distribution but they hadn’t gone out because these particular distributions had ended prematurely. The bags had to be opened and the food stuffs replaced on shelves. A few metres away another team was packing a different selection of foods. Priorities had shifted after the eviction. To the uninitiated it might have appeared bizarre – one group packing bags while another unpacked apparently similar ones. It was another of those times when you put your faith in the organisation and got on with it. There were too many people to fit around the tables. But everyone adapted and, if it was annoying for some, they didn’t show it. People are at their resourceful best in such a situation. So in less than half an hour the pile of food packs was gone, their components stacked neatly into crates.
The day before, Helen and I had shared a different experience as we’d tried to meet the needs of residents of the Dunkirk camp. Today we set about a different challenge; a vast, chaotic pile of small bottles of oil. A pallet stacked at the base with bottles in cardboard boxes had got wet and the bottles above were pouring forth from their soggy containers. At the side, a trolley was piled even more chaotically with the bottles that couldn’t be piled on the pallet. We set to our task, stripping off the loose bottles, packing them in dry, recycled boxes and finally re stacking them on the pallet. We cleared the trolley too and stacked a half pallet with the remaining bottles, adding a separate section for the olive oil. It was one of those L’Auberge-type jobs and we enjoyed the satisfaction of just making it right. Nobody noticed and it didn’t matter. We worked quickly but there was time to talk as we did. As we were finishing off, Alexandra passed by. Solicitous as ever she wished me a safe journey home.”Bon courage!” she said, and she was gone.
My time at the warehouse was drawing to a close. There were still so many jobs to do. I sought out Lauren, the warehouse supervisor, and asked what else I could do. I counted boxes of brand new, freshly delivered, pop up tents in huge stacks. Then I found my way back to shoes, where I’d begun a week earlier. The same boots and shoes we had bagged, what seemed like weeks earlier, I now counted off. Even at the end of things, I found myself in parts of the huge, rambling building that I had never visited before.
Nicola, who’d given me apples and other donations to bring, also gave me a set of vehicle bulbs that she’d found in her van. I’d been trying to find someone to hand them to for a week. It wasn’t an option just to leave them on a shelf in the warehouse. There wasn’t a trolley marked “Vehicle spares – incoming”. I was determined to pass them to someone that day – just in case they were ever needed. I asked in the yard office and was told to look for someone who resembled “Father Christmas – only with a black beard”. I hadn’t seen anyone matching this description so I figured I’d probably end up taking them home again. I walked across the yard, enjoying the sun. At least I’d asked. I turned the corner and saw two men in conversation. The one on the right had a substantial dark beard. This couldn’t be him – that would be too easy. I interrupted their conversation, explaining what I had and why I had brought it all the way from Devon. If you go to do volunteer work you may meet, as I did, people who inspire and who make you look at yourself differently. You may get to know people quite unlike those you know today. And you may get used to people behaving differently, showing their feelings more perhaps, chipping away at the things that divide us. Even after a week at the L’Auberge warehouse, it was still a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, for another man of my sort of age who I’d never met to give me a hug. But as I handed over the vehicle bulbs this lovely man he did just that. He was so delighted to have them and told me that most of them could immediately go into vehicles that were waiting for parts. I don’t recall his name. Just the moment. For me it typifies the volunteer experience.
The afternoon’s warm sunshine saw a large team of people working on pop up tents out in the open at the back of the warehouse. At this time there were still people and kids left behind in the charred ruin of the Jungle. These pop up tents had to be opened, checked for holes, damage or other problems, and then repacked. If you’ve used a pop up tent you’ll appreciate how quick they are to put up. There are different types but they all pop up in less than a second. They’re slower to re-pack though and, frustratingly, each brand has its own way of being folded. Initially, it was one of the worst experiences of my stay. I wrestled with these unpredictable, disobedient and independent-minded structures. The tents were for an emergency distribution and we were trying to process them quickly. But they wouldn’t comply. And an hour later, we were experts. That was the way of it at L’Auberge. A team of around a dozen, French, Scots, English, Italian and Spanish, we counted the tents onto trolleys near the end of the afternoon. One hundred and fifty-five tents, checked, folded and labelled and ready to be offered to people in desperate need that night. It was a good way to finish. But it wasn’t quite the end. The lovely Kes, who ran the tent team, showed us a handful of recently arrived tents to be checked and sorted. And then that was it. I’d only met Kes that afternoon. She wished me a safe trip and gave me a hug. I said goodbye to the people on the team. I’d known them for a day and I was already sorry I wouldn’t see them again. They’d be there again in the morning but I’d be waking up at home.