The Red Cross Hotel (Part Three)

04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Just as we're about to take our shoes off and lie down a policeman knocks on our door and tells us it's time to eat. We follow him downstairs and learn how mealtimes work at the detention center.

You have to stand outside the dining area and wait until a policeman allows you to enter and points you in the direction of the table he wants you to sit at. If you make a mistake and go to the wrong table he shouts at you and you try again. Throughout your meal about half a dozen policemen watch you eat. If the conversation becomes too animated they shout at you to be quiet.

From the windows on the right of the room you have a view of planes taxing by. When this happens people stop eating and watch.

That first meal we are seated with the African woman in the green dress and the young African man we arrived with. His wrists are very thin and he seems utterly alone. I want to talk to him but he doesn't speak any English.

On our table there's a plastic jug and Norman gets up and crosses the room to fill it with water. When he returns we all look up at him gratefully and hold out our plastic glasses so he can pour. This small gesture has the effect of someone lighting a candle in a dark room and the mood lifts ever so slightly. I introduce myself and encourage everyone to do the same, like we're on a Carnival Cruise and it's our first dinner together.

The food is mostly mysterious and inedible. It comes in small containers covered with plastic wrap. A dour woman in a uniform practically throws our baguettes at us. They are a couple of days old but we devour them gratefully.

There is something in a thick red sauce that could be beef or chicken or pork or maybe rabbit but doesn't taste like anything resembling meat. I push it aside. There are thin strips of something that might be chicken in something that could be mayonnaise. I don't even open that container. We are hopeful about the cauliflower but it is cooked to a smelly gooey paste. The little container of sweet yogurt is good and we wolf it down with our baguettes.

There are people of all nationalities in the dining hall. Mostly they seem to be African, Middle Eastern and Asian. Many women wear traditional clothes and headscarves. We are the only white people there and in fact, in the entire facility, besides the police and Red Cross workers. The air is stale. People sit and chew quietly, their eyes downcast. There are about half a dozen kids of assorted ages. They sit quietly too.

On the first floor of ZAPI 3 are the offices of the police. The French Red Cross has an office on the second floor, where we stay. While the atmosphere on the second floor is not exactly joyful, the feeling of oppression lifts substantially after climbing that flight of stairs. After our meal we go to the Red Cross office and show our police papers to a weary looking man who gives us each a phone card and the phone numbers of the South African and United States consulates. He listens half heartedly as I explain what happened. It is clear his head is overflowing with stories and that ours is pretty trivial compared with many.

He tells us there are about 150 people staying here, speaking dozens of languages. Most are refugees seeking political asylum. Others, like us, have the "wrong papers." And some... He doesn't finish his sentence, but in time we learn that some are here for unfathomable reasons, like "not having enough money" when they actually do, or "not having a booked a hotel to stay at."

"I know this is difficult for you, but in one way you are lucky," he says. "This is the only city in Europe that allows a Red Cross presence at its immigration detention centers. If this had happened to you in Italy it could have been worse."

"So the Red Cross protects the people from the police?" I ask.

He is silent for a while and looks away as he answers. "We try," he says.

I find out there's a doctor downstairs. I know that if I am to get any sleep that night I need to see him. I hardly slept on the plane and I fear that sleep deprivation and shock will snowball into a panic attack.

The doctor and nurse sit side by side across from me. I am scared they will be impatient or dismissive. But they want to know what happened. And they listen quietly when I tell them, their eyes filled with compassion.

I stay there for a long time and we talk.

Many of these people are so traumatized by the time they get here, the doctor says. They have never known or have forgotten what it is like to feel safe. They wait for the opportunity to be taken in groups of 50 to a court where they get to plead for refuge. Most are deported back to where they came from. He has come across children who have no-one to care for them. He says he wishes there was more he could do, that he feels so helpless at times.

When I ask him how he manages to do the work he does, he looks slightly embarrassed, then shrugs.

"It's easy," he says in his thick French accent. "I love these people."

They send me on my way with a little butter cake wrapped up like a Hostess Twinkie, a small pink pill to take an hour before I go to sleep and a feeling of immeasurable gratitude at being treated with kindness and respect.

I crawl beside Norman on his narrow bed.

"What do you think the kids are doing now?" he says.

We talk about our son and daughter and how there'd be no point in letting them know where we are; how it would only frighten them unnecessarily. We decide to call them once we leave.

"This kind of thing isn't supposed to happen to people like us," I say. "We volunteer. We help our neighbors. We get our dogs from the pound."

We talk about how it was the last time we came to France - almost a quarter of a century ago. We'd fallen in love with pretty much everything about it - the shapes of trees lining the country roads, the buttery melt of pate on crusty bread, the old men playing boules in sun-dappled parks.

Before we turn out the light I read out loud from our Italian itinerary.

Day Four: Drive north one hour to our countryside residence at Civitella d'Agliano. We'll spend the day exploring the area which is rich in history and art and which will include a trip to Bomarzo after lunch....

"Maybe this is some cruel cosmic joke - to teach us never to take a trip that has an itinerary," I say. The last time we came to Europe we'd lived in a used van we bought in Holland and had floated from country to country, camping in fields and farms for as little or as long as we pleased.

We laugh and then we cry a little.

I tuck my lavender sachet between my cheek and the wadded up t-shirt and gradually fall asleep.

(To Be Continued)