The Letters to Europe Project…
After collecting 1000 letters from Remainers at various protest events across the country I crowdfunded over £1300 to hand-deliver them to Brussels and attend meetings at the European Parliament with Guy Verhofstadt and others. Myself, Alba White Wolf and the Letters2Europe team (Andrew Galdron A.K.A FauxBoJo and Charlie Grosvenor) were to travel to Brussels from 6-10th December and make our voices heard at Christmas time with our message of peace, friendship and hope for the UK’s future in Europe. Brussels based friends Mathew Lowry and Richard Medic helped organise the trip and promote it from their side of the Channel.
The Letters to Europe Team Protesting Outside the Berlaymont Building, Brussels
Difficulties From the Outset…
The trip was never going to be easy for several reasons; firstly, travelling with a dog adds a myriad of extra complications, such as vaccinations, finding dog-friendly accommodation, limitations on transport, etc. Nonetheless, we felt that it was worth the effort to raise awareness of the EU pet passport and animal rights issues, and because Alba looks super cute in her EU flag t-shirt which would make for excellent photo opportunities. Secondly, we were trying to organise the project on a shoestring budget, which meant we had to prioritise cheapness over convenience. Thirdly, due to a huge demand for accommodation (which we later discovered was due to the Catalonia protest on Thursday 7th) we ended up staying in one hotel on the Wednesday night and 3 different hotels on opposite sides of Brussels for the last 3 nights. We were also trying to achieve a project which had never been done before and hiccups are to be expected when venturing into unchartered territory (although perhaps not quite as many hiccups as we ultimately experienced!) Finally, Alba decided to eat my purse the weekend before we were due to travel. And having initially believed my debit card had escaped unscathed, the next time I attempted to use it I discovered 2 small teeth marks on the chip. Nationwide were unable to issue a new debit card outside of a 3-6 day time frame, which meant I had to travel to Brussels without access to cash in an emergency.
Alba and her EU Pet Passport
The trip was made even more complicated when I was invited to a Christmas party in the Houses of Parliament on the day we were due to travel, Wednesday 6th December from 4-6pm. So the plan was for me to get the 11:49am train to st.Pancras with Alba, Drew and Charlie would collect her in the car at 2pm, then drive to Dover to get the ferry at 6pm, meanwhile I would go to the Christmas party and then take the 7:37pm Eurostar which arrives in Brussels at 10:30pm, roughly the same time as Charlie, Drew and Alba who would pick me up and drive us to the hotel, which was about half an hour away in the car. Terrifically complicated but perfectly possible.
Except I missed my train.
It would seem that trying to organise everything proved to much. Having spent the last few nights packing 1000 letters into envelopes, whilst attempting to make last minute arrangements for the trip, I was already in a state of agitation. On the Tuesday I couldn’t find my passport, which I had accidentally tidied away when a BBC reporter came around to film an interview about the Letters2Europe project, so I wasted an hour and a half frantically searching for it. I also had to travel to Doncaster on the Tuesday afternoon/evening for an event and, as usual, the trains were all running late. And Charlie had also discovered Alba would need a tape worm vaccination, which is valid for only 120 hours before re-entering the UK, so I had to book her into the vets on the Wednesday morning before we left. So when I arrived at Sheffield station on Wednesday lunchtime, I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that what I thought was the 11:59am was in fact the 11:49am train and had just departed from platform 5, leaving me stuck at Sheffield station for another 40 minutes. It was at this point my trademark gold shoes also took the opportunity to self destruct, which is not ideal when you are tying to manage a suitcase, a guitar, 2 bags and a hyper active dog. I had the ominous feeling that this was only the start of a run of bad luck.
Filming with the BBC Reporter
Disasters En Route to Brussels…
We arrived at st.Pancras at 2:30pm but I couldn’t find Drew and Charlie in the car, so by the time we got everything packed up and said our goodbyes it was already 3pm. Charlie gave me some cellotape to temporarily hold my shoes back together before I found some glue for a semi-permanent fix. A woman passing by saw me sat on some steps wrapping tape around my feet, she laughed and then said I was “very resourceful” and congratulated me on “not giving up”. I then headed to the Christmas party at the Houses of Parliament, but was much to anxious and stressed by this point to enjoy it. I was actually in the process of listing everything that had gone wrong so far to Mike Galsworthy, when someone knocked into an MP who accidentally threw his glass of mulled wine down my EU elf dress. At this point I decided to get changed and leave, the last thing I wanted was to miss the 7:37pm Eurostar which was the last train to Brussels that night as missing it would mean also missing my meeting with Guy Verhofstadt the next day. Given my current run of luck, I felt astonished and relieved when I found myself sat on a packed Eurostar train travelling to the correct destination at the correct time. Then I got the text from Drew and Charlie, they had missed the ferry and were getting the next one at 8pm. Which was fine except I would be waiting around Gare du Midi for 2-3 hours. I didn’t have any euros for a taxi as Charlie still had them, and although my Dad who had given me his debit card instructing me “not to lose it”, I couldn’t find an ATM anywhere in the station and there were no staff around to ask. So I settled myself down on some benches in a well lit, open area in the food court, determined to “man out” the long, cold wait (I only had a thin waterproof coat as my other clothes were in a suitcase in the car).
Live Animals are not allowed to travel on the Eurostar, however stuffed replicas are fine.
Panic Sets In…
But after about half an hour, Drew and Charlie contacted me to say their ETA was now 1am and I started to become concerned that my phone was running out of battery. I was busy messaging them when a man came over to me and tried to explain in french that he had just seen someone steal my purse from my bag, which was next to me on the bench. Not quite understanding what he was saying at first, more due to shock rather than lack of vocabulary, he went and told the security guards, who spoke english. Which made little odds because they didn’t have anything helpful to say, other than the police station was not open until the morning and they would be shutting the station at 1am and I would be chucked outside, with no money, nowhere to go and a dead phone battery. It was at this point that panic set in. Once Drew and Charlie knew the situation they attempted to book an Uber to get me safely to the hotel where they would meet me when they arrived (ETA now 1:30am) however, when I attempted to find the Uber it was nowhere to be seen. I walked from one side (of the huge) station to the other, trying 3 different exits and couldn’t locate the car, the driver wasn’t able to offer any helpful advice as to his location and every time I walked across the station I was being yelled at by dodgy looking guys and a gang of youths, one of whom decided to push into me to the delight of all her mates. I was on the verge of tears when Mike, phoned me to say he had a friend in Brussels who could give me euros to pay for the taxi to the hotel, an offer I wasn’t prepared to turn down at that point. I jumped in a taxi to his apartment and his girlfriend gave me camomile tea whilst my phone charged and I attempted to stick my shoes back together with UHU. Charlie and Drew’s ETA to our hotel was now 2am, so we called another taxi which should have got me there at roughly the same time. Except when it arrived it was patently clear that the crumbly, ancient driver had absolutely no idea where he was going. I was horrified when he pulled out a paper street map of Brussels whilst he was driving and attempted to navigate without GPS technology. Needless to say, he came off the motorway too early and we got lost. We ended up driving around a rural area on a country track that ran parallel to the main road, when we returned to a somewhat urban area, he continually stopped the car in the middle of the road to turn around and shout at me in French, jabbing his finger at the paper map and demanding to know how to get to the hotel. I was starting to wonder what I had done to deserve this hellish series of events and if I would ever make it to the hotel. In the end, Drew managed to call me with directions and I was relieved when we did get there at about 2:30am, although the taxi driver did try to charge me €46 for having driven around in circles for several miles. We checked in, and Alba snuggled up close to me having missed me during the eventful journey to Brussels. I would have slept soundly if it hadn’t been for person in the room next to me noisily snoring all night and then having a series of repeated coughing fits from 7am.
Snuggled Up at the Hotel (Finally!)
Ceci n’est pas un Voyage… C’est un Cauchemar
The next morning, I got up bleary eyed to take Alba out for a run before we began the next day of hilarities. And on the country tracks near the hotel I discovered a pair of pink fairy wings lying in the middle of the road. I knew that Brussels is the home of surrealism, but felt that this was truly taking the piss.
A Mysterious Pair of Pink Fairy Wings Provided a Surreal Start to the Day…
Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour… Vous faites quoi madame?
The next mission was to get from the hotel to the European Parliament in time for the meeting with Guy Verhofstadt at 12h. Allowing ourselves 2 hours, should have been ample time, but given our current run of luck, and several roads being closed for the Catalan protest, I was feeling slightly anxious. We arrived outside the parliament shortly after 11h, but made the mistake of parking directly behind a police riot van who confronted us when we attempted to unpack the bag of letters out of the boot. The police officers in the back of the riot van seemed greatly entertained by my supergirl outfit, but the cheif officer seemed less impressed, demanding to see my passport and asking what we were doing at the parliament buildings. He didn’t quite believe me when I told him I was meeting with Guy Verhofstadt, doing a double-take at my unconventional outfit.
With the “Suspicious” Bag of Letters Outside the European Palrliament
Meeting Guy Verhofstadt…
The meeting with Guy Verhofstadt was excellent, I was surprised by how friendly and down to Earth he seemed. I feel that the Leave campaign and the right-wing press have done a huge disservice to the honest, hard working individuals who are so frequently, falsely described as “Faceless European Bureaucrats”. It became patently clear in my brief conversation with Guy that European Citizen’s rights were his utmost priority in the Brexit negotiations, a refreshing change from the UK government’s blinkered obsession with the free trade deal they are hoping to negotiate. I think very few people, when they voted to leave the European Union, actually considered the impact that Brexit would have on millions of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living abroad whose lives are now in Limbo, faced with constant stress and insecurity. Guy’s focus is clearly to ensure the future of these citizens and their families. I was incredibly grateful to Mathew who managed to arrange this opportunity to meet such a lovely man (the whole meeting was live streamed to the Letters to Europe facebook page) to thank him personally for his work with a message of solidarity from the UK and a Christmas gift of a pair of EU socks!
Guy opens one of the “Letter to Europe”, afterwards he took 2 more handfuls of letters to read
Guy shows Madeleina his Splendid Union Jack Fridge
Alba Makes her Outrage Known…
After meeting Guy, we went to find Charlie who was looking after Alba. They walked with us to our next meeting with Luca Jahier, the future president of the EESC (European Economic and Social Committee). We had a much longer meeting, which was also live streamed, where we discussed Brexit and citizen participation initiatives as well as exchanging letters. Alba, however, was not at all impressed about being refused entry to any of the meetings in Brussels after she had travelled all the way from the UK to protest about her EU Pet Passport…
The Fun Continues…
After spending a good hour or so wandering around trying to find the entrance to the car park where Charlie had left the car, we checking into our 3 respective hotels, which were inconveniently on opposite sides of Brussels. In the evening we returned to Place Luxembourg where Mathew and Richard had organised a social event at the Grape Vine. Myself and FauxBoJo performed our songs and then we began distributing the letters to people in the surrounding cafes, asking people to write Christmas cards in exchange for their letters. We had a huge mixture of responses to the project, from people who flatly refused to take a letter and made it patently clear that they didn’t want to be hassled by pro-EU campaigners, to the other extreme, with people gushing about how distraught they were over Brexit and congratulating us on our wonderful project. There was of course many varied responses in between, with some people refusing to take a letter until I explained they were about Brexit, then they would suddenly break out in “AH!”s and immediately take a letter declaring how much they disliked Brexit. Some people who disagreed with Brexit asked me what was the point of the Letters to Europe project because “Brexit was happening and can’t be stopped”. In some ways these were the most important group to reach out to, making the point that Brexit can be stopped and there are many British citizens actively fighting it and moreover, regardless of what happens that we all want to stay friends and close allies with Europe. I met a young woman who works for an MEP and promised to give a letter to him; also a young man whose job in Brussels was being threatened by Brexit and he seemed deeply moved by the initiative. I was heartened by the number of people who recognised me from media coverage of the #EUsupergirl stunt or from social media, some of whom were initially sceptical suddenly became engaged when they made the connection – which goes to show the power of a friendly face. Many of these interactions were filmed and published on the facebook page to show everyone who supported the project, the tangible positive impact it was making to spread a message of peace, friendship and solidarity.
Thank God its Friday!
On Friday morning we discovered Theresa May had sneaked in and out of Brussels during the night. Sadly we missed her, but decided to stage a musical protest outside the Berlaymont building anyhow, performing our best protest songs with Drew’s portable amp for backing. We attracted a lot of cameras from passersby and journalists coming out of the European Commission and received a reasonable amount of media coverage in the Guardian, IrishTimes and even an asian publication for our stunt.
Protesting outside the Berlaymont Building
Hitting the Christmas Markets…
In the afternoon we headed to the Christmas markets, but were once again faced with the ongoing parking and traffic problems we seemed to be experiencing in brussels. So Charlie took Alba and tried to find somewhere to park (the closest place he eventually found was 20 minutes walk away) whilst the rest of us took the very clean and efficient tube to the markets. They were as gorgeous as expected and I really enjoyed wandering up and down handing out the letters. The people who tended to be most receptive to the letters were in fact the store holders, many of whom were Belgian nationals who we spoke to in French. There was a particularly lovely video of a young man who said he was taking classes to improve his English, he read the letter and said he agreed with what was written on it, “We need to love each other more”. I was really touched by the sincere and heartfelt reactions from many of those who received the letters, however, I realised that these qualitative experiences many of which were caught on camera, also consumed a lot of time. I realised that we weren’t going to be able to give out all the letters, because people wanted to stop and talk to us about the project and about the issues we are trying to raise. This of course, is a very positive outcome, but has left us with the problem that we did not manage to distribute all the letters on this trip… Which means we will have to return to Europe in the New Year to deliver the rest of them (which I am not complaining about in the slightest!)
#EUsupergirl Delivers Letters at the Brussels Xmas Markets
Trip Over the Border to the Netherlands…
On Saturday morning I had a 9am photoshoot and interview for Paris Match in the Parc Cinquaintenaire, but we had the rest of the day available to use at our discretion. We were very keen to visit another European country during our trip, to distribute more of the letters. We had initially planned a drive across the border to Auhaus in Germany where there is a pub called the UnBrexit. However, heavy snow conditions would have made it illegal for us to drive in Germany without winter tyres, so instead we decided to go to the slightly closer Rotterdam. I was especially pleased at this decision as the second destination in my book Alba White Wolf’s Adventures in Europe is the Netherlands, after Belgium!
We decided to visit the Erasmus bridge, as we were also assured there would be a souvenir shop where I could buy Alba (2 pairs of) clogs. Unsurprisingly we also found wooden tulips outside and I bought a flag which made for some excellent photo opportunities. Whilst taking a photo of Alba in her clogs we attracted the attention of a young family and a couple, to whom we gave out letters. I also gave the little boys a copy of Alba’s book explaining that we are trying to take her to every country in the EU, just like in the story. They were all interested to find out about the Letters to Europe project and discuss their disdain over Brexit, it was becoming apparent through these encounters with Europeans that they find Brexit utterly incomprehensible. Then again, so do I.
Sniffing Wooden Tulips (the only Kind You Will Find at this Time of Year!)
Just as dusk fell, we located a windmill in the city where we could take a photo, replicating the illustration in Alba’s book…
Destination No.2 in Alba White Wolf’s Adventures in Europe
Snowy Departure on Sunday
I was very pleased that the Paris Match photoshoot had been arranged on Saturday and not Sunday as the heavens suddenly unleashed a blanket of snow on Brussels. I took Alba out for a run before the long car journey back to the UK. She finds the snow greatly exciting, however she became somewhat too excitable and dragged me over in her enthusiasm causing some considerable damage to my leg. Concerned that we would be late catching the ferry, I plastered myself up with band-aids and suggested we find some more suitable bandages en route. However, I discovered that first aid items aren’t generally available at service stations or even on the ferry, so I had to wait until I got back to the UK to find a more appropriate dressing for my Alba inflicted injuries.
Fraught Ferry Crossing
Having arrived at Calais just in time to make our ferry crossing we discovered that the port was closed after an earlier boat became grounded due to the horrendous weather conditions. Ironically the boat was called the Pride of Kent, or something equally patriotic. So we were instead redirected to Dunkirk, where we took a later ferry back to Dover. Alba made a fuss about being left in the car, but otherwise coped well with the journey. The same could not be said for me and Drew who both collapsed into some seats and fell asleep for most of the voyage.
It was undoubtedly a challenging trip fraught with difficulties and hiccups, but it was also a lot of fun and I was amazed at the kindness and generosity of many of the people who helped make the Letters to Europe project a success or offered a helping hand in a time of need. Travelling with a dog is never easy, but Alba is the EU star of the show so it was 100% worth the effort to take her on her first Adventures in Europe… 2 countries down, 25 more to go!
Alba visits Belgium, country no.1 of Alba White Wolf’s Adventures in Europe