I have done my bit of business travel or what we used to call ‘duty travel’ back in my days at Air Malta. I consider business travel a mixed bag of tricks. I used to like the natural excitement associated with visiting new places but was increasingly hating the hassle of long hauls. And then there’s the business suits, the personal business cards and all the business related rituals which I had increasingly come to loathe. In the past two years as a freelancer ‘business meetings’ (yes...I hate the expression too) have become a very different affair – normally meeting a new or potential client in jeans and trainers at a nearby café and having a no-nonsense conversation which leads – or does not lead – to something. I love simplicity.
So I was dreading the idea of waddling round Strasbourg in a business suit for two whole days – wearing a stupid tie when probably the sensible thing to have around your neck in Mittel Europa in December is a thick scarf – or possibly three of them. But then one Sunday night I got a call from Le Monde’s Plantu urging me to accept the invite and one doesn’t say non to France’s most celebrated cartoonist n’est ce-pas?
The barbaric events of 13th November in Paris and the Brussels lockdown soon after almost killed off the whole thing before it ever happened. Later we were to learn that it was only on the express insistence of Commission President Martin Schultz and the mayor of Strasbourg that the event went ahead – the event was in fact only confirmed four days prior travel with a lovely sweetener thrown in – there is no particular dress code for the European Parliament. Back to the wardrobe you go suit and tie.
On the morrow I go down to breakfast trying discreetly to recognize any of my fellow cartoonists – zilch. Luckily I carry my cranky old netbook and I get mail informing me of a pickup from the hotel to our home for the next two nights – the MS. Lafayette, a Rhine cruise ship reserved for our exclusive use. At eleven I go down and introduce myself to the most likely group waiting in the lobby – I recognise Plantu and am introduced to his excellent team of coordinators. Soon Steve Bell – the Guardian’s chief satirist – and a few other cartoonists join us. Now there’s one very recognisable face.
Once we’re on board ship we are all welcomed by Plantu and given some security instructions by the rep from the Police National – we are comforted to know there is no ‘specific’ threat to us but some of us realize that Plantu has ‘not drawn’ the Prophet in his quite singular way. The naughty Plantu tackled the explosive subject in a unique way. Plantu’s image of the Prophet’s face is made up of repeated scrawlings of the sentence ‘I shall not draw the Prophet’. Genius.
We are soon taken to the European Parliament where ‘our’ exhibition is inaugurated by Martin Schultz himself. I spot Maltese Euro MEP Marlene Mizzi in the crowd and, having got word beforehand that she made a point of attending events in which other fellow Maltese are taking part, I make a point of going up to her and exchange pleasantries (and yes she is a pleasant person). In my line of work I do my utmost to avoid contact with politicians at all times – there’s always the risk of seeing them as nice people when your job requires you do the exact opposite. But then basic human civility wins over the rules.
The long day comes to an end with a generous meal in town and then we are taken back to the cruise ship for a very well deserved rest. Thus ends day one….
At 11am we are taken again to the European Parliament where we are guests at the ceremony to award the Sakharov Prize to the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – in his sadly inevitable absence received by his wife Ensaf Haidar, who took refuge in Canada after her life was threatened in Saudi Arabia. It is a short ceremony but an immensely moving one and I don’t mind admitting here that tears were flowing from my eyes at the injustice and intolerance so rampant in so many parts of the world. The award was also a huge reaffirmation of the European values of freedom I cherish so much – the Europe I am proud to call home.
After that we are taken to the city centre proper where we are given a tour of the Tommy Ungerer Museum. This is one great illustrator and cartoonist and as a Strasbourg born man the city holds him in high regard. There is another debate here too – televised for a local tv station apparently.
Yet another – but much more interesting – debate follows at the Auditorium de l'Ecole des avocats du Grand Est, the subject here being the Arab Spring and whether it has failed or whether there is hope yet. I am taken aback when a recently banned cartoon from a travelling exhibition around the Mediterranean littoral is shown. It is innocuous enough and shows a boy holding a ladder on which another boy stands peering into the clouds. The boy at the bottom asks “Well?” That this cartoon is banned from some countries because of its innocently playful questioning of God’s existence is a surprise to me – and not a pleasant one either. That Algeria is one of the ‘objecting’ countries comes as little surprise but another country with a strong secular tradition is also mentioned – and that does raise eyebrows.
Debating time over, we walk to City Hall for a reception in honour of Ensaf Haidar hosted by the mayor of Strasbourg. Along the way we walk through one of Strasbourg’s famed Christmas markets and I can’t help noticing how some passers-by recognise the very likeable Plantu – one Father Christmas is also keen to have his photo taken with the famous man from Le Monde when things would normally work the other way round. Here I must also mention that our walkabouts around town were always discreetly accompanied by armed police – for some of us a comfort…for others a cause for some concern. Me… I was slightly amused.
By the time we got to City Hall the tiredness (and hunger pangs) of a long day were starting to tell. We posed for a group photo with Ensaf Haidar but I declined to have a selfie taken with her – I reckoned that would have been in bad taste somehow. I have a great admiration for this woman who tirelessly fights for her husband’s cause – one has to bear in mind that when her husband was arrested her family’s reaction was to force her to divorce Raif Badawi – something she steadfastly refused to do, choosing exile instead.
Our last stop for the day was another generous meal at the Maison Kammerzell – right next to Strasbourg’s majestic cathedral and one of the oldest restaurants in town. It was past 1 am when we finally made it back to the boat and I was worrying how I would wake up to take my flight home at 6am. Three consecutive alarms on my mobile ensured I did and at 5am my taxi pulled up by the ship’s side. I bid my groggy farewells to a few others taking the early TGV out of town and started the long eight hour journey home.
A memorable experience in so many ways. Meeting and living for two days with some of Europe’s finest cartoonists and illustrators possibly being the top one – but also getting a first glimpse of the European Parliament and its workings changed my previously sceptic views on this institution.