By Anne-Kirstin Berger, photos by Guki Giunashvili
Interculturality: it’s just a word. It comes to life when people get involved when projects are put into practice. For a couple from England, promoting the exchange between people from different countries has become a mission. Their recipe: Meeting through eating. To achieve this, the two of them are traveling through Europe with a repurposed army-catering tent.
There are Danish foggy days like these when Emma and Sparky Palmer remember they could wake up in a warm, spacious bed instead of a car cramped with humid clothes around them. But the two of them see it positively – “we could be a lot worse”, they say, meaning: Not being able to travel, not enjoying the freedom to decide where to go, not having any kind of roof over their heads. Emma’s and Sparky’s continuous wandering is quite luxurious, because, unlike millions of people worldwide, they chose it.
Emma and Sparky are sitting around a table at Institut for X in Godsbanen. Two weeks have passed since they arrived in Aarhus with their white transporter. Inside the car, they brought all they need: Some food and clothes, a bike for their six-year-old son and a huge army tent. The tent is their project. They pitch it wherever they come and invite people to cook and eat together. “We wanted to create a space which enabled people from various cultures to start a dialogue”, Emma explains, and Sparky adds: “We have always found that food brings people together – it has a huge cultural value and starts conversations.” They came here to participate at the Rethink Activism Festival in September, where activists from all over the world met to exchange ideas for a more equitable, ecological and inclusive future. As they felt welcome in Aarhus, Sparky and Emma returned for the Syrian culture festival Damascene Days in October.
The idea to travel with the “Welcome Tent” came up when Emma and Sparky built friendships with people living at a refugee camp in Calais. In August 2015, the French city that connects the British Isles with the European mainland got in the limelight of the European “refugee crisis”. Thousands of immigrants camped close to the harbour region, hoping for a passage to Great Britain. The village of improvised shelters got famous as “The Jungle”, and it deeply touched Sparky and Emma. “It was life-changing to see people forced to live under those conditions – 25 miles from Kent, where we lived in the UK.”, Emma says. The two of them returned to the camp with some bread and clothes and soon created ties with the people they met there. They spent hours in the kitchen together with both refugees and volunteers and learned about the connective power of food. “Sharing food helps to start the process of sharing stories”, Sparky remembers. “Even people who have lost everything are still able to share the food they grew up with.”
When a friend offered them the old tent, Emma and Sparky had the idea to create a mobile kitchen as a place to make people share their personal stories. They pooled their savings, leased their house and took their son Felix out of school for a year. Then they hit the road with the “Welcome Tent” to collect what they call “recipes of hope” – meals and the memories connected to them. Aarhus is Emma’s and Sparky’s first stop on their journey through Europe. “We pitched the tent and made Syrian bread in collaboration the Syrian community from Aarhus and ‘Den Nye Havn’”, Sparky tells about their joint work with the local refugee volunteer organisation. “People became curious and gathered in and around the tent where we had really great conversations.” Emma particularly remembers a discussion she had with an Aarhusian who criticized their activism. “She said that she did not agree with what we were doing, that the arrival of many immigrants made her feel uneasy.” In the end, even though both could not agree on a common view, the conversation was enriching all the same. “It made me question but then reaffirm my own opinion”, Emma says. After all, the “Welcome Tent” gave space to something that is hard to find: The controversial discussion about how society shall be in the future.
While recalling these memories, Emma and Sparky are packing again. They are about to leave for Eindhoven for a stop at the Dutch Design Week. The tent is hanging above the roof beams of the Institute for X, heavy from the rain. Despite the adverse weather, Emma and Sparky agree that “Aarhus was the best possible place for us to launch this project in Europe. It has such a unique community where creativity is valued. We have met so many welcoming people. It is truly inspiring.” Again and again, they finish each other’s sentences. Their common project has transformed their life. Living in a van of only a few square meters does not leave any space for individualism or extra baggage, but the family worships the experience. “It gives us an idea of what is actually important”, they say. Meanwhile, their son Felix keeps racing through the room with his new rollerblades that he got at a second-hand shop in Aarhus. It took him less than a week to skate safely. Will he and his parents ever return to the settled life in Kent?
“On the road, we live from day to day”, Emma admits. “The next stop is Dutch Design Week, then Basel, Milan, Montpellier, but with no fixed schedule.” In the long term, she shares an idea with her husband: “We want to create something like this”, she says, pointing to the Institute for X at Godsbanen. “Some kind of static welcome tent with the same principles, but in a country with a warmer climate.” The idea to shape rather than observe society has changed their lives, and it is about to change those of others. “This is what we can do”, Sparky says. “So we are doing it.”
Follow Sparky and Emma on their journey through their blog, Instagram or Facebook.