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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Givens

All the Potatoes in France (and then some), and a Small Amount of Exaggeration.

The message on my phone asked, "Would you be able to drive to a farm about 20 minutes away and help us get some potatoes?" It was our current volunteer Lorenz, passing on a message from some other friends.

"I'd be happy to!" I reply.

"We need to be at the farm around noon." Is the reply.

I have no idea what I've just gotten myself into.

Just like any other day, Rachel and I drop the boys off for school at 8:30 and come home for breakfast and coffee before heading to MSH at around 10:00.

Our American friend Bradon is there. He tells me that I might need some help getting the potatoes. He's willing to help and volunteers some of the guests from the safe house where he works, which is mostly for men.

I say that I'd welcome the help, but I wonder why I'd need so much help to get a few potatoes. I don't have to wait too long to find out.

I receive another message from a French friend. "There are about 200 kilograms of potatoes to retrieve, so you'll want a few guys to help," she says.

"Wait a second, what?!" (200 kg is about 440 lbs, for my American friends), is what goes through my mind, but I'm committed so I can't say that.

"Awesome!" I reply. I'll come over to your house and pick up some guys.

On my drive to the house Bradon calls. "Hey, apparently the potatoes are loose," he says, "so we're going to need a lot of boxes." I laugh nervously. "I'll ask Rachel if we have any boxes at MSH to use," I tell him.

I arrive at the house around 11:45. When I arrive, Bradon is carrying boxes up from the basement. Any boxes he can find. Boxes with clothes in them, boxes with unused food goods, boxes with shoes, empty boxes, banana crates, etc.

I help him search for boxes. I find a box full of donated shoes that I empty. Other than that, our search doesn't turn up enough boxes.

"I'm not even sure what 200 kg of potatoes even means," he tells me, "Do you think we have enough boxes?"

"I, like you, have never seen 200 kg of potatoes before. Rachel buys 5 kg bags at the store for MSH, and she thinks it would probably be around 45 or 50 of those bags," is my reply.

"Let's go over to the Warehouse. They have a lot of empty boxes there," he suggests, "then maybe the guys will be ready to join us."

We drive the short distance to the Warehouse where a number of different organisations that serve the refugee population of Calais are headquartered. We start at the recycling dumpster in the parking lot. We find a few boxes, but not many worth using.

"There are a lot more inside!" yells Marie, Bradon's wife, from across the parking lot. She works with the Women's Centre, an organisation that, as the name implies, serves the female refugees, and where most of the women of MSH are referred from.

We follow her inside the Warehouse. There, we find Marie's team sorting clothes. They have stacks of boxes that they use. Bradon and I select some of the boxes to take back with us.

He says, "I think we've got enough boxes. We should probably head to the farm." It's around 12:30 now.

We go back to the house where he works. There, we pick up two guys, one from Sudan and one from Iran, and begin the 20 minute drive to the farm.

On the motorway, Bradon tells me not to go to the right, since that's a tollway. Of course I don't listen, since Google didn't warn me of tolls, so he must be wrong.

It was a tollway.

When we exit, we have to stop at the machine and pay 1.30€. I dig around in my pocket, thankful that I happen to have change on me for once. Toll money secured, the gate lifts, and we continue on.

Once we arrive at the farm, we don't know where to go. We pull up to the house, and Bradon exits the van to ask the farmer. He tells Bradon to continue down the road and take the next right. We follow his instructions.

There are a number of buildings on the property, and we were told to go to the white shed. The door to the shed is closed, so we assume it isn't the right place. There is a van full of farmhands eating lunch nearby, so I exit the van to go ask them if they know.

"Bonjour, on est là pour chercher des potatoes," I tell the man in the passenger seat. He looks back at me confused.

"Pas là," the man tells me, indicating that I need to go back the direction I came to find the potatoes.

We drive to the front of the green shed that is connected to the white shed. There is a small door between the two.

"Maybe go look in the door?" Bradon tells me.

I go open the door and am greeted with complete darkness. I shine my phone's light in the shed, but can't see very far. I definitely don't see any potatoes.

"They're not here," I tell Bradon.

It's around 2:15 when Bradon finally suggests calling Valentin. She is the one with the contact at the farm. I call Valentin, and she sends me the exact location of the potatoes.

It's the main entrance to the farm, we find when we attempt to drive there. So that was no help.

Valentin also sends the phone number of her contact for us to ask. I dial the number, hoping she speaks English, because I dread trying to explain this situation in French.

She answers. "Bonjour!" I say, "on est à la ferme pour chercher des potatoes. Vous parlez anglais?"

The dreaded answer, "Non."

I pass the phone to Bradon, whose French is better than mine. He asks her where the potatoes are. She gives detailed instructions.

It turns out the potatoes are in the same shed where I had opened the door. The woman had forgotten to open the main door so we could find them.

I return to that room and turn on the light. I look around, not immediately seeing any potatoes. There is farm equipment everywhere, but no potatoes. Then Bradon enters. He spots an enormous white bag across the room. We excitedly rush to check its contents.

It's full of more potatoes than I've ever seen in my life.

Bradon, the other guys, and I carry in the boxes and get to work scooping potatoes with our hands into box after box. Finally we get near the bottom, to where we are able to lift the bag and dump the remaining potatoes into a box.

No we have to take them to the car.

"Do you think I could open that door?" I ask, indicating the garage style door, " I could drive the van in to load.

"We probably shouldn't mess with it," Bradon replies. He's obviously right.

We begin carrying boxes to the van. One after another, we stack them in the back and then into one of the seats.

We are finally done and ready to head back. It's around 3:00 at this point. We begin the 20 minute drive back to Calais.

I manage to scrounge up exact change for the toll once more, and we go to the house where Bradon works in order to unload.

We stack boxes in the basement. I am left with two boxes to take back to MSH.

I head back to MSH with the potatoes and a box of old bananas that Rachel will use to make banana bread.

There’s a lot more to the story of the rest of my day, but I’ve already gone on too long. I could tell you how I got lost driving home, got on the wrong bus to pick up my kids from school and had to walk the rest of the way, how we had a dinner at MSH with several guests that night, how we headed back home at 9:00, and how the boys went to bed later than they should have.

But I will share one more detail. After dinner, we had our evening prayer time at MSH, with Lorenz leading. After the craziness of the day, the prayer time was refreshing. Sitting in silence, singing songs, reading Scripture, and praying our requests, always brings joy to my heart. It’s a reminder of why I do the things I do and why I spent the whole day tracking down and carrying back 200 kg of potatoes.

So if you’re ever tempted to ask what a normal day in our lives in Calais looks like, don’t. I always say that I could describe my day, and it wouldn’t sound like I was busy, but trust me: staying busy is never a problem. Every day is an adventure in Calais and in my heart.

Bradon, if you’re reading this, I love you and your heart for justice and service. Your and Marie’s kindness has made our transition to life in France bearable. I hope you never change. I know I’ve said it before, but I mean it: You’ll be amazing parents! Thank you for putting up with me all day yesterday!

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