Summer interview – Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson at UNHCR

What fragrance is associated in your mind with summer holidays?

The smell of the oceans – hard to describe since water has no odour. But for me there is a distinct and soothing aroma. It must be the mixture of seaweed and sea life carried into the beach by the waves that have skimmed off bits and pieces and churned them into a fresh fragrance.

Your first holiday memories?

Easter week at my grandmother's house on Litchfield Beach in South Carolina. It took my father 20 hours to drive us there from Massachusetts and he did the trip pretty much non-stop. My mother made a picnic of fried chicken and potato salad to satisfy our hunger along the way, and my brother and I told each other silly stories in our invented language to assuage our boredom. When we finally pulled into the driveway and stepped out for hugs, the heat wrapped around us like a steam bath, and the southern accented greetings from my family sounded foreign but felt welcoming. The house was on stilts so hurricanes wouldn't sweep it away. Inside, the kitchen smelled of my grandmother's roast beef and squash casserole, slow-cooking in the oven for the daily lunchtime feast. From the screened-in porch, there was a long wooden walkway over the sand dunes and leading directly onto the endless beach on the edge of a nature preserve. The water was as warm as a bath and the steep, crashing waves at high tide and the pools that formed in the sand when they receded offered endless hours of play. At sunset as we walked along the beach, the fins of dolphins would emerge in graceful unison just beyond the waves. I fantasised about befriending one and riding on its back.

Your best holiday memories?

Hard to pick just one! The most relaxing and revitalizing vacations were in locations of natural beauty with outdoor sport and good food. The highlights?: skiing in Saas Fee with its breathtaking glaciers and car-free town; Austrian Christmas week at the wonderful Hotel Hochschober at 1700 snowy meters; swimming, biking and wine tasting at Lake Neusiedl on the Austria-Hungary border and family beach days at Drakes Island, Maine.

Your worst holiday memories?

When our children were toddlers, out of desperation for a bit of relief, sleep and solidarity, we booked an all-inclusive 'baby hotel' in the Austrian Alps. The place was at the bottom of a steep, dark valley and everything about it inside was confining. The tiny guests were too young to appreciate the place was all about them. Their cries seemed to echo into a symphony of upset. Rather than providing zones of relaxation for harried parents, the hotel was set on being a site of animation for kids – parental supervision required. So instead of lounging in the sauna or taking long leisurely hikes in solitude, we found ourselves bouncing with them in an airless indoor playground while discussing the nutritional merits of one baby food over the other with other weary parents.

A book you will take with you this summer?

I am writing this from a hotel on the edge of Dubrovnik with a stunning view of the Adriatic Sea. I can't help reflecting on the contrast between being a vacationer taking rides to islands here on safe ferries, book and beach towel in the bag, and being a refugee on an overcrowded boat on a sea that could kill you. So while I relax on the beach, I am reading a book in German by Austrian writer, Livia Klingl called, "We can't take everyone – Europe between 'the boat is full' and 'we are becoming extinct', which makes a strong case for offering refugee protection and the need for migration. In between, I am reading article after article on the debate in Europe over refugees and migrants – stories on the crisis in the Mediterranean; overcrowding in an Austrian asylum center; squalor in Calais; and also reports of ordinary Europeans extending a hand of humanity to people in need. Maybe I should have taken a romance novel instead?!

Anything you will NOT take with you?

A sweater! It is 35 degrees in Croatia. 

 

 

Summer 2015

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