October 1984: My best friend and I had been living in Dublin, trying to break into the world of journalism. We were 21 and in love with the wonder of the world. That said, our work and studies were heavy: we were devoted to understanding the war that was happening in the North of Ireland which was a complex and harsh issue. So after a summer of being immersed in that darkness, we decided to take a holiday. We bought a Eurail pass and headed over to trek around the continent with no agenda but to see as many places as we were called to that we had never seen before. Prior to this excursion, the furthest south I had ever been in Europe was Paris, so in many ways I was unprepared for the culture of the Mediterranean.
The world has changed immensely since 1984, when it was not the global village that it is today. My friend, we’ll call her Dee to protect her identity, was a stunning pale blonde with blue eyes and I was a strawberry blonde with green eyes, and we were both petite – a combination that made us somewhat exotic in the southern mediterranean at that time. We learned quickly to dress modestly and wear hats and sunglasses to keep the attention to a minimum. In retrospect, I realized much later that although we were both 21, we looked significantly younger, more like teenagers. This would become important in what happened next.
From Madrid we closed our eyes and picked the next train out – Lisbon! We were up for the adventure in the mysterious land of porto and fado singers. We had a students’ guide to hostels and pensions and found one for the equivalent of 5 bucks a person per night. Score! Portugal was going to be both interesting and cheap! We did some exploring on foot before eating something unrecognizable for lunch which turned out to be tripe, and then went back to our room to shower and rest for awhile. We didn’t eat much of the tripe so we were hungry, and asked the owners of the pension to give us a recommendation for dinner. They immediately said we had to go to a specific cafe, and they drew us a map and gave us the name, assuring us the food was cheap and the owners spoke English. So far, so good.
The cafe was walking distance and it was dark, so we shed our sunglasses and our hats. I still remember what I was wearing, jeans and a white sweatshirt I had bought a few days earlier from the Prado Museum in Madrid. Later, I would regret wearing white and understand that it had displayed the red-gold color of my hair to particular advantage – which drove my value up on the black market in which I was about to be sold. But I was still innocent when I got dressed that night.
The cafe owner welcomed us and we ordered simply, sandwiches and Perrier. After the adventure we had with the food at lunch, we were both determined to keep it simple that evening. It was a gorgeous autumn night, we were in a quiet part of Lisbon, and we were happy to just sit back and relax. The cafe wasn’t very busy – maybe a few locals that the owner seemed to know as he was chatting with them, but in the time we were there, they all departed until we were the only patrons left in the place. With the hindsight of an adult with much life experience, that should have been our first warning. We did notice that our food was taking a really long time, given that they were just sandwiches, so I called the owner over and asked if there was a problem. My spider sense was starting to tingle a bit – something felt a little off. He apologized profusely, said he would bring us a free drink to apologize, and that our food would be right out. He brought us two cokes on the house, then disappeared into the kitchen.
I would be lying if I said I remembered with clarity what happened next. I do not remember in sequence and there are a few strange spots of lapse in my memory – places where the film has been burned with holes and I cannot reach the image that should be there. But here is what I CAN remember – very suddenly our table was surrounded. In fact, it felt instantaneous. We saw a white van pull up in front of the cafe – the kind of panel van used to transport product which has no windows. Men poured out from the back of it and rushed toward us, but at the same time we were already surrounded from the back. There was screaming, lots of it. The men were yelling across us, across the table, shouting at each other in rapid cadence There was a very tall man who appeared Rastafarian in the way he was dressed who appeared to be leading the cacaphony of noise all around us, and I could feel the breath of several of the men on the back of my neck. I counted them. I don’t know why, maybe it was the only way I could find order in the chaos. There were 13 men and one woman and the next thing I knew we weren’t at the table anymore. This is where the holes are in my memory, I truly do not remember the next 30 to 60 seconds. It is amazing what trauma can do to you. It is also possible that we had been drugged with the “on the house” drinks, but as neither of us had taken more than a sip or two, it didn’t take full effect. But I did feel drugged for the rest of that night.
Somebody dropped me, or I fell, or something happened that left me sitting on the sidewalk next to Dee, and a well dressed man was running across the street toward us screaming in Portuguese and waving his arms. The thugs who had surrounded us split up and ran. Some jumped into the van and sped off, other disappeared as fast as they had appeared out the back of the cafe. The man who was running toward us stopped and asked if we were alright. When he realized we had not been hurt, he sat down on the curb and asked us to join him.
He was tall and thin, elegant in an interesting way. He had long wavy hair that was graying and wore wire rimmed glasses. He spoke flawless English with a German accent. “My name is Earl Grey” he said. I was in too much shock at the time for it to really register how unlikely the name was “I am from the German diplomatic corps. It was just lucky that I was walking this way tonight and witnessed this. Do you understand what happened here?”
We both shook our heads. Neither of us could speak yet. He explained “Those men, they were bidding on you. And it is a good thing, too, that they were fighting over you or I would have been too late. The average girl is taken and delivered into a cargo container in the Port of Lisbon in a matter of minutes. Within half an hour, it is too late to ever find her.” He told us that the reason we were still here was that it appeared that there were two separate cartels fighting over who got to take us, and there was an impromptu auction as a result.
Earl Grey went on to explain the nature of trafficking, although it wasn’t called that then, at least not to my knowledge. He said that “coincidentally” he was in Lisbon for a conference on this very crisis – that so many girls from Northern Europe had disappeared in Portugal, Morocco and Turkey within the past years it had become a real crisis and there was a task force to end trafficking (the “white slave trade” he called it). The task force just happened to be meeting when we were there, he just happened to be a member, and he just happened to be walking by and witness our distress at exactly the right time. He also knew what to say to a band of ruthless killers that would make them disperse and sacrifice their very valuable double deal immediately. How fortunate for us.
Earl explained that anyone we encountered that day could have sold us, but it was likely the pension owners working with the cafe owners in tandem. Foreign girls are trafficked by tipsters who work in the tourist trade. The tipsters are told what is “hot” in the market at the time, with light-eyed blondes and redheads always at the top of the list. This is where we also discovered that they likely thought we were about 17. When a girl or girls fitting that description, who are unescorted, happen into one of the establishments owned by a tipster, they are quickly and easily sold. The cafe owner’s job was to hold us there until the traffickers arrived, which is why our food had been delayed. When we turned around to look at the cafe, it was deserted and the lights were turned out.
He continued to tell us that it was dangerous to stay in Lisbon for even another hour, so he had to get us out of there. Because the pension was an unknown quantity, he said he would go there and collect our belongings. A car arrived somewhat mysteriously to take us there, he must have called it but I don’t remember – this is another piece of memory loss, because I was in a fog by this time. I only knew one thing: this man had just saved our lives from a fate beyond my imagining and I was grateful and I trusted him. He was very careful to stay polite and distant as he talked, and yet for all of that there was a warmth about him, a caring.
A car arrived, perhaps it was a taxi, perhaps something involved with his diplomatic connections, but we went back to the pension, he spoke sharply to the owners in Portuguese and we were out of there in about three minutes. He explained in the car that he was taking us to the train station. It was late and there were no appropriate flights out of Lisbon that night, so he was putting us on a train to Paris, because it left within the hour. When we got to the train station, he advised us that we needed to call our parents from the station and tell them where we were and what had happened, and give them our schedule for arrival in Paris. If they did not hear from us upon our arrival Paris, they were to contact embassy authorities. He wanted us to create a trail just in case. My mother still tells the story of receiving the phone call that day from a terrified parental point of view.
Earl Grey had a word with some of the authorities on the train, and we were given strict instructions on where to sit and to stay locked in the comparment which we would open only at the border crossings for a specific official. Otherwise we were to speak to no one until we arrived in Paris. He assured us he would see that the pension and the cafe were investigated for their roles in organized crime. The he waved goodbye to us as the train pulled out of Lisbon. I have never been so happy to leave a place.
For years, I wondered about the timely arrival of the elegant and proper “German diplomat” who called himself Earl Grey. I have always found him enigmatic and wrote it off for two decades as an amazing feat of divine timing.
But in the last two years as I have spent time in places like Mont St Michel and have been studying this idea of the physical manifestation of angels as saviors in times of dire need, I wonder.
I wonder if Earl Grey wasn’t some other kind of divine intervention. It is funny that the tea carrying the same name is made with bergamot oil, which is known in aromatherapy to dispel negative energy. Our human manifestation of Earl Gery certainly did a tremendous job of dispelling the darkness on that night.
And thus I became a crusader against human trafficking. I believe that this very personal and visceral brush with it was a gift, something to show me that this crisis is very real for millions of women worldwide, and that as long as I had a voice and an ability to do something to raise awareness of it, I would do so. And for that, as well as for the very real interaction with what I truly now believe was an angel, I am grateful.