Getting Some Perspective on the Bus

Today has been a challenging day, before we started on our European adventure getting to London was my main goal. I was excited about seeing Europe and ticking off some lifelong bucket list items, but I was really excited about getting to London… why? Because in June last year my best friend moved there so it had been a long six months since I had seen her face to face. It was the reason we chose to go now, rather than waiting another 12 months and something that I had been counting down to since the moment she left. Yet the journey to get here has been an incredible to say the least we had a jammed pack end to 2015 and the last 3 weeks has completely over shadowed my initial excitement. But today is the day we have finally arrived in London, and even though I am super excited to tell you all about being here and being reunited, today’s travel’s have been quite overwhelming and emotional and I think I need to stop and let it out… Today has not just been our last bus day, but it has included so much more. One last day stop, some confronting scenery, a ferry across the channel and a long drive through peak hour traffic and saying goodbye to our remaining tour friends one last time before we part ways for the first time in just under a month and get on the tube to our home for a week in Notting Hill.

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We stopped in Bruges, Belgium, the home of fries, chocolate and waffles and indulged, longed for more time once again to take it all in and then jumped back on the bus and headed across the country and down through France towards Calais where we would catch our ferry across the English Channel. On our drive to Calais we were confronted by just a glimpse of the thousands of refugees who are currently living in what can only be described as squalor, outside Calais port. Many hoping to make the same journey we did, across the English Channel into the UK. This moment of reality thrown into our dream trip was jarring. I had never seen anything like this before, I had completely underestimated what a refugee camp would look like and how I would be affected just by seeing it. I was also completely embarrassed by the constant political squabble of Australia and Australians in response to refugees. I had previously been disappointed in our response to people seeking asylum, but now I just feel angry, frustrated and completely powerless. I just don’t understand, why we, the lucky country, have so much difficulty processing peoples requests for refuge, why it takes so long and why the conditions for people who wait need to be so poor.

I know there are a number of issues that impact this, but I am convinced there has to be a better way. When I think about the relatively small number of people who seek asylum in Australia, and then see the camp that I saw today, we must be joking when we talk about a ‘refugee problem’. When I see how these people have ‘chosen’ to live rather than stay where they were, my heart breaks and wonders what more I can do… I don’t really know what the answer to that is yet, but it is something that I need to think more about. Something that I can not… and like so many of the other lessons I have learnt on this trip… I should not forget… Australia does not have a refugee problem… it just needs to re-read the question and try some different answers because we have to be able to do better than what we are doing right now.

Thanks Amsterdam

Oh Amsterdam where do I start?   What a place… Thank you for teaching me the difference between Holland and the Netherlands and why you are called Dutch… Thank you for cheese of all flavours… mature, garlic, smoked, truffle, stinging nettle, whiskey and chili… and thank you for vacuum sealing my purchases so I could take them home and enjoy them later.  Thank you for clogs, tiny skinny houses, beautiful art and artists and thank you for actual Dutch pancakes… which are actually more like crapes and not like poffertjes like my local farmers market would have me believe.

Thank you for housing the free spirit that was Anne Frank and for making me understand her story even though I am ashamed I couldn’t get through her book. Thank you for tolerating both the catholic and protestant churches in the same place with your ‘out of site, out of mind’ approach. Thank you for facing some of the bigger issues of our world like drugs and prostitution and for re-facing it when your previous methods aren’t working as well as you had hoped.

Thank you for challenging my understanding of freedom… and Thank you for a beautiful weekend… but most of all thanks for getting me back on my bike without hurting my butt (that’s for another blog) and for letting me ride safely, even without my helmet…

Thanks Amsterdam!

Guten Tag from Berlin via Dresden!

Berlin1Yesterday as we drove to Berlin we stopped in at Dresden another incredibly beautiful city that I wish I had had more time to enjoy… 2hrs isn’t quite enough… but I did get to learn that not all things WWII are depressing.  Dresden… although its story is depressing, the ending… well at least of that chapter, is incredibly beautiful and proves that humans can actually work together… even if they are trying to make good for horrible things they have done. Dresden is a wonderful mixture of the old, restored to perfection. Beauty from ashes… I think I need to go back and spend some more time there.

Now we are in Berlin and after not really being confident I would like Berlin last night, I have been totally turned around today. I have absolutely loved learning about Berlin, and Germany both during and after WWII… Germany is incredible, truly.

Seeing the Berlin Wall is not just something that I have been able to cross of my list but something that I have wanted to do since I learned that it existed. It is something that I have struggled to understand, and even now find difficult to comprehend. It is something that, like Auschwitz, is so important to have as a reminder of what not to do again… to prevent a repeat. And it is something I am so glad I have been able to see, to touch, to experience, but something that I am so very glad is no longer the divide that it once was.

Last night at dinner I sat with our bus driver Zoli, who is Hungarian and he showed me some pictures of his family visiting East Berlin before the wall fell. They were sitting in front of ‘no man’s land’ with the Brandenburg Gate behind them and no one else around.  He pointed out the wall in the background and told me how he had come with his family to visit his Uncle who was working in East Berlin at the time. Today as I stood where his family had stood for their photo, I could imagine where the wall had been, how eerie it would have been to be right next to the ghost train stations of Berlin, but mixed with the excitement and joy of a family holiday. It has once again challenged the way I see what we have always called the ‘oppression of the east’, the things I have been told were awful.  There were lots of good things for those who lived on the other side, while they might not have been to the standard we have come to expect, a free car, a confirmed job, house and healthcare are all great things, and things that are greatly missed when suddenly taken away. While it probably wasn’t a great way to live, for many it was a good life. It just wasn’t our life… so we judge it. Now don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting we should all drop everything and change to communism, it has just made me question whether there is actually a lot more grey than black and white.

Ampelmann is probably the best example of this… an unofficial icon of Berlin… quietly showing where East Berlin once was, just by telling us whether to go or stop… he isn’t good, he isn’t bad… he is just different (thanks CGS) and to be honest, he just looks way better than our regular walk and stop man… its all about the hat. He has been kept because the people of Berlin like him, he is part of their history and he doesn’t need to be changed to the western alternative, just because the wall has fallen.

The other thing that has really struck me while I have been in Germany is the fact that the German’s have embraced their horrible (recent) history and learnt from it.  They have a memorial to those who they hunted and murdered and do not in anyway shy away from the cruel nature of the wars they have faced. They also respond differently to war now… they will not get involved violently… they will offer aid, medical assistance and support, but nothing to encourage destruction, separation or violence… I think we could all learn something from Germany.  They welcome the marginalised, support those around them and make really great chocolate.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

As we drove out of Poland today we stopped at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Words can’t really express what it was like to stand where so many others stood in horrible conditions. To walk through the barracks they lived in. To see the conditions, breathe the air, and hear the stories of those who had gone before.

Auschwitz is an eerie place, but being there today in the cold, still, foggy conditions made the realities of its use during WWII so much more confronting. As I stood there rugged up with thermals, 3 jumpers, scarf, gloves and thermal woollen socks in my sturdy shoes, still shivering, I couldn’t help but think of those forced to work in similar weather conditions with nothing more than prison pyjamas and bare feet.   As we walked though a remaining barrack at Birkenau that had housed hundreds of women in cramped and uncomfortable bunks, it made our race each morning for a good seat on the tour bus seems ridiculous, when all 50 of us would have been housed in just over 6 bunks. And as I looked at what little remained I was reminded that we as humans know when we are doing something wrong… we cover our tracks, we blow things up so they can’t be identified, burn things down and remove the evidence… we know… they knew.

I think the thing I have been finding most confronting particularly about WWII is lies the Jewish people were told constantly and despite the fact that so many never returned, so many still came with hope. Hope that they were in fact going to a better place, hope that work would set them free, hope that they would live, despite what they had heard and could see. They came under the lies of resettlement, bringing their best belongings. They were told they would live in rooms complete with twin chimneys – stoves for heat and cooking, stoves that were never used. The were told they could stay with their children as they were washed, only to have their dignity stolen as they stripped down and then held the hands of their loved ones as they died together. Only to have their belongings sorted, donated or sold. Only to be exploited even in death.

It’s hard to believe that it isn’t just some horrible story. That this actually happened… and that despite it’s warning not to let it happen again that mass killings and genocide seem to continue with uncomfortable frequency.

There was a quote in the doorway that said:

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
George Santayana

And I think we forget too often… I hope that I never forget the things that I have seen today… that I never gloss over a past this horrific. But more than anything I really do hope it stops repeating.

Kraków

Working my through all these places has made me realise how little I actually know about anything… and that the little I did know is so tainted with Hollywood… most of it is incorrect… enter Poland just to confirm this…

So here are some Polish fun facts that I now know are true because I lived it… or I read it while in Poland… so that makes it legit.

  1. Polish Dumplings are a thing… they are called pierogi and they look a lot like Asian dumplings… but they have their own Polish flair… I can’t tell you which came first, but I can tell you both are delicious.
  2. The Warwel Castle in Krakow is said to be built on the lair of Krak the dragon… so it’s may not be confirmed fact… but I did learn it at the foot of the castle so I think it counts… it also carries it’s own fact and legend… FACT: there is a statue of Krak the dragon outside the castle… LEGEND: it apparently shoots fire every 15mins or so… I saw some fire from a distance… but despite waiting right up close… I never saw it again…
  3. Oskar Schindler was a complex guy… he saved a lot of people… but I am not sure if that was always his plan… I am sure glad he did, but I not convinced he is the clear cut war hero I thought he was before I checked out the museum they made in his old factory.
  4. There is a church… in the Jewish quarter that has a fairly sizable prison cell on the front of the building where adulterers were held… so everyone could see… and so they could have some time out.
  5. There is a dagger hidden in the main market square… the dagger is said to be the weapon used by one of the two brothers who built the towers of St Mary’s Basilica to kill the other brother because he was jealous that the tower his brother built was better than his… Oh and in the tower there is a trumpeter that plays the ‘Krakow Anthem’ but only up to a certain point… It is stopped abruptly because legend has it the trumpeter was shot in the throat when sounding the alarm way back in 1241… They re-enact it one the hour every hour…

Krakow

 

Dear Slovenia… Sorry I misjudged you.

Ok even though it is ‘Wordless Wednesday’… this Wednesday also needs some words because we only have one night in Slovenia and I need to tell you that I was completely wrong about it.

Going into Slovenia I expected a poor country with lots of concrete and limited beauty… I don’t really know why I expected this… it’s just the image I had when I thought about it… I guess it was my prejudice.  It turns out I could not have been more wrong.

Slovenia… well both Bled and Ljubljana anyway, were beautiful, enchanting places, filled with all the best Europe has to offer, beautiful architecture, cute streets, an abundance of delicious food and a pretty epic castle. It also had the best lights I have seen to date, turning a dark winter into a pretty magical experience. And even though we only got to see the capital (Ljubljana) in the dark, it is on my list of top places… especially given it is the home of the most delicious upgrade to the vanilla slice I have ever tried… the Kremsnita.

Slovenia

Kirchdorf

If you had told me a year ago that I would learn to ski properly in Austria, I would have scoffed and walked away… but that’s exactly what happened… and now I can ski… I am probably not going to be a champion skier but I kept my number of falls to one hand.

Austria has been a winter wonderland… proper tobogganing, walking home in the snow, skiing, ribs, schnitzel and oompa music and even with all this, pretty relaxing. Austria has been our longest stop on the trip and 3 days has been perfect to unwind and enjoy. We built a snowman, had burgers from an Australian that makes a living selling Aussie style burgers and toasties and played the spoons like we had been born to do it.

Three things I know for sure: 1. I will ski again, 2. A career in Spoons has never looked so good and 3. We will go back to Austria

Austria

A Different Kind of Verona

O Romeo, Romeo, Where for art thou Romeo… Welcome to Verona, Italy… not to be confused with the Verona, New Jersey, the suburb that I called home for a little while. We were only here for an hour, but we were able to pop in on Juliet and her balcony… and her love wall… and the locks… and ‘Have a Shakespeare Moment’

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Quick Verona fun facts…

  1. Shakespeare never came to Italy… but there were some local texts that were very similar to Romeo and Juliet written long before Shakespeare… and by very similar I mean just make Montague and Capulet sound Italian… that’s it… So maybe the story was borrowed… Either way Verona wins out.
  2. There is a complete Colosseum here that is the 3rd largest that has been found… and they still use it for concerts… pretty neat.

So long Italy… Till Next time… Ciao.

Venezia

Okay, so it turns out it is going to be a lot harder to share the key things I have learnt while away purely because of the volume of new information my brain has taken in and processed. I am fairly ashamed of how little history I actually knew before starting this trip. I had always thought of myself as pretty knowledgeable and well versed culturally, just strategically hidden in a fairly thick occa accent (I am not sure if that’s how you spell occa… I am pretty sure it isn’t, but if you know the correct way, let me know…). So instead, you’ll probably just get some good old fashioned reflection and highlights. So here we go…

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Happy New year! This year as I mentioned in my last blog we have started the year in beautiful Venice. Last night we headed to a masquerade party at bar just outside of the Venice you see in the postcards… on I guess what would be considered the ‘mainland’.  Because we joined the tour group in Rome, we didn’t have quite as long to find masks for the party and thanks to a jam packed day of touristing, we didn’t want to waste time hunting one down or pay the prices down town Rome offered, especially seeing as though everyone else paid a fraction of those prices back in Florence or Milan before we got there. Thankfully some of our new friends had upgraded their masks and so, had a second mask they were happy for us to have… so both of us, yep, even Davo, masked up for the night.  New Year’s was actually a great night, even though neither of us were expecting it… it’s hard to party with 50 people you’ve never met before they pop the masks on, let alone when you can’t tell who is who and two more tour groups were added to the mix.  But it turns out that the night really helped us get to know the group and become part of the tour group which was a relief. We were a little worried that we would be the newbie outsiders for the whole tour despite the fact that we were already making friends, but we didn’t to worry… Anyway… that’s how we brought in the new year.

January 1 we headed into Venice, Venice and it was just as I imagined. In the walking tour we looked at St Mark’s Square, St Mark’s Basilica, The Bridge of Sighs and had a chat about the history and culture of the town. Venice is unbelievable and although I had heard rumours that it smelt… due to the mostly stagnant water making up the canals that divide the 100+ islands… the advantage of going in the middle of winter… is that it doesn’t.  It’s just pretty.  The little streets and pokey houses were picturesque and every corner I turned I felt the need to take more pictures.

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I think the highlight of the day was checking out the local transport, the gondola. We did ask our gondolier to sing, but he informed us he only did this after a lot of alcohol. We also went for quite an adventure back on the mainland to find a restaurant that was open for dinner on New Year’s Day and stumbled upon a town square complete with ice skating rink… For our one day in Venice… I think we spent it pretty perfectly. Oh and numbers 1, 59 and 74 all were crossed off the list… Possibly the most successful list day 1 in list history.

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