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.

Czech’ing out Prague

Prague is a city that just doesn’t make sense, almost completely physically unscathed by World War 2 and its soviet occupation and totally mind-blowingly beautiful, yet completely oppressed for so much of the last century.  It is a town that has seen and felt so much horror and yet stands tall with not even a scratch.

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The more I learn about Prague… the more surprising it is.  Today we have seen an astronomical clock, which was first installed 1410… way before Australia had become the country of Australia… see what I did there? That’s no. 9 off the list… smooth ey?  We explored the clock tower and an Apple Museum… not the eating kind of apples the other kind. Watched the changing of the Prague castle guard with its epic fanfare trumpets. Shot a crossbow… and learnt that I would die if I was reliant on my crossbow skills for anything… it is not a skill I possess. Learnt all about communism in a fairly biased communism museum and explored the Jewish Quarter. Which had been singled out by Hitler to be preserved as a museum of it’s own to the ‘extinct race’, thankfully it has not served it’s purpose entirely. In the quarter, there was the most incredible ancient cemetery, another weird fascination of mine, where generations of Jewish people were buried and the tombstones crowded each other out and were built on one on top of the other.   According to the audio guide the graves were 10 layers deep… you can decide what that actually means.

While we were in Prague we were also introduced to Trdlo… a delicious pastry hybrid… recommended both with and without nutella.  As we were told before we got there… and now fully agree with…
“If you don’t like prague…. there is something seriously wrong with you”

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Český Krumlov

I have been trying to work out how to describe Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, just right… it is not at all what I expected, which shouldn’t really be a surprise given what I have already experienced on this trip.   But if I had to describe it… this is where I would live if I was indeed, a Disney Princess… which is something I have given more thought than I care to admit.   But it would be seriously perfect for this, tiny cobblestone streets, a beautiful river, picturesque skyline and an ancient castle complete with a bear moat… seriously a moat with bears instead of water… not ideal for the bears right now, but definitely Disney princess movie worthy… because it would be cartoon and the bears would be part of the family in a totally animal rights approved way.

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Just to add to the magic that was Český we stayed in the one of the greatest places I have ever walked into… The Old Inn, right in the town square. An Inn which I am pretty sure has just been added to over time. The stairs and floors have no real order, you just follow the signs around twists and turns until you get to your room… which for us was right up the very top… in the attic… it was super cosy and ticked ‘have a room in the attic, complete with slanted roof’ off my life bucket list… although the roof did make the shower a little more complicated then it should have been… I have never had to kneel to shower… and I hope I don’t have to again… but it was fun for a night.

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Oh… and we visited our 4th museum for the year today… which means no. 76 is off the list.  Not bad for day 12 of 2016!

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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…

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