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.

Bruge1

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.