Auschwitz-Birkenau

Visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was one of the most moving and harrowing experiences of my life to date. After driving through the Polish countryside during Autumn which happens to be one of the most amazing countries at this time of year it dawns on you that you are about to enter the very place where one of the biggest atrocities in history took place 70 short years ago. Needless to say there is a very sombre feel in the air for the duration of the bus ride.

On arrival you are greeted by the entrance to the Auschwitz camp which is a large gate that bears the banner “Arbeit macht frei” which ironically translates to “work will set you free”. You enter through the gates in the same manner as the abhorrent number of Jewish people that met their untimely demise there would have. The once electrified barbed wire fences are still standing at Auschwitz and some of the blocks where up to 1000 people were once forced to coexist are now museum-style exhibits dedicated to the preservation of the memory of what transpired there during 1940-1945.

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It is hard to listen as you are taken through the brutal and disgustingly thought-out process. Jewish people were methodically taken from all over Europe to Auschwitz, from countries as far as Greece, France and parts of Scandinavia. They would be taken by train in large cattle cars not equipped with any facilities whatsoever for up to four days, some of them did not survive the journey.

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Once they had arrived, the men were separated from the women and children. The men that were deemed fit to work for the Third Reich were placed into the Auschwitz camp. The walls of which are now thoroughly decorated with photographs of these men including any information known about them. Some men lasted only one night. Most were forced to work long gruelling days outdoors and those that arrived in the winter died significantly sooner as their thin uniforms were not enough to protect them from the snow and sub-zero temperatures. I found it hard not the think about, as a 23 year old male what would have happened to me if I was in their shoes. I most likely would have been put to work in the camp, and possibly even ended up with the task of taking bodies from the gas chambers to the crematorium which could have included friends and family. The Nazi logic was that if different people were responsible for each step on their despicable conveyor belt of death then there were no murders taking place.

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The SS were very meticulous with how they kept (and eventually murdered) their “political prisoners”. They would mix prisoners with those that spoke different languages to avoid any potential uprisings. They promised to kill ten people for every person that tried to escape. They told each person to mark their luggage with their names so they could find them easily after their “showers”. They told men and women they would see each other soon. They did not separate mothers from their children, they simply sent them off together so as to avoid panic. They placed fake showerheads in the gas chambers to avoid any last minute suspicions. They took every disgusting precaution to make sure prisoners stayed calm until the very end.

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The gas chambers and crematoria were the most difficult parts of the visit. Walking into the room where between 500-2000 people were led at a time with the promise of a shower only to be mass-murdered was a difficult experience to process. It was almost impossible not to feel the confusion, panic and subsequent struggle that took place in the room as SS soldiers dropped pellets of Zyklon B through small gaps in the roof. It’s hard not to be overcome with emotion as you walk through rooms that are filled with shoes, glasses and even tonnes of human hair from the victims as you walk past other visitors in silence, some with very understandable tears flowing.
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I’m glad that Auschwitz-Birkenau exists in its current form and I am very glad I had the chance to visit. It’s an important piece of history and an example of the horrible things people have done and continue to do to each other. As stated on a large poster at the current site of this terrible piece of history, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”. The visit has given me a glimpse into how truly lucky I, and all of those around me are. I feel so fortunate to lead the life that I do and I can now truly take solace in the normalcy of everyday life.

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Travelling with anxiety: You’ve exceeded your baggage limit

First off, I would like to think that I don’t come across as a particularly anxious person. I think years of practice have helped me manage the feelings that come with this unfortunate affliction. That being said the people that know me well know I definitely have my moments. Anyone that knows the feeling knows that it can make everyday tasks seem daunting and anything more than that seem impossible. I’m not talking about the occasional jitters, I’m talking about the kind of anxiety that keeps you inside all day; that unshakeable sense of impending doom.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety is that it is necessarily “about” something. Sure, certain things can definitely trigger it but half the time it is the anxiety that comes first and the reason that comes last. The wave of dread can come over you at any time. You can be having a great time and feeling completely normal and then two minutes later you’ve convinced yourself without a doubt that the next breath you take is going to be your last. It’s irrational. It’s stupid. And as soon as the feelings inevitably pass you feel just as ridiculous as you have sounded to those around you for the last 10 minutes. The shitty thing is, the natural response for people around you during this time is the last thing you want to hear.

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“Calm down.” I understand people mean well but it’s the equivalent of telling a depressed person to “cheer up”. It’s said with the very best of intentions I’m sure but unfortunately at that particular time it feels like you’re on fire and someone has just thrown a cup of water in your face to ease the pain. The best you can hope for is a quiet and calm place to weather the storm.

For people that do have a predisposition towards anxiousness, things that are seen by most as enjoyable can be absolutely terrifying. Travel of course is included in this category. Before leaving for Europe I was going through a bit of an anxious rough patch; going through the motions day in and day out and feeling terrible about the most mundane tasks. Even when I had something to look forward to it would be drenched in bothersome feelings of doubt. I had forgotten what excitement without nervousness had felt like. My one way ticket to Europe has proved to be so much more than just that. I had no idea when planning my trip that this would also be my ticket to a more relaxed, bearable existence.

As I touched on briefly in my last post, there’s no two ways about it, travelling to a new place without the support and safety of home can unravel even those with the coolest demeanours. The unknown is an intimidating concept in theory and an even harsher reality to face at times. That being said, there are huge upsides. Of course, you get to experience new and amazing things, get out of your bubble and see things that you couldn’t have previously imagined would be so beautiful. But it also obliterates your previous threshold for stress. All those things that you thought were important and worth worrying about before? Irrelevant. The lens you view the world through is now different, you can’t quite put your finger on it but you feel it every day.

I’m not saying it’s easy. There’s been times where I have wanted to pack it all in and run for cover. And more often than I’d like to admit, in times of dire need I’ve had to turn to my trusty travel companion, Xanax. But deep down there’s some part of your brain, right at the back, (unfortunately sometimes it’s not so accessible when you need it) but it’s there telling you that everything is going to be okay.

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I think it’s safe to say that almost every single person has felt anxiety at some point in their lives even if they have not had to live with it on a day to day basis. Whether it’s because of some significant upcoming event, someone or something you don’t want to face or maybe you just had a big weekend.  But if you have been reading this and you could identify with any of what has been said so far then you might find the following to be a useful exercise.

Say “Fuck it.” The feelings aren’t going to go away by themselves so you might as well give yourself a reason to be anxious. Do something you wouldn’t normally dream of doing. Don’t just step outside your comfort zone, jump over that motherfucker, flip it upside-down. Redefine the shit out of it. Force yourself to do that thing that your previous reservations would have never allowed you to do and throw off the torturous shackles of fear and apprehension. You’ll live. And you certainly won’t regret it.

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Workaway – Thonon-les-bains, France

My experience with Workaway so far has been incredible. Marie-Cécile and the family I have been living with have been so accommodating and kind to me. From when I arrived there was incredible food, conversation and laughter to follow. The house is filled by the mother, three children, a Tanzanian au pair and a French intern. The two young boys and young girl have provided much entertainment as have the two stray kittens that the family has adopted. I’m really glad that I decided to deviate from my plan and spend some time in France on a whim.

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The hospitality and warmth I’ve received has been far greater than I could have expected. During meals, which generally last 1-2 hours and consist of 3-4 courses (all including French cheese of course) I sit contently most of the time while the others chat away rapidly in French, of which I understand about 10%. My contentedness comes from the fact that French is such a beautiful and enjoyable language to listen to. Often they are kind enough to repeat parts of the conversation to me in English even though they feel a bit uncomfortable with the language just as I do speaking what little French I know.

My days so far have been spent gardening in the sun in the family backyard; trimming hedges, pruning trees and taking on the task of clearing their enormous back field. You could barely call it work though; relaxed labour in the French autumn sun, 5 hours a day, 5 days a week for 7 days of accommodation and incredible home-cooked French meals. The surrounding area is amazingly picturesque and it is so surreal to be able to walk 5 minutes to Lake Geneva and watch people sailing in the sun on a Friday afternoon.

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It was also pretty extraordinary to be able to drive for 45 minutes to the base of one of the nearby mountains and spend the day hiking up to the French-Swiss border. It took a few hours to reach the destination but the scenery along the way was more than sufficient entertainment. At the top we reached a valley where a group of people were staying in a small lodge and were using a huge net to catch, weigh and tag a species of bird before they migrated to Africa.

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This part of my trip has been hugely different to anything I’ve done so far and while it has taken some getting used to after the stimulation of constant change I have settled in and I think it has been a pretty necessary change of pace for now. I have found myself with adequate spare time to relax and reflect on my trip thus far and I realise how truly life-changing it has been. I am vastly different from the man that left Cronulla almost four months ago, and I couldn’t be happier. My perspective of what’s important in life has been permanently adjusted. Both in the sense of what really constitutes “happiness” and also my sense of what is truly worth worrying about. Without any attachments to my home life I have been free to truly discover who I am as a person and I realise that the person that I was at home was significantly different from the person I am when I feel no external pressures.

Something in me has changed for the better, my level of self-assuredness, tolerance for stressful situations and ability to be myself whilst disregarding judgement have all been altered. I am addicted. New sights, new sounds, new tastes, new people, new experiences, new me. I have suffered from anxiety at times but these are entirely warranted feelings. Being in a new country by yourself is extremely stressful, whether it be emotionally, physically, financially or any other reason to feel stressed that you didn’t even know existed until you feel it first-hand. I have had so many experiences and emotions that I cannot express in words, some positive, some negative but all important.

My trip has been relatively short in the grand scheme of things but I have already gained what I’m sure will be life-long memories. The smallest things can trigger a wave of emotion and nostalgia for a time and place that now seem so distant but in reality may have only been a few weeks prior. A scent in the air, a song, a voice, a picture, a person, can already put me right back in that moment, and I truly hope it will last a lifetime.

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Oktoberfest – Munich 18-21st September 2015

Prior to Oktoberfest I had been in Munich for almost a week. You could feel the anticipation in the air, whether it was the preparation for the festival itself, the countless beer festivals that had closed off main streets throughout the city during the lead-up, the influx of apparent tourists or the look on the face of local Germans when you would approach them and start with “sorry, I only speak English”. Their look said it all; it’s that time of year again.

The actual festival really started for me on the Friday afternoon when I checked in to the campsite I was staying at (which I could write pages on in itself), when we were handed beers in the line to check-in. Anyway, after a night of debauchery at the campsite we were up before the sun in our lederhosen and dirndl’s ready to get amongst it (feeling slightly worse for wear).

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So as it turns out, opening weekend at Oktoberfest in Munich is pretty popular. Who would have known? Considering 6 million people come out of the woodworks for Oktoberfest each year to participate it was a necessary evil to get there early. So there we were, 7am and lining up with thousands of other thirsty enthusiasts all ready to get into the tents and mark their territory (some more literally than others due to the 45 minute line for the toilet). At 9am the doors opened and that’s when the extent of the crowd’s excitement and thirst started to show. Instantly, it was as if every single person in the line of thousands thought they had an open line straight to the door. Everyone in the first few hundred people are instantly forced to get to know each other REALLY quickly, rammed together by that amount of people there’s not much room for courtesies. While every person there is simultaneously trying to get in and not have a panic attack due to lack of oxygen and inability to move, I remember looking down at the 5 foot tall girl next to me and feeling very sorry for her, at least I was tall enough to look up and get a breath of fresh air. Anyway, after a bit of a struggle everyone got through and breathed a (deep) sigh of relief.

Now this is where the fun starts, people are still flooding in and everyone’s spreading throughout the hall. This is about 9:30 in the morning and on the opening day they don’t even tap the keg and serve beer until midday! I don’t know what they expect everyone to do during this time but everyone seems to entertain themselves one way or another. So after possibly the longest two and half hours of my life the mayor of Munich shows his face on stage and gives a short spiel, first in German to which he gets a moderate response from the minority of people there that actually speak the language, and then in English (in a thick German accent) to which he gets a roar from thousands of Aussies, Kiwi’s and Brit’s that make up the majority of this “traditional German festival”.

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After this the keg is tapped and the people on stage start filling steins. These first beers from the keg are free and are handed down to anyone in front of the stage, so of course everyone is clambering over each other and sitting on each other’s shoulders in an attempt to get one of the first beers of Oktoberfest 2015 from the hands of the mayor himself. Everyone else waits semi-patiently for a German waitress to put down the seventeen steins she’s already carrying so that they can order a beer for themselves. Once the beers are flowing all is well, everyone seems to calm down a bit (briefly) but nonetheless its smiles all round for the thousands now jammed inside the beer tent.

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So now it’s about 3pm and the scene inside the tent is slightly different. Its… how do I put this delicately? It’s… fucking mayhem. Steins are smashing, pork knuckle is flying and people are trying their very best to sing in German all the while there are unmistakeable screams of “PROST!” resounding throughout the tent. If you’ve never been to Oktoberfest before you might be unfamiliar with the tradition of people standing on their table and attempting to down their whole stein. Sounds easy right? Wrong. This goes one of two ways; either the punter pulls it off and gets a pretty memorable experience of thousands of people cheering for them, or they get an equally memorable experience of having to pour whatever is left in their stein over their head while the same amount of people boo them and throw pretzels, pork or whatever is within arm’s reach at them. Either way; hilarious.

So day one is finished and from what my bank account tells me a few days later, I needed assistance getting back to the campsite in the form of a taxi. The driver of which I’m sure was ecstatic to drive my paralytic, lederhosen-wearing ass home. Probably while I slurred to him about how much I love Germany… and Oktoberfest… and beer.

Day two was much the same as day one, minus having to get up at that ungodly hour. That being said, my deflating mattress made sure I was up nice and early so I didn’t miss anything. So thoughtful! People start emerging from their tents; majority of which, myself included, are still wearing their clothes from the day before. Convenient! Everyone at the campsite heads for the breakfast line which just so happens to be right next to the bar. Again, convenient! So after some food and a hair of the dog (or seven) we stumble to the bus to head back in to do it all over again.

Same shit, different tent. Day two was much more of a blur, but equally as fun as the first. We were lucky enough to bump into some long-lost friends from our time in Ios and caught up over a few beers and had a good laugh at each other’s outfits. After too many litres of beer and some amazing German food it was time for me to head home, although this time I took my chances on the public transport. The only thing was, every time I would try and approach someone to maybe ask for directions, they crossed the street or just flat out ignored me. It’s almost as if they didn’t speak English and/or didn’t want to talk to a drunk Australian in Lederhosen on a Sunday night. Weird!

When it came time to leave the next day I was one short beer away from (intentionally) missing my bus to Switzerland and staying an extra day (or week) but alas, all good things must come to an end and I could hear the faint sound of my liver screaming “NO, PLEASE LEAVE”. All in all it was one of my favourite experiences of my trip so far. I’ve really never been somewhere with the same atmosphere. Such a ridiculous amount of people crammed together in a space, and it would seem they are the happiest collection of people on earth at that time. It was incredible. An amazing weekend with amazing people and one that I’m sure I won’t forget for many many years to come. A big thanks to everyone that contributed to such an unforgettable experience for me, you know who you are. See you next year.

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