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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 5

COLOGNE / AMSTERDAM / WROCLAW – 16 November

Currently sitting on a bus on the way from Wroclaw to Krakow. While the crimson-coloured PKP (Polish National Railways) trains of old had their charm, this bus is a reminder of how things have changed – zooming along an autobahn on cushy red leather seats, with free wifi, everything so clean it looks like it came off the factory line just this morning. Outside, blanketed in fog under a low grey sky, is the Polish landscape: utterly flat; the only landscape I’ve seen in Europe reminiscent of rural Victoria, with its similarly flat, relatively featureless fields stretching out to the horizon. This is unsurprising given that Poland comes from the word Polanie, meaning ‘people of the fields’… A fantastic piece of territory for farming; not so great for defending against invasions.

I guess I should go back to where I last finished, which, speaking of invasions, was Germany. We had just one more stop to go – Cologne – which I had high hopes for, as a big city with a famously impressive cathedral. Actually it was the most underwhelming destination of the entire cruise. The cathedral is undoubtedly impressive – Gothic on steroids – but the rest is pretty mediocre, like the crappiest parts of Melbourne’s CBD cobbled together. That’s all I gotta say about it really.

At around dawn the next day we got to Amsterdam, world capital of sex and weed. In this way Amsterdam’s very different to your typical European city: it’s gritty, grimy, chaotic, noisy, freakish. Grandiose structures from the glory days of the Dutch Empire are surrounded by American junk food chains, novelty shops selling shishas and sex toys, and of course the infamous ‘coffee houses’ which are far more about cannabis than caffeine. Through the windows you can see ’em packed to the rafters with backpackers, idly sitting around, staring back not so much at you as through you with pink glazed eyes… And as you pass the door you get a strong, sharp whiff of the herb responsible for their vacant expressions.

Both me and Josh were here for the second time, and Josh hated it all over again from the outset. While I can’t say I loved it myself – and Amsterdam’s definitely a culture shock after several days of quaint, quiet little German townships – I was still interested enough to want to walk around and explore. With its endless waves of hobos, freaks and tourists flowing down the city’s main drag and in and out of its ghetto-ish laneways, it’s probably not a place I’d want to live in, but it’s a fascinating urban jungle to get lost for a while– especially in a hemp daze. Unfortunately we didn’t sample any as Josh wasn’t up for it, but I did treat myself to a cannabis ice-cream – basically a vanilla Choc Top infused with ganja – which disappointingly didn’t have much of an effect, if any.

It’s like the 70s never quite died in Amsterdam… Though really, I guess, it’s just a city that famously panders to the weed culture – not just in making cannabis readily available (though contrary to common belief, it’s not actually legal – just tolerated), but in all the associated paraphernalia of that lifestyle, from tie-dyed shirts to iron-on peace signs… Basically everything you’d pack for Rainbow Serpent. And if you’ve ever experienced the munchies after a few joints or cookies, you’d understand why the place is so totally inundated with junk food outlets – from ‘kabab’ (as it’s spelled in Europe) to pizza by the slice, and of course the city’s famous vlaamse frites – thick-cut chips served in a cone with a dollop of delicious yellow mayonnaise.

The next day, Saturday, was a hell of a day. We were up at 6:30am, bags hauled off the ship by 7, then breakfast and farewelling the various people Josh and I had befriended over our two weeks on board. Then it was off to Schiphol Airport by bus, then on to a plane to Frankfurt after a 45-minute delay, then on to another plane to Wroclaw (which I had to run for like a crazy person), then, finally, a drive home to the residential outskirts of the city. It wasn’t even 3 o’clock yet when I stepped through the Machalowskis’ gate and up to the front door, but this was not the time to retreat to a soft private place and crash. It was family reunion time, on for one and all – Uncle Jurek, Aunt Ewa, my cousins Kasia and Milena and their partners Adam and Michael. As luck would have it, Michael was celebrating his 40th in town that night so after some tomato soup, bigos and two shots of wodka, off we went – me still dressed in the stale flanny and jeans I’d been wearing for two days straight now, as my luggage was sitting somewhere back in Frankfurt thanks to a strike at Lufthansa.

There’s not a great deal to write about my two nights in Wroclaw: it was, like I said, one big long family reunion; a whole lot of sitting around and talking and eating and drinking. It was the typical Polish experience – conversations fueled by shots of ice-cold spirits and an endless procession of hearty meals, cakes and coffee. I reunited not only with relatives but met the next generation of my family – suddenly coming to terms with the fact I’m an uncle – as well as people I’d met on my trip 11 years ago… One of these being Jeremy, an old Brit who lives with his Polish wife (Michael’s mum) in Duszniki, a mountain town near Wroclaw, with whom Paul and I had spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve back in 2004-5.

KRAKOW / WARSZAWA – 22 November

“Krakow is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a medieval city full of young people. A wonderful, striking combination.” – Jonathan Carroll

Our two final destinations were Krakow and Warszawa – the former and current capitals of Poland. Where to begin? To be back in Krakow made my heart soar. It’s a beautiful city full of beautiful young women, as one of its many cultural treasures is the 800-year-old Jagellion University which attracts young people from all over Poland and the world. As a happy result, this immaculately preserved medieval city is also full of bars: reportedly the 800m x 800m market square in the centre of the Old Town has the highest density of bars in Europe. Yet it doesn’t seem that way at first glance; you have to explore a bit… Step curiously through an arched entry-way off the street and walk along until you come across an open wooden door, with the sound of conversation and laughter faintly emanating from below… Step through, down the staircase and suddenly you’re in a gorgeous old subterranean space, a centuries-old brick cellar that’s been converted into a funky bar.

Krakow is the site of what is probably Poland’s single most important monument: the Wawel, a collective term for the old royal castle and cathedral, set atop a hill near the heart of the city. Sadly we didn’t get to go inside – tickets had already sold out the day we went, even though we’d got there around midday – but we did walk around and take in everything from the outside, including the barracks that the Austrians built during Poland’s 19th-century partition, and where Hans Frank later stationed himself as Governor of Nazi-occupied Poland… The building adding to Wawel’s significance, in a way, as a reminder of Poland’s troubled history.

In Warszawa you get even more of a taste of this history, at least the tumultuous last 100 years. It’s a markedly different city to Krakow – the moment you step out into the open from the Metro, you’re immediately struck by this: Warszawa is a modern, bustling city. You emerge into a square full of people and noise and see a skyline of shimmering glass skyscrapers rather than Gothic spires or Baroque towers … Then you turn around and there it is, looming over you: the Palace of Culture and Science, a brooding, majestic building constructed, originally, as an expression of Communist power. The building is therefore as controversial as it is iconic of the city – it used to be derisively called the ‘Russian wedding cake’ – and in the 90s, I believe there was even debate about whether it should be torn down. But like the initially maligned Eiffel Tower, most Varsovians these days no longer see the Palace as a blight on the city’s skyline, and have embraced it as an emblematic landmark which adds to Warszawa’s unique historical tapestry. I took this picture on our way to the Palace because it summed up Warszawa for me (and innumerable shots like this can be taken from various parts of the city): the old, the new and the Soviet Realist, all co-existing in a city that’s still rebuilding.

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(That’s a temporary Christmas installation in the foreground, by the way.)

Warszawa was completely destroyed in World War 2 – systematically dynamited and flame-throwered to the ground by German forces in 1944, following the ill-fated Uprising to liberate the city – and when US forces inspected the rubble in 1945, they suggested the Poles move their capital back to Krakow. But this would have meant Hitler won, in a sense: the Nazis demolished the city on his orders so that it could no longer function as a ferocious, unrelenting bull-ant’s nest of Polish nationalism and defiance. And so the laborious task of postwar reconstruction began, under Soviet watch, without any of the monetary aid Germany and other European countries enjoyed from America… Domino-style mass housing; utilitarian office buildings; everything made of beige stone and grey concrete – colourless, devoid of the decoration that once defined this ‘Paris of eastern Europe’. For better or worse, these Communist-era buildings still form the bulk of Warszawa’s infrastructure, interspersed with the odd reminder of the city’s former beauty… And now, increasingly, shiny glass testaments to its status as the capital of one of Europe’s fastest-growing and most promising economies.

So anyway. There’s probably not much point in a day-by-day narrative of what we did – essentially it was sight-seeing, eating, drinking and acting like retards to amuse ourselves. Josh fell in love with pierogi so we ingested plenty of these hearty ravioli-style dumplings, at the expense of our waistline – perfect for the cold temperatures that had kicked in by this time. On our last night we went out with Piotr – a family friend of mine, a few years younger than us and a Warsaw local – which perfectly wrapped up our boozy bachelors’ tour of Europe.

(ALMOST) MELBOURNE – 22 November

That night and indeed our whole stay in Poland made me realise that while I’m Polish and love hearing the Polish language around me, and seeing the red-and-white flag everywhere and being in these places with their incredible history which I’ve read so much about… At the end of the day, I’m a foreigner in Poland. People pick up on my accent straightaway and sometimes even switch over to English, assuming (not incorrectly, I guess) that I’d be more comfortable conversing in that. I may have a name few can spell and even fewer can pronounce; I may have the hair and cheekbones of someone who’s clearly from the north of Europe; and several of my closest friends are Polish, our shared heritage an important catalyst for our friendship. But I’m Aussie before I am Polish; Australian English is my primary language; and the Australian way of life is the one I live – the only one I know, in fact, having lived my whole life in Melbourne bar a half-year in Poland when I was 5. And while I have friends from all backgrounds – Serbian to Swedish, Chinese to Peruvian – they are all, at the end of the day, Aussies too. And so it’s great to be coming back. Just a few minutes ago, Josh interrupted me to point out the Martian red landscape outside the plane window: that surefire sign we’re flying over ‘Straya, the great rust-coloured continent so very, very far from the ornate lamp-posts and cobbled squares of Krakow. And as deeply as I miss those things already, I’m also happy to be coming home.

EPILOGUE – 3 December

So it’s been over a week since we’ve got back, and I wanted to add this before publishing the above coz I feel reflecting back is perhaps what’s most important in a journal.

The final week, in Poland, definitely cranked up the emotion-meter: catching up with relatives, seeing nephews for the first time, seeing my grandma for possibly the last time, and then finishing off the trip with five nights in the two great cities of my ancestral homeland – the cultural treasure chest of Krakow and the hero city with myriad faces, Warszawa. I still recall the feeling of joy I got when I opened up the windows of our flat in Krakow, smelling the crisp icy air and looking out over Dietla (the main drag we were on) with its rows of oak trees, shedding the last of their yellow leaves onto the footpath and tram tracks below. I got the same feeling three days later, when we’d lugged our luggage up the stairs to the top floor of an apartment building on Warszawa’s Old Town Market Square, and looked out: over the square (at that point a construction zone as preparations were underway for the Christmas market) to the red-tiled roofs and fresco-painted facades of the Old Town; and beyond that, a series of lit-up skyscrapers and the ever-present Palace of Culture and Science. It seriously tripped me out to wake up at 5am on Monday and remember I’m now back in little ol’ Elsternwick on the eastern side of sunny, suburban Melbourne, half a planet and an entire reality away.

I feel, therefore I am.

It’s an artist’s take on Descarte’s famous statement, and it vaguely encapsulates what travel does to me. Because undoubtedly there was emotion, in fact as soon as I went for my first walk around Budapest I was almost moved to tears, swept up in the staggering beauty and history all around me. It felt almost surreal, like being sucked into a movie you love but haven’t seen in ages.

This was not a relaxing trip, by any means. It raised questions rather than answered them; put gaps and issues in my life that I’d swept under the carpet back to centre stage. Burned into my mind’s eye is my grandma’s face when she asked me, a mere minute into seeing me for the first time in 11 years… “Mateusz, when are you going to get married? Why haven’t you got a girl? It’s such a shame for you not to have a girl.”

We’ve heard it before, ol’ gran’ma telling you to eat more and hurry up and get married. It’s a cliche we like to chuckle at. But the way she said it to me, face scrunched up with worry and slight disapproval, was like the way you’d ask someone when they’re going to straighten the fuck out and give up heroin. She looked pained by the situation. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised maybe she’s got a point. Maybe our Australian culture of hooking up and going out and dating endlessly through your teens, 20s and well into your 30s is bullshit. Maybe our Tinder/Snapchat generation is heading for a middle age of hollowness and loneliness, having never committed ourselves to true love when we had the chance – playing the grasshopper when we should’ve started playing the ant, setting the foundations for a supportive family life. This is going down a totally different path – and there’s a reason why I’ve personally missed the marriage bus so far – but it’s the question this trip raised perhaps above all: Why aren’t I married? Why aren’t I taking that more seriously? As I sat beside my grandma – now a fragile shell of her former self, ravaged by old age and Parkinson’s – I realised the clock is always ticking, slowly but relentlessly… That life is passing all of us by, and it’s dangerous to forget this as you go about the same old shit back home day after day, week after week, very slowly progressing towards… Well, what? Not much at all, if you don’t bother to stop, examine your life and consciously set it on course for love, fulfillment and meaning.

The answer doesn’t necessarily in a new place – as tempted as I am to spend 6-12 months back in Krakow and see how that life goes. But absolutely, at least as a start, it demands a deep, fresh, charged, big-picture outlook… And that, I believe, is the real purpose of travel: to reset your mind and soul and put you back in tune with yourself and your destiny. In which case, I can happily say that this trip was a great success🙂

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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 4

KITZEGEN / ROTHENBURG – 10 November

The Ama Reina is currently sailing through Franconia, land of the Franks, a province in the south of Germany. Franconians still identify strongly with their region – in shop windows and building doorways you see the red-and-white Franconian flag alongside the red-yellow-black German one… A reminder that unlike, say, France or Poland, Germany as a single entity is a relatively new concept, the territory now known ’Germany’ historically consisting of a conglomerate of separate states.

Unlike the steiner-guzzling, lederhosen-donning Bavarians, Franks have a reputation as a serious, grumpy people imbued with the Protestant work ethic. Nuremberg, for example, is a typical Franconian city. Yesterday we saw two more: Kitzegen and Rothenburg.

Josh and I opted out of the Kitzegen walking tour to go on a bike ride through the city – a thoroughly pleasant thing to do on a cool, melancholic grey day as the last of the autumn leaves fluttered to the ground. At one point we passed a small courtyard known as the Yard of Suffering, where in the 1500s a local governor of sorts ordered more than 50 citizens to be blinded with red-hot iron rods and cast out of the city – for reasons that weren’t clear in the brochure I read, though again, a horrific reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and the often bloody, brutish nature of life in the Middle Ages.

We saw the bright side of medieval life in Rothenburg, one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. Parts of the city look like a set for a Disney movie, but it never crosses the line into cliché/fakeness – and the authenticity of the city is apparent when you look closely, in the eroded stones and ancient, creaking wood. Rothenburg is full of the combination stone/painted timber houses that Germany’s renowned for, as well as mouth-watering apple strudel and schnapps – which is actually extremely strong and horrible stuff, very different to the sweet, fruity schnapps we know back in Australia.

It’s been interesting traveling through Europe 11 years on. Smartphones have completely changed the nature of sight-seeing – people now sight-see through their phones rather than their own senses. Nothing made this clearer than what I saw back at St Stephen’s in Vienna – there’s a grill you walk up to beyond which is the altar, and when I first visited there in 2004, most people would simply stand at the grill and look up and around in wonder, taking it all in. This time, everyone was just holding up their phones snapping photos as if they’re at a concert… Some of them literally stepped up to the grill, took a few pics, then, satisfied they’d captured something worth uploading to Instagram, ambled off – having never seen anything through their own eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the tech we have now, and I wish me and Paul had such devices when we did our trip… But this trip’s made me wonder if it hasn’t also taken something away from the sight-seeing experience, as we obsessively document our travel experiences rather than simply enjoying them.

Then there are the funny little things you forget – like how the Europeans call toilets ‘water closets’ (WC for short), and the fact you’re expected to tip at bars and restaurants – which I found kind of awkward and irritating at first, though I’m used to it now. Of course there’s also the driving on the right side of the road – easy to forget when you’re crossing the road and especially on our bike ride yesterday, where old habits could’ve put a quick and gruesome end to our adventures. The ship company even makes you sign a waiver before handing over the bikes, pretty much saying that if you get hit by a bus/fall into a canal/whatever, it’s your own goddamn fault.

MORE GERMAN TOWNS – 12 November

Been a big last few days. Wednesday night was a ‘dance night’ on board the ship which a bunch of us young people hijacked for our own partying purposes. There were long lines of shots; shirts wet with spilled alcohol; horrible photos that will hopefully never make it to the light of day… I even realised the burning sensation I’ve had in my throat all day is from the copious amount of cigarettes I smoked on the deck into the early hours. A floating retirement home by day, these occasional boozey nights are the Gen Y-ers time to make the ship their own – thoroughly enjoyable but also thoroughly exhausting, so that today was pretty much spent napping, wallowing in the pool and taking in the amazing sights as we sailed along the Rhine Gorge. Then recover just in time to attend an elegant dinner at the residence of Princess Heide von Hohenzollern, in her big royal mansion which devoid of people would have a bit of an Overlook Hotel feel… Stag heads on the walls, old paintings that look straight at you, and even a room painted top to bottom in deep, blood-gushing-out-of-an-elevator red.

My favourite part of the night was two piano interludes in between the three courses. To my delight the pianist chose to play mazurkas (Polish dances) and did so with exquisite skill, ‘exquisite’ not being a word I’d use normally but totally warranted in this instance. Listening to Chopin’s heart-tugging melodies in an elegant dining hall brought home the degree to which culture can permeate into one’s soul… Mazurkas in particular resonate with me in a way that’s difficult to explain for someone who’s spent practically his entire life in Melbourne, and it’s a powerful example of how an entire culture can be expressed through art… Because make no mistake, when you listen to Chopin – especially a mazurka or polonaise – you are listening to the sound of Poland. And however strange it may sound, it made me realise that whoever I end up marrying needn’t dig The Prodigy or enjoy driving to trance music, but she should definitely appreciate the delicate but profound beauty of a mazurka.

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Last night was the Captain’s Dinner, the second-last night on the ship and easily the most rowdy to date. This time the crew – consisting almost entirely of Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians – were allowed to join us in the partying and man, they didn’t hold back. Initially me and Josh were not in the mood for any more festivities and even got as far as retreating to our cabin after dinner and changing into our jim-jams, but were eventually coaxed into the lounge where the party was already well underway, promising ourselves we’d have “just one or two drinks”. I then promptly plunged into Full Inebriation Mode, hit the dancefloor, downed a series of Jager-based drinks with one of the young Hungarian crew members then took her outside to the front deck for a prolonged pash in the freezing dark… With the consequence that I can now feel the first symptoms of a cold coming on just as we’ve arrived in rain-soaked Amsterdam. But the show must go on, and with Poland just around the corner, by God it will.

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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 3

DURNSTEIN / MELK / SALZBURG / PASSAU / NUREMBERG – 7 November

Current location: At the back of a coach cruising along an autobahn through Bavaria. Time: 9:20am. Weather conditions: Grey, foggy and wet – ironic given a lack of rain is exactly why we’re all piled on a bus right now instead of reclining in the luxurious lounge/private cabins of a five-star cruise ship.

If you’ve seen my Instagram pics from the trip so far, you might’ve noticed that the weather’s been stunning: everything bathed in sunlight with a clear blue sky overhead. This is extremely unusual because we’re in November – deep into autumn, less than a month out from winter – and while it’s great for sight-seeing/photography, it’s bad news for cruise operators who rely on Nature to keep the river topped up. As it happens, it’s barely rained since July and there’s evidence of this everywhere: fountains switched off, ponds dried up, and all along the Danube, embankment walls lined with dried moss and rust where there’s usually water.

And so here we are. After a couple of warnings that this might happen, the final call was made last night that we’d have to swap ships – the river’s simply too low between Passau and Nuremberg for the Ama Verde to get through, so we’d catch the bus to Nuremberg instead, spend the day there then board a new ship, the Ama Reina. Which is a major pain in the arse but what can you do? Just suck it up, get out your laptop and use the coach time to do some typing.

The last few days have been a blitz tour of Austria/Germany. Our next stop after the hustle and bustle of Vienna was Durnstein – a quiet, quaint little village that felt like the set of an Austrian remake of Heartbeat. While most of the group was happy to shuffle in and out of shops selling overpriced marmalade, Josh and I set about finding a path to access the mysterious castle ruins perched on top of a hill far above the town. We eventually succeeded and after much upward hiking, found ourselves among fragments of stone wall surrounded by densely forested mountains, morning mist still rising from the trees, the big blue Danube now far below us, winding its way to the horizon… An epic scene that immediately transported us to the world of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart, and made the modern world seem like a strange and vivid dream we’d left behind.

That night we docked a little further up the river in a town called Melk, famous for its massive Benedictine Abbey. The tour group was wowed above all by the vast dining room, with a ceiling brilliantly painted to appear curved even though it’s perfectly flat. For me though the most fascinating room was the library, the walls lined from floor to ceiling with big dusty old books dating back hundreds of years. A few were on display under glass, their pages open to display Gothic text so meticulously scribed you’d swear it was done by a printing press… Yet also strangely formatted to my modern mind, with abrupt margins and random text boxes within the body content (and yes using desktop publishing speak to talk about 800-year-old manuscripts feels wrong).

The following day was Salzburg, home of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music – a movie I’ve never seen but which was heavily referenced throughout our walking tour. Salzburg is overlooked by a huge white fortress, Hohenzollern, which apparently has never been taken – and going up there I could see why. Stone walls the size of tidal waves; rows of funnel-shaped brick windows for firing crossbows at attackers; and multiple lines of defence so that even if you penetrated the outer courtyard, you’d still have to fight your way into the next, Russian doll-style. Various rooms in the fortress had authentic Middle Ages paraphernalia on display – weaponry, cooking utensils, an incredibly huge and ornate porcelain stove, and of course it just wouldn’t be complete without a handful of torture devices: various wooden stocks, a spiked chair, bizarre bondage-style masks designed to degrade and humiliate, and a chastity belt designed to make any knob that comes too close shrink back like a snail… With great effectiveness. All apt reminders that for all his feats of engineering and artistry, Man can also be a strange, brutal and perverted creature.

The next destination was one we never meant to have on our agenda: Passau. The plan was to use Passau as a base for a morning tour of nearby Regensburg, then jump back on the boat and promptly sail on. But the low water level meant we were stuck, and a walking tour of Passau was added to fill the afternoon. Buggered from a string of brutally early starts, intensive exploration/sight-seeing, heavy drinking and heavy eating, Josh and I opted out of the Regensbruck trip to give ourselves a bit of a sleep-in, then set about exploring Passau at our own leisure – in what turned out to be an excellent decision. Passau is beautiful. Its main cathedral – yet another St Stephen’s – is a triumph of Baroque architecture and contains the biggest organ in Europe, so that when you walk up to the altar with your jaw dropped taking it all in, then turn around, you’re awed all over again. It also has a crypt below the altar – basically a stone subterranean room with metal coffins, welded shut, surrounded by spiky black wrought iron and red candles… Very heavy metal.

Today was Nuremberg – Nurnberg in German – infamous for being the site of the Nazis’ biggest rallies and later, the war trials following their downfall. A picture of Nuremberg is pretty much what you should see when you look up the word ‘Germanic’ – a city of dark stone, red brick and red-tiled roofs, sombre and sturdy, like something out of WarCraft. Josh and I escaped the formal walking tour to do our own, climbing up battlements and towers and enjoying some local bratwurst for lunch – then caught to a taxi to what the locals call the ‘Documentation Centre’: the Nazi rally grounds, as well as a nearby congress hall (never completed) which was intended to host the once-a-year Nazi Party congress. It is fitting that the sun disappeared behind grim grey clouds by the time we found the grounds, situated next to a lake that was now (thanks to the lack of rain) a miserable swamp. The lectern structure where Hitler delivered his speeches is unmistakable to anyone familiar with Nazi history – it was the setting for the Nazi-sponsored propaganda film Triumph of the Will, its footage heavily re-used in scores of subsequent History Channel documentaries – now reduced to an eerie edifice, the carved stone swastikas scraped off, the steps all around the grounds blackened and overgrown with weeds. Indeed most of the space is actually fenced off, with trees planted across the halfway point and buses parked in front of them, making it difficult to fully capture the scale of the grounds… Probably a deliberate move to euthanise the place of its former glory. But as you look back at the lectern structure against the darkening late-afternoon sky, the place still feels haunted by its founders, and you can almost hear Hitler’s raucous yelling still echoing in the air.

BAMBURG – 8 November

Another day, another painfully early start to get on board a bus and check out another city in this ongoing whirlwind tour. Today it was Bamburg, and I’m happy to say it was worth the early rise.

Bamburg is similar to Passau, full of light-coloured Baroque buildings with little flourishes that I find aesthetically preferable to the stern and heavy-set Nuremberg. I haven’t got much say about it to be honest… Josh and I skipped the formal walking tour which meant we didn’t learn much of the history unfortunately, but got to explore more of the city as well as take some time out in a café full of local families out for Sunday lunch.

I mentioned the Syrian immigrants situation previously and it’s been fascinating to see it firsthand, and hear about it from the people affected. “We are worried what will happen,” our German guide mentioned to us on the way to Bamburg today, in response to a question. “These people don’t want to learn German and they form their own areas in the cities.” I saw the situation myself at Salzburg’s central station a few days prior: a teeming mass of Middle Easterners, mostly men, sitting and standing around. The vibe from them was potently unfriendly, borderline menacing: they glared fixedly at our tour group as we passed them by – let’s not forget most of our group is comprised of gentle, fragile elderly men and women – and it made me wonder what they’d do if it weren’t for the dozens of Austrian army personnel patrolling around. Having already transformed a section of the train station into an intimidating ghetto, as they waited for trains to take them from Austria to Germany, their hostility to their new environment was palpable. “But I should not talk about these things,” our German guide remarked at one point, almost cutting himself off. “I was told not to talk about politics or religion… But yes, the reality is we are all talking about it here in Germany. We are worried how the future of our society.”

The heavy sigh he concluded with, before returning to his tour-guide narrative, said it all.

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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 2

VIENNA & BRATISLAVA – 4 November

Vienna is a city that radiates elegance – around every corner, cream-coloured buildings with rows of super-shiny windows, the ground level a procession of bakeries and jewellery stores and amazing-smelling coffee houses complete with uniformed waiters. It also has the grandeur one would expect of a former imperial capital, with institutional and cultural residences on a breath-takingly garganutan scale – from the lattice-like spires of the Town Hall to the majestic white columns of Parliament. Perhaps the crown jewel in the city’s spectacular architecture is St Stephen’s Cathedral – a 12th-century Gothic edifice that looks like it’s made of bleached bone, with an interior that’s like finding yourself in the fossilized ribcage of some impossibly gigantic mythological animal. Although crawling with tourists, the sombre beauty of the cathedral still casts a powerful spell, with its brilliantly beaming stained-glass windows, the soft orange glow of candles lit for the dead, and the smell of incense and stone – all inspiring one to hush, put down the phone for a moment and just soak up this otherworldy place with the reverence it deserves.

After we stepped back into the bright, noisy, 21st-century world outside, I realised I had to go to the toilet. I knew the Stefanplatz U-bahn station would have one so I ducked down the escalators, followed the ‘WC’ signs and having found what I was looking for, marched in. I stepped into a cubicle and was about to let it flow when suddenly an old woman bursts in, yelling in German and, to my bewilderment, attempting to force herself into my cubicle even as I’m trying to keep the door shut with one foot while I frantically tuck myself back in. For a moment I was horrified, thinking I must’ve stepped into the ladies by accident to elicit such a violent reaction – but no, I’d simply not paid the 50 Euro cents fee… So there I was, barely zipped up, my bladder in despair, in the middle of a men’s lavatory trying to explain to an angry old Germanic woman that I only had Hungarian forints and Aussie dollars. She shooed me away and so off I went, having experienced what is perhaps the less endearing side of Vienna – that ornung mentality; rules before people.

This difference has been kind of personified by our travel guides so far. The man we had in Budapest was very warm and convivial; in contrast, the two we’ve had in Vienna, while not unfriendly, were much stiffer and pretty much just recited their script. Right now I’m sitting on a bus on the way to Bratislava and an old Slovak man named Miroslav is providing the commentary in a refreshingly light-hearted style; very spontaneous, more than happy to take questions from the oldies or get distracted by things going on outside the bus. He’s also been the first to tell the tale of seasoned Polish arse-kicker Jan Sobieski, a key figure in Vienna’s history, who in a display of Christian solidarity led his winged Hussars over the mountains from Poland and in a daring all-out attack, saved Vienna from certain doom at the hands of the Ottoman Army in 1683. (This solidarity was not returned a century later when Prussia and Russia invited Austria to take part in partitioning Poland.)

Fascinatingly, it turns out this guide used to be an interpreter for Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, and he makes his contempt for their intellectual as well as moral bankruptcy abundantly clear. He just related how he often had to ‘transmodify’ (rather than merely translate) what these “primitive creatures from the Party” told western journalists, as the latter would not otherwise believe the stupidity/crudeness of what was coming out of their mouths… In much the same way we find it difficult to take North Korea’s rhetoric seriously today, even as we recognise they’re legitimately dangerous in their delusions of grandeur and lack of regard for humanity. In Slovakia back then, as in its many neighbouring states, Communism was no joke, with thousands of people imprisoned, tortured and killed by secret-police thugs.

As with most eastern Europeans, it’s apparent that political correctness isn’t high on the agenda for Miroslav. Commentary has already deviated several times to Putin’s ‘imperialist war’ in Ukraine; the “resistance to domestication” of Bratislava’s Gypsies, who consistently destroy the public housing provided to them; and Angela Merkel’s controversial promise to accept 800,000 immigrants from the Middle East, some of which have ended up in Slovakia – “a serious problem,” he explained, “as we are a Christian country and these people demand a different way of life.” In Australia we’ve become disturbingly accustomed to a liberal fascism that shuts down any discussion about cultural issues as ‘racist’, so it was refreshing to hear a man who knows history all too well express his thoughts about the latest threat to show up at his borders.

Anyway – back to Bratislava. Like many former Soviet bloc cities, the outer ring of the city forms a dismal first impression, built as it was during Communism and comprised primarily of featureless grey monoliths with graffiti on the walls and weeds sprouting out of the cracked concrete. Penetrate this though and you discover the opulent old heart of the city, which the famous writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, once described as a fairy tale in itself.

Bratislava is the archetypal gateway between the east and west of Europe, with inhabitants that generally speak three languages – English, German and of course Slovak, which, as the guide pointed out, is virtually interchangeable with Czech and very similar to Polish, as I realised when I could suddenly understand most of the billboards flying past the bus windows. Actually I’ve been surprised at how similar Slovakia is to Poland in all sorts of ways – linguistically, gastronomically, even religiously, Slovak Catholicism tending to focus on the Virgin Mary (rather than the big man Jesus) in much the same way the Polish church does. Of course, as a western-Catholic-Slavic nation, this makes sense – and was driven home at lunch when I ordered the ‘beef brisket’ plus whatever Slovakian beer was on tap at a local tavern. 10 minutes later the buxom blonde waitress delivered a chunky chalice of lager remarkably similar to Okocim (my favourite brew in the world) and an amazing dish swimming in rich onion sauce and accompanied by purple cabbage, roast potatoes and a big dollop of sour cream. I vacuumed it up like a starving Labrador and realised how much I love and miss the hearty food of this region – and how deprived we are of it in Melbourne, for all its culinary cosmopolitanism, unless you happen to be blessed with a babcia.

It’s incredible how much history, both wonderful and tragic, is crammed into this part of Europe – this amazing intersection of Slavic, Germanic and Magyar cultures; of Catholicism and Protestantism and Orthodoxy; this dynamic stew-pot of cabbage, pork, paprika and peppercorns. The bus trip from Vienna to Bratislava is just 60 kilometres – less than Melbourne to Geelong – and there’s not even a checkpoint in-between; one of the benefits of the Schengen Area which also incorporates Poland, Germany and Hungary. History permeates everything here – the very highway we’re driving on used to be a Roman road 2000 years ago, the peaceful fields on either side once the bloody battlefields between Roman legionnaires and the barbarian tribes of the north.

Classical music is of course one of the great exports of this region, every major city having a famous genius to call its own. In Budapest it was all about Fransz List; in Vienna, of course, Mozart is front and centre. No doubt I’ll learn all about Beethoven as we make our way through Germany and in Poland, of course, the star of the show is Chopin. What’s interesting is that these men were far from humourless poonces in big wigs – they were very much the Keith Richards of their day. While we assume that women fainting and screaming in front of pop stars is something that started with Elvis and the Beatles, it predates them by at least 200 years… Liszt, famously, would pull off his white gloves and hurl them into the crowd before bashing out one of his tunes, knowing that women would literally rip them (and each other) apart in the frenzy of trying to get one. Mozart, for his part, died quite poor despite his enormous commissions because of all the money he poured into throwing wild, lavish parties.

Anyway. It’s wonderful being back in Vienna, the first city I ever fell in love with and the city where I met the first girl I fell in love with. As before, I still cherish its blend of Old World glamour and new world modernism: the clattering trams above and slick subways below; huge advertisements for luxury cars and perfume draped over gorgeous Secessionist facades; the surrounding green hills of Austria alive with the graceful motion of wind turbines rising out of the morning fog. There’s no doubt life is lived on a deeper frequency here and temporary though it may be, it is awesome to be able to tune in again and feel the passion and pain of centuries in one’s own soul.

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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 1

PROLOGUE

The last time I was in Europe was in 2005 – a 10-week Homeric epic me and a friend embarked on after we graduated; innocent and intense and excited 21-year-olds eager to explore the world and figure out what should come next in our lives and what shape our lives should take.
It was a long time ago, yet sitting on this plane now, 32 years old with another high school mate next to me, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on my lap with a napkin bookmark about halfway through, I realize I’m still pretty much that same person, if a little wiser and less intense. With the dry cold-yet-hot plane air turning my nostrils to leather; the constant rush-of-air sound throughout the cabin; the zang of the warm gin & lemonade I’m sipping to cut through the metallic yeastiness of the canned Heineken I had previously, which I’d ordered to cut through the sugariness of the Jack Daniel’s & Coke prior to that, etc… With the in-house entertainment still clunky and shit, displayed on plastic Game Gear-like screens, I can easily imagine it is still in fact 2004… And wonder when Apple or Microsoft will finally enter and fix up that particular tech niche.

But I digress.

Unlike the great adventure of 2004-5, this trip didn’t slowly materialise over three years of late-night, booze-hazed conversations clouded by faint despair that there has to be something better… If nothing else, a nicer place to spend late booze-hazed nights. It came out of the blue in a lightning bolt of awesomeness – my friend Josh, a travel agent, won two places for a $8,500-per-person cruise and invited me to join him. Naturally I didn’t say “yes”… I said “HELL FUCKING YEAH.”

Up to that point I’d given zero thought to returning to Europe. Once the Promised Land of gorgeous women; dirt-cheap, top-shelf beer and wodka; history and kultura that I could feel in my blood… I burned through all that in my original trip and its immediate sequel six months later, and as life went on and my perspective broadened, I discovered Thailand and Japan and the Australian Outback and realised there was so much more to explore. The US had been next on my list; an existentialist road trip through red-dirt deserts and redneck towns, marked by roadside diners and white Baptist churches. But as Fate would have it, I’d be pulled back instead to exquisite restaurants and towering cathedrals, back to the cradle of Western civilization and the continent where my heritage lies and my love of travel began.

And so Europe feels like that amazing old friend you lost touch with but now they’ve come back into your life and you remember how amazing the time was that you guys had together, and you can’t wait to see them again. It’s amazing to know that when I step out of this big white tube it’ll be into an entirely different world, yet one that’s familiar from those past adventures which, when I think about it, didn’t ‘change’ me as a person but brought me absolutely in touch with the person I really am – which is a beautiful and immensely valuable thing that travel does. I believe that’s all that ever happens to you – you don’t ‘change’, you only get closer or further removed from the person you really are. And after a year of feeling drama, stress and the cancer of corporate monotomy eat away at my being, I’m looking tremendously forward to relaxing, rejuvenating and getting back in touch with my true self, my anima artificis to quote my Instagram name… With that which truly speaks to me.

BUDAPEST – 2 NOVEMBER 2015   

Budapest is actually two cities: Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube, and to this day Hungarians living in the capital still identify with their side – those from Buda tending to be of wealthy/aristocratic backgrounds and sticking their noses up at the commoners from Pest; those from Pest contemptuous of the snobs from the sleepy north side of the river.

Pest is a gem of a place, built almost entirely in the nineteenth century and reflecting all the beauty and grandeur of that era – every façade, balcony, doorway an ornate masterpiece adorned with flower boxes and gold leaf and wrought iron. Combined with the gorgeous hues, clear light and crisp air of cloudless autumn days, it makes for an incredible experience… Like setting foot inside an Impressionist painting – feeling the sunlight and fresh riverside breeze, hearing the clang of trams and the ebbs and flows of conversation. My first stroll along the riverbank – killing time while Josh undertook a ‘hotel inspection’ for tax-deduction purposes – literally made my heart swell… I felt like Ricky Fitts watching that plastic bag dance through the air, gripped by the emotion of being back here again and finding it as beautiful as ever.

We were obviously in favour with Hungary’s gods. We got a shuttle to our hotel without hassle or delay, and when we got there, had our room upgraded to the second-highest storey with a river-facing view – almost directly opposite the Royal Palace in fact; a perfect visage over the Buda side of the city. But if we thought it was stunning in the afternoon, nothing prepared us for the same scene at night-time – the Palace lit up in all its glory; cruise ships elegantly floating up and down the river; the Chain Bridge looking like what the lead-up to the Pearly Gates must look like when the angels decorate it for Christmas.

The next day we went for a long walk around Pest – at one point finding ourselves, much to my delight, at the Oktagon where Paul and I first stepped out of a taxi and spent our initial days in Budapest all those years ago. To be honest, back then it seemed like a pretty grey and dismal place, in the middle of winter with no leaves on the trees and a bitter wind swirling around the eight corners of the car-jammed junction… But now the ugly ducking had become a swan, bathed in light, gentle curtains of leaves drifting down onto the sidewalk like yellow snow… Beautiful women with long hair and scarves strutting past… The electric buses with their long black horns still careening down the main drag of Terez Korut.

Finally we came to Heroes Square, a vast open space adorned with bronze statues of the great figures of Hungarian history, all arranged around a single awe-inspiring figure atop a central pillar way up in the sky: Liberty, holding the Royal Crown in one hand and a Christian cross in the other. Beyond this was a big park which we wandered through before rewarding ourselves with a pit stop at a nearby bar/restaurant, to indulge in cocktails half the price and double the strength of those in Melbourne. As we sat there on an upper deck, overlooking the grass peppered with orange and red oak leaves, the water glistening gold in the sun, the horizon lined with Gothic and Baroque spires… The sound of middle-aged Russian women in stern discussion to my left; a young Polish couple laughing behind me; a Hungarian family in quiet conversation to my right…  I think it’s fair to say the reality of being in Europe after a 10-month wait had finally sunken in, and what an awesome feeling that was🙂

Yesterday we crammed into a bus full of old people and set off for a formal tour of Pest, taking in the Opera House, Heroes Square, then over the river to hilly Buda for St Mathias Church/Fisherman’s Bastion. It was interesting to hear how the Hungarian guides convey their history – they’re open and non-plussed about their role as an Axis country in the war, but understandably so: Hungarians played virtually no role in the Holocaust and did the vast majority of their fighting in the east, fighting alongside one tyrannical power against another. As the tide turned, the Soviet steamroller rolled west and the Warsaw Uprising broke out to re-establish a free Poland, the Nazis again summoned the Hungarians to fight alongside them to crush the insurgency… Except this time the Hungarians didn’t show, quietly refusing to take up arms against their traditional friends and allies… And probably sensing, too, that the Axis would be history soon.

What I found interesting is that Hungarians don’t seem to take much pride in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when they were one of the Great Powers of Europe. As the guide kept talking it made sense though: like the Lithuanians and Ukrainians in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which Austro-Hungary later acquiesced in ripping apart), Hungary was very much the minority partner. The power and decision-making rested firmly with the Hapsburgs over in Vienna, who viewed their coalition with Hungary as a necessary compromise with a lesser culture… An attitude one particular Austrian maintained into the 1930s with disastrous consequences, writing in Mein Kampf about his disdain for Vienna and its mixed populace of natives, Slavs, Magyars and Jews.

What the Hungarians are undoubtedly proud of, and rightfully so, is their 1956 rebellion against Stalinism, sparked when university students tore down and smashed up a statue of Stalin just a short walk from Heroes Square. This was the first major ‘fuck you’ to Soviet-imposed Communism in Europe, and one whose swift and brutal response – with Russian tanks rumbling through the streets, and hundreds of dissidents rounded up for imprisonment and execution – has left a distinct trauma on the national memory. It would be another three decades before the next great act of defiance in the Eastern Bloc, but, as our guide put it, the first nail in the coffin had been delivered.

Anyway, onto lighter matters…

Life aboard the MS Ama Verde is fantastic. The luxury is extravagant – copious amounts of food, unlimited drinks, live piano music in the main lounge area… Which is were I’m sitting right now, a plate of cakes, a cappuccino and a Cuba libre in front of me… And all around me, glassy water surrounded by hills blanketed in trees ranging from deep green to bright yellow, only now starting to be dotted by the lights of villages… Hungary to the left, Slovakia to the right… A deeply serene and beautiful scene that I wish I could bottle and take back with me to Melbourne.

For whatever reason, swimming pools have been a major theme on this trip. Beginning with the five-star ‘health centre’ at the Sofitel, where Josh and I soaked to the uplifting strains of Enya, every day so far has either started or ended with a swim. Our first night on board the boat, as it cruised down the Danube for an ‘illumination cruise’ taking in the night lights of Budapest, opera broadcasting over the sound system for added effect, Josh and I decided there was only one way to do this in style: in the open-air pool on the roof, freezing temperatures be damned. To our surprise we caused quite a sensation – groups of oldies came up to check out and joke about the two ‘crazy Aussies’, giving me the distinct feeling of being some kind of zoo animal after a while… Which, given how much we’d had to drink, and the fact I was in underpants, was probably warranted. At one point a couple of guys grabbed our night gowns and pretended to throw them overboard, then popped them on and disappeared for a while downstairs… During which time one of the Bulgarian bar staff, suitably impressed by our bravado, returned with a tray of palinka shots “to keep us warm”… which we eagerly accepted at the time, and which Josh’s body violently rejected at 8am the next morning in what was one of the less picturesque scenes of the trip… Me in the shower gulping down the hot water to rehydrate myself; Josh bursting in to stick his own face down the toilet and regurgitate whatever vile substance remained in his stomach.

Anyway, I’ve written enough. Both my cappuccino and drink are finished, and outside, floating along on this vast tranquil body of water with the sun almost set, the landscape now cast in the dim purple light of dusk, I’m going outside to take in the last vestiges of the day and think to myself, like any good Aussie… “How’s the serenity.”

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Depression – Part 2

He: What’s the matter with you?

Me: Nothing.

Nothing was slowly clotting my arteries. Nothing slowly numbing my soul. Caught by nothing, saying nothing, nothingness becomes me. When I am nothing they will say surprised in the way that they are forever surprised, ‘but there was nothing the matter with her.’

– Jeanette Winterson

———

A few weeks ago I posted something on Facebook, articulating my feelings that ‘R U OK Day’ (the Aussie reskin of World Suicide Prevention Day) is a great initiative but shouldn’t be taken too literally. My point was that simply asking someone whether they’re OK is unlikely to elicit much of a response beyond “Yeah I’m fine”, unless you’re someone they’re really close to. It takes more than that to make a difference – although it doesn’t take a great deal more; just a bit of empathy and persuasion. So I thought I’d kick off this second entry on depression with how to make that difference… A bit of a template, to tweak as you see fit.

–    First, propose going for a coffee – or better yet, a beer or wine after work. Make it your shout. Importantly, make it seem like you want a chat about something, or at least that you’re craving a nice cold one after work and would like them to be your company. This is subtly flattering and importantly, it puts them at ease that this isn’t going to be some heavy ‘R U OK’ discussion. Just a brew and a chinwag at the watering hole ’round the corner, head off home in time for tea, no big deal.

–    Order drinks, take a seat, take a sip, and chat. Kick off with the footy ladder (no pun intended), the impending restructure, or that Netflix show you know you both watch. Something casual. Then talk about yourself, and if you’ve genuinely got something to get off your chest then by all means run with that. Talking through some problem of your own, no matter how trivial, sets the stage nicely while putting the spotlight firmly on you, letting your company sip away and ease up in the audience section.

– When the moment seems right, gently turn it around. Ask casually but earnestly, “So how are you going anyway?” Mention they seem a bit quiet, not quite themselves lately. Try not to say “you seem depressed” – men in particular aren’t comfortable with such labels or ‘fessing up to emotional issues straight-up. You might need to pussy-foot around a bit first, but if you’ve set the vibe right and the beer’s going down nicely, they should open up soon enough.

–    As soon as this happens, listen. The key to all this is LISTEN. For the Black Books fans out there, remember the episode where Bernard goes to the therapist? Throughout all of their sessions she never says a word – he just rants to himself each time and eventually emerges cured. It’s an exaggeration of the counselling process obviously, but neither is it that far from the truth. The best therapists listen and ask questions, interjecting or offering their own insight only when necessary, because they know what their patient needs is to verbally drain all the muck that’s been building up in their brain – and in articulating it, make sense of it, and in making sense of it, opening up the path to moving on. So while a wise or comforting word can definitely add value to the conversation, the primary thing here is to listen – the more you lend a sympathetic ear, the more exorcising it’ll be for the other party.

–    Finally, offer your support. Ask how you can help, if you feel you can. Remind them you’re always happy to chat. Encourage them to take some time off for themselves. Cover for them if they want to head home early. Assure them it’ll get better in time. Perhaps most importantly, say something nice about them. They’ve probably already had their fair share of advice and pats on the shoulder, but a compliment – whatever it may be about – can be so much more precious and go so much further for someone whose self-esteem has probably become as thin and brittle as a Communion wafer.

When I broke up with my ex-girlfriend a year ago, a mate of mine, Josh, called me pretty much every night for a week. He didn’t ask “are you OK” or “do you need to talk”. He just called. If I needed to vent, the conversation would naturally steer in that direction and he’d listen and offer his thoughts and support. Other times the convo didn’t go down that path at all – we’d just chat about whatever, silly dude shit, and it was a welcome distraction. Either way, and above all, the calls were a subtle but reassuring reminder that whatever goes rotten and drops off in your life, your mates – your old and close friends – are still there. “Looking out for your mates” is a common term in mining, the industry in which I work, and I think it’s awesome. Look out for your mates’ physical safety. Look out for their mental well-being.

There’s so much more I could write about depression. There’s the social aspect: We often talk about economic disparity and how some people are lucky to be born into wealth while others have to endure poverty. But I believe the psychology you develop as a child – thanks to your parents, teachers, peers, experiences, cultural environment – creates an even bigger and longer-lasting disparity. Those kids whose self-esteem is beaten down, whose yearning for love is denied, who witness or experience some sort of trauma… They will have a much harder time, later in life, establishing relationships, climbing the corporate ladder, even just maintaining a positive outlook and taking proper care of themselves. The saddest thing of all, of course, is those who are mentally damaged yet devoid of the financial and emotional support most of us take for granted. These are the people you see wrapped in blankets holding cardboard signs on the street. Make no mistake: they are victims of a debilitating condition, left unchecked by the antibiotics of love and support.

Not to get too morbid, but the other tragic victims of depression are, of course, those who are no longer with us. If you’re one of the doubters who think depression is just “having a shit day” – when’s the last time you genuinely considered slashing your wrists or jumping off a bridge after a shitty day? Sufferers of cancer, AIDs, physical trauma – despite their pain and immobility, they still desperately try to hold on to life. Depression can be so bad that the desire to hold onto life is gone. The way I see it, the difference is that depression takes away rather than adds. Most chronic diseases/conditions add issues to your existing life and self – pain, discomfort, inconveniences such as needing assistance to urinate or getting injections every day. Whatever changes in your physical form or lifestyle though, you still get to hold on to those core things you had before – hope, self-love (and faith in other people’s), a sense of perspective… All those things that keep you going in life.

Depression doesn’t add pain to nor technically disable one’s body (notwithstanding my point about the extreme fatigue it can induce). But it takes away those spiritual and emotional foundations in which your dignity and drive as a person are anchored. It’s a degrading black hole that, once opened up in your internal universe, can wreak absolute havoc. And like a cosmic black hole, it can’t be seen except by its effects – so if a depressed person is adept at hiding these, which most long-time sufferers are, you’ll have little idea what tremendous damage is being done inside as all their inner light is slowly extinguished by darkness.

Which brings me to this quote you’ve probably seen before in one form or another, but perhaps didn’t give much thought to:

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If you break your arm, everyone will sympathise, sign your cast, understand that you can’t do your work properly for the next eight weeks or whatever. Experience a decline in mental health though and nobody wants to know. For all the lip service organisations are starting to pay nowadays to mental health, I think it’s fair to say that it’s still not taken particularly seriously, even as depression becomes ever more prevalent in our ever-more sterile, stress-filled world. Co-workers might confide in those they trust that the sickie they took yesterday was in fact a much-needed ‘mental health day’, but could you comfortably, openly ask your boss for one?

Depression does not always mean
Beautiful girls shattering at the wrists
A glorified, heroic battle for your sanity
Or mothers that never got the chance to say good-bye

Sometimes depression means
Not getting out of bed for three days
Because your feet refuse to believe
That they will not shatter upon impact with the floor

Sometimes depression means
That summoning the willpower
To go downstairs and do the laundry
Is the most impressive thing you accomplish that week

Sometimes depression means
Lying on the floor staring at the ceiling for hours
Because you cannot convince your body
That it is capable of movement

Sometimes depression means
Not being able to write for weeks
Because the only words you have to offer the world
Are trapped and drowning and I swear to God I’m trying

Sometimes depression means
That every single bone in your body aches
But you have to keep going through the motions
Because you are not allowed to call in to work depressed

Sometimes depression means
Ignoring every phone call for an entire month
Because yes, they have the right number
But you’re not the person they’re looking for, not anymore.

– Hannah Nicole

Fighting depression can be like trying to repel a cloud of mustard gas with a sabre. No matter how valiantly and fiercely you swing it still feels hopeless. So I’ve realised an important thing is not to fight it. Not to get depressed about the fact you get depressed. To remember that no matter how thick the smog may be that consumes your brain, it will disperse, while the light of your soul burns steadfastly on. Focus on that light, and let the darkness just be until it isn’t.

The key thing above all is to love yourself. I know that’s such a cliched New Age thing to say but it’s true. A couple of weeks ago my dad asked me what I had for dinner and I answered, truthfully, tinned spaghetti. He responded by saying that I need to take care of myself and I knew what he was getting at – that heating up some shit in a tin for dinner at the end of a long day at work is not doing justice to yourself. It made me think back to how I’d treat dinner time whenever my girlfriend was coming over – lovingly made meals with fresh ingredients, beers, candles, soft jazz music… Sometimes, if it was a cold night, I’d even turn my TV into a virtual fireplace for extra ambience. Afterwards there’d be dessert, a plunger of tea and a movie ready to go.

So yes. What the fuck was I doing now, spooning Heinz spaghetti straight out of the saucepan? Am I myself not worth the effort to make dinner a nourishing and pleasant experience? It’s too easy to let yourself sink into a routine of instant meals and unwashed dishes, empty pizza boxes and beer bottles accumulating along the kitchen bench. But just coz no-one’s coming over anymore shouldn’t matter. You’re there. Do it for yourself. Love yourself. Respect yourself. Light the candles, play the music, pop on the kettle for afterwards. You’ll feel much better for making the effort.

Finding what resonates with your soul, and bringing that into your life as often as possible, is crucial. For me, a trip to the forest or countryside is deeply rejuvenating. Even just lying on the grass in the sun is healing. Physical exercise is a huge one – I wrote about this in considerable detail years ago and it still rings true today. If you’re the type, creative activity can be immensely therapeutic too – whether it’s playing an instrument, colouring in mandelas, or doing what I’m doing right now. If I feel particularly bad and run-down – that glandular fever-like state – I’ll grab my cat and just lie on the bed and appreciate the softness of the sheets and the preciousness of this little creature curled up acquiescently and peacefully next to me.

Depression is nothing to be ashamed of. Many of the world’s greatest artists, thinkers and leaders have been part of the black dog club – from Churchill to Hemingway, van Gogh to Mozart, Stephen Fry to Robin Williams. It’s been argued, in fact, that their depression – their emotional fragility, darkness and mutability – is part of what made them so brilliant, a catalyst in bringing forth their genius, their ability to tune in to deeper frequencies of the world and communicate what they absorbed back to us through their chosen channel of endeavour. As Goethe put it:

Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
Who never spent the darksome hours
Weeping and watching for the morrow,
He knows ye not, ye heavenly Powers.

Depression is depressing, no doubt. It’s exhausting and damaging and frustrating. You ask yourself in exasperation, “Why do I fall down like this?” As I mentioned back in part 1, I fell down many, many times in my teens and 20s, my heart bruising and scarring on each impact, my mind finding itself down very deep, dark holes that I couldn’t understand how to get out of and which nobody knew about, much less understood. It might seem like a flippant statement but I’ve got no doubt at all that if I’d have been free of those demons, systematically destroying what I was desperately trying to cultivate, I’d be happily married by now. I had tremendous love to offer and felt it from others. But that’s not how it was. And if it had been, I just as surely wouldn’t be writing this right now, and perhaps, in however small a way, that would be a loss too.

I can’t answer for sure why we fall the way we do, but the best answer I’ve heard is simple and beautiful: So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

I’ll finish up with a few words about my favourite symbol in the world, which is from one of my favourite books in the world: The Neverending Story. You might remember from the better-known (but inferior) movie version that the main protagonist, Bastian, wears an amulet called AURYN which he wears throughout his quest – a quest which seems to be about saving Fantastica but is really about saving himself. It’s comprised of two snakes, one light and one dark, which intertwine to form a powerful, magical whole:

auryn

I hope at this conclusion you can understand why I find it so inspiring and meaningful. Thanks for reading🙂