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.

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.”

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:

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

What 2014 taught me (Part 2)

(Part 1 here)

June   |   Tokyo, Japan

So far all my 2014 trips had been work-related – business, not pleasure. But in June came an actual holiday, kindly funded by my parents – officially to celebrate my birthday, and really to give our family an excuse to get together for a week of bonding in a country we all adore: Japan.

To describe even a short stint in Japan would require a blog entry all of its own. As anyone who’s been there knows, it’s a nation of contrasts: tradition, conservatism and reverence co-existing in complete harmony with outrageous whackiness and an obsession with automation and technology. I wrote a fair bit here during my first vacation in Japan, this being my second – second also for my parents and a whopping fifth for my sister. Like I said, a Japan-loving family.

To get straight to the point, the memory that sticks with me most from this trip is nomi hodai, which is Japanese for “all you can drink”. Far from being a crazy night out on the piss though (fun and memorable as such nights can be, alcohol-induced amnesia notwithstanding), this was, in fact, one of the most cultured things I’ve done all year… Because this nomi hodai took place on the 50-somethingth floor of the Tokyo Hilton, the same plush hotel where Charlotte and Bob strike up their friendship in the brilliant Lost In Translation. It’s every bit as elegant and aesthetic as it appears in the film, and better yet, if you order nomi hodai, you don’t even have to pay for your vodka tonic or Santory whiskey as they’re served up: you simply fork out the equivalent of $40 at the start and not only can you drink to your heart’s content for two hours or until 9pm (whichever comes first), you can also help yourself to as many freshly-made gourmet canapes as the on-hand chef dishes out: smoked salmon with cream cheese and capers, minced beef in bolognaise sauce on miniature crispbreads, roasted mushrooms and fried cheese balls and all sorts of other tantilising goodness…

Of course, we’re talking about a five-star hotel here, so to rock up and proceed to guzzle as much food and booze as possible would require decidedly low levels of shame, and possibly get you kicked out (or rather, in more Japanese fashion, politely and hesitantly informed the ‘service is no longer available’ or something). So when I went with my sister and then a second time with our parents, we tried to stagger our consumption… But even so, it wasn’t long before plates had piled up and glasses were going from full to empty and replaced with full ones at a hefty Polish pace.

The value for money’s just one part of it though – ’cause let’s not forget that under ordinary circumstances this would cost at least a hundred bucks a head. It’s the extraordinary ambience of the place that keeps this experience in my mind; probably the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like James Bond or something, coolly living it up in some opulent foreign hotel… The bar itself is called the Peak Lounge, and while it’s very spacious with a tremendously high ceiling it still manages to feel cosy thanks to dim amber lighting, soft chillout music and a table-based layout, with the drinks, chef and canapé bar in the centre. What gives this place its magic though is the far wall, made entirely of glass so it’s actually a giant window – presenting you with a panorama of Tokyo that’s so captivating it’s difficult to look away. On both nights that we went there was a post-rain fog, giving the scene a distinct Blade Runner feel:

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I’ve always been a socialistic sort of person – not one to consider getting rich a particularly meaningful goal in life, or even much of an achievement. But nomi hodai at the Hilton, with all its unpretentious sophistication and luxury, made me realise – as stupid as it may sound – that there’s nothing wrong with a high-class lifestyle provided it’s lived with style and grace and tempered with humility – traits the Japanese exemplify, and which the Peak Lounge experience brings together in perfect measure. You keep your stomach lined with mouth-watering nibbles, and sip til your head’s floating in a cranial bath of pleasant sparkly tipsiness, but you never go overboard, and never feel any compulsion to. A classy venue inspires classy conduct, and while I’ve been to posher, more expensive and more decadent functions, it’s like they say: Money can’t buy class, and genuine class is what the Peak exudes like steam off a sun-baked pavement after rain… With its dreamy lounge music and mood lighting and, right outside, that immense sea of tiny red lights, blinking peacefully, some in unison, some not, as if they’re transmitting poetry into space in some kind of slow-motion code. It’s a sight that you’ve only ever seen before in CGI, astonishingly futuristic and, to me, deeply utopic in a way that brings Lobe’s Placebo to mind… And as you finally bring your attention back to the drink in front of you, you can’t help but think, as you raise the glass clinking with ice-cubes to your lips, “Man, this is the life.”

“I can only say why I wanted to make the movie: to convey what I love about Tokyo and visiting the city. It’s about moments in life that are great but don’t last. They don’t go on, but you always have the memory and they have an effect on you.”

– Sofia Coppola, director of Lost In Translation

Tokyo 101

November   |   Sydney, Australia

Remember how earlier I was going on about strolling down King St Wharf at night, pining for my girlfriend’s company, strangely inspired by my aloneness (‘loneliness’ isn’t quite the right word) as it painted pictures in my mind’s eye of a Sydney trip where she was there with me?

Well, it happened, sort of. And it sort of didn’t.

A day or two after I got home from Tokyo, my girlfriend’s friend dropped by to give me her birthday presents to me (she was in Colombia at the time). The highlight was tickets to see Cirque du Soleil in Sydney, together with flights to Sydney for both of us. I was just halfway through 2014, had already done four trips and now another was literally handed to me. I was thrilled.

Sydney Round 2 wasn’t til November though, so several months after the first four. During this period work started to do my head in and, sadly, hairline cracks in our relationship began to split open into festering wounds. In September we even broke up for a while, meaning I didn’t get to join her for the Grampians retreat I’d bought her for her own birthday in August. We made up some time later and all was back on course for Sydney, but the stress of life at that time – much of it generated by our relationship, and so bad I had to get medication for anxiety for a while – inevitably affected our capacity to realise that vision I had back in May, when the year was more fresh and energized, when our three-month-long separation made us crave each other physically and emotionally. Now, six months on, reality was about to bite.

Don’t get me wrong, Sydney 2 was a decent trip and a great way to spend a long weekend. Cirque du Soleil itself was fantastic; a soul-stirring performance and a wonderful present. We visited a couple of nearby beaches, although the weather was so cold the first time we had to use our beach towels as blankets – huddled in little cocoons on the sand, so ridiculous-looking a nearby Asian proceeded to take photos of us. On Halloween we dressed up and partied at a nightclub, and the next day ate at a five-star Italian restaurant near Circular Quay. We made friends with a cat on our street and from then on she’d meow at our bedroom window every night, insisting on being let in to sleep with us. My favourite moments though were the modest but nice little meals we had around Newport where we were staying, taking in the eclectic vibe of the area while chatting and sipping beers…

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We never did go down King St Wharf; I haven’t set foot there since my solo wanderings in May. The night of the Halloween party we went for a spontaneous 2am walk to the Opera House (still decked out in capes and fake blood, which must’ve been interesting for the lone security man milling about)… But although this isn’t the time or place to talk about relationship issues, parts of the trip were also tarnished by sulks and long silences, including our final night, the only one we had to ourselves in a hotel as opposed to a fold-out bed in some crazy stoner’s house… Unhappy signs that we weren’t quite the lovebirds we’d been a few months ago, though at other times our love still shone through.

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Although I wished it were otherwise, I couldn’t help sharing that sentiment Leo di Caprio articulated in The Beach:

”You hope, and you dream. But you never believe that something’s gonna happen for you. Not like it does in the movies. And when it actually does, you want it to feel different, more visceral, more real.”

Sometimes, I guess, things don’t turn out quite how you imagined. Circumstances shift, people and the dynamics between them change, fantasies doesn’t always match up with reality. And that’s just the way it is.

December   |   Alice Springs, Australia

Even though I’d kind of intuitively felt, in the lead-up to Sydney, that it might not be that great, I was still convinced this trip – the highlight of the year, something I’d been looking forward to for months – would be 100% awesome. Back when I was in Sydney in May, my girlfriend emailed me a pretty sweet Jetstar deal and we discussed potential holiday options over email – Bangkok, Bali, Gold Coast etc – only for the deal to expire well ahead of its stated deadline. Even so, I was inspired to keep looking for flight deals for some sort of getaway and finally came across a beauty: $400 return flights with Qantas to Alice Springs, an outpost town in the middle of the Australian Outback, a place I’d wanted to go to my entire life (I’d skirted it in 2012 with a Darwin holiday with a couple of mates, but we never got anywhere near the Red Centre).

My girlfriend agreed – “Yes yes yes! This is going to be pure awesomeness!” – so I promptly purchased return flights, a ‘Darwin to Uluru’ travel guide and, later on, a tent. I was excited. She was excited. This was exactly the kind of trip I’d been wanting us to do for ages, to re-consummate our love and celebrate an entire year together: part romantic getaway, part existentialist road trip where humanity is scarce and sun, space and serenity are in copious abundance… Touch down in Alice, stock up at an old-school General Store, hire a 4WD and motor out into the mysterious scorching-hot core of Terra Australis, armed with several days’ worth of water, petrol and road songs… Climb up amazing rock formations the colour of rust and dried blood, drenched in sweat and the exultation of achievement; then after sundown, camp out with only my love and a million stars, like glitter and fairy dust splashed over an ink-black canvas, for company. This was gonna make all the preceding trips look like mere appetisers.

Well, it never happened. Not for me anyway.

My girlfriend and I broke up again, this time with an ugly and bitter finality. For reasons of her own, she went ahead with the trip, hung out with a bunch of people in town and even made the trek out to Uluru with them. In a gesture of goodwill I took care of her cat while she was away – at least, until we had another argument over the phone and she insisted someone else carry out that responsibility. I realised, when I visited her place one last time to drop off her key and, with it, all of her stuff plus a couple of gifts to say ‘no hard feelings’, that sometimes dreams don’t come true. Sometimes they blow up in your face and turn to ash before your eyes and there’s nothing you can do about it… Except accept what’s happened and try to turn the lemons into lemonade somehow.

Which is exactly what I did. I cancelled my own flights and used the credit to book flights a few weeks later to spend Chistmas in WA with my parents. And having just got back from eight days of parental pampering in one of the most picturesque parts of Australia, I couldn’t be more content and relaxed.

December   |   Margaret River, Australia

Margaret River’s a popular tourist spot about three hours’ drive south of Perth. Here, eucalypt forest meets winery country meets ocean beach, the dry WA heat offset by cool sea breezes. The last full week of the year I’ve essentially spent lounging in various things: a hammock, a spa, a couch on the rear verandah facing the bushland out back of the house. It was classic Aussie idyll: gumnut trees rustling in the wind, flecks of sunlight beaming through the canopies (an effect the Japanese call ‘komorebi’), cicadas chirping and every now and again, a kookaburra cackling… A few metres away on the grass, Lola, my parents’ dog, would be chewing gnarled branches that either me or my dad had been throwing (or playing tug-o’-war with her) earlier.

I listened to podcasts, read books, drank beer, gathered firewood, played chef at the barbeque, played Scrabble with my mum, shot the shit with my dad, went out for lunch and dinner a few times, caught up with a girl from work and her boyfriend at the local pub… And it was exactly what the doctor ordered. After weeks of pressure on the work front and navigating storms on the relationship front, only to crash disastrously and sink, I needed some serious Rest and Recovery – so it felt good, for the first time in a very long time, not to have a care in the world, have nothing to worry about, and no expectations to meet.

”Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax.” – Mark Black

As much as I would’ve liked to have visited the Outback, I’m glad I did Margaret River with the folks instead. Road-tripping ’round the Northern Territory will happen when the time and company are right. As I said above, sometimes things don’t go according to plan, no matter how good the plan or extensive the planning. Shit happens.

But when it does, there are those people in your life who you can always fall back on, the ones who have always been there and always will be when things go wrong, when you need to fall back and recover yourself and remember what’s important. When I announced my first break-up on Facebook, an old friend posted this:

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He’s spot on.

So my final lesson from my final trip for 2014 is never to forget these foundations. For all of our ups and downs over the years, this year included, it’s been great to spend a week with my parents, with Tim (the middle guy in the Goodfellas-inspired photo above; that’s Hakon on the left) looking after my cat while I was gone.

I’ve made a concerted effort these past few weeks to catch up with the many friends I lost touch with over the year, having dedicated my weekends and whatever weeknights I could spare to doing stuff either with or for my girlfriend. It’s been a joy to catch up with them – to be around people who know me well, like me exactly as I am, and greet me every time I see ’em with big grins and slaps on the back.

So to my friends and family, I say thank you. I know I drifted away this year but as I’ve detailed above, I had places to go and lessons to learn. And I wouldn’t change that. But I’m glad that when I returned to the old moorings, weary and somewhat disoriented, you were still there.

“I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for. Because it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something. And if you find that moment… It lasts forever.”

That’s another quote from The Beach. It’s a bit full-on in this context but looking back on 2014 I do kind of feel that way. Whether it was enjoying a Friday-night barbeque with a bunch of miners also far from home; reflecting with my sister on our childhood while smoking cigs and watching the rain fall over Tokyo; kissing and taking photos on the pier with my girlfriend as we waited for the ferry back to Circular Quay; or sitting as I was just a couple of nights ago, jazz from my dad’s laptop mingling with late-afternoon birdsong and the crackle of a hearty urn fire… I look back on everything, and everyone involved, with great fondness and warmth. I’ve ingested the negative into lessons learned, and hold onto the positives as memories to treasure… And as the sun sets for the last time on 2014, like Lester Burnham at the end of American Beauty, ”I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”

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What 2014 taught me (Part 1)

With the new year just a couple of days away, I thought I’d look back on 2014 and try to capture, tangibly in written words, some of the things it taught me. There are two things that made this year unique for me: it was the first time I’d been in a serious relationship, which ‘became official’ in March and fell apart at the end of November, and it was a year of travels – some for business, some for pleasure, all enjoyable and eye-opening in some way. It’s this latter aspect I want to focus on, so I’m going to break up this blog entry into a series of mini-chapters – one for each trip – and hopefully draw some kind of lesson or insight from each.

February   |   Century mine, Queensland, Australia

The travel motif started not long after the year did. When I returned to the office in January, the main thing I had to get working on was a research piece examining how MMG’s intranet could be improved – i.e. made more practical and user-friendly – for our blue-collar employees. (In case anyone reading this doesn’t know me, MMG’s a mining company whose head office I work at.) It was soon decided that this project called for a visit to one of our operations, and that I was to accompany the two consultants we’d engaged to help facilitate the consultation, build relationships within the company and get a taste of Life on Site.

We decided straightaway on Century, one of MMG’s three Australian mines and the biggest open-pit zinc mine in the country. It’s located in a very remote part of Queensland somewhere near Mount Isa, which is somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria which is that top bit of Australia that juts out trying to touch Papua New Guinea across the sea. To get there I had to fly up to Townsville from Melbourne, spend the night there then catch a charter flight with about 50 miners at some ungodly hour the next morning, the radio in the taxi already preparing me for what was to come…

“God made the sugar cane grow where it’s hot,
And teetotal abstainers to grow where it’s not.
Let the sin bosun warn of perdition to come;
We’ll drink it and chance it, so bring on the rum…”

I made the rookie mistake of getting all jacked up on coffee at Townsville airport, unlike the miners who lumbered onto the plane, exchanging g’days after a few weeks of R&R apart, then as soon as the thing took off, slumped their heads back on the seat or against the window and promptly dozed off for the next 1.5 hours. I didn’t regret it though. While these blokes had obviously seen it all before, it was my first time ever seeing the Great Australian Landscape from a charter-flight altitude, which is substantially lower than a commercial aircraft and gives you an amazing view of what’s passing by below unfettered by clouds or excessive distance – an abstract painting of red and brown hues with patches of dark green, veined blue with little rivers and creeks… At points, breath-taking sights like this shimmering opal-like lake:

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As I watched this topographic artwork roll past below me I felt genuinely moved; the primeval grumble of didgeridoo began playing through my head, overlaid with the lilting flute melodies of those early Anglo-Irish settlers who explored and set up industry in this wide brown land… Industry which I was about to witness on a truly colossal, mechanized 21st-century scale.

An open-cut mine the size of Century’s is an impressive sight to behold, a man-made Grand Canyon so vast you can’t actually see the whole thing from any one vantage point. Beyond this Titanic crevice on the earth’s crust, from the top of the pit where the yellow trucks below look like Micro Machines, you see the same Martian terrain stretching out as far as the eye can see – flat, red-brown, barren… Epic.

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It’s not the most interesting or original revelation, but I guess this little trip reminded me how damn big the world is. I hadn’t even left Australia, yet in less than 24 hours I’d travelled roughly 3000 kilometres into a completely different climate and environment – from temperate Melbourne to tropical Townsville then north-west into Queensland’s semi-arid gateway to the Outback. But I’m not so much talking physical scales and distances as the fact that even around this colossal hole in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of people toil like an army of bull ants every single day – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for weeks on end before catching that charter plane out again… Driving trucks, taking tea breaks in ‘cribs’, necking beers post-shift before showering and settling down in little jail cell-like rooms called ‘dongas’, perhaps calling their partner and kids on Skype before passing out on a creaky bed that was someone else’s just a week or day before…

“The world turns, but we don’t feel it move.”

This quote from Gangs of New York kind of sums up the sentiment. As individuals we tend to get locked inside of our own little reality, our awareness confined to the immediate place and present. But the world is incomprehensibly bigger than that, and that’s something worth remembering. Every single second there are billions of people on this planet doing something: chopping up vegetables for soup or sipping wine on a plane; weeping at funerals or celebrating as a newborn baby’s brought home from the maternity ward; fulfilling lifelong dreams or beginning an endeavour or adventure or relationship that will change their lives, even if they’re not aware of it yet…

This is a good thing. Whatever you’re feeling or going through, be mindful that you’re not alone in it, nor is it the end of the world. Life goes on. Important and valued though we are in our own little spheres, we’re just a tiny part of an incredible production that spans many continents, cultures and centuries. “No man is an island,” as John Donne wrote, so take heart: If life’s a roller-coaster, there are many others on the ride along with you, experiencing the same ups and downs, thrills and spills.

I left Century mine after three days. I’d ridden around in a truck the size of a house, in a hole the size of a meteorite crater; pigged out nightly on choc mousse and jelly at the all-you-can-eat dessert buffet (see my first-ever food pic below); and joked freely, discussed seriously and drank heavily with people whose lives are very different to mine and with whom I’ll probably never cross paths again, but I’m glad I did. Because realising the world is a busy and enormous place that goes on regardless of you, peppered all over with individuals from all walks of life, each carrying their own reality and story inside of them… This is a humbling, even calming realisation that helps put things in perspective. Indeed: Even as I’m writing this, somewhere out there right now, hundreds of people in orange vests are digging up ore from the ground and transporting it and putting it through a processor, and that big beautiful world I saw from the plane keeps turning slowly but surely without end…

And yes, the mousse. Ohh the mousse.

“We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning.”

Henry W. Beecher

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April   |   Kinsevere mine, Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo

The second trip brought this home too. It sent me to a part of the world that, as remote as Century is, made it seem like your local corner milk bar by comparison. This was the Congo – a place where you see more machine guns than computers, in a continent known to us mainly through grim stories on the evening news… This year of course it was Ebola, its resurgence wiping out almost 8000 Africans since March.

The outbreak hit the mainstream media around the same time Peter and I (Peter being the consultant I was dispatched with) landed in South Africa at the start of April. The first I heard of it was when we were sitting in the lounge at Johannesburg airport, trying in vain to connect to the wifi, when an alarming story on the TV above us caught my attention: Ebola was spreading like wildfire through west Africa. I knew three basic things about Ebola: it was highly contagious, it killed quickly, and it originated in exactly the place where me and Peter were heading: the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I didn’t end up catching Ebola, although I did develop something nasty during my final week which turned my three-week absence from the office into a four-week one. (Peter himself ended up being hospitalized, with what doctors said was “either pneumonia or malaria” – probably the latter, and probably what I had as well.)

As I wrote in previous blog entries, the Congo wasn’t necessarily what the imagination conjures up. There’s little jungle or gorillas, at least in the south-east where I was – in fact there were very few trees at all, since poor people everywhere have cut them down to get charcoal for either fuel or money. You see these same people trudging down the long dirt road between Kinsevere and Lubumbashi, the regional capital, where they head daily – huge sacks on head or on an old bike bent under the strain, alongside which they walk for up to 20 kilometres a day… A scene that correlates a lot more closely with the Africa we see on TV.

Like I said, this trip definitely impressed upon me how vast and contrasting the world is too. There’s nothing like chilling in the business lounge at Perth airport, sipping scotch & Cokes next to some polo shirt-clad dude, deeply tanned from his ’business meetings’ at the golf course with Sharon Stone-esque wife in tow… then roughly 24 hours later, finding yourself in a mini-van bouncing along a sometimes-paved road past shantytowns full of half-naked black kids sitting on barrels staring in to what you realise is an equally exotic sight for them: a pale white Westerner with hay-blonde hair and denim jeans.

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It made me realise how lucky I am as one of those Westerners – lucky, above all, to have opportunity in my life. Of course there’s food and water and shelter to be grateful for too, no doubt, but even in these shanty-towns people have that – which, not to belittle their situation, I’m happy to say, ’cause it would’ve been heart-breaking to pass malnourished or hopelessly crippled people, especially on the way to a place where food and medical attention are available 24/7.

What’s awful though is that even though these people have things to eat and drink, and some rudimentary roof over their heads – even self-styled shanty medical clinics – what they definitely don’t have is opportunity. They’re doomed to eat more or less the same shit and carry sacks twice their own body weight up and down that endless road, half of it made of dust or mud depending on the weather, forever, like Sisyphus and his rock. Without education, without welfare, without a relative who can loan them some money or do some hustling to get them a job, these shanty-town inhabitants have virtually zero chance of improving their lot in life or getting some lucky break.

It’s unpleasant to even think about but in another life, that could be me or you staring into the windows of that white mini-van as it whizzes past a few times a day, carrying people with their well-paid jobs afforded by their education afforded by their parents afforded by their citizenship in a country where these things are ‘rights’, not hopes and dreams. I distinctly remember sitting in the taxi on the way home from Melbourne Airport, after three weeks of tough meat and lukewarm veg, and being excited – literally excited – about the prospect of eating a ramen: hot and buttery with a Japanese-style boiled egg. Having the opportunity to do, back in this city with all manner of cuisines ready to be served up in front of you, delicious and affordable and fresh, felt like winning Tattslotto… And indeed, all of us who live here have.

“I have a very good life – I’m lucky enough not to be deprived.” – Meryl Streep

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May   |   Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Like Century, Sydney was just a three-day thing, a short trip to attend an intranet conference at a big posh hotel in the CBD (the Amora, if anyone cares). It’s hard to articulate or even understand in concrete terms what the ‘meaning’ of this trip was, but I felt it very intensely – walking along King St Wharf the first two nights, eventually settling on one of the harbourside restaurants for dinner, ordering a table-for-one and a beer, and soaking up the ambience of this dazzling world-class city so close yet so different to Melbourne… Then wandering aimlessly some more, before returning at around 10pm to my little room at the Ibis hotel, with its window overlooking a highway and a bunch of high-rises.

There was a sort of intense, uplifting loneliness to this stay in Sydney, and looking back on it, it seems distinctly longer than three days – as if three days doesn’t seem long enough to generate that sort of intensity. I felt it too at Kinsevere, of course – in that miniscule dot of light in a vast, pitch-black ocean of grassland-wilderness at the bottom of the Congo. But I was there with a consultant who practically became a buddy of mine, along with dozens of expats whose faces and names I got to know either through the training room where I spent most of my day or, more commonly, at the bar afterwards where most of us wound down for the night. Even a total stranger doesn’t feel like a total stranger when he’s wearing the same bright-orange shirt with the same familiar red logo as you, not to mention his full name.

In Sydney though, once the conference concluded at 4 or 5pm each day, the hours afterwards were all mine and mine alone… And so I’d go wandering, along George St and King St and Pitt St, through glitzy shopping centres and past waterfront casinos the size of ancient wonders and bars busting at the seams with people, the smokers and drunks noisily congregated outside… And towering over all this, when you step back far enough from the music and traffic and humanity and look up, you see looming over you like a mountain range clusters of skyscrapers adorned with hundreds of tiny lit windows and crowned with neon signs, spectacular and silent in their glory… And high above even them, hundreds more tiny lights that form the equally spectacular and silent night sky.

”You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder… And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”

– Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Dining at the waterfront and exploring the city by myself after my day at the Amora was done felt like a Hemingway short story at times: the meaning is far from obvious; it’s much more about the atmosphere and that strange, deep, bittersweet feeling you’re left with…

I remember messaging my girlfriend at the time, ‘Wish you were here’ and all that stuff… and I did, very much. I had my own hotel room in this gorgeous part of town, dinners and taxis paid for… And as I strolled for hours along that King St boulevard past all the parked boats and fancy restaurants with people wining and dining, conversing and laughing, I wished she could be there with me, so that together we could be like so many of the other young people I passed – hand in hand or arm over shoulder, perhaps sitting on the wooden decking by the water, taking in the magical ambience during pauses between make-out sessions.

Again, it’s a hard thing to describe, and kind of a paradox – because although I was yearning for romantic company, I loved that being so alone – this tiny atom of consciousness in this awe-inspiring metropolis with all of its grit and glamour – gave me such power of introspection, allowed me to dive right into my core and nurture and embrace this yearning, and use it to imagine what could be and in doing so, perhaps manifest it and relish it all the more if and when it does… If that makes any sense.

For many of those young (and not-so-young) people I passed, it was probably just another night, the same way I march down Southbank boulevard at half past 5 every weekday to catch the train from Flinders St station. But for me, on those three nights, it was like a conversation took place deep inside me between me and the world, and everything seemed intense and full of beauty like a van Gogh painting, there was soul in everything, and the entire evening glowed with a vibrant magic that I learned will make itself quietly apparent to you if you just tune into the right frequency.

“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

–    Ricky Fitts, American Beauty