Auschwitz

Have you ever felt totally and utterly hopeless? Like there was nothing you could do to make your life meaningful again? Like any small act of human mercy was out of your reach forever? For the countless number of people who lived and died in Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, hopelessness was a living reality. And while it is truly impossible for any one of us to even begin to comprehend such hopelessness, I urge you all to visit Auschwitz I & II, and to try. 

There are no photographs in this post, because I do not believe that images of the camps have any power compared with actually being there, knowing that where you tread thousands of men, women and children suffered unbearably at the hands of the Nazi regime. Instead I will try to explain why it is so crucially important now, more than ever, to remember the victims of the Nazi party under Hitler. I refer to only one exhibit in this post, however if you would prefer to experience Auschwitz without any forward information about its exhibits, I recommend reading this post after your visit. 

I have stated that images of the place would be ineffective to convey any sense of the crushing weight of historical disgrace that pervades Auschwitz I & II, however one of the photographic exhibits there truly took my breath away. Lining the walls of one of the barracks where camp inmates where forced to live are photographs of just a few of the men and women who died in Auschwitz. There must be more than 200 photos on those walls, and they represent a handful. In each photo, man and woman alike have been shaved, clothed in the striped uniform of the camp, and stripped of their identities in any other physical way possible. What is striking about these images is that, even though these people have been selected and sentenced to suffer and ultimately die at the hands of their persecutors because of their differences to them, is that what remains is a fundamental unity – all are undeniably human. 

Each photo represents a human life, with its own family, memories, possessions, hopes, fears, and all the other quirks that belong to people. Imagine your own family, friends and acquaintances. Everyone you know could not equal the number of faces on those walls in Auschwitz. And that number represents so few of the people that remain unphotographed and undocumented. It is so easy to forget that the people who suffered so much under the Nazi regime were just that – people. They were not merely statistics to be learned for a GSCE exam. They were not a sub-human race. They did not exist a million years in the past. Their children and grandchildren walk this earth today. 

There is so much to be learned from visiting Auschwitz I & II, and historians are learning more and more every year about life and death in Nazi concentration and death camps. But the thing that captivated me most while at Auchwitz was how very possible it is for one group of people to completely and utterly alienate, humiliate, and exterminate another group of people because they see them as different. It needs to be remembered that the fault lies in the fear of that difference, and not the difference itself. In a time when terrorism is a very real threat to life as we know it, I encourage all of you to think before you speak, to evaluate evidence before you make judgement, and remember that we are all human. 

Being in Berlin

Being in Berlin

Berlin. How do I even begin to describe the feeling of being in a city like Berlin? The history, the sights, the food, the people, the very atmosphere. It is all at once inviting, exciting, energising and overwhelming. I had no expectations of Berlin. I’d been once before, when I was 14 years old, so I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting into. I wasn’t just wrong, I was literally ignorant of the city I thought I understood so well. I guess I’ll start at the beginning of my journey, though my first impressions were somewhat negative and completely, hilariously wrong…


Of course, the first photograph I took in Berlin (well, the first that wasn’t a selfie), was of the magnificent Brandonberg gate.  Hardly surprising condidering it is one of the most impressive monuments in the city. However, I saw alot of Berlin before I saw the gate. I saw the East. I lived, in fact, in the East. As East as it’s possible to go while still living in Berlin… okay, not quite. But Lichtenberg is definitely very geographically East, and as I learnt more and more about Berlin’s divided political history, it really began to feel like the East. The East of the city remains grey, its buildings tall and almost oppressive while somehow seemingly sparse in their distribution. The street ‘art’ appeared to me far more of the kind that I would describe as ‘criminal damage’ than freedom of expression, and on that first day I truly wondered if I’d be brave enough to leave my flat after nightfall. 
But then I got to know Berlin. The more time I spent there, the more I saw. That graffiti? I realized it had deep roots in Berlin’s history. Some street art was comissioned, designed specifically for a certain place and paid for. Some of it wasn’t, and yet was protected and conserved due to its cultural richness.  


I began to see street art everywhere. Sure, on the streets, but also in less likely places, inside restaurant gardens, on the ceilings on bathrooms, inside clubs, on the sides of peoples homes. I came across urban spaces awash with art, its day-glo effect surreal against the backdrop of the grey East.

Among the creative spaces, there are nooks and crannies full of exciting things to discover. A swimming pool that floats on the river made from an old barge. A gold telephone box that provides a one song disco for three people. A rooftop bar situated above a shopping overlooking the city, playing soft techno and hosting live jazz nights on different days of the week. An abandoned airport open for the public to skate/bike/walk around. I think one of my favourite moments in Berlin was spent in that very airport. I was resting on a bench after an hour or so of roller blading down the runways, when I heard a man with the most beautiful, soulful, old fashioned voice. He was singing along to a portable piano that he was playing, right there in the middle of the airport. Some passing locals stopped to listen too, and said that he had wheeled the piano there earlier that day. It was a moment that could only ever be experienced in Berlin. A moment so unexpected, bizarre, isolated and wonderful that I hope I remember it for as long as I live. 




There is so much to see and do in Berlin that it is almost unbelievable. How about a flea market followed by an afternoon getting drunk in an amphitheater, singing kareoke with 300 other people? A walk through a war monument with architecture that looks beautifully, tragically post-apocolyptic? Clubbing to industrial techno in a blacked out, sound proofed, box of a room for 3 days straight? A bagel in a book shop? A swim in a gorgeous lake in the middle of the city? Dancing the tango with complete (professional tango dancing) strangers? Queing for 2 hours or more for the world’s greatest kebab? Breaking into an abandoned themepark at 6am in the morning so you don’t get caught? The longer I stayed in Berlin the more I came to see that for all of its history, trauma, and rebuilding, it is today a city so culturally rich and vibrant, a city that feels so young and exciting, that I will have a tremendous job trying to find its equal. 

On the Fringe

On the Fringe

I’ll be honest. The thought of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival had never really interested me too much. I imagined pretentious improv, awkward silences following comic one liners, and a bunch of amateurs performing overpriced gigs. Since my arrival to Glasgow, however, almost everyone I met had asked me if I was going to the Fringe. “You must”, they said, “it’s unbelievable”, they said. Curiosity finally got the better of me, and I headed to Edinburgh on a surprisingly mild Saturday to see what all the fuss was about.

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The first thing to surprise me was the very atmosphere that pervades the Royal Mile during the Fringe. Everyone is excited, the air is thick with street food smells, and flyers are handed out by hopeful performers with warm, welcoming smiles. A different style of music can be heard every few hundred metres or so, with buskers taking full advantage of the crowds that are attracted by the Fringe from all over the world. The abundance of sights, sounds and smells means that you have to stop in your tracks just to take it all in.

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Walking up the Royal Mile towards Edinburgh castle is literally all you need to do to see some of the best musicians, circus performers, and variety shows that the Fringe offers. Everything on the street is free, though donations are, of course, appreciated, and the programme is impressive. I managed to enjoy; two musicians who both played their guitars in ways I have never seen before; a circus performer, all the way from Australia, hula-hoop whilst on fire; an American stuntman dive to the ground from about 100m with just a leg wrapped around a pole; a magician from Poland; and an impressionist who’s Donald Trump impersonation was uncanny. For all this, I didn’t even have to enter a venue.

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Of course, when you do enter a venue, the real fun begins. All of the shows I saw at venues were free of charge (again donations are more than welcome), and all of them exceeded my expectations. I saw 3, and I list them in order of excellence.

 

In at number 3 is the marvellous Griffin and Jones’ Slapdash Magic. While the tricks were all pretty standard, the delivery and timing was where the real magic was at. Comics as much as magicians, Griffin and Jones put on a show to entertain most tastes, and really are ‘the Ant and Dec of their price range’ as Jones so excellently put it.

In second place is the wonderful Jovial Trauma by Yolav and Graham. The pair consist of an ambiguously Eastern European immigrant and his square British translator. The humour is dark enough to make you feel naughty for laughing, but you really can’t help it as the contrast between the earnest and wacky Yolav and his poor companion Graham serves to bring a ridiculousness to the act that lightens the mood (but only a little – it’s pretty heavy stuff).

My clear winner, however, is Danny McLoughlin’s show, Philip was Right. His comedy is honest and current, and his show was brilliantly structured. Danny is a comic who laughs at himself, and in doing so encourages the audience to laugh at themselves as everything he says is relatable. Fussy eater? So is he. Got man boobs? He’s got your back. There’s some clever poetry thrown in there too, and the overall effect is a show that will put a smile on your face whenever you think about it.

 

For all my disinterest, the day I spent at the Fringe was one of the best I have spent in Scotland. I am even planning to return next year (for longer) to see some of the things I missed this time, and to soak up some more of its infectious atmosphere. Perhaps the thing that most impressed me about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the way that it brings people together. People travel from all over the world both to see and to perform at the Fringe. One performer said she had been training for it for her entire life, and I can see why. To even be there is a joy, and I can honestly say that I even enjoyed some of the improv.

 

Off the Beaten Track in The Little Dolomites

Off the Beaten Track in The Little Dolomites

The term “off the beaten track” has become something of a cliche. Travellers look for places where nobody else has been before, places that are “secret” (though they search for them on the internet), and places that are off the beaten track. Not often frequented. Deserted. Isolated. Ancient. The list goes on. 

My venture off the beaten track unashamedly accords with cliche, in that the track which I traversed is very popular among the people of Torrebelvicino, Valli del Pasubio, and the other surrounding areas which I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting. The track is, in fact, very beaten. I met countless people along the way, and I am told that at the weekend the place is thriving. However, to a city girl like me, it was a challenging and dangerous terrain through the Little Dolomites….

My not-so-off the beaten track was a trek of about 13 km around the mountain range Senglo Alto. From the city of Schio, it is a short drive through Torrebelvicino and Valli del Pasubio to the border between the Italian provinces of Veneto and Trentino. Here you can park up, jump out of that car and prepare for a gentle incline of an hour and a half.

Of course, my journey was not so simple. A recent disruption in the mountain range had cause the collapse of a section of rocks, meaning that some of the path was closed. Did this stop us? Hell, no. Ignoring the warnings of passers-by, my companion and I used ropes that had been fixed to the rock face to help us get across the damaged area. This was challenging, as there was no support available and the path gave way to a cliff face that was gentle but covered in sharp rocks. 

This safely out of the way, we made our way to the refuge, a cute little restaurant come inn servings portion of steaming pasta and meat 1457m above sea level. I had the duck, and it was delicious. From here, you can choose to return on the path you came from, traverse a further 200m to the summit of the mountain, or take another path to bring you full circle. Being the true-grit traveller that I am, I chose to take the steep, dangerous path to the summit of the mountain.


Two chains affixed to either side of the rock face aids travel to the top of the mountain, and although the walk is hard, the views once you reach the summit are spectacular. There is also a barrack that remains from the second world war, which you can enter to view the mountain through the eyes of the soldiers who lived there for three years during the fighting. 


We took the circular path home, a pleasant and gentle decline to the car park. As I said, the path is popular, and by the time we reached the car the car park was full. We were lucky to have the weather on our side-I hope that if you ever traverse the (very) beaten track around the Senglo Alto mountains you are similarly blessed!

My Mountain Climbing Survival Kit

I feel naked if I don’t have a handbag dangling off my arm. I take most of most worldly possessions with me everywhere I go, and I’ve been known to over pack bags until they burst. However, climbing Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales, carrying everything but the kitchen sink simply was not an option. It was a struggle, but I managed to take only the most necessary items to my survival with me to the summit. Here are my bare essentials.

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1. A waterproof backpack. If you are a notorious overpacker like me, you’ll need something that can take the strain. My polka dot beauty can squeeze in a 15″ laptop and still have room for snacks (please note: the laptop is not necessary for survival, and therefore did not come with me on this occasion). Snowdon’s weather proved fairly unpredictable, but this Cath Kidston bag kept my belongings perfectly dry.

fleece (2)2. A fleece. Yes, fleeces are usually the attire of sheep and trainspotters. However, even on a warm day, it is COLD up at that summit. Take a fleece that you can roll up and shove in your bag until its needed. Mine is part of a 2-in-1 raincoat ensemble – fancy, huh?

 
3. Snacks. You will need them. I took sweets, fruit and nut, and a sarnie for when I reached the top. The sweets gave good short bursts of energy for the tricky bits while the fruit and nut provided slower releasing energy. The sandwich will keep you going on the way back down!

 
4.WATER. Seems obvious. But seriously, don’t forget it. Its a surreal experience walking on the edge of a mountain, so make sure you are well hydrated to prevent dizziness!

 
5. Your camera. Goes without saying really, I’ll let this image speak for itself.

Snowdon

6. People you love. This isn’t me being all mushy because I happened to go with my family – this was HARD. You will stumble. You will fall down. You might even cry (I heard several people cry at the summit). So, make sure those around you love you, because the embarrassment of being seen soaked, exhausted, tear-stained and (potentially) bloody will be WAY worse than any injuries sustained. I can promise you that.

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Five Things the Seasoned Traveller MUST do in London

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting London several times now, and I’ve done most of the expected touristy things that our wonderful capital has to offer. I’ve zoomed around the London Eye. I’ve been to a show at the West End. I’ve tried to make the Beefeaters laugh. And, of course, I’ve eaten ridiculously over-priced pastries. But, on my last trip to London, I did a few things that might not be at the top of the average tourist to-do list. Here are my Top-Five Things to do in London (only for the most seasoned of travellers)…

1) See London from the Thames

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Okay, so this one is pretty touristy, I admit. But until a river cruise down the Thames was bought for me as a gift, I had never considered embarking on a trip myself. Not only does a river cruise allow you to appreciate the sheer majesty of the city without having to attempt navigating around it yourself, it also allows you to do so while removed from the crowds and noise of the streets. There is a quiet on the Thames river cruise that is almost uncanny – you are in the middle of London, and yet all you can hear is the lapping of the Thames at the edge of the cruiser. The cruise I embarked on was also great value. I was able to hop on and off at any stop at any time within 24 hours, so I got to see all the best touristy bits too. Highlights include: Shakespeare’s Globe and Tower Bridge.

 

2) Buy Some Fudge at Borough Market

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I stumbled across Borough Market by accident. And oh, what a happy accident it turned out to be. Borough Market not only has an impressive array of street food, but its stalls also consist of butchers, bakers, spice merchants, tea-makers, juicers, delis, and so much more. Even better, most of the stalls offer free samples! I was lucky enough to try a delicious chocolate brownie, warming lemongrass and ginger tea, and exotic Turkish delight (and I promise you – it’s nothing like the stuff that’s always left last in the Milk Tray). By far, my favourite stall belonged to ‘Whirled’, a fun pick ‘n’ mix fudge shop. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for fudge, and I couldn’t walk past this stall without making a purchase. ‘Whirled’ fudge is crumbly, smooth and creamy all at the same time, and I can honestly say the flavours are second to none. Among my favourites is the devilish Peanut Butter Rocky Road.

 

3) Contribute to Some Awesome Street Art

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It is well known that London is full of interesting pieces of street art. But even better than admiring street art is contributing to it yourself. I found this chalkboard near Borough Market. It spans across an entire wall, and its only fixed feature is the repeated phrase ‘Before I die I want to…’. Chalk is provided in a little tray attached discreetly to the right hand side of the wall, and no further encouragement is needed to entice hundreds of contributions daily. My favourite contributions included ‘kiss James Franco’ and ‘laugh so hard I crack a rib’. What would yours be? Comment! Or, better yet, go to London and make your contribution…

 

4) See a Real Pirate Ship and have a Pint at a Really (Really) Old Pub

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In 1577, Sir Francis Drake set out to circumnavigate the high seas of the globe until 1580 on his famous vessel The Golden Hind. While The Golden Hind which Sir Drake captained was sadly disintegrated and distributed in the 1600s, this real-life replica has made the very same voyage that Sir Drake embarked upon himself twice in its lifetime. And from where to admire the craftsmanship of such a vessel? Where else but from a seat in the beer-garden of one of the oldest pubs in London, The Anchor, which sits alongside the Thames neatly next to The Golden Hind. Tradition has it that there has been a pub in that same location for the last four hundred years. Impressive, huh?

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5) Take a Super Sophisticated Photo of a Very Important Landmark

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Well, no trip to London would be complete without a selfie in the Underground now would it?