Category Archives: Travelling

Truths, half-truths & convenient fictions in Mitteleuropa……

After the social whirl of March’s Sri Lanka extravaganza, the end of April  saw me embarked on a solo outing to the place where the new Europe and the old one overlap – Berlin – with onward connections to Poland and the journey I have wanted to make for many, many years now, to Krakow, Auschwitz and Mitteleuropa’s particular ‘heart of darkness’.

Travelling alone is something I used to do a lot of back in the days when I used to work in the travel biz;  I would be tasked with checking out a particular area of (usually) Scandinavia and would meet with hoteliers,  transport companies and the like, whilst investigating potential attractions to be woven into a 7-, 10- or 14 day programme that could be incorporated into the following year’s brochures – ‘Finnish Panorama’, ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ etc ; you get the general drift.

However, the thing is that although I travelled alone between destinations, I always had people to meet and appointments to keep once I got to wherever I was headed.  With this trip, the only schedule was the one I decided on and with flights, trains, hotels and suchlike all booked in advance, I simply had to show up and meander through my own self-devised itinerary, visiting the sights and hitting the hotspots that interested me.  Deciding where to  have dinner was sometimes the only real variable in my day and having always been comfortable in my own skin, the prospect of wandering round central Europe on my own didn’t bother me that much, but I suspect I underestimated the impact of a programme with such a minimal level of social contact built in.  Certainly, I  didn’t take into account the emotional  impact of some of what I would experience.

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One of the images from the East Side Gallery in Berlin

It wasn’t  even that this was a trip that I wanted to do alone and with the benefit of hindsight , I wish I’d worked a little harder to find a travelling companion or two.  It’s just a simple fact that most of my family and friends are caught up in a cocktail of work or financial or (even) grand-parenting issues that would have made it impossible for them to join me for one or more reasons.  However, the thing that really drove me out the door on this occasion was news of the imminent arrival of an Aussie friend of the Partner’s – let’s call her Matilda – whose mere presence is enough to inspire paroxysms of mild nausea and loathing in me – I have my reasons, believe me.  Matilda and her ex-husband were part of the social flotsam and jetsam with which the Partner chose to populate her life in her free & easy late 20’s.  Most of this lot have now thankfully disappeared into the mists of history, but not Matilda, who although she lives in Perth, waltzes into Europe  far too frequently for my liking.

When this happens, I take the view that it’s better and simpler for everyone if I just get out of Dodge.  Normally, I might visit mates in Shropshire or Derby, but on this occasion, I decided to make a virtue out of what I perceived to be a necessity and orchestrated a week-long trip to Berlin and Krakow.  This did not meet with universal approval; the Partner’s attitude combining anger at my ongoing disdain for her Aussie friend and irritation that I am able to just clear off for a week at the drop of a hat when she is still shackled to the workplace.

Predictably, all of this  domestic sturm und drang came floating to the surface like so much unwelcome scum the night before my departure, by  which point it was in any case far too late for me to do anything about it – even if I’d cared to.  Under the circumstances, I guess I can only take pride in my unwavering knack for consistently locating that ‘sour spot’ that exists somewhere between ‘deeply flawed’ and ‘completely wrong’.  Sad but true, folks;  I’m  reliably and regularly informed that I’m no angel and having been told this for well over 20 years, I guess it must be true.

And so to Berlin, where the sun was fighting to get through a grey blanket of cloud and I was soon fighting to get to grips with the highly-touted public transport system.  Airport Bus to some place the other side of Tiergarten, then U-Bahn (or was it S-Bahn – and what’s the difference anyway?) to Potsdamer Platz with its glass towers and forest of pink piping and a tedious walk down the road to my hotel; a clean functional Ibis with staff who were efficient and friendly in that impersonal corporate manner we are all supposed to applaud.

There was enough of the afternoon left for me to explore my immediate surroundings, which were, specifically, the area between Potsdamer Platz and Kreuzberg.  This is an area of no great architectural merit with only the remaining section of the  facade of the old Anhalter Banhof and the soaring white spires of the Tempodrom concert hall to enliven things.  In the end I wandered up to Potsdamer Platz to photograph the pink piping –   there to pump away ground water as Berlin apparently has a very high water table.IMG_1180

Pink pipes in Potsdamer Platz

Later, I walked down into Kreuzberg and had a pleasant dinner at a Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant called ‘Tibet Haus’, recommended to me by the Princess;  another of the sundry weirdnesses connected with this excursion was that all 3 members of this household have now visited Berlin within the last 2 years, but we have all done the trip independently of one another.  Did I hear somebody say ‘dysfunctional’?

I didn’t anticipate leading a wild nocturnal existence on this trip, but I did check out a few Berlin websites to see if there were any gigs or exhibitions I could go to during my stay.  It was a pleasure to find that promising young Norwegian nu-jazz trio, In the Country, were playing at a jazz club called A-Trane across to the west of the city in Charlottenburg, so after my Nepalese curry I cabbed over to A-Trane to see them play.  And what a delight that turned out to be!

In the Country

In the Country

Pianist Morten Qvenild has the highest profile due to his role as ‘the Magical Orchestra’ behind Susanna (Wallumrød), but In the Country have been active for 8 years now and  are touring around their fifth album, ‘Sunset Sunrise‘,  so-called because they recorded it at Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Sound last summer during a few days downtime whilst on tour in the States.  Qvenild has also been involved with other Norwegian nu-jazz bands like Shining and even an early incarnation of Jaga Jazzist.  He gets great support from drummer Pål Hausken and bassist Roger Arntzen and there’s never any suggestion that this is merely Qvenild’s band.  To some extent, they have taken ideas originally explored by the Esbjörn Svensson Trio;  notably the discreet usage of  synthesiser, electronics and  vocals to boost the basic trio sound – and they do it brilliantly.

They played 2 marvellous sets to a pretty packed club and I cabbed home some time after 1 am feeling happy with my first day.

For the next 3 days, I went into full tourist mode, wandering the city at some length and visiting sites that were obvious choices like Checkpoint Charlie,  the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag plus others that were recommended to me like the DDR and Jewish Museums.  The weather was pretty good and I got better at navigating my way around.  I found a great Malaysian/Filipino restaurant called Mabuhay, located in the most unpromising of back street car parks with a Lidl supermarket next door – the food was good, though.  I swiftly became very taken with Berlin’s quirky feel and tried to preserve enough energy to explore areas like Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg.  On Bergmannstrasse, I ate the best wienerschnitzel I have ever had but had less positive experiences with the local wurst and kebab stalls.

If my experiences with the local cuisine were mixed, the same could definitely be said of the local history and politics, which gave me the same kind of unsettled feeling as that ill-chosen bratwurst I ate one lunchtime.

Even though the Wall is gone, its ghost dominates Berlin in so many ways and though Berlin’s location in the centre of Europe reveals  a city that might look just as readily to the west as to the east, you sense that the shadow in the east predominates.  The elegant avenues of Charlottenburg and the glitzy shops of Kurfürstendamm might wish to emulate Paris, but some of the grim concrete plazas around Alexanderplatz seem more representative of the city’s recent Stalinist past.  War, whether cold or hot,  is the dominant motif in the city’s geography and history – the further east you go the clearer that becomes.  It’s really quite difficult to understand how West Berlin survived as an island of capitalist excess in East Germany’s  grim backwaters, but it did for over 40 years and nowadays the U-bahn and S-bahn trains sweep through former ‘ghost stations’  like Bernauerstrasse with no indication of past problems.  Above ground it’s a different story and the city makes the most of what the Wall left behind.  Most notably, the East Side Gallery on Mühlenstrasse offers us 105 paintings along a 1.3 km long section of the Wall.  These were painted in 1990 when euphoria levels about German reunification were still high, but many of the images now look tired and have been besmirched with mindless graffiti by people who really ought to have a bit more respect.

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 Detail from a section of Wall at the East Side Gallery

Further north in Prenzlauer Berg, a section of the ‘Death Strip’ between the East & West Walls has been maintained in its original configuration.  Stretching between Nordbanhof and Bernauerstrasse stations, the site offers a memorial to those who died trying to get across as well as photographic records of how different the site looked at the height of the Cold War.  Further north still is the Mauerparken – a strip park built along the line of the Wall where a huge flea market takes place every Sunday.

I wandered round the flea market, finding  myself curiously unmoved by its bewildering variety of offerings, but other people were heading back along Bernauerstrasse with small cabinets, stuffed animals, metal tractor seats and the like.  I took the U-bahn from Bernauerstrasse station and a guy came and sat next to me nursing a huge framed print of the worst kind of 1970’s sub-Pink Floyd ‘space art’.  He looked very pleased with his purchase, but then again, hopefully he just wanted it for the frame .

Mauerpark

The Mauerparken

 The DDR Museum offered a wry thumbnail sketch of what life might have been like in the old East Germany but the Jewish Museum was a different matter altogether.  Daniel Liebeskind’s design is deliberately intended to produce a disorientating and emotional effect with its angled floors and voids, to say nothing of the actual content of the exhibits.  Let’s just say that with me it succeeded admirably.  I have in the past visited both of London’s Jewish Museums and never found either of them as troubling.  In the end, I became almost panic-stricken in trying to find a way out of the place. Here was all the evidence of a vibrant culture destroyed, here were the touchstones of a way of life that has been forever lost.  In a very direct way, Berlin’s Jewish Museum was signposting my way to Auschwitz.

Jewish Musem Berln

Inside Berlin’s Jewish Museum 

The last site I visited on my final day in Berlin was in many ways the most troubling of all.  To the south-east of the city centre, the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park is both a mass grave for the 80,000 Red Army soldiers who died in 1945’s climactic Battle of Berlin and a memorial to their sacrifice.  The monument was built in 1949 and is rendered in the usual Soviet/Heroic fashion.  It’s a huge site with- as its centrepiece – a 12m high statue of a Soviet soldier holding a child in his arms whilst lording it over the broken swastika at his feet.

Whatever my feelings about the vanished world of Soviet Russia, there is no doubting the suffering that country underwent at the hands of the Nazi invaders during Operation Barbarossa and its successors.  The Nazis saw the Slavs as being an inferior race suitable only as slave labour and they despoiled the towns, cities and local populations of the lands they conquered in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.  As the Russians headed west in late 1944,  it was time for a little revenge and whilst Russian historians dispute this, there seems little doubt that the invading Red Army were responsible for massive reprisals against the German population as they drove westwards towards Berlin.  In particular, Soviet soldiers are said to have been responsible for as many as 2 million cases of rape in Germany, with victims ranging from 8 to 80 years old.  About 100,000 of these rapes were said to have occurred during the Battle for Berlin.  So much for the heroic Soviet Army, but it seems that French, American and British soldiers were also getting in on the act as they invaded from the West, so to point the finger at the Russians alone would be hypocritical indeed.

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The Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park

I found this ‘credibility gap’ between the narrative of War as portrayed through its memorials and museums and the underlying stories of ordinary people whose suffering was on a different level altogether to be a recurring motif on this trip and the more I saw of it,  the more disturbing  I found it.    The ‘grand narratives’ of generals and statesmen and war heroes don’t seem to make any sense here – the Jews of Berlin were reviled, ostracised, then dispossessed and exterminated, the heroic Red Army were not the liberators of myth, but simply  an armed rabble who raped and pillaged their way through Poland and Eastern Germany until they met up with the Allies at the Elbe, the women of Berlin (many of them) paid a terrible price for Hitler’s racism. arrogance and deranged fascist ideologies…..what’s wrong with this picture?

Before this trip, I would have said that I knew quite a bit about all of this, having read a number of books about it and seen quite a few documentaries – certainly I felt that the blinkers were off as far as I was concerned, but I still found the growing gap between the official viewpoint and what ordinary people actually experienced somewhat alarming.  More to the point, it was not something I had been able to discover through books or films, but something I picked up simply from wandering round Berlin’s monuments and museums.  How much more of a shock would Poland prove to be?

I was soon to find out. The next morning I took a cab to Berlin’s magnificent glass and steel Hauptbanhof, opened in 2006 and one of my favourite modern structures.  Anyway you look at it, it’s a magnificent building and must make arriving in Berlin by train a truly uplifting experience.

Berlin Hauptbanhof

Berlin’s Hauptbanhof 

However, I was leaving, not arriving and I boarded the 9:37 train to Warsaw and found myself sharing a compartment with a Russo-German family of 4 and a German girl in her 20’s who bore a disconcerting resemblance to my next-door neighbour.  Ordinarily, I would have been able to travel directly to my final destination, Krakow,  rather then go via Warsaw, but the track between Berlin and Krakow is apparently being upgraded to take high-speed trains, so a detour through central Poland to Warsaw was the first stage of a 10-hour journey.  There was no small talk with my neighbours – the German girl was ploughing through a hefty John Irving novel and the Russo-German parents were busy with their infants.  I played my iPod to shut out some of the noise and concentrated on the unravelling view outside the window. It’s only 50 miles from Berlin to the River Oder which forms the international boundary with Poland and an awful lot of that territory is covered with pine forest – planted rather than natural, I assume.  Once across the river and into Poland, however, the landscape began to change to a gently undulating landscape of fields, copses and low hills.  With the first flush of springtime green on the land, it looked incredibly attractive in a kind of ‘Nymphs & Shepherds come away‘ fashion.  Given the ‘Volkish‘, back-to-nature ideologies of the Nazis, it’s easy to see the attraction of these bucolic landscapes with their gingerbread cottages and echoes of a simpler, nobler past, free from the corruption of the big cities with their Jewish predators waiting to pounce on simple Aryan country boys.

On the way to Warsaw, we passed through a number of provincial towns and one major city – Poznań –  none of which looked particularly noteworthy.  By 3 pm I had reached Warsaw Zachodnia station (formerly Warsaw West), a satellite station some miles from the centre of the city.  Quite why I needed to change there rather than in the centre of the city is something I couldn’t explain to you.  From the platforms at Zachodnia I had a good view of Warsaw’s central landmarks, notably the near-800 foot high Palace of Culture & Science, built between 1952 and 1955 and donated to the people of Poland by the people of the USSR.  Locally, it’s sometimes referred to as Stalin’s Syringe and can be seen just left of centre in the picture below.

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 After some 45 minutes or so, my train to Krakow duly appeared and once aboard I settled back for another unravelling panorama of Polish farmlands outside my window.  This express didn’t stop at all and after just over 3 hours we pulled into Krakow’s modern station.  One overpriced cab ride later and I was at the Globetroter (with just one ‘t’) Guesthouse in the Old Town.

It was the 29th April when I arrived in Krakow.  The most urgent question I had to answer was when to visit Auschwitz.  Should I go the following day or have an easier day in Krakow?  I was inclined to follow the latter course, but that would mean deferring my Auschwitz trip for a further day, which would mean trying to go there on 01 May, a well-established public holiday.  I knew that the Museum itself would be open on May Day, but would getting there be a problem?

The (unpronounceable) modern town of Oswiecim is (depending on the route you take) just over 40 miles west of Krakow and because of the logistics of visiting the Auschwitz sites,  an early start is essential if you wish to avoid the crowds and find your own way around the place.  Essentially, if you arrive after 10 am, you are compelled to join a guided tour around the museum and this was something I was keen to avoid for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, I am probably a bit too well-informed about the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’  and wouldn’t really need to hear all the ‘back-story’.  For another, I knew that this was likely to be my one and only visit to Auschwitz, so I wanted it to make sense for me and the only way that could happen would be for me to be in charge of my own itinerary, so to speak.

After popping out to a nearby restaurant, I returned to Globetroter to check out the weather forecast on BBC World.  The 30th was set fair, but the 1st promised rain for Western Poland, so my decision was made for me.

I was in bed by about 9:15 pm,  awake well before 6 the following morning and on my way to the Bus Station before 7.  Once there, I managed to find a place on the 7:50 minibus, along with a ragbag collection of half-asleep tourists and young Poles on their way to work at intermediate stops along the way.  The journey took about an hour and 20 minutes and we were eventually dropped off in a featureless suburban street on the outskirts of Oswiecim.  A sign saying ‘Museum’ which led off down a footpath towards a fenced enclosure was the only clue to our whereabouts.  Following this footpath, I soon found myself in the Museum’s main car park and was surprised to see how busy it was given that it was only about 9:15 am.

Entry to the Auschwitz site is free (as it should be) so I avoided a few groups that were gathering and simply walked through into the approach to the camp.  First impressions were how small, compact and neat it looked – and then you spot the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign…..  The word ‘iconic’ is overused these days, but there is no denying the power of that cynical piece of signage.

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The gate into the Auschwitz 1 camp as you first see it

And then….just a few steps for a man, as Neil Armstrong might have said and you are inside.  How easy it would have been for me to about face and walk out again and how many uncounted thousands would have liked to be able to do the same and yet could never do so? I don’t – as far as I know – have an iota of Jewish blood in me, but just stepping across that threshold made my WASP plasma run cold.

Auschwitz 1 is an unnerving place on numerous levels.  Yet again I found myself assailed by those feelings of dislocation between the evidence before my eyes and the reality of what went on in this dreadful place.  The original site was a way station or transit camp  for migratory farm workers who every year travelled the roads of  Bohemia, Moravia, Poland, Silesia and Germany in search of employment.  Similarly, landowners would travel to Auschwitz in order to recruit labourers.  If you look at a map, you will see that Auschwitz lies  at the crossroads of Europe and well before the railways were built, the high roads from Berlin to Prague and from Krakow to Vienna passed nearby.  Later it became  a Polish army barracks and then the Nazis took over.  The excellent communications links from Auschwitz to both east and west found favour with the architects of the ‘Final Solution’ and the proximity of the Silesian coalfields meant that big companies like I G Farben were prepared to open chemical factories there – resulting in Auschwitz 3 or Monowitz where Farben used inmates from the camps as workers.

Inside Auschwitz 1, the trees are showing new growth, the roads and walkways are tidy – the calm is eerie.  Only when you look up to the wire and the watchtowers do you get a true sense of what this place was really about.

Auschwitz 1

A number of the 20-odd barrack blocks have been converted – some for use as office space, others as homes for the site’s permanent exhibits and for individual national displays from Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and so on.  Knowing that a long and trying day lay ahead of me, I chose to focus on the permanent displays because it is really only here that the spick-and-span barracks are revealed as the houses of horror they really were.  The exhibits that reveal Auschwitz’s true nature are those that focus on daily life within the camps and the way in which the incoming millions were exploited and abused by their captors.

I have often remarked to people that there are some ‘sights’ – the Taj Mahal, the Manhattan skyline and the Eiffel Tower are 3 that spring to mind – that retain their power to impress,  even though you have inevitably  seen them hundreds of thousands of times on TV and in books.  For me, Auschwitz has a few of these and the first are the monstrous display cases full of human hair and suitcases and shoes in the barracks that deals with the Nazis ideas about ‘harvesting the dead’. Particularly grim is the case full of small shoes taken from the feet of innumerable dead children; the point is that all of this stuff is just a fraction of the total volume of such items generated during the life of Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps.

Auschwitz 1 Childrens shoes

Children’s shoes in the museum at Auschwitz 1.

I concluded my visit to Auschwitz 1 by visiting the ‘Punishment Block’  in Block 11 and the adjoining yard where the Nazis put at least 20,000 people up against the so-called ‘Black Wall’ and shot them.  Inside  Cell Block 11 were the basement cells where prisoners were often left to starve to death or forced to crawl into miniscule 4-person ‘standing cells’, so small that there was no possibility of the inmates being able to sit, let alone lie down.  It was also in this basement in September of 1941 that the Nazis first trialled Zyklon B as a killing gas on 600 Soviet prisoners and 250 ill and injured prisoners in a makeshift gas chamber.  The ‘Black Wall’ has been reconstructed in the sealed yard between Cell Blocks 10 & 11  and the windows of Block 10 that faced on to the yard  shielded to prevent the inmates from seeing what was happening outside, though they could no doubt guess from the sound of gunfire.  In any case, they had troubles of their own as Block 10 was where the infamous Josef Mengele carried out his barbaric medical experiments on twins, pregnant women and the like.

To be honest, I was shocked by the impact of all this on me; after all I knew most of this stuff, but it’s one thing to read about it or watch an elegantly-constructed BBC documentary or even Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour epic film ‘Shoah’, but to be there and see these things in person just floored me.

Something else that floored me were some of the exhibits that dealt specifically with the role of the local population in the affairs of Auschwitz.  We all know that Poland was over-run by both Soviet & Nazi armies during World War II and we know that the Nazis were responsible for the forced deportation of huge numbers of Poles to work as slave labour in the mines and factories of the Third Reich.  What we also know is that whilst the Poles as a race were disinclined to collaborate with the Nazis, they were also largely indifferent to the fate of the (nearly) 4 million Jews living in their country at the start of the War.  Despite all the fine talk of how few Poles actively collaborated with the Nazis, most Poles would probably argue that they had problems enough of their own without taking up the fight on behalf of the Jews.  For all this, the spectre of Polish anti-Semitism hangs over some of the exhibits at Auschwitz 1, particularly those ‘visiting’ exhibitions (usually Polish-sponsored) that deal with Resistance to the Nazis and the way in which the Poles found common cause with Jews, Roma and other oppressed minorities.  For me, a lot of this stuff just didn’t ring true.  Apparently, the current Chief Rabbi of Poland is pleased that the percentage of Poles who harbour anti-Semitic feelings is now down to 45%.  How high must it have been in the early 1940’s  – a time, where if you believe some of the stuff I saw at Auschwitz,  heroic Polish freedom fighters were finding common cause with their Jewish brothers to fight the shared Nazi enemy?  No, I don’t believe it either….yet again, I found myself teetering on the brink of a credibility gap between the revisionist history that will make us all feel comfortable with one another in the 21st Century EU and the evidence of my own eyes and ears….and brain.

Auschwitz 1 main gate

 All of the horror of what had been done here, allied to the half-truths and reassuring balm that the Polish-born, Polish-trained multilingual guides were no doubt feeding into the headphones worn by the incoming groups of impressionable but subdued teenagers from Sweden and Italy and America…well, it all just caught up with me, frankly.  45% of Poles still have anti-Semitic views, despite the largest genocide of all time happening right on their doorstep.  How bad would things have to have got before we could get that figure down to 25%?  How many more millions would have to have died in the gas chambers?

Like Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.   Roll over Pol Pot and tell Rwanda the news…..

Of course, visiting Auschwitz without going on to the second camp at Birkenau is to surely miss the point completely.  At Auschwitz 1, the victims were a mixture of Soviet Prisoners, Polish dissenters, Roma, homosexuals, political prisoners  and so on.  At Birkenau, it was really all about the Jews.  From the car park outside Auschwitz 1, a free shuttle-bus will take you to Auschwitz 2/Birkenau.  In geographical distance there is only a couple of miles between the camps, but conceptually, it’s a whole new ballgame.

The first thing that gets you is the sky, strangely enough – at Auschwitz 1 you are hemmed in by the red brick barracks and by trees – it’s all  pretty claustrophobic.  At Birkenau though, it’s a different story.  Apart from the (here’s that word again) ‘iconic’ gatehouse which Lanzmann uses as a visual cueing device throughout ‘Shoah’, everything at Birkenau is low to the ground.  Simply put, the site is huge, covering over 150 hectares (or 1.5 million square meters).

There were no existing buildings here so the Nazis threw up basic low barracks buildings – by 1945, there were 300 of them.  Stretching away into the misty distance you can see the fingers of the stove chimneys for each barracks, all that remains of most of the barracks, though some have been rebuilt to show how terrible living conditions were at Birkenau.  However, by the time Birkenau was up and running in 1942, the Nazis were much more concerned about dying conditions than living conditions.    They had  set themselves to exterminate the Jews of Europe and to do the job on an industrial scale.  Birkenau was one of the death camps they set up in Poland in order to carry out this task.

Birkenau gatehouse

The gatehouse at Birkenau  – it still gives me chills….

The railway line that leads into Birkenau is a spur that the Nazis built to increase the efficiency of their Birkenau Death Factory.  Jews could be unloaded directly on to the ‘Ramp’, divested of their possessions, split into male/female  groups and assessed for their ability to work before being marched down the ramp to the delousing showers and their eventual doom.

It’s a long way from the gatehouse to the wreckage of the crematoria at the other end of the site but it’s a journey that everyone takes.  I saw an extended family of Israelis, the children wrapped in Star of  David flags, most of the adults weeping openly.  They marched in line abreast back towards the gatehouse, towards freedom and a country that didn’t even exist when the Nazis set this place up in 1942.  I can only wonder at the complexity and depth of their feelings..

I took that walk as well, down to the anticlimactic ‘International Monument’ and the brick and concrete wreckage of the Crematoria.  Nearby on either side of the wreckage are small pools with gravestone-type memorials in front of them.  A young girl sat in silence next to the southernmost pool.  I wanted to say something to her but wouldn’t have known where to start.

Birkenau

The ‘undressing room’  at Crematorium II at Birkenau

By this point, I was shattered – both physically and emotionally.  I trudged back to the gatehouse and picked up a return shuttlebus to Auschwitz 1, then picked up a minibus back to Krakow.

In the evening, I ventured out into the streets of Krakow’s Old Town and found a bar overlooking the enormous Market Square.  I suppose I needed to talk to someone about all that I’d seen, but that was denied me.   No friendly faces appeared and I probably looked extremely grumpy anyway.   I had a beer and watched the world go by, then ate a perfunctory dinner before returning to the Globetroter to sleep.  It had been enough of a day.

The following day was my final full day in Poland and I wanted to see as many of Krakow’s sights as I could.  Based on what my guidebook was telling me I immediately set off for Wawel – a huge rock on a bend in the River Vistula to the immediate south of the Old Town where the original settlement of Krakow was set up.  These days Wawel is dominated by Krakow’s cathedral and castle and I was keen to see both.  I had suffered enough doom and gloom the previous day so I was hoping to experience something that would lift my spirits.  It would have been great, but it just didn’t happen and again the disparity between what is and what people would like to believe in just came back to bite me in the ass.

One of the main problems I had with Krakow is that for all that the Old Town has some spectacular sights – especially the Market Square and the Church of the Virgin Mary – the architecture is overwhelmingly Italianate in character.  In some ways, it’s like being in Lucca or Pisa or Rome – or even Budapest.   Architecturally, there is little in the Old Town that makes you want to shout ‘Wow! That’s pretty damned Polish!’ – and the buildings on the Wawel rock are very much of the same style.  The cathedral has  green copper spires that reminded me of Copenhagen and  fairly minimalistic golden domes that were like parts of Helsinki’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  Inside, the cathedral was dim,  poky and with a multitude of side chapels, all filled with groups of Poles for whom Wawel has become a touchstone of the new Polish nationalism which has come along in the wake of joining the EU and co-hosting last year’s European Football Championships.  For the first time since the early 1920’s or maybe even earlier, Poland is under the thrall of neither the Russians to the east or the Germans to the west and they are eyeing the future with renewed confidence.

Well, good for them, I guess, but I’m afraid that the buildings on Wawel did nothing for me really.  A ragbag of architectural styles and a castle of which little of the original structure remains.  Sorry Poland…..

I moved on into the Kazimierz district, just the other side of the Wawel rock and the home of the original Jewish ghetto in Krakow.  Like a restaurant with no food, Kazimierz seems to be doing reasonably well considering that there are minimal numbers of Jews living there.  The area gained some status due to the fact that Steven Spielberg filmed much of ‘Schindler’s List’ there in 1993 and there have been festivals and the reopening of synagogues and cultural centres designed to renew Kazimierz’s Jewish heritage.  It’s a scruffy area with narrow car-choked streets and a good deal of ‘yuppie-fication’  going on; signs advertising the sale of apartments in both Polish &  English – in 10 years you won’t recognise the place.  Even so, ‘Fascist Krakow’ stickers adorn some of the lamp-posts and anti-Jewish graffiti has been inadequately painted over at the rear of one of the synagogues.  No wonder most of the survivors opted to go elsewhere at the end of the War.

It was time to go home.  A cab ride through prosperous-looking suburbs took me out to the airport the following lunchtime.  Krakow Airport is unequal to dealing with more than a handful of flights every day – the queues for the EasyJet check in were ridiculous because we were all in the queue for the Belfast flight, unable – due to poor ergonomics and design – to see that the lane for the Bristol flight was completely empty.

I dozed my way across Germany and the North Sea coastline, vaguely considering that I would soon be home and able to discuss what I had seen with someone at least.  On the whole, Berlin had been great, Krakow a bit of a disappointment  and Auschwitz completely overwhelming.  I wish that I’d had some company but things don’t always work out the way you’d hoped.

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Back in the UK freezer…..

“Flew in from Colombo Beach with Emirates                                                     Ev’rything was snowy white
Nearly froze my ass off waiting for a cab                                                                                  Why is UK weather shite?”

(Thumbs up to Macca for this one!)

Over the years I will admit to having some difficult entries and re-entries whilst travelling; arriving in New York City on a scorching, humid day in July was difficult, flying back into  freezing Manchester drizzle after a November break in sunny Tenerife was no fun,  but my recent arrival back in Birmingham after two weeks largely spent in 30+ degree Sri Lankan heat was the worst ever.  Stepped out of the terminal building in the warmest clothes I could muster and the wind just cut through me like a knife.  Hideous, and it only got worse later as I battled my way through driving snow to get some emergency supplies from the local Asda.  After that, the snow kept drifting imperceptibly down until it amounted to a considerable fall.  And there was I thinking that we would be coming back to gentle spring breezes and daffodils……oh well.

The Sri Lankan trip was quite an ambitious one, inasmuch as it featured a travelling entourage of 7 people – the Princess, the Partner and 4 friends.  The first week was spent doing a whistlestop tour of some of the island’s ‘must-sees’, so escaping from (frankly)  dull Colombo ASAP and off to Dambulla, then up to Kandy, further up to the tea plantations and cod-British eccentricities of Nuwara Eliya, then the long train journey down from temperate tea-clad slopes of the highlands to the banana and coconut trees of the coastal plain.

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‘Drunken’ pines at Peradeniya Botanical Gardens near Kandy – something in the soil makes them grow at these weird angles

Finally, off to the sybaritic glories of scruffy Unawatuna on the south-western coast, all bohemian shabby chic and sub-surfing atmosphere for a week of glorious indolence on the beach.  Finally, I could lay down my Tour Leader’s baton, I thought, but even then there pockets of unwanted excitement.

We stayed in a careworn but atmospheric guesthouse cum hotel right on the tideline, with the waves ending their long journey northwards from Antarctica just 10 yards from our bedroom doors.  However, there were other unwanted guests who frequent the beach zone and found their way into the ground floor rooms; the Princess seemed to get the worst of this – just 30 minutes after our arrival,  she discovered a large black scorpion in her room and also got a visit from its baby brother (or sister) later in the week.  There were also occasional large cockroaches, though thankfully not too many of them as my mate Adrian is phobic about them.  Those of us located in the first floor rooms had none of this and just smugly sat out on our non-infested balconies enjoying the view and the sea breezes.

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Sunrise at Unawatuna Bay from my scorpion-free balcony

Actually, the unwanted wildlife was really a minor issue and even I know enough about scorpions to know that the larger black ones can only deliver a sting equivalent to a British wasp.  Apparently, lethally-poisonous Indian red scorpions are now routinely being found in the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna,  having somehow made it across Adam’s Bridge,  so trouble may be just around the corner.

And so our week passed with lazy days in the sun and the occasional trip into Galle, just 10 minutes by one of the onomatapoeically-named tuk-tuks.  On one baking hot Galle day, Adrian and I strolled into the cricket ground – rebuilt since I was here in 2005;  it got wiped out by the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami – and spent 4 slow hours in the shade watching an under-19 college game where the ball was turning at right-angles and we saw only two overs of non-spin bowling.

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A slow day at Galle Cricket Ground

The batting side accumulated runs with glacial slowness – just 60 off 40 overs – and the fastest mover on the ground was a 3-foot monitor lizard that strolled casually across the outfield on his afternoon constitutional.

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Galle is a slightly schizophrenic town; the heat, traffic, commerce and noise of the New Town is all South Asia whilst  on the other side of the cricket stadium, the Dutch Fort area behind its ramparts is a total contrast.   No tsunami damage here worth the mention as the 40-foot high walls of the Fort largely kept the sea out.  Lots of chilled cafés and arty shops with an unsurprisingly European feel to it given that most of the buildings here were put up by either the Portuguese, who were followed by the Dutch, who were followed by the Brits.  It reminds me a bit of the backstreets of Seville, a little bit of Essaouira in Morocco and (inevitably) of Cochin in Kerala.

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In the Fort area of Galle

My 60th birthday was marked by the hotel staff with flowers all over the bed and the breakfast table.  I marked the day with regular dips in the ocean, a slow walk along Unawatuna’s Beach Road to do a bit of shopping – fake (but convincing) Ray-Bans for about a fiver,  nice scarf for Lyndsey the Greatest Barmaid in the world at my local, stopping off for a wonderful Peach Lassi at the Juice Bar on the corner where the stereo was blaring out Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm’.  Then, in the evening, we went up to the other end of the bay and (for me) a sentimental return to Sun ‘n’ Sea, where my Dad and I stayed in 2005.  I was heartened to see that although the hotel’s founder and guiding light, Mrs Pereira, is gone (she died in 2006), her family have continued to run the place in very much the same spirit and any changes are superficial.

We had a nice meal at Sun’ n’ Sea, but didn’t linger as one of my birthday ‘treats’ involved a 5 am start the next (and final) day to go whale watching.  We were driven to Mirissa, further along the south coast and were out on the ocean waves very early.  The  waters here are like the M6 for whales,  who commute between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea on a regular basis.  The guys on our boat told us that they had been out the previous day and had seen only one whale in 6 hours, however having taken us about 10 miles south and east of Mirissa, we quickly saw several Blue Whales – about 5 in all, in multiple sightings – so everyone was pretty happy with that.

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Thar she blows; along with parasitic remora fish along for the ride

I’m not going to go all ‘Jon Anderson’ about the mystical nature of my encounter with the largest creature ever to have lived on this planet, but having only previously seen a whale (or part of one) on a plate in a restaurant in Honningsvåg in northern Norway, it was definitely preferable to see one ‘on the hoof’, so to speak.

Less than 24 hours later, I was plunged back into the freezing nightmare of the UK’s late winter cold snap…..the horror, the horror….and what an unpleasant contrast.  This kind of weather definitely makes me feel my age…..

When I return I’ll be ancient…..

Off to Sri Lanka shortly to…. ahem …’celebrate’ my 60th birthday.

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Back at the end of the month…..

Man versus Food

What we are eating and – additionally – how much of it we are eating is big news right now.

It’s certainly big news in this house where,  with just 2 weeks to go before I swan off to celebrate my 60th birthday in Sri Lanka,  I decided that unless I wished to be mistaken for Moby Dick washed up on a tropical beach, then losing a few of my excess pounds might be a good idea.  No problem, help yourself – I have plenty of those excess pounds to spare, unfortunately.

I know that, to some extent, the predilection for stacking on weight is about one’s genetic make-up.  Both my parents tended to be slightly or moderately overweight for most of their adult lives and to some extent this was about their body shape, which inclined toward short and stocky rather than svelte and slim.  Not surprisingly, I have picked up these genetic markers and have  probably been slowly piling on the pounds since my early 40’s.

My folks were also ‘foodies’ – they approached mealtimes with considerable gusto well into their seventies.  My Mum was a pretty accomplished cook of the traditional English type and, unfortunately, derived far too much of her self-esteem from what she put on the table.  In later years, with money a bit more plentiful, they took to eating out a bit more often and would frequently regale us with tales of meals they had recently eaten whilst on holiday in Cornwall or France,  even whilst in the midst of consuming a meal in this house.

Not that this offended me, you understand; both of my folks were always very complimentary about my cooking, which – to be honest – has become lazier and more uninspired as the years pass.  However, this ability to enthuse endlessly about meals already eaten was not lost on the Princess who grew up – perhaps unsurprisingly – to undergo an ‘eating disorder’ phase  in her mid-teens.  The two issues may not be connected, but I suspect that they are….

Giving up smoking a while back also accelerated this whole process; after all we all know about the compulsive oral aspects of sticking a cigarette in your mouth and once you stop that, food tends to take over and on go the pounds.

The other issue is probably lifestyle.  I do a reasonable amount of walking as a non-driver – that’s walking, not hiking – but have nonetheless became too sedentary for anyone’s comfort, least of all my own.

So, all in all, not a great recipe (so to speak) and I have slowly ballooned up to Zeppelin proportions over the last 12 months.  Finally, the penny dropped and I realised that the ‘I’ve quit smoking and now I’m fat but this will pass‘  mentality was just another example of false consciousness.

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The real situation is that gaining weight is not a corollary of stopping smoking but is, in fact, another manifestation of the same thing – in other words, my erstwhile and lifelong tendency to eat, drink, smoke and ingest whatever I wanted to,  in whatever quantity suited me,  without having to particularly cope with any adverse consequences.  That ship, like the one containing my carefree youth, is now hull down over the horizon and vanishing fast.  Bottom line: I just can’t live like that any more if I want to live much longer at all.

So, how to deal with this new and unpalatable set of circumstances?  Well, if I tell you that I live with a partner who is obsessed with her appearance in general and her weight in particular, you can probably guess that there was no shortage of advice on offer.  Trouble is, though, I’m not a Weight Watchers joiner or a calorie counting obsessive – it just won’t happen, no matter how many photocopied articles from mid-market tabloids shrieking about ‘New Year, New You!’ or ‘Try our new Miracle Diet!’ are left lying around for me to read.  Just not going to happen, I’m afraid.

Monitored by the Princess, I initially tried to be more judicious and make healthier choices about what I was eating and not to snack between meals.  I also tried to build in a 30-minute walk every day, but it just wasn’t working.  I was still taking on board too many calories for my lifestyle and my weight was such that even a short walk was playing havoc with my knees and lower back.  It got to the point where even getting dressed in the morning was a major effort and with a short walk to the local High Street now often leaving me wrecked, I could see the horizons of my world closing in.  This must be how it happens, I thought; before you know it, you’re housebound and can only get somewhere in a cab or when somebody offers you a lift.

So, about a week ago, I just decided on a radical solution which so far seems to be producing promising results.  I have simply stopped eating during the day and now just eat an evening meal.  I drink juice and coffee during the day and have been known to scarf down the odd tomato as I pass the bowl, but no solids really.It’s hard, of course; not as hard as quitting smoking but still pretty difficult.  The rewards after a week seem to be that I simply feel ‘better’ in a vague and undefined manner,  walking around is easier,  my clothes don’t  pinch so much and I have actually lost the best part of a stone.  My aim is to take to the beaches of Sri Lanka in a fortnight or so as a moderately walrus-sized obstacle rather than a genuine shipping hazard.

Strangely, all of this personal angst and re-assessment is going on at a time when the Government is telling us that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic.  We also seem to be eating quite a lot of horse-meat, apparently, which is blowing a lot of people’s ‘My Little Pony‘ dreams out of the water.  I seem to recall eating minced horse-meat a couple of times in Sweden in the 70’s and my recollection is that it was like a slightly more intensely flavoured version of ground beef.  Back then, I think the Swedes also sold a version of ‘biltong’ – wind-dried horse-meat in chewable strips.  Yum!

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I think my appreciation of life’s ironies only grows more substantial as I grow older (and larger).  So it is that I find myself more than a little amused by the fact that it is at this very juncture of my life that I have discovered the joys of  a TV show called ‘Man versus Food’, which is shown on cable over here and is a great favourite with the Princess and many of her friends.  The name of the programme  kind of encapsulates my current predicament whilst the content is the kind of stuff which will – for better or worse – always be beyond me.

The leading light of ‘MvF’ was Adam Richman, a genial actor from  Brooklyn in his late 30’s who between 2008 and 2010 travelled around the USA, seeking out local culinary specialities and the diners, bars, cafés and restaurants that serve them.  These places often come up with ludicrous ‘challenges’ that speak directly to the competitive drive of Americans.  Typically,  people are required to consume insane quantities of the local ‘delicacy’, often within a time limit.  The reward  for those attempting (and succeeding in) these challenges is often nothing more than getting their meal free or getting their name on a ‘Wall of Fame’ in the restaurant or perhaps a t-shirt (usually XXXL)  that promotes the establishment in question.

In a typical episode, Adam and the ‘MvF’ crew will descend on an American city having previously researched the local delicacies.  Adam will visit a couple of places to try out said local delicacies before the main event, where he visits a place specialising in one of these deranged food challenges.  He starts in the kitchen to chat with the owner/proprietor or manager, finding out how the local speciality is cooked/assembled.  He then goes out front and takes on one of these ‘challenges’ in front of a crowd of hooting shrieking locals who cheer him on like they were at a baseball game.

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Adam Richman attacks another ludicrous plateful in ‘Man vs Food’

For example, the show I watched most recently saw Adam up in Portland, Maine, trying out one of Maine’s famous Lobster Shacks before moving on to a burger joint that specialised in a ziggurat of a burger with 8 beef patties, foie gras and grilled pork belly slices, bookended by a bun and pinned through with a long wooden skewer to keep it all together.  Surprisingly, that was not the (ahem) ‘Maine Event’.    That turned out to be a giant 6-pound plateful of frittata with potatoes, onions, pepperoni, bacon, broccoli and cheese, all bound together by 4 eggs.  It’s a  bit of a blur now, but I seem to recall that the challenge was to take this lot down in 20 minutes or less; then again, I could be mistaken, but it’s hardly important.  The main point of the show is that we get to gawp at the colossal burgers, steaks and plates of barbecue served up to ordinary Americans on a regular basis.  All of this is mediated by our engaging host Adam, who as he says in the show’s intro is ‘an ordinary guy with a serious appetite’.  Certainly, he can boast a high success rate in terms of defeating these challenges and can certainly put away huge quantities of food.

On the other hand, my experience of the USA, whilst limited to New York City should have taught me that what goes on in ‘Man versus Food’ is hardly unique to that show.  I can remember one of my first ‘eating out’ experiences at an Italian restaurant in The Bronx where I ordered an Escalope Milanese –  generally a thin escalope of veal, dipped in a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and egg, then swiftly pan-fried.  My dish arrived in a rectangular cast-iron dish,  about 18 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep.  The majority of it was filled with a mixture of fried Mediterranean vegetables (tomatoes, capsicums, onions, aubergine etc), on top of which were perched 3 colossal Veal Escalopes, each one  beaten to a thin, irregular disc about the size of a standard dinner plate.  Just in case I was peckish, I got a huge pot of garlicky sautéd potatoes as well.  In Europe, this lot would have fed 3 hungry adults but this was mine, all mine.  It was indeed delicious, but my pleasure was diminished by the fact that I could only eat about half of what was on offer – and had to push myself to the limit in order to achieve that much.  This was hardly an unusual experience in New York and among the locals, there does seem to be the expectation that if you go out to eat, the ‘calibre’ of your meal is, to a considerable  extent, determined by the size of the portions.

Thankfully, living here,  I don’t really have to suffer the temptation of  American Diner food, though the ubiquitous Birmingham Curries are something I’m having to limit.    Of course, there will be plenty of curry in Sri Lanka as well, but just as much fresh fruit.

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Sri Lankan Crab Curry

However, even once I return from my 60th birthday expedition, I am going to need to be judicious about what and how much I’m eating and that is something that I’ll simply have to put up with from now on.  Just another of the delights of growing older…

Another day in paradise…..

In about 6 weeks or so, I will be returning to Sri Lanka with family & friends to celebrate (if that’s the correct verb) my 60th birthday.  It will be my second visit to the island, having travelled there about 7 and a half years ago in company with my Dad.

That trip was ‘sponsored’ by the National Lottery as part of the celebrations around the 60th Anniversary of the end of World War II.  Veterans like my Dad were given the opportunity to travel back (with an accomplice, namely myself)  to places where they had fought or been stationed.  In his case, he could have gone to any number of locations; anywhere from Nova Scotia to Australia and most places inbetween.

He chose Sri Lanka because it was somewhere he had long dreamed of returning to and could never persuade my Mother to join him; she would never have coped with the heat and humidity.   Anyway, whilst sailors tend to spend most of their time on board ship if not actually at sea,  Sri Lanka was a place where Dad got to spend a good deal of time ashore in 1944-5.

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HMS Victorious getting up steam in 1944

This was because his ship, HMS Victorious, was sent in to the dockyards at Colombo for a refit in 1944.  Such a procedure necessitated getting all the crew off the ship to allow the work to be carried out.  The crew were dispersed to all areas of the island on a variety of ‘shore duties’ – many of them spurious.  Dad spent his first three nights in Ceylon (as he knew it) sleeping rough in the grandstand at Colombo Racecourse before being sent off to an RAF base at Kolutara.   He said that he spent a good deal of his time ashore playing cricket and also driving trucks up to Kandy,  in the mountains.

Subsequently, he ended up standing guard on a newly-created air base  in the centre of the island at Minneriya where the main runway had to be cleared of elephants before aircraft could take off or land.  With this in mind, a guard post – a flimsy construction of woven banana leaves on a wooden frame – was erected at the end of the main runway and manned 24/7.

On night patrol  with 3 other ‘ratings’,  my Dad (as a Petty Officer) was issued with a Navy pistol and sent down to this guard post towards sunset.  Once it got dark, the jungle – largely somnolent during the daytime heat – seemed to come noisily to life, with all manner of shrieks, squawks and howls reducing the tough Navy patrol to a set of gibbering wrecks.  For them, the worst moment arrived as a huge (but probably harmless) black snake slithered through the banana leaf ‘wall’ and into the hut.  In an atmosphere of considerable hysteria, Dad took aim at the snake and fired, at which point the mortally injured animal thrashed wildly backwards and forwards for about 10 minutes  – increasing hysteria levels – before it finally expired.  The English abroad, eh?

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Fleet Air Arm crew ‘on guard’ at Minneriya in 1944

Dad and I called in at the former RAF Minneriya, which is now a Sri Lankan Air Force base  (SLAF  Hingurakgoda), but despite considerable efforts, we were unable to persuade the Sri Lankan military hotshots to let us in for a look around.  We obviously looked like Tamil Tiger desperadoes….

It was interesting to observe the change in the terrain around the base.  British servicemen had literally hacked the site out of dense jungle in 1944, but by 2005, the whole area was an open landscape, much of it agricultural.  Dad told me that during his time there, British fighter-bombers with extra fuel tanks were flying out of Minneriya to bomb Japanese fortifications in Burma.  One such group had a much-decorated South African squadron leader whose plane clipped the treetops upon take-off.  His plane came down in the jungle several hundred yards away and it took so long for  a rescue party to hack their way through to the wreckage, ants had consumed more than half of his mortal remains by the time the rescuers arrived.  Looking around what now seems to be a fairly benign landscape, this is hard to believe.

RAAF Dakota at Minneriya Airport, Ceylon, 02-11-1952.

RAF Minneriya in 1952 – by now most of the jungle was gone

Eventually, Dad rejoined the Victorious in Colombo, circumnavigating the southern tip of the island before docking at Trincomalee,  once described by Horatio Nelson as the finest natural harbour in the world.  After some time based at what is now the SLAF base at China Bay (one of Trinco’s many ‘creeks’ and inlets), Dad was off again, firstly to Sumatra, then the Philippines and some uncomfortably close encounters with Japanese ‘kamikaze‘ planes and finally  to Australia.  On VJ Day, as most of his celebrating shipmates were heading ashore to Sydney’s Circular Quay, Dad was banged up in the Victorious‘ sick-bay with chronic malaria and never did make it ashore in Sydney; he was transferred to a UK-bound ship and that was his War over with.

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Allied warships in Trincomalee harbour in 1944

In 2005, he and I spent about a month travelling around Sri Lanka, but things were rendered somewhat more difficult than normal by two ‘extraneous’ factors.  Firstly, the appalling Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 had happened only a few months before our visit and some areas we wanted to visit were still struggling to get back on their feet.  Secondly, the ongoing struggle between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebels was still in full flow, so some parts of the country were ‘no-go areas’.

From Colombo, we headed north-eastwards to Dambulla and the ruined cities of Central Sri Lanka.  We also visited the airbase at Minneriya before heading for the east coast at Trincomalee.  There were plenty of police and military checkpoints along the road, but when they saw our white faces they simply waved us through.  We stayed at the excellent Welcombe Hotel on Orr’s Hill, well away from the centre of the town and gated as well.  I think that Dad & I were the only bona fide tourists in residence, because most of the other guests at the hotel were doctors, engineers, aid workers and so on,  representing a host of charitable concerns – Oxfam, Aid Australia, Médecins Sans Frontières and suchlike.

The east coast of Sri Lanka took the full brunt of the 2004 tsunami.  The Welcombe’s manager, Mr Da Silva, told me of how the headlands at the mouth of Trincomalee harbour had protected the town from the worst of the waves, whilst 10 miles north at Nilaveli, the devastation was colossal as waves swept inland for up to 2 miles, carrying massive amounts of debris with them.  South of Trinco towards Batticaloa and Arugam Bay it was a similar story.  Dad & I travelled north out of Trinco along the Nilaveli Road.  We made our first stop at the Trincomalee War Cemetery where Dad’s closest shipmate, Bill Allen is buried.

In the midst of a global conflict, Bill Allen met the most stupid and unnecessary of deaths.  Whilst stationed at  Trincomalee and awaiting further orders, HMS Victorious kept its crew occupied with various ‘busywork’ – such as my Dad’s regular cricket matches.  Being an aircraft carrier, the Victorious also used this ‘downtime’ to train its pilots and crew on the Barracuda dive-bombers which had replaced the old-style biplanes like the Alabacore and the Swordfish.   Bill was part of the crew of a Barracuda from the Victorious which collided with another plane in exercises off Trincomalee.  Dad returned to the ship after his cricket match to discover that Bill was missing, presumed dead and later the same day, the Victorious left to carry out bombing raids on Japanese-held refineries in Sumatra.IMG_0123As a consequence, for the next 50-odd years, Dad assumed that Bill’s body had never been found, but it was and he was buried – along with the Barracuda’s pilot – in the Trinco War Cemetery.  We visited the grave and left flowers – I would imagine we were Bill’s first ever visitors.  I tried to establish contact with his family in Leicester, but to no effect.

Further along the road towards Nilaveli, the littoral zone was strewn with tsunami debris and ugly clumps of wood and metal huts  that had sprung up as emergency housing for those affected by the tsunami.  Many of these had corrugated metal roofs and with the midday sun beating down, they must have been extremely uncomfortable inside.  However, we were told by some of the Aid Workers at the Welcombe Hotel that not everyone was interested in rebuilding communities.  Some people, provided with cash to build or buy new homes, apparently invested the cash in huge 4-wheel drive vehicles instead; it was noticeable how many of these huge 4×4’s could be seen on the roads around Trinco.

At Nilaveli itself, the formerly deluxe Beach Hotel had just been completely flattened by the waves, but work was already under way to rebuild it.  The beach itself was tranquillity personified – an empty, 30-metre wide stretch of clean white sand stretching in either direction for as far as the eye could see.  Only a tsunami -uprooted clump of mangrove root, lurking in the surf like a sea monster,  broke the calm.

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Later, I bought a conch shell  from a stall outside Koneswaram,  on cliffs near Trincomalee and  one of the major Hindu temples of eastern Sri Lanka.  For a thing of such perfect, radiant beauty, it seemed ludicrously cheap – about £1.50.  Koneswaram – as is so often the case in sub-continental temples, palaces and fortresses – was overrun by predatory monkeys who were fed on dried fruit and pieces of mango by dutiful pilgrims.  But not by snotty Brits….

We headed southwestwards again and found our way via Kandy and Nuwara Eliya to Unawatuna, south of Galle on another tsunami-battered piece of coastline.  Strictly speaking, Galle faces west, but the tsunami wrapped itself around the coastline and crashed into the city, with 15 feet of water in the streets of the New Town and the cricket ground famously inundated.  Our hotel at Unawatuna was similarly swamped, with the 70 years -plus manager, Mrs Pereira, swept from her breakfast table and out into the street.  She probably survived because she clung on to a shard of wood that turned out to be a splinter from the hotel’s front door.

Undeterred, she worked like a demon to refurbish the place and  had pretty much done that by the time that Dad and I arrived to spend an idyllic week there.  Next door, however, was a small handicraft shop and this had been wrecked by the waves with all the shop’s stock washed out to sea and the building trashed.  The owner’s wife had a small infant clinging to her and this was known locally as the Tsunami Baby because the Mother was heavily pregnant when the waves came, was likewise washed out into the street, but somehow survived to give birth just 2 days later.  Almost out of pity, Dad bought a tsunami-damaged conch from the shopkeeper and now they both sit in my living room; I don’t know which one I prefer.

In a few weeks I’ll be returning to Unawatuna, though not to the same hotel.  Mrs Pereira only outlived the tsunami by a couple of years and like my Dad she has gone, now.  Her family continues to run the hotel, but it’s a lot more expensive than it was back in 2005;  there again, most of them are.  Had Mrs P. still been around, I suspect I would have felt obliged to stay there, but that’s no longer an issue, so we will be staying at the north end of the beach where it will be a little noisier and funkier in the evenings and where the surf culture that now dominates Unawatuna is a bit more obvious.  Not great for my 80-something Dad, but a bit more like it given the crew I’m travelling with.

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Unawatuna Beach, looking south.

Unawatuna itself took a pounding from the tsunami and when I was last there, there were clear signs of this.  On the road into Galle, there was one bungalow in particular, built facing the sea, which looked as though it had giant holes punched through the middle of it – which indeed was effectively the case.  There were still piles of wreckage lying around and great gaps in the lines of palm trees facing the beach.  In Galle itself, the cricket ground – just across the road from the beach – was still being rebuilt.  This time, hopefully, we’ll be able to catch a game.

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Tsunami damage at Unawatuna,2005

All of which lengthy preamble brings me to The Impossible(2012) – Beware spoilers if you haven’t seen it yet……, which is a new movie about the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, made by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona and based on the true story of the Belon family, who were caught up in the tsunami at a Thai resort and separated from each other before being reunited.

Sadly, the producers of the movie were unable to make the sums add up when it came to a Spanish-language version of the story, so the Belons became the Bennetts, who,  though based in Japan,  are quite clearly English.  Naomi Watts and Ewen McGregor play the well-to-do parents of three young sons who are escaping the cold of Tokyo for a Christmas break at a Thai resort which is all infinity pools and unctuous staff.

They have barely jumped into the pool before the tsunami strikes – some seriously impressive effects here – and the whole resort complex is annihilated before you can say ‘Tiger  Beer, please.’

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Watts and her teenage son, Lucas, are swept inland by the waves, bouncing off cars, trees and pieces of furniture along the way.  Watts suffers a really gory injury to her leg and is clearly struggling.  Lucas (brilliantly played by Tom Holland) soon realises that he will need to rise to the occasion if they are to survive.

There is absolutely no doubt that this movie is a genuine tear-jerker.  Quite early in proceedings, Lucas has to help his ailing Mother climb a tree to an imagined point of safety and for both this is a visceral moment.  She needs to be strong for her son, but she is weak, bleeding and in pain.  He is unused to dealing with life in the raw and it suddenly dawns on him that he will need to find reserves of strength that he has never used before and take charge of a situation where he would normally defer to a parent if they are to survive.  He even finds the strength to rescue a far younger boy of about 6 and alert some local villagers who are searching for survivors, then ensure that his Mother is taken to the local hospital.

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Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in ‘The Impossible’

Back at the coast, Ewen McGregor has rescued the 2 younger boys but has no idea of the whereabouts of Holland & Watts.  He decides that he must send the boys to safety in the hills on their own whilst he searches for his wife and eldest son.  The middle son, Thomas, played by Samuel Joslin carefully (and comically) explains to his Dad that he cannot abandon him to look after his younger brother because he’s never had to look after anyone before.

Meanwhile at the hospital, Lucas is anxious about his Mother’s worsening condition but can do little except wait.  Eventually, at her urging, he goes off to help other anxious Westerners to locate their families, but returns to find that his Mother has herself disappeared – and no-one knows where.  Eventually, the family are reunited but not before we experience some genuine apprehension about the likelihood of Watts’ survival.

There is no great secret to the appeal of ‘The Impossible’.  It’s a story about the resourcefulness of human beings and their capacity for compassion.  It’s a story about the strength of the human spirit and the powerlessness we feel when we are cast adrift in desperate circumstances.  Not that the happy ending experienced by the Belon/Bennett clan is necessarily typical.  At the hospital where much of the action takes place, the corridors and grounds are filled with anxious parents,  lovers and siblings who are desperately searching for loved ones who may be gone forever.  Even as the Bennetts are reunited, we see the grief and shock of many others playing out in the background.

And that is to say nothing of the local people who – unlike the Bennetts – cannot hop on to a jet and fly away to air-conditioned safety in Singapore.  Around the Indian Ocean, 283,000 people lost their lives and whole communities were decimated by this event.  Even so, I think it is futile to criticise Bayona for choosing to tell the story of a western family – it is for Thai and Sri Lankan film-makers and novelists and painters to interpret the events of 26/12/04 for their own audiences.  Even so, they will surely be able to identify with the depiction of events in ‘The Impossible’, if only because the story it tells is one that speaks in a language everyone can understand.

As for me, I return to Sri Lanka in the sure and certain knowledge that I will be meeting more local people who will want to tell me what happened to them on that fateful day – and those are the most vivid and evocative stories of all.

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Lisboa August 2012….some photos….

Just spent a week in this beautiful city.

How did it take me so long to get round to my first visit?

Hope to be back very soon.

The stunning, atmospheric Brasiliera  Café 

Room with a view; Largo do Chiado at 0600 from my hotel.

 

How does he do that?  Street performer in Rua Garrett.

 

 A noite…..

 

Beautiful doorways at Rossio Station….

 Looking towards Sao Vicente Church…..

 

 

Just because it can be done…..

From time to time, I’m sure that it dawns on most of us that we take the wonders of the internet for granted.  Whether you want to pay a bill, watch a movie, check out bus timetables in Ontario, find a recipe for chicken cacciatore or read a blog like this – all of these things and many others besides are possible from the cosy surroundings of your own work-station or laptop or cellphone. 

This is something that today’s young hipsters very much take in their stride, but I am old enough to remember how it was back in the days when buying anything ‘mail order’ was a bit of an adventure, requiring faith, luck and a good deal of time.  For that chicken recipe, you either had it in a cookbook or you rang a friend.  Failing that, there was the local library, when it opened.  As for watching movies, you either waited for it to come round on TV or you got yourself off to the local flea-pit.

Another area where the internet has had a massive impact is in travel.  Booking flights and hotels is now ludicrously simple as long as you possess a major credit or debit card and know when and where you want to go.  For independent travellers, I’m sure it is now possible to put together a comprehensive  round-the-world itinerary without breaking sweat.  It’s all laid out before you like a giant smørgåsbord of possibilities, so all that’s really required is the time you spend checking timetables plus a measure of agreement among the participants – and that’s where it can get difficult.

I think that this eternal truth came home to me with considerable force about 2:15  one morning  as I stared at the screen and pondered the monstrous carbon footprint involved in flying 3 people from Izmir to Antalya via Istanbul then out to the UK just a few hours later.  The alternative was a rail and coach journey of up to 8 hours from Izmir via Denizli.   Better karma but a day arguably ‘wasted’.  Decisions, decisions…..

Decisions, decisions…….

In the end , what I was left with was a tightly-structured circular tour of Western Turkey that would take in Cappadocia and Istanbul and Ephesus within a fortnight’s span.  It met the Partner’s timescales and took in those hotspots the Princess wanted to visit.  It took account of the current uproar on the Turkish rail network with Istanbul essentially inaccessible from the Asian side, except by bus or plane.  It allocated enough time in Cappadocia to visit the major sites and it finished on the Aegean coast near Izmir, allowing a day-trip to the Ephesus site and a day on the beach at Altinkum or near Kusadasi.  It also flew in and out of Birmingham.  It was a thing of beauty and it positively gleamed with bureaucratic efficiency.  The only fly in the ointment came in the final 2 days where opting for a cheap but ethically dubious flight back to Antalya via Istanbul would have bought us an extra day on the beach.

Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my brain, the Travel Gnomes mopped their brows after several hours of frantic activity.  Difficulties had been overcome, obstacles had been surmounted, alternatives had been identified.  The decision on how to get from Izmir back to Antalya could wait until the following day.  I fired off emails with the Itinerary attached to Partner & Princess and went to bed.

“What about here?”

To say that I was disappointed with their response would be a major understatement.  Far from being thrilled by the fact that I had located really cheap flights from Kayseri to Istanbul and an interesting-looking hydrofoil & train package from Istanbul to Izmir, their lack of enthusiasm was almost palapable.  Words were spoken.  Lines were drawn in the sand.  Fuelled by the outraged Travel Gnomes in my head, I basically went into a 24 hour sulk and resolved never to try to organise a family holiday again.  Turkey was plucked and my elegant itinerary sent off to the Recycle Bin.

Of course, old habits die hard and 48 hours later I was back at the keyboard looking for something far simpler.  By this point, there had been some more reasoned discussions; the Princess  backed out completely – she has already been to Israel this summer, so is probably wiser in spending her time  trying to find a job than swanning off with her parents.  The Partner wanted  to go in August rather than September as originally planned.  After some discussion we settled on either Venice or Lisbon for a week and after 15 minutes on lastminute.com, I had found a decent package with tolerable flights and what looked like a good hotel in the Chiado district of Lisbon.  Compared to the Turkish expedition, this  Lisbon trip was like falling off a log and I could now see that whilst my Turkish Delight might have been impressively organised, there was no time for it to be a holiday at all.  Just because it can be done doesn’t mean that it should be…….

Even so, there’s no holding those Gnomes;  a few days later as we landed in Lisbon, they were busy reminding me that I had finally made it to Portugal, the only country in mainland Western Europe that I had never visited before.