29 April 2015

Auschwitz ● by Jess



As a kid, I went through a phase where I obsessively read Holocaust novels. Thinking on it now, it all feels pretty morbid, but I think there was something about trying to understanding those outer boundaries of the human experience that fascinated by little brain.

I never really considered that I would one day travel to see the place where so many of those stories had taken place.

When we went to Poland, Jon and I decided to take a day and travel to Auschwitz. I wasn't really sure what to expect. If anything, I guess I anticipated that heavy, sad feeling you get after an emotional film. My experience, however, was quite different.

Our tour started with some of the less iconic, but nonetheless informative, buildings. As I listened, I felt myself grow quiet. Jon kept trying to talk to me, but I didn't really feel like responding. I just kept shrugging until he got the message, and let me be.

We went on, and our guide showed us photos of Jews shoved into trains, and maps of prisoners homes that spanned Europe. He described their terrible rations and cramped living quarters. He explained the psychological mastery of the German soldiers, who realised the easiest way to carry out their genocide was to force fellow prisoners-- fellow Jews-- to beat and kill each other.

As the tour got on, I grew more and more tired. Our guide explained that the majority of individuals brought to the camp were immediately sent to the gas chamber. Nearly everyone who arrived went there except the very most strong and able. They showed us life-sized photos of confused children being ushered like sheep toward the slaughterhouse. The photos made me feel worn, like an old grey dishrag. I felt over-wrung and exhausted.

Then our guide brought us down a hallway. From outside the door I could see a long room with windows tinted a light fuchsia pink. A wall of glass partitioned off a third of the room, and on the other side were huge mounds of matted brown hair. The guide told us that after the gas chamber, a fellow prisoner would remove the bodies, strip them down, shave their heads and put the bodies in the incinerator. The hair was sent to be used in German mattresses.

Seeing the sheer volume of hair made me feel ill-- to the point of being physically nauseated and weak. I reached out holding on to Jon's arm as we rounded the far end of the room. As we came back, we passed a glass case, and a tiny white crocheted onsie caught my eye.

In a flash, I imagined an excited new mommy enthusiastically crocheting the outfit for her unborn baby. I imagined myself her her place. How thrilling it would be to FINALLY hear that we were pregnant and how I'd probably be doing the exact same thing.

How could she ever have known-- while she sat there crocheting-- that a German soldier would see her precious babe, snuggled up in that little labor of love, and rip him from her arms? How could she have known his short life would be end in the 20 minute agony of a Nazi gas chamber?

I felt my heart burst in agony.

Huge, painful tears welled up and dropped out. I looked around. No one else was crying and I felt embarrassed, but I couldn't hold it in.

These were not my usual cleansing tears. These brought a tidal wave of panic. It was like being enveloped in claustrophobic anxiety, and the only thing I could think was, 'I need to get out. I can't be here anymore.'



I tried talking myself through it. I knew where I was, I knew I was in no danger, but the panic wouldn't stop. I just kept anxiously ringing my hands and praying the tour would let us outside. JUST GET ME OUTSIDE.

When we finally did leave the building, and I felt the sun on my face, I calmed down a bit. But the panic in my stomach would not go away. We walked through the camp... past the courtyard with the firing squad... past the place where where they used to hang people... past the barbed wire gates.

Then there it was. The gas chamber.

Jon was now very concerned about me. I was dizzy and disoriented. Our guide proceeded to explain how the prisoners would be led in to the chamber and given bars of soap so that they'd think they were getting a shower. Once inside the doors would lock and Zyklon B, a gaseous poison was dropped in from the ceiling. The Germans waited outside for the next half hour while dozens of innocent people screamed in agony as they died slowly and painfully.

The tour guide started moving us inside. Jon stopped me and asked if I was sure I wanted to go inside.

It was in that moment, staring down the door of the gas chamber, that I just went numb. My emotional bandwidth completely topped out. There was nothing. I no longer had the emotional wherewithal to comprehend what was in front of me.

I silently followed Jon. We walked through a small hallway to a room that look like dingy basement. Little bits of light shown through the holes in the roof where the Nazi's would have dropped the poison. I followed him in the crematoria next door, where we walked past long cylindrical furnaces, where people's loved ones were turned to ash.

And then, just like that, the tour of of Auschwitz I one was over.

As soon as they took us away from that place, normalcy returned. I ate a cookie. I made a joke about an ugly pigeon. I can honestly say I've never in my life experienced anything like it before.

When you consider how many people were at Auschwitz, and the emotional intensity they experienced, I don't think it is unreasonable to think that some of that energy would be left behind. While I can explain the tears (which is pretty normal for me), the rest of my physiological response to Auschwitz was quite unexpected.

I hope I can impart to my own children one day, the things I learned at Auschwitz. Hopefully, it will help prevent atrocities like it (that are even today still occurring) from destroying our future.


27 April 2015

Poland Photos ● by Jess

This week has been crazy town.

My brother-in-law Matt is getting married next week in the States and Jon managed to find a mega cheap (comparatively speaking) ticket for me, so I could be with the family. Hot tip: Flying in and out of Dublin makes tickets can sometimes make ticket prices 100s of pounds cheaper. Then you just get a £20 flight to London with Ryanair!

After we got that sorted (it caused me a great deal of stress because, at first, I didn't think it was the right choice), a whole new financial timebomb went off as some things unexpectedly came due for school this autumn. We got it all sorted, but I seriously think it took a full week off the end of my life.

Anyway, I've been quite remiss in getting things up on my blog as of late, so hopefully I can get a few things done before I head to the states tomorrow. Here comes the Poland pics:

Poland was just lovely. I really didn't have much of a frame of reference for what to expect. Having travelled to other countries in Easter Europe I expected it to be a bit... dirtier. However, it definitely exceeded my expectations on the cleanliness front. 


My favourite bit was seeing this (below) at Wawel cathedral. There are allegedly REAL dragon bones from a dragon called Smok that used to terrorise the town. I tell the whole story in our film from our visit. 


Because Auschwitz is right near by, the Jewish quarter is quite an important place to visit in the city. The area is beautiful cobblestone and old close-quarter buildings. 


We took a tour of the Salt Mines which are right outside the city. The tour was pretty incredible and we highly recommend it. This room (below) was my favourite. The photos really don't do it justice, but it is breathtaking. Every inch has been carved out by hand and made into gorgeous religious artworks. Everything is salt. Even the chandeliers are made from the salt stone. 

23 April 2015

Krakow Poland ● by Jess



A first look at our trip to Poland! I'll be posting photos tomorrow... As for now, here's an exciting vlog in Krakow, Poland and our adventures finding REAL dragon bones, a castle and exploring a cathedral carved from salt!

20 April 2015

Graham Norton + Sarastro ● by Jess

This week we got priority tickets for the Graham Norton Show! We tried to get on the last episode (which featured David Beckham, Will Smith, and Hugh Jackman- gah!), but got turned away last minute because they'd overbooked. Sooo, we got priority seats this week to see Carrie Mulligan (Great Gatsby), Amanda Holden (Britian's Got Talent), Noomi Rapace (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Jessie Ware, who's music Jon is currently obsessed with. 

It was so fun to see the behind the scenes of how they film a show like this. It was actually a bit different than I expected. It was far more exciting and a lot less sitting around than I had anticipated. 

The next night our lovely Auntie Claire took us out to eat at Sarastro. I've been wanting to go to since we moved here. We've walked past this restaurant about a dozen times, and every time we do, I peer inside like a kid into a candy shop. Inside is covered in swaths of gold fabric and tassels and looks like something from Phantom of the Opera. My phone photos really do not to it justice, but it is beautiful and quirky with all kind of nooks and crannies.  

The food was quite good. We got the course menu. The appetisers come out as a huge selection for the table to share. 

For second course, I ordered the sea bass, which was delicious. All of us enjoyed our main course, though we all agreed our dishes were pretty protein heavy. 

Overall, I'd say that, while the food is good, the real star of this restaurant is the ambiance-- which is incredible. Even the bathrooms are.... exciting (imagine if Matisse decided to illustrate the Kama Sutra), though there is a kid-friendly option down stairs. 


We got lucky and happened to be there the night of a live Latin artist. Around our last course, an elderly lady (she must have been in her late 70s), who was clearly a bit inebriated, got up in front of the musicians and started to dance-- like really dance-- totally uninhibited. 

Everyone sort of watched and giggled for a few songs, but when it became clear that grandma wasn't planning on sitting down anytime soon, everyone else got up on the non-existent dance floor and started dancing. It was possibly one of the funnest London restaurant experiences we've had thus far. Thank you Claire for making it happen!


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16 April 2015

How I Almost Got Arrested Last Week ● by Jess



I have to start off by stating: I don't know karate.

In fact, I don't know any form of marital arts that would actually protect me if I should ever find myself in a life-threatening situation with a British thug.

This fact frustrates my husband immensely. So-- for fear of my life-- he bought me a can of mace for my birthday. I now faithfully keep it in my purse. Always.

This past week, Jon and I went to Poland and the Czech Republic for our anniversary. While we were last-minute packing, I dumped the contents of my purse into my suitcase. Surely everything I needed besides clothes and makeup would be in my purse. Then off the airport we went.

Security at Stanstead is (sincerely) a treat compared to American standards. At the very least, people are a bit friendlier. We made our way through security worry-free.

Then my suitcase gets flagged. “It's an aerosol can...” the lady tells me. “Probably hairspray or something...”

She digs into my bag as I sit thinking, “aerosol? I don't even own hairspray... What could it possibly b--”

And then she pulls out the mace.

CRAAAAAAAP.

Jon turns to me and gives me a long, unhappy look.
“Really Jess, you brought mace to the airport?”

The lady calls over her supervisor, who looks at the can and frowns. “You're going to have to come with me.”

We grab our things as our original bag checker smiles and waves goodbye.

The supervisor brings us around to the security office and has us sit down. She then informs us that mace is actually an illegal weapon in the UK, so she's going to need a minute. Perfect.

We wait around for about 15 minutes... our mood gets lighter as we realise we still have plenty of time to make our flight. Jon laughs and says he can just imagine two cops coming and carting me away in handcuffs.

As if on cue, two beefy police officers with MACHINE GUNS round the corner and enter the office. I little flicker of fear ignites in my stomach and I say a silent prayer that they aren't for me. 

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Two minutes later, the first officer emerges with my mace and my blue passport in hand. “Ma'am, could you please come with me.”

My heart drops right into my gut. I turn around and look at Jon who looks both worried and thoroughly entertained. I turn back to look at the police officers. The one has muscles that are easily the size of my head.

They lead me into an interrogation room and shut the door. I hear it click, then the little whir of electronic security lock. Shiz just got real.

The officer with my passport gives me the up-and-down.

“How old are you?”

“Um, 26?” For some reason I answer as though it's a number we can haggle.

“26! Why, you've got yourself a baby face, love.” He smiles warmly.

I feel myself relax for moment. I make a joke about recently getting carded buying an exacto knife (which you only need to be 18 to buy).

He sits down on the other side of the table and looks over the paperwork.

“So, how did you get this stuff in the country anyway? You know it's illegal, right? Did you bring it from the States?”

“Uh... no, my husband bought it on Amazon.”

“Amazon?!” the cop shot a perplexed look to his partner. “Here? In THIS country?”

“Yes.”

The two look at each other. “Wait a second,” says the other one. “I don't think that is actually mace.”

“What?!” The lead cop and I are both equally surprised.

The other cop pulls out his phone and looks it up online. The lead cop winks at me, “It might just be your lucky day.”

Cop number two continues thumbing his phone. “Yup, here we go,” he says. “This is that skin dying colour spray that you use so that the police can find the perpetrator later. See here on the fine print it says, 'contains no pepper irritant.'”

PRAISE!

The officers look at me and grin. “Wow, you got lucky... so did we, no more paperwork!”

I grab my stuff and shoot out the door. The world suddenly seems full of sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.

I run to Jon.

“It wasn't pepper spray!” I shout too loudly, but with all the joy of exoneration.

Jon shakes his head and smiles. “My sweet little Jess, so close to becoming an actual criminal.”

Now we're back home, and a bit wiser. And while I have no intention of trying to smuggle an illegal weapon across international borders again, I do sort of miss my can of mace. It's sad to realise that I can't (and never did) carry anything that could actually protect me.

Guess it's time to learn karate.

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14 April 2015

How to Travel When You Have Social Anxiety ● by Jess

Dear World,

My name is Jessica and it's time to acknowledge something I like to pretend doesn't exist. It's a little thing called social anxiety, and it is something I've struggled with for a long time.

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The Grade School Years

Though I'd always been quite shy, the first time I remember being conscious of my anxiety was when I was in second grade. My teacher had asked me to call the play dough help hotline to ask about baking instructions.

I just about had a full blown panic-attack.

Why? The prospect of engaging with the disembodied voice on that telephone terrified me. By the time I walked to the office I was in tears and my whole body was trembling. It was the beginning of a long and difficult road.

I got through primary school thanks to a best friend who helped anchor me, but when my family moved when I was 12, things changed. Middle school is crap anyway, but the first couple of years were brutal.

I was that mom-jeans-wearing kid that sat by herself on the bus listening to opera on her CD walkman. Alone was my stasis. My silence was interpreted as aloofness and I got the reputation of thinking I was better than everyone else... which is actually pretty ironic, because in truth, I was scared of all of them. 

How I Coped

Somewhere around my last year of high school, I figured out a way to deal with it; It was the only coping mechanism that worked. Whenever I got into a social situation I put on a character... I envisioned the most popular, flirty person I would imagine-- the kind of girl that guys wanted to date and other girls were jealous of-- and I pretended to be her.

Somehow, if anyone rejected me, it no longer felt personal. It felt manageable. Because the truth was they weren't rejecting ME they were rejecting the persona, and THAT I could deal with.

Funny thing was, no one ever did reject me. Slowly this exuberant persona merged itself with the real me and one day I realised I felt genuine being vivacious and friendly.

Continued Struggles

Thankfully, my anxiety has gotten better, but every now and then it still jumps up and startles me. For example, in February Jon gave me a Valentine's gift certificate, so I could buy myself perfume. It took me almost a full month to go out and buy a bottle. Why? Because the prospect of having to interact with the sales person glued me to my chair.

I know that what I'm describing defies logic. I knew, in my head, that the sales person wouldn't humiliate me or reject me or whatever other deep-rooted fear lurks inside my subconscious, but that is what makes anxiety disorders so poignant... it is very, very difficult to talk yourself out of a fear that transcends reason.

How then, does someone at this far end of the introverted spectrum do so much darn travelling? Because, let's get real, if you travel, you have to actually talk to people.  Along the way, I've learned a few tips that will hopefully help others who find themselves in my same situation.

5 Ways to Battle Social Anxiety while Travelling
  • Anchor Yourself – Find something that never changes, some place you feel safe. Maybe that is curled up with your pillow and your laptop, maybe that is sipping a cup of hot chocolate while writing in your journal... figure out a safe place that you can take with you. 
  • Trifecta of Silent Spaces – For the budget conscious introvert, the three best places to go in any country are Museums, Bookstores and Cemeteries. These three places will tell you so much about the culture and give you the space to reflect uninterrupted.
  • Extroverted Travel Companion – As painful as it can be, having a social companion will push you to try and do new things you never thought you were able to. But make sure you communicate your needs to your partner. When I lived in Romania, my very social roommates were convinced I hated them because when I got home at night, I went into my safe space. Make sure they understand your needs. 
  • Non-profits – As much as one should be wary of exploitative volunteer tourism, working or visiting non-profits is such a good way to get to really understand a city and the people in it. Non-profits are usually dying to get the word about their cause and, I've found, are happy to give you the royal tour. It's a great way to meet locals relatively anxiety free (all it really takes is an email). 
  • Relax and Don't be Afraid to Seek Help – Lastly, try to relax. Not every person that comes up to you is about to initiate a Taken-type scenario. People are generally good and want to connect. Still, when anxiety gets to be too much, there is no shame in seeking therapy or medication, if need be. Anxiety shouldn't prevent you from seeing the world.


Anxiety + Wanderlust is not uncommon. Here are some other excellent posts by people who are struggling (and conquering!) their anxiety:
  • MeganoTravels - Megan shares her coping strategies after being clinically diagnosed with anxiety. She has a really great list near the end of her article.
  • Wanderful World - Lizzie write a really well-crafted piece about the physical affects of her travel anxiety and how therapy has helped. She also shares what she does to prepare for a journey.
  • Never Ending Footsteps - A really compelling story by Lauren about her battle with anxiety and an eating disorder and how ultimately travel has helped her heal. 
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12 April 2015

Green Phone Booth ● by Jess

London Lifestyle BlogThis week was pretty eventful-- and not just because I learned that the telephone booths in London also come in green-- but MOSTLY because I also realised there has been practically a whole new season of Dance Moms that I've completely missed. OH THE GLORY!Time to pull out the popcorn and enjoy the buzz! There is nothing like trashy American reality television to take you to your happy place. I made Jon sit and binge watch it with me (but really I know he loves the drama too). After a very satisfying, multi-hour bender, and ensuing discussion about whether Maddie really is the best (yes.), we decided it was time to do a little exploring in the city. This time Jon chose... time to stroll through his favourite neighbourhood: the City of London. London Lifestyle BlogLondon Lifestyle BlogLondon Lifestyle BlogLondon Lifestyle Blog

I bought this vintage blue coat several years ago for a photography project I was doing at University. I love it, but although it is one of the few things I've kept over the years,  this is only my second time wearing it. Seems like a cloudy spring day in London is the perfect time to wear something loud. 

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At Liverpool Street station we were wandering around and found this little passageway tucked behind some of the shops. It takes you back to a parking garage, but it opens up to show all the beautiful structure of the train station (above). Even the little passageway itself was a beautiful hodge-podge of old and new (below). 
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I think some of our silliest, most favourite moments are when we are just running around exploring... it doesn't take much to please us, just a couple of crazy sculptures, some fun architecture, and a whole lot of pizzazz. Unlocking this city might take me a lifetime... there is so much to see! Still, I truly believe that the discovery is the fun bit. 

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