Shadows of Tyranny

Before I begin, I should acknowledge most of my postings thus far have had the goal to show the lighter-side of my experiences, make my readers laugh, or at the very least to put a smile on their face. While I enjoy writing these types of articles more than any other, I occasionally do have the desire to share some of the more educational, humbling, and meaningful experiences as well. Now, this doesn’t mean the article you’re about to read, despite the title, is meant to be depressing or dark. It is also by no means is meant to be another history lesson on the Nazi death camps which we all have experienced in our educational careers. In fact, it’s my goal to keep it as far away from those tones as possible, while still sharing the experience in the most honest way.

This past week my office arranged for my fellow intern and I to go on a one-day trip to Poland, joining a student group touring Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp built by the Nazi regime back during the times of the Holocaust. I was, of course, beside myself with excitement. I had always been fascinated with WWII history, as well at the politics of Hitler and the Third Reich. Plus it was a day off from the office, and I get to say I’ve been to Poland! Cool right? Anyway, an early morning plane and a cramped bus later, I found myself at Auschwitz I, the work-camp site of Auschwitz, mostly used for POWs and criminals against the Third Reich.  The camp was what you would expect from the pictures: lined with barbed wire, guard towers along these lines all keeping a watchful eye on the fading brick barracks the camp’s occupants were confined too when they weren’t working. I have to admit the part of this camp that caught my eye the most was the courtyard, where prisoners were regularly brought out to receive their inevitable sentence of death. At the end of the yard sat a solid stone wall, withering away but the bullet holes from firing squads still visible. The only other feature to the yard was a couple of wooden structures that prisoners were tied to, either for torture or simply waiting their turn, I didn’t know.

“Arbeit Macht Frei”, the phrase above that can be seen above over the front gate to Auschwitz I, as well as many other remaining concentration camp sites in Eastern Europe. What is its meaning? In a general English translation, “Work makes you free”. The amount of cynicism in this statement is almost unbearable as “work” is what killed so many over that dark period.

Part two of the trip landed us in Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death-camp. Now, I’ve seen the pictures, heard the horrific stories, but I’ll admit I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when the bus pulled up. What prominently loomed over us was one giant structure, complete with command tower, casting a shadow over the entire encampment which seemed to stretch for miles.  Enclosing this stretch of land was high barbed wire fences, dotted with guard towers every 50 meters or so. The inside of the camp was linings of brick and wooden barracks. I will admit, if anything created a sort of eeriness, apart from the command structure, it was the grids of rotting and collapsing chimes laid out beyond the barracks. In the back areas remained the ruins of crematories the Germans attempted to destroy as the Allies drew nearer back in the war. One remained however, with the gas chamber still intact. This is a particular part where it will be hard not to describe without making leaving a resonating dark tone, but I believe it’s important. I’ll keep it quick. All I can say is as we walked through, the chamber still wreaked of methane, even 70 years later. Enough to even make me want to hurl. We walked all throughout the camp, and I could be that typical tourist by telling you every single place we went, “-and then we went here, and then we went here, and THEN we went here!” No, that’s not what the goal is, which will come later. I will say, one of the last places we visited was the train tracks, one single railway in and out of the large gate watched over by the command tower, the unloading zone, eventually following the same path that so many took before, only to be lead to death. That’s a feeling that my words could never give justice to.

Upon my return, many of my coworkers, relatives, and friends asked me what I thought of the entire experience, what it felt like being there. I think the typical answers, rightfully so, would be feelings of anger, sadness, confusion. Maybe some would have even stronger emotions like hate, or even humility. The truth is during this entire experience, I felt on-edge. Similar to the feeling you get when you sense you’re being followed, or watched. An odd thing to feel I suppose, but my reasoning as to why I had this feeling, hence the title of this post, was the shadows cast throughout the entire camp, over you. It an uncomfortable feeling with you. To walk where the victims walked, to see the same things, fall under the same shadows they did, definitely adds a new perspective to Auschwitz. We ended the day on a memorial built in honor of all the victims claimed by Auschwitz. A beautiful stone platform sitting on the edge of the tree line. A moment of silence and prayer was given, followed by candles placed along the structure, and we soon enough found ourselves on the late plane home.

I should take this moment to admit that the goal of this post was to paint an additional, more up-close and personal perspective on Auschwitz. As I’ve mentioned, we have all at some point seen the pictures, watched the documentaries, read the books and so on. There isn’t an educated child in the country that doesn’t know what Auschwitz is. Despite all that, it’s hard to say I was prepared to step on the actual grounds, walk the same paths, enter the same doors, and see the same sites among other things. It was an experience that I have mixed feelings about, but I am truly grateful for, and would recommend to others without hesitation.

You know, the green, open fields and forest areas surrounding the camp were actually quite beautiful in the sunset. Had the nightmare of an encampment not been built, it could’ve been a truly beautiful area.

On a lighter note: I should mention that shortly after the candle ceremony, I was walking to the end of the memorial when I failed to notice a moat-like structure part of the platform. In my defense it was pitch black and there was no lights or sign to give warning. I fell over 5 feet onto solid, cold, stone. To say it hurt would be a major understatement. Yet, no broken bones, no head injury, and I was even able to pull myself out and limp back to the bus. I swear I only cried for 20 minutes when I got home. 

Duck and Waffle

I should start by stating that I love food. I love everything about food, and there isn't a lot of things in this world I wouldn't eat, especially if I'm hungry enough. Which brings me to Duck and Waffle in London. I'll admit, it's a bit of an odd name for a restaurant, but all doubts were put aside when my colleague dragged me out of bed at 6:00am this morning to grab breakfast there. Why 6:00am? It turns out the restaurant sits on the 40th floor of one of London's many skyscrapers. It offers a complete 360 degree view of the entire city and is supposedly one of the top spots to watch the sunrise. These shots are from just where we were sitting.

As you can probably tell, we didn't get to see much of a sunrise due to the infamous London weather, but it still was a cool view. Anyway, apart from the view, the restaurant itself was an overall great experience. Very polite and helpful staff, casual and fun variety of music playing in a classy yet relaxed atmosphere. Now that you have heard all the things that no one cares about, let me talk about the food. Before I even begin to describe the amazing meal, let me give you a visual aid to start:

Looks amazing right? What you see there is an assortment of breakfast pastries, toast, organic greek yogurt, sparkling water, freshly-squeezed orange juice (not pictured), coffee and of course as the main dish, ox cheek benedict. Yes, ox cheek benedict, with two organic hen eggs, hollandaise sauce and sriracha sauce on top of toast. I can go on record and say, and this is amazing that I can say this, that this was one of the best breakfasts I have ever had. That being said, it cost what you'd expect the beast breafast you've ever had would cost. Well worth every pence. The experience was amazing, and so far Duck and Waffle is my favorite part of London. Even at the end of your meal, you pay then get escorted back down the building in a swanky neon-light elevator.

How cool is that?!

American Iron

*UPDATE: No longer able to watch myself shrink faster than President Obama's approval ratings, I found another fitness facility near the town centre of Brighouse. Privately owned, and the demographic of members consisted of bodybuilders and scoundrel meat-heads. There is a car rigged for deadlifts in the back, tires and sledgehammers, free-weights as far as the eye can see, and one treadmill. I'm home.

Those of you who know me on a personal level know that I am a bit of a gym rat. To be fair, I probably had a better attendance record at the gym than I did for classes. Anyway, I decided to join a gym out here to keep my routine going and to blow off some work day steam. After one day in an UK gym, I've already compiled a detailed list on why American gyms are so much better than here:

1. Inductions: Those of you who have, or have had in the past, a gym membership of any type know that joining a gym or club initially involves some paperwork. Nothing too bad, just your general information and such. But in every single gym stateside, you will at some point have to sign some kind of a waiver saying that if you get hurt while using the gym, you can't sue. So just a quick signature and you're on your way right? Not in the UK! No, instead of just signing one measly slip of paper, you actually have to do an "induction", meaning you have to schedule an appointment with an already booked-up personal trainer and he or she has to take you around the entire gym and teach you how to use every signal piece of equipment. Why? So when you fall of the elliptical, you can't sue because you've been "properly trained". Oh, and you cannot use any of the gyms facilities until you have done the induction. It is a ridiculous waste of time.

2. Everything is in Kilograms: I don't have time to convert kilograms in pounds. I am already working my body to its limits, the last thing you should ask me to do at that moment is basic math!

3. Keys: You need a key to enter the gym. You need a key to get a locker. You need a key to use the machines and track progress? This could be just the gym I am at, but considering it's the only decent one for miles, according to the locals, I feel I'm justified in my reasoning. One key to get in, bring your own lock, if you want to track your progress, great. Be simple, write it down. 

4. Variety: There are 40 cardio machines, less than ten weight machines. No free weights apart from dumbbells, and the closest thing to a squat rack or bench press is a lone Smith machine. There is one rule I know about using a Smith machine: You don't. (Bro Science) I don't even understand people who run on treadmills out here. The weather is nice, the air is clean, you have a beautiful countryside town with plenty of hills and flats to run on. Go outside and enjoy it! The only place you should run on a treadmill inside is a cold, pollution-ridden city where people don't know how to drive... See what I did there?

5. Cleanliness: No one puts the weights back. They either go on the floor or left on the machine. I worked at a gym for over four years. 90% of that job was just picking up after lazy people who can't sacrifice 20 seconds out of their workout to put the weights back away when they're done. It drives me insane in the states, it drives me insane here.

So there you have it. I guess I'll have to just deal with it for the time being, but I actually am looking into possibly joining a rugby club next week. Might be a better option for me, plus a much more productive style to releasing that work day aggression.

Disqualified

One of my goals while doing this internship was to get a better understanding of how English Parliament works and why it has been so productive compared to the United States. Well, I was flipping through a Conservative Election Law guidebook today and I think I found the answer. Take a look at the first bullet-point under the "Disqualifications to Standing" section:

I'm pretty sure that first rule would automatically disqualify 80% of Congress...

Waitangi Day

I was wondering around London again today and just happened to be at Westminster Abbey when I saw a large mob of people accumulating in the square right next to me. At first I thought it was some sort of political demonstration, but that was clearly not the case. All of these people were in ridiculous costumes, ranging from cows and sheep to Despicable Me minions and fairies. The majority of them were also obliterated drunk. I joined the crowd and asked a couple gentlemen what the massing was about. They excitedly informed me today is Waitangi Day (Wa-tung-ee), which is the day the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 and New Zealand became a colony under the British Empire, thus taking the beginning step towards independence. Put simply, this is New Zealand's national day, or their version of America's Independence Day. 

So how do New Zealanders in London celebrate Waitangi Day? First, they dress up in costumes and NZ gear and do a bar crawl throughout the city starting at 10:00am. (Yes, bars in London are open at 10:00am) This continues until around 3:00pm, when all these people accumulate at the Westminster Abbey square. Here, they continue to drink, sing and dance until about 4:00pm, when groups start doing flash mob style Hakas. (If you don't know what a Haka is, search Youtube for "NZ All Blacks Haka". You will thank me later) When all is said and done, the crowd disperses either back home or to other bars to drink more. Below are some of the videos I took during this event. Enjoy!

Also, one final note: If you are in any major city in Western Europe, never take part in the street games. I learned a hard lesson today in a scam, and to say I'm still seething about it is an understatement.

Better Than Pictures

After stepping foot on English soil for the first time, I took some time to wonder around London. I decided to be the typical tourist and go see Big Ben and the Westminster Palace as well as the London Eye. This shot from the bridge has become one of my favorite places in the world: