In the Wrong Place

As I grow older, one thing is becoming more clear – I need to travel. The benefits of travel are too numerous to mention, but the happiness I feel while abroad is unmatched in my current home life. That might sound really obvious – something that isn’t routine is more enjoyable than something that is. But there’s more to it than that.

Travel has allowed me to grow as a person. I’ve had to fend for myself in unfamiliar situations, sometimes in foreign languages. I’ve met wonderful people by chance and had very memorable experiences listening to their stories. There’s been the odd scare or two as well, but that is part of the journey and it’s also something that my own city provides every now and then too.

There is one thing that my recent travel has shown me though – that I am in the wrong place. There has been an uneasy feeling over me for some years and my time in Canada has highlighted this further. I don’t feel I belong in Melbourne anymore, and if I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ve probably been feeling this for at least the last six years. Not previously having the courage to act on it meant that I festered away and went through the motions. Something inside me is not allowing this to happen anymore, and so I went exploring.

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Toronto Pride, June 2017

Canada has always been a country of interest for me. I was offered an exchange when I was 20 to do one semester of university at McGill in Montréal. I didn’t take it, as I didn’t want to leave my Mum here on her own (she was going through some rough times, and my brother was also away travelling). Oh how I would do things differently now! Maybe it’s missed moments like these that fuel my desires to explore and not think of the reasons why I can’t do something. It’s more about why would I not do it?

So it comes as no surprise to me that my last two trips to Canada (luckily for me, these two trips have been in the last eight months) have had a profound effect. My time there has been overwhelmingly positive – stunning landscapes and cities, genuinely friendly people, a relaxed but proud attitude, a strong belief in diversity and acceptance – these are among the reasons that I feel I am in the wrong place.

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Credit: Zack Singer. Stunning sunset at Wreck Beach, Vancouver, BC, Canada. July 2017

It’s also why it was so difficult to leave Canada on both of these occasions. As my first time in Canada was ending, I cried uncontrollably as I approached the airport. I tried to wipe away my tears before they were visible, but the sadness washing over me could not be contained. I was genuinely upset that I had to leave and make the long trek back “home”. I did not know when I would be able to return, and the prospect of returning to my lonely existence back in Melbourne was something I was not ready for. There were other issues at play at this time, only serving to compound my sadness about having to leave. These inevitably made the transition back to routine a very difficult one – in fact, the few months after returning to Melbourne have been the most challenging of my life thus far. I was lost and feeling hopeless about all of the major aspects of my life, so it should not come as a surprise that I found myself at the dreaded door of depression and anxiety. I would not wish these few months of my life on anyone – there are few feelings worse than feeling like there is no hope. Every day. Every night. It all becomes too hard and it is so much better to hide away, rather than risk someone you know or love seeing you like this. Then the worst part happens – all this alone time compounds all of the negativity. The voices in your head take over every moment, always reminding you of the failures and never letting up. Sleep becomes more difficult each night – the mind does not rest, forcing the body into this same restlessness. A tired mind only conjures further negative thought, adding more turbulence to an already bumpy ride. All of this makes it even more difficult to see a way out. To ask for help, or to feel comfortable enough to open up to someone seems far too risky. What will they think? Will they laugh at me and tell me to suck it up? Will they not even care? Will they use this information to their advantage somehow? All irrational thoughts find their way to become rational when your mind is so clouded by overwhelming hopelessness.

I got lucky. A few friends noticed my changed demeanour and offered their support. I cannot underestimate the importance of being present for someone suffering through their own mental demons. For me, being able to talk about it without fear of ridicule made an enormous difference. I also sought professional help – something not everyone is either able to do, or feel comfortable to do. But I knew I needed help to get through this. It had become too big for me to handle on my own. Each time I would start to rise back up, the slightest setback would send me straight back to bed. There were days when I just could not face the prospect of getting up. I knew I was bad company, so what was the point in going outside and participating in the world around me? Spontaneous bursts of tears further added to the risk of going outside – what if I just started bawling at the supermarket checkout? I could not risk it, so I stayed indoors most days.

Then, I got lucky again. The opportunity to study in a field that I’ve long admired presented itself and after speaking with some friends, I took this opportunity. I had something to be hopeful for, something to show me that I had a purpose. All did not feel lost now. It may have been a distraction to everything else, but it felt like things were changing. I wasn’t feeling sad all the time anymore. There were still ups and downs, but the ups seemed to be outweighing the downs now. Having a sense of purpose again was a fundamental shift in attitude and it was helping me recover.

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Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) – 375 years old this year. Montreal, Quebec, Canada, June 2017

 

The opportunity to travel back to Canada appeared and I seized it. It would be my reward of sorts for making it through my first challenging semester of nursing. And what a reward it was – my second visit to this beautiful country could not have been a more positive experience. Each city I visited had compelling reasons for me to stay, helped by the fact that I now have friends in these cities. But this has also led to the inevitable fall that I am currently feeling. I have been back “home” for three days and I am feeling more alone than ever. I was again very sad to leave Canada (no uncontrollable tears this time, but I got close while sitting at the airport) – partly because I am unsure when I will be able to go back for another visit, but more so, because I feel like I need to be there. I felt so happy, comfortable and so welcome in Canada, and I do not feel that here in Melbourne. It’s hard to explain the exact reasons, but it feels like I’m in the wrong place. And that is a strange feeling, especially when the prospect of being able to leave is years away. I am too old to move on a working holiday visa, and studying abroad is too cost-prohibitive, so my only option appears to be completing my studies in Melbourne and relocating with my new qualification. That is a three-year prospect. I don’t want to wish time away, but three years seems a long time to live somewhere when you don’t feel you belong. I know I need to find a way to make this work, but those voices of hopelessness are starting to nudge their way back in.

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The Inukshak at another golden sunset, Vancouver, July 2017

I write this both as a coping mechanism and as a call out – life is feeling complicated and challenging again and I need to find a way to rise above it. For three years. If any of this is resonating with you, I hope these words can give you the strength to speak up, but more importantly, know that you are not alone. You might feel alone, like I do at times, but there are many others fighting these same battles. Some have been fighting them for a very long time, others are relatively new to the fight, but the more we talk about these issues, the more we can support each other through them. We are social beings and we are so much stronger when we are together. We are also better when we know we are valued, when we are seen, when we are heard. When we are relevant. When we are loved.

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Meet The Family

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October 28, 2015

Facebook has its good and its not so good side. This is definitely a story of its good side. While on my recent trip to Europe, which included a few stops around Italy, I was able to meet some of my extended family that live there, and it was all made possible from one seemingly simple photo being tagged on my Facebook wall.

I celebrated my birthday the week before my European adventure was to commence. While having brunch with my mother, my brother, my aunt and one of my cousins, the obligatory family picture was taken. As I usually do, I uploaded the picture to my Facebook wall and tagged those of us that exist in the social media world (I still have’t been able to convince my Mum why she should have a Facebook account. She has Instagram though, so I’ll take that as a win). The next few hours would lead me through a series of events that I never contemplated, nor thought possible.

As I was doing this trip on my own, and due to my basic Italian speaking abilities (I know words and can read street signs and menus, but don’t get me in a conversation as it’ll be mostly one way), I was not factoring in an opportunity to travel to my Mum’s home town of San Severo, a town in the beautiful province of Puglia, which is in the south-east corner of Italy (pretty much the area that makes up the heel of Italy, if you think Italy looks like a boot). I also wasn’t factoring in a chance to meet family there. However, after tagging my aunt in this photo, the family that she is friends with promptly starting adding me as a friend, and then the (Italian) conversations started to flow on Messenger. They consisted of brief but incredibly warm and friendly greetings and introductions to each other. I could understand some of the messages, but to be sure, I utilised the wonderful resource that is Google Translate to navigate my way through these unexpected yet fantastic conversations. I didn’t mention that I was about to travel to Italy, as I didn’t think it would work for me to go visit them without being able to speak fluent Italian, but I knew that once they saw that I was in Europe, they would want to meet at some stage. As I later discovered, English is relatively common in parts of Italy, but south of Rome does not appear to be one of those parts.

When I did arrive in Rome one week later, I received a message from my cousin in Italy, and as expected, she wanted to meet. I was heading north to Venice the next day, but had the final four days of the trip planned for Rome. I suggested we meet when I returned to Rome in a few weeks time and we made plans to do so. In the meantime, I pondered how I was going to manage this, however, any doubt was quickly consumed by the excitement of being able to visit my Mum’s home town and of course, meet some of the family.

When I returned to Rome at the back end of my trip, I decided to make a day trip out of the journey to San Severo, as it is close to a three-hour train ride from Rome. I worked out that I was able to get a train first thing in the morning and arrive in San Severo around 11am. I would get about six hours there before having to board the last train back to Rome that night, and while it wasn’t ideal to only have part of the day to spend with them, it was better than not going at all. You just never know when you’ll be able to go back, so I knew I had to take this opportunity.

When I arrived in San Severo, I looked around for the face that I’d only seen in pictures on Facebook. Suddenly, I hear an excited “Stefano!” from behind, and there she was – my cugina (cousin) Soccorsa and her partner Luigi, there to pick me up and take me to my Nonna’s brother’s house for lunch (of course) and to meet the rest of the family. There was no awkwardness – only hugs, kisses, smiles and laughing. Sure, there was some silence as they figured out pretty quickly that my Italian wasn’t exactly up to scratch, but we didn’t need words in this moment – we had the universal language of smiles and hugs. We walked to their car with some feeble attempts from me to string a sentence together, before we were on our way.

The town was much bigger and busier than I had pictured. There’s a story of my Mum having two birthdays and no birth certificate because of being born in a small town (and it taking four days for them to reach the birth registration office, which resulted in the two birthdays – the actual birthday, and the official birthday), but San Severo was bustling. Old streets and older buildings took centre stage, as did some very questionable driving from the locals, although this seems to be the norm in Italy – no order on the roads, but it somehow works. “La citta grande” (the city is big) was my best attempt at trying to convey my surprise at the larger than expected city I was being driven through. The roads were quite rough, pot holes were common. I got the feeling that affluence wasn’t synonymous with this part of Italy, but that’s what gives this area its charm. Many a story from my childhood involved upbringings where things were tough, and you made the most of what you had. Food was never wasted, and there was always a meal to be made by whatever ingredients you could get your hands on – something my Mum managed to do really well at home too. These parts don’t need polish – they have what’s most important to them already – family.

About 15 minutes from the train station, we arrived at our destination. Vladimiro, my Nonna’s brother, was standing on the porch as I got out of the car. He had lived in Australia for three years, but returned to Italy in 1965. Surprisingly, he can still speak some English, and this was much appreciated at times when I wasn’t able to get any conversation going. I went to greet him in the usual Italian way, but he seemed hesitant. My cousin explained who I was and suddenly, a big smile appeared on his face, followed by a swift tour around his house. I found it amazing that a mere 20 or so minutes later, the kitchen was a hive of activity and a steady flow of new arrivals continued to walk through the door. I was seeing first-hand what an actual Italian family feast looked like, and I somehow was a part of it all. As each family member would walk through the door, they’d approach me with the same warmth and affection as the person before them did, and they’d speak to me until they either realised the only reply they were going to get from me was a smile and a nervous nod, or someone else would let them know that I didn’t speak Italian, and they’d just laugh and hug me anyway. To top it off, they were cooking one of my all-time favourites – orecchiette (a local style of pasta, which as kids, we called “little hats” given its hat-like appearance – a picture of it is at the end of the story). I tried to help with the cooking, but was promptly told to return to my seat. I knew that would probably happen, but I felt I had to show some attempt to help anyway.

As we all sat down to eat lunch, I was struck by the moment. Here I was, in San Severo, travelling alone, but now finding myself surrounded by family that I had just met. Welcomed into their home and given an incredible meal to celebrate. The language barrier was gone – we were just enjoying each other’s company, and you don’t always need to speak to do that. There was robust discussion about various news stories that were on the TV and I tried to follow along with them. The vino rosso (red wine) was flowing freely too – it was a local drop, of course. When it came time to clean up, I again tried to help. Again, I was promptly told to return to my seat. The traditions are still very strong here, but there doesn’t seem to be any discontent on the way things are.

The final part of our day together was a delight – they took me out for a gelato! I probably had enough gelati on this trip, but when you’re in the presence of a food at its best, you indulge. I made my usual selection of Nutella gelato in a waffle cone (and yes, it was amazing!), and we walked the cobbled street back to the car. Almost as quickly as the events had unfolded, they were about to end. It truly was a whirlwind day, but it was an amazingly surreal experience. From the first sight of my cugina at the train station, to the energetic celebration around lunch, and to all the thoughts I was having about what life would be like here, this was a phenomenal experience – one that I am truly grateful for having the privilege to have had. There really is something so incredibly humbling about seeing where you’ve come from, even if it’s a distant connection. It certainly gives me an urge to ensure these wonderful traditions are maintained too. It might just be time to rekindle the sauce making, as well as the wine making. Even if it doesn’t taste all that good, it’ll be an excuse to get the family together, just like we did on this day that will be a fond memory for a long time. The simple things in life often are the best.

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Pictures: Top – a sneaky snap at San Severo train station as I was about to meet my cousin. Above – the action in the kitchen was just getting started before the family arrived for lunch. Of course, the vino rosso is ready to go. And more chairs were about to be added to the table as well.

Below – it wouldn’t be right not to include a picture of the first course of lunch. The very yummy orecchiette! If you think the serving size is huge, I had to ask them to stop adding more to it!

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Josef Himmelreich

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My recent trip to Europe resulted in many a museum visit (there’s just so many of them worth visiting), and there’s a reason that this one will keep a strong place in my mind. On October 19, I visited the Jewish Museum in Prague – a sobering collection of six venues clustered around the beautiful Jewish Quarter in the Old Town.

Two names are etched in my memory after this visit. Josef Himmelreich and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. A visit to Europe for me usually means at least one trip to a WWII memorial. I’m not exactly sure why I’m drawn to the history of this unthinkable tragedy – one which I simply struggle to understand how it ever happened in the first place. (Having said this, it seems similar atrocities still occur today, albeit not at the scale of devastation seen in WWII, but you could debate this when you look at the current plight of Syria and its seemingly never-ending crisis). I think I want to understand what led to this war and how (or if) it can ever be avoided again. History has a habit of repeating, but this simply can’t repeat. It also strikes me that this isn’t some distant atrocity that can be put down to the Dark Ages – this occurred a mere 75 years ago. There are survivors who can tell harrowing stories to the rest of us, but I’d understand if they’d prefer to not revisit those stories. The impact of these times feels palatable when I visit a memorial such as the one I did this day in Prague.

The Jews began settling in the Prague area during the tenth century. There are numerous occurrences of mistreatment throughout their history in Prague (as in other parts of the World too), but it all pales into insignificance the moment you step into the Pinkas Synagogue.

There are three large rooms. 12 walls. Some of these walls are at least three metres high. On each wall, there are names inscribed in small text painted in black, surnames in red, with a gold star painted between each name. There are 77,297 names here. This is the number of Jews murdered during WWII from the Prague area. Entire families, young and old. Beside each name is their date of birth, followed by their date of death where known. The number of people in their twenties, thirties and forties really stands out. Initially sent to the Terezin ghettos, then sent onto those hell-on-earth camps.

As I solemnly make my way to each wall to read the names, the number of children start to get my emotions going. I was also feeling very sick in the stomach. Then, an uncontrollable grief takes over as I stand in front of one wall that has the name Josef Himmelreich on it. Born 8.IV.1942. Died 18.IV.1942. Josef lived ten days. Ten days. I find that incredibly difficult to comprehend. You might think that at least Josef didn’t really know what was going on and that he possibly didn’t suffer much, but Josef had as much right to live a fulfilling life as the rest of us do. I had to take a long pause here to collect my thoughts and ponder how the human race can be so unbelievably cruel to itself. I then remembered all the current examples where we continue to be cruel to each other and moved on to the next wall. I decided that it would be disrespectful to take photos inside this memorial, and I wish other visitors were doing the same. In fact, I think this Synagogue should enforce a rule to ban photography in there – it just doesn’t feel right. Thankfully though, there wasn’t a selfie stick in sight.

I then made my way upstairs to an exhibit of children’s paintings, all made possible by one amazing woman – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. An artist and a school teacher, Friedl helped the children of the Terezin ghettos find an outlet of positivity and hope, in utterly unimaginable circumstances. Friedl gathered whatever materials she could find, any scraps of paper, paints, whatever could be used to allow the children to draw what they looked forward to. What they dreamed of. I find it incredible that children in this circumstance could ever think of something positive. Looking at their drawings was equally uplifting as it was totally devastating. Most of these children did not survive their experience in the camps, but thanks to Friedl who went to great lengths to conceal their work from those who would destroy it, we are able to visit this Synagogue and get an insight to their thoughts amidst the terror they must have seen on a daily basis.

It’s said that Prague remained relatively untouched by the horrors of WWII due to Hitler’s affection for it, but this obviously doesn’t apply to its citizens. The Jewish Quarter was to become a museum of a past people. I’m thankful that instead, it is a beautiful memorial that will forever tell the story of a people’s spirit that remained strong to the end, in utterly tragic times.

A Table For One

22 October 2015

It’s two weeks in on my Europe 2015 adventure, and it feels like a good time to reflect on where I’m at. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this – to get out and see some of my favourite places in the world, and have the freedom to wake up each morning and decide what I want to do on that day. It’s a very liberating feeling, possibly one of the best aspects of travelling.

I’ve tried to remain free of any expectations on this trip, but one thought that has occurred to me a few times is that of loneliness. I wondered before the trip commenced whether I would feel alone at times, not having someone familiar with me to share in the experiences each day. Sure enough, it has been evident that this is indeed an issue thus far – particularly when something reminds me of friends or family. Taking photos and writing a journal is one way of sharing these moments, but it’s certainly not the same as having someone there to actually experience it with. Social media helps, but it doesn’t fill the void either.

This is not to say that there is no benefit to travelling solo – absolutely not. There have been some moments of personal growth and character building, especially when first arriving in unfamiliar places and not knowing where to go and not having anyone there to help. Venice and Prague come to mind here.

Venice was particularly challenging. I was told that I would surely get lost, but nothing quite prepares you for that feeling of helplessness. Your thoughts become clouded with doubt, and a mild panic sets in. You question yourself where you normally wouldn’t. I can read a map, but why can’t I now find this street? It undoubtedly gets frustrating and you just have to take a moment, stop, collect yourself with some deep breaths and remind yourself that you’re capable of figuring this out and that you’ll be fine. Eventually. A little tip for Venice too – don’t bother with Google Map walking directions, they are close to useless! It really comes down to intuition and asking for help.

Prague was a similar experience initially, although I think the weather played a significant role in my uneasy feelings here. It was getting dark (an added layer of complexity when you don’t know where you are), it was quite cold and it was raining steadily. By this stage of the trip, I’d figured out that the GPS function on my phone still works without a phone signal as long as you preload your walking directions when you have wifi, but for some reason, it didn’t seem to be helping once I’d left the main train station in Prague. I wandered the streets until I finally came across a hotel, where I went in and asked for help. Turns out I was heading in the right direction, but I still felt a little anxious. I continued on my way in the rain, past crowded alleys and beautiful sights (no time to enjoy them just yet though) until I made it to the Old Town Square. This made me a feel a little better as I knew I was close to finding my hotel, and sure enough, I made it shortly after this.

However, I didn’t feel comfortable in Prague until the next day, when I took the advice of friends and joined a free walking tour. As a social person that enjoys engaging with others, I really enjoyed being able to interact with other travellers after two weeks of almost no contact with familiar faces. I picked up the distinct Aussie twang of one of the girls on the tour, and it turned out she was also from Melbourne. We had a quick chat, but I wanted to interact with travellers from other countries. I next started chatting with a guy from Dubai, who had decided at the last minute that he was going to have a weekend in Prague (as you can do when you live in this part of the world). He was a Palestinian, so we started chatting about the current situation there and what might solve the crisis. He was very interesting to chat with, and even bought me a coffee when we had a quick break from the tour. I’d given him some small change for the toilet earlier (you always need change in your pocket in Europe if you want to use a toilet!), and he felt he had to repay the favour. We also discussed the sad state of affairs in Australian politics – I was somewhat surprised he knew a bit about what’s going on in Australia (in particular about our treatment of asylum seekers), but it just shows that we’re making headlines for the wrong reasons. I also had a chat with a lady from San Diego, who was on a three-month tour of Europe with her two brothers. They were winging it, and just going wherever they were enjoying the most. Part of me wished I’d done the same, instead of planning each stop and pre-booking all of my train trips. Each method has its pros and cons, but I feel like my next European adventure will be an unstructured one. I’ll buy one of those train passes and just go with the flow. I would have stayed longer in some places if I hadn’t organised each step – Verona for example, was utterly charming and 24 hours there simply wasn’t enough. Another thought I had while on this walking tour was how amazing it would be to do the same back in Melbourne, as a tour guide. Why not share the love I have for my home town with those that decide to travel there? Something for me to follow up, that’s for sure.

Inevitably though, when I go back to my room, or when I go out for dinner, the loneliness factor kicks back in. I wonder whether this might be a result of being in a long term relationship that’s recently ended. You get used to having your partner there to share experiences with, or even them simply just being there when you’re having a good or a bad moment. I was single for all of my twenties (another by-product of not coming out fully until I was 28), so I developed a pretty steady state of independence, but it feels different now. There’s no magic bullet and there’s no script on how these things are supposed to go, but maybe I’m not feeling all that comfortable in my own space right now. It’s been nearly three months since our break-up, but it can still be a presence in these times when I’m on my own, or after I’ve just had a positive experience followed by alone time in my room again. I know I’ll be OK and that I’ll come through the other side, but I think it’s important to acknowledge these feelings and deal with them as and when it feels right to. Things will be different when I return home, and that’s exactly what I need.

While it’s obviously a matter of personal preference of whether you travel solo, or with others, I think my next trip will be with at least one other person. It’ll probably be more spontaneous too. More time to live the moment, less time to follow a script – sort of sounds like how life in general should be. Plus, I’m a bit over asking for a table for one at dinner each night.