I have now completed two weeks on the road with my bike. With me I have two (unnecessarily heavy) bags containing some warm and dry clothes, toiletries, laptop and bunch of cables to charge my iPod and camera. I have met lots of people along the way, but, like a cab driver or delivery man, I have actually been with only myself the whole time.
The journey is from London along a WWII liberation path starting at Westminster, to Poole in England, over to Normandy in France, down to Paris, along to Luxembourg, across Germany and finally ending at the most famous concentration camp from World War II: Auschwitz in Poland. I am just over half way through in terms of physical distance and nowhere near completing my emotional journey as there are still three camps to visit, including ending at Auschwitz.
In total I have spent every day but one cycling; that rest day involved a lot of walking around Paris and seeing museums and art exhibitions.
I am exhausted. Physically exhausted. I have had some great ups and some tough emotional reflection. But now I am just tired.
Throughout the trip I have tried to imagine climbing the cliff faces of Normandy to destroy the large Nazi stronghold at Pointe du Hoc. I looked down the Champs-Elysées as Hitler did when he invaded Paris, and as Charles de Gaulle did when he finally made it back for the liberation. I have been through the forests of Verdun which was a region of death and destruction during World War I. I pushed on through to Luxembourg, which has always been technically neutral, but was an early invasion point for Germany. I am now half-way through crossing Germany feeling a strange sense of accomplishment having come so far; but 14 days living out of a small bike bag is wearing on me. And I have another 14 days on the road. Really I am only half way.
I know that I am very sheltered; part of this trip is to take me out of that comfort zone. In order to continue working on my software projects I have not been camping but instead staying at small hotels/bed and breakfasts/friend’s flats; all with hot showers and freshly cooked food. This gives me a structured base before heading off on a daily cycling adventure, never to return to the same location.
My mind is now turning to the concentration camps; I think about the detailed torture the Nazi regime enforced on many groups, especially on my Jewish people. The atrocities are unthinkable, and even the little things stick with me.
Little things that are of such irrelevance to the big picture I shouldn’t even mention them. In my sheltered existence these little things would be life shattering for me, especially on this exhausting journey. I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl who was a survivor of Auschwitz. One thing that I keep thinking about is not having coffee. I don’t drink a lot of coffee but on this trip it has been essential. To keep my energy levels up and ensure my mind is sharp on the roads for two weeks solid I have had to have at least one cup each day. I cannot currently imagine getting by without it. It is such a small issue but yet so significant to my everyday life.
Viktor paints a picture that you would be amazed at what stresses humans can go through and still be ok. Humans are adaptable and strong creatures. Yet I still feel dependent on coffee, I still desire a warm shower after cycling all day, the internet is essential to my life, and it is frustrating without a comfortable bed. It’s not even winter here yet I am so thankful for the shelter from the cold. Even GPS to make the travel part easier, not to mention video calls and emails to make me feel just around the corner from my loved ones.
Trying to understand what the soldiers went through is extremely difficult. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very serious issue and I cannot try and comprehend it. Exposed to so much crap through stories is hard enough for me; but living it I can’t begin to imagine. Especially whilst I sit in my warm hotel room, eating fresh Vietnamese beef and noodles, on my laptop talking to friends from home.
Moving from soldiers to concentration camp prisoners is a completely new chapter. Coffee is just one small thing that I can’t think of living without. There are so many other small things that would upset me tomorrow if I didn’t have them. Clean clothes being one of them and I am sure everyone reading this is the same.
It’s important to value the small things in life and remember that things could always be worse…