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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Life's A Beach: Baking, Bathing, Just Being. But Not in a Bikini

Not like this, I'm not. Now sod off. 

Just as the many articles have said, in contrast to those ridiculous adverts, we are actually all bikini and beach body ready all the time! All we women will get unattractive amounts of sand in every item of our clothing, and if we're really lucky we'll get exfoliated by the sand, by which I mean not the luscious smooth and bright skin promised by Just Seventeen or whatever the magazine I should be reading to ensure that I don't commit a total faux pas sur la plage, but the kind that leaves red welts on your shoulders where your swimsuit strap lines were rubbed too much. 

No one. Repeat no one. Uses sand like this. 
Oh, and this photo's credit goes to the Daily Mail.
Of course it does.

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why I will not be going to a beach this year. Even though I don't want to feel embarrassed by my body, I detest the fact that I am not in control of it, because of the medication and the mashed up muscles or whatever the rest of me is doing.


Not at all. I like being in control. Other reasons: I have skin as white as snow, and although I wouldn't say I looked like a fairy tale princess, let's just say there are good reasons why we meet Snow White in a forest and not sipping one of those umbrella drinks on a lilo in a pool she's just scrubbed clean.

Sing it Snow.

 I also have a husband who is averse to all things 'beach'. He can't swim. Check. He hates hot weather. Double check. He has a phobia of crabs and lobsters. Check. Seriously. It is a thing. He did try to swim once, in a lake in the USA (no crustaceans in the lake, just, you know, leeches. He tried to get on a lilo. "It was like trying to shag a mermaid."

And this woman looks photoshopped onto her lilo.
So clearly no one gets on one of those things without serious effort.


This is the most inappropriate lilo for our household. Ever.

Therefore, instead of an island in the sea, this weekend we will be heading off to the Emerald Isle for a little walk in the irish hills (as long as my feet hold out). The Emerald Isle is where I really come from, not just because of my married name, but because of my true colours, white skin, blue eyes, dark brown hair. It's really a much more suitable place for me to go than golden sands. I'm kind of hoping it will rain to be honest. When it rains, as Lucy once said in Marian Keyes' book "Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married", "my insides match my outsides". Can't keep an emerald isle emerald without enough water to keep things lush. 

My kind of destination holiday

When I had my accident last year I lost weight initially through eating a very simple diet of normal breakfast followed by a sandwich for lunch and another for dinner. And between I slept. I wasn't going out for the delicious dinners and wine I loved (still love), but snoozing through morphine-induced stupor and eventually on preparation to leave hospital and then at home, just a massive number of over the counter pain killers instead. I was the most attractive I had ever been, if you like drooling  Like clockwork. Just enough to keep me asleep when I slept, until my next dose that is; just enough food to help get hem down and give me some enjoyment while I was literally flat out recovering.

When I'm comparing myself to Homer Simpson, I know things are bad

Unfortunately, the one side effect I was okay with (and it was short term) was never going to last. I had a good metabolism because I was always running and then walking everywhere I could to top up my exercise, so then I put on weight and couldn't swim because of the mess of my arm, or run (in fact not could I walk) because of the tendonitis my leg and arm, so as my metabolism slowed to a crawl, my actual activity didn't even make it to that. Bed. Log roll out of bed. Shuffle to kitchen. Open fridge. Take out M&S sandwich. (Would I, in fact, be alive at all if it were not for those national treasures of two slices of bread plus filling? I really wonder!) slide into sofa. Ouch. Eat on sofa. Get up. Ouch. Back to bed. Ouch again. Snooze. Unconscious drool. Euch. 

Worshiping at the Altar of M&S
It's all so incredibly shallow isn't it? This all sounds a bit like I'm sorry for myself and I suppose I am, really, because as I write this in sitting with my right ankle resting uncomfortably in icy water to try to reduce the swelling on the underside of my heel which has inexplicably flared up. I was still depressed two weeks ago, sure, but I felt like my body was finally getting back to normal. Running = more eating. Walking up escalators = my skinny jeans still fit. Walking at all = all over fitness regime those lucky enough to be able to walk have. So it was quite frankly frustrating in the extreme to be sitting here in this position, after thinking it was all going to be fine. 


I hope we get to walk because the fresh air and walks help to clear my mind. Dwelling on anything does not make for a healthy perspective; this is why mental health is a challenge when anyone chooses to open up about it. With a (complication-free) broken leg (that tried and true example of what we mentally ill people don't find parity of experience with when we converse about our illnesses) it's a short conversation. It's:
"Oh, poor you, your leg is broken. How long will the cast be on?" 
"Six weeks."
"Does it hurt?"

With mental illness we could carry on talking about it all day. I don't understand my own mental health. Every day is different. Every day is annoying and unpredictable, and that's why it's hard to talk about even in our inner circle of support group or fellow depressives. It's certainly not interesting everyday for me, that's for sure. It's just what it is. A mess.

When you break eggs with a big stick, you get:
cake mix.

So when in a mess, what to do? Mope? Nope. I am too good at moping. So this time I will win the to mope or not to mope fight with myself. I'll make a cake instead. A cake, like colouring, can be simple, distracting, productive and, unlike colouring (depending on how tasty you find crayons), delicious. All hail to Nigella, who taught me to try to bake again when I couldn't do anything in 2001. I am grateful for her continued, distant support through the cakes and bakes and butterfly buns she has designed for us all. Today I was productive at work, and I made a cake. 

Method and Mix





I doubt I'll lose any weight through eating the cake. Little enough through making it. But really, what does it matter. I'm not bikini ready like Cara Delavigne. Then again, she wasn't quite deportment (or decorum)-ready on Good Morning Sacramento. I'm not bikini ready as myself either. I don't need to be. I'm not even ready for anything much. But I'm here. I'm still here. This is life. Life isn't always a bitch, or a beach. Sometimes it's a bake.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Food For Thought. Life (or Life With Mental Health) is Like a Box of Chocolates... #VictoriaLIVE

It’s been a busy week in the media for mental health, which is very positive as far as I’m concerned, but also gives me pause to, well, pause, because I’ve been involving myself in many of the discussions going on and probably need to take a break and make sure I’m taking care of myself.
Monday morning was a bit like Christmas in the world of mental health, and my present was a whole one hour and a half programme on BBC two dedicated to the discussion of many aspects of mental health. If you missed it, the Victoria Derbyshire programme featured both a panel of medical experts and celebrity-come-mindfulness-expert Ruby Wax, and is available on BBC iPlayer for the next month.

Victoria and me. Unfortunately this was the one shot I got.
I look happy. She...not so much

I knew what was coming when Mind contacted me about potentially appearing. An eye wateringly) (more like eye-rubbing-ly) early start and no make-up artists to make me look like I hadn’t been up since 5. Imagine for a moment if you arrived at the airport ahead of your long haul transatlantic flight, only to find that a film crew was waiting to catch your (eye) bags and pallid, pre-holiday complexion. Now imagine that being broadcast to thousands of viewers. And now imagine that you have anxiety and depression, which manifests itself as feeling hyper self-conscious of everything about you that is visible and invisible.

Me - in taxi at 6am and on set at 8am. 
Purple and Pink Hair meets Purple set and shiny forehead
(Plus, can you tell I'm depressed? See, I am, but you can't tell...)

I talk about my experience. And am shiny. You can watch the full show here:

Oh, the fun we had! 80 people with some kind of lived experience of mental health, lined up in the BBC café area (not open), drinking coffee, tea and eating chocolate biscuits. I like drinking juice as much as the next person, but there’s nothing like an instant shot of cheap chocolate covered refined sugar.

The master biscuit. I salute you.

Following that, I also contributed to a forthcoming Buzzfeed article – watch this space for that – and also then attended a workshop with @LatimerGroup to discuss ideas for a new advert for Time To Change. It’s so good to meet people who do and don’t have lived experiences of mental health and share our ideas for what would work as a concept to help people to seek help or just find out a bit about what mental health means.

It has been a great week for mental health, but I felt down as early as Tuesday and at that point I knew I had to make adjustments to make things work. I felt tired on Tuesday morning so benefited once again from my “reasonable adjustments” at work, choosing to work my full day from home instead of in the office, which helps me avoid a three hour roundtrip commute. I took a 1 hour thirty minute lunch break so I could have a midday nap.

(Note, this is against doctor’s orders, I’m not really meant to nap during the day.) I got to the end of the day. I got to my workshop, despite still feeling tired and starting to feel low because of the tiredness added to the things that make me sad from time to time – loneliness, stress, negative thoughts about friends, hating my body, hating my stupid illness, and so on. Love the thought process of depression. Really I do. I made it back in time for bed and slept. (And I had eaten four sliced of Domino’s for dinner. Carbs help with sleep. But if you’re reading this for health tips for eating, this is not the post for you!)

The pizza was healing.
I don't care what they say about additives.
These slices were just what I needed.

Sleep, enough medication and, yes, pizza, helped put paid to my anxiety and depressive mood in time for Wednesday, so I made it through the day with a run, full day of work, therapy, dinner and a movie (at home, though, I was pretty tired again!). And I ran again on Thursday and went into work (with cupcakes (see comment above. Not the healthiest week), had a (near) fight with a guy in IT who tried to order me around. (Note to all: this is never a good idea! Cue Jessica death stare con 5. That baby doesn’t usually emerge outside the classroom when year seven need to know to stop. To stop right now.) I had a series of good meetings (that’s because the team I work with are all so lovely) and then came home and rested again.

Mini oreo cookies. Small things come in beautiful 
(sometimes with gooey icing) packages

I have to try to take breaks even when my head is all over the place and when my body feels twitchy all over from the medication side effects or whatever else is going on. I don’t feel like doing it. I feel like stepping outside my body and outside my mind. How bad I feel changes from episode to episode, but this week I never reached the terrible place, not quite, because I was able to recognise enough in the calendar to see I really did have to stop frequently. Otherwise that terrible place might be here again. And it might come without my help, so I’ll do everything I can. And Forrest Gump’s mother was right about the box of chocolates, too, in case you’re wondering.

You said it Sally

It sounds so simple, take a break. (Have a KitKat. Oh, I don’t mind if I do!) If I’m honest, though, I’m just not good at taking breaks. I tell myself, go on, keep going, you can do it, just a bit more, just another hour, just another email, just another half a mile, just another phone call. All those “just anothers” add up to a whole lot of “too much” if I’m not careful.

Just another half a mile. Just another juice. Just another 'just'

On the flipside, I wrote an email to a good friend today where I expressed my frustrations at the things I can’t do:

“I remark on the things I still don’t do – like cooking for example – which I used to love and now find little energy left for after managing with work…”

Kind of ironic. I clearly haven't lost interest in food if this blog is anything to go by. But I reflect and I see that there are positives and negatives. Balance. It's about balance.

I’ve said it before and I say it today: cognitive behavioural therapy is for me, in part, a constant process of trying to be more reflective and mindful of what I’m doing. It’s a double edged sword. I have to do this to get better; but doing it makes me feel terrible. If I can take joy in small things, I will. If I can notice that I got to the end of the day, feeling absolutely horrific, I still did get to the end of that day. (At this point I’d probably have buried my head in the duvet, into the pillow, having shut down the light in the room as much as I could, having cleaned all my makeup off, my mask, from my face, scrubbed my teeth so the mint taste distracts me, and having surrendered myself to bed and oblivion.)

Blurring into Oblivion

So here’s another end of the week. It was a great week for discussion on mental health. It was a terrible week for funding cuts. It was an alarming week for statistics on mental health and men’s suicide figures. It was a good week at work. It was an okay week for running. And it was a week. It was.

See you next week?

Sunday, 19 July 2015

#GetSetToGo How Running Helps My Mental Health

This time last year I was one week into my spell in hospital to treat my acute depression. Throughout this hospital stay, though, part of my treatment plan was to continue to exercise, whether this meant running or walking, every day, because I so identify with the benefits one can derive from physical exercise. At the time we were trying to address my sleeplessness problem where I would often wake at 5 or even earlier and be unable to sleep for the rest of the night, in addition to having a broken night of sleep throughout. And we were also trying to calm me down from the completely ‘on’ Jessica that has to keep moving at all times so that nothing gets missed, but which has the negative side of keeping my mind permanently switched to hyper speed, racing through hundreds of different items on my multiple, mental “to-do” lists.

I started to run in 2009, thinking that if I were to be able to keep eating as I desired (and desire, I did!) I would have to start keeping fit in order to allow for that. I was eating about 1200 calories a day or so to try to keep my weight down, but when a ‘normal’ restaurant meal (or in fact a meal of any kind) was afoot, let alone when wine was served with dinner, of course, that base level went out of the window, and I knew that in order to have more flexibility with my diet and try to make sure that my clothes still fitted. The fact that I was also getting married in 2010 also provided a time-bound incentive – the dress, the dress, the dress!

Running towards a dangling burger (nope sorry, a carrot won't do it).

At first I was hopeless at running. My biggest failure was a total inability to pace myself. Running outdoors was hopeless as in less than a minute I’d be perspiring and expiring from the sprinter’s pace I’d mistakenly put in. I tried the treadmill as an alternative, but this approach meant that I was constantly looking at the clock in front of me, panicking that I couldn’t keep going and hyperventilating myself into stopping. Interval training was one way to get out of this, but I knew if I were ever going to run any kind of distance I had to learn to pace myself.

A fair distance...ZZzzzz

I finally agreed to do a 10K and absolutely had to get past this, and eventually realised that it was more mind over matter. If I ignored the bits of my mind telling me to stop, slow down, lie down, and concentrated on the bits telling me to keep going, don’t give up, not much farther, I finally built up my stamina. And I started listening to music that drowned out the sound of my ragged wheezy breaths and (at times) made me feel like I was dancing along with Katy Perry, Florence and the Machine, and Britney and Madge. It became a treat to go and spend time with my tunes. And the fact that burgers could be wiped off the slate afterwards if I’d run far enough were a massive bonus too.
I was still running last year, but much less than before.

Running up that hill. And that road. 
And if I could swap places and not...sometimes I would

Depression affects me by killing any desire to do anything. I just want to stay in bed or on the sofa. I can just about foresee the next meal, but any other activity is hugely difficult to contemplate, let alone complete. On my day of admission, my psychiatrist and I had deliberately planned a 1-2 week stay, in order to support my depression, but without wanting to delve too deeply into buried issues and traumas that might have increased my feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and general defectiveness and have needed a lot longer than a short term treatment plan to deal with the many past life experiences which act as triggers for my low mood and inability to function.

At five in the morning, then, I would get up (not before trying to go back to sleep) and head out for a morning walk / run in the nearby park. I wasn’t confined to the hospital grounds as some of my fellow patients needed to be, so could benefit from the stunning summer sunshine and the – just about – cool enough weather of the early morning to run / walk through a few miles and return just in time for showering, breakfast and that day’s groups to begin. It was the Elle Woods approach. “Exercise gives you endorphins. [Yes!] Endorphins make you happy. [Yes!] Happy people don’t kill their husbands.” [I guess not but I have no ability to comment…]

It certainly gives you endorphins, Elle!

I continued my exercise after hospital, determined to make it a part of my recovery plan, and even signed up to run my first half marathon in a couple of years with my husband in the early autumn. If I’m being honest, preparations hadn’t quite gone to plan. I was clinging to ‘mind over matter’ but even I knew I had to have run more than 6 miles to complete a distance over twice the length. I ran home, ten miles, from Waterloo towards the west on a sunny afternoon. I made it through sheer grit, nothing else, and had no idea whether I’d be able to complete the 13.1 miles on the day.
Then I found the excuse of all excuses to avoid the half marathon by accidentally chucking myself down the stairs, fracturing my back in two places and smashing my left elbow in (and my head, bye bye sense of smell and taste buds)… it was an original excuse, and certainly prevented running for a fair long time afterwards.

PINK post Park Run

Tendonitis, thanks so much for adding to my list of medical complaints. And at this point any positive voice in my head was severely tested. I was so annoyed, frustrated, and fed up.
After a lot of physio I’ve been doing a Couch to 5K for the last few weeks, complete with orthotics in my shoes, more to accustom my battered feet to walking and running again than to get back to fitness. I have to say, I’ve been along to many more runs as a spectator than as a participant. I love the Park Run, where I regularly get trounced by yummy mummies, daddies (complete with single and double buggies), dogs and children, septuagenarians and more. 

You can get one of those T-Shirts if you do 50 Park Runs. I'm on 12. 

Today I accompanied Mat to the Harry Hawkes 10, a ten mile race along the Thames beginning and ending in Thames Ditton. I had dressed for a run, thinking to run a few miles and walk a bit while Mat ran the course; however, and I still can’t quite believe this as I write it, they were offering a last few ‘on the day’ entries, and I found myself handing over money in order to be allowed to try my luck on this course.

Harry Hawkes Ten. Done.
Surprisingly heavy medal!

I can only write with the primary emotion of surprise that I managed to complete it (with a snail’s pace and lots of stops for drinks, but I did it nonetheless). And I had the burger afterwards, with onion rings, fries and coleslaw too. (Come on, there have to be some perks). When I can get out of the house and on to the streets it makes such a difference to my mental health. I’m just glad I can say I’m well enough to get out of bed and get out for any kind of exercise. I feel so much better afterwards, but getting out there is the hugest step, the farthest distance, the hardest stage of the entire process. @MindCharity knows how beneficial physical exercise is, which is why they’ve launched their #GetSetToGo programme.When I’m out there doing it, particularly with a crowd, sometimes I just keep going. I hope this is the start of an upward slope for my running. (Just not literally, at least for now!) Take care. xxx

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Dear Stranger: My letter to the world on the theme of happiness (Mind Charity)

"Dear Stranger is a collection of inspirational, honest and heartfelt letters from authors, bloggers and Mind ambassadors to an imagined stranger. Insightful and uplifting, Dear Stranger is a humbling glimpse into different interpretations of happiness, and how despite sometimes seeming unobtainable happiness can, in the smallest of ways, become and achievable goal..."

...And when I read that summary provided on the Penguin website it seems that with the positive messages in the book, provided by the collection of writers, many of whom I greatly respect, that happiness which – to me – so often – does seem unattainable (or it does when I define it as being the end of depression) – starts to feel less vaporous.

Reading further on Mind’s website, the book describes the letters as a collection of the thoughts of a number of (named) authors, who “offer their innermost thoughts on what happiness means to them.”
After a lovely meeting today with someone who represents one of the clients which the company I work for works with to talk about what we are doing as a firm about our approach to raising awareness and lessening stigma around mental health, I offer this small missive to the world of the city, as my wish for happiness in the strange world in which I work.

Dear stranger,
This is a story about two little girls who grew up. Both began life as little girls who liked running around, reading stories and singing nursery rhymes. One of the little girls had bad nightmares, though, and found sleeping often terrifying. The other little girl loved imagination and reading and creating stories, and could sing nursery rhymes with all the actions almost as soon as she could talk.

The little girls went off to school. One of the little girls loved school, she loved painting and writing and playing hopscotch. She learned to wink from the dinner lady Mrs. Keene and loved using it as part of her cheeky personality. The other girl cried when she was dropped off at school. She didn't want to leave her mother and spend the day in the company of other children or adults who were not safe. She sometimes got horrible headaches and couldn't wait for the day to be over so she could go home.

The girls went to junior school. The first little girl wrote a poem about a daffodil which was put up on the wall. She learned to play the piano and the trumpet, she sang songs in the playground at break time and played ball games and elastic band games and cats' cradle. She made lots of friends and had great fun learning to roller skate, ballet (and then giving up ballet because it was boring to "point and close" on and on), ice skate, horse ride and take part in the school's winning speech and drama group. She could run and swim really well. Breast stroke was her best stroke. Once she showed all the other girls how to do it because her teacher singled her out as one of the best swimmers.

The second little girl was scared of the playground. She was made to stand on the playground wall all break time by three older girls and wasn't allowed to get down. It happened every playtime and in the end, she pretended to be ill and asked for permission not to go to school. She didn't say why. Her parents didn't find out for a while that she was being bullied. Aged nine it happened again with a different bully. The second little girl thought it was probably get fault, because she had, after all, been bullied before. She started to believe there must be something wrong with her. She also couldn't breathe very well and often felt too tired to go to school. Eventually she was diagnosed with asthma and started to have trouble with sports.

At senior school the first little girl made more friends and enjoyed the new clubs, the different subjects and the new uniform. She made sure she understood the right tights to wear, the right shoes, bag and everything else. She went to sleepover parties and pool parties and all sorts of other parties. She met boys at the boys' school, and enjoyed life in the "big" school. She found it exciting to be growing up. She enjoyed swimming and drama, she loved going to the cinema. She didn't always work hard at all her subjects but she still did pretty well in her school exams, especially in English and Latin, her favourite subjects. Her teachers told her she was doing well and could do very well. She knew she could do well enough in the subjects she cared about and she didn't try too hard at the other subjects because she didn't want the teachers to push her too much and stop her having fun.

The second little girl found it hard to adjust to big school. She got very tired and overwhelmed by all the new teachers. It was hard to learn every different teacher's sets of rules. It was hard to manage all the homework. She found it frightening and tiring to be growing up. It was hard. She found homework confusing and exhausting at times. She didn't get top marks in her exams. Sometimes she did badly. Her teachers told her she wasn't working hard enough. She needed to work harder. She tried to please the teachers but sometimes she found it too hard and because she didn't concentrate in lessons or understand everything, and because she was often too ill with asthma she had to go to hospital and she fell behind.

These little girls have different lists of achievements, as you can see, and on they went. One of them went to university and got a degree. She got a job with a prestigious graduate charity and then a job in the city, all in her twenties.The other one had health problems with stress, grief, depression and anxiety throughout her twenties and got a degree with difficulty. They both fell in love with a wonderful man, but one of them - now a young woman - seemed to find it easier to have a great time and enjoy every moment together; the other young woman was plagued by anxieties about herself and worried about their relationship frequently. One was promoted several times at work, worked internationally and was recognised a number of times for her achievements; the other found the depression returning at intervals and spent some holidays resting in bed for fear of confessing her illness to a world she feared would not understand, and because she could not accept the weaknesses and failures she saw in herself.

So, reader, what do you think happened to those two little girls? As you have probably guessed, because you are wise and discerning, and used to stories like these, those two little girls were one and the same. In fact those two little girls grew up to be me.
Now you will say to me, "Writer, you have not told a tale of happiness, which I thought was your purpose?" And I will say this to you: I read my own story back again and again, and I remind myself that I am the happy little girl alongside the sad; I am the confident high achiever alongside the shy, fearful and tearful teenager. I am the woman who has made a successful career in spite of suffering episodic depression, anxiety and trauma. I am she. 

When I need a reminder of the definition of happiness, I can look at parts of my own life. (And when I want a reminder of sadness and hurt, I can do the same, but enough of that for now.) I shall celebrate the happiness when I can, and be thankful for every happy moment past, present, and yet to come. And throughout my life, as you have seen, there have been threads and strands and patches of happiness, alongside any sadness you may see or know of. So, please, dear stranger, remember that. And lastly, I wish a wish for you: yards of happiness of your own, among all the threads of sorrow. Keep looking backwards and forwards for happiness because it can and will find you, somehow, somewhere, and treat others with the kindness that you try to show yourself.
With love, Jessica

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Poland. Resilient and Proud. I have a lot to learn.

Palace of Culture and Learning (Pałac Kultury i Nauki)

On arrival in Warsaw I asked Mat how long Warsaw had been the capital. He couldn’t answer (I was sort of expecting this) because a country that has so often been occupied by others, dominated and restructured (read – pulled into pieces and put back together again according to the wills (whims?) of other dominating nations, during frequent periods of war and – in particular – when obliterated by the Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1940.

Some Indication of Changes in Poland over time

One might think that Poland might be a country with an identity crisis, having been subjugated so many times; that it would have lost its personality and its people would have no common features to characterise them as a nation. The opposite of this is the alternative: to cling faithfully to certain features of Polish heritage, and it seems that Poland opted for the latter. If Poland is God’s Playground, then throughout all of the games Poland is resilient and persistent in her will to survive. (And however much I satirised aspects of Poland in a previous post, it is this resilience and survival which stands out as Poland’s most imposing feature.)

St Paul's Cathedral, London. (Rebuilt at least twice, with different designs
in contrast with the Polish reconstructions of their lost cities

In Britain I consider we have a great number of beautiful buildings with truly artisanal architecture. The mighty ones: St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, Salisbury Cathedral, the great castles of Wales and Scotland. And the humble: Cotswold cottages, dry stone walls throughout the Peak District, alms houses, which can be found throughout the country, and so on.

Warsaw Old Square

The Poles also have their many, many beautiful buildings – the presidents’ residences in Warsaw are impressive, so too the Opera house and the stone apartment blocks (kamienice) and beautiful, colourful buildings flanking the town square. But what sets Poland apart from Britain is that all the buildings I have just mentioned are reconstructions of buildings which were destroyed in the mass assault on Warsaw by Nazi Germany (you’ll also find this in Budapest and much of previously Nazi occupied Europe). The photographs of the (then) devastated city show shells of buildings, their insides brutally excavated and the once orderly, majestic buildings a crematoria and necropolis of shelled ruins, stone rubble in mounds throughout the few surviving partial structures. Would we really have rebuilt all of our structures – rebuilt our history – if our structures and surroundings were wiped out or tried again and again?

Poland in Ruins

Poland is often referred to as God’s Playground because of the enormous struggles it has been through as a country. Mat and I have been meaning to visit for years, since he taught in one of the university cities, Toruń, for a year and loves Poland.

Warsaw's Old Square, by night

Today, visiting Warsaw’s main ‘old square’ there is no evidence of this destruction, apart from the many stone and metal commemorative plaques to be found frequently at the sides of buildings. After the Second World War, a war in which 1/5 of the Polish population died, I considered whether there was enough left of Poland or the old ‘Poland’ to move forward without losing the history of the place, and its defining features. I considered this, but realised it could not be true. The stunning historical buildings of the town square that were shelled to the ground now stand again. The cornices and details of the architecture have been re-built, the gold and colourful paintings on the buildings have been replaced, the cobbles re-laid. From what I have seen – Kraków and Warsaw - Poland is a phoenix, rising again and again from the ashes of its persecution.

Kraków view from the castle

If I can see anything that can be called ‘positive’ in some way emerging from such horrors as Poland has suffered throughout its entire existence, it is in this resilience and refusal to be maimed by its misfortunes. I have both insufficient room here and certainly insufficient expertise, here, to cover Poland’s many, many struggles; suffice to say that I have now visited the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, Schindler’s Factory in Kraków and the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, and I need a few years of reading purely Polish history to have a hope of understanding to any full extent the multitude of troubles this country has undergone. But the Poles got up and rebuilt their cities. They applied and have passed on their master craftsmanship to enable them to build the elaborate homes, churches, synagogues, municipal buildings, statue and the furniture and interiors to accompany them.

Warsaw Old Town Wall

I wouldn’t have the first idea whom to ask in Britain to build me a 19th century style stone colonnade, but I’m guessing there would be many master craftsmen in Poland who could undertake this. Craftsmen in the true sense of that word still thrive in Poland. I guess I have been trying over the last year to rebuild myself; I'm not even doing well at that! I might still be here and look alright on the outside, but I could blow over like a stalk of corn in the wind...


Mass consumerism is visible everywhere, more present (Mat tells me) today than ten or twenty years ago and there is a culture of hard work (i.e. that work isn't always fun or the ideal) where people take the jobs which are available to support themselves, unlike many Britons who apparently would prefer welfare than a job which appears to them to be degrading or distasteful. Of course, I visited as a tourist, and only saw two of Poland’s major cities rather than rural areas or smaller towns. It's striking and impressive that Poland is carries on, despite its challenges.

Kraków Old Town Square

Some recommended places we visited on our trip are listed below, which you may want to look into if you’re planning a trip to Poland. However, although so many things were fascinating, beautiful and delicious, my main takeaway from Poland is to be impressed by the resilience and ability to be flexible in the face of so very many challenges, and to be regenerating and yet maintaining its chequered history. How many of us could be so resilient and maintain an identity as a culture or as a family, or as individuals? I think not many. I have a lot to learn from Poland.

Museums to visit:
  • The Jewish Museum, Warsaw. Allow at least three hours for your visit, wear very comfortable shoes, and plan to do this historical / educational activity as your only one for the day of your visit, as there is so much to absorb in this multi-media, imaginative presentation of the history of Judaism in Poland from the earliest origins to the present day.
  • The Uprising Museum, Warsaw. We didn’t get to this, but again, as above, there is much to learn of the role of Warsaw in fighting against the Nazi invasion.
  • Auschwitz and Birkenau (two camps, which you visit as part of a single guided tour). You will need almost a full day for this (you'll leave around 9 and return for the late afternoon). I have read and learned a lot of this period in history, and of Auschwitz before. Following so many tourists around the site de-sensitised me to the impact of this place, now not a place where 'work makes you free' but where everyone is free to come and go as they wish. I'm privileged to have been able to visit it. 
  • Schindler’s Factory, Kraków. Allow two hours at least for your visit, again, wear comfortable shoes and make this your one educational activity for the day. There is a carefully plotted chronological journey through Kraków’s experience of occupation and persecution and a good documentary film about the factory itself, featuring a handful of survivors who worked there during WWII. I didn’t find there was enough information about Schindler and the factory – I expected much more emphasis on this – but it was still a very interesting museum. There is less translation of various aspects of the exhibits into English, so if possible a guide or audio guide would assist if you want to absorb absolutely everything.