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The Capitol building
Its 282 miles from London to Newcastle, which can be done in as little as 3.5 hours by train; our train from Toronto to Albany was exactly 100 miles more but the trip took us a cool 10 hours and 35 minutes. Admittedly 2 hours of this was a stop at the border between Canada and the USA where all 15 of us on board at the time had our passports checked before sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting to get on our way again. While the border officials were in good spirits we weren't so impressed to find out we had to pay another visa fee for Christina as “oh yea, you would have done the ETSA visa verification thing online right? Yeeea…you only need to do that if you are flying into the US.” A little line on the website telling us that would have been helpful!!! But we paid already so surely that’s it sorted. “No sorry we need you to pay again. You can write to the American government and complain”. Yea, Ok. I'm sure Mr Obama is going to give me my £24 back. 

People in the UK complain about the train system all the time, but I have to say, like anything, it’s not till you leave that you appreciate what you have! Despite being slow, rickety and in need of a makeover one thing the American trains do have over the English is the big wide comfy seats. It certainly made those 10 hours 35 minutes more bearable being able to curl up and not have our knees knocking into the seat in front. Our journey took us past thousands of empty crop fields and barren trees and over frozen rivers whose icebergs were starting to break apart due to the unseasonably warm winter weather of the last few days. It’s a contrast to the view that I experienced 10 years ago when I travelled through at the end of summer, when the fields were full and the trees luscious with golden foliage.

Departing from our stop in Rochester we witnessed the sadness that comes with good-byes as a man broke down at his seat as the train pulled away from the station. In a scene that could have come straight from the movies his lady-friend walking alongside the train waving and blowing kisses goodbye until she ran out of platform. I hope whatever is taking them away from each other is worth it.

Next stop was Albany aka Fort Nassau, aka Fort Orange, aka Beverwyck - the capital of New York State and the birthplace of the American Union. Despite being the capital, Albany was smaller than we thought, with a population of only 90,000 people. There’s not a huge amount to do in there, but we spent a really interesting few hours at the New York State Museum. Albany was built up as a financial centre and while the main banking quarter still exists, it is interspersed with boarded up shop windows, as businesses choose to relocate to the mega-malls on the edge of town. Random fact of the day: the modern billiard ball was created here in 1868 by John Wesley Hyatt in response to the shortage of ivory. Oh and in 1871 Albanian Seth Wheeler invented perforated toilet paper on a roll. Wey-hey Seth Wheeler!

Something we have noticed is the feeling of space. After the condensed living in the UK where houses are on top of each other, and green space is all fenced off, the houses and wide open green spaces with nobody telling you to keep off the grass feels liberating.  

Getting our ‘american ears’ back on to listening to the accents and remembering how to deal with the over-enthusiastic shop assistants is taking its time. But I’ll take enthusiasm over the grumpy need-to-go-on-a-kiwi-host-course bus driver’s any day! Seriously – there is no need to be that rude!

Next stop: Boston!

 
 
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A plaque at the remembrance memorial
One of the places Ty and I felt that it was important to visit during our time in Europe was the Auschwitz Concentration Camps in Poland, so during our trip around the Balkans last summer we booked a long weekend away in Krakow. 

Our last trip to the continent was made much more enjoyable with Easyjet's new allocated seating programme. While its sad to think that there will be generations of kiwi backpackers to come who will never know the joy of the Easyjet seat scrum at least they've still got Ryanair!

Touching down in Krakow we managed to wangle a shuttle ride into town for the same price as the train, yay! Especially since it was snowing, the next train wasn't for another 40 minutes and the 'train station' was little more than a glorified bus shelter. We checked in to our hostel and went off to explore the city. Walking along the cobbled streets through the old town we immediately felt at ease - the central market square was bustling with what looked like the end of the Christmas markets. As often seems to happen the first stall we came across was selling cheese - but this time grilled Polish style. A warm and friendly local lady explained that the smoky sheep cheese was grilled over hot coals in bite sized morsels and served with cranberry sauce. so delicious! 

We spent a few freezing hours on Saturday doing another of the free walking tours that we have done throughout Europe - they really are the best way to see a city! Knowledge from local guides who really try to make every tour special since they work for tips . Fortunately Google's weather report for the day was wrong and we wandered round in a balmy -7 degrees, much warmer than the -17 that was predicted! However even with this piece of good fortune, 3 pairs of socks and my snow boots it still took a good hour for my toes to thaw out. 

Snow gives places a white wash; like a fresh coat of paint hiding away the dirt underneath. A clean slate. Visiting Auschwitz in the depths of winter put into perspective the hardship that the inmates would have faced but at the same time the glistening white snow gave us an unexpected impression of beauty in a place of absolute terror. 

The experience of visiting two of the three camps was awful but I have to admit that we were expecting it to be worse; a bit more graphic, more intense perhaps. Not that we wanted 'gore' but we had been to an exhibition in a former bunker during our time in Hungary which detailed stories of individuals and their families and I came away from there with my emotions in turmoil. I was so angry that the world had let such atrocities occur, like the international community failing to step in and stop them made it ok. The things that happened during that time were not ok. As a result of this exhibition I was feeling extremely nervous and had a sense of trepidation about our trip to Auschwitz and how I would handle my emotions. 

We chose to do an organised tour, which had both positives and negatives. It was excellent to have a native polish lady showing us around (it takes 12 months of study and numerous exams in Polish to be able to register as an official guide anywhere in Poland) so I don't doubt her knowledge, however we were rushed through certain areas where I think it would have been good to linger to really let things sink in. The numbers are horrific; 1.3 million people herded onto cattle cars for journeys of up to two weeks with no food or water, under the illusion that they were going to start a wonderful new life, only to be sorted like fruit on a conveyor belt on arrival with the bad apples being sent straight for destruction. Those who were considered usable being worked and abused until they too perished or were part of the 1 million people slaughtered in the gas chambers during the few years the camps were operational. Four men being made to sleep standing up in what can only really be described as an oversized chimney and then work an 11 hours of hard labour, surviving on a mere 1200 calories per day if they were lucky. I struggled seeing the tonne of human hair, and the hundreds of suitcases, combs, shoes and other belongings, but I think that the difference between this visit and the one in Budapest was the scale. 1 million people dying is horrific, but its also so hard to relate to, where as individual stories are much easier for the brain to comprehend and empathise with. In some respects there is a lack of documentation about individuals as everyone became just a number but there were also survivors, lets hear their stories, lets use those as a vehicle to prevent these atrocities from happening again.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
- Santayana