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  • Writer's pictureDorina

Why I Travel: Connection Through Stories

Updated: May 14, 2019

I’m standing in a room. It’s the second floor and the wooden floors beneath my feet are nearly 80 years old. The air is thick as my mother stands next to me. In front of me, a display case. Inside are a handful of cards - some of what is left of the personnel files kept by the Nazi’s on the prisoner’s being held at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Names, whether they have children, their religion...all handwritten in beautiful penmanship.

I enter another room. Human hair. Another room. What looks like thousands of shoes. Another room. Kitchen pots and pans and dishes and utensils.

And this is all that remains.

When my family visited Europe in 2017 a common theme seemed to continue to pop up for me as we visited various museums and tourist sites - the theme of stories. And in particular, how important our stories are. Without my story, I do not exist. And perhaps that’s an idea that’s a little too “existential crisis” for a travel blog meant to gain you, the reader, as a client. But these moments - these are the moments that make traveling such an addiction for me.

Stories have been around since the beginning of time and are the vehicle with which memories are transported. We pass down our experiences through the generations so that we and our memory might live on. This blog, while intended to gain your patronage, is also something I often hope can infuse you with a sense of both inspiration and perhaps leave a little bit of my memory with you. Can this story change you or the world? Can it speak to you in a way that touches your spirit? This story that I’m telling now, how do I hope it shapes you?

So, stories. And I think the concept of stories and memories is so prevalent to me because both of my maternal grandparents live with dementia. Dementia is a funny disease. According to the Alzheimer's Association, dementia isn’t even a disease - it’s just a word to describe a set of varying symptoms. It shows itself in so many different ways, predominantly through impacting cognitive ability to the point it interferes with daily life. Often, it steals memories. For my grandma, her memory is actually pretty decent. If I were to tell her I’d visit next week, and next week I show up, she’d know I was coming. Or we talk about someone from 40 years ago and she’ll remember their name. Instead her personality has shifted a bit, she hoards if she’s given the opportunity, and she’s obsessive about certain things, like time and routine and tic tacs. My grandpa, well - his personality is exactly the same as it’s always been, but his short term memory recall is about zero percent and his long term is going so that he has bits and pieces of the past, but each of those pieces gets blurrier over time. I’m grateful that he both recognizes me when I visit and that he remembers my name, even though I know the moment I walk out the door, he’ll forget I was just there.

In the progression of the disease, our family decided that my grandparents needed more help than they could get if they stayed in their home so they moved to an assisted living complex. The most poignant memory I have during this process was, while living with them when I first moved to Edmonton, sitting with my grandfather in their dining room as he stared into the living room and beyond, out the front window. The packing had begun and now, there was a pressure...even a forcefulness - they had to downsize significantly and were trying to pick and choose what to keep and what to leave behind. Statues, figurines, books, furniture, pictures, clothing, linens - all of it was now being put to a litmus test of what was and was not worth taking to their new tiny unit.

Aren't they adorable?

“You spend your whole life building it all up, and for what? You can’t take any of it with you,” he says to me. He’s tired, I can tell. His heart is heavy and his spirit is sad. My grandparents spent a lot of timing building their life up. Starting from nothing, my grandpa was lucky enough to be a rig worker at the initial boom of Alberta’s Oil Industry. He owned his own oil company along the way and raised and competed with Quarter Horses. And while my grandparents never struck me as people obsessed with material possessions, they were people who appreciated quality and built up a life together over nearly 60 years of marriage at the time. But now, they had to decide what mattered the most.

As I stare at the personnel cards at Auschwitz, I hear those words in my mind - “You can’t take any of it with you”. This card in front of me, with this person’s name on it - that might be all that’s left of them. This, in front of me...this is all that’s left of their story. Told to pack their belongings, boarded onto a train, sent to a death camp where both their belongings and their lives are taken from them.

But in traveling to this place at this time and reading the card - not only do I get to share in this person’s story, but it’s more than that - this is the story of a people, an entire generation. Whether something physical remains, or nothing physical at all, this is a moment where I am connected to the lives of the people who passed through Auschwitz, the people throughout the world affected by World War II and even...even a deeper connection to my grandfather in his rocking chair battling a disease he has no chance of winning. He may no longer have his memory, but I still have mine, and that connects he and I to the human story and connects the human story to future generations.

Landmarks, monuments and museums like Auschwitz are so important to maintain, to visit, to appreciate. Not only for education about our past (which is also incredibly important), but for that connection to the people who have gone before, so their stories might live on. So that we might live on after we’re gone.

At the end of the day at Auschwitz, my mom and I are sitting on a bench, waiting for our cousins to emerge so we can head home. It’s a surreal moment, as this bench is just outside the entrance where every train entered the camp to drop off passengers. I head off to buy water and when I return, my mom is assisting a woman by providing her with a light for her cigarette. The woman is crying and my mom says to her “don’t be sad.” The woman replies, with a heavy accent, touching her hand to her chest as if pointing to her heart, “My family.” She need not say more. My mom hugs her before the woman returns to her family, connected by each others stories, even just for a brief moment in time.

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1 Comment

Britt K
Britt K
Sep 02, 2019

Travel gives us the opportunity to connect with and understand what is happening around the world, outside of our own limited experiences. I think it's SO important, allowing us to become much more worldly and compassionate to those that are living a different reality then the one that we are familiar with.

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