Diary of a Traveling Ghost

Transylvania, Romania, May 2017

Something must happen to me in the plane. I cannot emerge from long-haul travel unchanged. I disappear into myself, in that darkness, through those lost days and nights and emerge quieter, simpler and more watchful. My normal instinct for inserting myself into every scene and every conversation as a lead actor evaporates, and I become a quiet audience. A voyeur. A ghost who likes to watch. Quietly slinking through the lives and homes and habits, feeling, touching, learning, leaving no impact.

I have been told I look like I’m from this part of the world. I search for myself in the faces, expecting to find home or heritage. What I find in the faces is signs of great wear. Skin looks tired, more creased, more worn far earlier than I am used to. I realise I haven’t seen anyone I would bundle as middle-aged: the path from young to old doesn’t seem to have any rest stops. It is no romantic stretch (but one backed up by economic and social data) to think that life must be a bit harder here. And if it’s harder here now, what must it have been like twenty years ago, pre-EU membership, thirty years ago under one of history’s great insane dictators, seventy years ago under a largely forgotten Fascist leader who rivalled any for brutality.

I notice young people doing unskilled jobs, jobs usually done by migrants in the West. Young people with tertiary educations don’t drive cabs where I come from. I am struck by how ethnically homogenous the work force is – there don’t appear to be many migrants here. Then I realise, Romanians are the migrants for everyone else in Europe.

Our small local bus is driving through a faded story book. The snow-capped mountains form an enormous backdrop to the utterly flat countryside. Pitched rooves sag comfortably onto houses that could have been built centuries ago, the sharp spires of Romanian Orthodox churches the only disruption to the uniform height. Despite being the connection between two major regional towns, our bus will happily stop regularly, sometimes giving people a lift of a few hundred metres. This gives me ample time to stare out the window at a lifestyle confined to the past in my world: a horse-drawn plough in a slightly dilapidated field; a person working alone with a hoe; the complete absence of large-scaled mechanised agriculture. Then we pass a drive-through Subway. They don’t have those in Australia.

Bucharest, Romania May 2017

I love hardcopy maps. They make me feel like an omnipresent spirit circling a city from above, wondering where to swoop. I task my husband with asking our small pension for one and, after a lengthy search on their part, he returns with a map carefully marked with brothels and strip clubs. This either says everything about Bucharest’s tourism industry or everything about my husband.

After the architectural, cultural and human destruction wrought by Romania’s Communist regime, I expected Bucharest to be a grim, concrete, wasteland. Instead, it is one of the most beautiful cities to become lost in: quiet, clean, happily shabby here and there, and filled with surprising parks which are cool and well-used by youth and elders alike.

I could live here.

We discard the brothel map.

Comrat, Gagauzia, Moldova, May 2017

Regardless of age, all women in Romania and Moldova wear thick, flesh-coloured pantyhose. It is boiling hot. Is this a comfort thing? To avoid chaffing and rubbing of shoes and thighs? Is it modesty – the hose providing a fig-leaf for the short skirts and high heels beloved by the local teens?

With their open-toed sandals and thick hose, older ladies wear bright headscarves. Older gentlemen wear brimmed hats that seem too small as they sit perched high on the head.

My husband, as quintessentially Anglo-Saxon Australian as a kelpie, tall and brawn and bearded and snappily dressed in colour and tailoring (though toned down at my suggestion), is as out of place as a flamingo at a pigeon party. For a start, only Orthodox priests seem to wear beards. His beard worn with colourful shorts has garnered some odd looks from passing priests. And, as at 5’2” I am comfortably tall amongst the locals, his 6’2” seems unnecessary. Even in the height of summer, shorts are rare here. Triple denim is ubiquitous.

I saw a Zara in Transylvania. I wonder how long it will be until what looks weird to me will look weird to them. How long till they discard the scarves and the hose and the small jaunty hats for whatever Zara is selling?

Is capitalism the new colonialism as it sweeps in and displaces time and heritage with the new and the cheap? 

Chisinau, Moldova May 2017

We are staying in a grand Soviet-era hotel. Hotel Chisinau. There are two lifts but only one works at a time and then it can only travel in one direction. Well, this is what my charades with the dedicated lift operator tells me. This is ok, because I tried the lift once and it stopped at random intervals for random periods and it was small and terrifying.

Each wing has a dedicated well-coiffed lady in blue. She pops out to show you to your door.  I visited other floors and no matter how silently I entered the long, expansive hallways, out one would pop. The lady in blue proudly shows you to your bed and pulls back the duvet to reveal your top sheet neatly folded underneath. I cannot explain this opportunity for self-action.

Finally, breakfast is a complicated dance of pre-ordering the night before from a choice of three dishes. In the morning, one visits reception to obtain a ticket where you confirm your choice from the night before (but if you haven’t made such a choice the night before you will be banished, without breakfast), and take your ticket to the restaurant in a dungeon (possibly a former wine cellar) where you exchange it for your meal. It is a pleasant and communal method of food delivery. To accompany breakfast is a large television displaying writhing, lingerie-clad women. Rationing, scrupulous fairness, and utilitarianism still reign in Hotel Chisinau and I couldn’t be happier.

Tiraspol, Transnistria, May 2017

As one who loves to travel, and as one who tempers their addiction between hits with quick fixes of travel writing or documentaries, I’m really bothered by the apparent profundity of everyday experiences when cast through a white gaze.

In short, how can I visit places and not be a dick?

Today, I’ve heard people complain about the quality of coffee. Only instant is provided by the hotel in this unrecognised, breakaway region which lauds Lenin and Soviet-style Communism. Not sneering at what others have, and appreciating what they do have, is a good start to not being a dick.

I also momentarily removed my ghost guise to chastise a tourist in a church who was sneakily taking photos of both the church and its attendees despite warnings not to. I don’t care, he said. You’re a dick, I said.

Odessa, Ukraine, May 2017

I’ve just realised I haven’t seen a single gym, or yoga studio since leaving Vienna three weeks ago. I haven’t seen anyone running either. I guess there are other things to do with your time here.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 2017

There’s a natural process that occurs when the traveller knows they are nearing their time of departure. The energy for adventure quietens. The mind seeks reflection and quiet: to absorb all that it has seen and learnt. I’m sitting drinking coffee not even ten minutes from my door. Sam is getting a haircut. We are transitioning from invisible ghosts who roam a city trying to know all its secrets back to normalcy. It doesn’t matter whether I’m gone for months or weeks: as the airport lounge nears, so too does this transition.

The anonymity of the wanderer is waning. For weeks I have worn no makeup, dressed in the same clothes. I have two pairs of shoes and no perfume. A cheap pair of earrings and three items of makeup for the one or two ‘special events’ I have attended. I become a person I barely recognise when I travel. As she begins to enter her hibernation, I think, ‘I must wax my eyebrows when I get home’ and start questioning my certainty that these sneakers go with every outfit.

I walk everywhere here. At home I’ll hop in the car to drive 200m to the shops if it’s cold or hot or nearly dark or maybe looks like rain. Here I won’t countenance public transport for less than 3km. There’s no reason to rush after all. My chronic illness doesn’t vanish – of course – it just doesn’t matter if I stop a million times to sit and watch. Or if I need to rest and spend a day within 20 metres of my bed. I am in suspended time where the world is just for me, the voyeur. The city will keep on performing its part and it will be there for me to watch when I am ready.

But all too soon this ghost-like suspension will evaporate. As desperately as I try cling to its cobwebs, it will disappear as the texts resume and the chores resume. Connectivity to reality will puncture my invisibility and I will be seen again.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Gefilte fish for whom? Remembering and forgetting in Eastern Europe

I joked that my recent holiday itinerary read like Hitler’s ‘To Do’ list. Poland. Ukraine. Germany. I didn’t intend to spend half my holiday kneeling at sites of tragedy, but when you find yourself in the vicinity of places that echo notoriously through history it seems impossible not to join the procession of modern-day mourners. But as much as I was confronted by sombre monuments of grief, in other places I found myself searching for evidence that anything had happened at all. Eastern Europe, it seemed, is locked in a macabre waltz of remembering and forgetting. Who is remembered and who is forgotten, what events are enshrined in human memory and which have turned to dust, seem to have everything to do with building a story we – the victors, the bystanders, the inheritors – can live with.


The day before our scheduled visit to Auschwitz I said, ‘I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

My husband replied, ‘I’m worried about you going to Auschwitz’.

‘Why?’ I asked, expecting a beautiful desire to protect me from the pain of being in such a place.

‘Because you’re going to get angry at people and I’m going to spend the day trying to ensure you don’t get angry at people and then trying to calm you down after you get angry at people.’

‘Ok,’ I said. ‘That’s why I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

But compelled by my Jewish family history and the insistence of Polish tourism, I disembarked at Auschwitz. I cutaway here to a scene from the film, The Reader – based on Bernard Schlink’s brilliant meditation on the culpability of every day Germans, the tension between generations, and Germany’s efforts to come to terms with its crimes.


[Auschwitz survivor, speaking forty years after her liberation]

People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn’t go there to learn. One becomes very clear about these things. What are you asking for? Forgiveness…? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre, if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.

My notes from this day, which I thought might form the basis of this piece, were a torrent of misdirected anger. Frustration with tourists who scuttled to take photos of piles of shoes that belonged to people who burnt in Auschwitz’s ovens, with those who took sombre selfies no doubt hash-tagged ‘#neverforget’, with the hungover group of guys in personalised buck’s trip shirts. I wanted to force these people’s faces to the light and scream, ‘you just don’t get it, do you?’

Then I had a drunken conversation in the pub with a guy who listened to my rant and admitted he had taken photos in Auschwitz because he simply didn’t know what else to do. He was so shocked that the robotic motion of raising his camera was his way of engaging with the unimaginable and controlling his grief. As I reflected upon this, days later, I realised my furious, lashing temper was my own reaction to not knowing what to do. I turned my bile upon those around me for there were no Nazis upon which I could unleash my grief.


The next day I went to Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish district, the area Jews had been permitted to live from the 1500s until they were interred in an overcrowded, policed ghetto in 1941. Poland’s Jewish culture had been the world’s most significant for many centuries, before being destroyed during the Holocaust. From a pre-war population of 3.5 million, today the entire Polish Jewish community is thought to be around 20 000. Or, as the ever-informed Krakow cab driver told me, ‘there are very, very few Jews who live in Krakow today.’ So I was surprised to turn a corner into the heart of the Jewish district and find Little Israel: lively stalls hawking menorahs and fridge magnets of Rabbis, and cafes trumpeting kosher menus and Krakow’s best gefilte fish – a Passover staple of cold, ground fish balls.

This wasn’t a sign of a local Jewish revival – this was a cynical play to the thousands of foreign Jews who come searching for their families. This was a performance. The creation of a sellable culture that barely exists in Poland’s reality and is still struggling for acceptance in a country with lingering anti-Semitic prejudices.

A week later I was lost in Warsaw. Google was trying to send me into a very secure apartment building. The map the concierge had frowned over before marking, tentatively, with a question mark, matched my location exactly.

‘Want ghetto?’ a shabbily-dressed man barked at me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to respond.

‘Want ghetto!’ he repeated, more insistently. I nodded. He set off quickly. I trotted behind him, I guessed I was meant to. We crossed a few car parks, and turned a few corners. We came through a back gate of the apartment building Google had sent me to. ‘Ghetto’ he said, pointing into a very private looking courtyard. Then he left.

And there it was. A small sign pointing to an ominous and incongruous hunk of wall, enclosed entirely by an apartment building. ‘Remnant of Warsaw Ghetto Wall’. This wall had violently deprived the liberties of nearly half a million Polish Jews. It had starved them of their freedom, dignity, work and living essentials. It was enormous –nearly double the height of the Berlin Wall. And it was so hidden, so forgotten. I couldn’t believe how lost it was.

Author with the Warsaw ghetto wall

The author at the Warsaw ghetto wall

Nothing comes out of the camps. I worry that museums of death – Auschwitz, Chernobyl, the Killing Fields ­– with their overwhelming statistics, overshadow the personal and the individual. They create a giant mass of ‘victims’ distinguishable only for their mass suffering.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Victor E. Frankl writes of the consumption of prisoners as a literal human resource. Stripped of dignity and humanness, prisoners were used until their bodies were no longer useful, stripped of any bodily items (hair, for instance) of enduring material value, disposed of, and replaced. I could not participate however remotely in allowing people to become numbers and resources.

I followed Ilana’s advice and went to literature. In every country I visited, I read the testimonies of survivors – not just Holocaust survivors, but victims of Communist repression too. I wanted to remember the people and not the regime. They had names, not just shoes left in a pile in a concentration camp. I want to remember these people not by their deaths, but by their lives. Where their memory burns is not in the monuments of their deaths built by their murderers but in their stories, if we care to listen.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program. 

Finding My Family In Europe’s Least-Visited Country

We’ve pulled up at a church sandwiched amongst houses. This part of the city, with its winding, incredibly narrow, cobbled streets, feels like a village. There’s no trace of the belching Ladas (the ubiquitous Soviet-era car) and noisy trams that jostled along the wide street we turned off a few minutes ago. A few people have stuck their heads out of their windows to watch with interest as our van awkwardly negotiates the hills and tight corners. Taxis don’t come here apparently.

My non-English speaking driver has offered entreaties to my non-Romanian speaking self before rushing into the church. Are we in need of salvation? My driver and I are certainly searching. A woman clad in the bright floral headscarf typical of the region accompanies the driver from the church, gesticulating in all directions. We take off, but have to stop again for directions through this labyrinth. The driver exclaims and I see what has given him reason for confidence and relief. A wall, probably eight foot high, is ahead of us and on it is painted a large Star of David. With a big tip he leaves me, and I’m alone. It is completely still and silent. I guess this is what I was looking for.


Kishinev, Bessarabia, 1905. A part of the Russian Empire. Jews are permitted to live here. Permitted. It is an uneasy existence as a Jew in Kishinev: newspapers are openly anti-Semitic, restrictions bind Jewish life directing the whats and wheres and hows. Then, the tenuous permission is suspended.


I’ve had this madcap impulse to return to my family’s zero hour – where it all began – and say ‘thank you for leaving’ for as long as I’ve known their story. I realise the dodgy logic of this: “thanks for getting out of here. I just came back to say that”. To go there and say, yep, this is pretty grim. You made the right call, even if that call led to a life of dislocation, tragedy, otherness, hard, hard, hard work. If you hadn’t left, your descendants almost certainly would not exist.

So here I am. I’m in my grandfather’s birthplace. A city that has passed through Russian, then Soviet rule since his departure – the history noted in the change of its name from the Russian Kishinev to the Romanian Chisinau. But what seemed like a noble quest when I set off to visit Europe’s least visited country has now lost its romanticism. I feel a little bit daft, awaiting my emotional epiphany here in the silence on a beautiful summer’s day.


The Russian Empire in 1905 is a volatile place. 1905 is the beginning of the end. It could have been a sudden collapse, but the Tsar’s reforms assuaged the ferment enough for the end to drag on another twelve years. But in 1905 people are angry and uncertain and they turn upon the Jews. Violently. These attacks are called pogroms. There are many of them across the Russian Empire. But some of the very worst are in Kishinev. The attacks are ferocious. They are described as savage, as slaughter. The bodies pile in the streets. A family by the name of Barenboim decide that now might be a good time to leave.


I used to like to drink milk with my dinner. I was eating sausages at my father’s cousin’s house. I wanted milk with my dinner like I was used to, so Mum scooped me up with my plate and deposited me outside, in the furthest corner of the yard. Well this is odd, I thought, as I enjoyed my sausage and milk picnic, oblivious to the meaning behind my mother’s pragmatic solution of how to serve milk and meat together in a Kosher household.

I knew it was odd that I had a Zeda, not a Poppy or a Nonno or a Grandad. He was Russian, I’d say, proud of the exoticism. I was 9 when Zeda died. I was alone standing under a tree in a cemetery on a hot Brisbane day when over came the kind of family who say “you were just a baby when I last saw you! I bet you don’t remember me”. Sorry, my baby memory was pretty poor. Then: “Have you had your Bat Mitzvah yet?” Umm what? I mumbled that I didn’t know and they left me alone. I began panicking, am I not allowed here if I haven’t had a Bat Mitzvah? I remember seeing my brothers and father gripping their rarely-worn yarmulkes to their heads; eventually they borrowed hair pins from me. Tiny hats and bobby pins. Stones instead of flowers. Unfamiliar writing that apparently bore my name. Even decades later, I remember the tension I felt that someone so familiar to me was being farewelled in a way I did not understand, for if this was a part of him, it must be a part of me. And it was a part that I needed to know better. It was the reason us Barnbaums were here after all.


They fled, Yitzhak and Rivkah and their brood of small Barenboims. They fled from Kishinev to Harbin, China. How far. How impossibly far. They waited for certainty. They waited two years until some family were accepted by Argentina. They were accepted by Australia. How impossibly far. They boarded a boat for the bottom of the world, hoping that distance from home meant distance from persecution. They disembarked at Brisbane where their name was recorded as Barnbaum. How impossibly far.


How do you pay tribute to people who have been all but eradicated in a country that has no desire to remember they even existed? That’s what has brought us to the gate of Chisinau’s Jewish cemetery: a place so forgotten that one must be looking for it to even see it. In a city that once had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, this is nearly all that is left of Jewish culture.

I knew it would be overgrown and in ruins – after all, the community that mourned those buried here exists in too small numbers to tend these graves – but this is like Jumanji. Vines clutch every tombstone. Wildflowers and trees grow unchecked. Paths are impossible to make out. I am in complete silence and completely alone. I am frozen by fear, by the surge of panic I feel facing how determinedly forgotten these people – my people? – are; of how scary and precarious the place looks. In a terrible way, it is incredibly beautiful. My earlier cynicism gives way to agonising sadness that all these people are so forgotten; that a community as large as this could disappear.

The day I left Australia I scuffed around in the garden looking for a rock worthy of travelling so many miles to be laid as tribute. A star rock, if you will. But, as it transpired, my garden was mysteriously bereft of stones with a certain je ne sais quoi so to Moldova I have carried a rather uninspiring collection of pebbles. Stones in Jewish culture represent the permanence of memory and I look for somewhere to place them (I’m awaiting the sort of divine intervention I don’t actually believe in to tell me where). By the rear wall of the caved in synagogue, I raise my camera. Through the view-finder I see something my eye couldn’t: a grave scarred by a swastika. I can see the graffiti has been scrubbed, but the paint clings to the engraved Hebrew words. It is on this grave that I leave my stones. I will not forget. You are not forgotten. This place is not forgotten.


This strange little family from a strange little country lived, as refugee families often do, a life of extremely hard work, sadness and a fair bit of confusion: like when their first enterprise was to grow pineapples, not knowing that the first crop takes some time to yield – more time than they had money to wait.

My Zeda lived until 92. I knew him as an elderly man who emanated kindness, patience and wisdom, and who was never without a book in his hands. A gentleness and intellectualism that belied a hard life doing hard manual labour. I know him through the beautiful furniture he made, that filled my grandparents’ house and now fills mine and my brother’s. All beautifully hand-tooled. All with secret compartments for hiding money for that next emergency. I feel a stab of pain for what horrific memories or fears he must have had to build those safe places. When we emptied the house after his death, we found thousands of dollars hidden over an entire lifetime. He just wanted to protect us, I guess. To know we’d be ok. So that’s what I said, kneeling with my hand on the cold, stone of a ruined synagogue in the middle of a forgotten Jewish cemetery in Europe’s least-visited country: it was worth it. We’re ok. We exist. And we remember.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.