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Category: Anecdotes (page 1 of 2)

Anecdotes – The Time I Was Taught About Defiance

When I travelled in Central and South Eastern Europe, I had my heart stolen by the town of Mostar in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Mostar is the inspiration for this blog’s title and theme – the place is all about the bridge. And not only about THE Old Bridge, the city’s symbol, but also about metaphorical bridges – between time layers, between ethnicities, between people. I had many experiences there that put my own fortunate life in perspective. One of them was particularly noteworthy, and as is the case with most good stories, it is about an encounter with someone who impressed me.

It was the thrid time on my trip that I came to Mostar, in the worst heat of July. Majda, my gracious host, measured 50 degrees on her balcony in the morning. All one wanted to do was sit by the cool waters of the emerald green Neretva river. One of these insanely hot days, I made it into town anyways in search for a Bosnian coffee kit (a post on the deliciousness that is Bosnian coffee is absolutely in order and will follow!).

Old Town, Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina

The Old Town cuteness of Mostar with its many souvenir shops

In the burning heat, going into the air conditioned shops was a temptation, but I was careful not to go into any place I didn’t want to buy anything from, because all the jewellry, scarfs and handbags were hard to resist as it were. Finally there was a shop that sold the cannikins called „džezva“ and the little cups called „fildžani“, and the ones on display outside were really pretty. So I went in.

It was nice and cool in the little room, and behin a small cashier counter there was a man in his thirties sitting and smoking a cigarette. He asked if he could help, and in broken Bosnian I said I was looking for a džezva and fildžani, and he motioned me smilingly to take a look around, obviously happy I spoke his language. He then asked me, again in Bosnian, where I was from. I told him, and he asked which city. „Hamburg“, I said, and he got very excited and said „HSV!!“ – which is Hamburg’s professional football club. I nodded, and he added: „Mostar klub – Velež!“ I knew that Velež was the Bosniak football club of town, and that their motto was „Mostar in the heart – Velež to the grave“. So I said this motto, in Bosnian – „Mostar u srcu, Velež do grobu!“, and my counterpart nearly exploded with enthusiasm. In one quick motion, he got up, obviously to fetch something – and it was only then when I noticed. He was missing a leg.

Shells in Snipers' nest, Mostar, Bosnia and Hervegovina

If you go to the bombed out bank building known in Mostar as the Snipers‘ nest, you will find bullet shells abound spread on the floor – a reminder of war

By this time our little talk and my looking around the shop had been going on for a good few minutes, and I had just thought he was being comfortable sitting there. When he got up, he did it with such matter of course and ease that it baffled me. I didn’t even have time to think it horrible, tragic, or anything of the sort. I was just completely taken aback how I could not have noticed it!

War is ever present in Mostar. You can see it in the buildings – although the vast majority has been restored – and in the people’s faces; you will find someone who is willing to share their story of loss and suffering easily, and you can see the ethnic city divide into a Croat and a Bosniak side of town easily. I had spoken to people about war. I had been to the museums in Mostar and Sarajevo, I had heard of flight, fight and fate. I never spoke to this salesman about his personal story. But the way that he got up so swiftly on his one leg, showing me that this was his daily life, his normalcy, impressed me deeply. He smiled at me with an untainted, open, whimsical look on his face. He had lines in his face, sure, but there was nothing speaking of tragedy in his behaviour. He was just there, making the best of life, his cigarette locked between his lips as he employed his crutches.

He had moved to his board of magnets and looked for one with the Velež sign on it, but hadn’t found one. Instead he gave me a regular Mostar fridge magnet that is on my fridge to this very day.

So in the end, Mostar showed both its torn and difficult past and present and its sublime beauty again – its beauty, which lies in the will of its people to persevere, not give up, and believe in a happy ending inspite of all the ugliness of history. They defy tragedy. They defy life, or better yet, death. It feels like things are condensed in that town. You look into the abyss. And then, again, you find yourself face to face with unearthly beauty and peace.

Waterfront View, Mostar, Bosnia

View from the Western side of the Neretva onto Old Town houses on the river’s other bank

The value of travel has been discussed at large in many different places. All our favourite travel quotes speak of it, innumerable songs have been written about it and hostel common room walls are probably bored with the stories of how amazing and life-changing travel is. I am not here to convince anyone of it who isn’t already. But I will tell you anecdotes that happened to me in my travel life that have changed my perspective on life forever. This is an irregular series on the blog tagged „anecdotes“.

Anecdotes – The Time I Met a World War II Witness

The value of travel has been discussed at large in many different places. All our favourite travel quotes speak of it, innumerable songs have been written about it and hostel common room walls are probably bored with the stories of how amazing and life-changing travel is. I am not here to convince anyone of it who isn’t already. But I will tell you anecdotes that happened to me in my travels that have changed my perspective on life forever. This wil be an irregular series on the blog tagged „anecdotes“.

I’m introducing travel anecdotes as a new series on the blog today. There are many stories I have to share that have never found space in any of my other blog posts. And I love telling stories. Come to think of it, that might be the reason I blog at all. I am kicking off with a memory I have long been wanting to write about, and one of my favourite anecdotes of all times.

In January of 2007, I had to take part in a training in Warsaw as part of my voluntary service in Silesia. It was my first visit to the Polish capital, and as part of the training, one afternoon we were sent to explore the city in groups. So I set out in the company of a Spanish girl, a French girl and a Greek guy to get to know Warsaw, and our self-assigned topic to do it was history.

Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Palace of Culture – it doesn’t look cold in the picture, but believe me, it was!!

After a visit to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, which I recommend especially to those who don’t know much about Polish history, we agreed to defy the bitter cold and see some of the many monuments in the city. Making our way through simultaneous rain and snow fall, my Spanish friend asked me what the expression „Third Reich“ meant. I started explaining to her that „Reich“ is German for empire; that the first Reich was the Holy Roman Empire  between 962 and 1806; the second one was the „Kaiserreich“ from 1871 until after World War 1; and the third Reich was consequently the one Hitler established.

As I explained this, the term „Reich“ fell a few times, and so did other German words. Suddenly an old man, probably in his 80s, stopped and asked me in broken German if he had just heard German. I affirmed. He then asked if we were going to see the fragment of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. Indeed that was where we were going, so I said yes again. He looked very excited and said: „I made that.“ I didn’t understand what he meant, he could not have made the ghetto wall, but he frantically kept repeating: „I made that, I!“ Eventually he told me to wait with my friends, he would be right back and show us. Everything he said was rather fragmentary and in a German that obviously had not been used in a long time, infused with Polish terms. In our group of four, I was the only one who spoke both those languages, so I translated to my friends what I had gathered and we agreed to wait for him and see what he wanted to show us.

He disappeared into a tiny shop and re-emerged quickly, then motioned us to follow. Walking with us, he introduced himself as Mieczysław Jędruszczak and told me his story. I tried my best to keep up with what he was saying and translate it to the other three. What I understood was that he had lived in Warsaw for all his life, and most of it he lived in the flat right next to the fragment of the Ghetto wall. He wasn’t Jewish, but he had grown up in a multicultural Warsaw with lots of Jewish friends. Then the war came. He pointed out where the ghetto had been and told us details of both the Warsaw and the Ghetto Uprising. A small odyssey through side alleys and backyards later, we stood in front of the fragment of the ghetto wall. I doubt we would have even found it without Mr Jędruszczak.

It was a short stretch of brick stone, unremarkable, but awe-inducing when accompanied by our guide’s historical background knowledge. Single stones where taken out of the wall, and there were signs that pointed out which museum or memorial they had been given away to. Mr Jędruszczak, it turned out, was the one who administrated all of this. He told us more stories about his fight in the Polish resistance during World War 2, in the Home Army, and how he was arrested for it. I wished I understood more and better what he was telling me, and it was exhausting having to translate from the German-Polish mix into English and back form what my friends were asking me to ask him. At the same time I felt overcome by awe. I had never met a living witness of World War 2 before, and my head felt completely empty when I always would have expected to have a million questions to ask.

Finally it was time for us to head back to meet our group. We had missed out on seeing a few other places we had wanted to go to, but none of us cared. All four of us felt like we had just encountered something that was so improbable it couldn’t even really be true. Had I not used a few German words there in the street, and had Mr Jędruszczak not overheard them, we would have never come to meet him. Also, I felt it was typical of Polish friendliness that he dropped everything else and guided us to the place personally. And although sadly I have forgotten so many of the details he told us, so much of the information he gave, I will never forget him.

If you speak Polish, you can read an article on Mr Jędruszczak here. The fragment of the ghetto wall is located at ul. Zlota 60 in the neighbourhood called Wola.

Have you ever met an eye witness of a historical event who impressed you deeply?

On Solo Travel and the Benefits of Being Selfish

Many bloggers have written their pieces on why they travel solo. Blogs by „solo female travellers“ have come to form a whole niche of its own. I guess I am part of that category, although I never much perceived myself as such. I would hope my blog’s selling points are mainly its focus on Eastern Europe and my writing style – not the fact that I travel solo or that I happen to be a woman. Regardless of this, I will share my thoughts on discovering the world on my own, why I love it and what it has given me. Because it has truly made me a better person.

My faithful Backpack, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaMy five month trip to Central Eastern Europe and the Balkans in 2010 started off by a conversation with my sister that went like this:

Me: I’d love to travel after my Master’s…
Her: Why don’t you?
Me: Well no one wants to go where I want to go, no one wants to go to Eastern Europe. I don’t have anyone who would come with!
Her: Why don’t you go on your own?

At this point I had a whole speech in my head within split seconds that offered a gazillion reasons of why that was completely impossible. I never delivered it. Instead I said:

You’re right. I should go alone!

And henceforth, I never wanted a travel partner. I wanted to do this all on my own. Because I could. And I did.

On that trip, my first station in a new country was Budapest in Hungary. I remember getting off the train at Keleti Station, looking around and wanting to take in everything that I saw. I remember distinctly how sunlight fell onto people and trains, and I remember how much I loved the fact that old men were playing chess in the rail heads.

Keleti Station, Budapest, HungaryMost places that I arrived at – in fact most places I have visited at all – in someone else’s company have not left such a vivid imprint on my soul. Later that day I sat by the synagogue, and next to me a group of eight German girls were discussing their next move. Every single one of them wanted to do something different – have lunch. Go shopping. See a museum. Have lunch, but at a different place. Their fussy discussion and indecisiveness annoyed me. Not enough to spoil my mood, but enough to thank God for being on my own. I loved it from the first second.

Travelling solo, essentially, is a very selfish act. In many ways it erases necessity of consideration, compassion, compromise. My solo trip was all about me. Does that sound horrible? I think it should not.  I think this great focus on myself allowed me to be the best possible version of myself.

Rose - could be anywhere in the Balkans...For the first time in years, I listened to my inner voices. I got re-acquainted – or should I just say acquainted at all? – with my physical and mental needs. When I felt exhausted, I stopped. When I felt energetic, I moved on. Every new place I came to, I had the opportunity of liking or disliking it by my very own standards. I did not feel forced to like a place just because everyone marvelled at it, or hate a place because the guide book made it out to be less than perfect. I just listened intently to what was going on inside of me. The more I listened, the better I could hear my inner voices and the more I came to terms with them. I had so much time to spend with myself that I got to points when all the thoughts were thought, when a gigantic silence filled me whole and I managed to live and exist completely in the moment. Those may have been my happiest moments.

This is also why I hardly ever felt lonely on that trip. I was alone a lot, but it did me nothing but good – and loneliness, to me, is a forced, involuntary state that I connect with feeling left out and unloved. Being alone, on the other hand, is about finding yourself and learning how to be your own good company. I have written about this when I discussed bravery in travel.

I think some people manage to be in perfect balance with themselves with someone else around. For me that has always been very hard to do. Solo travel has taught me how it feels to be in balance with myself, to have come to terms with myself, to be okay with myself. It is not only something that I still benefit from in my daily life and of course in my travels. I think it is also something that my friends, family and travel buddies benefit from. Not to say that I manage it every day – but I have been there, and that means that I can get there again. If necessary, I will just throw in a quick solo trip somewhere. I know that it will do the trick.

Veliko Tarnovo, BulgariaSolo travel might not be or everyone, and it might not be the ultimate and only travel mode – because no such thing exists. I don’t think I will want to travel solo to the end of my days. I mentioned recently how discovering a place together with someone else was a new, exciting and beautiful experience for me. In my personal case, though, I had to go through being alone with myself, I had to go solo, before I could truly come to appreciate the company without losing myself. It was never about loneliness. It was always about self-discovery and personal development – as will be the case when I give up solo travel and go to places with someone else.

What do you think? Do you travel solo, with a partner or with friends? Do you think there is a difference between being alone and being lonely?

Pitfalls of Train Travel – a Horror Story

I love train rides. Really, I do. Julika of Sateless Suitcase has recently written a super thorough post on the beauty of train travel if you need convincing. Yes, it is great. It is absolutely lovely. I can’t get enough of it. I’m serious. I am genuinely excited about my overland travel from Berlin to Nottingham. That said – train rides can be the most aggrivating thing in the world. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Luckily the circumstances in which this is true are limited, but they do happen. Boy, don’t I know it. I hope my story saves some of you some grief when travelling overland in Western Europe.

Being on the train can be great – or not…

I get to Berlin central at midnight with some thirty minutes of time to kill before my night train to Cologne leaves. I’m looking forward to snuggling into my seat and be rocked to sleep by the moving of the carriage on tracks. I’m travelling – nothing else makes me happier than that. When I look to the annuncement board, however, it says my night train is over two hours delayed. It is to do with the flood in Poland and Czech Republic. I’m alarmed. This means I will miss my connection at Cologne to Brussels, and the follow-up from there to London, and I will definitely lose my connection from London to Nottingham. Domino effect… I am going through options, and I have a quick moment of panic.

Now, none of this would have happened if my train went through from Berlin to Nottingham. This way, I’m going to be anxious at every station if they let me go on or if they won’t accept my ticket, because it was supposed to be valid only for that specific connection. Having to change much is always a risk. Try to always travel short distances if you can and avoid connections with too many changes! Also, if I had a lot of time, this would be a much smaller deal. The delay will cost me at least half a day. Given that I only have three days in England anyway, that is quite a high percentage. Calculate your time generously and don’t reckon with five minutes being enough for changing ever! Of course all of that would also be less of a problem if I had enough money to just buy another ticket at any given moment. If at all possible, have a financial back-up in your account for cases like this!

IMG_1602

Passing through Liege train station

Basically it comes down to this: Do I take the risk of this not working / costing me tons of money, or do I get my ticket refunded and go home. But what kind of a traveller would I be if I let this scare me away (athough I must admit that talking to Andrew on the phone and having him reassure me most definitely helps!). I do take the delayed night train to Cologne and hope for the best. Take it one stop at a time. Every train is taking you closer to your destination. Don’t think about the final stop just yet. At Dortmund they make us get on a different (if also marginally delayed) train to Cologne, because the night train is trying to catch up time and won’t call there. Too late do I notice that it does not stop at the main station in Cologne, but only at two smaller ones. Because of this, I have to change again in Düsseldorf to a train that is twenty minutes late. I am starting to just feel cynical about this, and I feel bad for travellers who don’t speak German and might not get by in this mess. I help a Taiwanese girl find her way and hope that other international travellers also find helpful locals. If they don’t approach you themselves, ask locals on the delayed trains for help, especially when you don’t understand the announcements! Thankfully at the service point in Cologne, my ticket is re-issued for the next connection to London without extra payment. Now all I have to worry about is getting from London to Nottingham. I relax a little. My train to Brussels is 15 minutes late. I have no words. In Brussels at check-in for the Eurostar train to London I am still a bit anxious, but it all goes smoothly.

In Brussels, behind security

In London St Pancras, the train that my ticket is issued for has left hours ago. At information they send me down to the booking office, where I somewhat hysterically explain my situation to the nice motherly lady. She looks at the ticket and says in a deep voice: „Nothing I can do about that…“ I feel tears rising. „Nothing at all?“ I ask, probably looking very upset. A standard train ticket  here would cost almost 80 pounds. I don’t have that money. My last option is to take a bus for a much more affordable price, but in that moment all I can think of is how weird and unfair it is that I should lose my ticket in England due to a delay caused in Poland that is absolutely not my fault, and how they expect someone who even goes through the planning ahead and who looks for cheap options to deal with a situation like this. I apologize to the nice lady for crying, when she utters the magic words: „Do you have a stamp at all that a train was late?“ I’m not saying you should cry, but, well, if you actually are desperate… what can I say, it helps. I carefully say: „Yes, but it wasn’t the Eurostar train to London that was late…“ „That doesn’t matter, darling.“ I show her the stamps I got in Cologne when my ticket got re-issued. She looks at them and says: „Sweetheart, dry those tears now. You’ve done yourself a big favour. Now I can act.“ And then she gives me a ticket marked SOS that I can use for any train to Nottingham on that day. I am so relieved I am now almost crying more, not less.

When finally I get off the train in Nottingham I have a total delay of 4 1/2 hours – it could be much much worse. I am a bit ashamed to think that my tears at the London ticket office probably played a role in this, but what’s more important is that I learned that you must always get a confirmation that your train was delayed if you want a chance for rebooking or refunding!

What are your experiences with delayed trains? Do you stay calm or do you go crazy when your journey is challenged? Any advice on what to do when you miss connections?

I’ve Got the Month of May

May has been my favorite month ever since I can remember. That transition phase between spring and summer is so full of hope and opportunity, so bursting with expectation and dreaming. Nature is exploding in all her most beautiful colors and the sky has that special color that is both coyly pastel and stunningly intense and deep.

The train ride between Berlin and Gdańsk never ceases to be of indescribable beauty to me. Between Berlin and Frankfurt / Oder, the first hour of the ride, I can’t help but notice how different the landscape looks now from the way it did when I made the journey in the winter. The wide and rolling fields of Brandenburg are now not barren, brown and lifeless. They are juicy green and promising. And as I look out the window, suddenly I my heart starts leaping. Green has been substituted by garish and bright yellow.

Rape Fields, Brandenburg, GermanyIt is the first rape field in blossom that I see this season. I could just cry. They say that up here, you can see with the naked eye if someone will be coming for a visit in three days. Everything is spread out into the open. Everything is just there. In this world and in this life that holds so many surprises for us on an everyday basis, I think it more than calming to find myself in this Northern Germany plain that doesn’t keep anything from me. Barren brown and grey fields in winter. Explosions of green grass, golden wheat and yellow rape in summer. This is home to me, a place where I can feel secure and at peace, unafraid of the surprises that may lurk around the corner.

At my most recent stay in Poland, after our visit to Grudziądz, Karol decides to not go back on the Autostrada – the large highway – but on the quiet country road by ways of the countless cute little villages on the way to Gdańsk. After the humid, hot day with stunning blue skies, small clouds has started to emerge, and now they are thickening across the wide dome above us. Nothing hinders the eye from wandering along the horizon on either side – no hills, no house, no tree distorts my view, and the sky looks different on every end in millions of shades of white, grey and blue as it meets the earth with its astonishingly juicy green fields. The rape is blossoming a little more carefully here than it was in Brandenburg – the fields are not of the same unbroken golden yellow colour, but they are intertwined with green. The rape is not entirely ripe yet, still waiting to give out its explosive force entirely.

Landscape, Pomerania, PolandOn another day, Aga and I take the tram from the Gdańsk city center out to Brzeźno and walk from there to the park in Jelitkowo. It is too windy to walk right by the Baltic Sea beach, so we take the tarmaced trail behind the bank slope. Families with little children abound, young and old couples walking holding hands, friends chatting away, cyclists, skaters, buzzing life. The trees jutting out of the slope show leaves of such tender bright green that I feel any touch would have to destroy them. When we get to the park, we lie on the grass for an hour, sleeping, chatting and wreathing daisies.

In Jelitkowo, PolandBack in Berlin, the chestnut trees have exploded. In German the blossoms are called blossom candles, „Blütenkerzen“, as though they were something that shed light and was burning brightly into an already bright summer’s day. The pink ones have been my favorite trees since I was in high school. Their color is not subtle, it is crazed and screaming, exciting, fresh and fitting for visions of summer.

5 Kastanie

And speaking of blossoms, there are of course the cherry and apple trees that have their white beauty on display as though they were ready for their wedding. They never look as gorgeous as they do when in blossom, no matter the appeal of a tree carrying ripe fruit. I cannot help but think how the entire change of seasons and the idea of the passing of time is so iconically symbolized in the little white flowers on these trees. They remind me that every moment is precious, and they make the promise of a good tomorrow. I find hope in them.

Greifswald, GermanyGrudziądz, PolandDo you have a favorite month? What do you like about this time of year?

Comforts of Routine

Travel is the ever-different. Travel is inconsistency. Travel is the impossibility of planning. Travel is flexibility, spontaneity, restlessness. In short, travel is change. I love the feeling of living entirely in the moment while being on the road, the feeling of not needing to search the constant because I will not find it anyway. When I travel, every day brings new impressions and provides me with knowledge I did not have before. Every moment confronts me with myself in ways I haven’t experienced before, and I know that travel is always as much a journey to a new place as to the depths inside of me. The sound of trains, busses, ferries or airplanes moving through wide open spaces excites and calms me equally. I embrace the constant change that travel brings when I am out there on the road.

Train tracks, Frankfurt / Oder, GermanyIn my day to day life, however, I value a certain amount of stability. Yes, I like having a deli close to work where I go for lunch every day, and where after a break the waiters ask where I’ve been so long. I like knowing that the metro going downtown from close to my house goes on minutes 4 and 9. I like getting up in the morning, and going to the kitchen first thing to put on coffee and heat my milk, so my morning Caffe Latte will be done by the time I’ve put my make-up on. It can be very comforting to know that not every decision you make must be consciously made, but some are automatisms – at least as long as you know that travel will tear you out of your patterns again soon enough.

We all know those moments when we are shaken to the core, when life seems to want to let us know that we should never feel too sure about things going well, and it takes you and slaps you twice across the face. When that happens to me, I try to not let it numb me for more than a short moment, and I weigh my options: I then need either the constant change of travel to find myself again – or I can find myself in the stability of routine. While travel would probably always be my first option, it is not always possible; and the second one has got its perks; at least in a great city like Berlin.

I have a ritual of sitting at Tempelhofer Feld for a bit every day when I go home from work by bike. Only last year, I still used to have a cigarette during those ten to fifteen minutes, looking West toward the sun. Then I quit smoking. I have to admit I still miss that end-of-work-day cigarette, but the daily moment of peace and calm at the field is priceless.

Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin, GermanyCIMG9511

I really enjoy coming across the occasional crazies in my neighborhood. Like the funny Turkish dude I see frequently, about 60 years of age, who rides his bike along one of the large streets in Neukölln, sounding his bike bell and a whistle, carrying a large sign that says: “I have lived here for 30 years. Why can’t I vote?” He’s got a fair point. I like him. He’s fighting for his own interests. Or the guy who goes around in bars and asks people if they’d like to hear an „original entertaining poem“ and then gives out his whole marxist outlook on life. They are constants in this crazed city.

I love the way that in Berlin, you can see the TV tower from almost anywhere. This cold, damp and altogether quite horrid winter, its tip disappeared into fog quite often. Within the last week, it’s usually stood out clearly defined against a greyish sky. Yesterday the sun reflected in its metal beauty. I love how it looks different from the various perspectives, yet it always is the same.

TV-Tower, Berlin, GermanyI never tire of feeling elated when I cross the strip in the pavement that indicates where the Berlin wall used to be with my bike. Woah – there I go, to the East. Whoops – and back to the West. Unthinkable 25 years ago. A reality today. It never fails to put a smile on my face. The non-repudiation of history is of great density in Berlin, and it shows you how relative everything can be. I remind myself of that frequently also by stopping by Neue Wache or Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, places I have written about before.

Neue Wache, Berlin, GermanyI even take comfort in the way the S-Bahn is late sometimes, as it so often is. And sometimes I smile at the U-Bahn forcing me to the unspeakable Schienenersatzverkehr (rail replacement service) because, well, that obviously happens at a time when things aren’t really going your way. Stupid and annoying stuff like that can feel good because it feels normal, stable, known. Like so many things, it is a matter of perspective.

Travel owns my heart fully. But when something has shaken my day to day life in Berlin and made it crooked, askew; well, in those moments the first thing I do is look to those little things that do not change and choose to find them comforting.

St Paul’s Cathedral the Non-Touristy Way

Dieser Post basiert auf diesem deutschen Originalpost.

Sometimes the reasons that make me want to see a place are not the most rational. The reason I wanted to see Prague, for example, was a Donald Duck pocket book that had an adaption of Franz Kafka’s „The Metamorphosis“. It started by the words: „Prague – the golden city by Vltava river…“ I read it when I was 9 years old, and I imagined golden rooftops and a golden river and golden sunshine, and I heard in my head the sound of Smetana’s Vltava, a piece I had already learned to love back then, and I wanted to see this magical place more than anything. When I went there 12 years later, it was every bit as golden as I had always pictured it to be, and the music played in my head and heart all the while I was there.

I had a similar reason I had wanted to see London for a long time. Not because of Big Ben, or the London Eye, or the Houses of Parliament, or Westminster Abbey. Not because of Oliver Twist or Peter Pan. I was always just drawn to one place – St Paul’s Cathedral. And again the reason was musical: Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins and her song about the little old bird woman selling breadcrumbs to feed the birds with.

Originally I had wanted to visit a service at Westminster Abbey that morning – but there was security and a lot of people in uniforms moving about in a concerted way that struck me as rather funny and not as awe-inspiring as it maybe was supposed to. At any rate the service could only be visited if you held a ticket. Sometimes fast decisions have to be made. I ran to catch a tube, and another, running up the streets, and I reached St Paul’s having to catch my breath.

St Paul's, London, EnglandThe service hadn’t started yet, but it was high time, and so my first impression of the building was very different from what I had envisioned. I had seen myself carefully approach the church and slowly take in all the details, I had pictured myself walking about, barely being able to keep myself from humming the song about the old bird woman. Instead I ran and rushed up the stairs, „To the service?“ someone asked, I nodded, had a leaflet stuck into my hand, the sound of the ringing bells in my ears, and only found it in myself to calm down when I had already crossed through half of the nave. Finally slowly, I took step upon step forward to finally reach the dome, lift my head and let my eyes wander across it. Instantaneously, tears were running down my cheeks. I never even noticed the moment when I started crying. The beauty, the sublimity of it was completely out of this world. An usher approached me and asked: „Alright?“ I stammered: „It’s so beautiful!“

I sat down in one of the benches rather shyly. I love going to church in foreign countries, because every service in a different language or of a different confession that I have seen has only made my belief stronger that faith is universal, and spirituality transgresses the ideas of different religions. In this place of such great festivity, however, I was a little uneasy at the thought of someone realizing that I was somehow different, somehow not part of this. After all I had – and, as I shamefully must admit, still have – practically no idea about the Church of England and their principles.

As soon as the service started, however, all of this went away. There was a men’s choir all dressed in frocks. Their singing was unearthly, the sounds resonated with something deep inside my soul, and the melodies stretched out into the church dome and felt eternal. They were more solemn, more mighty than I knew church music at home to be, and they seemed to dissolve barriers inside of me and allowed me to fully give in to the entire emotional range that was at my disposition.

The sermon on the other hand was a graceful combination of philosophical depths and true-to-life happiness. It was about equality, and there was one sentence that has never left me since, and that said: „We are all one in Jesus Christ, whether we are male or female, black or white, straight or gay.“ I had never heard someone speak about matters of sexual orientation equality in a church, and I was equally impressed and touched. I do not think the sentiment of that sentence only holds valid for those who believe in Jesus. Equality is a value that is rooted in humanity, not in Christianity. This phrase is just a specifically Christian way of saying something that is bigger than any specific confession.

I left the service happier than I had gone in. I think that is what I like about religious services. They keep me from becoming cynic and restore my idealism somewhat – however much religious institutions may also have the power to destroy that same idealism when I look at other actions they take every day. Is it phony of me to concentrate mainly on those parts of it that go with my own belief system? I don’t know – what harm can it do if it may help me to be a better person?

Matters of Life and Death – European Cemeteries

Most people don’t exactly think of seeing a cemetery when they go to a foreign city. I used to be one of these people. I also used to be one of those people who could never even remember the orthography of the darn word. I swear I had to look up the spelling before I started writing this post. However, certain encounters with cemeteries have changed my indifference toward them, and I would like to share them with you. These are a few impressions from my travels through Europe:

1.Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland (2007)

When I went to Poland for six months as a volunteer, my beforehand instructions for the train journey to my tiny town were as follows: „About twenty minutes after Kłodzko station, you should see a cemetery to your right. The next stop after that is yours.“ So I was standing at the carriage door on a cold January night, approaching my destination, my nervousness growing at every stop since Kłodzko, asking myself how in the world I could spot a cemetery when it was pitch black outside.

But all of a sudden there was light in the utter darkness. What seemed to me to be hundreds of votive candles were glowing through the night and I was caught by the devout and solemn beauty of it with such force that I forgot to be nervous anymore. It was not an image of death. It was one of the afterlife and of eternity. I got off the train at the next stop and started my Polish adventure with the lights of hope in my heart.

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2. Lviv, Ukraine: Lychakiv Cemetery (2009)

In Lviv, there is a street along which all the hospitals are lined up, and it connects the city center with Lychakiv Cemetery. The way into town used to be called the axis of life. The way to the cemetery – the axis of death. As morbid as this may be, I loved the symbolism behind it. It was so easy, so clear-cut and so utterly understandable: Life – or death. City – or cemetery. No shades of grey. Just definite answers.

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine

Maria Konopnicka was a 19th century Polish writer and contemporary of…

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine

… Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko.

Lychakiv is very old, it has been around since 1787. It has been used by different Christian confessions and different social classes, and it holds the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów – a war memorial for those who died here between 1918 and 1920 fighting  for the city to become Polish again after Habsburg reign and World War One’s Soviet occupation. It holds graves of famous Poles and Ukranians alike. It was here that I noticed for the first time the specific aesthetics and beauty of tombstones, mausoleums and arcades in a cemetery. In the older parts of the cemetery, a lot of the stones are moss covered, and I couldn’t help but feel at peace with that image of nature reclaiming our manmade memorials for itself. I found the idea of all of us returning to nature eventually extremely comforting in that moment.

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine3. Sarajevo, Bosnia: Kovači Cemetery (2010)

The Sarajevo cemeteries are of particular sadness, because they are so large and such a big part of the graves are war graves. I learned here that in Islam, the graves that have pointed pyramid stale on one side and a round-tipped one that looks a bit like a bullet shell on the other are always war graves.

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Passing through this scene having a view of a mosque, the orthodox and the catholic cathedral gave me chills. So much transcending of different cultures in this place – and that is exactly what brought about the war. All the tombstones have dying dates between 1991 and 1995. There is such a lot of unfulfilled potential buried here, so much unlived life. The gravity of it sunk down on me with force, and I cried liberating tears. And I was so grateful that there is peace today in my home country and in this country.

4. Zagreb, Croatia: Mirogoj Cemetery (2010)

Funnily, I only went to Mirogoj because I had told my Couchsurfing host that I had loved Lychakiv in Ukraine. It was a bright and sunny day in Zagreb, and going to the cemetery felt a bit off, but as soon as I got there and saw the entrance gate in all its splendor, I didn’t regret it. I roamed the cool alleyways for a while, wondering about the lives that had preceeded the deaths now shielded by the cold stone. It was by no means a sad wondering – just curiosity, really.

Mirogoje, Zagreb, CroatiaThen I heard someone sobbing. I looked around and it took me a while to discover an elderly woman, crouching down on a tomb slab, weeping bitter tears. The sight of it broke my heart. I circled her for a few minutes. Then I picked up my courage, approached her, put my arm around her shoulder, and she leaned against me and cried.  After a while I told her in German: „Unfortunately I do not speak Croatian, but I am really very sorry for your loss.“ She looked at me with eyes so clear that they didn’t seem to fit her advanced age, and replied in the same language: „Me bit German.“ She told me how she was mourning her son. I held her, and I listened to her broken sentences. I don’t think that there was any other moment in my life when I felt more intensely what the notion of humanity means, and never before had I understood compassion as truly as I did then.Mirogoje, Zagreb, CroatiaI haven’t really felt these places to be very gloomy or scary. In fact I think that cemeteries allow us to reflect on death and life equally, and that they are places where emotions are maybe more dense than elsewhere if you let yourself feel them. They invite us to think about impermanence, about finiteness. I have always found things to be of the greatest beauty when I knew that they wouldn’t stick, and travel has taught me not to regret or fret about this, but to turn the knowledge of it into an immense gratitude for being there to witness the beauty of the moment. That is what cemeteries do for me. They make me grateful.

What do you think about cemeteries? Gloomy or peacful? Scary or hopeful? Do you have a favorite cemetery?

What’s one more Identity?

A couple of weeks back I was having drinks in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district with Adam of Travels of Adam – if you haven’t yet stumbled upon his great blog you should make up this oversight as quickly as you can. We had a great evening of drinking wine and chatting about travel, life in Berlin and blogging. We finally left the bar to walk to the tram stop together, and when we had just one more pedestrians’ traffic light to cross, we saw the tram get in to the stop. The traffic light was red. It was obvious that we’d miss the tram if we waited for it to turn green. Adam asked: “Wait or run?” I said: “Run!”, and so we did. As we got on the tram, Adam said: “You are so unlike any other German I know, I love it!”

This got me thinking back on all the times my German identity has been questioned – even if in jest.

In Bristol, England, I walked into a coffee shop to buy a latte. After taking my order, the barista asked: “So how are you today?” I replied: “Really grand! Enjoying being away from home for a bit.” He asked: “Where’s home?” I said: “Germany.” He looked up puzzled: “I thought you were Canadian! You don’t have a foreign accent in your English!”

In Mostar, Bosnia, hostel owner Bata gave me advice on how to get into one of my favorite sights, Blagaj’s Tekkija, without having to pay an entrance fee. He said: “You’re almost local, you just tell them ‘Gdje si, legendo!’ [which roughly translated to ‘What’s up, my man!’] and pass right through.”

Tekija, Blagaj, Blagaj, Bosnia and Hercegovina

The Tekija of Blagaj, one of my favorite places in the world

In Rijeka, Croatia, we were having a lovely night in someone’s back yard singing, dancing and, again, drinking the night away. I sang songs in Croatian and was totally in my happy place. My friend Nina said: “You have strange hobbies for a German girl, Maki. Shouldn’t you be working in a Hypo Bank and have a boyfriend that you see just once a week?”

In Nis, Serbia, I was hanging with hostel people in the smokers’ lounge when the phone rang. The hostel owner, Vlad, ran to get it, leaving his cigarette in the ashtray. When he didn’t come back after a while, I took it and said: “Vlad won’t finish this, eh, I might as well.” His co-worker by the same name looked at me in awe and said: “When you try to get back into Germany, they won’t let you. They will think you’re Serbian.

Hanging out in Maribor, SloveniaIn Novi Sad, Serbia, we were singing, drinking and eating Ajvar in my friend Lazar’s kitchen well into the night. Ajvar is a delicious paste made from egg plant, tomatoes and peppers. There was a large jar of it and one spoon, and it circled. When the jar was almost empty and Lazar was scratching remains from the ground, I advised him to do it with the spoon’s narrow end to get even the last bits out. His face split into a grin. “You blend in very well here.”

In Gdansk, Poland, I was visiting a conference, but hanging out nights with my friends who use a lot of swear words, especially the infamous “kurwa”, an approximate equivalent to the English f-word. Finally one night I told them: “Guys, you gotta stop it with the swearing. I almost said ‘kurwa’ at the conference today!” They all broke into laughter, and my friend Karol said: “Marielka, I think you may have deserved the right to Polish citizenship now.

Sejm, Warsaw, Poland

This is me at the Sejm, Polish parliament, in 2007. I wouldn’t have thought back then that anyone would ever attest me a Polish identity…

It looks like I’m not your prototype German. I’m not sure what that would be, but apparently not someone who crosses red traffic lights, speaks foreign languages, tries not to let food go to waste, sings Balkan songs, finishes a stranger’s cigarette, or swears (in Polish at that!). When writing about this, I noticed how many of these stories involve people in foreign countries that I consider friends. It also brought to mind that I have a Croatian nickname, Maki, and a Polish one, Marielka. I realized how integrated, how much at home I feel in so many different places.

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

When I posted this photo of my Australian friend Steve and I, taken at Lake Shkodra in Montenegro, on facebook, my German friend Stefan (who speaks approximately every language in Europe) commented it in Bosnian by the words: “Ti ces nam vratit kao prava Bosanka” – “You will come back to us like a true Bosnian girl”.

When someone attests me a new cultural identity, it is the ultimate step from being a traveller to being a part of the culture in some small way. It makes me very happy to think that I am a little Canadian, a little Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian and Polish, and of course also a little German. I like to think that I have been drawn to Middle Eastern and Eastern Europe because part of my soul has always been there, because there is something inside of me that has always been Slavic – while that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate and identify with my German heritage. Don’t get me wrong, I’d never want to get rid of that! I throw on black, red, gold colors when we play international soccer tournaments just like any other German, and I am ready to sell Germany as a lovely travel destination to anyone who wants to hear it. I am most certainly German, and as difficult as it sometimes feels to say this: I love my country.

The beauty of all these little anecdotes, however, is that I don’t have to be exclusive on this one. This isn’t a monogamous relationship. In a globalized, fast paced, cosmopolitan world that asks of young people to be flexible, variable, willing to adapt and open to new things, I seem to have taken on multiple identities already – and with every new one that is added to that, the only question that comes to mind is: “What’s one more?” I have a beautiful summer love affair with Croatia. I have a strange fascination, an infatuation if you will, with Serbia. I have a difficult, but serious relationship with Bosnia. The US are like an ex-boyfriend who I still think very fondly of – in other words, yes, we’re still friends. Poland is something like the love of my life. I well think I could get married to Poland. And Germany – Germany is my parent and my sibling. Germany is family.

What do you think? How many identities do you have? How do they show? And do you strive for more?

Back to Wrocław

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The train from Berlin to Wrocław goes through, I don’t need to change. As we are approaching the Polish boarder, we are entering Slavic lands while still in Germany: In a small train station a sign reads „Lübbenau (Spreewald)“, and another one: „Lubnjow (Błota)“ – the first is German, the second is Sorbian. The Sorbians are a Slavic minority in the Lusatia area in the easternmost corner of Germany. The letter ł on the Sorbian sign – it exists in Polish too, and it puts a smile on my face. I note down some of my thoughts in my journal. As soon as we have crossed into Poland, the train tracks are bumpier, I can tell from my own handwriting. It jolts and judders across the paper, not  looking like a chain of soft, round little living creatures as it usually does, but edgy like staples or tiny wires.

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Outside of the windown I see Lower Silesia pass me by. I entered this part of the world for the first time almost exactly six years ago. I’m trying to remember that day, but I can’t unearth too much from the depths of my memory. Back then I felt homesick for the first, maybe the only time in my life, and that feeling cast a shadow on so many things. It envelopped me in a large black veil that kept excitement and anticipation from coming to me like they usually do when I start a trip to the great unknown. The notion of „cudne manowce“ comes to my mind, an expression from a song by the iconic Polish poet and songwriter Edward Stachura. It means something like „the enchanting astray“. My co-worker Renata says that it can’t really be translated to German, because for the efficient and pragmatic people that we are, the astray can never be enchanting. If that is true, I’m afraid I’m not very German after all.

Now I’m looking at little villages with their Prussian architecture train station buildings and their white town hall towers reaching toward the skies with square-cut pinnacles in Tudor styled architecture. They look just like they do in Ziemia Kłodzka, which is the area I was on my way to back then, and I cannot believe that it is only – or already – six years lying between the person I am today and the person I was then.

When the train arrives at the main station in Wrocław, I can’t at first glance piece together where I am and what I am seeing. Everything is new, everything is different. The station building has been painted bright orange.

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Ther concourse is light and spatious. Everything has been renovated for the football Euro Cup last June. My memory paints such a different picture – a dark, manky hellhole with rude and unfriendly elderly ladies in the ticket boxes, and myself feeling panickstricken when one night I almost didn’t get a ticket for the night train to Szczecin and thought I’d have to spend the night on the cold and smelly platform.

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In the crossing underneath the platforms there used to be many kiosks and food stands – they are all gone, instead there are high tech lockers and everything is smooth and evenly tiled. I wonder what might have happened to the people who used to work in those little shops?

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This is not the same place. Everything is signposted – and what’s more, bilingually so! I wish I had some of the people with me who think of Poland as backwards, grey, ugly and cheap. They would not believe their own eyes.

Two days later my train is leaving the main station in Wrocław. My seat is rear-facing and so I look straight ahead as the large orange building is moving away from me.  In this moment I have the paradoxical feeling of looking aback and ahead at the same time –  back to the place I am leaving right now, and that I’m missing already in a feeling of reverse homesickness. And ahead to my future that may just be so kind as to gift me with a new Polish adventure, one without feeling homesick for Germany; to a future that may grant me to understand this country better, to explore it, and with any luck even to participate in shaping it in some way.

Why do I love Poland? I have no idea. Isn’t it the purest love that doesn’t require any explanation?

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