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Category: Literatur

The Things I Love About Poland – Part II

I guess we all have countries which make us feel at home more than others. My parents, for example, love Greece, and they feel imbalanced when they don’t go every year. Most people get that. Greece has beaches, and islands, and ouzo, and lots of pretty old ruins. When I speak about Poland with that same affection, people just give me disbelieving looks. But guess what. Poland has beaches! And lakes! And vodka! And TONS of pretty old ruins – and pretty old buildings that are still whole, or have been restored beautifully.

Dlugi Targ, Gdansk, Poland

Długi Targ, the Long Market, in the center of my most beloved Gdańsk. Everything was in ruins here after World War II, but is shiny and sparkling today. I hear that Polands restorers are among the best in the world, and I believe that alright!

Last week I spoke about my love for the urban beauty of Polish cities, of the amazing sense of history in the country, of the hospitality I have met and the friends I have found, about the enchanting melody of that beautiful strange language, and about Polish music that has touched my heart. As if all this wasn’t enough, I have more reasons why my eyes light up when I talk about Poland. And I am not afraid to tell you about them.

6. The Landscapes

How could I speak about the cities and not equally enthusiastically mention the landscapes! From the Baltic Sea and the Mazurian Lakes in the North to the Tatra Mountains and the softer Plains in the South, the country really has it all.

Szczytno, Poland

Szczytno in the Mazurian Lake district enchants with a beautiful sunset.

Rozanka, Poland

Różanka in Lower Silesia offers pretty views and is very close to the Sudety mountains.

Poland even has the last European jungle in the Northeast which is high on my bucket list as I haven’t managed to see it yet. The wild bisons that live there, the żubry, have been namesake to both the beer żubr and the vodka żubrówka. Who wouldn’t need to see them now? One of the things that make Poland such an amazing country is definitely its diversity. From beach vacations by the sea to skiing in the mountains, you can find everything your travel heart desires here.

Sopot, Poland

Didn’t I say there were beaches? If it is this pretty in winter, just imagine how amazing the pretty spa town of Sopot must be in summer!

7. The Food – and the Vodka!

Ah, the food. I am not a huge foodie, but Polish food has me salivating. For one thing, don’t expect to ever go hungry in Poland. Generally, there is too much food for a person to handle, even if it is so delicious that you never want to stop eating. The Polish are big on soups and stews from żurek, a sour rye soup, to all kinds of vegetable soups (especially try barszcz, a beetroot based soup), to bigos, a heavy cabbage stew that will warm you on a snowed in winter’s night (because yes, it does get cold in Poland). I can never get enough of wątróbki, poultry livers served with apple and onions, and of the famous pierogi, dumplings that come filled with all sorts of different stuffings. If you can get someone to make them from scratch with you, you will never want to cook anything else at home anymore.

Making Pierogi in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland

When I lived in Bystrzyca Kłodzka in Lower Silesia, we made Pierogi in the group of international volunteers with our Polish teacher. And my, were they yummy!

Of course a good Polish meal is not complete without good Polish vodka. No other beverage have I been drunker on. But if you drink the good kind and don’t mix it with cheap kinds, you will not even be hungover. I’m fairly sure I don’t even have to talk much about it. If you go to Poland, one or two vodka incidents are without fail bound to happen. And even if you never liked vodka before, trust me and try it here. It is delicious and it certainly speeds up the process of making Polish friends.

Pear Vodka, Sopot, Poland

Doesn’t look like vodka? Ah, but it is! With pears! And it was beyond delicious. Never would I have gotten to taste it if my friend Karol hadn’t known the bar tender 🙂

8. The Literature

Adding to the Polish language having drawn me in with strange magnetic pull, I have also fallen hard for Polish literature. It was no love at first sight. For a long time I didn’t really have any favourite Polish authors or works. But the more I read, the more I wanted, and the better I knew the language, the more I loved what I was reading. Epic realist novels like Bolesław Prus‘ Lalka („The Doll“), masterpieces of absurdism by Witold Gombrowicz, amazing SciFi like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris and heartbreaking poetry by the nobel prize winners Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, and the great feminist novelists of today, like Olga Tokarczuk and my very favourite Joanna Bator – the list goes on and on.

 

I have found myself in too many books to actually list here, they have been eye-opening for me. To give you a taste, I translated one of my favourite Szymborska poems for you.

Na lotnisku

Biegną ku sobie z otwartymi ramionami,
wołają roześmiani: Nareszcie! Nareszcie!
Oboje w ciężkich zimowych ubraniach.
w grubych czapkach,
szalikach,
rękawiczkach,
butach,
ale już tylko dla nas.
Bo dla siebie – nadzy.

At the airport

They run towards each other with open arms
Calling out laughing: Finally! Finally!
Both in heavy winter clothing
In heavy hats,
scarves,
gloves,
boots,
But only to us.
Because to each other already – naked.

9. The Sense of Humour

Poles are extremely friendly and set great store by hospitality, as I mentioned last week. But not only that. Man, those people can make you laugh! I don’t know wether it is because they haven’t had much to laugh about in history, but generally Polish humour is dark, dry, politically incorrect and screamingly funny. To be quite frank it took me a while to really get into it, but I’m just telling you to not be shy, take that stick out of your butt that has been shoved up there in whatever country you are from, and go ahead and laugh.

Browarnia, Gdansk, Poland

„A bar tender is no camel, he needs to have his drink too!“ – on a jar for tips in a much beloved Gdansk based bar. Yeah, sometimes the humour isn’t dark and twisted, but just cute 🙂

I was warned before watching the Polish cult film Rejs, „The Cruise“, that I might not get why it is funny. I never stopped laughing when I saw it. I wish I had found a subtitled version of this scene which is my absolute favourite. I can but hope that the body language of the cast alone will at least make you smile. The dialogue is hilarious.

10. The Swearwords

Closing on a high note here. Obviously there is one specific part of language, which in general I already discussed, that deserves extra attention. Almost any language beats German when it comes to swearing, we only have boring words that don’t do the somewhat violent melody of our language any justice. But cursing in Polish is pure poetry. It is so emphatic and creative. I know you expect better of me, the academic, but I dare you to have a Pole teach you how to curse and your life will never be the same. There are actual linguistic studies on the fact that German cursing is usually related to fecies (shit) while Slavic cursing is related to sex (fuck). There is nothing as relieving as uttering a heartfelt kurwa jebana mać (a very emphatic „fuck!“, but literally something like „damn fucked bitch“). And the most brilliant thing is: They use swear words for affirmation and celebration as well – as in zajebiście, which means „awesome“, but literally „fucked“.

Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland

I called the little town of Bystrzyca Kłodzka my home for 6 months. There was nothing spectacular about it. But it is Poland. Therefore, it is home.

Having said all of this, I feel once more ever so grateful for my blog. You don’t understand how even thinking about all these things made me so happy. I think back on all the places I have seen in Poland, and all the ones I am yet to discover. There is no other country except for Germany that I know so much about, and yet I don’t know nearly enough. I want to see more, know more, understand better.

You know how when you travel and get cash from the ATM in a foreign country, you try to calculate so you won’t get too much as to not be stuck with foreign currency at the end of your trip? In Poland I never do that. I always take out any decent amount I feel like taking out. If I have Zloty left over at the end of my stay, I will just spend them the next time around. It is never far away.

Which country makes you feel at home? Why do you love it so much, and do people understand your love for it?

Simple Truths – Quote Postcards

So I write and I sing. That’s enough of the arts for me. I couldn’t act if my life depended on it (I was in a Shakespeare play at school and I wait for the day that VHS has entirely died out so no one can ever watch the video proof of that horrible embarrassment…), and I my drawing is limited, to say the least. Language and music are sufficient, I do not need to become an all rounder in the arts.

You are all sensing that there is a „but“. And you are right. Writing a blog, I have started to enjoy photography. And while I’m most definitely not all that good at it, I notice I am getting better, which is all one ever can expect from oneself. And because I still like to combine pictures and words, I have taken to making little postcards with quotes on them whenever I felt in a certain mood and found a quote that encouraged or supported me at the time. These little life wisdoms I will share with you now.

Korczak, Quote on PictureI found this in Janusz Korczak’s diary from the Warsaw ghetto. He was a pediatrician and is a Polish national hero, because he accompanied the children from an orphanage (which he ran) into the gas chambers and died there. I find the idea reassuring that living is something that has to be learned. Learning processes are something I enjoy. They promise success in the end. Maybe, with time, I will become more skilled, more able in this subject that we call life. The picture was taken on the ferry from Split, which you see at the shore, to the island Vis, in Croatia.  Beethoven, Quote on PictureThis has been one of my favourite quotes ever since I was a little girl. Beethoven’s music has accompanied me through some difficult times, and its power has never failed to allow me to find my strength. His only opera, Fidelio, is my favourite until this day, and I can sing along to most of the symphonies (the one withe the odd numbers anyway. And the 6th.). As a composer having gone deaf as he grew older, he knew a thing or two about putting up a fight against fate. He may have been the first one to teach me to never give up if you believe in something. The pictures was taken at the Bay of Kotor in Tivat, Montenegro.

Irigaray, Quote on PictureLuce Irigaray may not be the easiest theoretician to come across, but she makes a few very interesting points on the cultural theoretical concept of „alterity“, that is, anything connected to things that are different, to „the other“. She says that anything new can only be met once we have come to terms with the self – that is, a conscious, reflected identity is vital for dealing with alterity. I think  this goes for any interpersonal relation, and may be especially valid when encountering other cultures. I took the picture in Pocitelj in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Hesse, Quote on Picture I had to deal with a few gains and a few losses this year – just as it goes in life. I don’t deal well with good byes. They make me very emotional, I think it is because I feel powerless in the face of them. In those moments, I try to hold on to this poem by Hermann Hesse which has accompanied me since I was 15 and set out to live apart from friends and family for an entire year as an exchange student in the US. It is nothing but the truth that „each beginning bears a special magic“, and it is what every farewell will bring us to. The photo is from Porto in Portugal.

Palahniuk, Quote on Picture I absolutely loved the Flea Market in Brussels at Jeu de Balle where I took this picture. With all the other postcards I showed you here, I had a quote and went through my archives to find a fitting picture. With this one, I was looking for a quote to express the joy I felt at looking at the creative chaos, the infinite diversity I met in this place, and I found one by Palahniuk that said it all. My new beginning (cf the Hesse poem!) may lead me into chaos – but that is where truly magical things can be found.

What’s your favourite quote to help you understand life? Or can you share any travel related quotes that mean something to you?

 

Gretchen’s Question, or Travel and Faith

In one of Germany’s most prized pieces of cultural heritage, Goethe’s monumental drama Faust, there is a phrase that has become proverbial in the German language as the Gretchenfrage, or Gretchen’s question. This now refers to any question that is very hard to answer, but crucial for the inquirer; a question whose answer has so far been deliberately withheld or even avoided. You know that moment in a fresh relationship when you come across something that might be a deal breaker and you are reluctant to ask about it – or be asked about it – because it might drive the whole thing with this new person to an untimely end? Yes. A classic case of Gretchenfrage at stake.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Places of Worship? The Blue Mosque in Istanbul is certainly one of the most impressive ones

The original question that Gretchen asks Faust in the drama is if he believes in God, or actually „Say, as regards religion, how you feel.“ Faust tries to wriggle out of it, prompting Gretchen to be certain of his atheism. Many travellers visit St Peter’s Basilica in Rome or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and many travel bloggers have written about places of worship – I myself have done posts about St Paul’s in London or the Cologne Cathedral. Yet the question of faith or religion is hardly ever addressed. I wonder if this is because less and less of us believe in God or if it is just a topic that people try to avoid out of fear of stepping on someone’s toes.

Studenica, Serbia

Studenica Monastery in Serbia – a deeply spiritual place

My one explicit travel experience related to this was when I got into a very strange discussion with a girl I met in Croatia. I wear a cross on a necklace – a bit of a superstition really, but also a small commitment to my faith. The girl saw it and asked me if I believed in God. I said: „Yes.“ She asked: „Hardcore?“ I didn’t even really know what she meant by that, but since I don’t fanatically run to church every Sunday, I said: „No, not really.“ She said: „Good.“ And then she went on to explain to me how every person in the world who believed in God wanted her to go to hell because she was a lesbian. I tried to tell her that this wasn’t true, that I have a lot of gay friends and don’t want to see any of them in hell (a concept I do not even believe in). She wouldn’t have it and we didn’t exactly part on excellent terms.

Dominican church, Krakow, Poland

My favorite church in Poland – the Dominican church in Krakow. They do student services on Sunday nights that are great for just the atmosphere even if you don’t speak Polish!

Personally I find my own faith to be a bit of a conglomerate of different ideas from various religious backgrounds. I was baptized Lutheran as a baby and had my confirmation aged 14. I went to a catholic primary school. I hung out in college with people who were into Hinduism. I have long had an inexplicable fascination with Islam. One of the reasons I loved the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is that the protagonist calls himself a believing and practicing Christian, Hindu and Muslim. How cool is that, really.

What’s more important to me, though, is that I have always put the values of humanity before the values of any religion. I actually think they should be the same thing anyway. I don’t believe it to be important what your God is called, as long as he gives you a few ideas as to how to live a good life. Anything destructive that religions do doesn’t go with the general idea in my book. The Oatmeal has really said it all in his brilliant comic How to suck at your Religion.

Ohrid, Macedonia

I had a moment of spiritual awakening in this church in Ohrid, Macedonia – a moment of truly being at peace with myself.

Now the beauty of travel is that it puts forward all the ideas of humanity that ideally religion should enhance as well, and more than that – travel can help you learn about what you believe in. And I don’t just mean that in terms of denomination – but that too. I learned so much about Islam when I was in Bosnia and Turkey, and it helped me understand certain debates that I only knew from the media so much better. I went to services in England, in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia and many times in Poland and it’s taught me about the way that people celebrate their own beliefs.

It is hard to argue that in many cultures religion contributes immensely to the belief system of the people. Because of this, I think we should ask about religion more and learn as much about it as we can while we travel. Things are only ever scary as long as we don’t understand them. That goes especially for the weird fear-respect-scepticism mixture that I sense in many Westerners toward Islam – a beautiful and peaceful religion full of wisdom and love, from all I can say about it.

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

This is the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther started reformation by proclaiming is 95 theses.

When I had my preparatory classes for my confirmation 15 years ago (OMG did I just really write that…?), we discussed the concept of sin. I never liked it much, it had the whole guilt trip thing about it. My pastor explained to us that the German word for it, Sünde, is related to the word Sund – in English sound, a strait of water in an ocean between two landmasses. When we sin, we put a sound between us and another person (or, if you will, between us and God), we divide ourselves from others, we cease to be whole. In that explanation, the concept of sin made sense to me for the first time. And if we accept that this is so, then forgiveness means to build a bridge over the sound that has been created so that we can come together again. And once again the bridge is the symbol that, for me, sets everything right.

What do you think? Do you believe in God? Have you been confronted with questions of faith when you travelled? Do you talk to people about religion when you travel?

Travel Fever and Moving Forward

The first post I ever wrote in English on this blog was almost exactly three years ago – I looked back on the first half of my (South-) Eastern European adventure and took stock. That post centered around travel quotes. You can read it here.

Years later, I am still a big fan of words that encapture what travel means to me. I find them in so many places – in what a friend says to me. In a song that I hear on my iPod looking out a bus window. In a book that I have read. Written on buildings, monuments or the pavement of the cities I visit. All I have to do is open my eyes and my heart to them, and they will fall into my soul and move me.

Düsseldorf, Germany

Spotted on the door to a confectionery – „The world belongs to those who enjoy it“. This happens to be the motto of the lovely German travel blogger Jana of http://sonne-wolken.de/ – if you speak German, check her out!!

I set out on my trip back in the days with this quote by Polish travel writer and journalist Ryszard Kapuściński on my mind:

Podróż przecież nie zaczyna się w momencie, kiedy ruszamy w drogę, i nie kończy, kiedy dotarliśmy do mety. W rzeczywistości zaczyna się dużo wcześniej i praktycznie nie kończy się nigdy, bo taśma pamięci kręci się w nas dalej, mimo że fizycznie dawno już nie ruszamy się z miejsca. Wszak istnieje coś takiego jak zarażenie podróżą i jest to rodzaj choroby w gruncie rzeczy nieuleczalnej.

A journey does not begin the moment when we set off, and it does not finish when we have arrived to our last stop. In reality it starts much earlier and practically does not ever finish, for the tape of memory runs on inside of us, even though we have long stopped moving from the spot physically. There is indeed something like the contagion of travel, and it is a kind of illness that is in fact incurable.

When I found it, just before I was about to leave Germany to travel for 5 months, I focussed most on the part about the journey starting before it starts – now, stuck for the most part of my days at a desk (even though it is at a job I quite like!), I think more about how true it is that it never stops. I still think about my big trip almost every day, and how it has changed me, and how I wouldn’t be the same person today without it. I dream about the places that I will go to next. I try to travel in my day to day life whenever I can – be it for a day on the weekend, or even just to a different neighborhood, or in eating exotic food. I am branded incurably and for life with the contagion of travel fever.

Szimpla, Berlin, Germany

Coffee, writing, and contemplating wise words others have uttered about travel – one of my favourite pastimes!

When I was in Bosnia, one of my favourite travel acquaintances, Bata, taught me the following Bosnian quote by famous movie maker Emir Kusturica:

Svakoga dana u svakom pogledu sve više i više napredujemo.

Every day in every respect we move forward more and more.

I have had this sentence on a note card above my desk for a very long time. While travelling it is quite literally true. We move. All the time. And while travelling, it is also metaphorically true more than usually. We see so many things that change us, we experience so many things that add to our knowledge. I try to keep it in mind every day to make it true when I am at home as well. I try to improve as a person every day and move forward. And it is so much easier for me to do that with much sensual and intellectual stimulation – so I try to learn and see new things all the time. The world is my market with thousands of fruit, cheeses and spices to try.

Market, Mostar, Bosnia

Oh dear, the cheese in Bosnia… and how you can try every kind at the market to see if you like it, and then go home full and happy… only to have more cheese… with honey… yum…

Only recently I fell in love with the music by Gerhard Gundermann, a singer songwriter from the former GDR who passed away far too young. His lyrics have captured me from the start. This song is called „No Time Anymore“:

It is a song about our daily struggle in life between obligation and choice, between the things we have to do and we want to do, and it is about the feeling of not having enough time to do it all. He sings:

Und ich habe keine Zeit mehr Räuber und Gendarm zu spiel’n
Den Ämtern meine Treue hinzutragen
Und rauchende Motoren mit meinem Blut zu kühl’n
Und nochmal eine Liebe auszuschlagen.

And I don’t have time anymore for playing cops and robbers
For bringing my loyalty to authorities
And for cooling down smoking engines with my blood
And for turning down another love.

What are the things that I don’t have time for anymore? There is so much to see and try, and so much life to live. I hope that the travel fever always burns strongly inside of me and provides me with the drive to move forward and the desire to be led astray.

Books Shaping Travels – Part II

I explained last week in Part I of this post how before I left on my big trip to the Balkans in 2010, my friend Christoph came up with an idea. He wanted to give me a book that I could take, and when I was done with it I was to exchange it for a new book, and I was to do that with every book, and bring him back the last one. I loved the idea and agreed. I have told you about the first three books that took me through the first two countries, Hungary and Slovenia. Funnily enough, the next three books lasted me up until the end of my trip through nine more countries.

I couchsurfed in a lovely flat with five wonderful people in Maribor in Slovenia, and I asked them what books they could recommend for me to read that were related to their country or the Balkans in general. They came up with two suggestions: Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut and Ivo Andric’s The Bridge over the Drina. When I went to Lujbljana, after Maribor, I found the greatest English book shop in all my travels, Behemot. They happened to have copies of both books in English and I bought them without second thought. It stepped on the point of having to exchange books for one another a little bit, but I really wanted to read these two novels and exchanging books had proven difficult so far anyway.

Alamut is a novel by Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol – which is why I started with it, since I was still in Slovenia. At first sight one wouldn’t think that it had anything to do with the region. It is a story set in 11th century Persia and tells of the training of assasins in service of a political leader. It is a deeply moving story of almost epic proportions about love and friendship, sacrifice, honour, pride and deception. It would be easy to oversee the actual tie to its author, who wrote it as an allegory for Italian fascism under Mussolini, being part of the Slovene minority in Italy himself. I loved everything about the book that took me through Slovenia and Northern Croatia almost half way through Dalmatia.

Bartol: AlamutI gave away Alamut to a girl I met at a hostel in Split. I had a feeling she would appreciate it and gave it to her gladly.

Following this was the reading of something particularly special to me. I have written about the meaning I attach to Ivo Andric’s wonderful novel The Bridge over the Drina when I wrote about, well, the bridge over the Drina – because it is an actual place in Eastern Bosnia not far from the Serbian border, the magnificent Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad. This picture certifies it for me that I did sit on the very bridge as I finished reading the book. It was not just a dream, I truly did it.

Andric: Bridge over river Drina

Ivo Andric actually won the nobel prize for literature for this book in 1961 – even if the book was published in 1945 already. In it, he connects the fates of people living in the small town of Višegrad to the fate of the mighty bridge. The town’s life seems to circle entirely around it, and as I sat on the bridge, I wished that someone would come by and sell me a piece of water melon, like it was described in the book, so that I could try and spit the seeds as far as I could into the turquoise waters of the Drina.

I finished reading The Bridge over the Drina and couldn’t just get myself to leave it somewhere for anyone to find. Besides I needed a new one in exchange. I went back to Mostar, that city of cities to me, and saw my Canadian friend Aasa again who I had met the time I had been atround before. She knew about the book and had wanted to read it for a long time, and now the prospect of getting her hands on it excited her much. I couldn’t have found a better person to give it to. In exchange, Aasa gave me Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

West: Black Lamb and grey falconAn absolute classic in Balkan travel literature, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has well over 1,000 pages and is a non-fiction account of a journey that Dame Rebecca West took through what then was Yugoslavia with her husband in 1937. It is a right brickstone, and quite a few people pronounced me completely whack carrying it around with me through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, again Bulgaria, again Macedonia, and Kosovo.

I never finished the book. In fact I was not so much reading it as reading in it. I didn’t do a linear reading, chapter by chapter. Instead I went directly to parts Rebecca West had written about cities I got to know and love. I was indignant over the fact that the chapter on my beloved Mostar was so short, but I loved whenever there was talk of meeting locals and being welcomed with open arms in so many different situations. Often I marvelled at what had not changed, and sometimes I was startled by how different my own impressions were. All of the time I was thinking about how I would describe the places I read about in Rebecca West’s writing.

I left the book with my couchsurfing host in Prishtina, and Irish girl who had as desperately wanted to read it as my Canadian friend had the Ivo Andric novel. Again I am confident that I left it in good hands.

While writing this, I had completely forgotten how the story ended. I was already prepared to have to tell you now that it had just escaped my consciousness what had happened with Cristoph’s and my deal. In fact it only just came back to me that I gave Black Lamb and Grey Falcon away in Prishtina. And similarly, it just now came back to me what I brought back for Christoph. There is another fabulous little bookshop in Prishtina called Dit e Nat. It is a good place for meeting both locals and expats and the have a good selection of English books and delicious coffee – plus and unbeatable atmosphere. There, I bought an English a novel called Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain) by Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić that I brought Christoph back to Germany. And thus it was a perfect circle – leaving with a novel in German, coming back with an English translation of a Croatian one, leaving with a book on academia, returning with one on war traumata and cultural identity.

What books in your travel has shaped your experience? Do you read when you travel?

Books Shaping Travels – Part I

Before I left on my big trip to the Balkans in 2010, I had coffee with my friend Christoph who asked me: „Which book are you taking?“ I replied: „Apart from my Lonely Planet Eastern Europe? None.“ He looked at me in utter disbelief and silence. When he found words again, he said that he couldn’t allow that to happen and came up with an idea. He wanted to give me a book that I could take, and when I was done with it I was to exchange it for a new book, and I was to do that with every book, and bring him back the last one. I loved the idea and agreed.

Now a lot of things about this plan did not work out. For one thing, Christoph never managed to get me a book before I left, so I bought one myself. It was Pascal Mercier’s novel Perlmanns Schweigen (Perlmann’s Silence). I was, and am still, in love with the same author’s work Night Train to Lisbon, and while I didn’t find Perlmann’s Silence to be quite as brilliant, it was a book I thoroughly enjoyed. It is about a linguistics professor who has run out of ideas and is trying to deal with pressure in the academic world, with his own terms of achievement and success and with language on the whole.

Mercier: Perlmann's SilenceI put Christoph’s and my name on the title page in each book, along with all the places where I’d read it. That way, when I would leave the book anywhere, people would know where the book had been and that it was connected with the bond of friendship between two people.

So Perlmann’s Silence took me through Hungary, on trains and busses between the capital Budapest, Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) and the beautiful Lake Balaton. In Veszprém, a gorgeous little town not far from the famous lake, I couchsurfed with a family – th only time during my entire trip. They had a beautiful house and three precious children and showed such deep heartfelt warmth towards me that I don’t think I could ever forget them. I had finished my novel and asked Gabor, the father, who spoke both English and a little German, if he’d like my book and if he had another one I could take. He gave me Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.

Quinn: IshmaelWhat is special about it is that Gabor is the translator of this book into Hungarian. He came across it in the US, and felt it should be known to a wider public in Hungary. Ishmael consists mainly of philosophical dialogue between a nameless narrator and his teacher, a gorilla by the name of Ishmael who can communicate via telepathy. When I first heard of the plot, I wasn’t sure what to think about it, but upon reading the book, it raised questions that had me buried deep in thought. I finished it very quickly – just two stations, as you can see in the picture – and writing about it now I realise how much I would like to read it again. All the great philosophical issues of our time and maybe every time were in there: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why did life come to be this way? It is a book that will have you contemplate your life and life as a concept, and try to place yourself as an individual in your surroundings more clearly.

Gabor had asked me to send the book back to him after reading it (although he had allowed me to write the two names and the stations of my journey in the book), so I couldn’t exchange it for another. In Maribor in Slovenia I thus went into a bookshop that had some English books and bought a novel called Guernica by Dave Boling.

Boling: GuernicaNow while I am a big fan of historical events brought to me in literature, I am not a big fan of people from a completely other culture doing it. Dave Boling is American, and to be honest I haven’t bothered researching how he came to write about that famous Basque city that was bombed by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. While I found the novel enjoyable on the whole, I couldn’t quite take the sentiment as seriously as I could have if the author had been from Spain (if not from the Basque country!). It was a quick and easy read though. I left the book in Koper in an internet cafe – I had bought the next one in one of the greatest English bookshops I have ever been to in Ljubljana, and I will talk about it in part 2 of the Books that shaped my Travels.

Date a Girl Who Writes

Date a girl who writes. Date a girl whose hands are smeared with ink from the pen that she loves to write with, but that keeps leaking. She may not have a perfect French manicure because those long nails would always splinter when she spends nights on her computer typing. But with these hands of hers, she has created whole worlds in her writing that she will take you to if you want her to.

Find a girl who writes. You will spot her by her big eyes looking eagerly at the world, and you will see her stopping and staring at something beautiful, mouth wide open, lost to the world, in awe of something she just experienced. You will feel like you can see cogs turning in her head. That is her thinking about how she could phrase what she just saw so that everyone would be able to feel what she just felt. Maybe she will take out a little dodgy looking notebook with lots of dog-ears and scribble something into it. Maybe she will look up, think, and then sit down in sight of the thing that caught her attention, and repeatedly note down stuff in her book, smiling absent-mindedly.

CIMG9695Date a girl who writes. She will always find beauty in the things around her because she will always look for something that she can shape in the amazingness that is language. She knows that things are of a greater truth when she can share them with her words. She knows that phrasing her encounters will add a depth to the experience. She knows humility because she has met the boundaries of language and felt the gigantic silence that occurs when the world is too big for an expression, when words can never suffice. Date a girl who writes because she will know exactly when to speak and when to keep silent.

A girl who writes will be a girl who reads. She will see storylines in her life and in the lives of others around her, because she has come to know them from her favourite books and wants to put them in writing herself more often than not. Date a girl who wants to see Kafka’s Prague, Joyce’s Dublin and Dickens’ London. She’s the girl who is longing to go to Russia because she wants to see the wide landscapes she holds dear to her heart ever since reading Doktor Zhivago. She’s also the girl who wants to see Colombia because she cried when she read One Hundred Years of Solitude and wants to live the magic that the novel foretold. She even wants to travel to Afghanistan, enchanted by the beauty that the country must once have held and that she’s read about in The Kite Runner.

Date a girl who writes. She has been through struggles with herself and knows that conflict is an important part of life both inside of yourself and with others. She has fought her own wars inside her mind, battling “impressed” versus “in awe”, battling “ecstatic” versus “elated”, battling all shades of colours and all tones of sound that language can express. Date a girl who writes because she will touch all of your senses with language and with her entire being.

Don’t just tell her that she’s beautiful, funny, or smart. Tell her instead that her beauty is that of a red leaf on a golden autumn day being carried by the wind through the streets of a big city. Tell her that she makes you laugh until your tummy hurts. Tell her that her wits make her a female version of Odysseus. Allow her to be part of a creative metaphor. Baffle her with your eloquence. Understand her need for precise vocabulary. Write letters to her. Read her novels and poems. Point out song lyrics that you liked.

Date a girl who writes. She will always share with you what she thinks it is that makes life worthwhile. She will bring beauty, laughter and depth to your life. She strives for a life that is never boring, and with her, yours won’t be either. Listen to what she has to tell you and I promise, it will be worth your time, if only for the sound of the words that she will carefully choose to make you understand exactly what she is trying to say.

Know that you will never have her for yourself. You will always have to share her with her love for the world, with her passion for life, and with her need to be by herself so that she can form words and stories in her mind without being distracted. She and you will never be exclusive – she will always be in love with places, because they make the setting; with people, because they make characters; and with feelings, because they are what makes everything come alive.

One day you will say something to her, and she will startle, look you in the eye, smile and say “That is beautiful.” If you find what you said scribbled on a post-it note and pinned to the wall above her desk the next day, next to quotes by Hemmingway and Mark Twain, you will know you’ve won her heart.

This post, as many will have guessed, is inspired by Date a Girl Who Reads by Rosemarie Urquico and Date a Girl Who Travels by Solitary Wanderer. Maybe all three kinds of girls are really the same thing.

The Wonderful Astray

Again I owe the inspiration to this blog post to my wonderful job that allows me to deal professionally with things I love very much. Last November, one of these things was the work of Polish cult poet Edward Stachura. Stachura was something of a Polish beatnik who mainly wrote poetry and songs. He committed suicide in his early fourties which made him even more popular with the underground scene. I came across his work mainly through the music of the wonderful band Stare Dobre Małżeństwo – the band name translates to Good Old Marriage. The first song by them that I fell in love with was “Jak”:

While the melody and the simple guitar instrumental caught me by their slight melancholy that I still felt to be light and hopeful, it was really the lyrics that got to me right away – especially the recurring line

Jak suchy szloch w tę dżdżystą noc…

Like a dry sob into this rainy night…

To me the Polish line consists of nothing but beautiful words. Szloch, sob, is a beautiful word that sounds exactly like the sound it represents. Dżdżysty, rainy, is a beautiful word that starts by a consonant cluster that only Polish could come up with. Many people ask me if Polish can be sung at all, with its many consonants. This song proves that it can be done, and beautifully so. It is also proof to me that lyrics don’t always need to be understood intellectually, but that the pure sound of language transports beauty all by itself, because I didn’t understand everything when I first heard this song.

What’s funny about the lyrics is that they never actually give an object of reference. „Jak“ can be translated by „as“ or „like“ or „when“ – all particles that would require something consequently following. That is as this is. That is like this is. That is when this happened. None of these sentences could pose a „this“ without posing a „that“ – but the song leaves out what „that“ is. It just gives a „this“. But in many lines, that proves to be enough. Like here:

Jak winny – li – niewinny sumienia wyrzut,
Że się żyje, gdy umarło tylu, tylu, tylu.

Like guilty unguilty twinges of conscience,
That you’re alive when there have died so many, many, many.

We don’t know what it is that is „like twinges of conscience“ – but that’s of no relevance to the emotional message of the line. I cannot say that I have felt that exact way, but it reminded me of a certain kind of feeling grateful for my life that sometimes is accompanied by a slight sense of disbelief that I should deserve to be so lucky. And it reminded me of the cemeteries of Sarajevo I have written about before:

Sarajevo, Bosnia and HercegovinaThe last bit of the lyrics says:

Jak biec do końca – potem odpoczniesz, potem odpoczniesz, cudne manowce,
cudne manowce, cudne, cudne manowce.

Like running till the end, after that you’ll relax, after that you’ll relax, wonderful astray,
wonderful astray, wonderful, wonderful astray.

The wonderful astray, or the magical astray, or the marvellous astray – what a beautiful notion that is. „Astray“, or „manowce“, has no German equivalent, it can only be translated in colloquialisms. My colleague once said that if there were to be a translation, it could certainly not be combined with terms such as „wonderful“ – German culture doesn’t care for the „astray“. In stereotype, that may be true. In fact, I am the counter example. I love the astray. I love getting lost. Being led wherever circumstance may. Letting life have its way with me.

In a story, this is what The Wonderful Astray means to me – I love just following a trampled out pathway on a remote Croatian island and coming across this:

Vis, Croatia

When I found this place, I sang on the top of my lungs. I’m not sure, but I think Elton John’s „Can You Feel the Love Tonight“. If I ever return to this magical place, I’m going to sing „Jak“.

What’s in a Word?

„What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.“

Being a blogger and, if I may be so bold as to call myself by this classier term, maybe even a writer on the whole, I obviously value the written and the spoken word. Putting in words what I have seen while travelling makes me happy, because it makes my experiences seem real, even after they are over. Finding expressions for emotions that I have felt has therapeutic effects on me. Engaging in eloquent discussions with interesting people is when I learn about the world, about myself and about the people around me.

In short, I love using words, and I love it when people know how to use words. By that I don’t mean just having the capability of speech, but I mean people who have an awareness of a language’s possibilities and opportunities. I love it when people are in search of the perfect word while explaining something to me, and it makes me happy when they are aware of having used one specific word because any other word they could have used wouldn’t have been quite as appropriate for just what they meant to say.

Stone heart, Crete, GreeceAbout half a year ago, my job inspired me to a little game: I compared articles about love in different languages on wikipedia, and they set such different focus in the definition of the concept at times that it didn’t even feel like they were talking about the same thing. For example, the English one about LOVE says:

The English word love can refer to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes, ranging from pleasure („I loved that meal“) to interpersonal attraction („I love my partner“).

This one mentions love as an expression of affirmation or approval even before it mentions romantic love between two people. Meanwhile the German article on LIEBE reads:

Love in the narrower sense is the term for the strongest affection that one person is capable of feeling for another. It doesn’t need to be reciprocated.

I think it’s beyond interesting that the German entry would feel the need to mention so fast and so explicitly that love can actually be a one-way-street. Whereas the English article is almost functional, or realistic in the least, we may still be stuck in romanticism here in Germany. Who’d have thought.

Wer are all a little weird

Who could have said it better than Dr Suess, really… Courtesy of http://img3.etsystatic.com/008/0/6240965/il_570xN.383333711_fnax.jpg

 

The Polish entry about MIŁOŚĆ starts like this:

Love – a feeling directed toward a person that is connected with a desire for their well-being and happiness.

I love that definition because it is so completely altruistic and emotional, and it focuses on the object of love, the loved one, while the German entry focusses on the subject that loves. The Polish is all about the YOU when the German is all about the I. Compared to those very personal approaches, the Spanish piece on AMOR is unbelievably technical and almost scientific:

Love is a universal concept relating to the affinity between beings, defined in diverse ways in respect to different ideologies and points of view (artistic, scientific, philosophical, religious).

In a way, this is the much more professional definition – but who wants professionality when it comes to love, really? And that from the Spanish, a people with a reputation of romance to uphold.

So are Love, Liebe, Miłość and Amor four different things? Are all the definitions valid for every one of these words? For any given word, how do we choose which word and which definition to operate with in which context? While I don’t have any definite results on any of these questions, I try to explore possible answers when I write on my blog, and I think this is one of the most rewarding endeavours in my day to day life.

Writing teaches me to be sensitive to implications, to shades of meaning in words. It forces me to look at the world and at myself so much more intensely. What is the color of that water called? What is the word for that sound that I hear when I tread on this ground? What is going through my head as I make my way from A to B in a foreign place, and how did those thoughts get there, what were they inspired by? What was it that I was feeling when I was in that one specific place? Was it – awe? admiration? or intimidation? Was I overwhelmed or stunned? overstrained maybe even? or on the contrary – complete? at peace? plainly happy? I have come to understand that I need to let myself experience the feelings wholly and find the right moment to attach words to them in order to make the most of my experiences. It is just how I work.

In linguistics, the idea of performativity suggests that words create reality. The most common example for this notion are weddings. By saying “I do”, one creates a reality that goes beyond words – one creates a marriage. The “I do” is thus simultaneously an utterance and a manifest act, a so called speech act. Nothing illustrates the power of words better, I think. They actually are action. With that in mind, I’ll close with a meme that circulated among my friends on facebook a few days ago and that may reflect the general sentiment of the thoughts in this post:

It's always words that undress you.

Courtesy of http://shahirzag.com/post/32341355358/possibly-my-favorite