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Category: Music

The Things I Love About Poland – Part I

My self-imposed focus when it comes to travel and thus, to writing (since most of the time one means the other for me) is Eastern Europe. How that came about is a long story. But one part in it is certain: that it all starts – and possibly ends – with Poland.

I would be lying if I said I had always had a fascination for that part of the world. When asked on a study trip in high school, I distinctly remember saying: „What in the WORLD would I want to see in POLAND?!?!?“ I went to Greece instead, which was nice. But it is no Poland.

Pasym, Poland

Pasym, a beautiful small town in the Mazury Lake District

How did my love affair with Poland come about then? In college I needed a second major adding to the one I had always known I wanted to get – German literature. I chose Polish. One of the questions I must have been asked most in my life is certainly: „Why Polish???“ – usually asked with an undertone of utter disbelief. Well, it was a mixture of random reasons, but really, most of it was gut feeling. And the older I get, the more I believe that this is a better reason for decisions than most others.

From then on, it all just added up. Poland and I are, in a way, meant to be. I’ve come to love it more and more. And here is why.

1. The Cities

Poland’s cities are special. They are different from the cities I have seen elsewhere – they are beautiful and ugly, and full of atmosphere and history. And they are very different from one another. That is best displayed in contrasting Warsaw and Cracow – without feeding on the rivalry between the two. They compliment each other in the best possible way – Warsaw is grey, progressive, and full of hipster culture and modern art. Cracow is traditional, conservative, and insanely pretty.

Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw’s Palace of Culture – a gift from Stalin to the country and an impressive example of socialist architecture

Sukiennice, Cracow, Poland

Cracow’s main market square, the largest medieval square of its kind in Europe, with the beautiful Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)

Travelling in Poland, one should obviously not neglect the other urban gems, though. Wrocław might be the most accessible city for foreigners, and it somewhat combines the best of the two previously mentioned cities. Gdańsk has the added selling point that it is right by the Baltic Sea and, as an old hanseatic port city, has a tradition of being very open-minded and down-to-earth. Poznań may have the prettiest market square I have ever been to. And I haven’t even been to Łódź or Lublin. Indulge!

Market Square, Poznan, Poland

Poznan’s beautiful market square

2. The Sense of History

When travelling in Poland, it is impossible to miss the active memory culture that the country has. Memorials are all around. For a history freak like me, that is just plainly wonderful. Poles generally know their country’s history much better than Germans from my experience. They are aware of their country’s proud past as a mighty kingdom in the middle ages, and their painful loss of territory which forced them to exist as a nation without a country between 1795 and 1918. They have been in an unfortunate geographical position in the 20th century, wedged between the Germans and the Russians, and it has shaped their identity. They have fought for their culture time and time again, and they are proud of it while still being critical of it. And they know that it is important to remember the past.

Shipyards, Gdansk, Poland

Memorial to the victims of the strikes in the Gdansk shipyards in 1970. Most of the fight against the socialist regime was yet to come. The memorial was one of the early achievements of the Solidarnosc movement that contributed significantly to the downfall of socialism in Europe.

3. The Hospitality

None of the above would mean a lot if it wasn’t brought to me by the most hospitable, caring, genuinely kind and wonderful people. If for a woman the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, for a country the way to my heart is through its people. Hospitality in Poland is of dimensions that were unknown to me before I came there. They are so much less distrustful than Germans are. Don’t be surprised if you ask someone for directions and they walk you to your destinations. Don’t be surprised either if they invite you to their home for dinner – and don’t say no. I’m getting to the food in the follow-up post! In short, it is easy to make friends in Poland – and you will want to make friends there if you want to truly see through the more complicated dimensions of the country’s history and culture and get to taste the truly amazing vodka.

Friends, Grudziadz, Poland

My friends Agnieszka and Karol are among my favourite people in the world. I met them in Gdansk, but this was when Karol took us on a roadtrip to visit his hometown Grudziadz.

4. The Language

Ah, that singsong sound of the Polish language with all the freaky consonants and a few nasal vowels. That grammar that drove me up the wall when I learned it, but is capable of expressing things so precisely, so uniquely, most of all so differently from German. The germanisms like wihajster, literally whatshisname and used for any random thing you can’t find a name for; and the anglicisms with their weird spelling that turns manager into menedżer.

I have been learning Polish for ten years, I cursed it and loved it, and was always pretty sure I’d never actually be able to speak it. But I’m getting there, one tongue twisting hell at a time, and loving every step of the way.

Signs in Gdansk, Poland

German – Polish – English. How I love it when translations come out all weird and funny as they do in this German sign outside a ramshackle building. It sounds as though the building was a person, verbally threatening to cripple or kill the visitor.

5. The Music

When learning a language as twisted as Polish, music is of huge help. I know about half my Polish vocabulary from song lyrics – singing along, trying to understand what’s going on, sometimes actually translating the lyrics at home at my desk. Over the years I have been in touch with Polish pop, rock, rap, reggae, folk, and basically everything in between. I will just give you a few examples here. The Polish equivalent of the Rolling Stones is the rock band Dżem. Their song „List do M“ was the first Polish song I knew by heart, and it is a beautful and sad rock ballad.

A specific kinf of music I got to know in Poland is Klezmer. It is a Jewish musical tradition, not so big on lyrics, but mainly instrumental, using different instruments to make beautiful, yearning, sighing, swinging music played often at celebrations of any kind. The band Kroke may be the most famous Polish Klezmer band.

My personal favourite is the Polish singer / songwriter tradition that brought forth many wonderful artists I listen to almost every day. It is quite folksy, and if we translated the lyrics, most would run away screaming for they drip with Kitsch – but in Polish, they somehow work. There is a tradition called Poezja śpiewana, Sung Poetry, that is especially well known for its poetic song lyrics. Jacek Kaczmarski, whose most famous song „Mury“ I put here for you, is a bit of a special case. His songs are much more political, and he is often referred top as the Barde of the Solidarność, the trade union and political movement that brought down socialism in Poland.

If you find I am missing things, rest assured that I will probably mention them in my follow up post on more things I love about Poland. It will discuss the landscapes, the food (and the vodka…), the literature, the beauty of Polish swearwords, and the incomparable Polish sense of humour.

Have you been to Poland? What do you love about the country? Or was there anything you didn’t like at all?

Inspiration in Song Lyrics – Gundermann

It has been a long time since I wrote on this blog about music, lyrics and language instead of travel and personal growth. Lately I must say that music has grown even more important to me (who knew that that was even possible), and in this end-of-year reflective mood that I am in, I am listening to it more eager to find answers to my questions, inspiration for my quests.

Piano, Brussels, Belgium

This beauty can be seen at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium

I have always had a thing for music with German lyrics – not so much Schlager, but contemporary German singer / singwriter music, Indie pop, pop rock and even hip hop (now I know that most people who are not German native speakers do not consider German hip hop to be hip hop. But I think that must be because they don’t understand the lyrics. Bands like Fettes Brot and Die Fantastischen Vier have ingenious lyricists!). When I started writing my own music, it was quite natural for me to come up with German words for them, too. So it is not surprising that when I seek inspiration, I turn to German music again.

For a couple of years now, I have gone to see a specific band in concert between Christmas and New Year’s. They are called Randgruppencombo, and they are a tribute band to singer / singwriter Gerhard Gundermann. Gundermann was an artist from the GDR, the former East Germany, and he continued to be fairly successful after reunification (which is not at all self-understood). Some of his most well-known songs deal with the aftermath of the political change, with the need to find a new place in this new society. His language is clear and simple, without frills. He puts complicated feelings into plain words, and because of this his songs speak to me with great immediacy. One of the songs that I have pondered a lot lately is this one called „Die Zukunft“, The Future – here in a version of the mentioned Randgruppencombo:

Die Zukunft ist ’ne abgeschossene Kugel,
auf der mein Name steht und die mich treffen muss.
Und meine Sache ist, wie ich sie fange:
Mit’m Kopp, mit’m Arsch, mit der Hand oder mit der Wange.
Trifft sie mich wie ein Torpedo oder trifft sie wie ein Kuss?

The future is a launched bullet
that carries my name and that is bound to hit me.
And it’s my business how I catch it:
With my head, with my ass, with my hand or with my cheek.
Will it hit me like a torpedo or will it hit like a kiss?

A lot of things have happened to me this year that I did not see coming, but the lyrics of this song have made me aware at all times that things will come, they will, and there is no way for me to prevent it from happening. But I have the power to form and shape the things that are coming to me. I may like it or not that the bullet will hit me, but I cannot change the fact. I can just (wo)man up and take charge of how I will meet it. I find this thought quite consoling, probably because it empowers me somewhat in times when the future seems worryingly insecure.

The complement to this song is one that deals with the past. It’s called „Vögelchen“, Little Bird, and this is a live version by Gundermann himself:

Wir wollten es fangen, das Vögelchen, in teuren schwarzen Apparaten. Wir kleben Bilder ein und wir suchen blind nach jenen funkelnden Lichtern, die die Mädchen in den Augen hatten auf unseren Mopeds, die lange verschrottet sind.
Da ist es wieder, das Vögelchen – es nistet in den nassen Haaren seltsamer Menschen, die unsere Kinder sind. Und auch die funkelnden Lichter sind dort, wo sie waren, die ganzen Jahre. Du hast sie nur lange nicht mehr angezünd’t.

We wanted to catch the little bird in expensive black machines. We sort out pictures and we are looking blindly for the shimmering lights that the girls had in their eyes on our mopeds that have been scrapped for a long time.
There it is, the little bird – it’s nesting in the wet hair of strange people who are our children. And the shimmering lights are also just there, where they have been for all those years. Just you haven’t lit them for a long time.

The little bird, as in „Watch the birdie!“, refers to a camera trying to capture the moment in a picture. While the song is very nostalgic, it also has an optimistic ring to it that the shimmering lights of hope and anticipation are never lost. It may be merely by association, but I think of a lot of people, friends and acquaintances, who have experienced loss or pain lately, and this song mainly reminds me of one very important lesson in life: Count your blessings.

Those songs thus leave me with two powerful and reassuring thoughts: Take charge of the future. Be grateful for the past. And while those are very important lessons, it is always vital to remember to live in the moment. One of Gundermann’s most famous songs, a song he called a consolation song for a friend, is called „Brunhilde“ and all about making the best of today. I did a cover version of it myself a while back with a rookie keyboard arrangement that is not very professional, but I think the sentiment is clear:

Und was sollte besser sein als so ein Abend im Frieden?

And what could be better than an evening in peace?

Are there songs that guide you and inspire you as you reflect upon your life? I would love it if you shared them in the comments!

From my Travel Playlists

There is a playlist on my iTunes that I treasure dearly. It holds the music I had on my iPod shuffle when I travelled the Balkans three years ago. A limited selection of songs that accompanied me on many bus and train rides through the beauty that is South Eastern Europe. Tunes so familiar to me that I know every change of rhythm and every funny note, and for most of them, the entire lyrics. Some of them I started out with, some of them I added while on the road. I picked a selection of them to share with you – because when I am having a melancholic day, I put on some Bosnian coffee and this music and I am transported back to Balkan sunshine and the soft rocking of a bus on a scenic route. And also because right now, it is summer in Berlin and I am happy, and this music makes this feeling ten times more intense.

1. Regina Spektor „Better“

If I kiss you where it’s sore
Will you feel better?

I love this song especially for its piano intro and for Regina’s slightly strange pronunciation of English. While the lyrics are actually quite blue, the melody is wide open. If songs had a colour, to me this one would be as turquoise as the waters of the Bosnian rivers I love so much.

2. Dixie Chicks „Not Ready to Make Nice“

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and
I don’t have time to go ‚round and ‚round and ‚round

I downloaded the Dixie Chicks album because of a different song, but this one came to be ma favourite. I learned the whole history behind it only later, but it spoke to me as a fight song from the beginning, as a song that encourages you to stand by your anger and not surpress it, to admit to feeling hurt and misunderstood and treated unfairly. I sometimes forget that it is important to allow these feelings their space.

3. Bijelo Dugme „Tako Ti Je, Moja Mala, Kad Ljubi Bosanac“

Jesi l‘,  mala, ljubila do sada?
Jesi, jesi – al‘ Bosanca nisi!

Have you kissed already, little girl?
You have, you have – but not a Bosnian man!

This song is on a Bijelo Dugme album that I bought in Rijeka in Croatia. Bijelo Dugme are something like the Yugoslav Rolling Stones, and quite a few of their songs just put a huge smile on my face because they are playful and silly and fun. I also learned quite a bit Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian by listening to their music.

4. Edward Maya „Stereo Love“

When you gonna stop breaking my heart?

There are no lyrics of any great depth to this song – what is so catching about it is the instrumental part. It was played in countless beach bars and night clubs I went to on my trip, and while at home I probably never would have liked it, on the trip it encaptured that feeling of relaxation, summer heat and freedom of care.

What do you think? Do you have travel tunes that remind you of a certain trip? Does music ever transport you back into a situation in the past?

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.

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“.

The Sound of Bosnia

My favorite travel chat on twitter was on the topic of SOUNDS this week, and it made me finally want to write about a force that drives me in my everyday life like almost non other – music. When it comes to music and travel, the sounds of the Balkans have left a deep and lasting imprint in my heart

When I visited Bosnia on my Balkans trip, I fell in love with the city of Mostar. There, one of my favorite hostels in Europe, Hostel Majda’s, was offering amazing tours of the Hercegovina region. As we were dashing along Bosnian freeways through sometimes meagre, sometimes overflowing landscapes, our wonderful tour guide Bata would put on this song:

It is called „Miljacka“, which is the name of the river that flows through the Bosnian capitol Sarajevo, and is sung by Bosnia’s king of folk, Halid Bešlić. It is essentially a love song that tells of missing someone and wanting to be with them, and about betrayed love:

Jednom si rekla, nisi porekla, da sam za tebe jedini.
Mene si zvala, a srce dala drugome, da ga isprosi.

Once you said, and you didn’t deny, that I’m the only one for you.
You called to me, but you gave your heart to another, when he asked for it.

The lyrics are corny to a degree that I can only take in Slavic languages, and they really don’t correspond much with the feelings the song triggers inside of me. It transports me right back into the midst of green rolling hills, to rivers of an unearthly green-turquoise colour, to never-ending blue skies, whitewashed houses and pebbled streets in medieval old towns. All my love for Bosnia & Hercegovina washes over me when I hear this song.

I went to Mostar three times on my Balkans trip in 2010 alone (and I’ve returned there since, if only once). During my second stay, I took a day trip with a Canadian friend I had made in Mostar to the nearby town of Blagaj. We wanted to spend some time in the Tekija which, I swear, is one of the most spiritual, peaceful and truly indescribable places I have been to in my life. But before we treated ourselves to the peace of mind that we knew we would find there, we climbed up the steep hill to the old fortress of Blagaj which used to accomodate the rulers of Hercegovina. It is in ruins today, but it is still mighty and proud. If you know me, you can guess what happened when I got up there. I felt an overwhelming urge to sing. And I did.

Fortress, Blagaj, Bosnia & Hercegovina

And I sang this song:

It is called „Đurđevdan“, St George’s Day, and it was written by famous Yugoslav artist Goran Bregović. Like „Miljacka“, it is about missing the one you love.

Evo zore evo zore
Bogu da se pomolim
Evo zore evo zore
Ej đurđevdan je
A ja nisam s onom koju volim

Here’s the dawn, here’s the dawn
That I might pray to God
Here’s the dawn, here’s the dawn
Oh, it’s St George’s Day
And I’m not with the one I love.

Singing out in nature is one of my favorite things to do. You should try it sometime. It is so liberating.

My third time around in Mostar I hardly could tear myself away from the magic of the place. More posts will have to be written on it. When I finally had made a decision to leave, Bata came to me and told me that there would be a concert the next night by a famous Mostar based band called Mostar Sevdah Reunion, and that I was surely going to love them. Bata knew me well already at that point. Even though I had never heard of the band before, I was sure that if he said I was gonna love them, it had to be true. I extended my stay for the concert and never regretted it.

While the song „Miljacka“ is typical Balkan folk, and „Đurđevdan“ is essentially an old gypsy song that has been modernized and, well, balkanized, the music style you have here, in the song „Čudna jada od Mostara grada“, is very specifically Bosnian. It is called Sevdah – hence the name of the band – which is a Turkish loan word in Bosnian meaning a variety of things ranging from love over caress to longing. The song’s title means „Strange pain from the city of Mostar“, and it is again about disappointed love. In the song, a girl says:

“Mene boli i srce i glava,
Jer moj Ahmo s’ drugom razgovara!”

„There is pain in my heart and my head
Because my Ahmo is talking to another!“

The girl’s mother then tries to curse Ahmo, but the girl won’t let her because she still believes in his promises. It is all very endearing, and granted, the range of topic isn’t huge in Balkan music – it is always, always, always about love – but the drive of melody, the variety of instruments and the spirit that runs through the songs in unmatched elsewhere, I think. Seeing the Mostar Sevdah Reunion live, in Mostar at that, open air, and dancing under an endless starry sky, made the beat of the songs and the beat of my heart melt into one another. The rhythm of Sevdah has never left me since.

If you are on twitter, you should join my favorite travel chat #RATW, which stands for Reality Abroad Talk Wednesday, when you next have a chance. It is a weekly chat on Wednesdays 12 pm EST which makes it 5 pm for me in Berlin and a convenient end-of-work-day activity. It is hosted by the lovely folks of Reality Abroad who make everyone feel like family and are absolutely worth a follow!

Being Drawn to Cologne

It was a big deal when I turned 12 years old for two reasons. One: I was allowed to sit in the front of the car now. Not that I got to do it very often as long as my older sisters were around to steal that much desired seat from me at every option. But it did make me feel very grown up when on my 12th birthday I was sitting next to my dad in the front seat of our family car. Two: My dad had made it a rule to take each of us girls on a small trip to a destination of our choice for their 12th birthday, just he and the respective daughter. My oldest sister chose to go to Berlin with him. My middle sister went skiing. And I went with my dad to Cologne. I do not remember why I chose that city, but I have beautiful memories of it.

So when last week I was due to go to a meeting in Düsseldorf, I decided to stop by Cologne for a few hours – just to check if everything was still there, you know. When I got of the train at the main station, I was a bit taken aback by the cold. I had spent the last few days in Southern Germany where Spring had made its first careful appearance, and the icy wind in Cologne came as a bit of a shock. But the sun was shining, and upon leaving the station, the immediate view of the Cathedral erased any doubts as to whether this had been a good idea. It was majestic and elegant, humungous yet delicate. Once more  I stood in awe of this magnificent building.

Cathedral, Cologne, Germany I didn’t enter right away though, since I had absolutely no money on me, not even a coin to lock in my luggage at the train station, so the first thing I did was stroll into town in search of an ATM which proved rather difficult to be found. But who was I to feel annoyed by that. I was in Cologne, I had time on my hands, and walking through the city was fun even with pulling a carry-on the entire time.

Although I only meandered through what seemed to be the shopping district of Cologne, I found the city to be very atmospheric right away. People around me were talking in their funny, jovial Rhineland dialect and I kept listening in on conversations because I love the sound of it. But what made this afternoon most perfect, inspite of the freezing temparatures that sent me on to Düsseldorf with a cold, was the many many street musicians in the pedestrian zone I was walking through. I had to think of Istanbul where I first had the sensation of changing spheres every few meters with a new street musician adding to the moment’s glory.

I recorded a few examples for you. There was a guy with a flute and a few small jingle rings attached to his shoe that he was pounding with rhytmically so that his playing looked like a dance. And one with steel drums right in front of the cathedral that was a lot calmer, and his tune sounded funny in its solemn gravity. My favorite by far was a Klezmer Trio. Klezmer is a music style very dear to my heart which surely is rooted in my affinity to Eastern Europe. There is so much craving and longing, so much ambition in it. I feel that Klezmer is always driving onward, striving for more, urgently pressing to the next note, the next melody. And when it gets there, it is sighing in relief, only to move on right away. It speaks to me because I find myself as a driven spirit in its melodies and rhythms.

After having enjoyed these musical encounters in the pedestrian zone of Cologne’s downtown and having finally found an ATM, I made my way back to the cathedral.

Main gate, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

The square in front of it was lively and packed with people. I approached the front gates with their characteristically gothic arches, and as I came closer, I looked up toward the towers reaching for the skies, as though they were actually trying to connect this earthly world to its creator.

Towers, Cologne Cathedral, GermanyI entered the church with many many others – tourists mainly, I suppose, but I don’t think exclusively. At any rate there was still lots of German to be heard. It didn’t feel like visiting the great cathedrals in Italy that I sometimes find deprived of their spirituality due to all the tourists. I found a place where I felt like settling, and sat there for about half an hour with this perspective on the beautiful architecture of the Cologne Cathedral:

Nave, Cologne Cathedral, Germany I finally got up to move over to the candle stands. I really love the tradition of lighting a candle for someone. When I was still in school, my mother always used to light a candle at home when I had an exam, all the way through my final exam in grad school. She sat it on our dining table and every time she walked by it she would think of me and cross fingers.

I have lit candles in many many churches. To me it is a beautiful manifestation of my thinking and caring about someone. Looking at the stands filled with flickering lights, I was wondering who they had been lit for. I was wondering how many candles had been lit by people for themselves and how many had been lit for someone else. I though that there was maybe a lot of desperation and anxiety behind this – candles lit for people who were ill or had lost perspective and focus. So I thought about people dear to me and lit two candles out of the pure joy of living and experiencing beauty. Lights of gratefulness to shine and impart hope. And I hope amongst the candles were others like mine.

Candle stands, Cologne Cathedral, Germany