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Category: Memory and History (page 1 of 3)

The Wall That Once Was

Tomorrow Germany will celebrate an important anniversary. Tomorrow 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down.

It is one of my favourite topics to write about, the past of the devided Germany and what it means to me and my life. Everything would have been different. I wouldn’t have majored in the same field. I wouldn’t work in the same field. I wouldn’t have lived in the same places. I wouldn’t have met the same people.

25 years ago tomorrow, Günter Schabowski announced new regulations on Free Travel for GDR-citizens in a press conference, and when he was asked when they would come into effect, he said he supposed they would come into effect right now. It was more of an accident than a thought-through, political decision, but it gave the peaceful revolution its decisive twist. So many people went to border crossings that the guards couldn’t control them for long. People were crossing. People were going back and forth. By the end of the night, people were dancing on the wall.

Footage of that night drives tears to me eyes every single time.

Today and tomorrow, an installation set up in Berlin. White balloons are set up to mark the line where the wall used to seperate East and West. Tomorrow evening, they will take flight, the balloon border will vanish, and this will remind us all of the way the wall disappeared.

Balloon Wall, Berlin, GermanyI live in the old West. This morning, I had a doctor’s appointment in the old East. I went there by bike. I have mentioned before how there is a cobblestone strip in the pavement where the wall used to be, and I cross it every day when I go to my work which is also in the old East. It often elates me. But today it was different. Going through the balloons indicating the wall, the eerie feeling I sometimes have in this spot was much stronger. I very significantly realized that 25 years ago, the world would have ended here. No trespassing, or else I would have been shot.

What I found stranger yet though was that I also realized how little one knew of this border as soon as it was out of sight. The balloon wall had been up for a couple of days already, or at least in the making. I hadn’t noticed much of it. People ask how it was possible to live in a divided city – the difficult truth is that it must have been fairly easy as long as you didn’t live right next to a visible sign of it. Thomas Brussig, a German author, once wrote that the strange thing about the wall was that the people closest to it took note of it the least. It was an unquestioned fact. How incredible it must have been when it actually did change – when it actually moved until it fell. And without violence. Dancing on the wall, where days before one would have been shot. A gap was bridged. Ultimately.

Going through the balloon wall felt like crossing yet another bridge.

Living in this city is amazing. I am reminded of the historical dimension of things constantly, and it doesn’t only make me understand better how this country and this world came to be what they are, it also allows me to understand myself. I feel myself in relation to everything that has been and will be in this place. And I love Berlin, I love it for making me aware of things I couldn’t have learned anywhere else in the world.

This is my last post on this blog. I have written on it for almost 5 years, with higher and lower levels of professionalism. It has been about travel and about culture, about identity and alterity, about myself and all the things I have seen that were so different from everything I knew before. I have loved sharing my views with you, but it is time to move on. Time to settle. I have new projects lined up in my personal and professional life, also writing projects, but those will be in German. I really miss writing in German. And I miss writing about things other than travel, as much as it has meant and does mean to me.

Be assured of one thing though: I will always be keeping bridges.

A Medieval Ruhr Surprise – Hattingen

The beauty of life is that you always find things that defeat any kind of stupid prejudice about any area in the world that is supposed to be boring, ugly or not worth visiting.

The Ruhr area is Germany’s industrial hub. Coal has been mined in the region since the 19th century. It has a reputation of being quite ugly. North Rhine-Westphalia, where it’s situated, is the most populous federal state, and in the Ruhr, city follows upon city when you travel through by train – and well-known, big ones, too: Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg. All of them have largely fallen victim to architectural catastrophes committed in the 1950s and 60s after being horribly bombed during World War 2. Although the area was Culture Capital of Europe in 2010, it is hardly your most obvious travel destination in Germany.

Hattingen, GermanyYes, the beauty in the world lies in how it surprises you. I at least never would have placed a town as charming and pretty as Hattingen in the Ruhr area if you had shown me pictures of it beforehand.

Hattingen, Old Town, GermanyShowers of rain had come down in the morning, but when Jan and I get to Hattingen, the sun is out in glorious early autumn warmth. The day is bright and beautiful and lies ahead of us in all its weekend peace. The first thing we come across even before we enter the actual old town is a church. We both have a thing for churches, and I don’t see us passing one by in our foreseeable travel life without at least checking if it’s open. This one is. Quite plain inside, beautiful red brick stone buttresses line the cupolas. We stand, just the two of us, and look up quietly. I link my arm in Jan’s and start singing. The acoustics are amazing, and the way the sounds ring through the church makes me feel utter joy. Stepping back out into the sunlight, there is one more little blessing hanging upon this day.

Hattingen, Old Town, GermanyWe move on and into the old town. Signs send the visitor through the centre with little information boards that explain any point of greater or smaller interest. I am instantly taken. There are half-timbered houses, some overgrown with ivy or wine, the leaves already changing colour into bright autumn red. The tiny tollhouse – which, we learn from the board, was never used as such – is especially pretty.

Tollhouse, Hattingen, GermanyOther houses are made of schist (boy, have I never heard that word in English before!), and while I might have thought before that schist would turn out rather dark and dull, it is shimmering in the sunlight. Medieval tiny streets are opening up onto small squares, and there is street cafe upon street cafe.

Schist house, Hattingen, GermanyIt’s a lively little town with people all out and about. We window shop our way through the main walkway until we see a tower to the side that looks like it might belong to an interesting building – it turns out to be the town hall.

Town hall, Hattingen, GermanySaint George, the city patron, sits proudly on its stele in front of it. In fact he is everywhere in the city: as a statue like here, as a mural in the old town, as a bronze in the entrance to the biggest church that is of course consecrated in his name. And that is what we’re off to see now. On we go down the small streets, following the church tower that is slightly bent and crooked.

St George, Hattingen, Germany Finally we pass through a narrow passageway that opens up to the friendly market in front of the church. There’s a noticeable memorial called Hattingia which commemorates the victims of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71 that ultimately led to the unification of Germany in 1871. Jan comments that you don’t get many of those anymore. I realize how true that is. Commemoration of the World Wars has almost extinguished a living memorial culture that refers to anything that happened earlier. There are good reasons for that I guess, but I only just now realize that it’s probably quite remarkable.

Hattingia, Hattingen, GermanyLots of little retail shops line the square, not just the big chains you have everywhere. One we enter is, the friendly clerk explains to us, a “shelf shop” where people can rent space on a shelf or two to expose their own handcrafted items. There are scarves, pillow cases, little dolls and puppets, beanies, pacifier keepers, handbags, jewellery and all sorts of cute little selfmade giveaways. It’s incredibly unique and I wonder why us arrogant metropolitan hipsters always think that these things can only be found in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg. I had already noticed the many shops for wool and needlework all over town – Hattingen seems to be a creative place.

St George, Hattingen, GermanyThe church itself, a protestant one, is yet much plainer than its catholic sister we visited earlier. We don’t linger long but move on through the alleyways to come across more pretty houses, more cute shops, more inviting cafes.

City wall, Hattingen, GermanyWe finally end up at the old city wall. There’s another memorial that shows statues that are… interesting. But maybe I am a philistine. They surely have artistic value – they are supposed to remind of the history of steel refining in the area.

Iron Men, Hattingen, GermanyWhen we feel like we’ve walked the old town thoroughly, we return to the church square for some coffee and cake. The waitress notes our order down on a plate of slate with chalk. When she’s brought us our cappuccinos and cake (which is heavenly, I should add!), she sits with a friend and starts knitting. It’s beautifully down to earth, unpretentious and comforting in its comfortableness.

Hattingen, GermanyAnd at the end of the day, it is Jan again who points out what makes this little town so unique and special. It is a small reminder that everything has always been here much longer than we think. The Ruhr didn’t come into existence with industrialization. It’s been around as long as any other place. And Hattingen shows us part of the region’s history that is much older than 200 years.

Guest Post: Lift Bridge in Karnin (Usedom), Germany

Guest post are a rare event on my blog, mainly because I am not monetized and I don’t do backlinks or anything like it. The more joyous the occasion wheh a friend wants to write about a bridge nonetheless. And possibly even more wonderful when it’s a real life friend and not a travel blogger I met on a social media channel. My friend and former flatmate Luise is an avid traveller and came to travel blogging just a little later than me. On her site Such a Lot of World to See she blogged about her trip through the Balkans, Turkey and Georgia to Azerbaijan. I’m excited she’s bringing you such an insightful post – much longer than my own usual bridge post; she sent it to me saying she „got carried away a little“. That should tell you more than enough about her curiosity and passion for the world.

This year the First World War is more present in German public discourse and consciousness than WW II – usually it is the other way round for various reasons. But anyway it is a “super memorial year”: 100 years since WW I started, 75 years since WW II started, 25 years since the Wall came down. It’s always a mix. When my parents visit me in Greifswald in the North Eastern corner of Germany where I study, we also get to see a colorful mix of old and older, traces left both by the wars and the GDR, and new, what the decreasing population in this region outside the university town do to give it some new direction.

We visit Anklam, a small town 40 kilometers from Greifswald. It was heavily destroyed in the end of the war and modestly rebuilt. When industry closed down after the reunification people started to leave and there are some problems with right wing extremists round here. So I have to admit we are somewhat surprised to see some creative projects going on here. Young people and artists built all kinds of gliders and flying devices decorating the half destroyed church – which even has a roof again – of the hometown of aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal. It is a bright May afternoon and so we have a fantastic view from the tower all across the wide flat lands where he took his first flights.

Flying Equipment, Anklam, GermanyFar to the East we can see the enormous structure of the Karnin lift bridge which is worth a visit as the guide at the church tells us. After criss-crossing through the fields and along small alleys (some of them remarkably bumpy) we reach the harbor of Kamp where we have a fish sandwich and then start out for the bridge. We just have to walk around the corner at the pier and there it is, the huge lift bridge once enabling Berliners to reach the fancy beach resorts on the island of Usedom within two hours by train. It also gained military importance when the Army Research Center was opened in Peenemünde in the Northern part of Usedom in 1936.

I have been listening to quite some documentaries on 1914 lately, the war that was sparked on a bridge, a quite small one. Here is a bridge that after being an icon of German engineering was sacrificed by its own people at the very end of the next war. When German forces retreated they blew up all parts of the bridge except for the lift. That part was drawn up to allow for the German navy operating in the Szczecin Lagoon to escape to the Baltic Sea if necessary. And that is how we can still see it, the way it was left in the final defeat nearly 70 years ago. Eerie.

Lift Bridge, Karnin, GermanyThe 50x30m lift bridge was part of a two way railroad bridge opened in 1875. It wasn’t rebuilt, partly because of the new German-Polish border now dividing the island across the main railroad. Ever since the war people have to drive further to the North West to Wolgast, cross the bridge there and drive a long way back on the island to reach the so called Kaiserbäder (Emperor’s resorts), more or less doubling travel time from Berlin. There are actually talks of rebuilding the railroad and the bridge, we don’t have border controls between Poland and Germany anymore. This region is trying to become less of an outpost at the far edge.

Usedom, GermanyUntil then the former railroad dam is accessible by a nice sand path populated by salamanders and the waters on its sides are home to beavers while the birches that died in the rising waters hold an incredibly huge colony of the prehistoric looking cormorants.

Change is the only constant, even with a door left open by a fleeing army several decades ago.

(Photos by my mother D. Schmidt)

If you have read My Mission statement, you know why I love bridges. To me they are the most universal symbol of connection, of bringing people together and overcoming anything that may seperate us. I want to present to you pictures of bridges that I really love in places that I really love on my blog every Sunday. If you have a picture of a bridge that you would like to share with my readers as a guest post, feel free to contact me!

Germany. Football. Patriotism Revisited.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog post on Germany and its perhaps peculiar relationship to patriotism. For a long time it was my most successful post, and it is still among the most read on the blog.

Only last week I closed comments on the post. It may be a bit cowardly of me to do that, but frankly, I was tired of justifying myself for my very personal view on the matter (which happens to be shared by quite a few people). In fact, from all the discussions I have had on the issue, my view is fairly moderate. I love Germany, although I have my (personal!) problems with the expression „national pride“, and I am very much aware of historical responsibility without wanting to propagate or feeling myself a personal and individual guilt. Other positions exist and I never denied that they did. There are, as the comments on the mentioned post show, people who do take pride in the fact that they are Germans and are not afraid to say so. Others find anything remotely patriotic completely unsuitable for Germans and equate patriotism with nationalism. And then there’s loads of people somewhere in the middle of that. Why would Germany differ from any other country in that respect? It wouldn’t. Only, and this was my one central point in the post, the connection between patriotism and nationalism has history in my country, and I think it suits us to be aware of that and handle the subject with care.

German flag, Berlin, GermanyThe post’s viewing numbers recently spiked, and I am fairly sure that it is to do with Germany’s performance during the football world cup. In fact I expect them to spike again today in the course of the discussion that is marked on twitter by the hashtag #gouchogate. I am not sure if it’s made international media yet. The story goes as follows: The German team was welcomed at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday with celebrations for winning the World Cup, and a few of the players did a little dance that goes „This is how the gouchos walk, the gouchos walk like this“ – crouching down, looking beaten, and then „This is how the Germans walk, the Germans walk like this“ – walking upright, jumping, celebrating.

Now some of the German media, and I quote here, find this performance to be a „gigantic own goal“ because they think that it defames Argentina in unacceptable ways, turning the German  team that has played a tournament of fairness and tolerance into a bunch of idiotic nationalists.

Excuse me, but WHAT A LOAD OF CRAP!

The German twittersphere has largely reacted by pointing out how ridiculous it is to make a dance – one that is a well-known and established part of German football culture – a national affair and basically play the Nazi card yet once again. They have also shown that it is completely out of proportion to claim that the #gouchogate affair throws shade on the entire tournament and the achievements of the German team. But the story does prove that showing German pride is a problematic issue still when patriotism is not a big deal in other countries.

Throughout the whole world cup I have been confronted with it. It starts with the anthem. I always sing along, however sometimes quietly. I don’t, however, put my hand on my heart. It feels weird to me. That is just my very personal standpoint. I sometimes wish I could do it. But I don’t. And that is my very personal choice, as is singing along. Back to that: I have watched games with people who thought it was sad that no one else sang along. I have also watched games with people who said (if in jest): „If you sing along I might have to spit in your face.“

Football plays a huge role in the whole patriotism debate in Germany, and always has. It is weirdly connected to big historical moments and the evolution of German cultural identity. When Germany won the World Cup in 1954 they called it a miracle. It was a moment when Germans won back their dignity, when for the first time after World War 2 the country was associated with something positive again. I can’t say much about 1974 because I am not an expert, I am just relating my own thoughts here, unresearched. But in 1990, just before reunification and after the downfall of the Berlin Wall, it was one of the defining moments for a new era, a new Germany coming into existence, because the GDR followed and cheered for the West German team as much as the the Federal Republic did. 2006, when the World Cup was held in Germany, flag waving and the general display of black-red-gold felt normal for the very first time since the 1940s, and it was a four week celebration of happiness down to the game that got Germany third place and beyond that on to the final between Italy and France.

And now, in 2014, it’s done. Germany has won the cup. WE have won the cup. Together as one. And it feels wonderful, truly truly wonderful.

The day after the final I wore a shirt to work that had black-red-gold rims and four golden stars on it. And I was actually surprised that no one judged me for that.

When I went home after work yesterday, after the celebrations at Brandenburg Gate were over, I passed by the Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. A drunk football fan dressed in black-red-gold stood on one of the stelae and loudly sang songs about beer and schnaps. I will say that it made me feel uncomfortable. But it would have done so without him wearing national colours. He didn’t respect the idea of the place, and it bothered me.

What I am trying to say is: It is not as easy as saying „Get over it, Germany, and be proud of what you are today.“ It is not as easy as saying „We may never be happy and celebrate our country ever again“, either. There are implications, contexts, and what’s most important, there are people involved, with feelings and emotions and standpoints in this debate, and they should all be heard and acknowledged, however much either one side does not agree.

I do hope very much that one day Germany, and we as Germans, will find our balance when it comes to this. Because I truly love my country. I’m not proud of it as a whole, in fact I’m really quite critical of it at times. I am not proud of being German because, really, it’s not an achievement. But I am, and I repeat myself from an old post, immensely grateful and happy that I am allowed to live here and for all the things this culture has taught me and given to me. And right now I am proud of my national team that has fulfilled a collective national longing and won a sports tournament for us, and I applaud them and thank them for the face-splitting grin they have put on my face these last few days.

Memory as Morbidity – Mostar’s Partisan Monument

I came to Bosnia this time around wanting to relax, to let go, and to find inner peace. I wanted to go somewhere I knew, without feeling the inner pressure of needing to discover a new place and finding out how it works. I didn’t want to wake up in the morning thinking: Today I need to see the following twenty-five things, or else I won’t feel like I have properly visited this place. So I came to Mostar, strolled the familiar streets, noticed how it had changed, but also felt very much at home.

Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaIn spite of that, I wouldn’t be me if at some point the urge hadn’t occured to dig deeper and expose myself to as of yet unknown impressions. And so I went to a place in Mostar I had never been to, that hadn’t even been on my inner map of the city. I went to the Partisan Memorial Cemetery, or Partizansko Groblje. And I discovered yet another part of Mostar that helped me understand the city and the complexity of the Balkans‘ history.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaThe Partisans of the former Yugoslavia are somewhat of a founding myth of the state. I have colleagues who do extensive research on them, and not only their military history, but also their culture – their songs, their manifestos etc. The way it was explained to me, there is a very plausible reason that they are so important. You may know that during the Cold War, Yugoslavia was a non-aligned nation. They were socialist, yes, but they didn’t „side“ with the Soviet Union. That was possible only because the Red Army didn’t free them from fascist rule in World War II – their own people, the Partisans did. Based on their victory, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia could come into existence, and was a really well-functioning state until Tito’s death in 1980. But that’s a different story.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaI had learned about the monument that it was set up in the 60s, so during Yugoslav times, to honour the Partisans who died fighting against fascists. It is a Bosnian national monument, however, even upon entering it was visibly unkempt and overgrown. I didn’t understand why at first, since the Partisans are such a pan-yugoslav motif of remembrance. But then my friend Majda pointed out to me that the Partisans didn’t only fight German Nazis, but also Croatian fascist Ustashas. Mostar’s local government is made up mainly of ethnic Croats, and apparently some of them are not too keen on remembering the fascist part of their own heritage in any way at all. It is a shame. If you google pictures of the monument in its prime, you will see how beautiful it was.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaPartizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaNow, grasses, ferns and weeds have taken possession of the originally neatly kept three terraces with their cleanly kept gravestones, and moss is covering the walls and grounds in the shadier places. The gravestones are strewn about haphazardly. It is likely that quite a few of them have been broken – purposefully? Vandalism does seem to be a problem, and there is lots of rubbish hiding in the greenery. I still stand and contemplate the names and numbers I see on the uniquely shaped stones. The lives that hide behind them – what may they have been like?

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaPartizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaI wish I understood more about the tradition or the symbolism behind the strange, uneven shape of the gravestones. Most of the decor of the monument seems to me to contain some hidden meaning that is inaccessible to me. A lot of it reminds me of war, though. Gun barrels. Crenels. Sniper hideouts. For the life of me I can’t make sense of the big ornament in the center of the top terrace.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaAgain the pointy part in the middle looks to me like it might be symbolizing firing guns, but the circles around are a mystery to me. I am still very much intrigued. The whole area reminds me of the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park (a place I have been wanting to write about in forever and may now just have to very soon!), they share a similar kind of aesthetics which is of course grounded in their relative contemporaneity and common ideological socialist background – and the fact that they are both monuments and cemeteries at the same time. Pompous, impressive, very much thought through, carefully arranged with clear shapes and their play on perspective. The Berlin one is a bit more blunt to me, very rectangular, whereas this one is softer with its winding walls and circles. To me, they are both really beautiful in their own way.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaThis used to be a well, and the water ran down the middle of the terraces to be collected in a pond a few levels below. Now it is filled with garbage and dried up. I imagine that water must have added a yet more peaceful quality to the place. But it is a pretty peaceful place today in the heat of late May – summer has definitely begun in Mostar. However overgrown, the place invites one to laze around, and I do lie on one of the walls in the sun for a while just daydreaming away.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina From up here, it almost still looks as pretty as it used to be. The high grass next to me with the chirping crickets, however, reminds me of the wilderness this is now. It is hard to recognize, but in the circleshaped round down below someone has graffitied „One Love“ and a peace sign in the middle. It’s a beautiful gesture, especially when one also comes across indicators of Croat nationalism tagged on the wall, such as Ustasha signs or this line that says „God and Croats“:

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaI do wander what will become of the place, if it will ever rise to former glory. It would be a brilliant place for Sunday strolls. Funnily enough, I even pictured it as a great concert venue – slightly inappropriate, I take it, with it being a cemetery. But now people come to hang out here anyway – is that more appropriate? Granted, there are very few of them. I, however, see myself coming back here when I’m back in Mostar. For some quiet time away from the growing masses of tourists in the old town. But then, I am a fan of the morbidity of forgotten places. I am somewhat torn. I think this is a place that needs active memory culture, that needs appreciation and care. But I also love the way that nature has come to take it back for her own and made it so morbidly eerie.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Moltke Bridge in Berlin, Germany

Like probably every decent traveller, I love airports and I love train stations. Berlin has one of the biggest train stations in Europe, and when you exit toward the Spree river and walk towards the water, this view is your reward: Moltkebrücke, Berlin, GermanyWhen I’ve spent a weekend away inside of Germany, I often take an early morning train back to Berlin and walk from the main station to my work. I could public transport instead of walking. But I love arriving in Berlin and being welcomed by the river, the bridges, even the government buildings you see in the background of the picture. This is also part of the pulsating, thriving capital I love, even far away from cool hipster neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg and Neukölln.

The bridge in the picture is called Moltkebrücke. Helmuth von Moltke was chief of staff of the Prussian army in the late 19th century. The bridge certainly shows Prussian grandeur with its red sandstone structure and its delicate ornaments. If you google it, you will find pictures of it with the old Lehrter Bahnhof in the background – the beautiful historicist train station that once stood in the place of what is now the modern, steel and glass main station. Berlin, a palimpsest made up of different time layers – if only you want to see them.

If you have read My Mission statement, you know why I love bridges. To me they are the most universal symbol of connection, of bringing people together and overcoming anything that may seperate us. I want to present to you pictures of bridges that I really love in places that I really love on my blog every Sunday. If you have a picture of a bridge that you would like to share with my readers as a guest post, feel free to contact me!

The Irony of Finding Peace in Bosnia

On my last night in Bosnia this time around (because let’s face it, I will come back!) I sit with new friends in a beautiful tea house in Sarajevos Baščaršija quarter, the ottoman downtown. We drink Salep, a delicious hot drink made of ground orchid spice cooked with milk. It is naturally sweet and tastes like thick vanilla milk. Heaven in a glass.

Salep in Sarajevo, Bosnia

The magical Salep – a true Sarajevan drink from what we learned

The owner of the place, Hussein, speaks German and French, we translate into English for each other, of course the occasional Bosnian word is thrown in. The country’s multicultural heritage comes alive again.
At one point, Hussein excuses himself to us and explains that the call for prayer is on outside and for the next two minutes he will turn off the music. We start listening. Hussein encourages us to keep talking, but I tell him in German that we think the muezzin’s prayer is too beautiful. So he opens the door of the tiny shop and we listen to prayers being thrown and juggled from minaret to minaret. Deeply spiritual, peaceful sounds.

Cajdzinica Dzirlo, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Hussein’s beautiful tea house

When I came to Bosnia this time, I was thoughtful. Overworked and a bit worn out from different things on my mind, yes. But also thoughtful in terms of cultural sensitivity. I do love the country, and I came here looking for peace. Is that ironic concerning not only the country’s history, but also its recent struggle with the floods? Overflowing rivers have done great damage in the North, drowned out whole villages and taken everything from people that have taken 20 years to rebuild their lives after the war. Is it even right to come here looking for peace?

Kovaci, Sarajevo, Bosnia

War graves are ever present in the cities where the cemeteries aren’t shunned to the outskirts

In Mostar I talk to Majda, the hostel owner and, I am proud to say, my friend. During my four previous stays we have formed a bond. We have coffee in town, just the two of us, and talk about life. About finding yourself, getting to know yourself, personal growth. She says such profound things in her beautiful singsong Bosnian accented English. She says: „Politicians are dishonest. I like to surround myself with things that make me happy. Just because bad stuff is out there, I don’t have to talk about it all the time.“
Majda is a heroine. She has seen tough stuff in her life. But she has pushed through and emerged ever stronger, creating a wonderful life for herself. When she links her arm in mine on the way back, I feel the warmth and strength she radiates even more. The many things I can learn from her amaze me.

Majda's, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Majda’s Hostel – one of my safe havens and favourite places in the world

I also talk to Bata, Majda’s brother and every bit as much the heart and soul of the hostel as she is. We speak about me coming back so often, and I confess my deep love for and neverending fascination with Bosnia and Hercegovina. Bata says: „That’s cool, you’re becoming a bit of an expert on our region. It’s your destiny I presume.“
Bata is a hero. He has taught me almost all I know about the war and the lingering ethnic and religious conflicts in the region. Many travellers gain perspective through his stories and his outlook on the past and the present. He has opened up his life to people from other countries and let them in, and hundreds must have gained a deeper understanding of BiH, but also of life itself through conversations with him. I am pretty sure I would be a different person today if I had never had the honour and pleasure to speak with him.

Bosnian Coffee, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Bosnian coffee – a drink so intense and delicious you will never forget the taste of it

It may be strange that, looking for balance, I come to a country struggling with inner conflicts, with poverty and corruption, with deep cultural and political abysses and with coming to terms with its own past. But I maintain that it does it for me. It brings me peace. It puts things into perspective. Most of all, it teaches me humility, a widely underrated quality.

Lillies, Pocitelj, Bosnia & HercegovinaIn Sarajevo, the day I leave, I have a breakfast coffee with Unkas, the hostel owner. It is the first time I stay at his place, but I think I may have found my favourite. Unkas is a bubbly, friendly and talkative man. He says: „It is such a beautiful country, my country – and such stupid people.“
I perceive him to be very much a Yugoslav. He’s been married to a Croat and a Russian woman, being of Muslim heritage himself. He embodies the peaceful coexistence of different ethnicities and nationalities that Yugoslavia was all about. But while that is somewhat what they call „yugonostalgic“, he never loses the smile on his face. He speaks about the beauty of our mutual favourite Croatian island Vis with as much verve as he speaks about the beauty of Sarajevo. There is hope.

Slatko Cose, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Having coffee at an amazing patisserie at Slatko Cose in Sarajevo

The taxi driver who takes me back to the airport and I get into talk about travel. I say that I think it’s important to travel while you’re young and see different things. He says: „I was 16 when the war started. I was 20 when it finished. They say those are the best years of your life. They were sure hard for me. When it was over, I struggled to understand there was peace. Then I found a job, made a life. Now I have no job and…“ – he starts laughing hard – „…I think: God, why did you not kill me in the war?

How do you even respond to something like that?

Vandalized monument, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

A memorial to the Bosnian victims of the war – vandalized. The conflict still swelters in some places.

The driver goes on to imitate the different sounds grenades make, and tells me how your most animal instincts tell you when to duck and when to run. He speaks about looking for joy in war time, in the midst of misery, sharing five cigarettes between five people over a period of twenty days, playing music with a guitar and making each other laugh.
Humour is crucial to me when I try to understand Bosnia and Hercegovina. When a Bosnian laughs, it means so much. Because they have prevailed. They have stuck. They have survived. They laugh in the face of life. As Bata puts it: „You tell us you hate us? Well, we’re gonna love you some more!“

Mariella, Pocitelj, Bosnia & HercegovinaI go back to Germany having realized once more that my life is small and in many ways insignificant. The journey has shown me beauty and sadness – inside myself and in this country I love so much. It has above everything, reminded me that I should and will fight for my happiness or die trying.

If you would like to stay at the places I talked about, here you’ll find information on it:
Majda’s in Mostar for Majda and Bata
Balkan Han Hostel in Sarajevo for Unkas
Čajdžinica Džirlo in Sarajevo for Hussein
None of them asked (let alone paid) me to mention them. I just think meeting them will enrich everyone’s life.

 

Bullet Shells and Bullet Holes

Mostar, that town that gave my blog its name, is pretty. It is thriving and gorgeous and attracts more and more tourists every year. But that is not why it caught me so much. I only fell in love with it when I started to understand how torn it was. I am drawn to complicated things. Mostar has a pretty face, but it also has many scars from the war in the Balkans. And nowhere did I find them to be so painfully visible as at the Sniper’s Nest.

Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

There is a building in Mostar that had been just newly built when the war came here in 1992 for a bank. It is set right by where the front line was – the line that still divides the city into a Croat and a Bosniak side. Croat snipers were set up in here to have good aim at Bosniaks down in the street. It was never torn down nor rebuilt. I haven’t been to Mostar in nearly 3 years, so I am not sure what it looks like now, but between 2010 and 2011 when I visited the city frequently it never changed much.

Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaEerie, abandoned, somehow even belligerent with its jagged design, it sits there with no purpose. Upon entering I feel a little strange, but there is not even a cutoff or a sign that says to „Keep out!“ or „Beware!“. What’s more, there are no signs of life, really. I would imagine that in Germany a ton of homeless people would live in a building like this.

Sniper's Nest, Ground Floor, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaWhat strikes my eye even at first glance is that the naked walls have been made canvas for street art. Some is more elaborate, some is just wild scribble and nonsense. A lot of it, however, is not just illustrations, but writing, and the things written there show sadness, sometimes desperation, but also hope for a better tomorrow. A lot of them are most certainly very political, and when you look at recent protests in Bosnia and Hercegovina, the problems addressed are still the same.

Walls at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaSome other things that you can read there are a lot more personal. Like this scribble which almost tore my heart:

Walls at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

„When everything I love and everything I dream cannot be…“

As you move upward floor by floor, the building shows you different faces. In terms of creepiness, I think the first floor might top the list. My pictures were taken in 2010 and 2011. The war had been over for 15 to 16 years. Yet it looks like the building was bombed out only yesterday.

First Floor at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaYou can find account statements, customers‘ files, accounting documents… and they are strewn about as though people had had to leave in a hurry and never managed to take anything. The papers are dated to the early Nineties, too. History that you can touch.

The next floors are as empty and eerie as the ground floor. They are were the snipers sat. And what would be more obvious, yet horrible proof of that than the many many bullet shells that line the floors.

Bullet Shells at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaTourists take them as souvenirs. I am not even sure how I feel about that, but I have one too. When I picked it up from the floor, I thought that I wanted to make it a lucky charm. Cruel? Ironic? Sometimes you have to take something that means something bad and turn its meaning so it can become something good. The bullet shell is a link to one of the places in the world I love the most. It has the ambivalence if Mostar written into it.

Floor at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaOn the upper floors, the paintings and writings on the wall change. There is now much more evidence of the nationalist scene, the Ultras, and of racist ideas. Not seldomly are they accompanied by the Croatian coat of arms.

Walls at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaWalls at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaIt is still so hard for me to grasp, the strange interlacement of ethnicity, nationality and religion in this part of the world. In the Balkan wars of the Nineties, it is not quite correct to say that Croatia fought Bosnia fought Serbia (or whichever way around you would want to phrase it). There is such a thing as a Bosnian Serb (someone of Bosnian nationality who is orthodox and an ethnic Serb). „Bosniak“, „Croat“ and „Serb“ are notions that assign ethnicity, and ethnicity is linked to religion – Islam for Bosniaks, Catholicism for Croats and Orthodoxy for Serbs. But in a secularized world, how religious are these conflicts? How much are religion and ethnicity an excuse to redefine power structures? I am not an expert in all of this, and I am still in the process of getting a hang of it. But it is so complex – and so sad.

View from Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaFrom the top of the Sniper’s Nest, you look down onto the Spanish Square. The big orange building is a high school that operates in a segregated system. Bosniak and Croat children go to the school, but they are taught by different curricula and in different languages (even if the differences in Bosnian and Croatian are minute and speakers of both languages understand each other with ease most of the time). Knowing this, it really makes you wonder when the war will be truly over.

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?

Outrageous – Leipzig’s Monument to the Battle of the Nations

There are places in Germany I am dying to see. I love discovering my own country, and there is more than enough to see that I haven’t seen yet, or that I haven’t seen enough of. Leipzig had for a long time been one of the places I felt a strange pull toward, and when I went there for the first time in September for a conference, I knew that it was a city that I would keep coming back to. If only for the famous Monument to the Battle of the Nations, which I hadn’t managed to see.

When my three girlfriends from grad school and I decided that our annual meet-up would be held in Leipzig this year, I claimed a visit to the Monument at once. I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit a place with such an impressive name? Especially being the history geek that I am. So my girls and I left our pretty airbnb apartment one morning for a nice one hour walk from the centre to the site.

Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyI realize most non-Germans won’t have heard of the place, so let me give you some background. The Völkerschlachtdenkmal on the outskirts of Leipzig commemorates the Battle of the Nations which was fought in 1813 by Prussians, Austrians, Swedes and Russians against Napoleon. The very abridge version of history is that after the French revlution, Napoleon went a bit ahead of himself and started to try and conquer all of Europe. In the Battle of the Nations, he was beaten and in 1814 forced into exile on Elba. There was a comeback and another battle, at Waterloo, that broke his power for good in 1815. After this Europe was re-organized in the Congress of Vienna.

When walking up to the monument, one realizes at once that it is supposed to architecturally mirror the immense impact of the battle, which was to remain the greatest battle in history until World War I. The monument was opened in 1913, for the one hundredth anniversary of the battle, which explains its expressionistic style. It looks like a massive mausoleum, or, as my friend pointed out, an ancient temple of the Inka. Everything about it is huge. Materialized outrage.Relief at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyThe entrance is guarded by a relief of archangel Michael, and above his head the words „Gott mit uns“, God with us, are chiselled into the stone. To the sides, more elaborate carvings decorate the walls. Eagles, storming fighters, but also the fallen dead can be seen in the decor. Overly stylized, all the figures scream visions of power and victory. It is not exactly pretty. But it is impressive for sure. And that is the sole purpose of this kind of art.

Two of my friends stayed to enjoy the sun, while one of them came with me to enter the monument and climb to its top. Entrance is a whopping 6€ (4€ for students), but I just had to see the insides for myself.

Ruhmeshalle Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyThe first level you get to inside the monument is the Crypt. Eight guards of the dead stand watch here as the light falls through the glass stained windows and the cupola. The light only emphasises the expressionist character of the statues. They are massive. But when you look up to the next storey, you can already see that yet more outrageous figures await.

Bravery Allegory at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Bravery

Fertility Allegory at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Fertility

The second storey is called the Hall of Fame, and the four statues here are 31 feet tall. They represent „Germanic virtues“ – bravery, fertility, sacrifice and faith.

My mum had told me about these, and she always mentioned that what most impressed her were the feet of the statues. When I saw for myself, I understood what she meant. Standing next to one of the statues, even just looking at a foot would make you feel dwarfed, minimized. It was strange for me to not be able to shake the feeling that it was so intentionally done. I did feel dwarfed, but at the same time my intellect wanted to push aside that feeling that was forced upon me. I could feel myself being manipulated into feeling awed.

Foot of Allegory of Sacrifice statue at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Feet of the statue representing Sacrifice. The second, smaller pair of feet belongs to the dead child the figure is cradling in their arms.

The glass stained windows gave the hall a church-like atmosphere. Granted, it was designed as a crypt, but it is still estranging to see battle intertwined with the sacral to this degree. In general the monument has a lot of elements that can later be seen in fascist architecture, which I have always had a weird thing for. It fascinates me how political ideology can be formed in stone, and all of this reminded me greatly of projects the Nazis did later. The common denominator is nationalism, of course. German virtues. German power. I shivered under the cold stone and at the notions that I saw represented here and that, knowing history, would turn out so desperately destructive and horrifying.

Windows at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyCloser and closer we got to the cupola which is lined with knights on horses, storming forward. They display ancient Germanic fighters, and the design is supposed to remind of runes from ancient civilizations. I must say it does the job. Yet again it sends a very clear ideological message: The German nation is ancient and traditional, and it has prevailed throughout history. Powerfully so. I think back on how design like this has been used to intimidate people since antiquity. I shiver again.

Cupola at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyFrom yet another balcony, the gallery of singers, you look down, and the massive figures look a lot less significant. Again this displays power structures. The more you lift yourself above things, the more empowered you feel. But is that a good thing? Shouldn’t power consist of recognition of other beings – not of decreasing their position?

View from Gallery of Singers at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Fertility is to the left, Faith to the right

Finally when we made it to the top, a view of Leipzig unfolded itself on this beautiful, but hazy Spring day. Looking over the lake in front, the Lake of Tears, symbolizing grief for the approximately 100,000 killed, wounded or missing soldiers of the battle, the modern, thriving and beautiful city shone in the distance. It was a world away.

View from Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyI am glad I finally got to visit this site. It left me thoughtful, and more aware of how powerfully art can shape thought – visual arts including sculpture and architecture as much as literature or music. It also made me contemplate the concept of manipulation, of inducing awe or fear, and how easily it can be done and abused in the name of any ideology. I can only hope that as human beings, we all strive to be aware of these mechanisms and reflect them carefully before we fall victim to them.

Have you visited memorials or monuments that reflect an ideology? How did they make you feel? Would you still want to visit the Monument of the Battle of the Nations or did my description put you off?

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