bruecken_schlag_worte

Brückenschläge und Schlagworte

Category: Philosophy (page 1 of 4)

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.

Travelling Differently – Have I Grown Up?

In the beginning of the year I thought I wouldn’t be able to travel at all this summer due to work committments. It was then when I first realized that I must really have come dangerously close to that dangerous state they call adulthood – obligations tying me down, curtailing my flexibility. Turns out though that I just don’t function when I don’t get out at least for a little bit. So when it came to planning my summer, I figured a few days away would only help me work more productively afterwards. So I started planning – and much more specifically so than I used to. That was hint number two that I may just have grown up.

My love affair with bridges prompts people to give me travel advice. Most of them suggest Venice. While that is on my list, I want to do it some remote February weekend when the city is touched by tourism as little as can be. So it wasn’t really an option for my summer trip. Second on the list of recommendations has always been Amsterdam. And now we’re talking. A new country, one in Western Europe at that. Breaking with my old travel patterns. How exciting!

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam

Once the destination was decided, for the first time in my travel life, I decided to ditch my beloved public transport and rent a car. I had done car travel before, but never abroad, only for short trips inside of Germany. For one thing, I didn’t think trains and busses in the Netherlands would be so different from Germany as to add indispensable experiences to my travel adventure (correct me if I’m wrong!). Secondly, I planned on visiting a bunch of friends I hadn’t seen in a while on my way West through Germany, and the car gave me flexibility.

With the car came a few other side effects, such as the fact that I wouldn’t be needing a backpack. I would be able to travel like a civilized person with a roll-on suitcase! Fascinating! Finally, when all of that was set already, plans were slightly overthrown and it turned out I wouldn’t be travelling alone. As part of a couple, new options arose that would have been out of question otherwise, if just financially. Jan and I decided to rent an airbnb apartment instead of hostelling.

Rental car in Amsterdam

It’s not my most flattering picture, but I realized it’s the only one I have in which you can see the car. I loved its signal red colour 🙂

Yes, I was quite curious how it would feel to be travelling so differently. No overnight busses, but a rental car. No backpack, but a suitcase. No hostels, but an airbnb apartment. And not single, but as a couple. My travel self has so far usually said sentences like „I’m flying into a remote ex-Yugoslav country, just me and my backpack, and I’m not exactly sure where I’ll go there, but I got my Couchsurfing profile ready and some hostel recommendations scribbled in my notebook.“ Now I found myself saying: „Me and my boyfriend have a car and an apartment in Amsterdam rented for four nights, and a hotel booked for a night in Groningen after that.“ How grown-up does that sound?!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in love with the backpacking thing, and I’m sure it’s not over for me. But I can’t deny that the comfort and security that this other travel mode generated felt very, very nice. To be entirely honest, I am less tolerant when it comes to drunk hostel dorm mates waking me up in the middle of the night, and spending nights in bus stations because the connection didn’t run is a lot less glamorous and exciting when you’ve done it a couple of times. It felt nice not to have to calculate every expense – because both the car and the apartment are of course things that I never did so far because they were too expensive. The relative luxury of travelling the way I did now was not least a financial one.

Zandvoort, Netherlands

Day trip to the North Sea

It felt really nice to be able rely on the things that had been planned beforehand. And it was absolutely wonderful to not have to take care of everything by myself, but have someone take over the wheel every now and then – literally and metaphorically. Speaking of which, in sum, the Netherlands were not the perfect country to take a car to. Petrol is ridiculously expensive, and what’s more, parking will leave you nearly penniless. Seriously, if I had been on my own I would have been completely desperate in the face of the expenses I had for parking which amounted to a good 20€ every single day except Sunday when parking suddenly was free everywhere. But then again we did beautiful day trips and stop overs on our way through the country that wouldn’t have been possible without a car. I think next time we might try just going by bike. It seems like the perfect way to travel the Netherlands.

Bike, Amsterdam, Netherlands

A bike in Amsterdam, camouflaged in flowers 🙂

I am also happy to report that with all the grown-up stuff, we were still plenty spontaneous. We hadn’t made up our minds as to what we wanted to see in Amsterdam, we had barely decided which other towns in the country we wanted to visit. We didn’t over-schedule our days, but took plenty of time strolling around, getting lost in beauty, and enjoying each other’s company sitting underneath light houses looking at the sea and talking. We never went out for breakfast, but went grocery shopping the first day and finished the remains on the last morning on a bench on Groningen’s fish market. So I didn’t feel like I had betrayed my travel style at all. It has just slightly shifted. A little more comfort. A little more safety. And a lot better company.

Breakfast, Groningen, Netherlands

Breakfast in Groningen – from my lap 🙂

Travel is a very big part of my life. It has made me who I am. It changes with who I become and with who accompanies me. That is just another way in which it is a beautiful metaphor for life itself. Maybe perceiving the way I travelled now as „grown-up“ is actually missing the point. Maybe it is just a new way that seems to fit the person I am, the life I have, regardless of age or status.

The Last Day of My Twenties

Last year in September I wrote a post called The Last Year of My Twenties. I had wanted to match it up with one about the last month, or the last week. Now today is the last day of my Twenties. I won’t make this very long. But I feel in my heart I want to let you know a little bit about my feelings on the eve of my thirtieth birthday.

Sopot, PolandI’ve never quite dreaded the 30 the way other people (women, particularly, I may add) do. I don’t mind growing older. I am grateful for the experience I’ve gained. The point when numbers suddenly seem to play a role is always reached when I ask myself what I had wanted to have achieved by this time when I was younger. Did I think I’d be done with my PhD? Yes. Did I think I’d have kids? I sure hoped so. Be married? Well, certainly!

None of these things have happened for me. So far. But, and thank God for that, I am relaxed enough to know that just because they haven’t come to me yet, it doesn’t mean they never will. And would I be ready for marriage and children? Would I be ready to decide what to do with my life work-wise, something I will have to face once I have my PhD? I don’t know, I really don’t. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be ready yet. I know I will be ready in due time. I trust myself that way.

In Gdansk, PolandI knew this last year, but I am ever more sure of it today: My Twenties have been a good decade. And taking stock now, I really can’t complain. I am happy. I have lived, loved, worked and travelled, learned, tried, failed and succeeded. There is much more to come and everything that’s happened has prepared me for it.

My Thirties will hold surprises and challenges for me. I still hope, like I wrote on the afore-mentioned post last year, that they will calm me down somewhat. But I can hope and think as much as I want. Life will have it its own way no matter what. The important thing is this: I am excited about the future. Very, very excited. And what more could one ask for.

Berlin, Germany

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.

On Being Driven

My life is a succession of settling in new places. My life is the process of settling inside of myself. I’m sure there is absolutely nothing special about that. It is everyone’s life story. But I can’t speak for how other people perceive this journey through life. I can only speak for myself.

Butterfly, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaI guess most people will call me well-travelled. Compared to a lot of people in the blogging community, what I have seen is but a tiny fraction of the world. I don’t think I could have fit much more into it though. Some people are still in their twenties and have been to more than a hundred countries. I sit and wonder – how much have they taken in from each individual country? How well do they know the places they have been to? I have been to 33 foreign countries, if my count is not mistaken, but I would consider myself to have an actual idea of just a few – Germany, obviously, then the States, Poland, and Bosnia and Hercegovina. If I’m very generous with myself I could count Croatia and Greece as well because I’ve travelled them fairly thoroughly.

The longing to see new places is always there. I am a driven person. Driven in many senses of the word. I am driven to achieve things, driven to success. Driven also to be active, to create things – the only way I know how to, artistically, in writing and music. Driven, very much, to love. Driven to move, quite physically, and to discover. My drive doesn’t aim for quantity though – or at least not first and foremost. It aims for depth.

Rose, Pocitelj, Bosnia and HercegovinaTalking about this is so close to my heart that I feel the English language makes it hard on me to phrase things properly. This rarely happens to me, but for once I feel that German would provide me with a more suitable vocabulary after all. However, only recently a blogger I very much appreciate said that phrases like „I’m at a loss for words“ or „Words cannot express…“ don’t suit a writer because words are your job, and I think she is right. So I will try.

The awareness of my need for depth wasn’t always there. I had to find it through experience. I used to call just about anyone a friend. In times of facebook, we all know how lightly that word is used. Today I am much more careful. Acquaintances are plentiful. Friends are rare. I chose a field of study in which I would gather a broad basic knowledge instead of specializing in one field, and have only come to find true insights that approach the core of things very late in my academic career. And I used to want to see many places instead of lingering in one and getting to know it well and truly.

Time and time again it occurs to me that I have been so lucky to have seen many places and found much happiness in the vast strangeness of countries and cities formerly unknown to me. So very lucky. And I needed the quantity to find the quality in small parts of it, which I have been blessed enough to manage. How I deserve this, no one will ever know. I have no explanation but some kind of metaphysical grace.

Alt-Lübars / Berlin, GermanyThe more I reflect it, the more I come to the conclusion that what makes us decent human beings are mainly three things: gratitude, empathy and respect. Most of the time, all three of them come naturally to me. Again, I don’t know why, but I am glad it is the case.  That does not mean I don’t have difficulty with either one of the three at times. I am no angel. But I am driven to work on myself.

All there is to learn about these three things can be learned from human interaction. I have encountered people who don’t have much to be grateful for. Some of them turn jaundiced and embittered. Others fight tooth and nail to still see the good in their lives and be grateful for what they have. I have also met people who have trouble feeling other people’s joy or pain, or even understand a different viewpoint or life choice. Some of them try hard to find that compassion inside of themselves. Others just turn into loners and give up on a social life (which is a veritable life choice in itself, albeit a bit sad from my personal standpoint). Then there are those I have met who don’t respect either other people or life itself. I must say that this is one of the things where my ability to empathize meets its boundaries. How can you not respect life? How can you not treat it carefully and try to make the most of it, for your own benefit and that of other people? But maybe that is my drive speaking. My drive to be the best possible version of myself. Ultimately that is what it all comes down to.

Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin, GermanyI am very much aware that I was only able to develop this kind of drive, to feel gratitude, empathy and respect, because I had the best conditions anyone could ask for with material and emotional security provided by a loving family through all my life. Who knows if I could have done it if the terms had been different.  But what sense does it even make to ask that question. We all have to make the best of what we are given. I can only thank my lucky stars that they have made it so easy on me.

Why am I writing this? Maybe to remind myself of my own principles on a rainy day when life doesn’t seem to hold much beauty or joy to be grateful for, when I encounter something I cannot for the life of me understand, or when people act in ways that threaten to make me lose respect for them.

When I was 13 and attending confirmation classes in church, our pastor, a man I truly and deeply admire, said to us something about the concept of sin (which I realize is a tricky term in itself, but bear with me). He derived it etymologically from sound – as in water, not as in music. The words are closer in German, Sünde and Sund. He said sins were the things that seperate people from one another and from God the way that open sounds seperate land masses. I believe that lack of gratitude, empathy and respect are what seperates us. But I want to build bridges. I want to cross the sounds. I want to find true connection to the world and within myself. This is my drive.Stari Most, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

 

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.

 

A Letter From My 25 Year Old Self

I made my one hundredth blog post a special one – so it only figures that I should do the same with the two hundredth. And how fitting is it that I am posting this on an important anniversary – four years ago today I left Germany for my Balkans travel adventure, the reason I started blogging in the first place. It’s such a damn platitude, but I can’t believe it is that long ago. I feel so close to the girl I was then – and yet so much has happened. Look at me, just having finished my Master’s degree, ready to take on life, on the very day I left for my trip:

Mariella, Departure Day 2010You know when people write about the advice they would give a past version of themselves? Usually a 30 year old telling their teenage self something along the lines of: „Don’t worry honey, you will have a great job in a few years and have lost 20 pounds.“

I could be telling the girl in the picture exactly that. But honestly, I have nothing to say to her. She doesn’t need to know about me today. In fact I think if anything it might hold her back. In many ways she is a million times cooler than me. Brave – nay, fearless! Excitable, of boundless curiosity, trusting, even naive, but in the best possible way. Open to the world, and confident that life will take her just to the place she needs to be. What I really need is advice from her! So what would she be telling me? What must she have been hoping for me? I am trying to remember it, an act I find it strangely comforting. I am thinking it would go something like this:

Dear 29 year old me,

it feels strange that I could be giving you advice on anything. After all, I am just a younger, less experienced version of you. You could be looking back at me and want nothing to do with who that is anymore. But then I do hope you still value my opinion. Wouldn’t it be a comforting idea that we can learn from our own life over and over again, and that you and I still respect and love each other?

I hope you look back at me and smile, and I hope that you remember vividly how happy I am. I take on this journey knowing that it will be wonderful. I know that it will empower me and make me strong. I am not afraid of being alone. And I hope that after this, you never will be, either. I hope that I will learn for you and all the future versions of us that being by yourself is not scary, but beautiful, even healing. I hope that I will learn how to listen to our own heart’s desires and how to follow them. And I do hope that you will be able to put all that to good use.

I know that I will meet boundaries, both physical and emotional ones. I know that I will push them, overcome them, and sometimes have to step back and just accept them. I know it won’t always be easy, but I am not afraid of any of it. I am excited for it. Please never forget that this is one of our most empowering traits: We don’t shy away from challenge. Never shy away from an opportunity to grow!

I ask you to remember all the things you should be grateful for. This journey surely makes the top of the list. The landscapes that I will see! The people I will meet! The emotions I will feel! It is now all ahead of me, but you will be able to carry the images in your heart as a constant source of comfort. And even once this is all over and has made its way into that foggy, yet golden country called memory, please be assured: There is always something to look forward to. There will always be amazing things to see and discover. Never lose the curiosity and the enthusiasm for discovery that I am bursting with in this moment. It will drive you to greatness, and what’s more, to happiness.

I don’t need to know about you – what you have achieved, or where you stand. I know that whatever you do will be wonderful and good for both of us. I am unshakingly confident that you will have made us both proud, and that you live your life as best you can, striving for happiness and fulfillment. I wish I knew what you think about me today. I am only just realizing that we have an immense capability for love and happiness, you know, and I hope it’s never lost.

Much love,

your 25 year old self xx

I was so insanely hopeful and confident. And then my trip was all I hoped for in that moment of departure – and more. I returned from it a different person – can you tell from the pictures?

Mariella, ReturnDay 2010Now what would this girl say to me, at the eve of her 26th birthday, having just returned from her journey? She would look at the letter above and say: „Told you. All my hopes and dreams came true. We can manage everything. I have nothing to add.“

When I am tied behind my desk these days, working on things I really love and that make me happy, I still feel a lot more cynical, a lot more fearful and a lot more on guard than I used to back then.

Mariella, Regular Work Day 2014It is good for me to think back on the person I was four years ago. I have a lot to learn from her. And I hope that even at my desk, fighting the smaller wars of daily routine, I would make her proud. I am insanely proud of her.

So what is the Deal with East Germany?

When I lived in the States aged 16, I was asked a fair amount of weird questions about Germany. There were mostly the many variants of „Do you have X in Germany?“ [Replace X by anything from electricity to chickens. I am dead serious.] Other than that, the biggest portion of questions was concerned with German history, mostly along the lines of the obligatory „Are you a Nazi?“ I have written about this in my post on German patriotism. Today I want to address a different question I was asked back then which seems a little more unusual. It was „So are you from the good or the bad part?“

As a Northerner I should have replied: „If by the bad part you mean Bavaria, I am from the good part.“ (I am kidding, obviously. Or am I? ;)) But that was not what the question was after. I quickly translated  it in my head to „Are you from the West (good) or the East (bad)?“ Although I think I just replied that I was from Hamburg which is the West, I cringe at the the many things that are wrong with the question to begin with.

A while back I sat with my temporary roommate over breakfast, conversation carried us from topic to topic, and eventually I showed her this youtube video.

It is a song by German singer songwriter Reinhard Mey, someone I have also mentioned before in my patriotism post, and it tells the history of Berlin from 1945 until 1990, finishing with the downfall of the Berlin wall. A West Berliner, Mey sings:

I lived my whole life in half a city.
What do I say now that you give me the other half as well?

My roommate, who grew up in the Southwest, in Stuttgart, and I were both in tears, and she said: „No one ever explained that to us properly. Going to school in Southern Germany you were just never told what a huge deal it was when that wall came down and why.“

Berlin, Germany

A cobblestone strip in the pavement indicates where the Berlin Wall used to be. It runs the entire course of it through the city.

It is true that not even history classes in Germany seem to pay enough attention to this part of German history (at least in my days) – possibly because they are so eager to hammer into the students the fact that the Third Reich was horrible and is never to happen again. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for teaching about that. But I am not enjoying the fact that we teach kids the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the „good“ capitalist part of the country, but not about the German Democratic Republic, the „bad“ socialist part. And don’t even get me started on the fact that in this discussion, the countries are usually opposed not on grounds of their political systems, but the economical ones. It isn’t democracy vs. dictatorship. It is capitalism vs. socialism. And since when is capitalism the best invention since sliced bread? Both countries are one today – but does that mean that the history of only one half of it should be valid?

From my experience, a lot of people in the West don’t know anything about GDR history – neither about the political dimension of it nor about the country’s cultural and social parameters. They think the same way that I thought for most of my life: „That’s all in the past, so let’s just move on.“ I don’t think it’s quite that easy anymore.

When I was 19, I started college in what used to be the GDR. Reunification had happened 13 years previously. I didn’t think the East-West-thing would be any issue whatsoever, to be honest, I didn’t even think about it as a „thing“. Only the ignorance of a Westerner could have allowed me to do that. Because as I met people my own age who were born in the GDR, I realized that in their lives things had actually become different after the political change. And that was the thing: I couldn’t relate to that. Neither in 1989 when the wall came down nor in 1990 when the countries were reunified did I notice anything different. But these new friends of mine remembered a monetary reform. They remembered their first „West toys“. They had parents lose their jobs or, very much less often, find a new, better one. They remembered being disappointed because they weren’t allowed in the socialist Youth organization, the „Free German Youth“ – because it ceased to exist. And they told me how they were nor allowed to sing certain ideologically laden children’s songs anymore and didn’t understand why at the time.

People who are culturally interested ask me sometimes if differences between the East and the West are still noticeable. I think that’s less and less the case, but it’s not as easy as just saying that there aren’t any. Especially people who lived the bigger portion of their lives in the GDR – how could they not be influenced by that? It was a specific culture, a specific system that shaped them, and in today’s Germany, very often there is no acknowledgement, no place for that. The GDR is reduced to a secret police and lack of freedom. But there was more to the country than that – such as a well-functioning social system, or a rich and colourful art scene.

There is a meaningful and symbolic piece of information when it comes to that. The constiution of the Federal Republic of Germany is called the „Basic Law“ – and not the Constitution. This is because after World War II, it was given in the hope that one day, there would be an actual constution that would be valid for a reunified Germany. But when reunification came, there was no new, no mutual constitution. Instead the GDR became subject to the existing Basic Law. This is why some people call the reunification not that, but an annex of the GDR through the Federal Republic.

I may have a specifically emotional relationship to this topic, especially for a Westerner. I would hope that our culture would allow more room for this part of its past. After all, history has made us what we are today. I don’t think it is healthy to push aside vital parts of any organism’s past. Why should it be different for a country than it is for a person?

Clipped Wings – On Feeling Grounded

Within the last few months, I have had more than enough material to write about. Short trips were abounding, and not just inside of Germany. Now things seem to be calming down. And I feel torn – not for the first, nor certainly the last time in my life – between enjoyment of the quiet, unexciting weeks and months ahead and my ever-present yearning for adventure. It is in this pensive mood that I feel it is time for another post in my thoughts category. A personal one. And yet I am not sure if stripping my soul isn’t the last thing I want to be doing. I might only find out in writing this. Bear with me.

Castle Hohentübingen, Tübingen, GermanyAs of lately I have chosen my piano keys over my notebook more often than not. Music comes easily to me these days, more easily than words. Or if words do come, they are often corny and kitschy, and lyrics forgive that much more lightly than prose does. Writing has been unusually difficult for me.

I think this is largely to do with the fact that I am not allowing myself any plans for a decent big trip this year. My wings are clipped. Work commitments have a lock on me, and in many ways it seems like in my generation everyone just has to pay their dues in their twenties. So I need to get a grip on myself, focus, and get some stuff done this year. I can’t keep meandering about. Mainly because my work contract won’t last forever. And didn’t I always say that I would want to do something different when it runs out? Yes, I did. And what will that be? Hell if I know. And so I find myself back in that same state that I was in when facing the end of school. And the end of my B.A. And the end of my M.A. And I wonder if it will always be like this or if I will ever, you know, get somewhere. Arrive somewhere. And be there to stay.

Neckarfront, Tübingen, GermanyJust a few years back, it relieved me to know that the meandering might never end. I felt suffocated at the thought of being tied down to one plan for all times to come. And now I wish I had a plan, any plan at all, to live up to. Not a forever plan, though. Just a plan.

I hate to say it, but I think it is to do with age. My desire for security isn’t decreasing as I grow older. I want reliability. I don’t want to be in constant doubt. I want my safe havens, my harbour to return to when I’m out in the world.

And yet things are more difficult than that. Because while I want all that, I do want adventure. I want to venture into the unknown, I want to not know what’s in my life tomorrow, I want the thrill of jumping off of high cliffs into the turquoise sea, of turning a corner in the labyrinth of an unknown old town and coming across something beautiful, of crossing the border into a new country and the sound of a stamp being made in my passport. I want the sound of motors on airplanes and busses, I want trains to whistle as they swish past me, I want ships to part the sea and make waves that will crush loudly onto sandy beaches. I want the unbearable noise that comes about in remote corners of nature and that is all animals, water, and trees and not a single man-made machine.

Market Square, Tübingen, GermanyI still want it all. Looks like life hasn’t disillusioned me enough to think that’s impossible. Thank God for that.

Only recently did it come to me that the term Sehnsucht that I refer to so often is not the only German word that describes a specific kind of longing. There is also the English germanism Wanderlust which translates literally to a desire for wandering or, the initial meaning of wandern, for hiking. And there is Heimweh, which means being homesick, and its sister term Fernweh – being sick for strange lands, for the wilderness and the world away from home. I wonder if it is something innately German to wish yourself away to another place, to get caught up in dream worlds, in utopia – since we have so many words that describe an act of craving that which is not in our lives.

All these things I feel all the more right now when I feel like I cannot really act upon them. Then again, maybe, just maybe, being forced to stay put will do me good as well. Maybe being grounded keeps you grounded. Maybe I need to re-root myself a bit before I can embrace the world again, and grow into home soil. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of weekend trips and hometown tourism to be done. Just not the big scale discoveries of the world out there in all its glory. But when I get to do that again – boy, it will be marvelous!!

Still I must say that I wonder if I will ever find a life that allows me to integrate both sides of me – the girl that wants security and the one that doesn’t give a damn. I wonder if Heimweh and Fernweh will ever give me a break. Or if I am just an unstable spirit whose search will never end.

Neckarfront, Tübingen, GermanyAll the pictures were taken in Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, in the old town and at the castle. They show paths that need to be walked and the ground that I need to keep to. For now.

Instead of Resolutions – Contemplations

The end of the year is an important time for me. I sit and look back, and I try to look at what’s ahead as well. I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I do like to contemplate ideas and plans for the year to come. And looking ahead only makes sense to me when it takes into consideration the things that have passed. Life is an ever on-going sequence of learning from experiences.

Blankenese, Hamburg, GermanyMaybe I say this because I am a nostalgic person. Nostalgia is a phenomenon inherent to my being – but then so is Sehnsucht. While the first is definitely a temporal craving, Sehnsucht can be both a longing for the past and a longing for a different place – wanderlust, or in another German term: Fernweh. Sehnsucht can also be directed towards a person. Or, sometimes, it can be felt without a concrete goal or aim, just as an indefinite yearning for something you don’t even yet know exists. I have a lot of Sehnsucht inside of me. Sehnsucht for more. Not in an unhealthy, greedy way. I like to think that I am just hungry for life. Which is why my tendency to Sehnsucht doesn’t make me an introvert in the slightest. People tell me I always smile and laugh; and even my family marvels at my ability to make contact with strangers in a heartbeat. There are worse reputations to uphold.

Elbphilharmonie and Rickmer Rickmers, Hamburg, GermanyWhat have I learned this year? There were beautiful journeys taken in 2013 – both actual travels in- and outside of Germany, and spiritual journeys. I have loved and lost, I have been loved and I have been hurt. I think now, after this last year, that my capacity for compassion is both one of my greatest strengths and my one greatest weakness. I also learned that it is worth taking a risk, even if it doesn’t work out the way you planned it, and it is worth giving chances.

I have realized that, try as I may, I am not very good at not taking things too seriously. I have given this a lot of thought and I have come to the conclusion that, while I am trying to not overthink as much as I usually do, I don’t think this is altogether such a bad thing. Life is a beautiful thing. Love is a beautiful thing. Our heart’s desires are a beautiful thing. People who take none of the above seriously at all are usually cynics, and cynicism has never quite worked for me.

Blankenese, Hamburg, GermanyThere were two new countries on my list in 2013 yet again which brings me to a total of 32 countries I have been to. I have had a rule of one new country each year for three years now, but I keep exceeding that plan and going to more. Given that in the next years I do not know how much I will be able to leave Europe (for work-related reasons), I’m glad that I’m ahead of my game. The deal is to always have been in at least as many countries as I am years old. As some of you know, the big 30 is waiting for me in 2014. But to be honest I do not know if I could even manage anywmore with not seeing a new country for one entire year. That seems like torture. At least as long as there are still places to see that low cost airlines fly to.

Hamburg, GermanyOther than travel-related issues, what are my ideas for next year? I want to be more disciplined in order to achieve more – at work, for my blog and my music. I want to give my compassion, love and trust to those who are worthy of it. I want to be humble and grateful for the things I encounter, and I hope that they will lead me down roads that make me grow. Life has been so kind to me in the past. I can but accept the gifts of fate and try to make the very best of them. And I’ll try and cross any given bridge when I come to it.

I have to say that I look toward 2014 with great peace and joy in my heart, with much optimism and a lot of humility. And I want to take the risk. Again. I never want to lose faith in the fact that it will be worth it.

Römischer Garten Blankenese, Hamburg, GermanyWhich bridge will you cross next year? And do you make resolutions? Share them in the comments!

Older posts