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What’s one more Identity?

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

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

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

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

Tekija, Blagaj, Blagaj, Bosnia and Hercegovina

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

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

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

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

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

Sejm, Warsaw, Poland

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

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

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

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

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

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

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

24 Comments

  1. Well said! I really feel this is the essence of humanity—the ability to adapt and love so much about life and culture. Thanks for the kind words. Excited to meet up again!

    • bridgekeeper

      März 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      Thank YOU for inspiring me to write this, Adam! 🙂 Looking forward to hanging out again as well, can’t wait for your Hamburg stories!

  2. The way your written thoughts make me smile is genuinely unique. Thank you for sharing these – and about my favorite topic nonetheless.

    Identities? I guess you can never have too many… But you know that 🙂

    • bridgekeeper

      März 1, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      Well, you would know, wouldn’t you, honey 🙂 I’d love to hear what your Identity Family looks like – Croatia the mother, Germany the father? Vice versa? Any affairs and relationships? Many, I’m sure! xx

  3. I guess it’s good to have so many identities, or rather to feel like a local wherever you are! I’m South African and English. In SA I sounded like I was English but in London people pick up a faint accent. Australians tell me I sound American and Americans tell me I sound British. I try not to tell them there is no such thing as a British accent as that just confuses the issue.

    By the way, just wanted to let you know that the RSS icons just above and below your „About Me“ don’t work. The one further on down the page worked.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 1, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      Thank you for pointing that out, I think (or hope :)) that I fixed it!
      He, yeah, the accent thing is tricky. People have been telling me for a while that I have a „twang of Irish“ in my English. I haven’t even ever been to Ireland, I have NO odea where that might come from 😀 So do you identify with either SA or England more than with the other? I’m curious!

      • Sorry for the delay in replying! I needed to get back on my PC (not my iPhone) to check out your badge. It is working now (yay).

        I feel South African a lot of the time. I feel it when I go back and I feel it when my family up north is being small minded. When they start on about immigration and the EU, I can only think that the world is so much bigger than this and then I feel foreign. But I lot of the time I just feel like a Londoner and in my heart, I’ve always been a Londoner.

        • bridgekeeper

          März 4, 2013 at 12:22 am

          Don’t worry about it! Thanks again for pointing it out!
          Yes, a lot of Germans do that: identifying with the local rather than with the national level. You can be a Londoner and still be South African, but for some reason you can’t be South African and English…

  4. Kurwa! Such a GREAT post! 😛
    I love love SUPER love this post because it relates so much to me. Having to live in several places I don’t see myself as 100% Asian although lookwise I may be but inside I’m a little bit British, French, Romanian, Swiss, and Indonesian :P….I may be a little bit Polish too as my name (Agata) is a popular Polish name and oh pierogi…need I say more?!

    I think that when you become a part of the place you travel/live then that’s when you pick up being a little bit of a local – am I making sense? Sorry for the rambling, I just love this post too much!

    • bridgekeeper

      März 1, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      Aggy, such language from such a sweet girl 😀 I knew you were gonna like this. I think the desire to become part of a culture is deeply rooted in all of us who love to travel. And I feel honored when people from another country view me as one of them.

  5. You are such a good storyteller! Your writing made me think about all of my identities too. I am drawn to Eastern Europe as well because of my mother and grandmother and I feel I have a Hungarian heart with a Balkan spirit. And Canada will always be my home, especially the east coast. Then I have my current life here in North Carolina where I say things like y’all and fixin‘ and because of Luke, I will always be part of this region too! I think it’s much better to have multiple identities, rather than just one. Travel is a marvelous thing!

    • bridgekeeper

      März 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm

      Thank you Sarah, that is a truly great compliment – I actually never thought of myself as being able to tell stories, I’m just, I don’t know, describing encounters… I don’t quite know how to explain this, anyway I’m truly moved that you would call me a storyteller, and a great one at that!! My mom always says that my love for Poland might originate in family history like for you, because my dad was born in Eastern Prussia which is today Poland – but my family is German through and through, so I’m not sure about that. I am excited to accompany your travels through your writing and see how your Balkan identity is nurtured and finds new forms. It will be marvelous!

  6. I get extremely close to punching people when they – who have been to various countries where German food is sold and you can get around speaking German, but who have never been to Berlin or other interesting/nice places in Germany – ask me how I could cope with spending 17 years NOT living in Hamburg.
    Oh yes, isn’t it terrible to get to know different ways of life and adapting all the nice bits? I don’t feel that I have multiple identities, I feel more of a puzzle with 1,000 parts 🙂

    • bridgekeeper

      März 1, 2013 at 1:57 pm

      Oh, Hamburg people… you know what they’re like with their funny little patriotism 😀 but you’re right, people can be quite ignorant. If only the knew the beauty of being challenged identity-wise (identically challenged? well you know what I mean…).

  7. This is so cute… I think you’re simply a citizen of the world. You may be rooted in Germany and love the country, but throughout the years have soaked up other cultures as well. And that’s the beautiful thing about travel. 🙂

    • bridgekeeper

      März 2, 2013 at 11:46 am

      Very true, Pola! Isn’t becoming a world citizen what we all strive for in travel? I’m happy to hear you think I’m on the right track there 🙂 Hope all is well in Chicago!

  8. I can relate to this post a lot. Due to the fact that my father is a diplomat, I grew up in a home where traveling is the norm; we’d pack up our house and move and live somewhere for 6 years, come back for 2, and repeat. That started the whole thing. I have spent more years outside my home country than in, and therefore I identify as a Third Culture Kid. The question of identity therefore constantly bugs me.

    I get reverse culture shock when I visit the Philippines. I find „Where is home?“ one of the hardest questions to answer. I speak 5 languages in varying degrees of fluency. So this whole business of citizenship-driven identity just doesn’t work for me. After all, just try dealing with the idea of being a part of a family, where there’s two kids from the same parents, yet the kids don’t have passports from the same issuing country. For me, citizenship (and the identity that comes with it) is just pure coincidence, and changeable. Like you said, it ain’t a monogamous relationship.

    So yeah, I dealt with the cultural identity question by not defining my identity. I am Jeruen, meet me for who I am, not for where I come from.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 2, 2013 at 11:54 am

      Very much to the point, Jeruen – many people confuse identity with citizenship which is completely inaccurate. It is like mixing up faith and the church – very different things as well. On one side we have man-made institutions, and on the other we have emotional bonds and feelings. You seem to have had a very interesting life so far! It sounds like you’d indeed be someone who feels at home in the multicultural madness that is Berlin 🙂

  9. Absolutely great writing which reminded me of my relationship with the world, being an ultimate expat „dijete bez zavičaja“. In Hungary I am Serbian or Croatian, in Croatia I am Hungarian, in Romania I am from „the wealthy west“ in Germany I am an Ossie (don’t know if I am spelling it right), I London I just blend in (too much different people there), and in US I am from one of those countries no one can pronounce right 🙂

    • bridgekeeper

      März 4, 2013 at 12:18 am

      Thank you for this great comment totally in tune with my story!! I love that I’m not the only one. Your comment also made me think of the fact that I introduce myself differently in different countries because I have a tendency to pronounce the R according to the the way it’s pronounced in the country’s language – and Mariella sounds very different with a German, an English or a Slavic R 🙂

  10. Ach, ach, I finally got around to reading this post.
    Just like your Polish friends, I laughed out loud at the idea of you saying „kurwa“ between all these serious grown-ups at the conference.

    And I totally agree with how Mia put it, you can never have too many identities! 😉
    This actually works on all kind of levels, not just the (yes-we-all-know-this-is-a-construct) national level. When I’m with old friends from school, when I’m having coffee with you, when I stand in front of my class teaching – I’m not always the same. The weird and wonderful thing is, it’s not a problem. You might think one can get lost in too many facets, too many identities, that it would be hard to know who you „really“ are, but no. Life would actually be pretty boring without that.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 7, 2013 at 11:30 pm

      Hehehe, I could see you laughing at that… serious grown-ups – darn it, honey, we may have turned into just that ourselves, no? Love how you link back the ideas on national identity to different identities in daily life. I agree, there is so much in every one of us that has place in our lives. Isn’t that great!! 🙂

  11. Nice pic of Skadar Lake. I recommend doing the round road trip in daylight through Albania which I did in an old Mondeo and the wife and kids a few years ago. Southern Montenegro and Albania are fascinating places.

    • bridgekeeper

      September 17, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      I visited Albania fairly extensively – although not enough yet 🙂 I spent about eight days there I think. You are right, it’s a widely underestimated travel region.

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