bruecken_schlag_worte

Brückenschläge und Schlagworte

Tag: anecdotes (page 1 of 3)

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.

 

Anecdotes – The Time I Was Taught About Defiance

When I travelled in Central and South Eastern Europe, I had my heart stolen by the town of Mostar in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Mostar is the inspiration for this blog’s title and theme – the place is all about the bridge. And not only about THE Old Bridge, the city’s symbol, but also about metaphorical bridges – between time layers, between ethnicities, between people. I had many experiences there that put my own fortunate life in perspective. One of them was particularly noteworthy, and as is the case with most good stories, it is about an encounter with someone who impressed me.

It was the thrid time on my trip that I came to Mostar, in the worst heat of July. Majda, my gracious host, measured 50 degrees on her balcony in the morning. All one wanted to do was sit by the cool waters of the emerald green Neretva river. One of these insanely hot days, I made it into town anyways in search for a Bosnian coffee kit (a post on the deliciousness that is Bosnian coffee is absolutely in order and will follow!).

Old Town, Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina

The Old Town cuteness of Mostar with its many souvenir shops

In the burning heat, going into the air conditioned shops was a temptation, but I was careful not to go into any place I didn’t want to buy anything from, because all the jewellry, scarfs and handbags were hard to resist as it were. Finally there was a shop that sold the cannikins called „džezva“ and the little cups called „fildžani“, and the ones on display outside were really pretty. So I went in.

It was nice and cool in the little room, and behin a small cashier counter there was a man in his thirties sitting and smoking a cigarette. He asked if he could help, and in broken Bosnian I said I was looking for a džezva and fildžani, and he motioned me smilingly to take a look around, obviously happy I spoke his language. He then asked me, again in Bosnian, where I was from. I told him, and he asked which city. „Hamburg“, I said, and he got very excited and said „HSV!!“ – which is Hamburg’s professional football club. I nodded, and he added: „Mostar klub – Velež!“ I knew that Velež was the Bosniak football club of town, and that their motto was „Mostar in the heart – Velež to the grave“. So I said this motto, in Bosnian – „Mostar u srcu, Velež do grobu!“, and my counterpart nearly exploded with enthusiasm. In one quick motion, he got up, obviously to fetch something – and it was only then when I noticed. He was missing a leg.

Shells in Snipers' nest, Mostar, Bosnia and Hervegovina

If you go to the bombed out bank building known in Mostar as the Snipers‘ nest, you will find bullet shells abound spread on the floor – a reminder of war

By this time our little talk and my looking around the shop had been going on for a good few minutes, and I had just thought he was being comfortable sitting there. When he got up, he did it with such matter of course and ease that it baffled me. I didn’t even have time to think it horrible, tragic, or anything of the sort. I was just completely taken aback how I could not have noticed it!

War is ever present in Mostar. You can see it in the buildings – although the vast majority has been restored – and in the people’s faces; you will find someone who is willing to share their story of loss and suffering easily, and you can see the ethnic city divide into a Croat and a Bosniak side of town easily. I had spoken to people about war. I had been to the museums in Mostar and Sarajevo, I had heard of flight, fight and fate. I never spoke to this salesman about his personal story. But the way that he got up so swiftly on his one leg, showing me that this was his daily life, his normalcy, impressed me deeply. He smiled at me with an untainted, open, whimsical look on his face. He had lines in his face, sure, but there was nothing speaking of tragedy in his behaviour. He was just there, making the best of life, his cigarette locked between his lips as he employed his crutches.

He had moved to his board of magnets and looked for one with the Velež sign on it, but hadn’t found one. Instead he gave me a regular Mostar fridge magnet that is on my fridge to this very day.

So in the end, Mostar showed both its torn and difficult past and present and its sublime beauty again – its beauty, which lies in the will of its people to persevere, not give up, and believe in a happy ending inspite of all the ugliness of history. They defy tragedy. They defy life, or better yet, death. It feels like things are condensed in that town. You look into the abyss. And then, again, you find yourself face to face with unearthly beauty and peace.

Waterfront View, Mostar, Bosnia

View from the Western side of the Neretva onto Old Town houses on the river’s other bank

The value of travel has been discussed at large in many different places. All our favourite travel quotes speak of it, innumerable songs have been written about it and hostel common room walls are probably bored with the stories of how amazing and life-changing travel is. I am not here to convince anyone of it who isn’t already. But I will tell you anecdotes that happened to me in my travel life that have changed my perspective on life forever. This is an irregular series on the blog tagged „anecdotes“.

Anecdotes – The Time I Met a World War II Witness

The value of travel has been discussed at large in many different places. All our favourite travel quotes speak of it, innumerable songs have been written about it and hostel common room walls are probably bored with the stories of how amazing and life-changing travel is. I am not here to convince anyone of it who isn’t already. But I will tell you anecdotes that happened to me in my travels that have changed my perspective on life forever. This wil be an irregular series on the blog tagged „anecdotes“.

I’m introducing travel anecdotes as a new series on the blog today. There are many stories I have to share that have never found space in any of my other blog posts. And I love telling stories. Come to think of it, that might be the reason I blog at all. I am kicking off with a memory I have long been wanting to write about, and one of my favourite anecdotes of all times.

In January of 2007, I had to take part in a training in Warsaw as part of my voluntary service in Silesia. It was my first visit to the Polish capital, and as part of the training, one afternoon we were sent to explore the city in groups. So I set out in the company of a Spanish girl, a French girl and a Greek guy to get to know Warsaw, and our self-assigned topic to do it was history.

Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Palace of Culture – it doesn’t look cold in the picture, but believe me, it was!!

After a visit to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, which I recommend especially to those who don’t know much about Polish history, we agreed to defy the bitter cold and see some of the many monuments in the city. Making our way through simultaneous rain and snow fall, my Spanish friend asked me what the expression „Third Reich“ meant. I started explaining to her that „Reich“ is German for empire; that the first Reich was the Holy Roman Empire  between 962 and 1806; the second one was the „Kaiserreich“ from 1871 until after World War 1; and the third Reich was consequently the one Hitler established.

As I explained this, the term „Reich“ fell a few times, and so did other German words. Suddenly an old man, probably in his 80s, stopped and asked me in broken German if he had just heard German. I affirmed. He then asked if we were going to see the fragment of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. Indeed that was where we were going, so I said yes again. He looked very excited and said: „I made that.“ I didn’t understand what he meant, he could not have made the ghetto wall, but he frantically kept repeating: „I made that, I!“ Eventually he told me to wait with my friends, he would be right back and show us. Everything he said was rather fragmentary and in a German that obviously had not been used in a long time, infused with Polish terms. In our group of four, I was the only one who spoke both those languages, so I translated to my friends what I had gathered and we agreed to wait for him and see what he wanted to show us.

He disappeared into a tiny shop and re-emerged quickly, then motioned us to follow. Walking with us, he introduced himself as Mieczysław Jędruszczak and told me his story. I tried my best to keep up with what he was saying and translate it to the other three. What I understood was that he had lived in Warsaw for all his life, and most of it he lived in the flat right next to the fragment of the Ghetto wall. He wasn’t Jewish, but he had grown up in a multicultural Warsaw with lots of Jewish friends. Then the war came. He pointed out where the ghetto had been and told us details of both the Warsaw and the Ghetto Uprising. A small odyssey through side alleys and backyards later, we stood in front of the fragment of the ghetto wall. I doubt we would have even found it without Mr Jędruszczak.

It was a short stretch of brick stone, unremarkable, but awe-inducing when accompanied by our guide’s historical background knowledge. Single stones where taken out of the wall, and there were signs that pointed out which museum or memorial they had been given away to. Mr Jędruszczak, it turned out, was the one who administrated all of this. He told us more stories about his fight in the Polish resistance during World War 2, in the Home Army, and how he was arrested for it. I wished I understood more and better what he was telling me, and it was exhausting having to translate from the German-Polish mix into English and back form what my friends were asking me to ask him. At the same time I felt overcome by awe. I had never met a living witness of World War 2 before, and my head felt completely empty when I always would have expected to have a million questions to ask.

Finally it was time for us to head back to meet our group. We had missed out on seeing a few other places we had wanted to go to, but none of us cared. All four of us felt like we had just encountered something that was so improbable it couldn’t even really be true. Had I not used a few German words there in the street, and had Mr Jędruszczak not overheard them, we would have never come to meet him. Also, I felt it was typical of Polish friendliness that he dropped everything else and guided us to the place personally. And although sadly I have forgotten so many of the details he told us, so much of the information he gave, I will never forget him.

If you speak Polish, you can read an article on Mr Jędruszczak here. The fragment of the ghetto wall is located at ul. Zlota 60 in the neighbourhood called Wola.

Have you ever met an eye witness of a historical event who impressed you deeply?

Gretchen’s Question, or Travel and Faith

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

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

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

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

Studenica, Serbia

Studenica Monastery in Serbia – a deeply spiritual place

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

Dominican church, Krakow, Poland

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

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

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

Ohrid, Macedonia

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

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

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

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

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

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

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

The Wonderful Astray

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

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

Jak suchy szloch w tę dżdżystą noc…

Like a dry sob into this rainy night…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vis, Croatia

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

Comforts of Routine

Travel is the ever-different. Travel is inconsistency. Travel is the impossibility of planning. Travel is flexibility, spontaneity, restlessness. In short, travel is change. I love the feeling of living entirely in the moment while being on the road, the feeling of not needing to search the constant because I will not find it anyway. When I travel, every day brings new impressions and provides me with knowledge I did not have before. Every moment confronts me with myself in ways I haven’t experienced before, and I know that travel is always as much a journey to a new place as to the depths inside of me. The sound of trains, busses, ferries or airplanes moving through wide open spaces excites and calms me equally. I embrace the constant change that travel brings when I am out there on the road.

Train tracks, Frankfurt / Oder, GermanyIn my day to day life, however, I value a certain amount of stability. Yes, I like having a deli close to work where I go for lunch every day, and where after a break the waiters ask where I’ve been so long. I like knowing that the metro going downtown from close to my house goes on minutes 4 and 9. I like getting up in the morning, and going to the kitchen first thing to put on coffee and heat my milk, so my morning Caffe Latte will be done by the time I’ve put my make-up on. It can be very comforting to know that not every decision you make must be consciously made, but some are automatisms – at least as long as you know that travel will tear you out of your patterns again soon enough.

We all know those moments when we are shaken to the core, when life seems to want to let us know that we should never feel too sure about things going well, and it takes you and slaps you twice across the face. When that happens to me, I try to not let it numb me for more than a short moment, and I weigh my options: I then need either the constant change of travel to find myself again – or I can find myself in the stability of routine. While travel would probably always be my first option, it is not always possible; and the second one has got its perks; at least in a great city like Berlin.

I have a ritual of sitting at Tempelhofer Feld for a bit every day when I go home from work by bike. Only last year, I still used to have a cigarette during those ten to fifteen minutes, looking West toward the sun. Then I quit smoking. I have to admit I still miss that end-of-work-day cigarette, but the daily moment of peace and calm at the field is priceless.

Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin, GermanyCIMG9511

I really enjoy coming across the occasional crazies in my neighborhood. Like the funny Turkish dude I see frequently, about 60 years of age, who rides his bike along one of the large streets in Neukölln, sounding his bike bell and a whistle, carrying a large sign that says: “I have lived here for 30 years. Why can’t I vote?” He’s got a fair point. I like him. He’s fighting for his own interests. Or the guy who goes around in bars and asks people if they’d like to hear an „original entertaining poem“ and then gives out his whole marxist outlook on life. They are constants in this crazed city.

I love the way that in Berlin, you can see the TV tower from almost anywhere. This cold, damp and altogether quite horrid winter, its tip disappeared into fog quite often. Within the last week, it’s usually stood out clearly defined against a greyish sky. Yesterday the sun reflected in its metal beauty. I love how it looks different from the various perspectives, yet it always is the same.

TV-Tower, Berlin, GermanyI never tire of feeling elated when I cross the strip in the pavement that indicates where the Berlin wall used to be with my bike. Woah – there I go, to the East. Whoops – and back to the West. Unthinkable 25 years ago. A reality today. It never fails to put a smile on my face. The non-repudiation of history is of great density in Berlin, and it shows you how relative everything can be. I remind myself of that frequently also by stopping by Neue Wache or Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, places I have written about before.

Neue Wache, Berlin, GermanyI even take comfort in the way the S-Bahn is late sometimes, as it so often is. And sometimes I smile at the U-Bahn forcing me to the unspeakable Schienenersatzverkehr (rail replacement service) because, well, that obviously happens at a time when things aren’t really going your way. Stupid and annoying stuff like that can feel good because it feels normal, stable, known. Like so many things, it is a matter of perspective.

Travel owns my heart fully. But when something has shaken my day to day life in Berlin and made it crooked, askew; well, in those moments the first thing I do is look to those little things that do not change and choose to find them comforting.

Matters of Life and Death – European Cemeteries

Most people don’t exactly think of seeing a cemetery when they go to a foreign city. I used to be one of these people. I also used to be one of those people who could never even remember the orthography of the darn word. I swear I had to look up the spelling before I started writing this post. However, certain encounters with cemeteries have changed my indifference toward them, and I would like to share them with you. These are a few impressions from my travels through Europe:

1.Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland (2007)

When I went to Poland for six months as a volunteer, my beforehand instructions for the train journey to my tiny town were as follows: „About twenty minutes after Kłodzko station, you should see a cemetery to your right. The next stop after that is yours.“ So I was standing at the carriage door on a cold January night, approaching my destination, my nervousness growing at every stop since Kłodzko, asking myself how in the world I could spot a cemetery when it was pitch black outside.

But all of a sudden there was light in the utter darkness. What seemed to me to be hundreds of votive candles were glowing through the night and I was caught by the devout and solemn beauty of it with such force that I forgot to be nervous anymore. It was not an image of death. It was one of the afterlife and of eternity. I got off the train at the next stop and started my Polish adventure with the lights of hope in my heart.

CIMG7443

2. Lviv, Ukraine: Lychakiv Cemetery (2009)

In Lviv, there is a street along which all the hospitals are lined up, and it connects the city center with Lychakiv Cemetery. The way into town used to be called the axis of life. The way to the cemetery – the axis of death. As morbid as this may be, I loved the symbolism behind it. It was so easy, so clear-cut and so utterly understandable: Life – or death. City – or cemetery. No shades of grey. Just definite answers.

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine

Maria Konopnicka was a 19th century Polish writer and contemporary of…

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine

… Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko.

Lychakiv is very old, it has been around since 1787. It has been used by different Christian confessions and different social classes, and it holds the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów – a war memorial for those who died here between 1918 and 1920 fighting  for the city to become Polish again after Habsburg reign and World War One’s Soviet occupation. It holds graves of famous Poles and Ukranians alike. It was here that I noticed for the first time the specific aesthetics and beauty of tombstones, mausoleums and arcades in a cemetery. In the older parts of the cemetery, a lot of the stones are moss covered, and I couldn’t help but feel at peace with that image of nature reclaiming our manmade memorials for itself. I found the idea of all of us returning to nature eventually extremely comforting in that moment.

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine3. Sarajevo, Bosnia: Kovači Cemetery (2010)

The Sarajevo cemeteries are of particular sadness, because they are so large and such a big part of the graves are war graves. I learned here that in Islam, the graves that have pointed pyramid stale on one side and a round-tipped one that looks a bit like a bullet shell on the other are always war graves.

CIMG5364

Passing through this scene having a view of a mosque, the orthodox and the catholic cathedral gave me chills. So much transcending of different cultures in this place – and that is exactly what brought about the war. All the tombstones have dying dates between 1991 and 1995. There is such a lot of unfulfilled potential buried here, so much unlived life. The gravity of it sunk down on me with force, and I cried liberating tears. And I was so grateful that there is peace today in my home country and in this country.

4. Zagreb, Croatia: Mirogoj Cemetery (2010)

Funnily, I only went to Mirogoj because I had told my Couchsurfing host that I had loved Lychakiv in Ukraine. It was a bright and sunny day in Zagreb, and going to the cemetery felt a bit off, but as soon as I got there and saw the entrance gate in all its splendor, I didn’t regret it. I roamed the cool alleyways for a while, wondering about the lives that had preceeded the deaths now shielded by the cold stone. It was by no means a sad wondering – just curiosity, really.

Mirogoje, Zagreb, CroatiaThen I heard someone sobbing. I looked around and it took me a while to discover an elderly woman, crouching down on a tomb slab, weeping bitter tears. The sight of it broke my heart. I circled her for a few minutes. Then I picked up my courage, approached her, put my arm around her shoulder, and she leaned against me and cried.  After a while I told her in German: „Unfortunately I do not speak Croatian, but I am really very sorry for your loss.“ She looked at me with eyes so clear that they didn’t seem to fit her advanced age, and replied in the same language: „Me bit German.“ She told me how she was mourning her son. I held her, and I listened to her broken sentences. I don’t think that there was any other moment in my life when I felt more intensely what the notion of humanity means, and never before had I understood compassion as truly as I did then.Mirogoje, Zagreb, CroatiaI haven’t really felt these places to be very gloomy or scary. In fact I think that cemeteries allow us to reflect on death and life equally, and that they are places where emotions are maybe more dense than elsewhere if you let yourself feel them. They invite us to think about impermanence, about finiteness. I have always found things to be of the greatest beauty when I knew that they wouldn’t stick, and travel has taught me not to regret or fret about this, but to turn the knowledge of it into an immense gratitude for being there to witness the beauty of the moment. That is what cemeteries do for me. They make me grateful.

What do you think about cemeteries? Gloomy or peacful? Scary or hopeful? Do you have a favorite cemetery?

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?

Plank in Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia

This is a Bridge on Bridges on Sundays that is nameless, but still challenged me.

Mavrovo, Macedonia

It is a tiny, improvised, informal and unofficial little plank in Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park, just around the corner from Sveti Jovan Bigorski monastery. Mavrovo was one of the most surprising places to me in all the Balkans. I only passed through it between Ohrid and Skopje with a short stop at the monastery, and I made a definite note to self to come back again. Endlessly stretching green hills – but of a toxic, lurid color that is much more fiery than that of the hills in Bosnia that have always had a calming effect on me.

After taking a look around the monastery’s beauty I went back to the street where I was supposed to stop a bus coming through about half an hour later. I meandered around for a bit and found the tiny creek that ran parallel to the street with this improvised bridge across. I had my backpack on me and it was a very hot day, I am guessing well over 30°C. I saw the bridge and I was unsure whether to cross it because it looked unstable, but the moment I questioned my ability to cross it, I really wanted to get to the other side. Fear is a funny thing, and in this moment I allowed myself to feel it fully, even though it was s small, seemingly stupid fear. I stood there for a moment, torn, and all of a sudden the funny looking plank had a whole world of meaning, and it became any obstacle that stood to be overcome. I did cross it in the end, and from the other side I could reach the creek and cool my feet in the water for a bit. Having done that made me feel stronger. It is in the small experiences that we find ourselves to become wiser sometimes.

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!

„Eastern Europe? Why???“

Ever since I have more seriously joined the travel blogosphere, I have met all kinds of great people, read very many wonderful stories, narratives and articles on all kinds of different destinations, been part of a few excellent twitter chats on travelling and gotten to know a lot of different travel ways, fashions and likes. I am learning so much and I really love the community. There is just one thing that strikes me again and again, and it is time that I took up the cudgels for something that is almost ridiculously under-represented in the travel blogging community – and that is my beloved Eastern Europe.

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

Montenegro – did you know that Eastern Europe was this beautiful?

When I told people that I would travel for a while after grad school, the most common response was: „Oh cool. South East Asia or South America?“ When I said: „South Eastern Europe!“, faces went aghast and a little freaked out. The most common verbal response: „Whyyyyyy???“

I never really know what to say to this. I guess „Why not?“ is an appropriate response. Or more like „Why the hell not??“ I do notice that both in- and outside of Europe, a lot of people still think that Europe ends at the Eastern boarder of Germany. Travel bloggers write that they have been to Europe, but by that they mean Rome, Paris, London, Barcelona and Berlin. There are the few odd exceptions that include Prague, Budapest and Krakow. But while no one would have to justify why they want to see Bretagne or Andalusia or Tuscany, a lot of people don’t even know about Mavrovo, Tatra or the Curonian Spit (FYI, those are in Macedonia, Poland/Slovakia and Lithuania).

There are still many misconceptions about the countries that used to be hidden behind the iron curtain. I would really love it if I could eradicate some of them here. Most of the things I have heard are variations of the three things I discuss below.

1. There’s not really anything to see in Eastern Europe. It is ugly and has nothing to offer apart from relics of its Socialist past.

If you think this is true, you could not be more wrong. Eastern Europe has it all – thriving cities, gorgeous little villages, beautiful mountain ranges, beaches, swamps, forests, even what is widely considered the last European jungle (in North Eastern Poland, it is called Bialowieza). It is both for the nature lovers and for the culture lovers amongst us. It is extremely rich in history; from the Balkans that used to be under Ottoman rule and show the Muslim influence via Central Eastern Europe with its Austro-Hungarian grandeur to the Baltic Republics with their very own strive for freedom after being forced to be a part of the Soviet Union. Or would you say that this is ugly or uninteresting?

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina

Bosnia and Hercegovina – in Sarajevo, you have a minarette and the towers of the orthodox and the catholic cathedral all in this picture.

Ohrid, Macedonia

Macedonia – at Lake Ohrid you have a gorgeous view onto Albania

Ksamil, Albania

Albania – yes, Eastern Europe holds beaches that can stand their ground in an international comparison!

Kosice, Slovakia

Slovakia – this beautiful town, Kosice, is actual European Culture Capital 2013!

2. People in Eastern Europe are rude and unfriendly. They don’t like Westerners there.

Ok, this must be the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I have never experienced hospitality like this anywhere else. Couchsurfing hosts insisting on me sleeping in their beds and taking the floor instead. The genuine interest in any traveller and the smile on someone’s face when they learn that you are in their country just to see it for its beauty. The enormous amounts of food people will get from the most hidden corners of their houses when someone comes to visit. The bus driver in Albania between Tirana and Berat who didn’t speak English, but called his son, passed us his phone and had his son tell us in English that if we needed anything, he’d gladly be of service. The girl in the internet cafe in Plovdiv in Bulgaria that ran after me for two street blocks in 40 degrees heat to bring me my water bottle that I had forgotten. The boy in Riga in Latvia who took us to the train station personally when we had asked the way. Need I say more?

Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina

Bosnia and Hercegovina – Hostel hospitality with Bosnian coffee in the morning

3. Travelling in Eastern Europe is challenging because the living standards are low and they only speak those weird languages with the many consonants. 

Clearly anyone who says this has never been to Eastern Europe. Most of the countries that fall under this category are part of the European Union. Even if they aren’t, the Union is funding lots of projects in other European countries to maintain infrastructure and help growth and development. Out of the Eastern European countries that did join the EU in 2004 and 2007, Slovenia, Slovakia and Estonia have the Euro. This is where another misconception comes in – Eastern Europe is not necessarily cheap anymore. I found places like Tallinn, Estonia to have higher prices in their downtown coffee places than Berlin. Living standards rising is a complicated issue, and sometimes I wish my favorite places could forever keep their morbid, slightly run down charme (like the Wroclaw Train Station in Poland). It is a fact however, that travelling in Eastern Europe is hardly a challenge anymore. All the young people speak English, and if the lady at the ticket counter doesn’t, someone is sure to help you out (see above). And the languages are weird, but really, are the languages in Asia any better? At any rate, Eastern Europe is more Western than Western Europe at times. Capitalism has hit hard and fast. Coffee places, bars, clubs, restaurants, but also opera houses, museums and theatres will shower you with a diverse offer that you won’t even be able to digest so fast. How about a visit to one of these places?

Lviv, Ukraine

Ukraine – Opera House in Lviv

Belgrade, Serbia

Serbia – National Museum in Belgrade

Tallinn, Estonia

Estonia – having the richest hot chocolate ever in a living room coffee house in Tallinn downtown

Summing it up, I really don’t understand about the weird looks and shocked reactions. I can just strongly advice everyone to go and experience the amazingness of Eastern Europe for themselves. But hurry. Once word is out, the place will be flooded with tourists.

Have you been to anywhere in (Central, South or North) Eastern Europe? Did you love it or hate it? What other places are there that people are suspicious of travelling to?

Older posts