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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“.

Motorway Bridges in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Hercegovina

How is it that mist can be so sad and depressing when it’s outside my Berlin window, but so beautiful when it is covering the forests stretching over a Bosnian mountain?

Sarajevo, Bosnia & HercegovinaWhen I was in Sarajevo, my couchsurfing host took me around town in his car. I am not even sure from where I took this picture, I am just fairly sure that somewhere in it there is the border between the Federation of BiH and the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) – the two entities that make up the country we know as Bosnia and Hercegovina.

The motorway in the picture goes East from the capital toward Serbia. They must have had a lot of fun building it, with its strange bridge constructions passing over the valleys. Take into account that after the war in the 90s a lot of Bosnian mountains are still mined until today and you have to be quite careful to trod off the beaten path, and then look at this elaborate system of bridges and tunnels – quite a masterpiece.

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!

Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Today’s bridge brings you back to that country that has my heart and to a historical place for all of Europe.

1Bosnien - SarajevoThis is Latin Bridge, or Latinska ćuprija, in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. The river that runs under it is the river Miljacka, so beautifully besung by Halid Bešlić in the song of the same name that I have mentioned in this post about the Sound of Bosnia. The bridge is one of the typically Ottoman structures you see so often in the Balkans – with their several arches and curvy elegance and playfulness. The bridge is even part of the coat of arms of Sarajevo, albeit quite stylized.

To be honest, although it may be the prettiest bridge over the Miljacka River, Latin Bridge didn’t impress me much at first, and I found the Miljacka to be shallow and narrow. But then it came to me that in this very spot, few metres from where I took this photo, archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip in 1914. Many of you will know that this is considered one of the, if not the decisive moment that started World War I. This is typically Bosnia. It keeps surprising you with amazing facts and, I have no other words, a pretty fucked-up history. If there ever was a country that made me understand that things aren’t always what they appear to be at first glance, it was this one.

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!

Books Shaping Travels – Part II

I explained last week in Part I of this post how before I left on my big trip to the Balkans in 2010, my friend Christoph came up with an idea. He wanted to give me a book that I could take, and when I was done with it I was to exchange it for a new book, and I was to do that with every book, and bring him back the last one. I loved the idea and agreed. I have told you about the first three books that took me through the first two countries, Hungary and Slovenia. Funnily enough, the next three books lasted me up until the end of my trip through nine more countries.

I couchsurfed in a lovely flat with five wonderful people in Maribor in Slovenia, and I asked them what books they could recommend for me to read that were related to their country or the Balkans in general. They came up with two suggestions: Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut and Ivo Andric’s The Bridge over the Drina. When I went to Lujbljana, after Maribor, I found the greatest English book shop in all my travels, Behemot. They happened to have copies of both books in English and I bought them without second thought. It stepped on the point of having to exchange books for one another a little bit, but I really wanted to read these two novels and exchanging books had proven difficult so far anyway.

Alamut is a novel by Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol – which is why I started with it, since I was still in Slovenia. At first sight one wouldn’t think that it had anything to do with the region. It is a story set in 11th century Persia and tells of the training of assasins in service of a political leader. It is a deeply moving story of almost epic proportions about love and friendship, sacrifice, honour, pride and deception. It would be easy to oversee the actual tie to its author, who wrote it as an allegory for Italian fascism under Mussolini, being part of the Slovene minority in Italy himself. I loved everything about the book that took me through Slovenia and Northern Croatia almost half way through Dalmatia.

Bartol: AlamutI gave away Alamut to a girl I met at a hostel in Split. I had a feeling she would appreciate it and gave it to her gladly.

Following this was the reading of something particularly special to me. I have written about the meaning I attach to Ivo Andric’s wonderful novel The Bridge over the Drina when I wrote about, well, the bridge over the Drina – because it is an actual place in Eastern Bosnia not far from the Serbian border, the magnificent Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad. This picture certifies it for me that I did sit on the very bridge as I finished reading the book. It was not just a dream, I truly did it.

Andric: Bridge over river Drina

Ivo Andric actually won the nobel prize for literature for this book in 1961 – even if the book was published in 1945 already. In it, he connects the fates of people living in the small town of Višegrad to the fate of the mighty bridge. The town’s life seems to circle entirely around it, and as I sat on the bridge, I wished that someone would come by and sell me a piece of water melon, like it was described in the book, so that I could try and spit the seeds as far as I could into the turquoise waters of the Drina.

I finished reading The Bridge over the Drina and couldn’t just get myself to leave it somewhere for anyone to find. Besides I needed a new one in exchange. I went back to Mostar, that city of cities to me, and saw my Canadian friend Aasa again who I had met the time I had been atround before. She knew about the book and had wanted to read it for a long time, and now the prospect of getting her hands on it excited her much. I couldn’t have found a better person to give it to. In exchange, Aasa gave me Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

West: Black Lamb and grey falconAn absolute classic in Balkan travel literature, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has well over 1,000 pages and is a non-fiction account of a journey that Dame Rebecca West took through what then was Yugoslavia with her husband in 1937. It is a right brickstone, and quite a few people pronounced me completely whack carrying it around with me through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, again Bulgaria, again Macedonia, and Kosovo.

I never finished the book. In fact I was not so much reading it as reading in it. I didn’t do a linear reading, chapter by chapter. Instead I went directly to parts Rebecca West had written about cities I got to know and love. I was indignant over the fact that the chapter on my beloved Mostar was so short, but I loved whenever there was talk of meeting locals and being welcomed with open arms in so many different situations. Often I marvelled at what had not changed, and sometimes I was startled by how different my own impressions were. All of the time I was thinking about how I would describe the places I read about in Rebecca West’s writing.

I left the book with my couchsurfing host in Prishtina, and Irish girl who had as desperately wanted to read it as my Canadian friend had the Ivo Andric novel. Again I am confident that I left it in good hands.

While writing this, I had completely forgotten how the story ended. I was already prepared to have to tell you now that it had just escaped my consciousness what had happened with Cristoph’s and my deal. In fact it only just came back to me that I gave Black Lamb and Grey Falcon away in Prishtina. And similarly, it just now came back to me what I brought back for Christoph. There is another fabulous little bookshop in Prishtina called Dit e Nat. It is a good place for meeting both locals and expats and the have a good selection of English books and delicious coffee – plus and unbeatable atmosphere. There, I bought an English a novel called Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain) by Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić that I brought Christoph back to Germany. And thus it was a perfect circle – leaving with a novel in German, coming back with an English translation of a Croatian one, leaving with a book on academia, returning with one on war traumata and cultural identity.

What books in your travel has shaped your experience? Do you read when you travel?

The One Hundredth – Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge

This is my one hundredth post on this blog. When I think back on the way I started out, I can’t believe what a journey it has been. I was a different person a little over three years ago, and for all the things that I was lucky enough to experience and write about since then, I am nothing but grateful. There is not a day that passes when I don’t think about one or the other experience that I have made travelling and that has shaped who I am today, and not a day that passes without saying a silent quick prayer of thanks for that.

The One Hundredth deserves to be celebrated with a truly special place, and what else could that be than a bridge. Next to Mostar’s Stari Most, this is the Bridge of Bridges to me: Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad, Bosnia & Hercegovina.

Visegrad, Bosnia & HercegovinaAnd what else could have inspired me to desperately want to see this beautiful and powerful piece of architecture, this work of art in itself, than literature. I mention Ivo Andrić’s monumental book Na Drini ćuprija (The Bridge on the Drina) in My Mission statement. It is a nobel prize winning novel about the small town of Višegrad, about its inhabitants and its culture, and the bridge around which the town revolves – from its construction in the 16th century to its destruction during World War I. The book encompasses four centuries of joy and pain, laughter, tears and blood. It is a collection of anecdotes and a compendium of beautifully drawn characters, a lesson in history as much as a lesson in humanity. No one who loves the book could possibly finish reading and not want to see the bridge.

Na Drini Cuprija, Visegrad, Bosnia & Hercegovina

I was so lucky as to come to Višegrad on a beautiful day in May three years ago, on a quiet and sunny day at that, and I sat down on the bridge an finished reading the book about the bridge. Words cannot express the elation I felt in that moment. Different parts of my world were coming together. Everything made sense. Surely it is my analytical mind that looks back on that day and notices how perfect it was more so than my actual self back then, but I do remember being completely and unconditionally happy in that moment when I sat on the Kapia and read the book. The kapia is the little balcony that you can see in the middle of the bridge, across from the stele you see rising up.

Kapia, Visegrad, Bosnia & Hercegovina

The Kapia

Visegrad, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Central stele – the inscriptions are in Turkish, but they are mentioned in Ivo Andric’s novel and according to that, they tell of the construction history and ask God for his blessing of the bridge.

I only passed through Višegrad, I never spent the night. It is a small place that except for the bridge has not got a whole lot of amazing sights to offer. So I had my pack on me as I sat on the bridge. Walking by were two German soldiers I chatted up. They were stationed in Foča, if I remember correctly, and told me a bit about the international military supervision Bosnia & Hercegovina is still under after the wars of the 1990s. It felt weird to speak about this when all around me and inside of me there was this great sense of peace. Visegrad, Bosnia & HercegovinaI have another favorite book that is set there by an author who is not much older than me. He is called Saša Stanišić and the novel „How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone“. It is set in the 1990s and deals with the Balkan wars. I only read it after my trip down there, but I would like to go back to Višegrad having this second literary perspective on the town. It is, after all the sight of the Višegrad massacre in 1992 that included Bosniaks being murdered by Serb troops on the very bridge you see in these pictures. Now of course there is no talk of that in the novel by Andrić, which was published in 1945. History is yet more multi-layered than can be covered by the four centuries Andrić describes. Through all the history and all that can be learned from being in a place like the monumental Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, however, what sticks with me more than anything else is the beauty of the ancient construction, the coolness of the stone, the color of the Drina river and the peace and quiet that filled my heart and soul on that beautiful day in May 2010.

The Wonderful Astray

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

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

Jak suchy szloch w tę dżdżystą noc…

Like a dry sob into this rainy night…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vis, Croatia

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

The Sound of Bosnia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortress, Blagaj, Bosnia & Hercegovina

And I sang this song:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.


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?

Vukovar – a lesser known take on the Balkan Wars

I have always tried to see to the fact that my blog will show the beauty of the former Yugoslavia and not purely concentrate on the remnants of war; and I chose to do so because from my experience people will think about war anyway, while the amazing charms of the Balkans have yet to be made known to them. Kami of Kami and the Rest of the World has recently reminded me of my own reaction to the most recent Balkan history when she wrote this moving and accurate post about Mostar. It brought back to mind that it is very important to speak not only of the beauty, but also of the dark past of this region, because people are sadly uninformed. But the war is still part of society in the Balkans – and not only in destroyed buildings, but in people’s heads, in politics, plainly spoken: in life.

It is a difficult, messed-up story that brought about the war, and I can’t say that I’ve fully grasped it. I certainly shall not try to explain it. I will resort for now to speak of a place that is little known, but that made the recent past’s events more visible to me than any other, and that is Vukovar in Croatia.

City Center, Vukovar, Croatia

Downtown Vukovar – only at a second glance did I notice that the pretty but run-down building was still without windows

Vukovar would never have made it to my list, even if I’d had one. It was recommended to me by one of my favorite couchsurfing hosts of all time. Roni said to me: „If you want to feel what the war meant, you must go to Vukovar.“ So after seeing Mostar’s captivating beauty and the miracle that is the restored Old Bridge, after Sarajevo’s tunnel museum, after the whole Bosnian take on the war, I went back through Slavonia, which is Croatia’s most inland region, to stop in Vukovar for a night before I would go to Serbia’s Novi Sad.

It was one of the first places I went to on my trip that didn’t have many tourists. I walked around asking random people if they knew of a place where I could stay for the night, and I found a nice little guest house well outside of the city center – funnily enough I had already seen it from the bus window. It may have been the only place in town. After dropping off my backpack, I made my way right back into town.

War Ruins, Vukovar, CroatiaWhile at first, on the way out to find a bed for the night, my priorty hadn’t been on looking around so much, everything struck me with greater force now that I didn’t have a backpack and the fear of sleeping outside on me. The long street into town was lined with buildings that were covered in bullet holes. I had seen houses like these in Bosnia, but in Mostar and Sarajevo they weren’t nearly as plentiful.

Bullet hole houses, Vukovar, CroatiaAs I said: Vukovar doesn’t have tourism. There hasn’t been much need, let alone funds, for restorations. You probably haven’t ever heard of the place. Here’s the deal: Vukovar was under an 87-day siege in 1991 and was the third most destroyed city in the former Yugoslavia in the Balkan Wars – after mentioned cities in Bosnia. There was also an ethnically motivated mass killing of more than 250 Croatians in the year of the siege.

War Ruins, Vukovar, CroatiaThe walk into town was tough for me, because the atmosphere struck me as so bleak and desolate that I felt the weight of recent history with a power that hadn’t come upon me before. I had cried in Bosnia, cried over the countries losses and hardships, cried at fates of people I was told, and cried over the incomprehensible divide between the beauty of the country and the sadness of its history. But there had been beauty. In Vukovar on the road into town, I couldn’t even cry. A feeling of utter hopelessness crept upon me, and I was scared of giving in and allowing myself to feel the terror entirely, because I was afraid of breaking at the immensity of it.

Destroyed house, Vukovar, Croatia

What always gets to me is the intact tapestry on the wall.

This was the first moment that I began to understand that in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, there is no one good side and no one bad side. It isn’t World War II, where the essential info is that Germany is the villain. The Balkan Wars are much more complex. There is no clear image of a victim and a perpetrator, and I think that comes clearest when looking at Croatia. I can’t place the Croats‘ role in the war on either one side of the scale between evil and good; or rather: I have to place it on both sides equally.

War Memorial, Vukovar, Croatia

The War Memorial in the city center reads „To Those Who Died For A Free Croatia“

Finally I reached downtown, and there was something I noticed. The houses in the center were in ruins still – mind you, the siege had happened almost 20 years ago. But while the first floors didn’t have windows and were not habitable, the ground floors – well, they were!

City Life, Vukovar, CroatiaThey held shops and coffee houses and ice cream parlors. People were working on the restored ground floors to make money in order to rebuild the top floors. They were trying to reanimate their city, to defy the odds, to make a living inspite of previous deaths. This was the amazing attitude I had also found in Bosnia. The desolation was much harsher and more present here in Vukovar, but the readiness to fight it and restore good living conditions, to not give up or bend, was the same.

Downtown, Vukovar, CroatiaIt is this spirit that kindles and constantly rekindles my deep love and admiration for this region, its people and its culture. I do not think I could have fully understood this, had I not come to Vukovar. It was very important for me to see war remnants outside of the central and well-known places. They showed the tragedy and complexity of it all to me with detail that I didn’t see anywhere else – unabridged, unadorned, unvarnished.

What do you think? Would you visit a place like Vukovar – or have you even been? Is this kind of „war tourism“ unethical or weird to you?

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