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My Happy Place – Tempelhof Airport

It is the week of the Berlin Tourism Fair ITB again, and just like last year, I felt like I should share some valuable information on things to see in my home of choice. A lot of travel bloggers will come to town for this, and I do hope that some of the visitors will make time to see Berlin – ideally beyond Brandenburg Gate and the (admittedly amazing) East Side Gallery.

Last year I indulged in the history that this city has to offer. The place I am bringing to you today, the airfield of the closed down Tempelhof airport, is one that I have wanted to write about for a long time. Only I never quite knew how, because it is special to me in a way that probably no other place in Berlin is.

Grass and Sky, Tempelhof, Berlin, GermanyWhen I was in Berlin apartment hunting just before I moved here, I got of the metro at what is now my stop, and made a turn to the left from the big street. It was February, and bitter cold had a lock on Berlin. At the end of the street I had turned on, I saw – nothing. Not a house, not a tree, it was as thought the street led right up to a hole. I had no idea what that might be and I was early for the meeting with the property manager who was supposed to show me what is now my flat. So I went down the street and to see what the great nothing was. This is approximately what I found.

View of airport building, Tempelhof, Berlin, GermanyWidth. Air. Freshness. A horizon that wasn’t limited by the nearest skyscarper or even just three storey building. In the distance the old airport terminals can be seen – built under the Nazis, they are impressive, functional, and of their own estranging fascist aesthetics that one is compelled to dislike, but can’t help finding impressive. I looked across the great barren field and  knew that I desperately wanted the flat that was so close to it. And I got it. The field is now basically my backyard.

View, Tempelhof, Berlin, GermanyWhen you walk either one of the two airstrips and you look North, you have a beautiful view that includes the old radio tower with its funny looking white ball on top, you see the TV tower in the distance, church towers, and one of my personal favourites, the two minarettes of the mosque that is close by at Columbiadamm (and that has a beautiful small cemetery worth checking out!). Maybe it is the Northern German gal inside of me that feels drawn to this place. I am just in love with being able to see that far while no mountain, not even a hill disrupts the view.

Kites, Tempelhof, Berlin, GermanyOn a clear summer’s day, when there is wind on the field, you can see people doing all kind of kite sports. Not just the kite skaters in this picture – there are people on windsurfing  skateboards, or just people flying stuntkites. The sky is completely bestrewn with kites of all colours, shapes and sizes, and there is wooshing noises as you walk past. I especially love the skaters with the traction kites. They make amazing stunts and fly several meters high, pulling themselves up in the air with their skates attached to their feet, only to land on the airstrip again and be drawn by windpower with amazing speed across the concrete desert.

Kite Skater, Tempelhof, Berlin, GermanyI love to come to the field on weekends for a walk or just to sit somewhere, in some remote corner, or even inmidst of everything, and think. It is amazing that even on a day when the field is packed with people, you will always find a way to feel as though you were the only person there, because people scatter. When there is only wind and the wide sky, my thoughts can run free and I can find peace.

View of airport building, Tempelhof, Berlin, GermanyOn the East Side, there is a Guerilla Gardening Project. On the North Side there is a minigolf course made out of trash and a baseball field. On the South and West Sides there is virtually nothing. The airstrips stretch out betwen the West and the East, and walking them always feels a bit like that slow motion scene in Armageddon.

The most indescribable thing is the field in winter, just before they close it for the night (because you cannot enter at night as to prevent vandalism). If you walk on there just before closing time, you will be completely alone on a 355 hectar area before long. The moon will hide behind clouds, and the air will be pregnant with humidity. It will set on your clothes like a cover. You will feel cold and damp and very alone. And alive like you have hardly ever felt before. At least that is how I experience it. I usually start singing. Loudly, desperately against the noises of the wind and the emptiness. The city is glowing at the margins of the field, and I am all by myself, fighting the demons of my thoughts, bowing to the good spirits inside of me. No picture can bring across the atmosphere of those moments.

My favourite time of the day on the field though is, without a doubt, dusk. There aren’t just the special weekend walks or the long reading sessions, not just the people watching or all the funny little interim arrangements that can be found there. The most intimate moments on the field are the ones I have every day when I come home from work from early Spring through late fall. I used to have a cigarette on the field before I went home. Now I just sit and watch the sun set. The sky is so wide, the colours so intense, and I feel so at home in this big, crazy moloch of a city.

photo 5

No, I never quite knew how to write all of this down so far. I always figured that I needed to go there just one more time to get that one special anecdote, or take that one beautiful picture. But then again there will always be another perfect moment, another extraordinary experience on the field, and yet I will never be able to describe it sufficiently in all its width, greatness and beauty.

Камен мост / Stone Bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

This is a Bridge that may not be what it seems.

Kamen Most, Skopje, MacedoniaThis is Камен мост (Stone bridge) in the Old Town of Macedonia’s capital Skopje. Now I haven’t nearly written enough about this enchanting and complicated little Balkan republic, but this bridge is a good starting point. You can recognize the style from some of the other bridges in the Balkans that I have shown you – in Bosnia, or in Kosovo. It is the Ottoman influence that brings it here. Like many other bridges of the sort, it was built in the 15th century and survived many trials and tribulations. Behind it, as you see, there is construction work being done on buildings that look old as well. But they are not. They are only just being built.

Macedonia hasn’t existed as an independent state ever – until 11 21 years ago (Mandy pointed out this mistake in the comments, sorry about that!!) when its independence of Yugoslavia commenced. It was always a region governed by a greater entity – Bulgaria, the Ottoman empire, or Yugoslavia. Now that the country is in fact independent, there is a struggle for identity. History is a great generator of identity, so in Skopje a lot of buildings are coming into existence that are built in styles of times past – adding to the necessity if that is the fact that large parts of the city’s historical buildings were destroyed in a severe earthquake in 1963. Macedonia is creating its own history, but they are not starting in the today. They are trying to catch up with at least a hundred years that they have missed. The bridge is one of the few things that is really old and is thus, again, a connector of time layers.

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!

A World of Its Own – Kosovo

This post is based on this German original / Dieser Post basiert auf diesem deutschen Original.

While I figured fairly early in my big Balkans trip three years ago that I probably would not get to see all the countries I had originally thought about, I also knew that there were certain countries that I would most definitely not skip. Mainly those that my mum would have felt better if I’d skipped them. „Honey, you sure you need to go to Albania and Kosovo, all by yourself?“ Hell yeah. I’m not going to go to Serbia and not also go to Kosovo! There was a story there with those two countries, and one I had not the slightes understanding of, and I was not about to let that be the case for much longer. So I did go to Kosovo. And the country surprised me in all the right ways.

Prizren, KosovoI went into Kosovo from Skopje in Macedonia. If you enter into Kosovo from Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro, you won’t be able to leave the country straight to Serbia, and if you enter it from Serbia, you won’t be able to leave straight to Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro. Getting into Kosovo from Skopje was certainly the easiest route in my time, if only for the direct bus connection between Skopje and Prishtina, but that may have changed and other options may be available. So why is it so complicated again?

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, after there had been war there from 1998 through 1999, followed by a long UN administration period. I won’t go into detail because I don’t know much about it myself, but as is custom in the area (note the irony!), it was mainly a conflict of ethnicity, religion and possession. Serbians see Kosovo as an area of their cultural heritage, with beautiful Serbian orthodox monasteries and the site of the Battle of Kosovo – a founding myth of modern day Serbia, if you will. It took place in 1389 between the Ottoman Empire and the Serbians and delayed the Ottomans taking over the area for a little while. Today, however, Kosovo is mostly populated by Albanians who are Muslim. And that is where the problems start. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, so if you enter Kosovo from, say, Macedonia, through Serbian eyes you have entered Serbia already, but don’t have an entrance stamp which is why you cannot cross the boarder from Kosovo to Serbia. And if you enter Kosovo from Serbia, in Serbian eyes you have never left the country.

Going to Kosovo was, considering all of this, not at all a big deal. The boarder police asked me if I was coming on holiday, and bid me good day. I never even got a stamp, which I chose not to mind because I wanted to return to Serbia at one point and knew that a Kosovo stamp might give me trouble. I am still a bit sad though that I have no sign of having been there in my passport.

Prishtina was grey and ugly, and the traffic was pure craziness – but downtown there was a pedestrian zone where the atmosphere was that of an on-going fair. Hideous plastic toys of all provenance where sold, and I immediatly felt the information to be proven that the average age in the country was 25. There were no old people – not even older people, it seemed to me. But there where children – everywhere! They ran and played and screamed with the joy of life, and they made me smile with the realization that beauty exists even in a grey, dull pedestrian zone with ugly plastic toys and socialist concrete buildings. And sitting or working in coffee places, the Kosovar people laughed just like the children of their country – open, untainted, honest.

Grand Hotel, Prishtina, KosovoPeja reminded me of Ulcinj in Montenegro and Novi Pazar in Serbia – formerly Yugoslav cities with a big Muslim minority and influence. I had a cappucino in a street cafe. It was pouring rain. Just outside the terrace that I was sitting on, there was a fountain. The waiter put the coffee on my table, had a water glass in his hand, went over to the fountain to fill it, and put it on my table where it was dripping water on the notebook I was scribbling my impressions into. The waiter gave me a big smile with this. Then electricity stopped going. I had heard the generator all the while. Kosovo runs on two power plants, and one had gone broke that morning, so half the country was on generators, and a bit overstrained with it, I take it. No one seemed to mind, though – and that fact calmed me with quiet joy.

Peja, KosovoPrizren, which I have written about already, was certainly the prettiest town there. I had met an American guy on the bus and we went to see the Serbian Orthodox church up the mountain. Meters of barbed wire and KFOR protection. We were not allowed to enter even the premises.

Serbian Orthodoc church, Prizren, KosovoBack down in the town, we passed the Catholic church, and two teenagers that saw us asked us right away if we wanted to go in, and fetched the priest. He spoke German very well and I translated to English for my American friend. „We don’t need military protection down here,“ he said, „but in my opinion the Serbian churches don’t need it either.“ In the yard, yellow and orange roses were in full bloom. There was peace.

Every coffee house had me meet someone who I had a quick chat with. I got asked on dates and invited to house parties in Kosovo, had delicious Albanian food and bought an English book in a great little international book shop. War? Please, that was more than ten years ago!! Still there were the occasional reminders. Bombed out Serbian houses. A long fence showing pictures of missing relatives.

Missing people's fence, Prishtina, KosovoAnd the big statue of Bill Clinton in a suit with a briefcase, waving fatherly – I almost broke into loud laughter at the sight of it because it seemed ridiculous, but it is a serious matter for Kosovar people. The States have supported the country massively in its fight for independence.

Bill Clintin, Prishtina, KosovoI had asked couchsurfing hosts in Serbia what the big deal was with Kosovo – a naive question that might have gotten me in trouble in the wrong company, but quite usually the answer to me was simply: „What would you say if a part of your country decided to break away and be independent?“  I didn’t say it, but thought: „Well, some Bavarians would like to do that, and to be quite honest, whatever, you know, let them do it, only the German economy would break down and not be able to handle it I guess.“ Kosovo is not economically relevant to Serbia though. So I still didn’t quite know what to do with that argument. I understood, though, that it was really mainly, if not purely, cultural.

One impression was particularly overwhelming in Kosovo: This was not Serbia. It was not Albania, either. It was Kosovo.

Danube Bridges in Budapest, Hungary

Today’s photo on Bridges on Sundays brings you several bridges – a bridge cluster, if you will: The bridges over the Danube in Budapest.

1Ungarn - Budapest

It is a little more than three years ago that I started my South Eastern Europe adventure. Budapest will forever hold a special place in my heart, because it was the first stop in a non German-speaking country – the place where the whole magnitude of my adventure started to actually feel real and concrete. When I got off the train here, I knew it: It had started. These months were to belong to no one but me, and they’d be full of life and joy. And they really were.

On my last night in Budapest I climbed up Gellert Hill at sunset and looked down at the Danube river between Buda and Pest. The day had been beautiful and sunny, not yet really warm, but Spring was in the air. As the sky turned darker, the city turned lighter – lights were turned on first in the houses, then on the streets, finally the bridges were floodlit. I loved how light transcended from the skies to the earth, and I had such hopes and dreams and never knew to which degree they were to be exceeded. It was a happy moment indeed.

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!

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.

Vanšu tilts in Riga, Latvia

Bridges on Sundays today brings you a modern, mighty and functional Bridge.

Vansu tilts, Riga, LatviaThis is Vanšu tilts, Cable Bridge, in Latvia’s thriving capitol Riga. Riga was a place that didn’t feel very foreign from the very start, and I figured that that must be because it is a hanseatic city – meaning one of those cities that were part of the trade union “Hanse” that connected many cities in Northern Europe and especially in the Baltic Region in the middle ages. Hanseatic cities have a specific vibe to them that I love very, very much. My home town Hamburg is one, and so coming to another never truly feels like going to a strange place. The more excited I got when I learned that Riga was actually founded by monks that came to this area from Bremen, another German hanseatic city that I have a personal connection with because my mother grew up there. Once I knew this, I discovered similarities to Bremen on every corner.

One of the reasons I love hanseatic cities is that they are most always located at the coast or at least by a river. Riga is beautifully set right at Gulf of Riga, and water seems to run its ways through the city everywhere. The Daugava River opens up into the Baltic here, and the bridge crosses it to connect different parts of the city. Funnily enough I think this one looks a bit like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul – huge and well known landmarks in cities that have nothing to do with the Hanse whatsoever. There’s another connection for you that a bridge can make.

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!

Word Sights – Reichstag and Jakob-Kaiser-Haus in Berlin

„What does she mean by a ‚Word Sight‘?“ you may ask yourself. As I wrote about last week, and in my About me, and probably in a gazillion other posts as well, I have a thing for language. Now you may think that is true for any writer, but I really don’t think that is the case to just quite my degree, because I haven’t met many people that share my obsession of inscriptions, epitaphs, or really any other kind of writing in the public sphere. And that when it is so ubiquitious on buildings, monuments, pavements and statues, and in many other places! Couchsurfing hosts have suffered from my incessively nagging questions about what anyting written on any kind of surface from the parliament building to a banknote in foreign currency means. Meanwhile, I cannot really understand how anyone would not desperately want to know the meaning of those words.

In this spirit, I have something that I want to introduce you to today. Let me take you on a very quick walk through Mitte.

The Reichstag building must surely be on your itinerary when you come to Berlin. It has a long history that is intertwined with the history of the entire country. This was where Germany (that is, back then it was Prussia) was first declared a republic in 1918. Also, the dome of the building caught fire in 1933 under unknown circumstances, and the Nazis used this incident as pretense to fuel antisemitism by blaming it on the Jews. After 1945, the building was unused and left to decay until reunification. Today it is once more the place where the German parliament meets – a democratic one.

Reichstag, Berlin, GermanyWhen you face the building, the large inscription above the front gates cannot be missed. In capital letters it says DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE, which means „For the German People“. The inscription was put there in 1916, not very much to the liking of the Prussian king who found it to be too democratic a gesture. Today, I personally know quite a few people who dislike the inscription for very opposite reasons: They think it sounds nationalistic, and that it should be removed.

"Dem Deutschen Volke", Reichstag, Berlin, GermanyGranted, the German word Volk, people, has been connotated in all the wrong ways during national socialism. It can carry a weird undertone when used in the wrong context, and for some people, the wrong context already is in the word deutsch, German. To me, however, this inscription on the Reichstag building is not the wrong context. I like the idea that a member of parliament would be reminded when entering the building that they are there as a representative of the German population, to work for the people in this country, and not solely for power, fame or money. To me, these three words are still a reinforcement of the democracy we are lucky enough to live in today. Looking at the historical facts about the place I sketched out above, I feel very aware of the fact that democracy is not to be taken for granted.

There is a second „word sight“ close by that I am sure many tourists overlook, and that is quite in keeping with the theme of reinforcing German democracy in the public sphere using words. When you pass by the Reichstag on the left side in the direction of the Spree River and walk toward Friedrichstraße station along the so called Reichstagsufer, you will soon notice a glass wall with writing on it to your right. Behind it is the Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, the biggest German parliament building holding offices.

Jakob-Kaiser-Haus with Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

This shot is taken from the other side – you have the Reichstag building in the background.

Article 5, German Basic Law, Berlin, Germany

§5 – Freedom of Speech and Press

What is written on this glass wall, easily overlooked, are the first 19 articles of the German constitution – althoughthe German constitution is not called „Constitution“, but Grundgesetz, „Basic Law“. When the Federal Republic passed it in 1949, the idea was that one day the German Democratic Republic would be part of Germany again, and a constitution for the entire country would only be discussed then.

Article 3, German Basic Law, Berlin, Germany

§3 – Equality

After reunification, the Grundgesetz just stuck and we still don’t have a law that is called the Constitution. I kind of like Grundgesetz. Because that is what it is, it is the most basic law that we have, it settles our very basic rights.

I can never restrain a feeling of being in the presence of something grand when I come to the place where it is written down. Laugh at me all you want, but I think these words, be they technical as they may, be they nothing but a dry and dusty law, are  of sublime beauty. When you come from the Reichstag building, you start by article 19. The further up front you go, the more basic the content of the articles. §5 Freedom of Speech and Press. §4 Freedom of Religion. §3 Equality before the Law for all People. §2 Right to self-development and personal freedom. And finally, my favorite, §1:

Article 1, German Basic Law, Berlin, Germany

§1 – Human Dignity

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt.

In English that means:

Human dignity is inviolable. To respect it and protect it is the duty of all governmental authority.

And isn’t this what it all comes down to – that we are all human beings and that we all have a dignity that deserves to be protected? Isn’t that the essence of democracy, that we all deserve equal treatment and should all have equal rights and opportunities, and that the government we choose is a means to that end of protecting our rights and opportunities so that we can live a life worth living? I may curse politicians at times, I may have a very critical view of what is happening in this country – but the basic principles are the right ones, and this place states that for the whole world to see.

St Paul’s Cathedral the Non-Touristy Way

Dieser Post basiert auf diesem deutschen Originalpost.

Sometimes the reasons that make me want to see a place are not the most rational. The reason I wanted to see Prague, for example, was a Donald Duck pocket book that had an adaption of Franz Kafka’s „The Metamorphosis“. It started by the words: „Prague – the golden city by Vltava river…“ I read it when I was 9 years old, and I imagined golden rooftops and a golden river and golden sunshine, and I heard in my head the sound of Smetana’s Vltava, a piece I had already learned to love back then, and I wanted to see this magical place more than anything. When I went there 12 years later, it was every bit as golden as I had always pictured it to be, and the music played in my head and heart all the while I was there.

I had a similar reason I had wanted to see London for a long time. Not because of Big Ben, or the London Eye, or the Houses of Parliament, or Westminster Abbey. Not because of Oliver Twist or Peter Pan. I was always just drawn to one place – St Paul’s Cathedral. And again the reason was musical: Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins and her song about the little old bird woman selling breadcrumbs to feed the birds with.

Originally I had wanted to visit a service at Westminster Abbey that morning – but there was security and a lot of people in uniforms moving about in a concerted way that struck me as rather funny and not as awe-inspiring as it maybe was supposed to. At any rate the service could only be visited if you held a ticket. Sometimes fast decisions have to be made. I ran to catch a tube, and another, running up the streets, and I reached St Paul’s having to catch my breath.

St Paul's, London, EnglandThe service hadn’t started yet, but it was high time, and so my first impression of the building was very different from what I had envisioned. I had seen myself carefully approach the church and slowly take in all the details, I had pictured myself walking about, barely being able to keep myself from humming the song about the old bird woman. Instead I ran and rushed up the stairs, „To the service?“ someone asked, I nodded, had a leaflet stuck into my hand, the sound of the ringing bells in my ears, and only found it in myself to calm down when I had already crossed through half of the nave. Finally slowly, I took step upon step forward to finally reach the dome, lift my head and let my eyes wander across it. Instantaneously, tears were running down my cheeks. I never even noticed the moment when I started crying. The beauty, the sublimity of it was completely out of this world. An usher approached me and asked: „Alright?“ I stammered: „It’s so beautiful!“

I sat down in one of the benches rather shyly. I love going to church in foreign countries, because every service in a different language or of a different confession that I have seen has only made my belief stronger that faith is universal, and spirituality transgresses the ideas of different religions. In this place of such great festivity, however, I was a little uneasy at the thought of someone realizing that I was somehow different, somehow not part of this. After all I had – and, as I shamefully must admit, still have – practically no idea about the Church of England and their principles.

As soon as the service started, however, all of this went away. There was a men’s choir all dressed in frocks. Their singing was unearthly, the sounds resonated with something deep inside my soul, and the melodies stretched out into the church dome and felt eternal. They were more solemn, more mighty than I knew church music at home to be, and they seemed to dissolve barriers inside of me and allowed me to fully give in to the entire emotional range that was at my disposition.

The sermon on the other hand was a graceful combination of philosophical depths and true-to-life happiness. It was about equality, and there was one sentence that has never left me since, and that said: „We are all one in Jesus Christ, whether we are male or female, black or white, straight or gay.“ I had never heard someone speak about matters of sexual orientation equality in a church, and I was equally impressed and touched. I do not think the sentiment of that sentence only holds valid for those who believe in Jesus. Equality is a value that is rooted in humanity, not in Christianity. This phrase is just a specifically Christian way of saying something that is bigger than any specific confession.

I left the service happier than I had gone in. I think that is what I like about religious services. They keep me from becoming cynic and restore my idealism somewhat – however much religious institutions may also have the power to destroy that same idealism when I look at other actions they take every day. Is it phony of me to concentrate mainly on those parts of it that go with my own belief system? I don’t know – what harm can it do if it may help me to be a better person?

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.

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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.

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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?

Guest Post: Triple Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia

This week’s Bridges on Sundays brings you the first guest post ever on my blog. I have the great honor to present to you my friend Sarah from Wake up Mona, a blog you should most definitely check out. Sarah is an art teacher in the US currently planning her six month RTW which will start this summer. She blogs about her previous travels in stunning photo essays and shares her thoughts on the power of travel in a strong and genuine voice. She and I share a deep love for Eastern Europe. Please follow Sarah on twitter, like her facebook page and keep up to date as she embarks on her journey through Central America, the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Egypt.

Today, Sarah brings to you a bridge that is unique, yet threefold.

Triple Bridge, Ljubljana, SloveniaLjubljana is a city of bridges, each with its own story to tell. A river of the same name (Ljubljanica) flows through the city, making bridge-crossing a necessary and eventually a very natural occurrence. One of my favorites was the Tromostovje, or Triple Bridge, located at the entrance to old town. There are three individual pedestrian bridges to choose from, but I found myself always venturing to the sides; I’ve always hated being in the middle. The middle bridge is the oldest, built in 1842. It stood as a lonely single bridge for nearly 90 years until the two side ones were added in 1931. It’s impossible to know that by looking at it today, all three bridges unify as one.

Triple Bridge, Ljubljana, SloveniaBut it’s easy to overlook its architectural uniqueness. Perfectly situated, connecting old and new, Ljubljana castle on one side and lively Preseren’s square on the other, Triple Bridge is the heart of Ljubljana. No visit to this lovely city would be complete without crossing it at least once, preferably three times. 🙂

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 also have a picture of a bridge that you would like to share with my readers as a guest post, feel free to contact me!

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