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Tag: Central Europe

The Things I Love About Poland – Part II

I guess we all have countries which make us feel at home more than others. My parents, for example, love Greece, and they feel imbalanced when they don’t go every year. Most people get that. Greece has beaches, and islands, and ouzo, and lots of pretty old ruins. When I speak about Poland with that same affection, people just give me disbelieving looks. But guess what. Poland has beaches! And lakes! And vodka! And TONS of pretty old ruins – and pretty old buildings that are still whole, or have been restored beautifully.

Dlugi Targ, Gdansk, Poland

Długi Targ, the Long Market, in the center of my most beloved Gdańsk. Everything was in ruins here after World War II, but is shiny and sparkling today. I hear that Polands restorers are among the best in the world, and I believe that alright!

Last week I spoke about my love for the urban beauty of Polish cities, of the amazing sense of history in the country, of the hospitality I have met and the friends I have found, about the enchanting melody of that beautiful strange language, and about Polish music that has touched my heart. As if all this wasn’t enough, I have more reasons why my eyes light up when I talk about Poland. And I am not afraid to tell you about them.

6. The Landscapes

How could I speak about the cities and not equally enthusiastically mention the landscapes! From the Baltic Sea and the Mazurian Lakes in the North to the Tatra Mountains and the softer Plains in the South, the country really has it all.

Szczytno, Poland

Szczytno in the Mazurian Lake district enchants with a beautiful sunset.

Rozanka, Poland

Różanka in Lower Silesia offers pretty views and is very close to the Sudety mountains.

Poland even has the last European jungle in the Northeast which is high on my bucket list as I haven’t managed to see it yet. The wild bisons that live there, the żubry, have been namesake to both the beer żubr and the vodka żubrówka. Who wouldn’t need to see them now? One of the things that make Poland such an amazing country is definitely its diversity. From beach vacations by the sea to skiing in the mountains, you can find everything your travel heart desires here.

Sopot, Poland

Didn’t I say there were beaches? If it is this pretty in winter, just imagine how amazing the pretty spa town of Sopot must be in summer!

7. The Food – and the Vodka!

Ah, the food. I am not a huge foodie, but Polish food has me salivating. For one thing, don’t expect to ever go hungry in Poland. Generally, there is too much food for a person to handle, even if it is so delicious that you never want to stop eating. The Polish are big on soups and stews from żurek, a sour rye soup, to all kinds of vegetable soups (especially try barszcz, a beetroot based soup), to bigos, a heavy cabbage stew that will warm you on a snowed in winter’s night (because yes, it does get cold in Poland). I can never get enough of wątróbki, poultry livers served with apple and onions, and of the famous pierogi, dumplings that come filled with all sorts of different stuffings. If you can get someone to make them from scratch with you, you will never want to cook anything else at home anymore.

Making Pierogi in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland

When I lived in Bystrzyca Kłodzka in Lower Silesia, we made Pierogi in the group of international volunteers with our Polish teacher. And my, were they yummy!

Of course a good Polish meal is not complete without good Polish vodka. No other beverage have I been drunker on. But if you drink the good kind and don’t mix it with cheap kinds, you will not even be hungover. I’m fairly sure I don’t even have to talk much about it. If you go to Poland, one or two vodka incidents are without fail bound to happen. And even if you never liked vodka before, trust me and try it here. It is delicious and it certainly speeds up the process of making Polish friends.

Pear Vodka, Sopot, Poland

Doesn’t look like vodka? Ah, but it is! With pears! And it was beyond delicious. Never would I have gotten to taste it if my friend Karol hadn’t known the bar tender 🙂

8. The Literature

Adding to the Polish language having drawn me in with strange magnetic pull, I have also fallen hard for Polish literature. It was no love at first sight. For a long time I didn’t really have any favourite Polish authors or works. But the more I read, the more I wanted, and the better I knew the language, the more I loved what I was reading. Epic realist novels like Bolesław Prus‘ Lalka („The Doll“), masterpieces of absurdism by Witold Gombrowicz, amazing SciFi like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris and heartbreaking poetry by the nobel prize winners Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, and the great feminist novelists of today, like Olga Tokarczuk and my very favourite Joanna Bator – the list goes on and on.

 

I have found myself in too many books to actually list here, they have been eye-opening for me. To give you a taste, I translated one of my favourite Szymborska poems for you.

Na lotnisku

Biegną ku sobie z otwartymi ramionami,
wołają roześmiani: Nareszcie! Nareszcie!
Oboje w ciężkich zimowych ubraniach.
w grubych czapkach,
szalikach,
rękawiczkach,
butach,
ale już tylko dla nas.
Bo dla siebie – nadzy.

At the airport

They run towards each other with open arms
Calling out laughing: Finally! Finally!
Both in heavy winter clothing
In heavy hats,
scarves,
gloves,
boots,
But only to us.
Because to each other already – naked.

9. The Sense of Humour

Poles are extremely friendly and set great store by hospitality, as I mentioned last week. But not only that. Man, those people can make you laugh! I don’t know wether it is because they haven’t had much to laugh about in history, but generally Polish humour is dark, dry, politically incorrect and screamingly funny. To be quite frank it took me a while to really get into it, but I’m just telling you to not be shy, take that stick out of your butt that has been shoved up there in whatever country you are from, and go ahead and laugh.

Browarnia, Gdansk, Poland

„A bar tender is no camel, he needs to have his drink too!“ – on a jar for tips in a much beloved Gdansk based bar. Yeah, sometimes the humour isn’t dark and twisted, but just cute 🙂

I was warned before watching the Polish cult film Rejs, „The Cruise“, that I might not get why it is funny. I never stopped laughing when I saw it. I wish I had found a subtitled version of this scene which is my absolute favourite. I can but hope that the body language of the cast alone will at least make you smile. The dialogue is hilarious.

10. The Swearwords

Closing on a high note here. Obviously there is one specific part of language, which in general I already discussed, that deserves extra attention. Almost any language beats German when it comes to swearing, we only have boring words that don’t do the somewhat violent melody of our language any justice. But cursing in Polish is pure poetry. It is so emphatic and creative. I know you expect better of me, the academic, but I dare you to have a Pole teach you how to curse and your life will never be the same. There are actual linguistic studies on the fact that German cursing is usually related to fecies (shit) while Slavic cursing is related to sex (fuck). There is nothing as relieving as uttering a heartfelt kurwa jebana mać (a very emphatic „fuck!“, but literally something like „damn fucked bitch“). And the most brilliant thing is: They use swear words for affirmation and celebration as well – as in zajebiście, which means „awesome“, but literally „fucked“.

Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland

I called the little town of Bystrzyca Kłodzka my home for 6 months. There was nothing spectacular about it. But it is Poland. Therefore, it is home.

Having said all of this, I feel once more ever so grateful for my blog. You don’t understand how even thinking about all these things made me so happy. I think back on all the places I have seen in Poland, and all the ones I am yet to discover. There is no other country except for Germany that I know so much about, and yet I don’t know nearly enough. I want to see more, know more, understand better.

You know how when you travel and get cash from the ATM in a foreign country, you try to calculate so you won’t get too much as to not be stuck with foreign currency at the end of your trip? In Poland I never do that. I always take out any decent amount I feel like taking out. If I have Zloty left over at the end of my stay, I will just spend them the next time around. It is never far away.

Which country makes you feel at home? Why do you love it so much, and do people understand your love for it?

The Things I Love About Poland – Part I

My self-imposed focus when it comes to travel and thus, to writing (since most of the time one means the other for me) is Eastern Europe. How that came about is a long story. But one part in it is certain: that it all starts – and possibly ends – with Poland.

I would be lying if I said I had always had a fascination for that part of the world. When asked on a study trip in high school, I distinctly remember saying: „What in the WORLD would I want to see in POLAND?!?!?“ I went to Greece instead, which was nice. But it is no Poland.

Pasym, Poland

Pasym, a beautiful small town in the Mazury Lake District

How did my love affair with Poland come about then? In college I needed a second major adding to the one I had always known I wanted to get – German literature. I chose Polish. One of the questions I must have been asked most in my life is certainly: „Why Polish???“ – usually asked with an undertone of utter disbelief. Well, it was a mixture of random reasons, but really, most of it was gut feeling. And the older I get, the more I believe that this is a better reason for decisions than most others.

From then on, it all just added up. Poland and I are, in a way, meant to be. I’ve come to love it more and more. And here is why.

1. The Cities

Poland’s cities are special. They are different from the cities I have seen elsewhere – they are beautiful and ugly, and full of atmosphere and history. And they are very different from one another. That is best displayed in contrasting Warsaw and Cracow – without feeding on the rivalry between the two. They compliment each other in the best possible way – Warsaw is grey, progressive, and full of hipster culture and modern art. Cracow is traditional, conservative, and insanely pretty.

Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw’s Palace of Culture – a gift from Stalin to the country and an impressive example of socialist architecture

Sukiennice, Cracow, Poland

Cracow’s main market square, the largest medieval square of its kind in Europe, with the beautiful Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)

Travelling in Poland, one should obviously not neglect the other urban gems, though. Wrocław might be the most accessible city for foreigners, and it somewhat combines the best of the two previously mentioned cities. Gdańsk has the added selling point that it is right by the Baltic Sea and, as an old hanseatic port city, has a tradition of being very open-minded and down-to-earth. Poznań may have the prettiest market square I have ever been to. And I haven’t even been to Łódź or Lublin. Indulge!

Market Square, Poznan, Poland

Poznan’s beautiful market square

2. The Sense of History

When travelling in Poland, it is impossible to miss the active memory culture that the country has. Memorials are all around. For a history freak like me, that is just plainly wonderful. Poles generally know their country’s history much better than Germans from my experience. They are aware of their country’s proud past as a mighty kingdom in the middle ages, and their painful loss of territory which forced them to exist as a nation without a country between 1795 and 1918. They have been in an unfortunate geographical position in the 20th century, wedged between the Germans and the Russians, and it has shaped their identity. They have fought for their culture time and time again, and they are proud of it while still being critical of it. And they know that it is important to remember the past.

Shipyards, Gdansk, Poland

Memorial to the victims of the strikes in the Gdansk shipyards in 1970. Most of the fight against the socialist regime was yet to come. The memorial was one of the early achievements of the Solidarnosc movement that contributed significantly to the downfall of socialism in Europe.

3. The Hospitality

None of the above would mean a lot if it wasn’t brought to me by the most hospitable, caring, genuinely kind and wonderful people. If for a woman the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, for a country the way to my heart is through its people. Hospitality in Poland is of dimensions that were unknown to me before I came there. They are so much less distrustful than Germans are. Don’t be surprised if you ask someone for directions and they walk you to your destinations. Don’t be surprised either if they invite you to their home for dinner – and don’t say no. I’m getting to the food in the follow-up post! In short, it is easy to make friends in Poland – and you will want to make friends there if you want to truly see through the more complicated dimensions of the country’s history and culture and get to taste the truly amazing vodka.

Friends, Grudziadz, Poland

My friends Agnieszka and Karol are among my favourite people in the world. I met them in Gdansk, but this was when Karol took us on a roadtrip to visit his hometown Grudziadz.

4. The Language

Ah, that singsong sound of the Polish language with all the freaky consonants and a few nasal vowels. That grammar that drove me up the wall when I learned it, but is capable of expressing things so precisely, so uniquely, most of all so differently from German. The germanisms like wihajster, literally whatshisname and used for any random thing you can’t find a name for; and the anglicisms with their weird spelling that turns manager into menedżer.

I have been learning Polish for ten years, I cursed it and loved it, and was always pretty sure I’d never actually be able to speak it. But I’m getting there, one tongue twisting hell at a time, and loving every step of the way.

Signs in Gdansk, Poland

German – Polish – English. How I love it when translations come out all weird and funny as they do in this German sign outside a ramshackle building. It sounds as though the building was a person, verbally threatening to cripple or kill the visitor.

5. The Music

When learning a language as twisted as Polish, music is of huge help. I know about half my Polish vocabulary from song lyrics – singing along, trying to understand what’s going on, sometimes actually translating the lyrics at home at my desk. Over the years I have been in touch with Polish pop, rock, rap, reggae, folk, and basically everything in between. I will just give you a few examples here. The Polish equivalent of the Rolling Stones is the rock band Dżem. Their song „List do M“ was the first Polish song I knew by heart, and it is a beautful and sad rock ballad.

A specific kinf of music I got to know in Poland is Klezmer. It is a Jewish musical tradition, not so big on lyrics, but mainly instrumental, using different instruments to make beautiful, yearning, sighing, swinging music played often at celebrations of any kind. The band Kroke may be the most famous Polish Klezmer band.

My personal favourite is the Polish singer / songwriter tradition that brought forth many wonderful artists I listen to almost every day. It is quite folksy, and if we translated the lyrics, most would run away screaming for they drip with Kitsch – but in Polish, they somehow work. There is a tradition called Poezja śpiewana, Sung Poetry, that is especially well known for its poetic song lyrics. Jacek Kaczmarski, whose most famous song „Mury“ I put here for you, is a bit of a special case. His songs are much more political, and he is often referred top as the Barde of the Solidarność, the trade union and political movement that brought down socialism in Poland.

If you find I am missing things, rest assured that I will probably mention them in my follow up post on more things I love about Poland. It will discuss the landscapes, the food (and the vodka…), the literature, the beauty of Polish swearwords, and the incomparable Polish sense of humour.

Have you been to Poland? What do you love about the country? Or was there anything you didn’t like at all?

Photo Hunting in Gdansk

My thing will always be writing. Going somewhere, slowly walking about, trying to take in the space with all my senses and transforming the feeling that I get into words. It is a somewhat sacral act to me. And while I love music and art in general, what I truly am is just a writer.

Yet what would be a more perfect place to elaborate my skills of visual artistry than Gdansk – one of the places that I have tried to capture in words several times, a place I love and cherish, and that I can never get enough of? When I set out with my camera to capture the essence of this true love of mine in photos, I am sure that looking for images that respresent Gdansk to me will open up new perspectives to me and, in turn, inspire my writing anew. And so it does.

Dlugie Pobrzeze, Gdansk, PolandThe crisp winter air is painful in my lungs because it is so cold. Yet I breathe it in deeply as I walk along Dlugie Pobrzeze, the street that lines the Motlawa River, enjoying the crunching sounds the snow makes beneath my feet. The sun is mirrored in the frost and makes everything glisten. I turn right on Mariacka street.

Mariacka, Gdansk, PolandI have always had a thing for this street with its beautiful houses that have strange little front buildings: stairs leading up to terraces from which you enter the houses. I think I have read about their history somewhere, but I forgot what it was. The street is narrow and, now in winter, it is wonderfully secluded and quiet. The way the sun hasn’t reached the street, but only the church that you see in the very end (the largest brick stone church in the world), makes it a more magical little alley, all toned in shadow. Like from a Harry Potter movie.

Details on Mariacka, Gdansk, PolandMaking a turn, there are yet more details to discover. Cast-iron grates. Little pillars. Lanterns screwed onto otherwise unremarkable houses.  Small things that don’t mean anything to your regular by-passer. But I like the way the pillar has that round little nub on top, and I like the leave ornaments moving down from it. I like the grate with its twists and unobtrusive beauty. I like the lantern on the wall, old-fashioned and reminiscent of gas lantern times.Details on Mariacka, Gdansk, PolandLantern, Gdansk, PolandThe turn from Mariacka street has brought me to a little alley that leads right up to the Long Market. This is the core of the old Gdansk. This is where its classic beauty manifests. This is also where it sometimes feels like Disneyland, because after World War II none of this was there anymore. It was all re-made. But I never had the fake feeling here like I had it in Wroclaw or Warsaw. I just think it’s beautiful. It is not my favourite place in the city (we’ll be getting there). But it make my heart wide to stand in sight of the town hall. Town Hall, Gdansk, Poland Looking further up the street, beautiful house borders beautiful house. You’ll find the best Bar Mleczny, Milk Bar, on that street, to the left. It serves delicious Polish food for virtually no money. I love how in this picture I captured the old couple holding hands. I want to walk in a city I love with someone I love, with this natural intimacy on display, when I am that age.  Long Street, Gdansk, Poland Back toward the river, I walk through the Green Gate onto the Green Bridge and turn, and the view that opens up is what makes this my favourite place in Gdansk’s Old Town. View from Green Bridge, Gdansk, Poland But to tell you the truth, I honestly think that if this was all that Gdansk was I wouldn’t love it as much. I would think it too clean, too tidy, too dressed up or perky. I love it because it also has a very different side.

The next day (which you will be able to tell by the weather change in the photos) I go with my friend to Dolne Miasto, a slightly less central, but especially less wealthy part of town. Actually it is just across the Green Bridge and thus very close to the pretty Old Town. But here the streets aren’t well kept and the houses are run down – with few exceptions.

Dolne Miasto, Gdansk, PolandThe houses here have the exact same potential for beauty, but for some reason gentrification doesn’t hit. There is no sensible reason for that, but laws of market seem to work differently in Poland from Germany. Surely the beautiful Kamienice, secession houses, would be renovated and rented out for a LOT of money if this were in Munich, Berlin, or Hamburg.

Dolne Miasto, Gdansk, PolandI adore this picture. It shows the place in all its morbid beauty. The brick stone. The balconies. The way time has gnawed its way into the cold stone. And the woman in the red coat carrying home her groceries on the slippery snowed in sidewalk.

Dolne Miasto is also where there is wasteland left in the middle of the city. Economically that is not good, not smart for the city I am sure. But I like it because it opens up potential as of yet unfulfilled. Once the potential will be fulfilled, this won’t be half as interesting a place anymore. Ironic, I know. But my heart wants what it wants – morbidity and wasteland.

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And things are changing already. Walking back towards the Old Town, with a beautiful view onto the towers of Mariacki church and the town hall, there seems to be construction work going on at the Island of Granaries that cuts through the Motlawa River. But now, all snowed in, the place looks as morbid and out of time as the wasteland above. The ruin of the old granary adds to that. Fugitive. Momentary. Perishable. What a strange thing time is, and how sweetly strange it is when it is visible like this.

Island of Granaries, Gdansk, Poland

Bridges Endangered – Flood

The situation in Eastern and Northern Germany in the past weeks calls for a post about bridges in danger.

1CIMG9996 I do not know how much the European flood is in media outside of the countries that are affected by it – although it already has its own wikipedia-entry. Heavy rain falls have led to the Danube, the Elbe and quite a few of their tributaries having significantly higher water levels than normal and flooding cities, towns and villages along their banks. Some of the affected regions suffered from significant flooding only eleven years ago, in 2002, when the same rivers burst their banks and caused severe damage of financial, material, and, as it now shows, also of emotional kind. People are afraid to lose everything again when they have just already been through it. I also remember the flood of the Oder river in 1997 and the pictures on the media back then and how they struck me as so incomprehensible.

To me in Berlin, I have to admit that the flood this time was reasonably far away, and although I followed it in the media and heard stories from friends and colleagues who work or live there, I had no truly emotional reaction to it. In a way, it was something that was happening in a whole different place. Now this weekend I travelled from Berlin to Bielefeld. The Inter City Express route between Berlin and Hannover is now closed down due to the floods, and we were redirected via Magdeburg which is right by the river Elbe.

As we pass into it, we cross a bridge that doesn’t even feel like one anymore. We pass right over the water. At the shore, pathways disappear into the water that under normal circumstances must lead to a path that goes by the waterfront, and trees appear out of nowhere in what looks to be the middle of the river.

1CIMG9994

We go on and cross a few of the Seitenarme. Or so I think – then I see the tip of a street sign, fixed, yet disfigured, displaced, not being able to direct anything, and I notice that it must be a street that is flooded. A bit down the river I see sandbag dammings and the signs that say „Technisches Hilfswerk“ (Federal Agency for Technical Relief). Suddenly this has a dimension of reality to it.

I don’t think my pictures can do it justice. I just took them with my phone out of the window of a moving train. But going through that area I think of what my colleague who works in Passau has said: „Now I know what a natural catastrophe is.“ And in Passau it is so much worse because it is located where the three rivers Donau, Inn and Ilz meet – and they are all flooding. I am just glad that here in Germany, there is mainly damage to property. Still some people have lost the basis of their lives, and I am sure to them it is quite existential.

What I cannot help to think is that we always try to relate and compare stuff like this. I think about how horrible this is – and then I think about the Tsunami or Katrina and think that we are so lucky to only have such small problems. But then can you really ever compare? Probably not. All you can do is be grateful if you and your loved ones are safe, show compassion for the victims, and try to help.

There is a picture gallery at this link that I found that should show the dimensions of the flood. If you speak German, this is where you can find out how to donate money to help in the damaged areas.