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Tag: Croatia (page 1 of 2)

Simple Truths – Quote Postcards

So I write and I sing. That’s enough of the arts for me. I couldn’t act if my life depended on it (I was in a Shakespeare play at school and I wait for the day that VHS has entirely died out so no one can ever watch the video proof of that horrible embarrassment…), and I my drawing is limited, to say the least. Language and music are sufficient, I do not need to become an all rounder in the arts.

You are all sensing that there is a „but“. And you are right. Writing a blog, I have started to enjoy photography. And while I’m most definitely not all that good at it, I notice I am getting better, which is all one ever can expect from oneself. And because I still like to combine pictures and words, I have taken to making little postcards with quotes on them whenever I felt in a certain mood and found a quote that encouraged or supported me at the time. These little life wisdoms I will share with you now.

Korczak, Quote on PictureI found this in Janusz Korczak’s diary from the Warsaw ghetto. He was a pediatrician and is a Polish national hero, because he accompanied the children from an orphanage (which he ran) into the gas chambers and died there. I find the idea reassuring that living is something that has to be learned. Learning processes are something I enjoy. They promise success in the end. Maybe, with time, I will become more skilled, more able in this subject that we call life. The picture was taken on the ferry from Split, which you see at the shore, to the island Vis, in Croatia.  Beethoven, Quote on PictureThis has been one of my favourite quotes ever since I was a little girl. Beethoven’s music has accompanied me through some difficult times, and its power has never failed to allow me to find my strength. His only opera, Fidelio, is my favourite until this day, and I can sing along to most of the symphonies (the one withe the odd numbers anyway. And the 6th.). As a composer having gone deaf as he grew older, he knew a thing or two about putting up a fight against fate. He may have been the first one to teach me to never give up if you believe in something. The pictures was taken at the Bay of Kotor in Tivat, Montenegro.

Irigaray, Quote on PictureLuce Irigaray may not be the easiest theoretician to come across, but she makes a few very interesting points on the cultural theoretical concept of „alterity“, that is, anything connected to things that are different, to „the other“. She says that anything new can only be met once we have come to terms with the self – that is, a conscious, reflected identity is vital for dealing with alterity. I think  this goes for any interpersonal relation, and may be especially valid when encountering other cultures. I took the picture in Pocitelj in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Hesse, Quote on Picture I had to deal with a few gains and a few losses this year – just as it goes in life. I don’t deal well with good byes. They make me very emotional, I think it is because I feel powerless in the face of them. In those moments, I try to hold on to this poem by Hermann Hesse which has accompanied me since I was 15 and set out to live apart from friends and family for an entire year as an exchange student in the US. It is nothing but the truth that „each beginning bears a special magic“, and it is what every farewell will bring us to. The photo is from Porto in Portugal.

Palahniuk, Quote on Picture I absolutely loved the Flea Market in Brussels at Jeu de Balle where I took this picture. With all the other postcards I showed you here, I had a quote and went through my archives to find a fitting picture. With this one, I was looking for a quote to express the joy I felt at looking at the creative chaos, the infinite diversity I met in this place, and I found one by Palahniuk that said it all. My new beginning (cf the Hesse poem!) may lead me into chaos – but that is where truly magical things can be found.

What’s your favourite quote to help you understand life? Or can you share any travel related quotes that mean something to you?

 

Footbridges in Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

This may be more of a crossing than an actual bridge. But since it gets people drily across a body of water I’ll count it. Plus, I love the picture. Footbridge, Plitvice Lakes, CroatiaThis is what the footbridges look like in Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia – that fairytale place of waterfalls and water of greenish blue colours you didn’t yet know existed. You walk barely just above the water surface on planks, and plants in different shades of green entwine around the planks and seem to reach out to you, wanting to draw you towards them and underwater. The water is gushing underneath your feet. It feels like you could actually walk on water.

One of the best travel decisions in my life was most definitely coming to Plitvice Lakes in April – off-season. Even in the cool Spring weather it was already fairly well visited, and I cannot even begin to imagine what it must look like in summer. Or maybe I just don’t want to imagine. The only thing that saves the place from a complete tourist overload is probably the fact that you are not allowed to swim in the turquoise – no, emerald – no, myrtle – pine – shamrock – good lord, I just cannot decide on a good word to describe the incredible colour of the water. The footbridges blend in so well that they are hardly noticeable – and yet they allow for the visitor to get to the points where the view will be most amazing. Plitvice might not be a secret anymore – but it doesn’t matter, it is a must see for anyone who goes to Croatia.

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!

Everybody’s Darlings – and Why I Don’t Usually Like Them

I will now talk about places I have travelled to and did not actually like that much. This is something that doesn’t often happen on travel blogs, as Andrew recently pointed out to me. His words were something like: „Everybody always writes about places they like. No one ever says: ‚Don’t go there, it was horrible!‘ That can’t possibly be true.“ He’s got a point. Now I won’t tell you not to go anywhere, because everyone has to decide for themselves. But when you hear which places I do not like, you won’t believe me anyway.

There are these places in Europe everyone loves. When you mention them on a twitter chat, or at a hostel, or on your facebook page, or just randomly over dinner with travel-loving friends, the reaction will always be along the lines of: „Aaaah, I LOVED [insert place here]. It is so lovely in [insert season here]. I could totally live there, especially in [insert trendy neighbourhood in said city]. There is a place on [insert famous street here] that serves THE best [insert local food here].“

I have a confession to make: These places are usually the ones I am not so keen on.

Oberbaumbrücke, Berlin, Germany

Berlin sure is everybody’s darling, eh? I’m not debating this one.

Of course there is exceptions. After all, the city I live in, Berlin, tends to be in the list of said places. So do a couple of places that I have never been to, such as Paris, Barcelona, or Venice. While I do want to see these places at some point in my life, I am not all too fussed about them right now. I am sure they will be nice and all, but I’m just not feeling a great passionate urge to see them very soon. Because in the past, Everybody’s Darlings have not necessarily worked for me.

This especially goes for the three I am about to discuss now. I can already hear everyone screaming „Sacrilege!“ and „Impossible!“ and „How could she!“ Ah well. Please disabuse me of my notions in the comments. Here go the places in Europe that everyone seems to love except for me.

1. Prague, Czech Republic

There, I said it. I am not a huge fan of Prague. As is usually the case with things like these, I suppose the circumstances weren’t entirely in my favour. I went there as a weekend trip from my voluntary service in Poland with five other international volunteers. I was heartbroken at the time for several reasons and while I liked the group, I didn’t truly connect with the others as much as they did with each other, and they set much focus on the consumption of loads of beer while I wanted to see the city. Also the weather was quite chilly and grey that March of 2007.

Prague Astronomical Clock, Prague, Czech Republic

People dream of seeing the Prague Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square. I was semi-impressed.

While all that made it difficult to enjoy being in the moment, I found the famous Old Town Square to be ridiculously overcrowded and the famous clock to fall short of my expectations. I also noticed I should have done more research – relying on my travel buddies had not been a good plan because they basically just wanted to go from beer to beer. Generally for some reason I couldn’t hear the music in my heart that I had expected to.

I think Prague was overladen with expectations from my side that it could not live up to. Because of that, this one is probably at least partially my fault. I am willing to give Prague another chance. It’s just not very high up my list right now.

Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle is an admired and cherished place for many travellers.

2. Dubrovnik, Croatia

For most travellers who have been to Croatia, Dubrovnik has been one of their highlights. For me it was different. The first couple of times I went to Croatia, I didn’t even make it down there. I had planned on seeing it on my great trip through the Balkans and was always sidetracked by other places that struck me as more interesting – Bosnia, Montenegro, or even just the smaller places along the Dalmatian coast. I finally went to Dubrovnik on my way to the island of Korcula and stayed there for three days in late August 2011.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

You think this is gorgeous? So do most people.

Bad circumstances to add to my dislike in this case: It was unbearbly hot. I had been travelling for 10 days and hadn’t found back into the rhythm of it, I probably should have started out with just some chill-time. And then I got ill and spend a considerable portion of my stay there between my hostel bed and the bathroom.

But all these things aside, there were many things about Dubrovnik that just weren’t down my alley. For one thing, I found it ridiculously overpriced by comparison to what else I knew of Croatia, and have been around that country rather much. I also found the street vendors to be particularly aggressive. There was a moment of peace when I stood in the market and smelled the lavender that people were selling. At once I was pressed from three men in English and Italian to buy some – and the moment was over. No one spoke Croatian, and in general I didn’t see why people were so much more taken with the small alleyways and red roof tops here than in any other Dalmatian town, like Makarska for example – I had visited that in the midst of high season and totally crowded, but I still liked it loads better than Dubrovnik. I think Dubrovnik doesn’t live up to the beauty other Croatian towns have to offer. It is overrated.

Alleyway, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Cute alleyways in Dubrovnik – but hey, not any better or worse than those in Sibenik, Makarska, or Zadar.

3. Vienna, Austria

The last one on my list of only-okay travel destinations everyone else loves is the Austrian capital. I have been there twice each for a couple of days and while I suspect that if I hung out around more locals, I could have seen a different side of it, it all comes down to this: Vienna is too pristine for me.

Karlskirche, Vienna, Austria

Karlskirche is beautiful, sure – but I just feel it could be anywhere.

There are not even really any bad circumstances to this phenomenon – no connected bad memories of an emotional kind, no sickness, no weather issues. Vienna just doesn’t speak to me. It has this specific kind of beautiful that seems to me like the majority of the girls on Germany’s Next Top Model. Pretty on the outside, hollow on the inside. No edge, no character. Just this very neat, preppy, clean appearance. I never quite got behind it.

Now what probably didn’t help was that I had fallen in love with Krakow before I met Vienna. Now that Polish little sister of Vienna has the same Austro-Hungarian architecture and coffee house culture, the same turn-of-the-century morbidity and grand artistic tradition – but it is just ever so slightly more run down and truly old. I find it to be authentic. In Vienna I always feel like I wasn’t pretty enough. In Krakow I can be myself, out of style or out of fashion, and still love the city’s beauty and originality. Vienna is like a living room out of a magazine – pretty to look at, but who wants to live in the constant fear of spilling red wine on the white couch cushions. Against Krakow, it was bound to lose in my book.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria

Schönbrunn in Vienna – a fairytale kind of palace. I find it too clean.

I think all of this just proves how much about travel and discovery is about the chemistry between the traveller and the place, and how very much it is like falling in love. Some places – as some men – are perfect. But they’re just not for you.

What do you think? Do you disagree with me on my picks? Are there any places everyone loves that you don’t see anything in at all?

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 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“.

What is Bravery?

As some will know by now, I am drawing most of my writing inspiration from my 5 month trip around South Eastern Europe that took me to twelve different countries.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The beauty of Bulgaria… this was taken at Rila Monastery

I have written about the surprised, if not shocked reactions to this plan. Common questions and their answers went like this:

„All on your own???“
– „Yes. I’m gonna love it!“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

„But – is it safe?“
– „Come on, it’s Europe, what’s gonna happen, really?“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

„So – do you have everything booked, like, flights and hostels?“
– „No. I have a list of countries I will go to. That is the extent of my plan.“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

„Wasn’t there a war there recently?“
– „That was 15 years ago. I really don’t think that should be a huge issue.“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

„Uhm, but aren’t there Muslim countries down there?“
– „So?“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

I’m going to spare you more because all these talks went pretty much the same way and after a while it was really neither interesting to be confronted with so many ridiculous stereotypes nor flattering to be called brave. However, at some point it struck me as remarkable that „You’re so brave“ was a reaction so versatile, and I was wondering what people actually meant by that. Obviously they thought there were fears to be overcome. Now I am going to say this straight away: I never felt brave. Because I was never scared of any of the things people proposed to me to be scary.

Vis, Croatia

Not being particularly brave on the ferry back to the mainland from Vis island in Croatia

In the five examples I have given, the things that my conversation partners thought to be scary about my endeavour were loneliness, safety, (lack of) planning, history or the political situation that would be met and the issue of religion. And here is why those things didn’t scare me:

1. Loneliness

Lots of articles have been written about the issue of solo travel, and surely I will write one too before long. The essence of what I have to say on the topic is: being alone is very different from being lonely. I was hardly ever lonely, even though I was alone a lot. I think a lot of people are afraid of being alone, but they have never really tried it. If they did, they might find that it is the best way to come to terms with yourself and the people around you.

Coastline, Albania

Not being particularly brave – or particularly lonely for that matter!! – in Albania

2. Safety

Granted, I may have been naive when I left for the trip, but I really never felt unsafe in any of the countries I went to. People hear Albania and they go „unsafe“. Often it seems that „poor“ equals „unsafe“. I find that dangerous. Again, people are scared of something they haven’t seen or tried. The best thing to promote your own saftey, I have found, is what Sarah of Yes and Yes calls the Don’t Mess With Me Walk. I’ve got that down and I think it saved me from many unpleasant experiences.

3. Planning

I did not even know how right I was not to plan when I didn’t plan. But once I was out, I noticed quickly that plans never stick anyway. So being flexible and trying to make up your mind as you go is really the best way. Plans don’t give you control over things. It is more likely that they will fall through, which will be much scarier. Not having a plan was very liberating.

Studenica monastery, Serbia

Granted, Studenica monastery in Serbia would actually have been easier to find with better planning…

4. History and Politics

I think if you’re curious and sensitive to the cultural specifics of a new country, there isn’t much that could go wrong in this department. Be at least a little bit informed and try to just find out more. As a foreigner in the company of open, well-travelled locals, you can also get away with some stuff. Today I think back with slight discomfort at the few times that I bluntly asked people in Serbia what the big deal with Kosovo was. That could have gone very wrong, but I was lucky.

Prizren, Kosovo

Even with barbed wire and KFOR signs, Prizren in Kosovo was beyond peaceful, and the locals told me that all the precautions do more harm than good.

5. Religion

It is a bit of a pet peeve of mine that people will be scared by Islam as such, and I never was scared or extra careful about going to Muslim countries. I think nearly every religion has the potential to be really beautiful and enriching while also possibly turning radical and then becoming scary and restrictive. When equalizing Muslims with islamists, people forget that certain Christian sects have equally radical and, from the standpoint of humanity, inacceptable opinions. I learned so much about Islam in Bosnia, Albania and Turkey and I think it is a lovely concept.

So since I wasn’t scared of any of the mentioned things, I never had the feeling that I was generally being very brave. However, there were numerous occasions on the trip when I was scared of something. Sometimes I overcame my fear, and then I did feel brave. Like when I jumped that 14 meter cliff in Greece. Sometimes I backed out. Like when I did not jump the much lower cliff in Macedonia, because the water looked shallow. And then I did not feel like I wasn’t brave, but that I was being reasonable.

Paragliding, Tribalj, Croatia

Not being particularly brave with this tandem paragliding either. I felt completely safe in the hands of my friend who took me.

Some fears are to be overcome. Others aren’t. Sometimes it’s all in the moment. And sometimes, when you look closely, there is no fear to master, but there is just something you don’t know yet, and that someone or something else has suggested to be scary. Ask yourself if there is an actual reason to fear it. Will it threaten you? Does it have the potential to harm you? If the answer is yes, your fear is there to protect you. Respect it. Surprisingly often, however, the answer is no. And then you don’t have to be brave, but just a bit faithful. I have found that to be the most rewarding feeling in the world.

Matters of Life and Death – European Cemeteries

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

1.Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland (2007)

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

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

CIMG7443

2. Lviv, Ukraine: Lychakiv Cemetery (2009)

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

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine

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

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine

… Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko.

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

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

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

CIMG5364

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

4. Zagreb, Croatia: Mirogoj Cemetery (2010)

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

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

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

What’s one more Identity?

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

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

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

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

Tekija, Blagaj, Blagaj, Bosnia and Hercegovina

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

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

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

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

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

Sejm, Warsaw, Poland

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

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

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

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

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

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

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

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?

„Eastern Europe? Why???“

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

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina

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

Ohrid, Macedonia

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

Ksamil, Albania

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

Kosice, Slovakia

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

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

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

Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina

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

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

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

Lviv, Ukraine

Ukraine – Opera House in Lviv

Belgrade, Serbia

Serbia – National Museum in Belgrade

Tallinn, Estonia

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

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

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

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