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Tag: Eastern Europe (page 1 of 9)

Bridge in Međugorje, Bosnia and Hercegovina

I have previously written about Međugorje – the third largest pilgrimage site in Europe, although not recognized by the Vatican. There are places in town that I am sure hundreds of photos are taken of daily. This is probably not one of them.

Bridge, Medugorje, Bosnia and HercegovinaOn the street that passes the cathedral and leads to the massive, and I mean truly massive and humungous parking lot, a small bridge spans a dried up ditch. The houses lining the streets are the same as most other houses in any mid-sized town in Hercegovina – shops on the ground floor, apartments on the upper floors. People make a living downstairs and spend their lives upstairs. Almost all the shops in town are souvenir shops selling mainly rosaries and icons.

Međugorje has become a wealthy place because of the pilgrims. Houses have sprung up almost out of nowhere. Maybe it is due to the speed of the towns development that a lot of it looks a little – fake. Like plastic. Like you could nudge a wall and the house would just crumple down like paper mache. This is why I liked the bridge across the ditch. The stone base to the side is solid. The bridge is not old, but it is not pastel coloured or in any way trying to be glorious and shiny. This could be almost anywhere in the Balkans, whereas most of the rest of Međugorje could be anywhere at all in the world. The bridge grounded the place for me.

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!

Bridge, somewhere in Bosnia & Hercegovina

This bridge is random. It doesn’t have a name. I don’t remember exactly where it was or which river it crosses. But look at this beauty: Bosnia & HercegovinaThe bridge is not even entirely in the picture, it is more like I’m on it – in fact, crossing it on a bus – taking the photo. When I went to Bosnia a few weeks ago, I travelled there on a plane for the first time. Approaching Sarajevo, the plane went lower and lower above the green hills, my heart grew wide, and as we touched ground, tears shot out of my eyes with great force. I was coming to collect part of my heart that is tied to that country. Forever. I had to leave it again when I left.

From Sarajevo I took a bus to Mostar. It took me through the landscapes of Bosnia and Hercegovina, and I couldn’t take my eyes away from what opened up for me outside of the window. It wasn’t the first time I was in awe facing the different shades of green in the hills and the emerald colours of the rivers, but I was enchanted yet again. Was it the Bosna we crossed here, or the Neretva? I don’t know. I just know there is a bond tying me to that place as strong as any bridge made from stone, steel or wood could ever be.

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!

Memory as Morbidity – Mostar’s Partisan Monument

I came to Bosnia this time around wanting to relax, to let go, and to find inner peace. I wanted to go somewhere I knew, without feeling the inner pressure of needing to discover a new place and finding out how it works. I didn’t want to wake up in the morning thinking: Today I need to see the following twenty-five things, or else I won’t feel like I have properly visited this place. So I came to Mostar, strolled the familiar streets, noticed how it had changed, but also felt very much at home.

Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaIn spite of that, I wouldn’t be me if at some point the urge hadn’t occured to dig deeper and expose myself to as of yet unknown impressions. And so I went to a place in Mostar I had never been to, that hadn’t even been on my inner map of the city. I went to the Partisan Memorial Cemetery, or Partizansko Groblje. And I discovered yet another part of Mostar that helped me understand the city and the complexity of the Balkans‘ history.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaThe Partisans of the former Yugoslavia are somewhat of a founding myth of the state. I have colleagues who do extensive research on them, and not only their military history, but also their culture – their songs, their manifestos etc. The way it was explained to me, there is a very plausible reason that they are so important. You may know that during the Cold War, Yugoslavia was a non-aligned nation. They were socialist, yes, but they didn’t „side“ with the Soviet Union. That was possible only because the Red Army didn’t free them from fascist rule in World War II – their own people, the Partisans did. Based on their victory, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia could come into existence, and was a really well-functioning state until Tito’s death in 1980. But that’s a different story.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaI had learned about the monument that it was set up in the 60s, so during Yugoslav times, to honour the Partisans who died fighting against fascists. It is a Bosnian national monument, however, even upon entering it was visibly unkempt and overgrown. I didn’t understand why at first, since the Partisans are such a pan-yugoslav motif of remembrance. But then my friend Majda pointed out to me that the Partisans didn’t only fight German Nazis, but also Croatian fascist Ustashas. Mostar’s local government is made up mainly of ethnic Croats, and apparently some of them are not too keen on remembering the fascist part of their own heritage in any way at all. It is a shame. If you google pictures of the monument in its prime, you will see how beautiful it was.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaPartizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaNow, grasses, ferns and weeds have taken possession of the originally neatly kept three terraces with their cleanly kept gravestones, and moss is covering the walls and grounds in the shadier places. The gravestones are strewn about haphazardly. It is likely that quite a few of them have been broken – purposefully? Vandalism does seem to be a problem, and there is lots of rubbish hiding in the greenery. I still stand and contemplate the names and numbers I see on the uniquely shaped stones. The lives that hide behind them – what may they have been like?

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaPartizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaI wish I understood more about the tradition or the symbolism behind the strange, uneven shape of the gravestones. Most of the decor of the monument seems to me to contain some hidden meaning that is inaccessible to me. A lot of it reminds me of war, though. Gun barrels. Crenels. Sniper hideouts. For the life of me I can’t make sense of the big ornament in the center of the top terrace.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaAgain the pointy part in the middle looks to me like it might be symbolizing firing guns, but the circles around are a mystery to me. I am still very much intrigued. The whole area reminds me of the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park (a place I have been wanting to write about in forever and may now just have to very soon!), they share a similar kind of aesthetics which is of course grounded in their relative contemporaneity and common ideological socialist background – and the fact that they are both monuments and cemeteries at the same time. Pompous, impressive, very much thought through, carefully arranged with clear shapes and their play on perspective. The Berlin one is a bit more blunt to me, very rectangular, whereas this one is softer with its winding walls and circles. To me, they are both really beautiful in their own way.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaThis used to be a well, and the water ran down the middle of the terraces to be collected in a pond a few levels below. Now it is filled with garbage and dried up. I imagine that water must have added a yet more peaceful quality to the place. But it is a pretty peaceful place today in the heat of late May – summer has definitely begun in Mostar. However overgrown, the place invites one to laze around, and I do lie on one of the walls in the sun for a while just daydreaming away.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina From up here, it almost still looks as pretty as it used to be. The high grass next to me with the chirping crickets, however, reminds me of the wilderness this is now. It is hard to recognize, but in the circleshaped round down below someone has graffitied „One Love“ and a peace sign in the middle. It’s a beautiful gesture, especially when one also comes across indicators of Croat nationalism tagged on the wall, such as Ustasha signs or this line that says „God and Croats“:

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaI do wander what will become of the place, if it will ever rise to former glory. It would be a brilliant place for Sunday strolls. Funnily enough, I even pictured it as a great concert venue – slightly inappropriate, I take it, with it being a cemetery. But now people come to hang out here anyway – is that more appropriate? Granted, there are very few of them. I, however, see myself coming back here when I’m back in Mostar. For some quiet time away from the growing masses of tourists in the old town. But then, I am a fan of the morbidity of forgotten places. I am somewhat torn. I think this is a place that needs active memory culture, that needs appreciation and care. But I also love the way that nature has come to take it back for her own and made it so morbidly eerie.

Partizansko Groblje, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Stari Most in Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina (III)

Yes, yes, this is the third time I am blogging this bridge for Bridges on Sundays. But it did give the blog its name. And isn’t it fantastic? Starim Most, Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina Stari Most, which I have talked about previously here and here, is not just an architectural marvel. It is a symbol for many things that have taken place in Mostar through the ages. The economical and political significance of a bridge in the middle ages is probably quite obvious, and city life has always centered around it.

When now I stand in this probably most favourite spot for taking pictures of the bridge, at night time, seeing it in the spotlight against the schemes of the hills in the background, my heart is full of love. But it is not because of the beauty, or because I understand the historical impact fully – I could probably never get to a point where that was the case. No, I stand, deeply moved, because this place means something to me that I have no words for. It symbolizes too many things to phrase in even a whole book. And yet so many people just walk idly by, admire it for a moment, only to basically forget it just after having left Mostar. This is not to judge – au contraire. This is to express my heartfelt gratitude that I have been given the gift of loving places as much as I do.

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!

The Irony of Finding Peace in Bosnia

On my last night in Bosnia this time around (because let’s face it, I will come back!) I sit with new friends in a beautiful tea house in Sarajevos Baščaršija quarter, the ottoman downtown. We drink Salep, a delicious hot drink made of ground orchid spice cooked with milk. It is naturally sweet and tastes like thick vanilla milk. Heaven in a glass.

Salep in Sarajevo, Bosnia

The magical Salep – a true Sarajevan drink from what we learned

The owner of the place, Hussein, speaks German and French, we translate into English for each other, of course the occasional Bosnian word is thrown in. The country’s multicultural heritage comes alive again.
At one point, Hussein excuses himself to us and explains that the call for prayer is on outside and for the next two minutes he will turn off the music. We start listening. Hussein encourages us to keep talking, but I tell him in German that we think the muezzin’s prayer is too beautiful. So he opens the door of the tiny shop and we listen to prayers being thrown and juggled from minaret to minaret. Deeply spiritual, peaceful sounds.

Cajdzinica Dzirlo, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Hussein’s beautiful tea house

When I came to Bosnia this time, I was thoughtful. Overworked and a bit worn out from different things on my mind, yes. But also thoughtful in terms of cultural sensitivity. I do love the country, and I came here looking for peace. Is that ironic concerning not only the country’s history, but also its recent struggle with the floods? Overflowing rivers have done great damage in the North, drowned out whole villages and taken everything from people that have taken 20 years to rebuild their lives after the war. Is it even right to come here looking for peace?

Kovaci, Sarajevo, Bosnia

War graves are ever present in the cities where the cemeteries aren’t shunned to the outskirts

In Mostar I talk to Majda, the hostel owner and, I am proud to say, my friend. During my four previous stays we have formed a bond. We have coffee in town, just the two of us, and talk about life. About finding yourself, getting to know yourself, personal growth. She says such profound things in her beautiful singsong Bosnian accented English. She says: „Politicians are dishonest. I like to surround myself with things that make me happy. Just because bad stuff is out there, I don’t have to talk about it all the time.“
Majda is a heroine. She has seen tough stuff in her life. But she has pushed through and emerged ever stronger, creating a wonderful life for herself. When she links her arm in mine on the way back, I feel the warmth and strength she radiates even more. The many things I can learn from her amaze me.

Majda's, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Majda’s Hostel – one of my safe havens and favourite places in the world

I also talk to Bata, Majda’s brother and every bit as much the heart and soul of the hostel as she is. We speak about me coming back so often, and I confess my deep love for and neverending fascination with Bosnia and Hercegovina. Bata says: „That’s cool, you’re becoming a bit of an expert on our region. It’s your destiny I presume.“
Bata is a hero. He has taught me almost all I know about the war and the lingering ethnic and religious conflicts in the region. Many travellers gain perspective through his stories and his outlook on the past and the present. He has opened up his life to people from other countries and let them in, and hundreds must have gained a deeper understanding of BiH, but also of life itself through conversations with him. I am pretty sure I would be a different person today if I had never had the honour and pleasure to speak with him.

Bosnian Coffee, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Bosnian coffee – a drink so intense and delicious you will never forget the taste of it

It may be strange that, looking for balance, I come to a country struggling with inner conflicts, with poverty and corruption, with deep cultural and political abysses and with coming to terms with its own past. But I maintain that it does it for me. It brings me peace. It puts things into perspective. Most of all, it teaches me humility, a widely underrated quality.

Lillies, Pocitelj, Bosnia & HercegovinaIn Sarajevo, the day I leave, I have a breakfast coffee with Unkas, the hostel owner. It is the first time I stay at his place, but I think I may have found my favourite. Unkas is a bubbly, friendly and talkative man. He says: „It is such a beautiful country, my country – and such stupid people.“
I perceive him to be very much a Yugoslav. He’s been married to a Croat and a Russian woman, being of Muslim heritage himself. He embodies the peaceful coexistence of different ethnicities and nationalities that Yugoslavia was all about. But while that is somewhat what they call „yugonostalgic“, he never loses the smile on his face. He speaks about the beauty of our mutual favourite Croatian island Vis with as much verve as he speaks about the beauty of Sarajevo. There is hope.

Slatko Cose, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Having coffee at an amazing patisserie at Slatko Cose in Sarajevo

The taxi driver who takes me back to the airport and I get into talk about travel. I say that I think it’s important to travel while you’re young and see different things. He says: „I was 16 when the war started. I was 20 when it finished. They say those are the best years of your life. They were sure hard for me. When it was over, I struggled to understand there was peace. Then I found a job, made a life. Now I have no job and…“ – he starts laughing hard – „…I think: God, why did you not kill me in the war?

How do you even respond to something like that?

Vandalized monument, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

A memorial to the Bosnian victims of the war – vandalized. The conflict still swelters in some places.

The driver goes on to imitate the different sounds grenades make, and tells me how your most animal instincts tell you when to duck and when to run. He speaks about looking for joy in war time, in the midst of misery, sharing five cigarettes between five people over a period of twenty days, playing music with a guitar and making each other laugh.
Humour is crucial to me when I try to understand Bosnia and Hercegovina. When a Bosnian laughs, it means so much. Because they have prevailed. They have stuck. They have survived. They laugh in the face of life. As Bata puts it: „You tell us you hate us? Well, we’re gonna love you some more!“

Mariella, Pocitelj, Bosnia & HercegovinaI go back to Germany having realized once more that my life is small and in many ways insignificant. The journey has shown me beauty and sadness – inside myself and in this country I love so much. It has above everything, reminded me that I should and will fight for my happiness or die trying.

If you would like to stay at the places I talked about, here you’ll find information on it:
Majda’s in Mostar for Majda and Bata
Balkan Han Hostel in Sarajevo for Unkas
Čajdžinica Džirlo in Sarajevo for Hussein
None of them asked (let alone paid) me to mention them. I just think meeting them will enrich everyone’s life.

 

Bullet Shells and Bullet Holes

Mostar, that town that gave my blog its name, is pretty. It is thriving and gorgeous and attracts more and more tourists every year. But that is not why it caught me so much. I only fell in love with it when I started to understand how torn it was. I am drawn to complicated things. Mostar has a pretty face, but it also has many scars from the war in the Balkans. And nowhere did I find them to be so painfully visible as at the Sniper’s Nest.

Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

There is a building in Mostar that had been just newly built when the war came here in 1992 for a bank. It is set right by where the front line was – the line that still divides the city into a Croat and a Bosniak side. Croat snipers were set up in here to have good aim at Bosniaks down in the street. It was never torn down nor rebuilt. I haven’t been to Mostar in nearly 3 years, so I am not sure what it looks like now, but between 2010 and 2011 when I visited the city frequently it never changed much.

Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaEerie, abandoned, somehow even belligerent with its jagged design, it sits there with no purpose. Upon entering I feel a little strange, but there is not even a cutoff or a sign that says to „Keep out!“ or „Beware!“. What’s more, there are no signs of life, really. I would imagine that in Germany a ton of homeless people would live in a building like this.

Sniper's Nest, Ground Floor, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaWhat strikes my eye even at first glance is that the naked walls have been made canvas for street art. Some is more elaborate, some is just wild scribble and nonsense. A lot of it, however, is not just illustrations, but writing, and the things written there show sadness, sometimes desperation, but also hope for a better tomorrow. A lot of them are most certainly very political, and when you look at recent protests in Bosnia and Hercegovina, the problems addressed are still the same.

Walls at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaSome other things that you can read there are a lot more personal. Like this scribble which almost tore my heart:

Walls at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

„When everything I love and everything I dream cannot be…“

As you move upward floor by floor, the building shows you different faces. In terms of creepiness, I think the first floor might top the list. My pictures were taken in 2010 and 2011. The war had been over for 15 to 16 years. Yet it looks like the building was bombed out only yesterday.

First Floor at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaYou can find account statements, customers‘ files, accounting documents… and they are strewn about as though people had had to leave in a hurry and never managed to take anything. The papers are dated to the early Nineties, too. History that you can touch.

The next floors are as empty and eerie as the ground floor. They are were the snipers sat. And what would be more obvious, yet horrible proof of that than the many many bullet shells that line the floors.

Bullet Shells at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaTourists take them as souvenirs. I am not even sure how I feel about that, but I have one too. When I picked it up from the floor, I thought that I wanted to make it a lucky charm. Cruel? Ironic? Sometimes you have to take something that means something bad and turn its meaning so it can become something good. The bullet shell is a link to one of the places in the world I love the most. It has the ambivalence if Mostar written into it.

Floor at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaOn the upper floors, the paintings and writings on the wall change. There is now much more evidence of the nationalist scene, the Ultras, and of racist ideas. Not seldomly are they accompanied by the Croatian coat of arms.

Walls at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaWalls at Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaIt is still so hard for me to grasp, the strange interlacement of ethnicity, nationality and religion in this part of the world. In the Balkan wars of the Nineties, it is not quite correct to say that Croatia fought Bosnia fought Serbia (or whichever way around you would want to phrase it). There is such a thing as a Bosnian Serb (someone of Bosnian nationality who is orthodox and an ethnic Serb). „Bosniak“, „Croat“ and „Serb“ are notions that assign ethnicity, and ethnicity is linked to religion – Islam for Bosniaks, Catholicism for Croats and Orthodoxy for Serbs. But in a secularized world, how religious are these conflicts? How much are religion and ethnicity an excuse to redefine power structures? I am not an expert in all of this, and I am still in the process of getting a hang of it. But it is so complex – and so sad.

View from Sniper's Nest, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaFrom the top of the Sniper’s Nest, you look down onto the Spanish Square. The big orange building is a high school that operates in a segregated system. Bosniak and Croat children go to the school, but they are taught by different curricula and in different languages (even if the differences in Bosnian and Croatian are minute and speakers of both languages understand each other with ease most of the time). Knowing this, it really makes you wonder when the war will be truly over.

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?

Bridge in Yaremche, Ukraine

In search of more bridges for you, I go through my photo archives again and again (cursing myself for not having started to take decent pictures of bridges much earlier in my travel life), and this week, I found one for you in my Ukraine folder.

Bridge, Yaremche, UkraineThis was taken in Яремчe, or Yaremche, in Western Ukraine, five years ago. With everything that’s been going on, I’ve been thinking much about my trip to that beautiful country. As a Slavist (that is, someone who works in a Slavonics department at university), I cannot shake the feeling that most of the people I interact with outside of my work perceive the events in Ukraine to be very far away. They are just two borders away. They are happening in the heart of Europe. I am no expert, and this is not to be a super political post, but media coverage here in Germany is dreadfully one-sided, polemic, and all in all not informative. I am very worried about what is going on.

None of it was to be anticipated (well, certainly not to this degree!) in 2009 – at half time between the Orange Revolution and what is happening now in the realms of Euromajdan. I remember Yaremche, set in the Carpathian mountains and site of a pretty waterfall and cute wooden houses, to be a sleepy, unexcitable little town. Peaceful is the word that comes to mind. When I look at the rusty bannisters, I indulge in the morbid charme that I love so much about so many places in Eastern Europe. All my good thoughts go to Ukraine and its people in their fight for democracy.

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!

Stari Most in Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina (II)

Lately I have developped a strange fascination with the ground. I think it is because I feel literally grounded these days, both in the sense of being slightly captive and of having to be realistic. When life gives you lemons, make them lemonade – so I am looking to discover beauty in and on the ground. And how would that be easier than re-travelling some of my favourite places in my mind.

Stari Most, Mostar, BosniaThe bridge that gave this blog its name, Stari Most in Mostar, that place that stole my heart in that country that holds part of my soul, Bosnia & Hercegovina. The stones are just as shiny and soft as they look in the photo. The material is calles Tenelija, as I recently learned, and seems to be a specific local stone that I did not find an English (or German) equivalent for. They are slippery, the raised parts are necessary to even walk across the bridge without falling. I have managed to slip on it a few times anyway. I am so proud and happy to know that I have walked that ground so many times. I feel like every time I crossed the bridge, a piece of me was left clinging to the stone.

It is strange, but with Stari Most, the Old Bridge, it never bothered me that it was a reconstruction. The bridge was destroyed by Croat forces on November 9th, 1993. Just one more historically significant thing that happened on that day (next to the November progromes of 1933 in Nazi Germany, or the downfall of the Berlin wall in 1989). The reconstructed bridge has only been opened for ten years, so it isn’t actually the 400 years old that it looks. But it’s still full of history, and of individual stories. It is full of life.

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!

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