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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?

Inspiration in Song Lyrics – Gundermann

It has been a long time since I wrote on this blog about music, lyrics and language instead of travel and personal growth. Lately I must say that music has grown even more important to me (who knew that that was even possible), and in this end-of-year reflective mood that I am in, I am listening to it more eager to find answers to my questions, inspiration for my quests.

Piano, Brussels, Belgium

This beauty can be seen at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium

I have always had a thing for music with German lyrics – not so much Schlager, but contemporary German singer / singwriter music, Indie pop, pop rock and even hip hop (now I know that most people who are not German native speakers do not consider German hip hop to be hip hop. But I think that must be because they don’t understand the lyrics. Bands like Fettes Brot and Die Fantastischen Vier have ingenious lyricists!). When I started writing my own music, it was quite natural for me to come up with German words for them, too. So it is not surprising that when I seek inspiration, I turn to German music again.

For a couple of years now, I have gone to see a specific band in concert between Christmas and New Year’s. They are called Randgruppencombo, and they are a tribute band to singer / singwriter Gerhard Gundermann. Gundermann was an artist from the GDR, the former East Germany, and he continued to be fairly successful after reunification (which is not at all self-understood). Some of his most well-known songs deal with the aftermath of the political change, with the need to find a new place in this new society. His language is clear and simple, without frills. He puts complicated feelings into plain words, and because of this his songs speak to me with great immediacy. One of the songs that I have pondered a lot lately is this one called „Die Zukunft“, The Future – here in a version of the mentioned Randgruppencombo:

Die Zukunft ist ’ne abgeschossene Kugel,
auf der mein Name steht und die mich treffen muss.
Und meine Sache ist, wie ich sie fange:
Mit’m Kopp, mit’m Arsch, mit der Hand oder mit der Wange.
Trifft sie mich wie ein Torpedo oder trifft sie wie ein Kuss?

The future is a launched bullet
that carries my name and that is bound to hit me.
And it’s my business how I catch it:
With my head, with my ass, with my hand or with my cheek.
Will it hit me like a torpedo or will it hit like a kiss?

A lot of things have happened to me this year that I did not see coming, but the lyrics of this song have made me aware at all times that things will come, they will, and there is no way for me to prevent it from happening. But I have the power to form and shape the things that are coming to me. I may like it or not that the bullet will hit me, but I cannot change the fact. I can just (wo)man up and take charge of how I will meet it. I find this thought quite consoling, probably because it empowers me somewhat in times when the future seems worryingly insecure.

The complement to this song is one that deals with the past. It’s called „Vögelchen“, Little Bird, and this is a live version by Gundermann himself:

Wir wollten es fangen, das Vögelchen, in teuren schwarzen Apparaten. Wir kleben Bilder ein und wir suchen blind nach jenen funkelnden Lichtern, die die Mädchen in den Augen hatten auf unseren Mopeds, die lange verschrottet sind.
Da ist es wieder, das Vögelchen – es nistet in den nassen Haaren seltsamer Menschen, die unsere Kinder sind. Und auch die funkelnden Lichter sind dort, wo sie waren, die ganzen Jahre. Du hast sie nur lange nicht mehr angezünd’t.

We wanted to catch the little bird in expensive black machines. We sort out pictures and we are looking blindly for the shimmering lights that the girls had in their eyes on our mopeds that have been scrapped for a long time.
There it is, the little bird – it’s nesting in the wet hair of strange people who are our children. And the shimmering lights are also just there, where they have been for all those years. Just you haven’t lit them for a long time.

The little bird, as in „Watch the birdie!“, refers to a camera trying to capture the moment in a picture. While the song is very nostalgic, it also has an optimistic ring to it that the shimmering lights of hope and anticipation are never lost. It may be merely by association, but I think of a lot of people, friends and acquaintances, who have experienced loss or pain lately, and this song mainly reminds me of one very important lesson in life: Count your blessings.

Those songs thus leave me with two powerful and reassuring thoughts: Take charge of the future. Be grateful for the past. And while those are very important lessons, it is always vital to remember to live in the moment. One of Gundermann’s most famous songs, a song he called a consolation song for a friend, is called „Brunhilde“ and all about making the best of today. I did a cover version of it myself a while back with a rookie keyboard arrangement that is not very professional, but I think the sentiment is clear:

Und was sollte besser sein als so ein Abend im Frieden?

And what could be better than an evening in peace?

Are there songs that guide you and inspire you as you reflect upon your life? I would love it if you shared them in the comments!

Varadin Bridge in Novi Sad, Serbia

After a lot of bridge posts about Western and / or Northern Europe, today I am taking you back to my beloved Balkans and some summer sunshine while autumn has turned wet and grey in Berlin. Varadin Bridge, Novi Sad, SerbiaThis is the view from Petrovaradin fortress onto the city centre of Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city. To the right in the picture you can see Varadin Bridge crossing the Danube river. If you want to go to the fortress, you will most likely cross this bridge. From the bridge you have a gorgeous view of the old castle walls sitting majestically on a hill above the city. From the fortress you have this beautiful outlook onto the city.

Novi Sad is the centre of the Vojvodina. Vojvodina is an autonomous province in Serbia, just like Kosovo is considered to be one by the Serbians (who, as you may know, have not recognized Kosovo’s independence). It is also one of the many multicultural areas in Eastern and Central Eastern Europe – easily recognizable by the fact that it has six official languages: Serbian / Croatian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian and Ruthenian. I think especially the Hungarian influence on the city is quite noticeable in the architecture and the cityscape. It is one of the areas in which gaps between cultures are simultaneously made visible – via prejudice and exclusion – and bridged – in the necessity to live together in one space.

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 love in places that I 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 Metaphors

There is a feeling of autumn grabbing a hold of me, earlier in the year than I am used to it. I feel like retreating into my shell for a while and reflecting on lots of things, and that goes with moments that lack inspiration. This feels like a time to think, not a time to create. I find such breaks immensely important, but they don’t necessarily go well with maintaining a blog.

Stari Most, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

I cannot go without a bridge pic in this post though – this old favourite is Stari Most in Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina – the bridge that inspired my blog’s name and theme.

Now, I still have loads of stories and thoughts to share that I have stocked up on over the summer for my weekly posts. But as I went through my photos, there was no bridge that inspired me enough to do my Sunday piece on this week.

Instead I remembered that I had seen on twitter this week that Istanbul’s slogan for their application to host the 2020 Olympics was „Bridge Together“, and I was once more reminded of the power of language and the power of the Bridge as a metaphor. And it made all the more sense to me that I was always meant to love Istanbul – as a city of bridging two continents together literally and metaphorically.

But there is more ways in which the bridge is present in our language. When there is need of calming down, of letting things come to you, we decide to „cross that bridge when we come to it.“ When we want to cut off all opportunities of going back, we say we are „burning bridges“. And there is the playful merging of the two that says „We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.“

Bridges thus seem to be an inherent part of the metaphor of the „path of life“. They hint at overcoming obstacles, but also at the fact that the road won’t always be the same and there are bound to be transitions. Whilst on a bridge, there might be a feeling of in-between. But only while on the bridge do you have a distanced outlook on the lands on both sides of the bridge. Maybe that is what my current autumnal need for solitude is for.

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?

Date a Girl Who Writes

Date a girl who writes. Date a girl whose hands are smeared with ink from the pen that she loves to write with, but that keeps leaking. She may not have a perfect French manicure because those long nails would always splinter when she spends nights on her computer typing. But with these hands of hers, she has created whole worlds in her writing that she will take you to if you want her to.

Find a girl who writes. You will spot her by her big eyes looking eagerly at the world, and you will see her stopping and staring at something beautiful, mouth wide open, lost to the world, in awe of something she just experienced. You will feel like you can see cogs turning in her head. That is her thinking about how she could phrase what she just saw so that everyone would be able to feel what she just felt. Maybe she will take out a little dodgy looking notebook with lots of dog-ears and scribble something into it. Maybe she will look up, think, and then sit down in sight of the thing that caught her attention, and repeatedly note down stuff in her book, smiling absent-mindedly.

CIMG9695Date a girl who writes. She will always find beauty in the things around her because she will always look for something that she can shape in the amazingness that is language. She knows that things are of a greater truth when she can share them with her words. She knows that phrasing her encounters will add a depth to the experience. She knows humility because she has met the boundaries of language and felt the gigantic silence that occurs when the world is too big for an expression, when words can never suffice. Date a girl who writes because she will know exactly when to speak and when to keep silent.

A girl who writes will be a girl who reads. She will see storylines in her life and in the lives of others around her, because she has come to know them from her favourite books and wants to put them in writing herself more often than not. Date a girl who wants to see Kafka’s Prague, Joyce’s Dublin and Dickens’ London. She’s the girl who is longing to go to Russia because she wants to see the wide landscapes she holds dear to her heart ever since reading Doktor Zhivago. She’s also the girl who wants to see Colombia because she cried when she read One Hundred Years of Solitude and wants to live the magic that the novel foretold. She even wants to travel to Afghanistan, enchanted by the beauty that the country must once have held and that she’s read about in The Kite Runner.

Date a girl who writes. She has been through struggles with herself and knows that conflict is an important part of life both inside of yourself and with others. She has fought her own wars inside her mind, battling “impressed” versus “in awe”, battling “ecstatic” versus “elated”, battling all shades of colours and all tones of sound that language can express. Date a girl who writes because she will touch all of your senses with language and with her entire being.

Don’t just tell her that she’s beautiful, funny, or smart. Tell her instead that her beauty is that of a red leaf on a golden autumn day being carried by the wind through the streets of a big city. Tell her that she makes you laugh until your tummy hurts. Tell her that her wits make her a female version of Odysseus. Allow her to be part of a creative metaphor. Baffle her with your eloquence. Understand her need for precise vocabulary. Write letters to her. Read her novels and poems. Point out song lyrics that you liked.

Date a girl who writes. She will always share with you what she thinks it is that makes life worthwhile. She will bring beauty, laughter and depth to your life. She strives for a life that is never boring, and with her, yours won’t be either. Listen to what she has to tell you and I promise, it will be worth your time, if only for the sound of the words that she will carefully choose to make you understand exactly what she is trying to say.

Know that you will never have her for yourself. You will always have to share her with her love for the world, with her passion for life, and with her need to be by herself so that she can form words and stories in her mind without being distracted. She and you will never be exclusive – she will always be in love with places, because they make the setting; with people, because they make characters; and with feelings, because they are what makes everything come alive.

One day you will say something to her, and she will startle, look you in the eye, smile and say “That is beautiful.” If you find what you said scribbled on a post-it note and pinned to the wall above her desk the next day, next to quotes by Hemmingway and Mark Twain, you will know you’ve won her heart.

This post, as many will have guessed, is inspired by Date a Girl Who Reads by Rosemarie Urquico and Date a Girl Who Travels by Solitary Wanderer. Maybe all three kinds of girls are really the same thing.

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“.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jakob-Kaiser-Haus with Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

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

Article 5, German Basic Law, Berlin, Germany

§5 – Freedom of Speech and Press

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

Article 3, German Basic Law, Berlin, Germany

§3 – Equality

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

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

Article 1, German Basic Law, Berlin, Germany

§1 – Human Dignity

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

In English that means:

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

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

What’s in a Word?

„What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.“

Being a blogger and, if I may be so bold as to call myself by this classier term, maybe even a writer on the whole, I obviously value the written and the spoken word. Putting in words what I have seen while travelling makes me happy, because it makes my experiences seem real, even after they are over. Finding expressions for emotions that I have felt has therapeutic effects on me. Engaging in eloquent discussions with interesting people is when I learn about the world, about myself and about the people around me.

In short, I love using words, and I love it when people know how to use words. By that I don’t mean just having the capability of speech, but I mean people who have an awareness of a language’s possibilities and opportunities. I love it when people are in search of the perfect word while explaining something to me, and it makes me happy when they are aware of having used one specific word because any other word they could have used wouldn’t have been quite as appropriate for just what they meant to say.

Stone heart, Crete, GreeceAbout half a year ago, my job inspired me to a little game: I compared articles about love in different languages on wikipedia, and they set such different focus in the definition of the concept at times that it didn’t even feel like they were talking about the same thing. For example, the English one about LOVE says:

The English word love can refer to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes, ranging from pleasure („I loved that meal“) to interpersonal attraction („I love my partner“).

This one mentions love as an expression of affirmation or approval even before it mentions romantic love between two people. Meanwhile the German article on LIEBE reads:

Love in the narrower sense is the term for the strongest affection that one person is capable of feeling for another. It doesn’t need to be reciprocated.

I think it’s beyond interesting that the German entry would feel the need to mention so fast and so explicitly that love can actually be a one-way-street. Whereas the English article is almost functional, or realistic in the least, we may still be stuck in romanticism here in Germany. Who’d have thought.

Wer are all a little weird

Who could have said it better than Dr Suess, really… Courtesy of http://img3.etsystatic.com/008/0/6240965/il_570xN.383333711_fnax.jpg

 

The Polish entry about MIŁOŚĆ starts like this:

Love – a feeling directed toward a person that is connected with a desire for their well-being and happiness.

I love that definition because it is so completely altruistic and emotional, and it focuses on the object of love, the loved one, while the German entry focusses on the subject that loves. The Polish is all about the YOU when the German is all about the I. Compared to those very personal approaches, the Spanish piece on AMOR is unbelievably technical and almost scientific:

Love is a universal concept relating to the affinity between beings, defined in diverse ways in respect to different ideologies and points of view (artistic, scientific, philosophical, religious).

In a way, this is the much more professional definition – but who wants professionality when it comes to love, really? And that from the Spanish, a people with a reputation of romance to uphold.

So are Love, Liebe, Miłość and Amor four different things? Are all the definitions valid for every one of these words? For any given word, how do we choose which word and which definition to operate with in which context? While I don’t have any definite results on any of these questions, I try to explore possible answers when I write on my blog, and I think this is one of the most rewarding endeavours in my day to day life.

Writing teaches me to be sensitive to implications, to shades of meaning in words. It forces me to look at the world and at myself so much more intensely. What is the color of that water called? What is the word for that sound that I hear when I tread on this ground? What is going through my head as I make my way from A to B in a foreign place, and how did those thoughts get there, what were they inspired by? What was it that I was feeling when I was in that one specific place? Was it – awe? admiration? or intimidation? Was I overwhelmed or stunned? overstrained maybe even? or on the contrary – complete? at peace? plainly happy? I have come to understand that I need to let myself experience the feelings wholly and find the right moment to attach words to them in order to make the most of my experiences. It is just how I work.

In linguistics, the idea of performativity suggests that words create reality. The most common example for this notion are weddings. By saying “I do”, one creates a reality that goes beyond words – one creates a marriage. The “I do” is thus simultaneously an utterance and a manifest act, a so called speech act. Nothing illustrates the power of words better, I think. They actually are action. With that in mind, I’ll close with a meme that circulated among my friends on facebook a few days ago and that may reflect the general sentiment of the thoughts in this post:

It's always words that undress you.

Courtesy of http://shahirzag.com/post/32341355358/possibly-my-favorite

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