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Brückenschläge und Schlagworte

Tag: memory (page 1 of 3)

The Wall That Once Was

Tomorrow Germany will celebrate an important anniversary. Tomorrow 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down.

It is one of my favourite topics to write about, the past of the devided Germany and what it means to me and my life. Everything would have been different. I wouldn’t have majored in the same field. I wouldn’t work in the same field. I wouldn’t have lived in the same places. I wouldn’t have met the same people.

25 years ago tomorrow, Günter Schabowski announced new regulations on Free Travel for GDR-citizens in a press conference, and when he was asked when they would come into effect, he said he supposed they would come into effect right now. It was more of an accident than a thought-through, political decision, but it gave the peaceful revolution its decisive twist. So many people went to border crossings that the guards couldn’t control them for long. People were crossing. People were going back and forth. By the end of the night, people were dancing on the wall.

Footage of that night drives tears to me eyes every single time.

Today and tomorrow, an installation set up in Berlin. White balloons are set up to mark the line where the wall used to seperate East and West. Tomorrow evening, they will take flight, the balloon border will vanish, and this will remind us all of the way the wall disappeared.

Balloon Wall, Berlin, GermanyI live in the old West. This morning, I had a doctor’s appointment in the old East. I went there by bike. I have mentioned before how there is a cobblestone strip in the pavement where the wall used to be, and I cross it every day when I go to my work which is also in the old East. It often elates me. But today it was different. Going through the balloons indicating the wall, the eerie feeling I sometimes have in this spot was much stronger. I very significantly realized that 25 years ago, the world would have ended here. No trespassing, or else I would have been shot.

What I found stranger yet though was that I also realized how little one knew of this border as soon as it was out of sight. The balloon wall had been up for a couple of days already, or at least in the making. I hadn’t noticed much of it. People ask how it was possible to live in a divided city – the difficult truth is that it must have been fairly easy as long as you didn’t live right next to a visible sign of it. Thomas Brussig, a German author, once wrote that the strange thing about the wall was that the people closest to it took note of it the least. It was an unquestioned fact. How incredible it must have been when it actually did change – when it actually moved until it fell. And without violence. Dancing on the wall, where days before one would have been shot. A gap was bridged. Ultimately.

Going through the balloon wall felt like crossing yet another bridge.

Living in this city is amazing. I am reminded of the historical dimension of things constantly, and it doesn’t only make me understand better how this country and this world came to be what they are, it also allows me to understand myself. I feel myself in relation to everything that has been and will be in this place. And I love Berlin, I love it for making me aware of things I couldn’t have learned anywhere else in the world.

This is my last post on this blog. I have written on it for almost 5 years, with higher and lower levels of professionalism. It has been about travel and about culture, about identity and alterity, about myself and all the things I have seen that were so different from everything I knew before. I have loved sharing my views with you, but it is time to move on. Time to settle. I have new projects lined up in my personal and professional life, also writing projects, but those will be in German. I really miss writing in German. And I miss writing about things other than travel, as much as it has meant and does mean to me.

Be assured of one thing though: I will always be keeping bridges.

Bikes, Sand Dunes, a Memorial, and the North Sea

You read me, so you know I love the Baltic. Now the important question is: Can you really love the North Sea when you love the Baltic? My hometown Hamburg is approximately the same distance from either sea. Most of my family and friends have a clear preference. It is either North or Baltic Sea. You can’t have ‘em both. My sister once phrased it as follows: “I like the North Sea better than the Baltic, because I like the Elbe River better than the Alster.” For someone from Hamburg, that makes immediate sense. Baltic Sea and Alster River are calm and domesticated, while Elbe River and North Sea are moody, wild and untamed. Now here’s the kind of girl I am: I like the Baltic Sea and the Elbe River. I’m annoying. I want it all.

North Sea, Zandvoort, NetherlandsGranted I hadn’t been to the North Sea in a very long time. You see, as opposed to the Baltic Sea, it is not in Central Eastern Europe which made it hard to integrate it into my travel schedule. But when Jan and I did our trip to Amsterdam, we agreed that we would absolutely have to rent bikes at some point, and where prettier to do that than at the coast. So on the second day in the big city we took the car out to Zandvoort, found rental bikes quickly (and very decently priced at 10€ per day per person) and off we went.

Zandvoort, NetherlandsThe town of Zandvoort is a beach resort, the likes of which I know from Germany (and from both teh North and the Baltic Sea) – too many buildings with questionable aesthetics line the coast and make the view from the beach inland rather grey. Looking out to see is grand though. And the good thing about this being a town with good infrastructure is that there are also decently tarmaced bike trails. They lead us out of the immediate town and into the National Park Zuid Kennemerland.

Zuid Kennemerland, NetherlandsThe soft up and down of grown-over sanddunes. The width of the clear blue sky sprinkled with solid-looking clouds. The fresh air and the smell of the sea. The wind in my hair as I speed up on the bike. There is no route planned, no final destination, nowhere to get to. Just moving along through the landscape that I find so beautiful in its simplicity. I don’t need mountains. I just need a wide sky.

The bike trail leads us away from the immediate coast line, inland. Trees line the freeway we drove down when we came into Zandvoort by car. Bike trails are on either side of it. Yes, Holland is bike country. There is a path heading away from the street, and out of curiosity, we take it, unsure where it will lead us. A few hundred yards into it, we come across a small bike park where we place the bikes and make our way along the path on foot. I look back as we leave our bikes, locked together, almost looking like their cuddling. So symbolic. It looks like I am definitely not travelling alone this time.

Bikes, Zuid Kennemerland, NetherlandsWalking on sandy ground, but through beautiful wildlife, I find everything to be very green and leafy. Generally this reminds me a little of the bike tour I did on te Curonian Spit two years ago, but the forests lining the Baltic Sea there are coniferous. The deciduous plants around here give make the green so juicy, the smell so fresh, not as earthy and wooden as I am used to. The path we follow offers new pretty outlooks and views around every corner.

We find a small outdoors theatre that looks like it may once have been a memorial and goof around behind the stone stand. Not a soul around – although that is not true. There are animals, most notably the toad I almost stepped on walking down the path. It’s a very peaceful place. As we move on, we climb up some stairs, and finally come across this:

Memorial for Resistance Fighters in WW2, Zuid Kennemerland, NetherlandsAlthough information is scarce, we realize quickly that it is some kind of burial ground for victims of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Later, research online will tell us that it is a memorial cemetery for resistance fighters who were shot in these exact dunes. There is almost no background given, and really almost none to be found on the internet either, which I regret. Walking around, Jan and I get into a discussion on war and peace, on the surpremely priviliged position our generation finds itself in in Western Europe, on Ukraine, on World War II, on our parents and grandparents. It is quite intense, and it leaves us more grateful for this day than we could have imagined.

Zuid Kennemerland, NetherlandsWe linger at the memorial for quite a while before we get back to the bikes and move on. Down into the forest. Out of it. Coming across meadows (although protected by fences, so we can’t throw ourselves onto them). Along the freeway. And finally, when it is almost time to go back into town to return the bikes, we find the sea again.

North Sea, Zuid Kennemerland, NetherlandsThe North Sea. It is indeed much more untamed. It is also very blue and not as grey as I generally perceive the Baltic to be, but I’m not sure if that’s just its mood today. I find the North Sea to be quite moody. It just goes away every now and then, what is up with that! But today, I have to admit it: The North Sea is being really really good to me. The way the light glistens on its surface, and the sand on its beach is as shiny and as rich in different shades of colour as the water, and the sea grass on the dunes moves in the breeze – all of this touches me.

After we’ve returned the bikes – much too soon for both our tastes – we go back to the beach for dinner, and then stay to watch the sunset for as long as our shivering bodies allow us to. It was warm during the day, but once the sun is down it is quite chilly. The light show that nature has prepared for us is amazing though. Nothing can be said against a sea that allows you to see the sun set in it, slowly, every so slowly disappear into the depths of its water, reflection turning the waves into shimmering bodies of liquid light. Magic moments. And I think I am more of a North Sea fan than I knew before.

North Sea, Zandvoort, NetherlandsWhat do you say – North Sea or Baltic? Or is it another one entirely for you?

Guest Post: Lift Bridge in Karnin (Usedom), Germany

Guest post are a rare event on my blog, mainly because I am not monetized and I don’t do backlinks or anything like it. The more joyous the occasion wheh a friend wants to write about a bridge nonetheless. And possibly even more wonderful when it’s a real life friend and not a travel blogger I met on a social media channel. My friend and former flatmate Luise is an avid traveller and came to travel blogging just a little later than me. On her site Such a Lot of World to See she blogged about her trip through the Balkans, Turkey and Georgia to Azerbaijan. I’m excited she’s bringing you such an insightful post – much longer than my own usual bridge post; she sent it to me saying she „got carried away a little“. That should tell you more than enough about her curiosity and passion for the world.

This year the First World War is more present in German public discourse and consciousness than WW II – usually it is the other way round for various reasons. But anyway it is a “super memorial year”: 100 years since WW I started, 75 years since WW II started, 25 years since the Wall came down. It’s always a mix. When my parents visit me in Greifswald in the North Eastern corner of Germany where I study, we also get to see a colorful mix of old and older, traces left both by the wars and the GDR, and new, what the decreasing population in this region outside the university town do to give it some new direction.

We visit Anklam, a small town 40 kilometers from Greifswald. It was heavily destroyed in the end of the war and modestly rebuilt. When industry closed down after the reunification people started to leave and there are some problems with right wing extremists round here. So I have to admit we are somewhat surprised to see some creative projects going on here. Young people and artists built all kinds of gliders and flying devices decorating the half destroyed church – which even has a roof again – of the hometown of aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal. It is a bright May afternoon and so we have a fantastic view from the tower all across the wide flat lands where he took his first flights.

Flying Equipment, Anklam, GermanyFar to the East we can see the enormous structure of the Karnin lift bridge which is worth a visit as the guide at the church tells us. After criss-crossing through the fields and along small alleys (some of them remarkably bumpy) we reach the harbor of Kamp where we have a fish sandwich and then start out for the bridge. We just have to walk around the corner at the pier and there it is, the huge lift bridge once enabling Berliners to reach the fancy beach resorts on the island of Usedom within two hours by train. It also gained military importance when the Army Research Center was opened in Peenemünde in the Northern part of Usedom in 1936.

I have been listening to quite some documentaries on 1914 lately, the war that was sparked on a bridge, a quite small one. Here is a bridge that after being an icon of German engineering was sacrificed by its own people at the very end of the next war. When German forces retreated they blew up all parts of the bridge except for the lift. That part was drawn up to allow for the German navy operating in the Szczecin Lagoon to escape to the Baltic Sea if necessary. And that is how we can still see it, the way it was left in the final defeat nearly 70 years ago. Eerie.

Lift Bridge, Karnin, GermanyThe 50x30m lift bridge was part of a two way railroad bridge opened in 1875. It wasn’t rebuilt, partly because of the new German-Polish border now dividing the island across the main railroad. Ever since the war people have to drive further to the North West to Wolgast, cross the bridge there and drive a long way back on the island to reach the so called Kaiserbäder (Emperor’s resorts), more or less doubling travel time from Berlin. There are actually talks of rebuilding the railroad and the bridge, we don’t have border controls between Poland and Germany anymore. This region is trying to become less of an outpost at the far edge.

Usedom, GermanyUntil then the former railroad dam is accessible by a nice sand path populated by salamanders and the waters on its sides are home to beavers while the birches that died in the rising waters hold an incredibly huge colony of the prehistoric looking cormorants.

Change is the only constant, even with a door left open by a fleeing army several decades ago.

(Photos by my mother D. Schmidt)

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

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.

 

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?

Outrageous – Leipzig’s Monument to the Battle of the Nations

There are places in Germany I am dying to see. I love discovering my own country, and there is more than enough to see that I haven’t seen yet, or that I haven’t seen enough of. Leipzig had for a long time been one of the places I felt a strange pull toward, and when I went there for the first time in September for a conference, I knew that it was a city that I would keep coming back to. If only for the famous Monument to the Battle of the Nations, which I hadn’t managed to see.

When my three girlfriends from grad school and I decided that our annual meet-up would be held in Leipzig this year, I claimed a visit to the Monument at once. I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit a place with such an impressive name? Especially being the history geek that I am. So my girls and I left our pretty airbnb apartment one morning for a nice one hour walk from the centre to the site.

Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyI realize most non-Germans won’t have heard of the place, so let me give you some background. The Völkerschlachtdenkmal on the outskirts of Leipzig commemorates the Battle of the Nations which was fought in 1813 by Prussians, Austrians, Swedes and Russians against Napoleon. The very abridge version of history is that after the French revlution, Napoleon went a bit ahead of himself and started to try and conquer all of Europe. In the Battle of the Nations, he was beaten and in 1814 forced into exile on Elba. There was a comeback and another battle, at Waterloo, that broke his power for good in 1815. After this Europe was re-organized in the Congress of Vienna.

When walking up to the monument, one realizes at once that it is supposed to architecturally mirror the immense impact of the battle, which was to remain the greatest battle in history until World War I. The monument was opened in 1913, for the one hundredth anniversary of the battle, which explains its expressionistic style. It looks like a massive mausoleum, or, as my friend pointed out, an ancient temple of the Inka. Everything about it is huge. Materialized outrage.Relief at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyThe entrance is guarded by a relief of archangel Michael, and above his head the words „Gott mit uns“, God with us, are chiselled into the stone. To the sides, more elaborate carvings decorate the walls. Eagles, storming fighters, but also the fallen dead can be seen in the decor. Overly stylized, all the figures scream visions of power and victory. It is not exactly pretty. But it is impressive for sure. And that is the sole purpose of this kind of art.

Two of my friends stayed to enjoy the sun, while one of them came with me to enter the monument and climb to its top. Entrance is a whopping 6€ (4€ for students), but I just had to see the insides for myself.

Ruhmeshalle Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyThe first level you get to inside the monument is the Crypt. Eight guards of the dead stand watch here as the light falls through the glass stained windows and the cupola. The light only emphasises the expressionist character of the statues. They are massive. But when you look up to the next storey, you can already see that yet more outrageous figures await.

Bravery Allegory at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Bravery

Fertility Allegory at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Fertility

The second storey is called the Hall of Fame, and the four statues here are 31 feet tall. They represent „Germanic virtues“ – bravery, fertility, sacrifice and faith.

My mum had told me about these, and she always mentioned that what most impressed her were the feet of the statues. When I saw for myself, I understood what she meant. Standing next to one of the statues, even just looking at a foot would make you feel dwarfed, minimized. It was strange for me to not be able to shake the feeling that it was so intentionally done. I did feel dwarfed, but at the same time my intellect wanted to push aside that feeling that was forced upon me. I could feel myself being manipulated into feeling awed.

Foot of Allegory of Sacrifice statue at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Feet of the statue representing Sacrifice. The second, smaller pair of feet belongs to the dead child the figure is cradling in their arms.

The glass stained windows gave the hall a church-like atmosphere. Granted, it was designed as a crypt, but it is still estranging to see battle intertwined with the sacral to this degree. In general the monument has a lot of elements that can later be seen in fascist architecture, which I have always had a weird thing for. It fascinates me how political ideology can be formed in stone, and all of this reminded me greatly of projects the Nazis did later. The common denominator is nationalism, of course. German virtues. German power. I shivered under the cold stone and at the notions that I saw represented here and that, knowing history, would turn out so desperately destructive and horrifying.

Windows at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyCloser and closer we got to the cupola which is lined with knights on horses, storming forward. They display ancient Germanic fighters, and the design is supposed to remind of runes from ancient civilizations. I must say it does the job. Yet again it sends a very clear ideological message: The German nation is ancient and traditional, and it has prevailed throughout history. Powerfully so. I think back on how design like this has been used to intimidate people since antiquity. I shiver again.

Cupola at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyFrom yet another balcony, the gallery of singers, you look down, and the massive figures look a lot less significant. Again this displays power structures. The more you lift yourself above things, the more empowered you feel. But is that a good thing? Shouldn’t power consist of recognition of other beings – not of decreasing their position?

View from Gallery of Singers at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Fertility is to the left, Faith to the right

Finally when we made it to the top, a view of Leipzig unfolded itself on this beautiful, but hazy Spring day. Looking over the lake in front, the Lake of Tears, symbolizing grief for the approximately 100,000 killed, wounded or missing soldiers of the battle, the modern, thriving and beautiful city shone in the distance. It was a world away.

View from Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyI am glad I finally got to visit this site. It left me thoughtful, and more aware of how powerfully art can shape thought – visual arts including sculpture and architecture as much as literature or music. It also made me contemplate the concept of manipulation, of inducing awe or fear, and how easily it can be done and abused in the name of any ideology. I can only hope that as human beings, we all strive to be aware of these mechanisms and reflect them carefully before we fall victim to them.

Have you visited memorials or monuments that reflect an ideology? How did they make you feel? Would you still want to visit the Monument of the Battle of the Nations or did my description put you off?

So what is the Deal with East Germany?

When I lived in the States aged 16, I was asked a fair amount of weird questions about Germany. There were mostly the many variants of „Do you have X in Germany?“ [Replace X by anything from electricity to chickens. I am dead serious.] Other than that, the biggest portion of questions was concerned with German history, mostly along the lines of the obligatory „Are you a Nazi?“ I have written about this in my post on German patriotism. Today I want to address a different question I was asked back then which seems a little more unusual. It was „So are you from the good or the bad part?“

As a Northerner I should have replied: „If by the bad part you mean Bavaria, I am from the good part.“ (I am kidding, obviously. Or am I? ;)) But that was not what the question was after. I quickly translated  it in my head to „Are you from the West (good) or the East (bad)?“ Although I think I just replied that I was from Hamburg which is the West, I cringe at the the many things that are wrong with the question to begin with.

A while back I sat with my temporary roommate over breakfast, conversation carried us from topic to topic, and eventually I showed her this youtube video.

It is a song by German singer songwriter Reinhard Mey, someone I have also mentioned before in my patriotism post, and it tells the history of Berlin from 1945 until 1990, finishing with the downfall of the Berlin wall. A West Berliner, Mey sings:

I lived my whole life in half a city.
What do I say now that you give me the other half as well?

My roommate, who grew up in the Southwest, in Stuttgart, and I were both in tears, and she said: „No one ever explained that to us properly. Going to school in Southern Germany you were just never told what a huge deal it was when that wall came down and why.“

Berlin, Germany

A cobblestone strip in the pavement indicates where the Berlin Wall used to be. It runs the entire course of it through the city.

It is true that not even history classes in Germany seem to pay enough attention to this part of German history (at least in my days) – possibly because they are so eager to hammer into the students the fact that the Third Reich was horrible and is never to happen again. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for teaching about that. But I am not enjoying the fact that we teach kids the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the „good“ capitalist part of the country, but not about the German Democratic Republic, the „bad“ socialist part. And don’t even get me started on the fact that in this discussion, the countries are usually opposed not on grounds of their political systems, but the economical ones. It isn’t democracy vs. dictatorship. It is capitalism vs. socialism. And since when is capitalism the best invention since sliced bread? Both countries are one today – but does that mean that the history of only one half of it should be valid?

From my experience, a lot of people in the West don’t know anything about GDR history – neither about the political dimension of it nor about the country’s cultural and social parameters. They think the same way that I thought for most of my life: „That’s all in the past, so let’s just move on.“ I don’t think it’s quite that easy anymore.

When I was 19, I started college in what used to be the GDR. Reunification had happened 13 years previously. I didn’t think the East-West-thing would be any issue whatsoever, to be honest, I didn’t even think about it as a „thing“. Only the ignorance of a Westerner could have allowed me to do that. Because as I met people my own age who were born in the GDR, I realized that in their lives things had actually become different after the political change. And that was the thing: I couldn’t relate to that. Neither in 1989 when the wall came down nor in 1990 when the countries were reunified did I notice anything different. But these new friends of mine remembered a monetary reform. They remembered their first „West toys“. They had parents lose their jobs or, very much less often, find a new, better one. They remembered being disappointed because they weren’t allowed in the socialist Youth organization, the „Free German Youth“ – because it ceased to exist. And they told me how they were nor allowed to sing certain ideologically laden children’s songs anymore and didn’t understand why at the time.

People who are culturally interested ask me sometimes if differences between the East and the West are still noticeable. I think that’s less and less the case, but it’s not as easy as just saying that there aren’t any. Especially people who lived the bigger portion of their lives in the GDR – how could they not be influenced by that? It was a specific culture, a specific system that shaped them, and in today’s Germany, very often there is no acknowledgement, no place for that. The GDR is reduced to a secret police and lack of freedom. But there was more to the country than that – such as a well-functioning social system, or a rich and colourful art scene.

There is a meaningful and symbolic piece of information when it comes to that. The constiution of the Federal Republic of Germany is called the „Basic Law“ – and not the Constitution. This is because after World War II, it was given in the hope that one day, there would be an actual constution that would be valid for a reunified Germany. But when reunification came, there was no new, no mutual constitution. Instead the GDR became subject to the existing Basic Law. This is why some people call the reunification not that, but an annex of the GDR through the Federal Republic.

I may have a specifically emotional relationship to this topic, especially for a Westerner. I would hope that our culture would allow more room for this part of its past. After all, history has made us what we are today. I don’t think it is healthy to push aside vital parts of any organism’s past. Why should it be different for a country than it is for a person?

Anecdotes – The Time I Met a World War II Witness

The value of travel has been discussed at large in many different places. All our favourite travel quotes speak of it, innumerable songs have been written about it and hostel common room walls are probably bored with the stories of how amazing and life-changing travel is. I am not here to convince anyone of it who isn’t already. But I will tell you anecdotes that happened to me in my travels that have changed my perspective on life forever. This wil be an irregular series on the blog tagged „anecdotes“.

I’m introducing travel anecdotes as a new series on the blog today. There are many stories I have to share that have never found space in any of my other blog posts. And I love telling stories. Come to think of it, that might be the reason I blog at all. I am kicking off with a memory I have long been wanting to write about, and one of my favourite anecdotes of all times.

In January of 2007, I had to take part in a training in Warsaw as part of my voluntary service in Silesia. It was my first visit to the Polish capital, and as part of the training, one afternoon we were sent to explore the city in groups. So I set out in the company of a Spanish girl, a French girl and a Greek guy to get to know Warsaw, and our self-assigned topic to do it was history.

Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Palace of Culture – it doesn’t look cold in the picture, but believe me, it was!!

After a visit to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, which I recommend especially to those who don’t know much about Polish history, we agreed to defy the bitter cold and see some of the many monuments in the city. Making our way through simultaneous rain and snow fall, my Spanish friend asked me what the expression „Third Reich“ meant. I started explaining to her that „Reich“ is German for empire; that the first Reich was the Holy Roman Empire  between 962 and 1806; the second one was the „Kaiserreich“ from 1871 until after World War 1; and the third Reich was consequently the one Hitler established.

As I explained this, the term „Reich“ fell a few times, and so did other German words. Suddenly an old man, probably in his 80s, stopped and asked me in broken German if he had just heard German. I affirmed. He then asked if we were going to see the fragment of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. Indeed that was where we were going, so I said yes again. He looked very excited and said: „I made that.“ I didn’t understand what he meant, he could not have made the ghetto wall, but he frantically kept repeating: „I made that, I!“ Eventually he told me to wait with my friends, he would be right back and show us. Everything he said was rather fragmentary and in a German that obviously had not been used in a long time, infused with Polish terms. In our group of four, I was the only one who spoke both those languages, so I translated to my friends what I had gathered and we agreed to wait for him and see what he wanted to show us.

He disappeared into a tiny shop and re-emerged quickly, then motioned us to follow. Walking with us, he introduced himself as Mieczysław Jędruszczak and told me his story. I tried my best to keep up with what he was saying and translate it to the other three. What I understood was that he had lived in Warsaw for all his life, and most of it he lived in the flat right next to the fragment of the Ghetto wall. He wasn’t Jewish, but he had grown up in a multicultural Warsaw with lots of Jewish friends. Then the war came. He pointed out where the ghetto had been and told us details of both the Warsaw and the Ghetto Uprising. A small odyssey through side alleys and backyards later, we stood in front of the fragment of the ghetto wall. I doubt we would have even found it without Mr Jędruszczak.

It was a short stretch of brick stone, unremarkable, but awe-inducing when accompanied by our guide’s historical background knowledge. Single stones where taken out of the wall, and there were signs that pointed out which museum or memorial they had been given away to. Mr Jędruszczak, it turned out, was the one who administrated all of this. He told us more stories about his fight in the Polish resistance during World War 2, in the Home Army, and how he was arrested for it. I wished I understood more and better what he was telling me, and it was exhausting having to translate from the German-Polish mix into English and back form what my friends were asking me to ask him. At the same time I felt overcome by awe. I had never met a living witness of World War 2 before, and my head felt completely empty when I always would have expected to have a million questions to ask.

Finally it was time for us to head back to meet our group. We had missed out on seeing a few other places we had wanted to go to, but none of us cared. All four of us felt like we had just encountered something that was so improbable it couldn’t even really be true. Had I not used a few German words there in the street, and had Mr Jędruszczak not overheard them, we would have never come to meet him. Also, I felt it was typical of Polish friendliness that he dropped everything else and guided us to the place personally. And although sadly I have forgotten so many of the details he told us, so much of the information he gave, I will never forget him.

If you speak Polish, you can read an article on Mr Jędruszczak here. The fragment of the ghetto wall is located at ul. Zlota 60 in the neighbourhood called Wola.

Have you ever met an eye witness of a historical event who impressed you deeply?

Guest Post: Jenni’s Top 5 Museums in Armenia

Jenni and I started talking on twitter in the realms of our respective rotation curation of the @i_amGermany account. Her blog on museums, Museum Diary, is insightful and thorough and a true joy to read. You should also follow her on twitter @jennifuchs. Thank you so much, Jenni, for writing for me about Armenia – a country I personally cannot wait to visit!

Hello, my name is Jenni, and I write a blog all about museums. Many thanks to Mariella for asking me to guest post here. I want to share with you my favourite museums in Armenia, a country I had the privilege of visiting for the first time last year.

The Yerevan “Cascade”

The Yerevan “Cascade”, as it is known, is part of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. It is the most impressive sculpture park I have every come across, and  it’s easy to see where it gets its nickname from – set against a staircase with 570 steps and a 15 degree incline, a series of plateaus and fountains seem to literally cascade down the hillside, continuing into a park at the foot of the staircase. If all those steps are too much for you, there also escalators inside that will take you most of the way to the top. And it’s worth it – the views of the city are fantastic!

Yerevan Cascade, Armenia“Matenadaran” – Ancient Manuscript Museum

Located in central Yerevan near the “Cascade”, “Matenadaran” means “depository of ancient manuscripts” in Armenian and is home to one of the world’s richest collection of medieval manuscripts and books. The subjects span a broad range,both in Armenian as well as in many other languages. The displays include not only many precious books, but also maps and calendars, as also some displays on the restoration of books, and on the plants and minerals used to create inks and paints used in the illumination of manuscripts.

Matenadaran, ArmeniaArmenian Genocide Museum

Although it covers a rather grim episode of 20th century history, to gain an understanding of Armenia and its people the Armenian Genocide museum is not to be missed. The museum opened in 1995 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Remembrance Day for all victims of the Genocide, and stands alongside the Armenian Genocide Memorial which overlooks the city of Yerevan. Be prepared for an emotional visit.

Genocide Museum, ArmeniaEchmiadzin Treasury Museum

Echmiadzin is located in Armavir Province in Central Armenia, about 20km from Yerevan, and is home to Echmiadzin Cathedral, the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church. The cathedral, dating back to the 4th century AD, is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world and worth a visit itself. Right next door to it is the Treasury Museum, which displays rare and precious treasures of the Armenian Apostolic Church throughout history. One of the highlights of the collection is an alleged piece of Noah’s Ark (though sadly this was on loan elsewhere when I visited).

Echmiadzin, ArmeniaZvarnots Historical and Cultural Museum Reserve

Another beautiful cathedral I was introduced to, this time from the 7th century, was sadly destroyed by an earthquake, but it’s ruins were discovered and excavated in the early 20th century. The Zvarnots Historical and Cultural Museum Reserve tells its story. As well as visiting the ruins themselves, you will find out about the architecture and construction techniques of the cathedral, its artistic decorations, and its excavation and reconstruction (on a model scale). There’s also a small display about Armenian architectural history and influences across the country.

Zvarnots Cathedral, ArmeniaTo find out more about these and other museums in Armenia, as well as museums in the rest of the world, please feel free to check out my blog, Museum Diary

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