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Travelling Differently – Have I Grown Up?

In the beginning of the year I thought I wouldn’t be able to travel at all this summer due to work committments. It was then when I first realized that I must really have come dangerously close to that dangerous state they call adulthood – obligations tying me down, curtailing my flexibility. Turns out though that I just don’t function when I don’t get out at least for a little bit. So when it came to planning my summer, I figured a few days away would only help me work more productively afterwards. So I started planning – and much more specifically so than I used to. That was hint number two that I may just have grown up.

My love affair with bridges prompts people to give me travel advice. Most of them suggest Venice. While that is on my list, I want to do it some remote February weekend when the city is touched by tourism as little as can be. So it wasn’t really an option for my summer trip. Second on the list of recommendations has always been Amsterdam. And now we’re talking. A new country, one in Western Europe at that. Breaking with my old travel patterns. How exciting!

Amsterdam, Netherlands


Once the destination was decided, for the first time in my travel life, I decided to ditch my beloved public transport and rent a car. I had done car travel before, but never abroad, only for short trips inside of Germany. For one thing, I didn’t think trains and busses in the Netherlands would be so different from Germany as to add indispensable experiences to my travel adventure (correct me if I’m wrong!). Secondly, I planned on visiting a bunch of friends I hadn’t seen in a while on my way West through Germany, and the car gave me flexibility.

With the car came a few other side effects, such as the fact that I wouldn’t be needing a backpack. I would be able to travel like a civilized person with a roll-on suitcase! Fascinating! Finally, when all of that was set already, plans were slightly overthrown and it turned out I wouldn’t be travelling alone. As part of a couple, new options arose that would have been out of question otherwise, if just financially. Jan and I decided to rent an airbnb apartment instead of hostelling.

Rental car in Amsterdam

It’s not my most flattering picture, but I realized it’s the only one I have in which you can see the car. I loved its signal red colour 🙂

Yes, I was quite curious how it would feel to be travelling so differently. No overnight busses, but a rental car. No backpack, but a suitcase. No hostels, but an airbnb apartment. And not single, but as a couple. My travel self has so far usually said sentences like „I’m flying into a remote ex-Yugoslav country, just me and my backpack, and I’m not exactly sure where I’ll go there, but I got my Couchsurfing profile ready and some hostel recommendations scribbled in my notebook.“ Now I found myself saying: „Me and my boyfriend have a car and an apartment in Amsterdam rented for four nights, and a hotel booked for a night in Groningen after that.“ How grown-up does that sound?!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in love with the backpacking thing, and I’m sure it’s not over for me. But I can’t deny that the comfort and security that this other travel mode generated felt very, very nice. To be entirely honest, I am less tolerant when it comes to drunk hostel dorm mates waking me up in the middle of the night, and spending nights in bus stations because the connection didn’t run is a lot less glamorous and exciting when you’ve done it a couple of times. It felt nice not to have to calculate every expense – because both the car and the apartment are of course things that I never did so far because they were too expensive. The relative luxury of travelling the way I did now was not least a financial one.

Zandvoort, Netherlands

Day trip to the North Sea

It felt really nice to be able rely on the things that had been planned beforehand. And it was absolutely wonderful to not have to take care of everything by myself, but have someone take over the wheel every now and then – literally and metaphorically. Speaking of which, in sum, the Netherlands were not the perfect country to take a car to. Petrol is ridiculously expensive, and what’s more, parking will leave you nearly penniless. Seriously, if I had been on my own I would have been completely desperate in the face of the expenses I had for parking which amounted to a good 20€ every single day except Sunday when parking suddenly was free everywhere. But then again we did beautiful day trips and stop overs on our way through the country that wouldn’t have been possible without a car. I think next time we might try just going by bike. It seems like the perfect way to travel the Netherlands.

Bike, Amsterdam, Netherlands

A bike in Amsterdam, camouflaged in flowers 🙂

I am also happy to report that with all the grown-up stuff, we were still plenty spontaneous. We hadn’t made up our minds as to what we wanted to see in Amsterdam, we had barely decided which other towns in the country we wanted to visit. We didn’t over-schedule our days, but took plenty of time strolling around, getting lost in beauty, and enjoying each other’s company sitting underneath light houses looking at the sea and talking. We never went out for breakfast, but went grocery shopping the first day and finished the remains on the last morning on a bench on Groningen’s fish market. So I didn’t feel like I had betrayed my travel style at all. It has just slightly shifted. A little more comfort. A little more safety. And a lot better company.

Breakfast, Groningen, Netherlands

Breakfast in Groningen – from my lap 🙂

Travel is a very big part of my life. It has made me who I am. It changes with who I become and with who accompanies me. That is just another way in which it is a beautiful metaphor for life itself. Maybe perceiving the way I travelled now as „grown-up“ is actually missing the point. Maybe it is just a new way that seems to fit the person I am, the life I have, regardless of age or status.

The Last Day of My Twenties

Last year in September I wrote a post called The Last Year of My Twenties. I had wanted to match it up with one about the last month, or the last week. Now today is the last day of my Twenties. I won’t make this very long. But I feel in my heart I want to let you know a little bit about my feelings on the eve of my thirtieth birthday.

Sopot, PolandI’ve never quite dreaded the 30 the way other people (women, particularly, I may add) do. I don’t mind growing older. I am grateful for the experience I’ve gained. The point when numbers suddenly seem to play a role is always reached when I ask myself what I had wanted to have achieved by this time when I was younger. Did I think I’d be done with my PhD? Yes. Did I think I’d have kids? I sure hoped so. Be married? Well, certainly!

None of these things have happened for me. So far. But, and thank God for that, I am relaxed enough to know that just because they haven’t come to me yet, it doesn’t mean they never will. And would I be ready for marriage and children? Would I be ready to decide what to do with my life work-wise, something I will have to face once I have my PhD? I don’t know, I really don’t. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be ready yet. I know I will be ready in due time. I trust myself that way.

In Gdansk, PolandI knew this last year, but I am ever more sure of it today: My Twenties have been a good decade. And taking stock now, I really can’t complain. I am happy. I have lived, loved, worked and travelled, learned, tried, failed and succeeded. There is much more to come and everything that’s happened has prepared me for it.

My Thirties will hold surprises and challenges for me. I still hope, like I wrote on the afore-mentioned post last year, that they will calm me down somewhat. But I can hope and think as much as I want. Life will have it its own way no matter what. The important thing is this: I am excited about the future. Very, very excited. And what more could one ask for.

Berlin, Germany

On Being Driven

My life is a succession of settling in new places. My life is the process of settling inside of myself. I’m sure there is absolutely nothing special about that. It is everyone’s life story. But I can’t speak for how other people perceive this journey through life. I can only speak for myself.

Butterfly, Mostar, Bosnia & HercegovinaI guess most people will call me well-travelled. Compared to a lot of people in the blogging community, what I have seen is but a tiny fraction of the world. I don’t think I could have fit much more into it though. Some people are still in their twenties and have been to more than a hundred countries. I sit and wonder – how much have they taken in from each individual country? How well do they know the places they have been to? I have been to 33 foreign countries, if my count is not mistaken, but I would consider myself to have an actual idea of just a few – Germany, obviously, then the States, Poland, and Bosnia and Hercegovina. If I’m very generous with myself I could count Croatia and Greece as well because I’ve travelled them fairly thoroughly.

The longing to see new places is always there. I am a driven person. Driven in many senses of the word. I am driven to achieve things, driven to success. Driven also to be active, to create things – the only way I know how to, artistically, in writing and music. Driven, very much, to love. Driven to move, quite physically, and to discover. My drive doesn’t aim for quantity though – or at least not first and foremost. It aims for depth.

Rose, Pocitelj, Bosnia and HercegovinaTalking about this is so close to my heart that I feel the English language makes it hard on me to phrase things properly. This rarely happens to me, but for once I feel that German would provide me with a more suitable vocabulary after all. However, only recently a blogger I very much appreciate said that phrases like „I’m at a loss for words“ or „Words cannot express…“ don’t suit a writer because words are your job, and I think she is right. So I will try.

The awareness of my need for depth wasn’t always there. I had to find it through experience. I used to call just about anyone a friend. In times of facebook, we all know how lightly that word is used. Today I am much more careful. Acquaintances are plentiful. Friends are rare. I chose a field of study in which I would gather a broad basic knowledge instead of specializing in one field, and have only come to find true insights that approach the core of things very late in my academic career. And I used to want to see many places instead of lingering in one and getting to know it well and truly.

Time and time again it occurs to me that I have been so lucky to have seen many places and found much happiness in the vast strangeness of countries and cities formerly unknown to me. So very lucky. And I needed the quantity to find the quality in small parts of it, which I have been blessed enough to manage. How I deserve this, no one will ever know. I have no explanation but some kind of metaphysical grace.

Alt-Lübars / Berlin, GermanyThe more I reflect it, the more I come to the conclusion that what makes us decent human beings are mainly three things: gratitude, empathy and respect. Most of the time, all three of them come naturally to me. Again, I don’t know why, but I am glad it is the case.  That does not mean I don’t have difficulty with either one of the three at times. I am no angel. But I am driven to work on myself.

All there is to learn about these three things can be learned from human interaction. I have encountered people who don’t have much to be grateful for. Some of them turn jaundiced and embittered. Others fight tooth and nail to still see the good in their lives and be grateful for what they have. I have also met people who have trouble feeling other people’s joy or pain, or even understand a different viewpoint or life choice. Some of them try hard to find that compassion inside of themselves. Others just turn into loners and give up on a social life (which is a veritable life choice in itself, albeit a bit sad from my personal standpoint). Then there are those I have met who don’t respect either other people or life itself. I must say that this is one of the things where my ability to empathize meets its boundaries. How can you not respect life? How can you not treat it carefully and try to make the most of it, for your own benefit and that of other people? But maybe that is my drive speaking. My drive to be the best possible version of myself. Ultimately that is what it all comes down to.

Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin, GermanyI am very much aware that I was only able to develop this kind of drive, to feel gratitude, empathy and respect, because I had the best conditions anyone could ask for with material and emotional security provided by a loving family through all my life. Who knows if I could have done it if the terms had been different.  But what sense does it even make to ask that question. We all have to make the best of what we are given. I can only thank my lucky stars that they have made it so easy on me.

Why am I writing this? Maybe to remind myself of my own principles on a rainy day when life doesn’t seem to hold much beauty or joy to be grateful for, when I encounter something I cannot for the life of me understand, or when people act in ways that threaten to make me lose respect for them.

When I was 13 and attending confirmation classes in church, our pastor, a man I truly and deeply admire, said to us something about the concept of sin (which I realize is a tricky term in itself, but bear with me). He derived it etymologically from sound – as in water, not as in music. The words are closer in German, Sünde and Sund. He said sins were the things that seperate people from one another and from God the way that open sounds seperate land masses. I believe that lack of gratitude, empathy and respect are what seperates us. But I want to build bridges. I want to cross the sounds. I want to find true connection to the world and within myself. This is my drive.Stari Most, Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina


A Letter From My 25 Year Old Self

I made my one hundredth blog post a special one – so it only figures that I should do the same with the two hundredth. And how fitting is it that I am posting this on an important anniversary – four years ago today I left Germany for my Balkans travel adventure, the reason I started blogging in the first place. It’s such a damn platitude, but I can’t believe it is that long ago. I feel so close to the girl I was then – and yet so much has happened. Look at me, just having finished my Master’s degree, ready to take on life, on the very day I left for my trip:

Mariella, Departure Day 2010You know when people write about the advice they would give a past version of themselves? Usually a 30 year old telling their teenage self something along the lines of: „Don’t worry honey, you will have a great job in a few years and have lost 20 pounds.“

I could be telling the girl in the picture exactly that. But honestly, I have nothing to say to her. She doesn’t need to know about me today. In fact I think if anything it might hold her back. In many ways she is a million times cooler than me. Brave – nay, fearless! Excitable, of boundless curiosity, trusting, even naive, but in the best possible way. Open to the world, and confident that life will take her just to the place she needs to be. What I really need is advice from her! So what would she be telling me? What must she have been hoping for me? I am trying to remember it, an act I find it strangely comforting. I am thinking it would go something like this:

Dear 29 year old me,

it feels strange that I could be giving you advice on anything. After all, I am just a younger, less experienced version of you. You could be looking back at me and want nothing to do with who that is anymore. But then I do hope you still value my opinion. Wouldn’t it be a comforting idea that we can learn from our own life over and over again, and that you and I still respect and love each other?

I hope you look back at me and smile, and I hope that you remember vividly how happy I am. I take on this journey knowing that it will be wonderful. I know that it will empower me and make me strong. I am not afraid of being alone. And I hope that after this, you never will be, either. I hope that I will learn for you and all the future versions of us that being by yourself is not scary, but beautiful, even healing. I hope that I will learn how to listen to our own heart’s desires and how to follow them. And I do hope that you will be able to put all that to good use.

I know that I will meet boundaries, both physical and emotional ones. I know that I will push them, overcome them, and sometimes have to step back and just accept them. I know it won’t always be easy, but I am not afraid of any of it. I am excited for it. Please never forget that this is one of our most empowering traits: We don’t shy away from challenge. Never shy away from an opportunity to grow!

I ask you to remember all the things you should be grateful for. This journey surely makes the top of the list. The landscapes that I will see! The people I will meet! The emotions I will feel! It is now all ahead of me, but you will be able to carry the images in your heart as a constant source of comfort. And even once this is all over and has made its way into that foggy, yet golden country called memory, please be assured: There is always something to look forward to. There will always be amazing things to see and discover. Never lose the curiosity and the enthusiasm for discovery that I am bursting with in this moment. It will drive you to greatness, and what’s more, to happiness.

I don’t need to know about you – what you have achieved, or where you stand. I know that whatever you do will be wonderful and good for both of us. I am unshakingly confident that you will have made us both proud, and that you live your life as best you can, striving for happiness and fulfillment. I wish I knew what you think about me today. I am only just realizing that we have an immense capability for love and happiness, you know, and I hope it’s never lost.

Much love,

your 25 year old self xx

I was so insanely hopeful and confident. And then my trip was all I hoped for in that moment of departure – and more. I returned from it a different person – can you tell from the pictures?

Mariella, ReturnDay 2010Now what would this girl say to me, at the eve of her 26th birthday, having just returned from her journey? She would look at the letter above and say: „Told you. All my hopes and dreams came true. We can manage everything. I have nothing to add.“

When I am tied behind my desk these days, working on things I really love and that make me happy, I still feel a lot more cynical, a lot more fearful and a lot more on guard than I used to back then.

Mariella, Regular Work Day 2014It is good for me to think back on the person I was four years ago. I have a lot to learn from her. And I hope that even at my desk, fighting the smaller wars of daily routine, I would make her proud. I am insanely proud of her.

Clipped Wings – On Feeling Grounded

Within the last few months, I have had more than enough material to write about. Short trips were abounding, and not just inside of Germany. Now things seem to be calming down. And I feel torn – not for the first, nor certainly the last time in my life – between enjoyment of the quiet, unexciting weeks and months ahead and my ever-present yearning for adventure. It is in this pensive mood that I feel it is time for another post in my thoughts category. A personal one. And yet I am not sure if stripping my soul isn’t the last thing I want to be doing. I might only find out in writing this. Bear with me.

Castle Hohentübingen, Tübingen, GermanyAs of lately I have chosen my piano keys over my notebook more often than not. Music comes easily to me these days, more easily than words. Or if words do come, they are often corny and kitschy, and lyrics forgive that much more lightly than prose does. Writing has been unusually difficult for me.

I think this is largely to do with the fact that I am not allowing myself any plans for a decent big trip this year. My wings are clipped. Work commitments have a lock on me, and in many ways it seems like in my generation everyone just has to pay their dues in their twenties. So I need to get a grip on myself, focus, and get some stuff done this year. I can’t keep meandering about. Mainly because my work contract won’t last forever. And didn’t I always say that I would want to do something different when it runs out? Yes, I did. And what will that be? Hell if I know. And so I find myself back in that same state that I was in when facing the end of school. And the end of my B.A. And the end of my M.A. And I wonder if it will always be like this or if I will ever, you know, get somewhere. Arrive somewhere. And be there to stay.

Neckarfront, Tübingen, GermanyJust a few years back, it relieved me to know that the meandering might never end. I felt suffocated at the thought of being tied down to one plan for all times to come. And now I wish I had a plan, any plan at all, to live up to. Not a forever plan, though. Just a plan.

I hate to say it, but I think it is to do with age. My desire for security isn’t decreasing as I grow older. I want reliability. I don’t want to be in constant doubt. I want my safe havens, my harbour to return to when I’m out in the world.

And yet things are more difficult than that. Because while I want all that, I do want adventure. I want to venture into the unknown, I want to not know what’s in my life tomorrow, I want the thrill of jumping off of high cliffs into the turquoise sea, of turning a corner in the labyrinth of an unknown old town and coming across something beautiful, of crossing the border into a new country and the sound of a stamp being made in my passport. I want the sound of motors on airplanes and busses, I want trains to whistle as they swish past me, I want ships to part the sea and make waves that will crush loudly onto sandy beaches. I want the unbearable noise that comes about in remote corners of nature and that is all animals, water, and trees and not a single man-made machine.

Market Square, Tübingen, GermanyI still want it all. Looks like life hasn’t disillusioned me enough to think that’s impossible. Thank God for that.

Only recently did it come to me that the term Sehnsucht that I refer to so often is not the only German word that describes a specific kind of longing. There is also the English germanism Wanderlust which translates literally to a desire for wandering or, the initial meaning of wandern, for hiking. And there is Heimweh, which means being homesick, and its sister term Fernweh – being sick for strange lands, for the wilderness and the world away from home. I wonder if it is something innately German to wish yourself away to another place, to get caught up in dream worlds, in utopia – since we have so many words that describe an act of craving that which is not in our lives.

All these things I feel all the more right now when I feel like I cannot really act upon them. Then again, maybe, just maybe, being forced to stay put will do me good as well. Maybe being grounded keeps you grounded. Maybe I need to re-root myself a bit before I can embrace the world again, and grow into home soil. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of weekend trips and hometown tourism to be done. Just not the big scale discoveries of the world out there in all its glory. But when I get to do that again – boy, it will be marvelous!!

Still I must say that I wonder if I will ever find a life that allows me to integrate both sides of me – the girl that wants security and the one that doesn’t give a damn. I wonder if Heimweh and Fernweh will ever give me a break. Or if I am just an unstable spirit whose search will never end.

Neckarfront, Tübingen, GermanyAll the pictures were taken in Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, in the old town and at the castle. They show paths that need to be walked and the ground that I need to keep to. For now.

Comforts of Routine

Travel is the ever-different. Travel is inconsistency. Travel is the impossibility of planning. Travel is flexibility, spontaneity, restlessness. In short, travel is change. I love the feeling of living entirely in the moment while being on the road, the feeling of not needing to search the constant because I will not find it anyway. When I travel, every day brings new impressions and provides me with knowledge I did not have before. Every moment confronts me with myself in ways I haven’t experienced before, and I know that travel is always as much a journey to a new place as to the depths inside of me. The sound of trains, busses, ferries or airplanes moving through wide open spaces excites and calms me equally. I embrace the constant change that travel brings when I am out there on the road.

Train tracks, Frankfurt / Oder, GermanyIn my day to day life, however, I value a certain amount of stability. Yes, I like having a deli close to work where I go for lunch every day, and where after a break the waiters ask where I’ve been so long. I like knowing that the metro going downtown from close to my house goes on minutes 4 and 9. I like getting up in the morning, and going to the kitchen first thing to put on coffee and heat my milk, so my morning Caffe Latte will be done by the time I’ve put my make-up on. It can be very comforting to know that not every decision you make must be consciously made, but some are automatisms – at least as long as you know that travel will tear you out of your patterns again soon enough.

We all know those moments when we are shaken to the core, when life seems to want to let us know that we should never feel too sure about things going well, and it takes you and slaps you twice across the face. When that happens to me, I try to not let it numb me for more than a short moment, and I weigh my options: I then need either the constant change of travel to find myself again – or I can find myself in the stability of routine. While travel would probably always be my first option, it is not always possible; and the second one has got its perks; at least in a great city like Berlin.

I have a ritual of sitting at Tempelhofer Feld for a bit every day when I go home from work by bike. Only last year, I still used to have a cigarette during those ten to fifteen minutes, looking West toward the sun. Then I quit smoking. I have to admit I still miss that end-of-work-day cigarette, but the daily moment of peace and calm at the field is priceless.

Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin, GermanyCIMG9511

I really enjoy coming across the occasional crazies in my neighborhood. Like the funny Turkish dude I see frequently, about 60 years of age, who rides his bike along one of the large streets in Neukölln, sounding his bike bell and a whistle, carrying a large sign that says: “I have lived here for 30 years. Why can’t I vote?” He’s got a fair point. I like him. He’s fighting for his own interests. Or the guy who goes around in bars and asks people if they’d like to hear an „original entertaining poem“ and then gives out his whole marxist outlook on life. They are constants in this crazed city.

I love the way that in Berlin, you can see the TV tower from almost anywhere. This cold, damp and altogether quite horrid winter, its tip disappeared into fog quite often. Within the last week, it’s usually stood out clearly defined against a greyish sky. Yesterday the sun reflected in its metal beauty. I love how it looks different from the various perspectives, yet it always is the same.

TV-Tower, Berlin, GermanyI never tire of feeling elated when I cross the strip in the pavement that indicates where the Berlin wall used to be with my bike. Woah – there I go, to the East. Whoops – and back to the West. Unthinkable 25 years ago. A reality today. It never fails to put a smile on my face. The non-repudiation of history is of great density in Berlin, and it shows you how relative everything can be. I remind myself of that frequently also by stopping by Neue Wache or Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, places I have written about before.

Neue Wache, Berlin, GermanyI even take comfort in the way the S-Bahn is late sometimes, as it so often is. And sometimes I smile at the U-Bahn forcing me to the unspeakable Schienenersatzverkehr (rail replacement service) because, well, that obviously happens at a time when things aren’t really going your way. Stupid and annoying stuff like that can feel good because it feels normal, stable, known. Like so many things, it is a matter of perspective.

Travel owns my heart fully. But when something has shaken my day to day life in Berlin and made it crooked, askew; well, in those moments the first thing I do is look to those little things that do not change and choose to find them comforting.

Being German and the Issue of Patriotism

Last week I wrote a post on cultural identity in this globalized world and in my own travel-filled life. The reactions were immediate and plentiful, and it seems that this is a subject that interests a lot of us. I am sure that this is because in travel, we always try to find ourselves. We confront ourselves with the other, the great unknown, the „cudne manowce“, as I like to call it, which is Polish for „the magical astray“. And we enjoy this because we perceive it as different only by comparison with what we are, and in this process we notice and understand our own inner workings better than before.

Along these lines, I have a few stories to tell about being German when you travel. I never noticed that I was German until I left Germany – that makes a lot of sense, because obviously most people I had known until then were German too, and this trait didn’t serve as a distinguishing attribute that would shape anyone’s individual personality. But then I went to other places. And I noticed that I was ridiculously punctual (by comparison with Mexican Americans). And well organized (by comparison with the French). And much more used to beer than vodka (by comparison with the Polish). And uptight (by comparison with Serbians). Even prude (I am SO looking at Sweden here!!). So there were moments when I felt very German, and I couldn’t believe I had never seen it before.

Having Rakija, Ferry to Hvar, Croatia

What I said about vodka goes for rakija as well – man, those Croatians can drink…

In becoming aware of my Germanness, I lost some of it, and that is what I wrote about last week. Other things I will most likely never get rid of, and the one thing that comes to mind fastest and that I have most been confronted with when travelling is the awareness of history and its direct link to patriotism. Let me explain with a little help of German singer-songwriter Reinhard Mey. The quotes below are translations of the lyrics to this song called Mein Land, „My Country“:

My dark country of victims and perpetrators,
I carry part of your guilt.
Country of betrayed ones and of traitors,
With you I practice humility and patience.

It all started when I was 16 and lived in Texas for a year. Kids would come up to me on the school bus and ask me questions such as: „So, are your parents Nazis?“ or „So, is Hitler still alive?“ or „So, have your family killed any Jews back then?“ Being 16 and a foreigner, I found it difficult to deal with this at first.

There was one particularly hard situation: We were talking about Auschwitz in my Sociology class. The  guy behind me muttered to his friend: „What’s the big deal, it’s just a couple of people that died.“ I gasped, turned around, and gave him a huge speech after which I left the classroom in tears. Quite the drama queen, eh? But I don’t think he ever forgot it. In time, I learned that these things didn’t happen out of cruelty, but out of ignorance and I resorted to teaching people about the Third Reich instead of starting to cry.

I can’t sing to you hand to heart,
With eyes on the flag, and a word such as „pride“
won’t cross my lips even with an effort –
stupidity and pride are cut from the same cloth!

This is where patriotism comes in. I learned that while I may not identify with what happened in my country throughout history, other people will identify me with it. Whether I want it to be or not, Germany is part of me – and that includes its dark past. But with this dark past being such a dominant association with Germany, being proud of being German is something that doesn’t feel quite right. Add in the very important factor that an extremist form of patriotism is exactly what national socialism was all about, and you may understand why Germans are usually very very careful to express pride in their national identity.

I cling to you and even through your disruptions,
I am your kin in sickness and in health,
I am your child through all your contradictions,
my motherland, my fatherland, my country.

The more I have travelled, the more people I have met who never brought up the topic of collective German guilt. In fact it is often the other way around: People tell me how much they love Germany and I get all flustered and weird because it sounds strange and wonderful to me when someone has such love for the country I am from and no fear of expressing it. And then I have to explain that I am not used to that. Of course there was the soccer World Cup in 2006 that changed things for a lot of us and allowed us to wave Germany’s flag proudly for once. Things have relaxed since then, and I am happy about that. But at the same time I am not entirely sure about it. What if we forget? What if we lose awareness of the responsibility we have? What if things got out of hand?

World Cup Public Viewing, Greifswald, Germany

This was me at a public viewing for the World Cup in 2006. Over the top, you think? You should have seen some of the other people…

I have learned not to think of patriotism as an innocent emotion. I have learned that it has led to evil, and I have learned that there are no grounds to be proud of something you have no power over, such as your nationality. You can be grateful for it, happy about it, and identify with it, but as long as it is not your accomplishment, „pride“ is not the appropriate emotion to me. I think that feeling so strongly about this is very German. And it is something that I really want to hang on to.

I love Germany. But being proud to be German is something I don’t even want to feel. I would be scared that it might mean that I had forgotten my country’s past.

[EDIT JULY 2014] I recently closed comments on this post because I felt its time had come. It is important to me to stress once more that all my observations are highly subjective and personal. People in the comments have largely taken offense to the fact that I generalized a German attitude. I do think that I am not an exception in my views, but I am well aware that there are many other perspectives on the issue. In fact, patriotism is not at all problematic for many people anymore, especially for younger generations. I stand by this post and its importance because this one individual perspective I have, my very own approach to the topic, still holds valid and may grant some insights to the whole interplay of nationalism, patriotism, pride and history.

What’s one more Identity?

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

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

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

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

Tekija, Blagaj, Blagaj, Bosnia and Hercegovina

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

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

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

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

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

Sejm, Warsaw, Poland

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

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

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

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

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

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

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

If Only…? On Regrets and Making Peace

Recently I had a chat with a friend – one of those people who miraculously transform from „this guy I met travelling“ to an acquaintance you keep infrequent facebook contact with to someone you see again when revisiting their city to a person you really love having in your life – and all of a sudden they are a friend. So we were sitting over beers, discussing life in general, travel lessons, relationships, dealing with loss and failure. At one point he asked me: „Do you have regrets?“ I looked him straight in the eye and said: „None!“ And I meant it.

Jump, Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina

Yes, that is me who just landed in the water there

Like so many other bloggers who have written their travel regrets post, I try to live life in a way that won’t make me have to regret anything. Erin of The World Wanderer, who was so kind as to tag me for a post of three travel regrets, put it very beautifully indeed, referencing the indescribable Edith Piaf and summing it up saying: „It’s all about forgetting what happened in the past, the good and the bad, and starting fresh.“ Read her whole post here. And also, follow her on twitter @TheWrldWanderer because she is awesome!

I think all of us who travel try to avoid regrets. It is like Mark Twain has put it in this quote that so many of us have on our blogs:

„Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.“

The fear of being disappointed, of regretting, is what drives many of us out there and has us on the move, keep looking, never shy away from the new, the exciting, the unheard-of. When I am out there travelling, I am very much a gut-person. My intuition is my everything. If I want to do it, I will. If I don’t want to do it, I won’t, and later probably won’t regret not having done it – as long as I was honest with myself in that moment when I made the decision. This philosophy has allowed me to paraglide and cliff-jump, to go on road-trips with strangers, to literally leave the beaten track to discover hidden gems, and to sing in quite unusual places. Like here.

Singing, Blagaj, Bosnia and Hercegovina

The fortress in Blagaj, Bosnia and Hercegovina. The hoard of construction workers found it pretty great that I knew a Bosnian song. Photo courtesy of the lovely Aasa Marshall.

And inspite all of this, I finally came up with my three regrets too, although honestly, it took me a long time! In tune with Mark Twain’s quote above, my regrets are not really about things I did do, but rather about things I didn’t, couldn’t or can’t do for various reasons.

1. Not having done any busking while travelling. [YET!]

This one I fully intend to change. It is on my Bucket List to go busking in a couple of foreign places. The main thing to keep me from it so far has been that I don’t play an instrument. I have just my voice, and a capella busking is fairly tough, or so I imagine it to be. Also I have been a little cowardish in the past when it came to choosing a place. The German in me thinks: „But what if I need a permit? What if you aren’t allowed to do that here? What if the police come and get really mad at me in a language that I can’t speak well enough to defend myself?“ I really have to get over this and just do it. But before that, I’m learning guitar. At least enough for me to play a few funny chords with my singing.

2. Not having recognized my own strength sooner.

There are several reasons for this regret. For one, I wish I would have started backpacking while I was in college and had so much more time for it. I thought, back then, that I’d have to be braver than I felt. In fact I was plenty brave and could have easily managed it all. Closely related is the fact that for a long time I thought I would need a travel companion. I wish I had understood sooner that travelling alone would be more rewarding than anything else I have experienced until this day. I also wish that in some situations I would have been more confident to go for something I wanted. Rent that car. Climb that mountain. Kiss that guy. Then again, I know today that I needed time to gain the strength and confidence I have today. I couldn’t have done it sooner or faster. Absolutely no use in fretting. It is all good.

3. Not being able to have it all.

It is one of my deepest conflicts when planning travels: Do I discover a new country, a new city, a new culture – or do I go back to a place that I loved truly? I really hate having to choose, because I want it all. I want to visit the friends I made throughout the world. I want to go back and see more of some countries and cities, or I want to go back and see the exact same things again, because they were so heartbreakingly beautiful the first time around, or because they might have changed and show me a new, different side now. But then again there is so much out there that I haven’t got the faintest understanding of yet. There is so much to see and learn. I really wish I never had to choose. I deal with it by not choosing just yet. I plan by that other great travel quote:

„I haven’t seen everything. But it’s on my list.“

These are my three regrets. I have to say though that really cannot even feel bitter about any of them. It all came this way so that today I would have this exact drive, this ambition, this curiosity and these exact dreams that keep me going. I feel very, very fortunate to be at peace to this degree. And I blame it on travelling.

Train Journey between Germany and PolandI would love to hear thoughts on this from these three talented and inspiring bloggers:

Maria of Blue Snail Travels
Suzanne of The Travelbunny
Ulrike of anischtswechsel

Plank in Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia

This is a Bridge on Bridges on Sundays that is nameless, but still challenged me.

Mavrovo, Macedonia

It is a tiny, improvised, informal and unofficial little plank in Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park, just around the corner from Sveti Jovan Bigorski monastery. Mavrovo was one of the most surprising places to me in all the Balkans. I only passed through it between Ohrid and Skopje with a short stop at the monastery, and I made a definite note to self to come back again. Endlessly stretching green hills – but of a toxic, lurid color that is much more fiery than that of the hills in Bosnia that have always had a calming effect on me.

After taking a look around the monastery’s beauty I went back to the street where I was supposed to stop a bus coming through about half an hour later. I meandered around for a bit and found the tiny creek that ran parallel to the street with this improvised bridge across. I had my backpack on me and it was a very hot day, I am guessing well over 30°C. I saw the bridge and I was unsure whether to cross it because it looked unstable, but the moment I questioned my ability to cross it, I really wanted to get to the other side. Fear is a funny thing, and in this moment I allowed myself to feel it fully, even though it was s small, seemingly stupid fear. I stood there for a moment, torn, and all of a sudden the funny looking plank had a whole world of meaning, and it became any obstacle that stood to be overcome. I did cross it in the end, and from the other side I could reach the creek and cool my feet in the water for a bit. Having done that made me feel stronger. It is in the small experiences that we find ourselves to become wiser sometimes.

If you have read My Mission statement, you know why I love bridges. To me they are the most universal symbol of connection, of bringing people together and overcoming anything that may seperate us. I want to present to you pictures of bridges that I really love in places that I really love on my blog every Sunday. If you have a picture of a bridge that you would like to share with my readers as a guest post, feel free to contact me!

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