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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?

The Wonderful Astray

Again I owe the inspiration to this blog post to my wonderful job that allows me to deal professionally with things I love very much. Last November, one of these things was the work of Polish cult poet Edward Stachura. Stachura was something of a Polish beatnik who mainly wrote poetry and songs. He committed suicide in his early fourties which made him even more popular with the underground scene. I came across his work mainly through the music of the wonderful band Stare Dobre Małżeństwo – the band name translates to Good Old Marriage. The first song by them that I fell in love with was “Jak”:

While the melody and the simple guitar instrumental caught me by their slight melancholy that I still felt to be light and hopeful, it was really the lyrics that got to me right away – especially the recurring line

Jak suchy szloch w tę dżdżystą noc…

Like a dry sob into this rainy night…

To me the Polish line consists of nothing but beautiful words. Szloch, sob, is a beautiful word that sounds exactly like the sound it represents. Dżdżysty, rainy, is a beautiful word that starts by a consonant cluster that only Polish could come up with. Many people ask me if Polish can be sung at all, with its many consonants. This song proves that it can be done, and beautifully so. It is also proof to me that lyrics don’t always need to be understood intellectually, but that the pure sound of language transports beauty all by itself, because I didn’t understand everything when I first heard this song.

What’s funny about the lyrics is that they never actually give an object of reference. „Jak“ can be translated by „as“ or „like“ or „when“ – all particles that would require something consequently following. That is as this is. That is like this is. That is when this happened. None of these sentences could pose a „this“ without posing a „that“ – but the song leaves out what „that“ is. It just gives a „this“. But in many lines, that proves to be enough. Like here:

Jak winny – li – niewinny sumienia wyrzut,
Że się żyje, gdy umarło tylu, tylu, tylu.

Like guilty unguilty twinges of conscience,
That you’re alive when there have died so many, many, many.

We don’t know what it is that is „like twinges of conscience“ – but that’s of no relevance to the emotional message of the line. I cannot say that I have felt that exact way, but it reminded me of a certain kind of feeling grateful for my life that sometimes is accompanied by a slight sense of disbelief that I should deserve to be so lucky. And it reminded me of the cemeteries of Sarajevo I have written about before:

Sarajevo, Bosnia and HercegovinaThe last bit of the lyrics says:

Jak biec do końca – potem odpoczniesz, potem odpoczniesz, cudne manowce,
cudne manowce, cudne, cudne manowce.

Like running till the end, after that you’ll relax, after that you’ll relax, wonderful astray,
wonderful astray, wonderful, wonderful astray.

The wonderful astray, or the magical astray, or the marvellous astray – what a beautiful notion that is. „Astray“, or „manowce“, has no German equivalent, it can only be translated in colloquialisms. My colleague once said that if there were to be a translation, it could certainly not be combined with terms such as „wonderful“ – German culture doesn’t care for the „astray“. In stereotype, that may be true. In fact, I am the counter example. I love the astray. I love getting lost. Being led wherever circumstance may. Letting life have its way with me.

In a story, this is what The Wonderful Astray means to me – I love just following a trampled out pathway on a remote Croatian island and coming across this:

Vis, Croatia

When I found this place, I sang on the top of my lungs. I’m not sure, but I think Elton John’s „Can You Feel the Love Tonight“. If I ever return to this magical place, I’m going to sing „Jak“.

Being Drawn to Cologne

It was a big deal when I turned 12 years old for two reasons. One: I was allowed to sit in the front of the car now. Not that I got to do it very often as long as my older sisters were around to steal that much desired seat from me at every option. But it did make me feel very grown up when on my 12th birthday I was sitting next to my dad in the front seat of our family car. Two: My dad had made it a rule to take each of us girls on a small trip to a destination of our choice for their 12th birthday, just he and the respective daughter. My oldest sister chose to go to Berlin with him. My middle sister went skiing. And I went with my dad to Cologne. I do not remember why I chose that city, but I have beautiful memories of it.

So when last week I was due to go to a meeting in Düsseldorf, I decided to stop by Cologne for a few hours – just to check if everything was still there, you know. When I got of the train at the main station, I was a bit taken aback by the cold. I had spent the last few days in Southern Germany where Spring had made its first careful appearance, and the icy wind in Cologne came as a bit of a shock. But the sun was shining, and upon leaving the station, the immediate view of the Cathedral erased any doubts as to whether this had been a good idea. It was majestic and elegant, humungous yet delicate. Once more  I stood in awe of this magnificent building.

Cathedral, Cologne, Germany I didn’t enter right away though, since I had absolutely no money on me, not even a coin to lock in my luggage at the train station, so the first thing I did was stroll into town in search of an ATM which proved rather difficult to be found. But who was I to feel annoyed by that. I was in Cologne, I had time on my hands, and walking through the city was fun even with pulling a carry-on the entire time.

Although I only meandered through what seemed to be the shopping district of Cologne, I found the city to be very atmospheric right away. People around me were talking in their funny, jovial Rhineland dialect and I kept listening in on conversations because I love the sound of it. But what made this afternoon most perfect, inspite of the freezing temparatures that sent me on to Düsseldorf with a cold, was the many many street musicians in the pedestrian zone I was walking through. I had to think of Istanbul where I first had the sensation of changing spheres every few meters with a new street musician adding to the moment’s glory.

I recorded a few examples for you. There was a guy with a flute and a few small jingle rings attached to his shoe that he was pounding with rhytmically so that his playing looked like a dance. And one with steel drums right in front of the cathedral that was a lot calmer, and his tune sounded funny in its solemn gravity. My favorite by far was a Klezmer Trio. Klezmer is a music style very dear to my heart which surely is rooted in my affinity to Eastern Europe. There is so much craving and longing, so much ambition in it. I feel that Klezmer is always driving onward, striving for more, urgently pressing to the next note, the next melody. And when it gets there, it is sighing in relief, only to move on right away. It speaks to me because I find myself as a driven spirit in its melodies and rhythms.

After having enjoyed these musical encounters in the pedestrian zone of Cologne’s downtown and having finally found an ATM, I made my way back to the cathedral.

Main gate, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

The square in front of it was lively and packed with people. I approached the front gates with their characteristically gothic arches, and as I came closer, I looked up toward the towers reaching for the skies, as though they were actually trying to connect this earthly world to its creator.

Towers, Cologne Cathedral, GermanyI entered the church with many many others – tourists mainly, I suppose, but I don’t think exclusively. At any rate there was still lots of German to be heard. It didn’t feel like visiting the great cathedrals in Italy that I sometimes find deprived of their spirituality due to all the tourists. I found a place where I felt like settling, and sat there for about half an hour with this perspective on the beautiful architecture of the Cologne Cathedral:

Nave, Cologne Cathedral, Germany I finally got up to move over to the candle stands. I really love the tradition of lighting a candle for someone. When I was still in school, my mother always used to light a candle at home when I had an exam, all the way through my final exam in grad school. She sat it on our dining table and every time she walked by it she would think of me and cross fingers.

I have lit candles in many many churches. To me it is a beautiful manifestation of my thinking and caring about someone. Looking at the stands filled with flickering lights, I was wondering who they had been lit for. I was wondering how many candles had been lit by people for themselves and how many had been lit for someone else. I though that there was maybe a lot of desperation and anxiety behind this – candles lit for people who were ill or had lost perspective and focus. So I thought about people dear to me and lit two candles out of the pure joy of living and experiencing beauty. Lights of gratefulness to shine and impart hope. And I hope amongst the candles were others like mine.

Candle stands, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

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

Thinking of Kraków…

Dieser Post basiert auf diesem deutschen Originalpost.
My first visit to Poland was when I was 8. The second visit of this place that I would come to love so truly didn’t happen until 13 years later. I had been learning Polish for two years and was excited and curious for this country that I had but a dim and distant memory of. After all, I had decided to make it part of my life by studying its language, culture and, above all, its literature. I signed up for a four week language course in Kraków.
Krakow Panorama, Poland
Back then, one rather chilly day in early March, I got off the bus from the airport at the main station just by the Planty, a green belt, a little park that encircles the old town. Looking up to a grey sky and breathing in Polish air for the first time as an adult, I was full of anticipation and a giddy nervousness, as though I was going on a first date. The church towers led the way, and I walked towards them in the direction I supposed the old town’s center to be in. I walked down Floriańska Street towards the Rynek, the main square. I didn’t know that Floriańska was a famous street. I didn’t know it led to the Rynek. My legs carried me on as if they knew they way, as if they’d walked it a hundred times. A feeling, nay, a certainty came over me that I had been here before. There was music everywhere. Pictures flashed in front of my inner eye, pictures of heavy red velvet curtains that I would see at Cafe Singer in the Jewish quarter Kazimierz later during my stay. My soul seemed to recognize the city from a former life. Until today I feel sure that this first visit to Kraków wasn’t actually the first. Instead, I was coming home in many strange, yet very natural and sensible ways.
Sukiennice
When people ask me today why I love Kraków, this experience is really the only answer I have for them. To be quite honest I don’t understand the question. Kraków was the first city I ever really fell in love with. I have been there many times since, and every visit just makes my love for it grow.
A collage of memories:
Sitting bei Wisła (Vistula) River, just below Wawel, which is the castle hill. A sunny day in early April. The river is making a large bend here, and it runs calmly and proudly as though it couldn’t ever run wild and burst its banks. In this moment I realize that I have never felt like a stranger in this city.
CIMG2229
Or having my first Zapiekanka at Plac Nowy (New Square) in Kazimierz. Zapiekanka is the Polish version of fast food: a baguette, essentially with mushrooms and cheese, grilled in the oven and topped with lots of ketchup and chives. Yum! And there’s no place in all of Poland where they are better than at the Okrąglak, the funny looking round building inmidst of the square that used to be a market hall. So say the locals, and so say I.
Okraglak, Plac Nowy, Krakow, Poland
Running across the Rynek, hurrying to meet someone or other, and from the tower of Mariacka, St. Mary’s church with the two unevenly high towers, the melody of the Hejnał is sounding out to my ears, falling right into my heart, and I have to stop and listen to it. „Hejnał“ (which funnily enough is pronounced something like „hey, now“) is derived from a Hungarian word for Dawn. It is a very old Polish signal melody. Legend has it that when the Mongols tried to invade Poland in the middle ages, a guard was keeping watch on the tower and sounded the Hejnał to warn the people of Kraków when the army approached the city. He was shot mid-melody so that he couldn’t finish. Until today, every full hour an interrupted Hejnał is sounded in all four directions from Mariacka’s tower. Yes, even in the middle of the night. No, it is not a record. Listen to it here.
Mariacka, Krakow, Poland
Having a kosher* dinner at Klezmer Hois in Kazimierz and accidentally stumbling upon a Klezmer concert in the room next door. I’m standing in the door way, covertly hidden away. In front of a  delicate dark red curtain with golden ornaments, there is a man with a double bass, one with an accordion and a young woman with a violin. Their play is sweet and snappy, lively and melancholy. Hava Nagila. Bei mir bist du scheen. The woman will at times put down the violin and start singing. Her voice is deep and velvety, it sounds like the dark wood boarding on the walls. Like the stone pillars and the lace doilies on the tables. From dark depths, the voice is softly climbing up, sighing high, desperate, the way Klezmer clarinettes usually do. I feel like sighing myself. Magical, magical Kraków.
Klezmer Hois, Krakow, Poland

Instructions for a Bridgekeeper

As much as I love travelling solo, I am in the process of looking into finding travel buddies for my next adventure. Today I got into thinking what it would actually mean for someone else to travel with me. I am sure that in my time I must have developed a few spleens and weird habits when travelling on my own, and I think everyone deserves a fair warning. So here they are, the instructions on how to deal with the BridgeKeeping Travel Buddy (BKTB).

„Dear customer,

congratulations on obtaining your very own BKTB. Handled with care and maintained properly, you will enjoy this product for a very long time.

When choosing a travel destination, keep in mind that the BKTB must be exposed to travel to Poland at least four to five times a year and to another Eastern European destination of your choice once a year. Also make sure that the BKTB goes on at least one vacation a year that will allow her to return to Germany with a tan that will prompt people to say that she looks like a gypsy.

CIMG7133

Make sure that the BKTB has access to coffee in the morning, preferably Espresso or Bosnian / Serbian / Turkish coffee. The BKTB does NOT run on instant coffee. You run the risk of causing severe damage to the BKTB’s system if you try to fuel it with instant coffee. Also, keep in mind that while the BKTB doesn’t need much food during the day when travelling, a feeling of hunger can overcome her within seconds towards evening. When this is uttered, find food as quickly as you can or else run for dear life lest you want to be object to a very moody BKTB.

CIMG7320

While the BKTB will help you to just wander a place without orientation and finding incredible places, and while the BKTB has a fairly decent sense of orientation, she will not ask for directions unless she has to. You being there will mean that she doesn’t have to, because it’s your job. She’s weird that way. The BKTB will, however, randomly chat up strangers in coffee places, trains or other ways of public transport, on park benches or in line for a museum. If those strangers are locals, she will have annoyed them with a gazillion questions about the culture, the history and the minority politics of the country you are in before even having asked the stranger’s name. Yeah, she’s weird that way, too.

On the other hand, the BKTB needs her quiet time. Bring her to a religious site or a spectacular place in nature (a beach will always do, but mountains work as well!) frequently during your trip and just shut up for a bit so she can hear her own thoughts. Don’t take it badly if she wants to wander off on her own for a bit. It’ll be for your own good if she does.

Mariella in Butrinth, Albania

Credit for this pic to my friend Steve

If you’re female or gay, the BKTB comes with an option of daily cuddling / hugging. Actually to be honest, she comes with that option if your a straight man, too. Hell, the important question is probably if *you* come with that option!

The BKTB will express the urge to sing out of the blue frequently. The best way to deal with this is to find someone who can play the guitar and an adequate situation for singing, such as bonfires, balconies or terraces, beaches and the likes, or at least a karaoke bar. You do not have to provide lyrics since the BKTB knows almost all of them by heart.

Credit for this pic to my friend Julia

You have now been warned. Enjoy your travels.“

What is there to consider when someone travels with you?

Bearpit Karaoke – Mauerpark on a Sunday

When I find myself shaken with travel fever and I am really itching to get away, but I’m stuck in the grey, weird, awesome and stressful monstrosity that is Berlin, Bearpit Karaoke at Mauerpark is a remedy that has proven to be helpful every single time for several reasons. I’ll take you on a quick stroll through a Sunday afternoon at the pit to explain to you why that is.

On any given Sunday between sometime in Spring and the last halfway decent day in Autumn, I will get to the pit and there will still be a gymnast, a magician or a stand up comedian heating up the crowd that is bound to be sitting on the steps already. As long as they are still going, I will peform the art of choosing the right place to sit (not too close to the speakers, perfect distance from the stage, preferably in the sun etc.). When around three o’clock the artist of the day will have wrapped it up, Joe Hatchiban arrives with his orange bike that magically transports everything he needs to get the show started – including speakers specifically designed for the pit’s acoustic conditions, wicked!! And the cheering begins. And I cheer, too, for Bearpit Karaoke heals my travel itch, as it is a bit like travelling in itself. And here are the reasons why:

Mariella MauerparkReason #1: It is a place completely out of space and time. If you took this little patch of land and isolated it from its surroundings, there would be no way to tell where you took it from. The language that is spoken most is English with any given accent, and the German accent is not necessarily the most common one in the crowd. I could forget that I am not abroad when I am here. There literally are people present aged 1 through 80 from any country with any background. 

 

Reason #2: Everyone’s equal in the pit. Because the crowd – I am horrible with estimating numbers, but appearantly there are more than a thousand onlookers on a sunny day – will cheer with equal enthusiasm for someone who is really horrible and for someone who is just rockstar amazing. The people will reward what the performance manages to get across – and even someone who cannot sing can make a thousand people dance, or laugh, or just plain feel something.

CIMG9527Reason #3: When I am there, it is easy to believe that the world is a good place. There is an image that is among my most favorite memories ever. Joe always walks around with a tin collecting donations. The way that everyone stretches out their arms to him is getting to me every time. People are doing it not because they want to take something from him, but because they want to give something to him! There is this immense willingness to give back for all the joy that this event imposes upon everyone who is there. And it looks so beautiful when Joe is jumping up and down stairs and arms are reaching for the tin from every direction to underline the feeling of gratefulness that encircles the pit. Really I am not here to flatter, but Joe is a pretty awesome dude for making this all happen.

Reason #4: Unexpected things happen. A blind Brasilian girl is led to the stage, seeming insecure, and then she’s singing the Scorpions‘ „Rock me like a hurricane“ like an absolute pro. A plain, short, bearded man that in teh street you would easily overlook is coming into the centre and then singing a German version of Sinatra’s „My way“ with so much soul and ernest that you’re just completely taken by him (granted, he is not bearded anymore and also he does this every Sunday, but the first time it is really unexpected! And also, it doesn’t cease to be endearing). Most recently, four people are starting to sing „Gangnam Style“ and all the remains of the pit are storming the stage and starting to dance. There are marriage proposals. Declarations of Love. And just plain old good entertainment.

Reason #5: When I travel, I never have to care about tomorrow – just about the moment. When I am singing for an audience, I feel the same way. Yes, I am a sucker for the stage. I love singing, and I love the funny things that stagefright does to my tummy – especially when there is an audience that I do not know. I find it much harder to perform for people I care about, because I put a lot more pressure on myself. At the pit I go in there and I’m allowed to forget about my ambitions. I just let go and sing. And I return to my seat with adrenalin shooting through my body, and I am feeling alive. There really is no need to be afraid of a performance at the pit. Nothing to lose. Just a whole lot to gain.

As I make my way back to my bike through the park when the show is over, past all the people with their guitars, their drum sets made from cans and boxes, their artwork, their dancing, their hula hooping or whatever else they may have on display, I can’t believe that I am walking on what used to be the death strip. To my left – the former West. To my right – the former East. Today it’s multiculturalism at its best. And a whole lot of happy up for grabs.

Two Germanies

There is a story in the family about me being four years of age and explaining to my mom that there were two Germanies, the Federal Republic and the GDR, and that we were living in the Federal Republic and the people in the GDR were the surpressed ones. Only I didn’t say surpressed, I said squished – easy to confuse „unterdrückt“ and „zerdrückt“ for a little girl.
I do remember the day the wall came down. I was barely five years old. My mom and dad were crying and I had no idea what was going on, but there were lots of people on TV celebrating and appearantly all was well. I asked my mom about that day many many years later and she said that aside from the births of her children, it may just have been the greatest day in her lifetime.
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany
Another family legend tells of the time between the wall’s downfall and the reunification when my parents took my sisters and me to see Schwerin. My dad, who never spent money lightly, had to change a certain amount of GDR currency that we needed to spend, and there was a fair, and we were allowed to go on rides until we almost threw up. I have a very faint image of a rusty merry-go-round in my head.
I think I speak for most Western German children of the 1980s when I say that we grew up with certain ideas about the GDR, the majority of which were grey, dark and solemn. Also, by the time most of us were old enough to judge for ourselves, we didn’t find that part of German history to be much of an issue. It’s not like it was World War II and we were, as a collective, to be blamed for the deaths of millions of people. It was an unfortunate epoch that now lay behind us. No big deal.
Only when I moved to the former East when I started college did I realize that it was different for other people my age – namely for those who didn’t grow up in the West. They had actual memories of things changing. Their parents had gone through identity crises when the political change came upon them. Everything they knew was re-evaluated – from their breakfast cereal to the educational system that made up their schools and kindergartens.
One friend told me that she was the first year not to become a pioneer anymore. The Thälmann Pioneers were a youth organization in the GDR, in the younger years they were like a scouts movement; the older the children got the more ideological the contents became. The initiation to the pioneers was a big deal and my friend told me that she was heartbroken because she would not get the necktie that belonged with the uniform.
Another friend told me that she was riding the city bus with her mom, and the way she had gotten used to, she started singing, and she sang her favorite song from kindergarten. But right away her mom shushed her and said harshly: „You’re not allowed to sing that anymore!!!“ It was the song about the red Soviet star.
All of a sudden there was room for me to realize that while nothing had ever changed fundamentally in my own life, it was different for my friends. And I keep trying to understand the differences that came about between us with this political event every day.
In Berlin the course of the wall is indicated in the street pavement by the use of different looking paving stones. Every day on my way to work I cross this line on the ground as I go from the former West to the former East. It has become somewhat regular, but on most days I still smile when I do. The idea that it would have been impossible 25 years ago is unspeakable.
Who would I be if Germany had not been reunited 22 years ago today?
I could write a long list of speculations here that I could not possibly prove. I’ll just make one statement that I am fairly certain about: I wouldn’t have been able to leave my heart in so many places. And man, I’d hate that.
German flag, Berlin, Germany

Die Elbe

Manchmal muss man für die großen Glücksmomente nicht in die weite Welt fahren. Der Elbstrand in Blankenese – für ein Hamburger Deern wie mich gibt es fast keinen schöneren Ort auf der Welt.
Schon als kleines Mädchen gab es die obligatorischen Spaziergänge mit der Familie an der Elbe. Als ich mit zehn oder elf Jahren zum ersten Mal freiwillig mit Freundinnen am Wochenende zum Spazierengehen an der Elbe verabredet war, fand ich mich wahnsinnig erwachsen.
Wenn ich heute in Hamburg bin, muss ich den großen grauen Fluss immer wenigstens einmal  begrüßen. Als ich damals nach Tübingen zog und mir Sorgen machte, dass mir das Wasser fehlen würde, wurde mir gesagt: „Aber dort ist doch der Neckar!“ Der Neckar ist reizend, aber er ist kein echter Fluss für mich, eher ein hübsches Bächlein. Die Elbe bei Blankenese ist ein Strom; ein gewaltiges. mächtiges Monstrum, dass sich vor mir dahinwälzt und meine Gedanken mit sich tragen kann, wenn ich einen freien Kopf haben möchte. Im Sommer liegt sie als glitzernder glatter Spiegel da. Im Winter ist sie manchmal vereist, kantig und hart. Zu jeder Jahreszeit gibt es Wellengang, wenn einer der großen Pötte mit Containern vorbeifährt, und beim richtigen Wind sieht man die Segelschiffe ihre hübschen bunten Spinnacker spannen.
Mit dreizehn begann es, dass man jedes Jahr das Osterfeuer am Elbstrand feierte. Wenn man in Blankenese wohnte, traf man an diesem Ostersamstagabend alle Menschen, die man kannte, unten an der Elbe. Das Zusammenspiel vom Feuer auf dem Strand und dem Wasser daneben war schon damals eine ganz besondere Erfahrung.
Und nun also dieses neueste, wunderschöne Erlebnis von der Elbe. Es kann keinen zauberhafteren Ort geben, um eine neugeschlossene Ehe zu feiern, als diesen – zauberhaft wahrhaftig, denn es lag ein Zauber über diesem Abend. Für mich war es ein Zauber aus leichter Melancholie, kindlichem Staunen und großer großer Liebe – zwischen allen Menschen dort und zu diesem traumhaft schönen Platz am Strand. Und als eine meiner ältesten Freundinnen im Brautkleid und einer meiner ältesten Freunde als ihr Bräutigam im Anzug vor mir standen; und einer meiner ältesten Freunde neben mir sein Feuer anzündete; und als ich anfangen durfte zu singen für diese Menschen, da war ich viel aufgeregter als sonst, wenn ich vor Publikum singe, denn es hat so unendlich viel mehr bedeutet. Ich kann mich nicht mehr an die Zeit erinnern, in der ich die Braut nicht kannte, und an diesem Abend durfte ich ihr sagen, was ich ihr für ihr Leben wünschte, und Feuer und Musik wurden eins. Zur Aufnahme dieses Hochzeitsgeschenks, das dort am Strand spontan entstanden ist, geht es hier: Fire spinning and live singing

Dubrovnik und Korčula

Ein Erlebnis in Dubrovnik habe ich vergessen zu erwähnen, und es ist es wert, erwähnt zu werden, denn es war so anders als alle meine Eindrücke von Tourismus und überfüllten Straßencafes. Ich habe mich in die kleinen Nebenstraßen der nördlichen Altstadt zurückgezogen, die schattiger sind als der Stradun, die große Prachtstraße in der Mitte der Altstadt. Es ist angenehm kühl und es gibt tatsächlich kleine schmale Treppen, auf denen kein Mensch in lautem Englisch die Stille stört. Das genieße ich, und mache mich nur unwillig wieder auf den Weg Richtung Menschenmassen. Da finde ich, und hier hatte ich sowieso noch hingehen wollen, das Museum war photo limited, in dem Kriegsphotograhie ausgestellt wird.
Im Untergeschoss ist eine temporäre Ausstellung zum arabischen Frühling mit eindrucksvollen Bildern aus Libyen, Ägypten, Bahrain und Jemen. Ich suche aber eigentlich nach den Photos aus den Kriegen auf dem Balkan seit 1991. Sie sind oben in einer digitalen Slideshow. Kinder. Weinende Kinder. Schreiende Kinder.  Schlafende Kinder. Tote Kinder. Tote Mütter. Weinende Mütter. Rennende Mütter. Rennende Soldaten. Stolze Soldaten. Lachende Soldaten. Schreiende Soldaten. Soldaten vor brennenden Häusern. Soldaten in Panzern. Soldaten kurz vorm Abfeuern. Soldaten mit Fahnen. Frauen mit Fahnen. Männer mit Fahnen. Kinder mit Fahnen. Der albanischen Fahne. Der jugoslawischen Fahne. Der Fahne des Islam. Zerfetzte Fahnen voller Blut. Menschen voller Blut. Blutige Körperteile. Arme. Gesichter. Beine. Hände.Hände die beten. Menschen die beten. Menschen die weglaufen. Menschen die schießen. Menschen die Gräber ausheben. Die weinen. Die sterben.
Da betet einer vor einem verbeulten Kreuz in einer ausgebombten Kirche.
Da liegt einer ohne Kopf vor seinem Gemüsestand.
Da hat sich einer im Wald aufgehängt.

Verstehen kann ich das alles nicht wirklich.

Es ist Zeit für Leichtigkeit. Ich fahre mit dem Shuttle nach  Korčula. Dort liegen unbeschwerte Tage vor mir. In der kleinen Gasse, die zu unserer Pension führt, sind die Granatäpfel reif, gründe Mandarinen, die innen orange, saftig und lecker sind, hängen von den Sträuchern, und über einem Tor wächst eine Frucht, die von außen aussieht wie eine längliche Aprikose, aber sich weich und hohl anfühlt wie ein Gummiball und innen aussieht wie eine Maracuja. Ulli kommt einen Tag später an, wir gehen Shrimps und Muscheln essen und Wein trinken und  kommen langsam in der heißen Sommersonne und in der reinen Urlaubsstimmung an. Am ersten ganzen Tag wollen wir den Strand suchen – daraus wird eine eher unfreiwillige zweistündige Wanderung nach Lumbarda. Umwege führen uns ins Dickicht am Rand der Schnellstraße, zu inoffiziellen Müllhalden, kleinen Steinhäuschen, kleinen Tomatenfeldern und verlassenen Ruinen mit stylischen Grafitti. Kurz nach dem Ortseingang nach Lumbarda trinken wir Cappucino in der Sonne am Ufer und breiten uns anschließend an einem Steinstrand aus. Ruhe kehrt ein.
Später in der Woche fahren wir mit dem Wassertaxi nach Lumbarda und landen jetzt am offiziellen Strand. Das Wasser scheint mir hier noch klarer und türkiser zu sein, die Sonne noch wärmer und der Sommer noch ewiger. Wir haben zwei deutsche Mädels im Gepäck, die Ulli im Zug kennengelernt hat und die zufällig in der gleichen Pension untergekommen sind. Mit ihnen erkunden wir auch abends die Stadt. Im alten Stadttor steht eine Klapa und singt so herzzerreißend schön, dass ich mich nicht trennen kann. Die Mädels laufen weiter, ich rauche in der Kühle des Tores eine Zigarette und gehe auf in den Klängen der dalmatinischen Musik.

So fließen die Tage dahin mit Sonne, Strand, Gesprächen und Lektüre weniger anspruchsvoller Bücher. Ich merke jetzt, wie wichtig das war. Als ich schließlich auf die Fähre nach Split steige, bin ich froh, dass noch sechs Stunden Sonne, Wind und Wasser auf mich warten, bis ich in Split ankomme und mich der Nachtzug wieder Richtung Norden und Richtung Alltagsrealtität bringt.

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