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The Things I Love About Poland – Part II

I guess we all have countries which make us feel at home more than others. My parents, for example, love Greece, and they feel imbalanced when they don’t go every year. Most people get that. Greece has beaches, and islands, and ouzo, and lots of pretty old ruins. When I speak about Poland with that same affection, people just give me disbelieving looks. But guess what. Poland has beaches! And lakes! And vodka! And TONS of pretty old ruins – and pretty old buildings that are still whole, or have been restored beautifully.

Dlugi Targ, Gdansk, Poland

Długi Targ, the Long Market, in the center of my most beloved Gdańsk. Everything was in ruins here after World War II, but is shiny and sparkling today. I hear that Polands restorers are among the best in the world, and I believe that alright!

Last week I spoke about my love for the urban beauty of Polish cities, of the amazing sense of history in the country, of the hospitality I have met and the friends I have found, about the enchanting melody of that beautiful strange language, and about Polish music that has touched my heart. As if all this wasn’t enough, I have more reasons why my eyes light up when I talk about Poland. And I am not afraid to tell you about them.

6. The Landscapes

How could I speak about the cities and not equally enthusiastically mention the landscapes! From the Baltic Sea and the Mazurian Lakes in the North to the Tatra Mountains and the softer Plains in the South, the country really has it all.

Szczytno, Poland

Szczytno in the Mazurian Lake district enchants with a beautiful sunset.

Rozanka, Poland

Różanka in Lower Silesia offers pretty views and is very close to the Sudety mountains.

Poland even has the last European jungle in the Northeast which is high on my bucket list as I haven’t managed to see it yet. The wild bisons that live there, the żubry, have been namesake to both the beer żubr and the vodka żubrówka. Who wouldn’t need to see them now? One of the things that make Poland such an amazing country is definitely its diversity. From beach vacations by the sea to skiing in the mountains, you can find everything your travel heart desires here.

Sopot, Poland

Didn’t I say there were beaches? If it is this pretty in winter, just imagine how amazing the pretty spa town of Sopot must be in summer!

7. The Food – and the Vodka!

Ah, the food. I am not a huge foodie, but Polish food has me salivating. For one thing, don’t expect to ever go hungry in Poland. Generally, there is too much food for a person to handle, even if it is so delicious that you never want to stop eating. The Polish are big on soups and stews from żurek, a sour rye soup, to all kinds of vegetable soups (especially try barszcz, a beetroot based soup), to bigos, a heavy cabbage stew that will warm you on a snowed in winter’s night (because yes, it does get cold in Poland). I can never get enough of wątróbki, poultry livers served with apple and onions, and of the famous pierogi, dumplings that come filled with all sorts of different stuffings. If you can get someone to make them from scratch with you, you will never want to cook anything else at home anymore.

Making Pierogi in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland

When I lived in Bystrzyca Kłodzka in Lower Silesia, we made Pierogi in the group of international volunteers with our Polish teacher. And my, were they yummy!

Of course a good Polish meal is not complete without good Polish vodka. No other beverage have I been drunker on. But if you drink the good kind and don’t mix it with cheap kinds, you will not even be hungover. I’m fairly sure I don’t even have to talk much about it. If you go to Poland, one or two vodka incidents are without fail bound to happen. And even if you never liked vodka before, trust me and try it here. It is delicious and it certainly speeds up the process of making Polish friends.

Pear Vodka, Sopot, Poland

Doesn’t look like vodka? Ah, but it is! With pears! And it was beyond delicious. Never would I have gotten to taste it if my friend Karol hadn’t known the bar tender 🙂

8. The Literature

Adding to the Polish language having drawn me in with strange magnetic pull, I have also fallen hard for Polish literature. It was no love at first sight. For a long time I didn’t really have any favourite Polish authors or works. But the more I read, the more I wanted, and the better I knew the language, the more I loved what I was reading. Epic realist novels like Bolesław Prus‘ Lalka („The Doll“), masterpieces of absurdism by Witold Gombrowicz, amazing SciFi like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris and heartbreaking poetry by the nobel prize winners Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, and the great feminist novelists of today, like Olga Tokarczuk and my very favourite Joanna Bator – the list goes on and on.

 

I have found myself in too many books to actually list here, they have been eye-opening for me. To give you a taste, I translated one of my favourite Szymborska poems for you.

Na lotnisku

Biegną ku sobie z otwartymi ramionami,
wołają roześmiani: Nareszcie! Nareszcie!
Oboje w ciężkich zimowych ubraniach.
w grubych czapkach,
szalikach,
rękawiczkach,
butach,
ale już tylko dla nas.
Bo dla siebie – nadzy.

At the airport

They run towards each other with open arms
Calling out laughing: Finally! Finally!
Both in heavy winter clothing
In heavy hats,
scarves,
gloves,
boots,
But only to us.
Because to each other already – naked.

9. The Sense of Humour

Poles are extremely friendly and set great store by hospitality, as I mentioned last week. But not only that. Man, those people can make you laugh! I don’t know wether it is because they haven’t had much to laugh about in history, but generally Polish humour is dark, dry, politically incorrect and screamingly funny. To be quite frank it took me a while to really get into it, but I’m just telling you to not be shy, take that stick out of your butt that has been shoved up there in whatever country you are from, and go ahead and laugh.

Browarnia, Gdansk, Poland

„A bar tender is no camel, he needs to have his drink too!“ – on a jar for tips in a much beloved Gdansk based bar. Yeah, sometimes the humour isn’t dark and twisted, but just cute 🙂

I was warned before watching the Polish cult film Rejs, „The Cruise“, that I might not get why it is funny. I never stopped laughing when I saw it. I wish I had found a subtitled version of this scene which is my absolute favourite. I can but hope that the body language of the cast alone will at least make you smile. The dialogue is hilarious.

10. The Swearwords

Closing on a high note here. Obviously there is one specific part of language, which in general I already discussed, that deserves extra attention. Almost any language beats German when it comes to swearing, we only have boring words that don’t do the somewhat violent melody of our language any justice. But cursing in Polish is pure poetry. It is so emphatic and creative. I know you expect better of me, the academic, but I dare you to have a Pole teach you how to curse and your life will never be the same. There are actual linguistic studies on the fact that German cursing is usually related to fecies (shit) while Slavic cursing is related to sex (fuck). There is nothing as relieving as uttering a heartfelt kurwa jebana mać (a very emphatic „fuck!“, but literally something like „damn fucked bitch“). And the most brilliant thing is: They use swear words for affirmation and celebration as well – as in zajebiście, which means „awesome“, but literally „fucked“.

Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland

I called the little town of Bystrzyca Kłodzka my home for 6 months. There was nothing spectacular about it. But it is Poland. Therefore, it is home.

Having said all of this, I feel once more ever so grateful for my blog. You don’t understand how even thinking about all these things made me so happy. I think back on all the places I have seen in Poland, and all the ones I am yet to discover. There is no other country except for Germany that I know so much about, and yet I don’t know nearly enough. I want to see more, know more, understand better.

You know how when you travel and get cash from the ATM in a foreign country, you try to calculate so you won’t get too much as to not be stuck with foreign currency at the end of your trip? In Poland I never do that. I always take out any decent amount I feel like taking out. If I have Zloty left over at the end of my stay, I will just spend them the next time around. It is never far away.

Which country makes you feel at home? Why do you love it so much, and do people understand your love for it?

The Things I Love About Poland – Part I

My self-imposed focus when it comes to travel and thus, to writing (since most of the time one means the other for me) is Eastern Europe. How that came about is a long story. But one part in it is certain: that it all starts – and possibly ends – with Poland.

I would be lying if I said I had always had a fascination for that part of the world. When asked on a study trip in high school, I distinctly remember saying: „What in the WORLD would I want to see in POLAND?!?!?“ I went to Greece instead, which was nice. But it is no Poland.

Pasym, Poland

Pasym, a beautiful small town in the Mazury Lake District

How did my love affair with Poland come about then? In college I needed a second major adding to the one I had always known I wanted to get – German literature. I chose Polish. One of the questions I must have been asked most in my life is certainly: „Why Polish???“ – usually asked with an undertone of utter disbelief. Well, it was a mixture of random reasons, but really, most of it was gut feeling. And the older I get, the more I believe that this is a better reason for decisions than most others.

From then on, it all just added up. Poland and I are, in a way, meant to be. I’ve come to love it more and more. And here is why.

1. The Cities

Poland’s cities are special. They are different from the cities I have seen elsewhere – they are beautiful and ugly, and full of atmosphere and history. And they are very different from one another. That is best displayed in contrasting Warsaw and Cracow – without feeding on the rivalry between the two. They compliment each other in the best possible way – Warsaw is grey, progressive, and full of hipster culture and modern art. Cracow is traditional, conservative, and insanely pretty.

Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw’s Palace of Culture – a gift from Stalin to the country and an impressive example of socialist architecture

Sukiennice, Cracow, Poland

Cracow’s main market square, the largest medieval square of its kind in Europe, with the beautiful Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)

Travelling in Poland, one should obviously not neglect the other urban gems, though. Wrocław might be the most accessible city for foreigners, and it somewhat combines the best of the two previously mentioned cities. Gdańsk has the added selling point that it is right by the Baltic Sea and, as an old hanseatic port city, has a tradition of being very open-minded and down-to-earth. Poznań may have the prettiest market square I have ever been to. And I haven’t even been to Łódź or Lublin. Indulge!

Market Square, Poznan, Poland

Poznan’s beautiful market square

2. The Sense of History

When travelling in Poland, it is impossible to miss the active memory culture that the country has. Memorials are all around. For a history freak like me, that is just plainly wonderful. Poles generally know their country’s history much better than Germans from my experience. They are aware of their country’s proud past as a mighty kingdom in the middle ages, and their painful loss of territory which forced them to exist as a nation without a country between 1795 and 1918. They have been in an unfortunate geographical position in the 20th century, wedged between the Germans and the Russians, and it has shaped their identity. They have fought for their culture time and time again, and they are proud of it while still being critical of it. And they know that it is important to remember the past.

Shipyards, Gdansk, Poland

Memorial to the victims of the strikes in the Gdansk shipyards in 1970. Most of the fight against the socialist regime was yet to come. The memorial was one of the early achievements of the Solidarnosc movement that contributed significantly to the downfall of socialism in Europe.

3. The Hospitality

None of the above would mean a lot if it wasn’t brought to me by the most hospitable, caring, genuinely kind and wonderful people. If for a woman the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, for a country the way to my heart is through its people. Hospitality in Poland is of dimensions that were unknown to me before I came there. They are so much less distrustful than Germans are. Don’t be surprised if you ask someone for directions and they walk you to your destinations. Don’t be surprised either if they invite you to their home for dinner – and don’t say no. I’m getting to the food in the follow-up post! In short, it is easy to make friends in Poland – and you will want to make friends there if you want to truly see through the more complicated dimensions of the country’s history and culture and get to taste the truly amazing vodka.

Friends, Grudziadz, Poland

My friends Agnieszka and Karol are among my favourite people in the world. I met them in Gdansk, but this was when Karol took us on a roadtrip to visit his hometown Grudziadz.

4. The Language

Ah, that singsong sound of the Polish language with all the freaky consonants and a few nasal vowels. That grammar that drove me up the wall when I learned it, but is capable of expressing things so precisely, so uniquely, most of all so differently from German. The germanisms like wihajster, literally whatshisname and used for any random thing you can’t find a name for; and the anglicisms with their weird spelling that turns manager into menedżer.

I have been learning Polish for ten years, I cursed it and loved it, and was always pretty sure I’d never actually be able to speak it. But I’m getting there, one tongue twisting hell at a time, and loving every step of the way.

Signs in Gdansk, Poland

German – Polish – English. How I love it when translations come out all weird and funny as they do in this German sign outside a ramshackle building. It sounds as though the building was a person, verbally threatening to cripple or kill the visitor.

5. The Music

When learning a language as twisted as Polish, music is of huge help. I know about half my Polish vocabulary from song lyrics – singing along, trying to understand what’s going on, sometimes actually translating the lyrics at home at my desk. Over the years I have been in touch with Polish pop, rock, rap, reggae, folk, and basically everything in between. I will just give you a few examples here. The Polish equivalent of the Rolling Stones is the rock band Dżem. Their song „List do M“ was the first Polish song I knew by heart, and it is a beautful and sad rock ballad.

A specific kinf of music I got to know in Poland is Klezmer. It is a Jewish musical tradition, not so big on lyrics, but mainly instrumental, using different instruments to make beautiful, yearning, sighing, swinging music played often at celebrations of any kind. The band Kroke may be the most famous Polish Klezmer band.

My personal favourite is the Polish singer / songwriter tradition that brought forth many wonderful artists I listen to almost every day. It is quite folksy, and if we translated the lyrics, most would run away screaming for they drip with Kitsch – but in Polish, they somehow work. There is a tradition called Poezja śpiewana, Sung Poetry, that is especially well known for its poetic song lyrics. Jacek Kaczmarski, whose most famous song „Mury“ I put here for you, is a bit of a special case. His songs are much more political, and he is often referred top as the Barde of the Solidarność, the trade union and political movement that brought down socialism in Poland.

If you find I am missing things, rest assured that I will probably mention them in my follow up post on more things I love about Poland. It will discuss the landscapes, the food (and the vodka…), the literature, the beauty of Polish swearwords, and the incomparable Polish sense of humour.

Have you been to Poland? What do you love about the country? Or was there anything you didn’t like at all?

Photo Hunting in Gdansk

My thing will always be writing. Going somewhere, slowly walking about, trying to take in the space with all my senses and transforming the feeling that I get into words. It is a somewhat sacral act to me. And while I love music and art in general, what I truly am is just a writer.

Yet what would be a more perfect place to elaborate my skills of visual artistry than Gdansk – one of the places that I have tried to capture in words several times, a place I love and cherish, and that I can never get enough of? When I set out with my camera to capture the essence of this true love of mine in photos, I am sure that looking for images that respresent Gdansk to me will open up new perspectives to me and, in turn, inspire my writing anew. And so it does.

Dlugie Pobrzeze, Gdansk, PolandThe crisp winter air is painful in my lungs because it is so cold. Yet I breathe it in deeply as I walk along Dlugie Pobrzeze, the street that lines the Motlawa River, enjoying the crunching sounds the snow makes beneath my feet. The sun is mirrored in the frost and makes everything glisten. I turn right on Mariacka street.

Mariacka, Gdansk, PolandI have always had a thing for this street with its beautiful houses that have strange little front buildings: stairs leading up to terraces from which you enter the houses. I think I have read about their history somewhere, but I forgot what it was. The street is narrow and, now in winter, it is wonderfully secluded and quiet. The way the sun hasn’t reached the street, but only the church that you see in the very end (the largest brick stone church in the world), makes it a more magical little alley, all toned in shadow. Like from a Harry Potter movie.

Details on Mariacka, Gdansk, PolandMaking a turn, there are yet more details to discover. Cast-iron grates. Little pillars. Lanterns screwed onto otherwise unremarkable houses.  Small things that don’t mean anything to your regular by-passer. But I like the way the pillar has that round little nub on top, and I like the leave ornaments moving down from it. I like the grate with its twists and unobtrusive beauty. I like the lantern on the wall, old-fashioned and reminiscent of gas lantern times.Details on Mariacka, Gdansk, PolandLantern, Gdansk, PolandThe turn from Mariacka street has brought me to a little alley that leads right up to the Long Market. This is the core of the old Gdansk. This is where its classic beauty manifests. This is also where it sometimes feels like Disneyland, because after World War II none of this was there anymore. It was all re-made. But I never had the fake feeling here like I had it in Wroclaw or Warsaw. I just think it’s beautiful. It is not my favourite place in the city (we’ll be getting there). But it make my heart wide to stand in sight of the town hall. Town Hall, Gdansk, Poland Looking further up the street, beautiful house borders beautiful house. You’ll find the best Bar Mleczny, Milk Bar, on that street, to the left. It serves delicious Polish food for virtually no money. I love how in this picture I captured the old couple holding hands. I want to walk in a city I love with someone I love, with this natural intimacy on display, when I am that age.  Long Street, Gdansk, Poland Back toward the river, I walk through the Green Gate onto the Green Bridge and turn, and the view that opens up is what makes this my favourite place in Gdansk’s Old Town. View from Green Bridge, Gdansk, Poland But to tell you the truth, I honestly think that if this was all that Gdansk was I wouldn’t love it as much. I would think it too clean, too tidy, too dressed up or perky. I love it because it also has a very different side.

The next day (which you will be able to tell by the weather change in the photos) I go with my friend to Dolne Miasto, a slightly less central, but especially less wealthy part of town. Actually it is just across the Green Bridge and thus very close to the pretty Old Town. But here the streets aren’t well kept and the houses are run down – with few exceptions.

Dolne Miasto, Gdansk, PolandThe houses here have the exact same potential for beauty, but for some reason gentrification doesn’t hit. There is no sensible reason for that, but laws of market seem to work differently in Poland from Germany. Surely the beautiful Kamienice, secession houses, would be renovated and rented out for a LOT of money if this were in Munich, Berlin, or Hamburg.

Dolne Miasto, Gdansk, PolandI adore this picture. It shows the place in all its morbid beauty. The brick stone. The balconies. The way time has gnawed its way into the cold stone. And the woman in the red coat carrying home her groceries on the slippery snowed in sidewalk.

Dolne Miasto is also where there is wasteland left in the middle of the city. Economically that is not good, not smart for the city I am sure. But I like it because it opens up potential as of yet unfulfilled. Once the potential will be fulfilled, this won’t be half as interesting a place anymore. Ironic, I know. But my heart wants what it wants – morbidity and wasteland.

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And things are changing already. Walking back towards the Old Town, with a beautiful view onto the towers of Mariacki church and the town hall, there seems to be construction work going on at the Island of Granaries that cuts through the Motlawa River. But now, all snowed in, the place looks as morbid and out of time as the wasteland above. The ruin of the old granary adds to that. Fugitive. Momentary. Perishable. What a strange thing time is, and how sweetly strange it is when it is visible like this.

Island of Granaries, Gdansk, Poland

Sopot on a Winter Day

Sopot. I first got to know it by its German name Zoppot which sounds so much harsher and less accessible than the soft-sounding, sinuous Polish equivalent. Thinking about the place has come to evoke pictures in my mind of when it was a German spa town and people would come here to enjoy their summer retreat, or as the German old-fashioned expression goes: Sommerfrische, a word I love and that translates to summer freshness. I blame that on the beautiful books I have read that are set here and that paint pictures of a distant past that are coloured in the soft tones of patina.

Baltic, Sopot, PolandI have never been to Sopot on a hot summer’s day when the pier costs an entrance fee and the beach must be overcrowded with tourists. My personal associations with the town are not ones of summer freshness. I have, however, been here in the winter. So far most of my visits were accompanied not only by great cold, but also by grey skies. I always liked it anyway because I love the Baltic in all its shades of grey. But the last walk I took through Sopot on this crisp winter day was special. And I will try and share some of my impressions with you.

I walk around the last house that seperates me from the open view ontop the sea, and as I pass the corner, my heart jumps, as it does when I see the Baltic – my favourite sea.

Baltic, Sopot, PolandWhen I finally set foot onto the beach, I can hardly see anything because I am blinded by bright sunlight, mirrored by the snow that has covered the sand in a pocketed white blanket. Wind is making my eyes tear up, and the cold is crawling into my sleeves as I take off the glove and reach for my camera.

I make my way toward the Sopot pier, the longest wooden pier in Europe with its old fashioned ambience. It invites for strolling, dandering, sauntering. If only it wasn’t around -16 degrees today.

Pier, Sopot, PolandLooking North toward Gdynia, the water is smooth as glass and reflects every soaring seagull, every ray of sunlight. To the South, toward Gdansk, the is greyer and less calm. The thick wooden stilts the carry the pier are entirely frozen over with a dense icy coat that produces funny looking outgrowth. They look like mammoth legs.

Pier, Sopot, PolandThe day is blue and white. I cannot even fathom what it could be like in the summer. The idea of green doesn’t seem to fit. This place belongs in the clear and transparent colours of winter. Even the clouds play along with it. Big and white, with silver-grey linings, they collect just above the horizon as though they wanted to cushion the bright blue skies. Looking left and right, the Baltic has frozen over, and a thick layer of snow grazes the ice. Poeple are walking on it.

Snowed in Baltic, Sopot, Poland Snowed in Baltic, Sopot, PolandIt looks a little bit like the froth that waves make. In the original fairytale of the Little Mermaid, when mermaids die, they lose their soul and become froth on the sea. Such a melancholy thought. The little mermaid herself gains immortality for her undying love and joins the spirits of the air. I am sure she is around somewhere.

Walking along the beach it looks surreal how at times it is the sand covering drifts of snow, then again it is snow that overcasts the sandy beach. Different animal tracks can be seen on the untouched surfaces, mainly birds‘. The bare branches are dark and dead against the intense winter colours, but there is life all around, if only it doesn’t always show itself openly.

Beach, Sopot, Poland Beach, Sopot, PolandWhen dusk is setting, the light changes. The colours grow warmer, but the temperature goes colder yet again. Little flakes of ice are in my scarf just below my mouth – from breathing. The light fades, but the beauty is increasing. I find an abandonded boat on the beach. The sight of it sets free all the longing, all the craving, all the wanderlust I carry in my heart year round.

Beach, Sopot, PolandOnce more, I walk down the pier. Because I can. And because as heartfelt absolutely certain as I am that I am going to come back, as much does it pain me to say good bye. Every time. I walk the pier to the very end. On the ice cover in the marina, there is slight, weird movement. I only see it at second glance: The seagulls. They have cuddled up in a huge swarm and sit on the ice in a huge crowd, warming one another. It looks beautiful, a symbol of „united we stand“, of „together we are strong“.

Seagulls, Sopot, PolandThen, something seems to have disturbed them in their corner as suddenly they rise as one into the air. So many individual animals, yet moving in one swift movement, together, forming one body, and setting again as a breathing living cover onto the ice, onto the sea.

Seagulls, Sopot, Poland If this isn’t all too symbolic of my yearning for travel, my craving for flying and still having a home to come back to, of my wish to be myself in all my individuality and still have attachments to others, I don’t know what would be.

Green Bridge in Gdansk, Poland

There had to be a bridge in Gdansk. There was no way one of my favourite cities of all times did not have a bride. In all honesty, though, the most well-known bridge in Gdansk’s Old Town, across the river Motlawa, is not all that exciting. But when you cross it coming from the Old Town onto the Island of Granaries and then turn around to look back – that is when it is stunning.

Green Bridge, Gdansk, PolandThis bridge is called the Green Bridge, Zielony Most, as it leads up to the Green Gate, Zielona Brama. There has been a bridge in this place since the 14th century, while the gate was built in the late 16th century and, so I read, shows Flemish architectural influences – something I have yet to find out for myself since I have never been to the Netherlands.

I have to say that to me the gate is just very hanseatic with its red bricks. Also I quite like gates. In a way, they complement the idea of the bridge – they allow you to pass through somewhere. Of course they have another semantic component when they are closed. But I have never seen the Green Gate closed. Instead, it is always inviting with its four passage ways onto the Long Market and onto the Long Street – the gems of Gdansk’s Old Town. From the bridge you have a view of the Dlugie Pobrzeze, the street that lines the banks of the river Motlawa. In the summer souvenire stands are pressed up against each other there side by side. In the winter it is wonderfully empty and quiet. And cold. Seriously cold. But even the cold is different in Gdansk. It is crisp and genuine and of amazing clarity. Oh, the beauty.

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!

2013 in Bridges – A Review

My blog is all about bridges. If you follow me, you know that I put a picture of a bridge up on every Sunday in the category „Bridges on Sundays“. Quite a few of them have been from my archives, but there were also many I found this year – ever since I have started self-hosting, which I have just over a year now, I have been looking for bridges even more carefully than before. I will give you my favourites in a review of my year 2013. If you click on the bridge’s name above the respective picture, the link will redirect yo to the full post on the bridge.

1. Oderbrücke, Frankfurt (Oder) / Słubice, Germany / Poland

Oderbrücke, Frankfurt / Slubice, Deutschland / PolenI didn’t make it to Poland as often as I’d liked this year, but I did cross this bridge between Germany and its Eastern neighbour twice. This bridge makes me reflect history and appreciate living in a unified Europe today. And it makes me realize that I love Poland. A lot.

2. Karlshöhe in Stuttgart, Germany

Karlshöhe, Stuttgart, GermanyIn the post about this bridge I talk about my yearly meet-up with my three girls from grad school, and how we have crossed into adulthood together and on the way passed several bridges and overcome various obstacles. Friendship is such a valuable thing.

3. Bridges in Nottingham, England

Bridges, Nottingham, EnglandIn this picture, I see two bridges working together to make up a system of connections – a traditional stone bridge to the left and a modern steel one straigth across. There is not just „the“ one bridge to cross in life. There is bridge upon bridge upon bridge.

4. Abteibrücke in Berlin, Germany

Abteibrücke, Berlin, GermanyThis is the bridge to the so called Isle of Youth in the Spree River. When I posted the picture, I hadn’t even crossed it yet. I have now, and I regretfully say that I haven’t become more youthful to my knowledge. But maybe I am just so youthful altogether that I didn’t realize 🙂

5. A Bridge in Spreewald, Germany

Bridge, Spreewald, GermanyI found this to be a nostalgic bridge that seemed to me to bridge gaps between different layers of time. Still now I think it is a romantic place, as is the entire Spreewald which is full of bridges spanning the small canals.

6. Bridge at South Pond, Chicago, Illinois, US

South Pond, Chicago, IL, USI keep using this picture, but I have to say I love it because I know that I was so truly and deeply happy in the moment it was taken, and I think that shows in my smile. This was on my big trip this year, to Chicago, and the pictures shows how that city connects greenery and urbanity beautifully to create a whole.

7. Bridge at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois, US

Graceland Bridge, Chicago, IL, USThe small bridge at Graceland cemetery, a large, quiet and peaceful place in Chicago, seemed to me to be magical, enchanted, spellbound even. It led onto a small island where time seemed to stand still, and conversation with the deceased seemed to be possible.

8. Ponte Luís I in Porto, Portugal

Ponte Luiz I, Porto, PortugalPonte Luiz I in Porto may have been the prettiest and most impressive bridge I came across this year. The resemblance with the Eiffel tower is not entirely coincidental, as you will be able to read in the post. It was majestic, and made me fall in love with Porto.

Which one of my Bridge discoveries from 2014 do you like best? Did you come across a beautiful bridge in 2013 that I should put on my Bucket List? So you have any plans of crossing bridges – literally or metaphorically for the up-coming year?

Anecdotes – The Time I Met a World War II Witness

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

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

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

Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capture the Colour – Streetart Edition

I am not a photographer. I am slowly, ever so slowly starting to get a grip on perspective and lighting in a process of learning by doing as I am taking photos for the blog more and more; and I have recently understood that photo editing is something I cannot stay away from forever. But I am still self-conscious when it comes to my pictures.

All the bigger was my surprise that Julika of Sateless Suitcase (an enchanting blog everyone should follow!!) tagged me in theCapture the Colour Photo Contest. While I am most definitely not going to win anything (it must be a huge contest with God knows how many participants), I enjoyed the process of choosing five pictures for their specific colour – a new way of looking at photos and training my eye to see photography as artistry. I chose to show you pictures according to a theme, like I have seen others do it on their respective posts (Julika chose one city for each colour), and am showing you five street art pictures I took this year.

Red

Epplehaus, Tübingen, Germany

This is a former squat in Tübingen, Germany that is still a self-governed youth center. When I went to school in this cute little Southern German town, I would pass by here on my bike almost every day. I took the picture last March when I went to visit my alma mater. Most of the writing on the facade are slogans of the political left. Tübingen was an important place in the 1968 student movement, and I feel like this place is somewhat continuing that tradition.

Green

Lübbenau, Germany

This is actually a connection box for street lighting. They are usually just left grey and boring in Germany, but this one in Lübbenau, in the Spreewald region South of Berlin, has been turned into a little canvas for a cute little piece of art. And didn’t I have to love it all the more as it was depicting – a bridge!

White

Zaspa, Gdansk, Poland

Gdańsk Zaspa was my street art discovery of the year, and I have dedicated a whole article to it here. It is an area in my beloved Polish city Gdańsk where the socialist concrete buildings have been turned into overdimensional works of art. I love this one because it is so plain and yet so detailed with its sea of drowning houses.

Blue

Eastside Gallery, Berlin, Germany

I took this picture at the demonstration against the partial tear-down of Berlin’s Eastside Gallery. This is the street art you can see on the original Berlin wall – and the hole that was recently made in it in order for an investor’s plans for building large apartment and office complexes in the area. The Eastside Gallery is the longest connected piece of the Berlin wall that is still in place and an amazing document of history as well as an artwork of epic proportions. I hope it will keep being protected by the people and government of Berlin.

Yellow

Pilsen, Chicago, US

On my last day in Chicago, my friend Jesse took me to the predominantly Mexican-American neighbourhood of Pilsen for some excellent, excellent Mexican food and a blast of Latino culture. Getting off at the L stop at 18th Street (use the pink line!) alone was amazing – the station is covered in beautiful art that shows the cultural heritage of the inhabitants of this part of the city. I could have stayed and looked at the details forever.

This is my street art focussed colour contest contribution. Now I would like to tag Aggy of DreamExploreWander, Ulli of ansichtswechsel, Aryn of Driftwood & Daydreams, Aiko of Behind My Messy Desk and Mandy of Emm in London and invite all you great blogging girls to do the same and show us the colour in your life!

Everybody’s Darlings – and Why I Don’t Usually Like Them

I will now talk about places I have travelled to and did not actually like that much. This is something that doesn’t often happen on travel blogs, as Andrew recently pointed out to me. His words were something like: „Everybody always writes about places they like. No one ever says: ‚Don’t go there, it was horrible!‘ That can’t possibly be true.“ He’s got a point. Now I won’t tell you not to go anywhere, because everyone has to decide for themselves. But when you hear which places I do not like, you won’t believe me anyway.

There are these places in Europe everyone loves. When you mention them on a twitter chat, or at a hostel, or on your facebook page, or just randomly over dinner with travel-loving friends, the reaction will always be along the lines of: „Aaaah, I LOVED [insert place here]. It is so lovely in [insert season here]. I could totally live there, especially in [insert trendy neighbourhood in said city]. There is a place on [insert famous street here] that serves THE best [insert local food here].“

I have a confession to make: These places are usually the ones I am not so keen on.

Oberbaumbrücke, Berlin, Germany

Berlin sure is everybody’s darling, eh? I’m not debating this one.

Of course there is exceptions. After all, the city I live in, Berlin, tends to be in the list of said places. So do a couple of places that I have never been to, such as Paris, Barcelona, or Venice. While I do want to see these places at some point in my life, I am not all too fussed about them right now. I am sure they will be nice and all, but I’m just not feeling a great passionate urge to see them very soon. Because in the past, Everybody’s Darlings have not necessarily worked for me.

This especially goes for the three I am about to discuss now. I can already hear everyone screaming „Sacrilege!“ and „Impossible!“ and „How could she!“ Ah well. Please disabuse me of my notions in the comments. Here go the places in Europe that everyone seems to love except for me.

1. Prague, Czech Republic

There, I said it. I am not a huge fan of Prague. As is usually the case with things like these, I suppose the circumstances weren’t entirely in my favour. I went there as a weekend trip from my voluntary service in Poland with five other international volunteers. I was heartbroken at the time for several reasons and while I liked the group, I didn’t truly connect with the others as much as they did with each other, and they set much focus on the consumption of loads of beer while I wanted to see the city. Also the weather was quite chilly and grey that March of 2007.

Prague Astronomical Clock, Prague, Czech Republic

People dream of seeing the Prague Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square. I was semi-impressed.

While all that made it difficult to enjoy being in the moment, I found the famous Old Town Square to be ridiculously overcrowded and the famous clock to fall short of my expectations. I also noticed I should have done more research – relying on my travel buddies had not been a good plan because they basically just wanted to go from beer to beer. Generally for some reason I couldn’t hear the music in my heart that I had expected to.

I think Prague was overladen with expectations from my side that it could not live up to. Because of that, this one is probably at least partially my fault. I am willing to give Prague another chance. It’s just not very high up my list right now.

Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle is an admired and cherished place for many travellers.

2. Dubrovnik, Croatia

For most travellers who have been to Croatia, Dubrovnik has been one of their highlights. For me it was different. The first couple of times I went to Croatia, I didn’t even make it down there. I had planned on seeing it on my great trip through the Balkans and was always sidetracked by other places that struck me as more interesting – Bosnia, Montenegro, or even just the smaller places along the Dalmatian coast. I finally went to Dubrovnik on my way to the island of Korcula and stayed there for three days in late August 2011.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

You think this is gorgeous? So do most people.

Bad circumstances to add to my dislike in this case: It was unbearbly hot. I had been travelling for 10 days and hadn’t found back into the rhythm of it, I probably should have started out with just some chill-time. And then I got ill and spend a considerable portion of my stay there between my hostel bed and the bathroom.

But all these things aside, there were many things about Dubrovnik that just weren’t down my alley. For one thing, I found it ridiculously overpriced by comparison to what else I knew of Croatia, and have been around that country rather much. I also found the street vendors to be particularly aggressive. There was a moment of peace when I stood in the market and smelled the lavender that people were selling. At once I was pressed from three men in English and Italian to buy some – and the moment was over. No one spoke Croatian, and in general I didn’t see why people were so much more taken with the small alleyways and red roof tops here than in any other Dalmatian town, like Makarska for example – I had visited that in the midst of high season and totally crowded, but I still liked it loads better than Dubrovnik. I think Dubrovnik doesn’t live up to the beauty other Croatian towns have to offer. It is overrated.

Alleyway, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Cute alleyways in Dubrovnik – but hey, not any better or worse than those in Sibenik, Makarska, or Zadar.

3. Vienna, Austria

The last one on my list of only-okay travel destinations everyone else loves is the Austrian capital. I have been there twice each for a couple of days and while I suspect that if I hung out around more locals, I could have seen a different side of it, it all comes down to this: Vienna is too pristine for me.

Karlskirche, Vienna, Austria

Karlskirche is beautiful, sure – but I just feel it could be anywhere.

There are not even really any bad circumstances to this phenomenon – no connected bad memories of an emotional kind, no sickness, no weather issues. Vienna just doesn’t speak to me. It has this specific kind of beautiful that seems to me like the majority of the girls on Germany’s Next Top Model. Pretty on the outside, hollow on the inside. No edge, no character. Just this very neat, preppy, clean appearance. I never quite got behind it.

Now what probably didn’t help was that I had fallen in love with Krakow before I met Vienna. Now that Polish little sister of Vienna has the same Austro-Hungarian architecture and coffee house culture, the same turn-of-the-century morbidity and grand artistic tradition – but it is just ever so slightly more run down and truly old. I find it to be authentic. In Vienna I always feel like I wasn’t pretty enough. In Krakow I can be myself, out of style or out of fashion, and still love the city’s beauty and originality. Vienna is like a living room out of a magazine – pretty to look at, but who wants to live in the constant fear of spilling red wine on the white couch cushions. Against Krakow, it was bound to lose in my book.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria

Schönbrunn in Vienna – a fairytale kind of palace. I find it too clean.

I think all of this just proves how much about travel and discovery is about the chemistry between the traveller and the place, and how very much it is like falling in love. Some places – as some men – are perfect. But they’re just not for you.

What do you think? Do you disagree with me on my picks? Are there any places everyone loves that you don’t see anything in at all?

Hanseatic Beauty – Pearls Along the Baltic

On my blog I have repeatedly referred to the „hanseatic beauty“ of certain places. I have also frequently linked back my passion for this specific beauty with my home town of Hamburg and the stamp it has left forever on my soul. Now I don’t know how much anyone who is not acquainted with Northern Europe might be acquainted with what I mean by hanseatic, but I think everyone should be, because really, if a city is a Hanse city, in my book it is pretty much down as a must see travel destination.

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany – the city called the Queen of the Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League, or Hanse, was a trade union in the Middle Ages that linked together different port cities mainly in the Baltic, but also in the North Sea. Between the cities that were part of it, there were beneficial trade regulations and diplomatic privileges. They formed a network of support all over Northern Europe. In some ways, through their mutual history, they still feel obliged and connected to one another today. There used to be very many of them. In Germany, seven cities carry the name Hansestadt, Hanse city, until today: Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Rostock, Stralsund, Greifswald and Wismar. In other countries, well known cities that used to be part of the Hanse are Gdańsk, Toruń and Szczecin in Poland, Riga in Latvia, Tallinn in Estonia, Stockholm in Sweden, Antwerp in Belgium and Groningen in the Netherlands.

What all these cities share is that they have been places of trade, mainly sea trade, for centuries. That means one thing above all: They are all connected to the water. Every Hanse city is located either directly by the sea or at least by a river, and in every one of them water plays a great role when you look at the city’s general build-up.

Skyline, Tallinn, Estonia

View to Tallinn’s dowtown over the Tallinn Bay in the Gulf of Finland

Where there is water, there are certain other things. Like bridges!! Hamburg, they say, has more bridges than Venice. That might be due to the fact that Hamburg is just a lot bigger than Venice, but it only makes sense that Hanse cities should have a lot of bridges given that their key feature is being built close to water. I have written about some of them in this post on Riga and this post on Greifswald.

My second favourite symbol after the bridge may be the ship, signifying travel, movement, and freedom, and yes, of course there are lots of ships in Hanse cities. I love the port atmosphere of Hamburg’s huge and bustling port, the second biggest in Europe after Rotterdam, with its cranes and its overall industrial charm, just as much as I love the cosy and cute museum port in Greifswald with its old sailing boats and wooden masts. Size doesn’t matter in this one, as long as the sound of seagulls is to be heard.

Port, Hamburg, Germany

View of the cranes in the port in Hamburg, Germany – from the ferris wheel at Hamburg’s funfair Hamburger Dom

Next to the water, there is usually another specific feature of a Hanse city – the granaries. Where there was trade, there had to be places where to store the goods. In Hamburg there is a whole district called Speicherstadt – granary city. Now, what could possibly be so interesting about a couple of old storage buildings? The architecture!! The typical hanseatic granary is built from red brick stone. It is my favourite material, above all because it looks different and equally beautiful in any weather. In sunshine it will glow fiery, and in grey and misty rain it will keep its earthy, honest feel.

Waterfront, Gdansk, Poland

Waterfront with granaries in Gdansk, Poland

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Granary City – Speicherstadt – in Hamburg, with the brick stone granaries on the right

Not only the granaries feature red brick stone in Hanse cities. Most landmarks in any of the cities are made from this material. There is a style called Brick Gothic that is predominant along the Baltic Sea. This is of course because in this area, there were no natural stone ressources, but clay from which the bricks are burnt. Although this is not directly related to their hanseatic character, I love this style of architecture and it feels like home to me. Find a few iconic examples here:

Monastery ruins, Eldena / Greifswald, Germany

Monastery ruins of Eldena in Greifswald, Germany

House of Black Heads, Riga, Latvia

House of Black Heads in Riga, Latvia

Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany

Holstentor in Lübeck, Germany – Lübeck was called the Queen of the Hanse in the Middle Ages and the richest and most important city in the league

By these elements – water, ports, and red brick stone architecture – I would recognize a Hanse city at any given moment. But what also factors in my love for these places is the mentality of the people. We are talking about places here that have been connected to the world via trade for ages, and that have therefore acquired an international feel for an equally long time. The Hamburg coat of arms has a city gate on it – the Gate to the World, they say. The Bremen coat of arms holds the Key to this very Gate to the World. Hanseats take pride in being open, curious, and worldly. They are direct, engaging, honourable people who make their word count. Sometimes they come across as a little blunt or harsh, but the warmth they display given a little time is heartfelt and true. They will usually greet you with a handshake – but when they hug you roughly, you will know that they mean it. I know where I am at with Hanseats.

In my honest opinion, all of these cities that I have mentioned here are horribly underrated as travel destinations. Most of them are close to one or even several beautiful beaches that grant you delicious summer fun when you come at the right time of year and that won’t be as overcrowded as Mediterranean beaches. The cities all have a long and proud history and a rich cultural life, of course each in relation to its size. The people are generally friendly and curious for the world, used to visitors and open to whatever travellers have to contribute to city life. Personally, I may at times have trouble with German patriotism, and what I say now may go against all I have said about pride so far – but I am truly proud of being a Hanseat.

Have you been to any of these places? Do you think they make good travel destinations?

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