There is much I would like to accomplish in Germany, but there was only one thing on my list that I had to do: Hamburg. By that, I mean visit Hamburg and absorb as much of its magic as possible without it becoming too real. My interest in Hamburg has been growing for years now, due in large part to films by director, Fatih Akin. Akin is a Hamburger, and many of his films are set in Hamburg. Akin’s films are gritty, powerful and beautiful. I have watched one of them, Gegen die Wand, at least ten times while conducting my M.A. research. I will watch it again and again for the rest of my life. Every time is like meeting an old friend for a beer in some dark, cozy bar. I had to get to Hamburg.
I had met another ETA at orientation named Carolyn. Carolyn also wanted to visit Hamburg. She contacted me at the end of September and suggested we go during fall break. She had arranged for us to stay with a friend’s relatives. I was in! I met Carolyn in Oldenburg, and we left from there on the following day. We made it to the train station with about six minutes to spare. After jamming bank cards and BahnCards into the ticket machine, examining the departures board and copious amounts of expletives, we boarded the train. There were no seats, and the entryways were crowded, so we began our search for a place to sit.
While looking for free seats, we also discussed our route. I had seen on the ticket machine that we needed to change in Bremen, but we had not printed the exact route details. The train stopped at both Bremen/Delmenhorst and Bremen. We overheard a group of German soldiers discussing their trip to Hamburg, so we asked them, and they told us Bremen. We thanked them, and continued our search. Two cars later, we gave up, took off our backpacks, and sat on the stairwell. As the train approached Bremen, the soldier we had asked appeared next to us. He had come through two train cars to find us, just to make sure we knew where to go, and promptly left, lest he seem creepy. Many thanks, kind German soldier!
Carolyn and I finally made it to Hamburg without incident and went to drop off our luggage first. Our lodging was at the last stop of one subway line (U1). There are so many things to love about Hamburg, but one of the best is the city’s proximity to nature. I love that you can leave the subway station, walk on a dirt path through a horse pasture to a house with a garden, all within the city limits. (Side note: Bill Bryson has a great discussion about the difference between American and European views of Nature in A Walk in the Woods.) After devouring bowls of homemade pumpkin soup, we headed back into town, to the part called Sternschanze.
The Sternschanze was so great we ended up there several times during the visit. We visited a baked potato restaurant called Kumpir König(delicious!), and a record store, where the sales clerk flat-out refused to give Carolyn a recommendation on a record or an opinion on music in general (weird), as well as several shops. I purchased a giant bottle of Sriracha, as well as a copy of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, to round out my Hansestadt-themed fall break.* After a few beers, we headed home to prepare for what would be a very long Saturday.
One Hamburg tradition is the Fish Market, Fischmarkt, which takes place on Sunday morning. The thing to do is to party all night Saturday, and then go to the Fischmarkt, which was exactly what Carolyn and I intended to do. Still, we didn’t want to waste a day by taking it easy. Instead, we crammed our Saturday full of activities, including a visit to the Kunsthalle for the Max Liebermann exhibit, Quan Do, a Vietnamese restaurant for a steaming bowl of Pho with tofu and bok choy, and a walk along the Binnenalster to the Elbe. We also attempted, quite unsuccessfully, to quasi-stalk Fatih Akin. All I really wanted was a photo of the sign for his production company, corazon international. OK, I was secretly hoping catch him as he was locking up for the day, which would lead to discussing his films over beer, followed by a job offer. Because I never invent ridiculous scenarios in my head. ANYWAY, We found the address, but it was just a generic office building. It didn’t even have a sign. I was disappointed, but I also love It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. If that show has taught me anything, it’s that not having a sign makes places cooler. (See season 7, episode 8 “The Anti-Social Network”)
On Saturday evening, we met up with the other Fulbrighters in Hamburg. They turned out to be such a fun group. After dinner, we went to a bar called Katze in the Sternschanze. Then, we ended up at a birthday party for the friend of a friend. The party was excellent, and well-attended by the attractive and mostly-Spanish expat set. Carolyn and I hung out for a few hours, and then it was off to the Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn is Hamburg’s red-light district. It has everything you would expect, including dance clubs, strip clubs, bars, prostitutes, and a Burger King. After an excellent Döner, we had a beer in one bar, watched a 3-on-1 fight in the street, stepped over a used syringe, went to Rosi’s Bar, went back to the first bar, and then went to hang out in the subway station to get warm. Carolyn and I received several invitations to various gentlemen’s homes; some people are so friendly!
When it was finally late/early enough to go to the Fischmarkt, we left the Reeperbahn. Oddly enough, we walked behind two guys who were discussing their plans to come to Damme for Carneval. I decided I didn’t feel like talking to them, but it was cool to hear my town mentioned. When we made it to the Fischmarkt, we realized it had all been worth it. You could buy anything there at the outdoor market: fish, sausage, pastry, bread, T-shirt, dental equipment, tacky souvenirs, beer, fruit baskets, etc. Inside one of the buildings, there was a blues band playing for a crowd of at least 200 people. Unlike the 20-something Reeperbahn party scene, which has the sort of seedy, depressing hung-over feel you would expect, the all-ages crowd at the Fischmarkt was happy, upbeat and dancing despite having been drinking all night. Some people even had their kids there.
I think it was a combination of exhaustion, lighting and finally being warm enough to feel my toes, but something made me deeply sad inside at the Fischmarkt. The cloud that had been nagging at me for the entire trip finally broke. Carolyn and Sir Quacks-a-Lot are terrific traveling companions, but I was having a hard time experiencing so many incredible new things without George. I was not the feeling I notice day-to-day when I am at school, because George is never with me at work. Instead, it was the realization that having interesting stories to share with one another on the phone could never replace sharing the adventure. I needed to leave. Carolyn was also falling asleep on her feet, so we left.
I felt better later on Sunday after some sleep and a shower. We went to Spicy’s Spice Museum (awesome!) to explore one aspect of Hamburg’s trade history: the spice trade. It is small but great. Then, we went for a walk in the Speicherstadt, with its old warehouses, and then to Dialog im Dunklen (Dialogue in the Dark). At Dialog im Dunkeln, visitors go on a tour of the “city” in complete darkness with a vision-impaired guide. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend a visit. We concluded Sunday with dinner with the Hamburg ETAs at the Vietnamese place. On Monday, it was back to Damme with my chili sauce, novel and two newly-acquired beer glasses.
Hamburg now ranks among my favorite places. It’s definitely in my Top Five. I cannot wait to go back.
Thanks to Carolyn, Margaret, Wes, Jessica, Keriin, Keriin’s friend, Keriin’s friend’s friends, Barbara and Uwe for a wonderful trip!
*I also spent one day in Bremen with my colleague, N.G. She was gracious enough to show me around, teach me some Bremen lore, and drive me home, despite the Armageddon-style rainstorm. Vielen Dank, N.G.! Wir haben den Tagesausflug doch ohne Badeanzüge geschafft! 😉
To Do in Hamburg:
- Kumpir König (baked potato restaurant)
- Quan Do (Vietnamese restaurant)
- Hamburger Kunsthalle – Hamburg’s “main” art museum
- Spicy’s Gewürz Museum – Spicy’s Spice Museum
- Dialog im Dunkeln – Dialogue in the Dark, Hamburg (also in other countries!)
- Altona Fischmarkt
- Hoffski Müslibar – The müsli looked amazing, but go for the cappuccino+cake deal for €4.20
Vegetarian, Vegan or Veggie-Friendly Eating