One of the many people that I talked to before coming to Germany had a long gestating book idea: a guide to being an Ex-Pat that he still someday wanted to write and publish. It is called "You are not on vacation." The primary thesis was that, from his point of view, most people coming from American and trying to live abroad thought that they were coming over to the continent to spend all day sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes or knocking out their evenings in the beer garten. Now this is an interesting thesis, but not one that I particularly feel speaks to me.
However, for 36 hours in Hamburg I had to try really hard to be on vacation. I wasn't in the mood, and I wasn't feeling my best, but I needed to use the train pass, and I was curious what Hamburg was like.
So I arrived around 4 on Wednesday. I immediately took a long walk, I had a short list of things I wanted to do, but my favorite type of tourism might be the least sexy. I just wanted to walk around and get the character of a new German city. What struck me quickly was how little I felt like I was in Germany. It felt far more British in look and International in nature. My friend Joe pointed out that Hamburg is at the edge of Germany, but it's at the center of Hanseatic shipping and commerce. This matches with my impression of Hamburg.
Probably the most famous aspect of Hamburg is the Reeperbahn, a street of permissiveness and vice, with small streets leading away where women will lobby pretty hard to spend an evening with you. I walked through this area early in the day, before shit got weird. I had a local beer, and walked through the Beatles Platz, and past the Indra Club where the Beatles played their first shows. I walked back through downtown, crossing over all the channels and through the interesting streets of Hamburg. I was exausted for some reason, so I wandered back to the hotel for a final beer, some writing, and a collapse.
I woke up in darkness, sure that I'd gone to bed too early and it was now 4 am and I had nothing to do but read long articles on the internet and practice German. As it happens someone had closed the curtains in our 6 person hostel room, and I realized it was 7. I'd slept 10 hours. I spent a lazy morning at the hostel researching, planning my day and drinking 4 cups of their weak coffee. Finally I was ready to come to grips with this city. A local had given me the tip not to pay 20 dollars for a boat tour, but to buy a daypass for the public transportation and take one of the public boats along the channel. Trying to find the public boat was fun, I had to pass literally dozens of stocky german men with cheap captains hats yelling "Hafenrundfahrt" at me. Finally covered in ads to musicals playing at nearby theaters I found Boot line 62.
30 Minutes up the river, it was really lovely, and the boat was lousy with school kids on a trip. I could ease drop on their conversations and understand pretty well, and every once in a while one of them would re-enact Titanic at the prow of the boat and another would sing "My heart will go on" in the strange inflections of a non-native english speaker. We passed old houses, big ships, and I saw a docked Russian U-Boot I wanted to take a tour of, but it was closed for refurbishment. At the end of the line I got off in a small village and wandered around for a few minutes, it was amazingly beautiful, but felt so un-German to me. More akin to Quadrophenia's dour port towns than the wild comfort of Bavaria. Hamburg was on my list of places to move because it's such a media city, but I'm glad I followed my heart.
Back on Boot 62, and on my way back to where I came. It was nearly lunch time and I knew I had to eat my first Fisch Semmel. These are easy to find in any German city, there's a huge chain called "Nord See" that will sell you a fish sandwich, but I've never felt excited about this long strip of fish hanging limply out of either side of a small roll. However, I was here on the water, and fish I would eat. It was delicious, I got out of my language depth a little, so I know had something smoked, but what it was precisely will forever be a mystery.
Next stop, the crown Jewel in my tour of Hamburg: Miniatur Wunderland. The world's largest Model Train set. Holy fucking shit. This is down in Hafen, an area of the city that used to be exclusively channels and warehouses, but it seems it's a lot of offices and some tourist attractions now, they have a "Dungeon" which is a chain of live theatre historical "themed” attractions I'm familiar with from England. I skipped that one.
I spent an hour in the waiting room for Minitar Wunderland. Yes, it is so popular there is a large waiting room where you can have a meal, watch videos, read books about Wunderland, and they even have free Soda. I sat, ate some fries, and had some Apfel Schorle. A quick survey indicated that there are no Apfel Schorle Cocktails. Considering how specific schorle is to Germany it seems odd. As a Cultural good will mission, I need to do some research on this.
Soon I was released into Wunderland. You navigate the gift shop and the full restaurant before you can begin. There's a short history of the attraction itself, some pictures of famous visitors (Larry Hagman!) and then you get a little appetizer. To get you into this microscale magic you get small self-contained scenes of major historical eras with German narration explaining each era's importance. Then you get 7 small dioramas covering the history of the Berlin Wall. Super weird. And then you are set loose in Wunderland!
It is huge, it's 2 stories, it's got massive areas themed after German states and other countries, the entire thing is on a day and night cycle so you can see all the little houses, trains and cars light up. The cars move along the roads on an ingenious trackless systems that took me forever to figure out. The model planes actually taxi across the tarmac and take off into a fake sky filled with painted clouds. It is 100% bananas. The American section is basically "Grand Canyon - Las Vegas - Florida" So something that we just lucked out in having and two of our worst concoctions. I hope that I can give some impression with photos of how crazy this thing is, but a youtube visit is well worth your time.
I took me a few hours to get through all of Wunderland so I emerged into a late afternoon grayness that made me need coffee. I also had the special Hamburg pastry "Franzkochen" which is basically unsweet bread with cinnamon and raisins. I really liked it. A friend had suggested that I check out a vintage store that sells clothing by the pound so I decided a long walk to that was my next move. It turned out to be kind of a bust. Next was a walk through a famous park called Planten und Blomen (plants and flowers). It was gorgeous and obvious that water is no concern here. At this point it was getting towards evening, and I was feeling a little starved for conversation, so I spent a while chatting on the phone and wandering the streets.
My cough still wouldn't let up, so I figured what I needed was a very spicy meal. A spicy curry. With my day pass for the public transport I could go anywhere in the city, and I found an interesting Inidan restaurant up north, so I took the u-bahn up. This are has an entirely different character than the city center. It feels like a quiet, clean, friendly New York City, of all places. I liked walking around this area much more. Far from the "Port City" vibe of downtown. No one was trying to sell me discount show tickets, a woman, or a Rundfahrt. I conducted my entire meal transaction in German, and I explained that I was sick and I wanted my insides fully incinerated. I was at an Ayurevedic Indian restaurant, the cute waitress was happy to oblige. I asked her if I was ordering spicy (scharf) would my meal be "Deutsch Scharf oder Indisches Scharf." I'm not sure she took my meaning, but she warned me my meal would be very spicy. I have been told that German don't know the first thing about spiciness, but the chefs at this place weren't German. I had an amazing curry of chicken, paneer, fruit, peanuts. My brow was dripping, my nose was running, and I was so pleased. I finished around 8:30, thanked the staff probably a bit too much, and then I decided I should see the Reeperbahn at full power. I also wanted to sit in the room the Beatle's played their first shows in.
The Reeperbahn at dark was entirely different. I'm sure this was also compounded by the Reeperbahn Festival which has begun that night. I walked through a little tent village of show poster silk screeners. I heard almost exclusively english in this area. I walked past a few desperate bands playing at a largely indifferent crowds. I found myself on a back street passing all the AV trucks supporting the shows in the clubs, and then I unwittingly turned down the street with the prostitutes. I saw a guy ahead of me say "no" a few times and kind of dodge and weave, so I figured that was a good strategy, and I needed a strategy.
I was just walking around looking around and I accidentally made eye contact with a woman in a leather jacket and tall, hugely furry boots. I realized later this is the cold weather uniform of Hamburg's ladies of leisure. The first one excitedly called "Harry Potter!" at me, and sidled in, I played up my cough and croaked "nein, nein." She knew a loser, and moved on. I think another offered "bumpsen" which sounds like slang to me, but I need to look it up. I was nearly at the end of the gauntlet when one took a good look at me and said "Jesus! Where are you going?" I laughed enough to start a round of coughs.
Once through that street I though I was fine, but really I had only gotten to the sex clubs. Behind me were the independent contractors, and ahead where the real pros, hidden behind huge neon signs and signs advertising sex for 39 euros, these girls have men out front doing the luring for them. Only one really tried with me. I tried my "dont' speak german" routine, but he wasn't having it, he dove straight into English. I told him I was sick and on my way home, he said "have you tried a beer?" I said beer hadn't helped my sickness. He said "Have you tried a pussy?" I would have told him no, but I was laughing and coughing so much and he simply gave up.
I wish Hamburg had more to say about the Beatle's time here, but I don't think theres much to say, nor is any of it very nice. They were made to play relentlessly in terrible conditions here. I tired hard to imagine these kids, teenagers, clad in black, doing the dodge and weave through prostitutes trying to get to their first set. Hamburg’s "Beatles Platz" features silhouettes of the Fab Four directly opposite a 24 hour strip show.
Down the alley at the Indra Club, past the transvestite shows and neon signage, I was hoping to sit in a historic room and find some connection to something vaguely classy in this messiness. However, the Indra was an official venue for the Reeperbahn Festival, and I was not a badge holder.
It was 11, and I had an early train back to Munich, so I called it a night. Now I am here on the train very excited to be going to my new home, such as it is. I think I could have a good time in Hamburg had I been with people, or been in a more vacation frame of mind, but such as it is I had a fine time. I think I only just managed to be a decent tourist, but I enjoyed my time and got to see a new part of Germany.
Hopefully soon my cough will be gone, my energy will be back, and I'll be able to better appreciate things. This afternoon is supposed to be another trip to Oktoberfest. It's Friday and it's "The Italian Weekend" I'm not sure exactly what that means, but that's the warning I've gotten from everyone.