The Road Out

A fond farewell in the form of sugared strawberries to the host signals that it is time for me to leave Hamburg. But not before I took a ride around the neighbourhood in that bicycle that’s been the most solid thing I’ve ever ridden.

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There is much I am going to miss in this place – the bewildering slower pace of life that I’ve been leading for the past month, the fretful weather (though gorgeous when the air is cold and the skies are blue), the beautiful scenery and its varied suburban areas.

Learning a foreign tongue for so long and for so intensive a period here has momentarily left me bereft of the usually-decent grasp of my very own mother tongue. The pictures have already told part of the story. But let this tribute sum up the rest of the tale, written in the language that I’ve come here to study.

Fast 1 Monat lautete meine Adresse Othmarschen, Uhdeweg in Hamburg. Dank der Gastfreundlichkeit meiner Gastfamilie freundete ich mich innerhalb von kurzer Zeit mit dem Leben in Hamburg an. Nach kurzer Zeit erwiesen sich die Norddeutschen meistens auch als großzügig, hilfsbereit und sympathisch.

Am nächsten Tag nach meiner Ankunft in Hamburg fing schon der Kurs im Goethe-Insitut an. In meiner Gruppe waren 5 andere Teilnehmer, die aus den Niederlanden, den USA und aus Spanien kamen. Der Unterricht war eine große Herausforderung, und die Gruppe arbeiteten intensiv zu unterschiedlichen, und aktuellen (und auch interessanten!) Themen wie “Glück”, “Lüge” und “Heimat und Identität”.

Zu diesen Themen kamen auch die wichtigsten und kompliziertesten grammatischen Teile zur Wiederholung – wie der Konjunktiv II, Verben mit Präpositionen und Präpositionen mit Genitiv. 10 neue Wörter mussten täglich auswendig gelernt werden, und nach jedem Tag verlängerte sich die Liste in unserem gemeinsamen Tagebuch, was wir im Unterricht erfolgreich durchführten.

Im Laufe des Kurses verfassten wir Briefe und Interviews, unterhielten uns viel mit einander, und wir lernten einfach über andere Kulturen und Sprachen. Der Plausch während des Unterrichts ging nach dem Unterricht weiter, und handelte von unseren persönlichen Umständen in unseren eigenen Ländern. Die von den Kursteilnehmern präsentierten kurzen Referate aus den Traditionen ihrer Kulturen, waren für uns alle neu und unbekannt.

Ein typischer Tag fing um 9 Uhr morgens mit dem Unterricht an, und war um 1330 Uhr zu Ende. Anhand des Hamburgers Goethe-Institut Kulturbüro organisierten Freizeitaktivitäten, die nach dem Unterricht stattfanden, besuchte ich in knapp einer Woche fast alles, was sehenswert war.

Am Wochenende konnte ich mit einem von meiner Gastfamilie ausgeliehenen Fahrrad auch kurze Ausflüge nach Övelgönne, Blankenese und Altona machen. Gemeinsam mit den anderen Kursteilnehmern bekam ich auch die Gelegenheit, das traditionsreiche Lübeck zu besuchen und ausführliche Kenntniss über die Hanse zu erwerben.

In der Mitte des Kurses war Deutschland plötzlich im Fußballfieber. Pünktlich zur Fußball-EM war Hamburg schon in Partylaune. Schwarz-rot-gelb bedeckte Fußballfans liefen durch die Straßen und machten eine tolle Stimmung auf dem Heiligenheistfeld. Mit der Deutschen Elf feierten zehntausende und fieberten, als die Mannschaft ihr erstes Spiel gegen Polen siegte und das zweite Spiel verlor.

In Hamburg lief für mich das volle Programm. Die Vielfalt in Hamburg kann ich nur loben, z.B, als ich im Schanzenviertel und St. Georg nach einem Café mit internationaler Küche suchte. Und vergessen darf man also nicht, dass “die sündigste Meile der Welt”, die weltberühmte Reeperbahn, auch in Hamburg ist?

Ich war trotz des wechselhaften Wetters und der gelegentlich heftigen Hausaufgaben einfach sehr froh. Ich bin erst gestern zurückgekehrt, aber träume immer noch von Hamburg.

Down the Red-Brick Road

Brugge without the sandy footpaths, Brugge with the cold and volatile weather – that was Lübeck at first glance.

Günter Grass, many turquoise church steeples, the Hanseatic League, extraordinary architecture, Thomas Mann, and…marzipan – if I could only sum up Lübeck with several key words.

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A Schleswig-Holstein Ticket took the 3 of us to Lübeck during the second weekend of the course – the once-mighty fortress and capital of the Hanseatic League of merchants that has been remarkably restored and is now a UNESCO heritage site. Lübeck lost its greatness when the politics of the 16th -17th centuries overran the Hanseatic League’s political and economic influence, but not its shape.

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Characterised by the amazing number of church steeples concentrated in a small area, Lübeck’s old town was immediately recognisable the moment the train pulled slowly into the main train station.

“We are all Japanese tourists for the day,” moaned Jose, as we whipped out our cameras simultaneously as we reached the Holstentor, the cute (but somewhat lopsided) twin towers that were previously part of some medieval fortification that opened up to the Altstadt. It is also one of the 2 remaining gates to the city, the other being Burgtor.

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Having been in Lübeck for a day, I told him that he was pretty much qualified to be our tour-guide, and he agreed that it was easy indeed, to walk around and simply, give us all the wrong information about the historical events.

“Lübeck is…nice…but small. Hamburg is..nicer. Lübeck is still nice, nonetheless,” said Jose.

“How do you know that?”

“The people are more…provincial. They dress differently.” He affirmed after thinking through his reply rather carefully.

How does one respond to that?

“Sometimes, there could really be really worse things than being a photo-taking tourist,” commented Michael.

With that, I suddenly felt justified in (and brave) walking around with my camera in hand. A couple of hours spent in the old town pretty much covered all that I needed to see, and the number of red-bricked crow-stepped gabled town houses that was in the old town was rather staggering.

Who could forget the marzipan shop?

And don’t be deceived – the weather wasn’t that good.

Whizzing About

The architecture found in this place is enthralling, and the mood of the city changes according to the volatile weather.

There are places in Hamburg pretty enough to visit multiple times – Blankenese, Altona, St. Georg and the Schanzenviertel being some of them – of which I have done a fair bit by harassing store-keepers with my grammar errors and abysmal pronunciation.

The days slowly fall into a routine – until the discovery of a half-a-century-old bicycle that sits in the open garage opened a world of speed (next to the car of course) and exhilarating freedom that I have so intensely missed. There is a curious thrill present in the knowledge that someone else a long time ago (this bicycle belonged to my host’s grandmother) rode this precious piece of antique.

Admittedly, there is only a terrifying single, front brake on the right of the bike handle, and I resigned myself to slowing down at least 40m before any crossing or traffic light, until I was told that the older bicycles had a different braking system back in the good ol’ days. The back-pedal functions most practically instead as a brake – Look ma, no hands!

And with the bike, Altona is for conquest.

Altona and the Schanzenviertel have attracted a lot more attention in the past year or two, and have gained their rightful reputations as vivid, pulsing core areas with individually established boutiques and a mish-mash of wonderfully eclectic cafes that are traditionally, popular with students, immigrants and yuppies. The gentrification of these areas has also thankfully improved the seedy reputations these places once had.

St. Georg, on the other hand, lies adjacent to the main train station, and sit on the side of the outer Alster lake, and flies the multi-coloured flag proudly, (even the pharmacy is coloured that way!) signalling the alternative lifestyles led in this particular area. I love its equally eclectic feel and its diverse number of shops in the strip mall and the number of central asian shops (note: what is known as exoticism roughly translates to me as the burning of incense, and hand-made stuff from India or the Himayalan region) that has become quite the rage in Hamburg.

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Blankenese sits on the other end of the scale and reeks of either old or new money, and is about 10 train-stops but a world apart from anything else that I have seen here. Home to the celebrities and the unspeakably rich, this undulating part of Hamburg and its inhabitants live along a rather undisturbed riverbank, and show constant signs of irritation when visitors of any class of society other than the upper crust walk up and down their beloved stairways to the Elbe coast. The steep climbs have hopefully given that cardio burst that is so needed.

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The long stretch from Blankenese to the Övelgönne is lined by pretty houses whose inhabitants are most likely to be irritated with the high volume of human traffic that go past their doorway everyday.

The national obsession that the Germans have for the sand, the sun-tanning process, and the sea – in this case, the Elbe river with its view of the port has unfortunately become a poor substitute – lead them to a stretch of the river that has sandy banks, on which they sun themselves with a frightening fervour having ascertained in some way or other that they seem immune to UV-overexposure.

A Slow Reacquaintance

A confession: I have mixed feelings about the first week of the course. Some participants appear to be caricatures.

The Spaniard Jose M. (or rather Catalan – as he hails from Barcelona) in my class breathes alarmingly heavily, and looks like an emaciated, unkempt, unshaven, skinny and wavy-haired version of Cesc Fabregas. He speaks in a lackadaisical manner, but with amazing pronunciation, and developed a skin allergy on the third day.

The American Jakob S. speaks too fast with a Texan drawl.

The Spaniard Maria T. from Cadiz, in contrast, looks like a full-bodied flamenco dancer.

The retired Dutchman Willem U. appears to be always red-faced, and has brought his bicycle with him to Germany.

In an innocent introductory session on the second day of class, a partner-activity had us asking each other several probing questions, one of which was: “What fascinates you?”

The capacity for philosophical reflection appears great in Willem the Dutchman, a retired quasi-civil servant.

“As you get older, the arc of life…,” Willem waved his arm in an arc, “this is difficult to express even in Dutch.”

He tried again.

“As you get older, the cycle of life that you have experienced is in itself a source of fascination – in retrospect.”

“Is there a wish that you still hope to fulfil?” That was my next question, and I wondered privately if he still had dreams to fulfil, having lived a lot longer than I have, and having experienced much.

I felt humbled by his stupendously simple answer, in which the material (after which so many of us hanker after) did not seem to play any role.

“I have a 16-year old son, and we’ll be back in northern Germany in August for a 3-week bicycle tour. My dream is that we’ll both be sufficiently healthy, and able to enjoy the weather and the trip.”

The principle of enjoyment is key, he appears to imply, one that is at once a paradoxical examination of the ability to glean pleasure from the minutest things in the face of doubt, uncertainty and worry.

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Thus the compelling urge that sets me afoot early in the morning on my normal travels seems to have abated the moment I arrived in Hamburg and I question if it is the superficial familiarity I have developed with Hamburg since the last time I visited a couple of years ago. The accompanying frenzy that drives one to ‘do a jap-tourist’ is no longer there – and it is most probably attributed to the extended length of time that is spent here in which every day can be dedicated to exploring a small section in a fuller capacity that ordinarily disadvantages the nomadic backpacker.

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I have only done these so far, and am ignoring the nagging feeling that I should be doing a tad bit more (not forgetting that a pile of challenging homework lies in my bag as I walk around):

1. Altona
An attempt to walk to Altona, the fashionable district for yuppies led me instead to the St. Pauli district which opened up to the Reeperbahn, the sex shops/live peep shows signs muted and awkward under the glare of the sun. I did reach Altona in the end after taking the train and loved its feel immediately.

2. Othmarschen
The peaceful neighbourhood, as I have come to understand, is purportly one of the richest in Hamburg and the stretch that leads to the Elbe is one of the prettiest and most serene that I have seen in this country.

3. City Centre
The place that the tourists head for with a vengeance because of the numerous shopping opportunities. I reacquainted myself with the city centre and its circular Altstadt and some of its historical buildings – along with the impressive Jungfernstieg, Rathaus and its massive shopping streets that converge there.

4. Taking a bus tour around the city and around the Alster lakes.
There is a wistful thrill once you see the buildings and sprawling villa that line the most coveted spot in Hamburg – at the lakeside. The Alster panorama did not disappoint in the afternoon sun’s rays that turned the water a brilliant silver.

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I still have to:

– Visit Blankenese and see how rich people really live
– Visit Altona properly (and dine there) in that district that is known for its quaint shopping streets and the vibrant Turkish community
– See some musical or some opera
– Walk to Devil’s Bridge (and I’ll find out why it has such a name)
– Get to Lubeck in the cheapest possible manner and gawk at the finely preserved Hanseatic heritage
– Get to Kiel or Rugen somehow
– Walk around the Schanzenviertel and see the hype about it
– Get to the Dickensian Speicherstadt
– Wake up early one Sunday morning and catch the legendary Fish market (do I really want to put myself through the odour of fish at 5am in the morning?)
– Finish the homework for the day. I haven’t heard this word applied to me in ages.

Hamburg for Beginners

The 5-hour long journey to suburban Hamburg (Othmarschen) proved painful in the heat that seemed to follow me from Heidelberg, but was repaid in full by the hospitality of my host – HD, a divorced architect with an easy-going personality, 2 sons and a fat grey-brown cat (named Mollo), with a penchant for everything organic, even toothpaste. It seems thus, that my apprehensions about a repressed, curfew-loving and jail-oriented Gestapo-like person were for nothing. After a time spent orienting myself, I did find Othmarschen is indeed a pretty and peaceful place; a walk in the heavily tree-lined lanes along some impressive houses is nothing other than pleasant.

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For the umpteenth time in my life, I found myself housed in a cosy attic that is partially triangular, to which Mollo is a frequent visitor, and came down in a while to a dinner cooked by the host. Mollo watches many things and is probably unused to the vast amount of attention I pay to it, because of my fascination with cats, but have no ownership of any.

I think she likes the homey chaos in the house, for which the host is particularly apologetic.

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Another kind of chaos descended the next day in the Goethe-Institut Hamburg where it seemed that everyone wanted to register for a language course or other. The institute is situated in an impressive, red-bricked building opposite the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, across the Altmannbrücke, whose offices are shared among the Deutsche Post, the Spanish Institute Cervantes Instituto and a few other firms.

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To my bemusement, the class that I was placed in was pretty much an international group, and consisted of several other older participants from Spain, Holland, the USA and Canada, all of whom articulated themselves intimidatingly well, safe for the 2 Netherlanders whose strange Dutch-accented, R-rolling German made everything difficult to understand. The course was run by a tutor who wore the old-man´s singlet beneath his translucent white shirt and resembled a younger, flamboyant, brown-haired Elton John in his hippy days. He has a particular penchant for pronunciation and intonation, and has spent many an excruciating minute correcting the shape of our mouths.

A short Stadtrundgang brought us to some historic buildings, and having been immediately familiarised with the terms employed by the Hamburgers or the North Germans, we also learnt that the ‘Most Sinful’ stretch in the world was here – the (in)famous Reeperbahn, a street that is dedicated to all sort of carnal delights and promises a happy ending to the night, if you get my drift. I think I need to check this out for myself.

But as for now, I am stuck at home with a thunderstorm brewing outside, with a pile of homework to complete.