Food turned out to be less of a problem than in Berlin, oddly enough. There seemed to be lots of vegetarian restaurants, and we found a vegetarische imbiss at Schantzenstrasse and Susannenstrasse. I also got the impression that people were more friendly than in Berlin. Then again, perhaps it was my imagination, a side effect of my becoming more used to Germany. Josef had an original LP from the first release of Autobahn.
When Josef showed us to our rooms, I couldn’t help noticing the Spitfire. It was a model, painstakingly constructed from a kit. Unlike the models I had built as a child this one was painted properly, and of course it had the correct RAF insignia. It was in a glass display case next to a model of a Messerschmitt, and one of some kind of US fighter plane I didn’t recognize.
I’d always been more into tanks as a child. I had a book about them, and a die-cast German Leopard tank that I would frequently disassemble and reassemble. When we visited Bournemouth in 2003 I got to visit the nearby Tank Museum and admire their collection. If it was OK for me to have an interest in World War II tanks, I told myself, surely it was normal for a German of roughly my age to have an interest in World War II aircraft?
In fact, we soon learned that Josef had worked in the Navy, as a liaison officer for groups of British sailors. I tried to imagine being a German in charge of a bunch of drunken English sailors. He’d probably heard slurs I couldn’t even begin to dream up, but I didn’t particularly want to talk about them, and dodged a couple of conversational gambits.
After the weekend, we go to stay with Käthe and Herbert for a few days. They live in an old farmhouse in the Altes Land, south of the Elbe. It’s a fruit farm, growing apples, pears, plums, and probably a few other kinds of fruit in small quantities. Like many small European farms it’s 100% organic, with three modern windmills providing some of its electrical power needs.
Herbert speaks some English, but is self-taught, and a little hard of hearing. Käthe’s English is better. Still, I can’t help thinking that if I’d known that one day I’d be spending time in a farmhouse in Germany, I’d have paid more attention in German lessons. Not that it would have helped that much—when they’re talking to each other, Herbert and Käthe speak Plat Deutsch, modern Low German. It sounds like a mix of German and Middle English.
So I find myself surrounded by German and dialects of German, and for a while it makes my brain hurt. By late afternoon my language processing regions have spent hours trying to decode the strange noises around me and are tired out.
For our second day in Hamburg, rothko had arranged a German scrapbooking meetup. We got the bus into Harburg, then got onto the S-bahn to head into the city at around noon.
Just after we boarded the train, a young couple got on. I’d guess that they were in their 20s. He had short dark hair and looked as if he’d been awake for a couple of days; a slight sheen of sweat, disheveled clothes and a good dose of stubble. She was thin and tall, with red-streaked dark hair and various piercings. She was also clearly extremely drunk.
He sat down facing the same direction as us, one row ahead in the carriage. She swayed uneasily after him, dropped her bag on the seat in front of him along with a bottle of unspecified liquor, and then sat astride him, facing us. As the train started moving they began making out. After a few minutes she struggled with her belt and jeans for a while, and before long it was clear to everyone in the carriage that they were having sex.
Hamburg sits on the Elbe river, a few kilometers inland. A cunning tax dodge in 1189 propelled it into becoming Europe’s second largest port, and a world class red light district soon followed, surrounded by dive bars and seedy nightclubs. These days the city is keener to present the area through rose-tinted John Lennon glasses, omitting to mention that the Beatles played the Star-Club mostly because they couldn’t get a paying gig anywhere else in 1962.
The Elbe is apparently pretty deep, because the Queen Mary 2 was there. She’s the largest ocean liner in the world, making the Titanic look small in comparison. She takes around 7 days to cross the Atlantic, at a price of $1000+. Mind you, that’s not much more than we paid for our tickets, and if they have broadband on the ship I wouldn’t even need to use up vacation days on the crossing. I bet the food’s nicer than Continental. If they toned down the swanky ballrooms a bit and made it cheaper, they could have a compelling business proposition. But I digress.
We like to think that we are immune to propaganda. Yes, other feeble-minded individuals may allow their attitudes to be shaped by the media and their surroundings, but we’re sure that we are far too smart for that.
In 1975, John Cleese savagely satirized British attitudes to Germany, in the classic Fawlty Towers episode The Germans. After a blow to the head, hotel proprietor Basil Fawlty loses his ability to self-censor. While taking a dinner order from some German guests, he proceeds to blurt out the names of Nazis; eventually he descends into xenophobic ranting.
The sad thing is that after 30 more years, nothing much has changed.
Once it was decided that we were going to Hamburg, I decided to do some research and see if there were any of the famous Germans I knew of were from Hamburg. In particular, I wanted to know if any of the musicians or bands I’m a fan of happened to be from the area. The answer, unsurprisingly, was yes. Holger Hiller was born in Hamburg. He played in various local bands, founded a band called Palais Schaumberg, then went on to a solo career in which he created the first album to be constructed entirely of samples from other albums—and a length of plastic drainpipe.
I have to admit that Hamburg had never made it to my shortlist of places I wanted to visit. Apparently I’m not alone in that respect, because research soon revealed that there weren’t any English-language guidebooks about Hamburg in print. I started assembling what information I could from online sources, while rothko purchased 2 German guidebooks and started reading those.
The reason for our choice of destination was simple: both sides of rothko’s family can be traced back to Hamburg. It was to be a visit to the ancestral homeland, and a chance to do some genealogical research. We would be staying with some distant relatives who had visited Minnesota many years before.
The shortest air journey from Austin to Hamburg is two hops via Continental. Unfortunately, the timing is less than ideal; the first flight leaves Austin at 06:30, and on arrival in Newark there’s a 6 hour gap before the connecting flight to Hamburg. Factoring in the recommendation that you arrive 2 hours prior to departure, drive time to the aiport, parking, shuttle buses and so on, I realized I was going to have to wake up around 04:00 at the latest.
Theodore Dalrymple writes about the German psyche, and how even now Germans find it hard to feel national pride, or even anger at what was done to them in Dresden. My German roots are distant enough that I’ll have to take his word for that. However, he then goes on to diagnose a deep malaise in modern Germany: The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel.
I’m a nervous traveler. I’ve been to Belgium, Canada, France, Germany (including the former East, just after the wall came down), Italy, Luxembourg, Russia, Spain, and of course various places in the USA. Including rural Alabama, which is pretty damn scary. I’ve survived it all, but nevertheless, I’m still a nervous traveler. It’s not the plane flight. Once I’m on the plane, I’m fine. I can relax, because everything is now someone else’s problem.