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18.09.2009

Doing Hamburg 

Krissi and I returned from our second big adventure together yesterday afternoon, and it was for the most part a smashing success.  Except for a few minor snafus everything went perfectly well and we both left feeling like we got the most out of it.  Here is the story, broken into four parts. 

1 – An “Early Night” 

Of course, there was the minor matter of my ill-timed illness to deal with, which was weighing heavily on my mind (and my throat) when we arrived, preventing me from fully experiencing that one-of-a-kind high of being in a new city for the first time.  I was just wishing I felt healthy so I could completely appreciate it, and I was just trying to overcome my sour mood as we left the train station and walked to the hostel which was right around the corner.  The girl at the front desk checked us in and took our information, quite enthused about the fact that I was from Hannover, which she said to my surprise was her favorite city.  Apparently she studied there a few years ago and while she didn’t think much of it while she lived there she came to appreciate it afterwards.  I have a feeling I’ll feel the same way when I end up leaving, although I already do appreciate Hannover a lot more than most of the residents I’ve talked to seem to do. 

She gave us a map and circled a few points of interest, then we headed up to our room to put down our stuff and head out.  The hostel, the “Meininger” is a corporate chain and new to Hamburg, so it was extremely nice and clean.  The thing about corporate hotels and hostels is that they really have to look good and offer great service because if travelers have a bad experience there in one city, they won’t go back to the same corporate place in another.  The Meininger seemed sort of like the Hilton of youth hostels. 

We left and walked for about 20 minutes to the harbor in the extremely wide Elbe river, taking in the scenery for the first time.  It was almost completely overcast at that point so the city didn’t look as lovely as I’d pictured but it was still undeniably nice.  From the harbor we walked up to the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s famous Red Light District also known as the “St. Pauli” area.  I assume it’s where the beer “St. Pauli Girl” gets its name though I’m now more sure than ever that it’s purely a German export because I’ve never seen the beer sold anywhere in Germany and if it was going to be found anywhere it would be the St. Pauli area. 

It was still rather early so there wasn’t much going on, and after walking around for a little bit we headed further north in search of a place to eat.  After glancing at a few menus we agreed on a nice-looking Italian place where we sat outside to eat and have a drink.  The food was fantastic, and after a beer I was feeling a little bit better.  As is typical in German restaurants the servers left us to sit around for an extremely long time after we finished eating, and eventually I had to go up and ask for the bill. 

From there we walked back down to the Reeperbahn and looked for a nice place to drink, with the intention of only having a few and then going back to the hostel for a relatively early night.  We stopped in an English pub we’d seen earlier which had a really nice atmosphere, and took one shot and had two beers.  After the shot I said with complete conviction that I would be having no more shots that night.  I didn’t want the same thing to happen that happened in Berlin—getting completely wasted the first night and having a nasty hangover for half the next day. 

At only 9:00 we left the pub and I suggested we just walk back in the direction of the hostel and stop into any pub that looked interesting, and if we couldn’t find one just drink at the hostel’s own bar.  We walked to the end of the Reeperbahn without finding another pub that struck our fancy so we ended up walking all the way back to the hostel and stopping into the bar there.  We ordered two local beers called Astra from the bartender and gave him a generous €2 tip, as was our style.  The bartender must not get that very often because he warmed up to us right away and the next thing we knew he was asking us to take a shot of Jäger with him.  Because it’s totally rude to turn down a free shot from a bartender, I really had no choice but to take the shot in spite of my resolve. 

We had a nice chat with the bartender, whose name was Marcel, about what to see and where to go in Hamburg.  He busted out his own map and circled a few things including a district where all the artsy people like to hang out.  Krissi and I resolved to go there the next day.  Suddenly there was another shot in front of us, and we took it. 

So after that we stayed for “one more beer” and as we drank the bar flooded with other people staying at the hostel, a group of guys who looked no older than 15 years old, which was really freaky to see.  I knew in Germany you could buy beer at 16, but I thought you had to be 18 to even go into a bar.  Perhaps this bar was different because it was a part of a hostel, but those kids didn’t even look 16.  One of them in particular caught our eye, a little kid with greased-back blonde hair with a total Fonzie-vibe about him.  We watched him for awhile as he interacted with the others at the bar in total Happy Days fashion, and eventually took the elevator back upstairs, flashing a peace sign at everyone to make a grand exit. 

Shortly after that, a guy about our age came and sat by us at the bar.  He was American but I don’t remember where he was from.  More Jäger shots were poured down our throats by Marcel so the conversation became rather blurry, but I was definitely getting very political and arguing with him about Obama, who he still says he really likes.  I gave him my website and invited him to read my blog. 

Krissi quietly slipped away around that time while I was too drunk to have enough sense to follow her.  So I remained down there drinking yet another beer while Marcel poured even more shots, and everything became a blur.  I remember at one point the Fonzie-kid came back downstairs and I ended up actually talking to him about God-knows-what, probably in slurred and awful German.  The only thing I remember about going to bed is taking my pants off and crashing on my mattress. 

2 – An Early Morning 

Because we intended on going on a walking tour the next day that started at 11:00, we had to get up somewhat early.  I woke up to my alarm at 9:00 feeling about as goddamned awful as you can imagine.  But there was already a lot of activity going on in our hostel room as a cute young couple sharing the room with us was getting ready for their day as well.  I managed to take a shower and get dressed, then stumbled downstairs for the breakfast which the hostel offered.  We were supposed to have either reserved a breakfast ticket for €4 at check-in or else pay €4.50 when we got there, but nobody was there checking tickets so we ate for free. 

After that we stumbled our way to the train station with the intention of taking the S-Bahn to the Rathaus where the tour began, but I had a difficult time figuring out which train to get on.  When I finally settled on one, at around 10:30, we took some seats and spaced out, waiting for the train to get to the Jungfernstieg stop.  The train pulled out into the open air after just one stop and there were lots of trees and green around, but not being familiar with Hamburg we just thought that maybe the train was leading us downtown through a very green area.  It was seriously a good 20 minutes before I finally got up and checked the map on the side wall to find that we had in fact been going in the wrong direction the entire time. 

I was quite pissed off as we left the train one stop from the end of the line in the middle-of-nowhere Hamburg countryside, realizing that we’d got up so early and I was enduring this god-awful hangover just to get to a walking tour that we now wouldn’t be able to make.  We got back on the right train and Krissi looked at the tourist map to try and think of something we could do instead.  The map said that “a trip to Hamburg without a harbor tour is unimaginable” so we decided to get off at the Landungbrücke stop and take a boat tour of the harbor. 

The map advertised an English boat tour but there were a lot of fucking boats and we just went to the first place we found that had a boat tour leaving on the hour.  The guy said they had English head-sets so we decided on that one.  Of course we still had about 45 minutes to kill so we just walked around the harbor for awhile, sat on a bench for a bit, and looked out at the boats.  It had been an overcast morning but the weather was clearing up, and by the time we boarded the boat the sun was finally beginning to come out for the first time since we’d arrived in Hamburg. 

The boat tour was nice but it would have been a lot more enjoyable if I didn’t have the urge to vomit off the side of the boat every few minutes.  The English audio-guide kept me distracted occasionally but there wasn’t much to point out.  A few buildings on the shore, a few big ships in the harbor, some giant equipment for the cargo…nothing particularly fascinating.  Still, it was a nice experience and it was over after an hour. 

At that point Krissi seemed to be completely recovered from her Hangover and she wanted to walk around, but I was still feeling like death and I just wanted to go back to the hostel and take a nap.  I wanted to sue Marcel for completely ruining my trip to Hamburg, though I knew of course that the hangover was my own fault.  Still, Krissi assured me that you can’t turn down a bartender when he wants to take a shot with you.  So it was partially his fault. 

I said she could do what she wanted but I had to go back to the hostel and I’d rather do that sooner rather than later because I would be able to enjoy anything until I had some rest.  She busted out her map and started going over with me what she would do, and I realized that splitting up was a stupid idea and told her.  She agreed and said she’d come back to the hostel with me and use their internet while I took my nap.  So we got back on the train and headed back, where I proceeded to lie down and get some badly-needed rest. 

3 – Typical Tourism 

The one thing every one of my German students who knew anything about Hamburg recommended I see when I got to Hamburg was an exhibit called the “Miniatur Wunderland”, which is the world’s largest model train-set.  When I got up and we headed back out we made this our destination. 

We got off at the Landungsbrücke again and walked along the harbor to the little island which used to be the warehouse district but which is now being converted to another little city-within-a-city and most of the museums and touristy things are located.  When we crossed the bridge to the island we came across a little ice-cream truck and decided to indulge for a moment.  I still had a bit of a headache at that point but somehow after that amazing ice-cream the headache was gone, and for the rest of the day I felt relatively okay. 

We got to the Miniatur Wunderland and went inside, bought our tickets, then spent the next two hours or so checking out the exhibit.  It was way more than a “model train-set”—it was an entire fucking miniature earth.  Seriously, those of you reading this on the blog should go check out the website for this thing because it’s practically indescribable.  This thing took up about five rooms and stretched up two floors, each section its own different country.  It began in Switzerland with a giant mountain carved through with tunnels for the trains, which would go around, stop at the station for a minute, then continue on their way.  There was also Scandinavia, United States, and Hamburg.  All over the place were buttons you could press to make things happen, like windmills turning, lights flashing, gondolas moving up and down the mountain, a little figurine heading up an alpine slide on a gondola and then sliding down the mountain.  The most impressive ones were right at the beginning though—a miniature chocolate factory that actually produced real chocolate and spit it out so you could eat it right there, and a giant out-door concert that when you pressed the button would play the song “Celebration” with video of the actual concert on a screen beside the mini-stage, and 20,000 little figurines all bunched together in the audience with flashing lights as though they were taking pictures.  Krissi took a little video of the concert with her camera and when we watched it later you could almost believe it was a real show that we were watching from up on a hill somewhere. 

Every ten minutes or so they would dim the lights and have about five minutes of night-time.  Mini-Vegas was particularly impressive at this point, but so were all the little towns with the lights all coming on in the buildings.  The attention to detail was incredible.  The trains themselves had first-class and second-class carts, and when you looked inside you could see that the seats in first class were indeed bigger.  Outside some houses were figurines all sitting outside eating mini-meals on mini-plates and drinking mini-glasses of beer.  There was a whole stadium filled with 15,000 of these little figurines and when you pressed the button it would burst to life.  The most incredible thing, however, were the vehicles, which moved along the roads seemingly on their own but undoubtedly guided by magnets.  I watched in awe as a truck pulled off into a gas station, stopped for a moment, then merged back onto the road.  A bit further down a car came to an intersection and stopped, blinker flashing, until it was safe to go and make the turn.  Then a few minutes later I heard sirens and noticed that up on a bridge somewhere a damaged truck was flashing with lights indicating flames and real smoke was rising from it.  Fire trucks and ambulances came to the scene and a police car closed off the bridge at the end.  The lights slowly stopped flashing, the smoke subsided, and the fire-trucks and ambulances all went their merry way.  It was unfuckingbelievable.  Krissi just kept using the word “ridiculous”. 

So after we absorbed all of that ridiculousness we headed out and walked back to the center of the city in search of the artsy center that Marcel—damn him—had told us about.  But we first stopped at the ruins of the church of St. Nikolai, the coolest looking tower in Hambug’s skyline, and rode the elevator to the top for a spectacular view.  Unfortunately for Krissi, she’d used up all of her camera’s battery power in the Miniatur Wunderland, but it was still an awesome view and I’m really glad we took a moment to do that. 

It was quite a lengthy walk back to the city’s center, but we cut through a lovely little park along the way and before we knew it we’d found the area Marcel—damn him again—had told us about.  We walked around a little then stopped for a drink.  While we were sitting there a woman on a scooter rolled up and was bitten by a dog owned by a German couple sitting outside at the table across from us.  That was an interesting little scene to watch while pretending I wasn’t paying attention, but I’d definitely say the woman who was bitten was making a way bigger deal about it than she should have, and the dog-owner who seemed like a really nice lady was doing all she could to satisfy the bitch who was bitten. 

After that we decided to look for a nearby restaurant to eat, and settled on a Mexican place which I wanted to try because Mexican restaurants are so rare in Germany that I’ve never actually eaten at one here.  Unfortunately the food wasn’t very good so it was a bit disappointing, but having satisfied our hunger we walked back down to the Reeperbahn for what we had firmly resolved this time would be an easy night of slow, casual drinking. 

Along the way we were stopping into all the little gift-shops in search of a particular patch that we only hoped existed—the symbol of the St. Pauli district: a skull and cross-bones with the word “St. Pauli” underneath.  We tried a few shops and were beginning to think it might not exist until I finally spotted one at a shop on the Reeperbahn after drinking at our first bar and she happily bought it.  She’s since sewn it onto her bag and it is definitely a perfect complement to the Ampelmann patch she bought in Berlin. 

The Reeperbahn is full of sex-shops and strip-clubs but not a lot of bars that looked particularly inviting.  The next place we settled on was a sports bar where we watched the five or six soccer matches that the station was broadcasting simultaneously, merely reaffirming our opinion that soccer is a boring sport. 

The final place we went was next to a place called “John & Paul’s Fish and Chips” and under a giant inflatable yellow submarine.  Hamburg is actually where the Beatles got their start before they became famous, so there are a lot of Beatles-themed placed around and we thought the bar there would have a Beatles theme but it was just another English pub and rather empty when we got there.  We had a few drinks there, listened to a live performance by an acoustic guitarist who played a few good songs, a few really bad ones, and a few we didn’t recognize, but overall it was rather pleasant. 

It was cold so we took the train back to the hostel, and were quite conscious as we got ready for bed and passed out, having successfully gone the whole night without a single shot of Jäger. 

4 – Walking Tour, Take 2 

Still sick but not hungover, I got up the next morning at 8:00 without much of a problem, showered and went down for breakfast, which we also got away with not paying for.  I didn’t have much to eat because I’d stopped at a kebab place on the way back from the hostel the night before and stuffed myself while we watched table-tennis before going to bed.  It felt like the kebab hadn’t even digested by the time I woke up, so I just had some cereal while Krissi ate a big breakfast and I mostly sat around looking at the crowded breakfast room and playing a game I like to call “which is the hottest girl in the hostel?” in my head.  One young girl stood out, a thin young dark-haired dark-eyed girl among a group of also-under-aged girls, but she and her group left before I had a chance to fall in love with her. 

We headed back up to the room to get our stuff and leave, and as we got in another couple was checking in—a guy with metal feet who looked like he must have been an Iraq war veteran and his girlfriend.  The jealousy I felt was actually stronger than any sympathy I might have had, as the guy must have been through hell but here he was doing perfectly well and traveling through Europe with a hot girlfriend.  I didn’t say a word to him—I was kind of intimidated—and all he said to me was a “how are you?” before we left. 

We got back to the station and bought a day-ticket for the public transport, then boarded the correct train this time and got off at the right station with 20 minutes to spare.  The walking tour starting point was easy enough to spot—a few people in red shirts standing around holding a “Free Tour Starts Here” sign standing right in front of the Rathaus.  We said hello to them, two women and a guy, all apparently British, and they gave us a survey to fill out while we waited for the tour to start, asking us questions like how we heard about the tour and whether we’d done a tour with them before.  It was in fact the same company, “New Europe” that does the free walking tour in Berlin. 

When the tour began there were about a dozen people in the group, and our guide was a British girl named Kim from the countryside near London.  I could tell right away that I was going to be completely smitten with her by the end of the tour.  She had blonde hair and blue eyes which isn’t my thing, but her petit little body was as ideal as it gets for me, and while she had a British accent which I normally hate, she had a soft sweet voice which I grew to find rather adorable.  Throughout the tour I think I derived more enjoyment from just looking at her than from the historical facts about the various buildings that she imparted. 

Of course she wasn’t nearly as impressive as Inez in Berlin, but to be fair Hamburg is just not nearly as fascinating a city as Berlin.  I learned some interesting stuff about the Hanseatic League which was the trade union through which Hamburg became one of the wealthiest European cities, about the great fire which burned down most of the city, and about how Hamburg got completely and utterly fucked beyond belief during the 1943 bombings in WWII.  While we walked from place to place I found myself talking to Kim a great deal, telling her about Hannover and my travel plans as well as learning more about where she came from and what she was doing there, apparently playing keyboard for a band fronted by one of her friends.  We also just chatted about the climate and little things like that, but the more I talked to her the more fond of her I became. 

We stopped for a break at a Starbucks halfway through the tour and I grabbed a muffin while Krissi struck up a conversation with someone else outside so I sat down alone.  A Hispanic guy came up to me while I ate and struck up a conversation.  He was apparently from Columbia, working as a dentist in England on a visa which was going to expire soon, but he was also trying to set up some kind of international business and would be traveling to New York City in a few weeks.  He asked me why I’d never traveled to South America, asking me if it was because I thought it was too dangerous, then reassuring me that Columbia wasn’t dangerous anymore because their new president, Uribe, is doing a great job.  I didn’t know how to explain that I just have no desire whatsoever to visit Latin America, so I didn’t bother.  But he was a nice enough guy and it was cool to talk to someone from a country as obscure as Columbia.  You don’t meet many travelers from a place like that. 

The tour continued to the island where the new city is being built, and Kim pointed out all the really interesting architectural styles that are being experimented with there.  We saw the construction site of the new opera house and some pictures of what it will look like when it’s finished, and I think I agree with her than when it’s finished it’ll be an iconic symbol of Hamburg in the same way the opera house in Sydney is now the icon of that city.  It felt kind of cool to think that I was in Hamburg before its most recognizable building is built.  It would be like visiting Paris during the construction of the Eiffel tower. 

The tour ended with Kim sitting us down on some steps along the waterfront and telling us the story of the famous pirate Klaus Störtebeker, who began as a kind of “Robin Hood of the high seas” robbing only from the rich and helping out in just causes, but who eventually got greedy and started robbing from ships of the Hanseatic League which of course made him public enemy number 1.  The Hanseatic League tried unsuccessfully to capture him for many years, coming close but not quite able to do it until they trapped him by having a spy pose as a fisherman who was sinking.  Klaus had a reputation for being a nice guy so he rescued the fisherman and that night the spy sabotaged his ship.  Klaus woke up the next morning completely surrounded by enemy ships, and though he and his men fought them off for awhile, they were eventually overpowered and captured. 

Kim asked for some volunteers from the group to act out Klaus’s famous death-scene, and as I was now completely in love with her I volunteered right away to play Klaus.  Kim got no volunteers to play the executioner so she made her sister, who was also on the tour with her boyfriend, do it.  I doubt there’s much truth to it but it is a cool story.  Just before he was executed Klaus pleaded with the executioner to save his men, but the executioner refused.  (Kim, as she narrated, would whisper our lines into our ears, which meant she was touching my hair and standing an inch away from my ear which felt quite nice as you can imagine)  Klaus then asked the executioner to spare as many of his men as he could run past without his head.  The executioner thought the idea ridiculous so he agreed, and after cutting Klaus’s head off he allegedly ran headless past thirteen of his men before the executioner ran and tripped him up to prevent him from saving any more of them.  The crowd at that point was going wild and the executioner threatened to take their heads as well, which they naturally didn’t like.  So after beheading all of Klaus’s men (including the ones he ran past) they took the executioner’s head as well.  And that was the end of Klaus Störtebeker, Germany’s most famous pirate. 

That was also the end of the tour, and I gave Kim a €5 tip, wished her goodbye, and then left.  As Krissi and I walked away, my Columbian friend walked beside us and talked to us about the tour and how the one in Berlin, which he’d also taken, was better but mostly because Berlin is just inherently more interesting. 

When we parted ways with him Krissi and I discussed how we were going to kill the remaining two hours before going home.  We considered checking out the “Hamburg Dungeon” which was like an extremely elaborate haunted house that also had some interesting pirate history but entry was nearly €20 so we passed that up.  Instead we went back to the dock’s and followed Kim’s advice from the tour that if we wanted a free harbor tour we could board a ferry with our public transport day ticket.  So we did that, hoping that the boat would take us somewhere close to the city center but it only took us further away from where we needed to be, until I finally asked some of the Germans sitting by us how far the boat went because I didn’t want to be a hundred kilometers away when we had to get back to the train station.  But the boat made it back in time, and although there was no narration I enjoyed that trip a lot more than the previous day in which I’d been hungover and dying. 

We took a brief walk when we got back to kill the remaining 15 minutes of spare time we had, then got back to the train station and picked up some food, getting to the platform just in time for the train to take us home. 

As I’d been playing the role of Klaus the Pirate, Amanda had called me and I ignored it of course but afterwards I called her back and got invited to Quiz Night, so we went that evening to the Dublin Inn where we didn’t plan to drink much at all, but we ended up coming in 2nd place (thanks mostly to the four other people Amanda had got to come including Kay and some of her students from E.ON) and winning none other than a free shot of Jäger, which we really had no choice but to take. 

Now we’ve got the weekend to just take it easy, take care of whatever business we have left before continuing our journey, first to Köln (Cologne) on Tuesday night and then to Ichenheim on Wednesday, from which we’ll decide where else to go.  I’m still a bit sick which sucks, but at least when you’re traveling you’re not thinking much about it.  Whatever happens I’m sure it’ll be every bit the fun and memorable experience I’d hoped it would be.