Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Home Office

The first full day of doing the above is completed. A friend just texted me, asking how it was, and I honestly answered, it wasn’t strange for me to work, but it was strange to not be at work. I suppose mainly because the arrangement is due to a situation outside of our control and sensible decisions about staying inside truly do relate directly to being well. I’m certainly grateful for the option and it’s clear we just have to persevere for as long as necessary. For now. For a while. What’s the best phrase?

Keeping the hours was fine, I’ve been making lists and following them for years. Plus after more than a decade in Germany, sometimes you set yourself time frames and see if you can keep to them, just for kicks! Memories from studying for exams and writing term papers during my university years also come in handy. It turns out they are still very clear, though my levels of self-control and reflection were pretty different back, then. I remember both my parents completing work from home, whether it was for an extra job in addition to the one they already had, because of staying home with my siblings and I while we were sick, or simply because it was too cold to go outside in winter. I’ve got something to fall back on, even if I never quite imagined doing it in such circumstances. After all, how can you? “OK, this might be useful for when a global pandemic puts the lid on daily life as we know it…”

Balancing discipline and concentration has proven to function and I don’t find myself distracted by the laundry drying to my left or all my favorite books being nearby. Communication, both professional and personal, has been going well, which helps.

That’s the other thing, the questions that pop up in your head. And we’re only on day one, folks! Am I becoming dependent on my phone? Should I really go out now, or not? When I sit down to write, will I be able to write about anything other than this? Do I feel like action or disaster for tonight’s movie choice? The Day After Tomorrow or Peak Dante? Does Peak Dante count as vintage? Don’t care either way, it’s so good. Will I look completely pasty when this is over? What will it feel like to come back to the real world?

This is the real world…

Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Part 2

So, here I am, set to do home office for two weeks. This morning the sun was shining and spring was clearly in the air. I felt warm during my walk to work, encouraged by my slightly heavier backpack, which I’d loaded with extra snacks and my own bowl for having soup in, some other necessities that seemed sensible in these times. The irony is that a few hours later I was walking back home in the now brilliant spring sunshine, additionally loaded down with stuff from my office desk.

I wasn’t the only one, of course. The development wasn’t entirely unexpected, considering what’s been happening in other European countries, and in Germany, stacking up day after day. It’s just we still didn’t know when exactly and if we’d have to switch our work MO around. That walk on Monday morning already felt a bit surreal, even as I was telling myself I’d be doing that regularly instead of taking the bus or the train, get fit for spring and all that stuff. And then later it was still strange, this joint effort made by many, but leading to this period of careful self-isolation.

What truly moves me, of course, is how people around me have been handling the situation in recent weeks. With calm honesty, humor and the ever-present German efficiency. No fuss, no hysteria, no blame. And no matter how many times it’s repeated, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the simple kindness of that phrase, “Stay safe and healthy.”

Now I’m one of those people reading articles online about how to not go crazy while working from home. In addition to that, I do worry, because I care, as many others do: about loved ones, the future, being able to deliver in these new working conditions and not losing my grip on what I do outside of work hours. I think one of the hardest parts is trying to stay in the now in combination with the unavoidable thoughts about the next days, because the uncertainty is there. But so are the facts. And these are…

Time to watch The Big Bang Theory again.

Hamburg in the Time of Corona

I took this picture this past weekend on an absolutely gorgeous sunny day in Hamburg. The blue sky was reflected in the Alster lake and it seemed like the whole city was outside, walking, smiling, laughing, even, because…well, why not, and what else were we supposed to do, really? You can only buy so much toilet paper these days.

A little over two weeks ago my daily life started to change day by day, as it did for everyone else. On that Friday the first confirmed coronavirus case was reported in Hamburg. Until then I had been reading the news about what was going on in other countries, in Europe as well as the world, and while I was certainly being attentive, watchful, obviously internal feelings change once something like this reaches your hometown. Things you read take on a new significance and you begin to wonder what will happen. Then some of what you were wondering about does happen, and all you can do is adjust along the way.

As of now Hamburg has introduced many preventive measures seen in other cities around the world to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Theaters, museums, clubs, bars, libraries, fitness studios have been closed. All public and private events have been cancelled or postponed. The company operating the swimming pools I go to has closed all its locations. Schools and daycare centers will be closed starting March 16. Universities have postponed the start of classes. Regional train frequency in northern Germany is being reduced due to lower passenger numbers.

It’s a daily trickle of various numbers and announcements, checking which has quickly become a natural habit one can’t avoid picking up. I can’t help thinking what it was like to try and get accurate information in other times, other decades, because this isn’t the first pandemic the world has seen, but it’s certainly happening at the height of the internet, mobile device usage and social media influence. While in many ways this is a relief, because we have quick ways of informing ourselves at our fingertips and therefore might end up feeling a little more in control of the situation, it also reinforces the constant challenge, even responsibility to ourselves in this day and age, namely being sensible when picking sources of information.

Another aspect, of course, is staying in touch with loved ones, friends and family. It’s an enormous blessing to be able to do this through the phone, video calls or texting, because not communicating at all or waiting for the next letter to arrive, like in the olden days, would be very hard indeed. It’s heartening that normal conversation does still happen.

“Social distancing” is a phrase I haven’t used before, but now I guess I won’t be able to forget it. I’ve only just realized my hug count has gone down dramatically, and it’s “only” been two weeks. It’s strange to think that I don’t know for sure how long it will be until I wrap my arms around someone, shake a hand or even just touch a friend’s arm while sharing a laugh. Even while my brain knows why, it’s almost as if not me, but someone else is stopping a few feet short of the person I need to talk to.

What’s certain, however, is that the desire to be healthy and safe is immediate, maybe even primal. On the other hand (no pun intended), I’ve been brought up to follow standard hygiene rules and cleaning surfaces has always been my thing, so that part I didn’t need to be reminded about, even though it’s always good to refresh that the basics are often the most important start to nip some things in the bud. Or at least diminish unpleasant developments.

Being an introvert and having many, many years of Siberian winters behind me, it’s familiar, amusing even, to read up on tips how to occupy yourself during longer periods spent at home. But I appreciate the attention, because it reinforces the feeling that everyone is thinking of the same things and trying to proceed as normally as possible. I’m also feeling thankful for my roots providing me with ultimately useful memories to fall back on.

It’s obvious now just how active we were only a few weeks ago, because even if you ended up spending a Saturday mostly at home, you didn’t have to think twice about popping out to a restaurant or the cinema. If you couldn’t make it to the gym, you’d plan for another day. Time for YouTube workouts! Looking up concerts and making Friday night plans was second nature, as was the certainty that there would always be something to choose from. This is one of the things Hamburg is loved for.

Times are different for now, and that’s just a fact. I don’t know if we’re talking weeks or months, but I can only hope for the best. Meanwhile, I’ll be busy making lists of stuff to do outside once this whole thing is over.

 

What I Didn’t Know before Moving to Hamburg/ Germany

As it turns out, the information in the textbooks we used in my German language class back in the day (YouTube was in its baby years) and the actual move to Germany were two vastly different worlds. I had the grammar down pat, or at least most of it, and the next step was diving in. But the things I didn’t know…

Universal greetings worked, but local phrases worked better. Guten Tag was immediately and obviously formal, while the Hamburg Moin was a joyful discovery, since I love short ways of saying Hello. Then there’s the quintessentially German Na? This basically means How are you, what’s up? Works best among people more familiar with each other and a slight question mark intonation, but it’s important to not overdo it, otherwise the probably more reserved northern German you’re speaking to might feel threatened.

Sounds elementary, but I really didn’t think of (patiently) standing to the sides of subway train and bus doors to let anyone who needs to get off exit first.

Clearly visible lines painted on the floor beyond the counter in various places where you have to stand in line, advising discretion/ keeping your distance and reminding us all about the wonderful concept of personal space.

Anything that impends someone’s progress or gives them the feeling their time is being wasted causes immediate tutting (whether internal or external), frustration and sometimes even blame. But not if you apologize, for example for jostling someone or blocking the path. Then you usually get a polite headshake, maybe even a smile and a “Alles gut”.

Contrary to some perceptions of northern Germans, people are actually friendly, but you’re sort of expected to understand how things work on your own if there are signs around. Still, asking politely for directions or information never fails.

Humour in the workplace or academic settings should be distributed in small doses, at least at first. The same goes for sarcasm.

Mett is a thing.

It’s important to learn your verbs and how to use them correctly in questions, especially those meaning like, love, want and want less categorically. I once asked a classmate at university, “Magst du mit mir in die Mensa gehen?” What I thought I was saying was “Would you like to go the cafeteria with me?” What I actually said was something along the lines of “Could you follow along to the cafeteria?” She gave me a look and said, “Nein, mag ich nicht.” Well. I actually didn’t like her that much, anyway, so whatever, ha!

If you like making plans and lists, you’ll fit right in.

At work or an internship it’s common to bring a cake or something sweet for your coworkers on your birthday, or even after your trial period is over. There’s really no pressure and not all Germans do it, though I’ve been told by multiple expats they consider it a weird tradition.

Getting caught without a ticket on public transport is not an experience I would recommend pursuing.

Surprise, surprise, the German recycling system is well-known, but not all locals believe in it.

And finally, the biggest thing I didn’t know was how much I would love Hamburg, quirks and all. Moin!

 

Staycation Sensations

So my very own staycation week has come to a delightful close, and here’s what I discovered during it (first-timer report). When you’re on staycation and actually still staying at your own place…

You have to do chores, and while there’s more time for actual vacation activities, there will be a day when you might just be wrapping up loose ends or figuring something out. It doesn’t take away anything from the staycation, though of course I fully understand why people actually go away somewhere.

The security of home and all your favourite, familiar things being within reach is nice. You can also just imagine this is an Airbnb you rented out and wow, just how much it’s to your taste is uncanny.

There’s a fair amount of excitement involved in seeing what the staycation will be like, as well as switching your perspective to actually discovering what makes the city attractive for tourists, which is actually very pleasant to do in a large, but still low-key enough place like Hamburg.

You can definitely come back to a place you like or discovered without having to book a train or a flight.

It’s interesting to observe life on a weekday while everyone you know is at work, as opposed to the one weekend day you saved for getting out.

There is no FOMO.

You go out and about with the perfect mix of retained anonymity and the security of knowing where you are.

Hamburg is a lovely mix of casual and friendly as far as its population is concerned.

Finally, staycations are, surprise, surprise, cheaper!

 

Blankenese: A Lovely Retreat in Hamburg

Blankenese is a gorgeous district in Hamburg directly overlooking the Elbe river. I thought I “did” the Elbe for now after I walked around the Speicherstadt and Övelgönne, but you can’t ever really be done with one of the longest rivers in Europe, especially if you live in Hamburg, can you?

Blankenese is often described with the following adjectives, which I have been hearing since my student years: posh, chic, expensive, fancy, rich, affluent – you name it. I also used to think Blankenese was Övelgönne, shhhh. I’m not confused anymore. You can actually walk or cycle to Blankenese from where I stoppped during my walk in Övelgönne, just be prepared to cover quite a distance, though that’s also the cool thing about the Elbe beach that follows that whole walk – you can just keep going and going and going.

It’s easy to get to, taking the S-Bahn train being one example and then just getting out at Blankenese station. The trip wasn’t as long as I expected, in fact, I barely read two pages of the book I brought with me. The sun is shining (which always tends to get noticed with extra jubilation around here) and when I get out I’m reminded of my first impression from years ago – arriving here feels like you’re on vacation at some resort spot, provided it’s not winter. You can walk a little bit along what is essentially the high street here, stop by the weekly market, stop to get some lunch (from the supermarket salad bar for me, and then eat on a bench by the water later).

My actual goal is the so-called Treppenviertel, or staircase quarter, which is conveniently pointed out by signs and doesn’t take long to get to. Hamburg is widely referred to as a flat city and that fact is true, except for Blankenese where it gets quite hilly by local standards. On my left gradually descending rows of pretty villas and shrubbery are interspersed with stairs that all lead down to the sparkling silver of the Elbe. I pick the nicely level Strandtreppe (beach stairs).

Taking any close-ups of all the pretty facades around is actually tricky. You might glimpse a nice view from higher up or further away, but when you get nearer, you discover that what you wanted to photograph is actually skillfully hidden by bushes, walls or fences. Which I respect. Blankenese used to be a fishing village and then changed to a popular getaway later in the 19th century, attracting wealthy families who in time decided to live there. Many of these families had ties to Hamburg’s maritime history and trading industry.

Once you arrive downstairs, it’s off to the right, along the water, with typically northern German landscape understatement all around: modest at first, beautiful and memorable upon a closer look. I’d looked up lighthouses in the Hamburg region before this walk, and this is one of them. It’s going to be demolished next year as soon as new ones are built.

Meanwhile, you can’t go all the way up to the top, but there’s an observation deck which is still high enough for this classic view of the Blankenese shoreline.

Övelgönne in Hamburg: What It Is and Why Go

The ferry 62 is attracting a huge crowd, because the sun is shining and this is the easiest way to essentially go on a tour of the Hamburg harbor. The ferries are part of the city transportation network, which means that you can either buy a much cheaper (compared to “official” tour prices) ticket either at the machine right on the boat or just board if you already have a pass.

The Elbe river sparkles in the September sunshine and I manage to get on right before the security staff stops the crowd behind me from entering further. Up the steps to the upper deck, of course, then I find a seat and listen to the swirl of various languages around me. The passengers are a mix of tourists and locals enjoying a typical Sunday outing in good weather after probably a late breakfast. Everyone is taking pictures of the same locations – the view of Landungsbrücken station from where we head off, the fish market building and the harbor cranes in the distance.

My stop is Övelgönne, which we reach less than half an hour later. It’s called a museum harbor since it is home to a number of old ships, which you see as soon as you disembark from the ferry and take a few steps.

Walk up along the bridge ahead, turn left and it’s like being on vacation somewhere, especially since the trees are still mostly green. Several pretty cafes and restaurants with tables standing outside follow each other – everywhere is full. But from here on out you can basically walk as long as you like, past many beautiful old porches and doorways, belonging to houses with clearly quite a bit of history.

At some point the road will fork slightly, and you can either go down to the Elbe beach and continue walking along the shoreline, feet in the sand (there’s also a wooden walkway right by the water), harbor cranes clearly visible, or continue straight on. If you walk down the Elbe beach, you’ll eventually come across this giant rock lovingly called Der Alte Schwede, or just Alter Schwede, literally meaning old Swede. The name is particularly amusing since the exlamation Alter Schwede! is used to express surprise, sometimes tinged with disbelief, and it’s very widespread here in the north. The rock, meanwhile, according to my quick research, is a glacial erratic, which means it was carried all the way over here on a fragment of a glacier, many moons ago.

If you continue straight on, you’ll find yourself on this lovely, wide path shaded by mighty trees. I’m reminded of my walks around the Alster river, only this area is more spacious, there’s no car traffic passing by and it’s a great bike route too. Regular signs pop up and from here you can turn into other beautiful parks.

Emerging from the green, the next stopping point is Teufelsbrück (Devil’s Bridge), with a small marina and ferry pier. This is the moment to consider whether you want to continue (probably best on a bike) to Finkenwerder, which is also one of the end stops for the aforementioned Hamburg ferry, or take the bus 111 back to the harbor or Altona station. Or the ferry. Or walk back to Övelgönne. You know what, I’ll just take the bus, everyone else do what they want.