Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Diary Note #3

This time last year I was packing for a long weekend near Paris with family. It was a free weekday evening and I was laying out my stuff, enjoying the fact that I could still fit everything I needed in my smallest suitcase, including presents for the little ones. Summer had settled both in Hamburg and Paris, so I stuffed a spare T-shirt into my backpack, because if I got on the train after exiting the huge airport without freshening up, I would melt before reaching my destination. It was already hot in the apartment as I packed.

This evening of packing was framed by meeting up with friends for an after-work bite during the rest of the week, celebrating a birthday, all while leisurely choosing among Hamburg’s many cafés. Sometimes, gasp, we would even decide on a location an hour before leaving work, despite that fact that I share my love of planning with a few other people. If the evening stayed warm, we would round off the rest of it with a long walk before dispersing to our respective buses or trains, savoring the summer night, listening to conversations around us coming from people doing the same thing, maybe stop for a final drink before going back home with a smile and that carefree, relaxed parting call, “This was lovely, let’s do this again soon.”

These are all precious memories for various reasons.

Fast forward to today and I’ve done so much reading of all the news on which European countries fully opened their borders, how they correspond to each other or not, which still require quarantine and which don’t, what’s the deal with social distancing, confirmed corona cases status, I could probably fill multiple hours talking just about that. It is a day I’ve been waiting for a long time and I’d like to think it’s a positive sign. I feel it’s a positive sign, it has to be. Now, after waiting, phase two, which I partially knew would come, as much as I could, has begun. So much is still listed under a question mark and this is not a case of waiting for the sprint start signal to fire. Because the fact is, I can’t just go anywhere I want, in Europe at least, virtually without thinking, like I used to. “So, when are you going to *insert country here* ?” isn’t a question I can answer with an estimate these days. Can anyone?

I have to think, just differently than I did. I have to think beyond the habits that became ingrained during the last decades, all those things that are still on autopilot: remember to get travel-sized shampoo, toiletries go in a sealed transparent bag, put on the nice socks in case I have to take my shoes off and have a spare pair ready in my backpack, have a scarf ready in case of a chill from the air conditioning in the plane, empty my water bottle before going through security, get another water bottle after security and try to find a brand that supports a good charity to justify the price. Researching a destination now obviously goes beyond deciding where to stay or what to see. Or are you supposed to just “switch off” and go ahead? Again, can anyone?

Anyway, OK, then my list of autopilot habits just becomes longer for the future, most likely to include a mask, hand sanitizer (which I always had on me anyway) and extra attention to make sure I see how things are done in airports, where to stop at a distance etc. And trust me, sitting down in a restaurant is the last thing on my mind right now.

It’s staggering to think how much freedom of movement, literally, freedom of mind I had before. Remember that oft-repeated sentiment that if you’re flying somewhere, as the plane takes off and you watch the view below fall away and expand at the same time, before it becomes sky and clouds, any cares or worries you had fall away with it all? I suppose I do wonder what it will be like now, as we hopefully move forward.

But I’m a fan of starting small, so after all this sentimental musing, the next step is seeing whether public transport pops up in my near future. Not in a hurry.

Notes from a Generous Packer

So, what kind of packer are you? My mother has the gift of both packing light and packing neatly. The amount of bags and suitcases she has sensibly filled for family members and friends since her youth would probably fill a book. My father and I, on the other hand, are generous packers, because we try to prepare for various situations. It’s impossible to prepare for them all, but when I’m going away for three whole days…

To paraphrase everyone’s favourite elf only slightly, socks are Dobby’s favourite clothes, Harry Potter. I can’t emphasize this enough. Even if it makes me sound like a granny. After one trip a few years ago (actually, it was a decade, but who’s counting) when I not only packed a bunch of summer dresses for what turned out to be mostly energetic walks through a beautiful village and some woods, but managed to get my two pairs of socks wet in the same day, I always take extra pairs. They don’t need a lot of space and if I won’t end up needing them, then fine. But I won’t wistfully wonder what it would have been like to have enough with me.

Three days, a rainy and chilly European February, one top and cardigan for the day of travel, same combo in different colors for changing, two more combos for the next two days, maybe another top and scarf in case my first travel set doesn’t dry in time after laundry. Yes, I do need a (small) suitcase by now.

Might get a bit warm, maybe pack a few T-shirts in addition to the long-sleeved tops? Maybe some leggings, besides the jeans?

The notebooks, don’t forget the notebooks. So the one for my to-do-lists, my calendar just in case (still like to write things down), the one for my writing ideas, the one for my current writing project, the one for blog scribbles…better take the bigger backpack.

Et voilà, I have myself my two pieces of independence-affirming hand luggage.

Maybe add a cross-body bag just in case…

In Nice

The two days that we had in Nice were definitely enough to get many unforgettable impressions of this famous city and to understand why holidaymakers have flocked here for more than two centuries.

I’ve already detailed my swimming experience at the local beach, and after that it was time to do some discovering around the city. Being successfully frenchified on our tourist level, after the swim and some lunch we set out to locate one of the nearby patissieries. It took a bit of circulating despite the aid of Google Maps, BUT in the process we discovered where life was happening slightly beyond our quiet hotel.

We turned a corner and walked straight into rue Masséna, and it was like entering a little world of its own. Gone were the white and pastel of the hotels lining the Promenade des Anglais, instead I saw yellow, burnt orange, minty green, brown, red, and more restaurants crammed on both sides of this mostly pedestrian zone than I could count. Pizza, pasta, oysters, glasses of white wine sparkling in the evening sunshine, every single table I could see occupied. This was it. This was the epitome of joie de vivre. C’etait la vie itself!

The rue Masséna leads to the historic Place Masséna, with its red-white architecture and colonnades. It is wide and spacious, thankfully not spoiled by kiosks, construction or crowds. All I feel is buzzing, encompassing joy that it’s summer and that I’m here.

A short distance away is a local landmark I had absolutely no idea about before we came here, and which turns out to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, namely the Albert I Garden. It’s still light out and we walk through the gates to see visitors running, jumping, dancing across a vast space covered in water and small fountain jets. So as it turns out, we can also, quite literally, walk on water.

We have a few hours left before departure and set off in search of the flower market. While we don’t see the flowers, we do wander around the market, and then quickly find ourselves in the old town, the heart of Nice. Buildings here stand much closer together and there are plenty of side streets cloaked in shadow. Guides cycle through alleys with tourist groups, passing restaurants, artisan boutiques and the inevitable colorful souvenir shops. While things are busy enough, the atmosphere and the sounds are completely different from the Promenade and the high street. It’s simply beautiful. I’m enchanted.

 

Nice to Meet You

(The predictable pun trip continues!)

We take our first walk along the spacious Promenade des Anglais and after one look at the sea on our right I am forever informed of just what makes up the Côte d’Azur. Yes, I got a taste in Cannes, and now the cycle is complete. Welcome to Nice!

It’s a beautiful city, gorgeous, in fact. Everything is on a noticeably bigger scale than in Cannes. Lots of white and pastel in the local architectural landscape as well, at least among the modern buildings, while in the distance I already glimpse stone and red-tiled roofs. Hotels are everywhere, one more impressive than the other. The rest of the world seems far away, except for the unsurprising, but still unnerving moment when I glimpse armed soldiers patrolling the Promenade.

My dad had been here a long time ago and I remembered him saying the beach was covered in stones, and the same obviously went for the bottom of the sea, making it very hard to walk to the water, then get in and get out. Fast forward several years later and here we are. I’m about to experience this for myself.

I’m feeling confident. I’ve successfully tested out my swim shoes in Cannes, albeit on sand. Now they will get their real chance! We walk down the steps to the beach, me having changed into the shoes beforehand. The pebble covered ground is very level and we make our way through the numerous spread out (sun)bathers already there. I feel fine. We can do this! It’s just a few skips and catching the right moment to wade in, right? We get to the water’s edge and discover that the descent down, though not high, is steep. Waves break against the shore, which is covered, as far as the eye can see, with glistening wet egg-sized stones.

I take a tentative step forward and as my self-protection instincts kick in, several things become clear. Despite my shoes, it is actually very hard to remain standing if you try to go down to the water. The stones, though round, stick out at all sorts of angles. There are no rules to getting in and out – some people do it on all fours, others try to take it at a run and a leap, while some also slide in on a air mattress. My knees and elbows feel very exposed, not to mention any other part of my body containing bones. When my dad first talked about his experience here, I couldn’t quite imagine what he meant. Now I know and I have no further questions whatsoever.

We’re on a public beach, which means that getting into the water is entirely up to us. I propose setting off to where I think the descent looks more level and wonder whether I should wiggle in on my butt, though crouching down on those stones doesn’t look appealing. I bend down to tighten the elastic on my right shoe and it breaks apart in my hand.

A few minutes of determined walking seamlessly brings us to a private beach – everyone is concentrating so hard on careful steps or guarding their seat, there is practically no interaction between people. Finally, we see a short, low wooden pier with no bars on the sides. It wobbles very slightly above the waves, but there’s a ladder! Jumping off the pier is forbidden, and with good reason, because a) the water is not deep here; b) rocky bottom, see above; c) I wouldn’t want to do it anyway.

The ladder requires turning my back to the sea, stepping on the first rung with one foot, gripping the (slightly slippery) handles with both hands, and then proceeding down. Honestly, I don’t know what I was more afraid of, falling on the stones, or falling off that ladder. But I make it! Did I mention it wobbled as well? What an adventure.

I’m in that water, which I’ve been dreaming of ever since we got here. I can’t see the bottom and I’m swimming in azure. There are no buoys in sight. I’m hoping my right shoe stays on my foot, because this is one situation where I don’t fancy being Cinderella. It’s a magical blue sea and I barely have to move as the water carries me on its own. We forget about the journey back to shore (which we successfully master) for a while. I can sea it all now.

I Cannes Make It Here

Cannes is lovely. It’s a beautiful coastal city with a lot of flair and plenty of history, and despite its often mentioned connection to the rich and famous of the world, it feels approachable.

This morning we stepped out of our hotel into the brilliant sunshine to see a typical British hen do group clearly having just checked out. Thankfully, they were both sober and well-behaved. The bride was wearing a white jumpsuit and a pink newsboy cap covered in sequins of the same color (I’d say that’s pretty classic), while her posse, at least ten of them, were all dressed in black shirts and jeans, accompanied by enormous suitcases. Perhaps we’re in a different kind of district, but there has been no wild partying here thus far and I’m liking the vibe in our “residence”. In fact, we successfully moved to our intended apartment and we’re loving it. Everyone staying here seems intent on pursuing their own vacation plans, and we’re just the same.

Swimming distances at our beautiful beach have increased day after day. A woman passes me in the water and says something in French with a smile, of which I only understand the first half, but it seems to be approval of the water. I couldn’t agree more myself. And she just spoke to me in French! Do I look French? Do I swim French? We’ve also theorized that the underwater platform further out from the shore that we’ve stood on might be for setting up the fireworks display that takes place here at the beach. Actually, it’s the Festival International D’Art Pyrotechnique, lasting until August 24. We’ve even heard it already from our balcony and it’s also broadcast live. Those fireworks are actually some of the best memories from my stay in Cannes nine years ago. It’s nice that the festival still happens.

After a few days here we feel confident enough to swim out to the yellow buoys bobbing on the surface, because it doesn’t look that far. I lose my sense of time in the water and seem to get to my goal faster than anticipated, but when I turn around to look back at the shore, suddenly it’s very far away indeed. We swim back, with a stop on the platform other people are standing on. I stop swimming and bend my legs, even crouch, to stand just in time – this part is much closer to the knees. It’s fun to find even footing after swimming in deep turquoise water, swaying only slightly with the gentle wave, then slide off to once again not feel the sand underneath  before reaching the shoreline.

We’ve quickly frenchified ourselves as much as it’s possible to while being visitors here and with beginner level French. Mornings start with automatic bonjours to other guests and staff. The day is peppered with mercis and bonne journées. In fact, I’ve been approached in French in different situations like it’s the most natural thing in the world (mais oui), and I realized that I’m not afraid of that happening anymore. Bring it on! Interactions are still very short and simple, plus I do more listening than speaking, but hey, that’s the start of good communication.

The housekeeper in charge gets in the elevator with us one day and asks whether everything is working in our apartment. “Oui, ça va bien, Madame, merci”, I respond. Wait, what? I speak FRENCH? She continues the conversation, but I don’t understand what she says at first, so I look at her intently (without getting nervous!). She doesn’t switch to English, which I find quite respectful, but gestures actively with her hands and repeats the sentence. It seems to be about the weather, so I nod and smile. Another time a polite older man hesitates before joining us, not being sure if “c’est possible” to fit in, but “Oui, monsieur, c’est possible”, I reassure him, because that’s what I do now. I speak FRENCH! And the secret to my newfound confidence is probably that, while the locals are generally absolutely fine with speaking English, they also don’t expect you to not speak French at all. You just might. Again, mais oui!

I got a bit carried away with tales of my baby steps en français. Beyond that I’ve found myself nonchalantly crossing streets at red lights (but only after checking twice that no cars are coming), regularly buying baguettes (sometimes the bag they come in is too short, so we carefully fold the baguette in two for hygiene – nobody caught us so far), and mostly relaxing about time (“Tomorrow let’s…” – “Don’t make a plan.” – “Why not? I make plans in Germany.” – “We’re not in Germany now.” – “Oh, right!”). I did print a ticket from the machine in the (English-French) pharmacy before I even realized what I was doing, because the sign told me to, but then I quietly threw it away because the line of people had a (very relaxed) life of its own.

On the way back from the beach we, as usual (mais oui), pass the Cartier boutique and I stop to look at the window. A beautiful ring with a square-cut emerald immediately catches my eye. There is no price tag. A quick search on the Cartier website (I love the internet) produces the aforementioned item and it is indeed gorgeous. It’s not surprising, just slightly intimidating, that the price is not available here either, but you can click on “Request” and fill out a form with your information. And that’s as close as I’ll ever get to such luxury. Today I saw a woman exit the Dior shop with a bag, just like it was an everyday thing to do, and only a few minutes walk after that I happily bought a baguette for one euro, so I guess that’s just how life works.