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!

 

Things You Learn in German Swimming Pools

Disclaimer: most of these experiences relate to Hamburg and they are my observations only.

Well, I guess the first thing I learned was that without some kind of subscription or membership card, this beloved activity was going to be expensive, so I got one and it’s been with me for almost eleven years. I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.

What threw me during my very first pool visit as I navigated my way to the changing rooms, trying to remember all the turns, was that the hair dryers were attached out in the open, no partitions or walls of any kind between them. For some reason, before I had confronted any other elements of the swimming pool experience which have much more shock potential for someone who didn’t grow up with certain elements of the German culture (keep reading), seeing people blowing their tresses dry with other visitors just passing by was unexpectedly intimate. Even if everyone was, thankfully, clothed. To paraphrase one of my favorite scenes from Criminal Minds, sometimes a girl just wants to dry her hair alone, you know?

I was feverishly deciding, calling forth my Russian upbringing, whether it would be safe to ditch the hair drying after my swim and cover up snugly with a hat, because regardless of the season, you should never ever go outside with wet hair, when I arrived at the changing rooms. Yeah. So, this is not always the case, but it’s good to know that it might be. Sometimes the only thing separating the women’s changing area from the men’s is apparent trust in the fact that no one will peak around locker row corners or turn their head that extra inch when walking to the pool entrance. It’s also customary to murmur a Hello or Good Morning when you come in, regardless of the fact whether fellow ladies present are changing or not.

And thus we come to the final point of this story, namely the showers. Basically all of the above made it clear to me that I either had to find a mental, sometimes physical, way around it, or not go to the pool at all, which would be a pity. Greetings also take place here, as well as small talk, such as: comments on the water temperature in the pool, the strength of the shower gush, asking to borrow someone’s shampoo, observations on how crowded it is. What’s more, people make eye contact here. I. Can’t. Do. This. I can’t even look at my friends if we go to the pool together and then to the shower! We seem to understand each other without additional explanations: stop talking as soon as you enter the shower area, eyes up and focused on your goal at hand, then when you’re done, discreetly ask, “Are you finished?” OR, in my case, quote Governor Swann from the first Pirates of the Caribbean, “Elizabeth? Are you decent?”

But these are all strangers, some of my other friends will say, you don’t know them, what does it matter if they are all naked in there? Precisely, they are strangers! And I do mind! But I have, after all, lived here for a while now, and I’ve become tougher in some respects, milder in others, added a dash more sarcasm and a pinch of simply being practical where I used to be stiff with terror. In the end, a blissful hour in the water far outweighs a few minutes spent in two other places that are just stops on the way and back.

But you won’t catch me in a sauna, nuh-uh.

Summer in Germany: The Bare Facts

The picture of a bare-assed man on a bike snapped from the back is what first stops my gaze during a routine afternoon online browse in one of Hamburg’s local papers. Then with a rising feeling of foreboding I read the headline: Phew, It’s Warm! In the Car, In the Garden – Where You Can be Naked and Where Not. In this case, “can” translates as “allowed”, and by allowed one obviously means the law.

We are a few hours away from another heat wave after weeks of cooler weather and once again everyone is preparing. The city is serious about this, with memories of last year’s summer still fresh. Even the DJs on my favorite morning radio show suggested taking care of anything that needed to be done ouside today, because, to quote Disney’s The Little Mermaid, “It’s gonna be hot in my big silver pot”.

People are also serious about this, and apparently some might go so far as to bare all in search of relief from the heat or a blatant display of confidence. While I sincerely hope we will avoid running into each other (please, God, no), Germany’s so-called Freikörperkultur (FKK), translating as free body culture, is known the world over. Somehow we didn’t cover the topic all those years ago in my German classes, but now it’s definitely visible to the naked eye.

I decided to finally research the subject to know my rights as a clothed citizen and, to be fair, those of the “textile-free”. The aforementioned article provided some useful bits of information. First of all, walking around without clothes in Germany is not punishable by law. However, being able to continue with the decision depends on a combination of the chosen location, legal details in laws relating to misdemeanors and disturbance of the peace, various safety regulations, and, perhaps most importantly, on whether or not other people glimpsing you naked on your bike or balcony feel “disturbed” by the view.

An incident during Germany’s June heat wave in Brandenburg made international headlines, when local police stopped a naked man riding a moped. At least he had his helmet on. A picture posted on the police’s Twitter account was accompanied by a question about how to best caption it, because law enforcement themselves were “speechless”. The moped rider’s answer delivered in local dialect? “It’s warm, isn’t it?”

My questions, meanwhile, are these: isn’t it extremely uncomfortable, not to mention painful, to park your naked butt and additional exposed skin on what will clearly be a very hot surface? Isn’t the discomfort and pain consideration relevant even without hot weather?

Further Googling on being naked in Germany produces a fountain of satisfying headlines. Nudity in Germany: The Naked Truth, mentions nude beaches where disrobing completely is required by all visitors. “Summer in the parks of Berlin and Munich brings the chance of encountering a middle-aged, bronzed German wearing only a hat and the BILD-Zeitung, Germany’s favorite tabloid.” Making notes right now on where not to go, but no worries, public FKK areas are signposted. There’s also a handful of online sources detailing where nude bathing is allowed.

The more straightforward, practical Where to Get Naked in Germany additionally explains the culture and where to live it. Finally, The Dos And Don’ts of Public Nudity in Germany are very helpful for those feeling somewhat lost even after reading the material linked in this post. However, after seeing a suggestion to try nude hiking, I’m done.

 

Mainz

If you’re considering a trip to the Rhine region in Germany, one of the stops I warmly recommend is the city of Mainz. It’s a state capital full of charm, history, and beauty. Also the weather over there is usually really good!

As the train from Hamburg makes its way further south, green hills and fields lush with spring replace our more modest spring landscapes. Everything is drenched in sunlight and it’s easy to see, as you near Frankfurt, why the Rhine river inspired so many poets. It’s also clear why the wine industry does so well around here, not only due to fantastic conditions, but because the scenery certainly adds to the enjoyment of consumption.

Mainz is lovely. The train station is busy and convenient and there are plenty of nice walks to be had on foot. Local attractions include various flowerbeds in a riot of colors, which burst with vibrance and that special springtime bloom.

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Right in the city center you will find the Gutenberg Museum, especially interesting for book lovers, but also in general for anyone curious not only about local history from Mainz, but Johannes Gutenberg’s mind-blowing impact on Europe’s printing industry for centuries to come. This is the man who invented the printing press in the 15th century. The museum also houses two original bibles printed by him and once you see them, you definitely feel the weight of how valuable they are.

Another beautiful walk worth taking is from the city center to the St. Stephan Church (St. Stephan zu Mainz). It’s a great opportunity to see more of the city’s architecture and explore various side streets with pretty views, plus see a cherry tree or two.

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The church, besides being a beautiful building, also holds an important historical place in Mainz, as well as housing some of the most famous European artwork of the 20th century. I’m talking about Marc Chagall’s unforgettable blue stained-glass windows. You try your best to do them justice with a few quick snapshots, so as not to disturb other admirers, but then you just join them and stare.

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Cap off the above with a stroll along the Rhine and Mainz will charm you for life.

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Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 2

If you’re thinking where to go out after arriving, especially if it’s closer to the evening, the Bornheim Mitte district is a good suggestion. Just a few minutes on the U4 subway line from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) and get out at the stop called…you guessed it, Bornheim Mitte. It’s a cosy, lively area full of cafés, bars, restaurants and shops, also great for meeting up with friends.

The next day is open to me and I can do whatever I want, so I set off towards a classic destination, the old town, planning to walk around and refresh my memories. Frankfurt’s city center around its cathedral, Dom Römer, had been severely destroyed during air bombings in the 1940s and painstakingly restored since then. Arriving at the square that is still relatively quiet for a Friday morning, I pause to take it all in. It’s a pretty sight.

I’m about to go all around the square first, but then when I start I walk past a sign next to the cathedral pointing towards the entrance to the tower. It seems encouraging and I make the detour. Hamburg doesn’t have a cathedral and I’ve had a hankering for visiting them ever since seeing Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in my youth (yes, I know the book is vastly different) and going on my first trip to Paris shortly after. There’s a bit of construction going on around the ticket office of the Dom, I contribute 3 euros to preserving this historical structure and pull open a heavy metal door. It shuts behind me with a resounding bang after I enter.

The next 10 minutes that feel like half an hour are spent climbing a tightly spiraling narrow stone staircase, holding on to a rail on one side and gripping a rope on the other. A few other visitors make their way down as I’m going up and we carefully maneuver around each other, me pausing to let them by. One size stairs fits all! A sign next to a caged door that’s locked despite providing the first view of what seems like a balcony points upwards to the observation deck and I cover a few more flights. So that’s my morning workout and suspense kick sorted, but the views from the top of the cathedral tower are more than worth it. Like this classic one of the Frankfurt city skyline (contributing to the fact that many people think it’s a metropolis – there’s just something about skyscrapers):

Or this one of the Main river:

I love finding a place to get a good view of a city from above when I travel, it just adds something special to your day and provides some reflection time to scope out the area before joining the action on the ground. Going up the cathedral tower was more taxing physically then going down, but going down is also more likely to make you slightly dizzy.  Feeling proud of myself for being a good tourist, I walk around the square, going into every side street and passing a chattering class of French exchange students clearly just beginning their journey through snooty puberty.

I make my way towards the Kleinmarkthalle on foot, everything is close – it’s a covered marketplace that I’ve briefly been to years ago and decide to explore more after a tip from my friend. But first there’s a bookstore right by the entrance that pulls me in. While the massive volumes about Vogue shoes or Hitchcock’s blondes are way out of both my budget and suitcase range, it’s fun to leaf through them, and then I spot a small discounted daily desk calendar for 2019 with screenshots from Disney animated films. And what do you know, I actually don’t have a desk calendar for this year yet. Thank you, Frankfurt.

The market is filled with people, but it’s easy to move along, and colours, food, smells, sounds all take up my attention for a while.

Plenty of stalls offer lunch, and I settle on one that promises homey food. “Here you go, my dear, enjoy and come again,” – well, thank you. The breaded salmon with fried potatoes and a minty green sauce is delicious and it’s fun to listen to what the other diners around me are talking about. After that I treat myself to some homemade chocolates and conclude the day’s walk by doing that thing all the tourists here do.

Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 1

The first month of 2019 is coming to an end and even if I already live in a big city, I felt like a city weekend in another city. That’s enough times saying “city” in one sentence! So Frankfurt it is, with the added pleasure of having friends living there.

6 AM rising and successful arrival at the train station in Hamburg with 20 minutes to spare. One of my friends once told me with a smile, incidentally one of the people I’m visiting this time, “The train will not leave earlier.” That’s true! But you never know how other elements of getting to your platform will work out. If you’re going from Hamburg to Frankfurt by train, some of the options available are leaving either from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) or Dammtor station. The former is always busy and bigger, the latter is usually quieter and it’s a smaller space.

My early morning train choice was cancelled, something I found out only upon arriving at the platform. Not to worry, my organized (German) thinking switched on. Down to the travel center (Reisezentrum) of the Deutsche Bahn I go. I get a free ticket and a free reserved seat for another direct train. My first adventure of the day, practically a classic for any train traveler, has been mastered. I while away the remaining half hour in the bakery next door and reward myself with a cup of hot chocolate for my common sense. It’s not 8 AM yet, but the station is already bustling with commuters and other travelers rolling their suitcases past me. I think once again that as much as you love playing tourist in the place where you live, it’s good to get out of that zone every now and then by being an actual tourist.

I have a spot at a table by the window, the sun is shining and all around me people are quietly working on their laptops, or reading and watching stuff. There is Wifi, halleluja. I wonder if I’m the only one heading to Frankfurt for a vacation, since it’s the kind of city that typically attracts a steady stream of business people, many of whom take the train due to the good connection as far as long distances go.

Hamburg’s familiarly flat landscape has given way to hilly forests wherever we are now, and so far I see it has snowed here too, like it did in Hamburg last night. I’m not sleepy at all, though very comfortable, and it’s nice to think I didn’t panic one bit when I saw my original train was cancelled. “Oh, so this is what’s happening now, OK.” Looking forward to Part 2.

Swimming Snippets: Pool Ponderings

Soooo… I was swimming today and arrived at the thought that there seem to be two types of lap swimmers.

Type number one acts like they own the pool. People wade in and throw themselves into swimming laps without a glance in any direction, because the idea of other swimmers in the vicinity is just ludicrous, I guess. Preferred swimming styles include backstroke or the front crawl, and of course goggles and swimming caps add to the feeling that it’s just you in the pool. Get out of the way, all you other peasants with your heads above water!

Type number two carefully steps in, moves to the side so as not to be in the way of anyone reaching the end of their lap, then spends a few seconds looking around, picking a lane. They then elegantly lower their body into the water and strike out, taking care to keep enough distance between themselves and the feet and hands of other swimmers. If, God forbid, they do end up brushing limbs with someone passing by, they actually take the time to turn their head and at least mouth “Sorry”.

Type number one are also frequently noisy swimmers. You might not see them once you’re in the water and focusing on your own stroke, but you’ll hear them. I understand there’s a lot of action involved in what they do, there’s water around and that certain physical manifestations in the form of sounds escaping them is unavoidable. But blowing your nose, sniffing and clearing your throat with unrestrained relish that carries perfectly thanks to pool acoustics, and all this while swimming, seems a bit much.

Meanwhile, type twos are basically this:

I have picked my side…