Hamburg Day Off in the Time of Corona: Took the Ferry…

Well, before I took the ferry, I actually took the subway to get to the ferry. This is big. In fact, it’s enormous, or it certainly feels that way. I haven’t been on ANY kind of public transport since March. We were sent off to work from home, accompanied by regular reading of recommendations on the news of what not to do. Since I was lucky enough to be able to walk where I needed to in those months, for the first time ever in now over 11 years, I completely stayed away from what had been a constant companion in my Hamburg life, the local transportation network.

I’ve always been a walker and I’m incredibly fortunate in how Hamburg is built as a city in that respect. But this week the thought of getting on a train kept popping up, and finally I just knew I had to try it again. The main reasons are winning back my daily courage day by day and hopefully contributing to not being completely overwhelmed once it’s possible to travel safely again, whenever that may be. That said, it’s important to remember that in cases like these this is all a voluntary choice and you really have to listen to your feelings, sometimes even on the day, planning or no planning. Everyone is different. For some it’s no big deal. You just go. It’s not really so different from going grocery shopping, is it? Some didn’t get to choose. Still, for me, it’s definitely a leap.

Contrary to my expectations, my tension didn’t mount as I set off. In fact, the preliminary stage of deciding and waiting had been more intense, but once I was on my way, the process just got divided into tasks as I used to do during my travels. Walk down the street, put mask on before entering the train station. Notice with relief after careful scanning of the platform that everyone is standing at a distance and wearing masks with full nose and mouth coverage. Mentally pat myself for successful post-morning-rush timing. Get on the train. Reminders to keep the mask on during the whole ride are played on the loudspeaker at every stop. In German and English. Notice, incensed, the woman opposite reading a book with her mask pulled down from her nose. NO.

Get off at the Landungsbrücken station in the Port of Hamburg. Stare, because the station is cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. The usually present construction barriers are gone. Go down to the dock and board the local ferry, which basically also acts as a bus and is part of the city transport. Again gratefully notice that it’s not busy and people are following rules. Get a seat on a row on the outside deck and no one else sits there, hallelujah. Then see a group of six middle-aged men confidently making their way to the front of the deck, all of them laughing, clearly convinced of their coolness. The leader is wearing a leather jacket. They stop to take group selfies, which is when I see that leather jacket isn’t wearing a mask. Immediately a severe female voice demands he put one on, “…also for taking pictures”, or else he can disembark.

It’s wonderful to feel the wind from the Elbe river again and see the familiar landmarks along the way. My original tentative plan was to get out at Neumühlen/ Övelgönne and walk a while, but big rain clouds roll in and soon it starts to drizzle insistently. OK, that answers that question, though basically at that point it simply felt like a bit much to do. As we say in the family, not everything at once (не всё сразу in Russian). Somewhat reluctantly I change spaces to take shelter on the lower inside deck, where there’s still plenty of room. I just stay seated at the end stop. After a few minutes the ferry turns around and heads back to Landungsbrücken, so this is a great (and cheap!) alternative to booking an actual harbour boat trip with a company. It’s not raining anymore and the sun is shining again, so I gratefully go back up and once again get a good seat.

Even in these times, or precisely because, humans will still exhibit strange behavior. The maybe ten-year-old girl also sitting downstairs at first jumps up after the rain stopped, runs past me…and I notice she’s barefoot. She stays barefoot until we dock and, despite my optimistic hopes, disembarks still sockless and shoeless. I don’t see her anymore afterwards, because I concentrate on keeping my distance and making my way back to the subway.

That’s enough adventures for one day.

 

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 Dante’s Peak? Does Dante’s Peak 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!