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!

 

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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, come across 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.

Speicherstadt and a Few Other Hamburg Stops

I’ve taken a week off (not for the first time) around my birthday and decided to spend it here in Hamburg (for the first time!), being a tourist in my own city. It felt like I needed to connect to my city again. So here goes. A little over a week of doing all the things I’d been thinking of, and hopefully finding my way back to making these experiences a more regular occurence.

Today’s main goal is the Speicherstadt, Hamburg’s historic warehouse district, which is tightly connected to its fame as a merchant city, the “gateway” to the world. I decide to walk and my route takes me through Hamburg city center first. It’s still early and there aren’t any crowds mixing tourists and locals. The additional absence of a few construction sites I had become used to make for unobstructed picture-taking, for example of the stately Hamburg Chamber of Commerce.

From there it’s only a short walk to St. Nicholas’ Church (St.-Nikolai-Kirche), the tower of which is visible from various vantage points. Hamburg does not have a cathedral, though many churches, and this is one is one of the most famous architectural victims of both the Great fire of Hamburg in 1842 and the Allied bombing of the city in 1943. The tower, the space which the rest of the building stood on and the crypt are all that’s left today from former days, and now you can take a lift to the top of the tower for some spectacular views of Hamburg. On a clear day visibility is breath-taking. I’m also lucky this morning – tickets are 1 euro cheaper.

The Speicherstadt is only a few minutes away now on foot, and while I’m heavily aided by Google Maps, there are also signs just when I start to question myself. I’ve loved those signs every since I moved to Hamburg. There are several to a pole, clearly labeled, with arrows and distances helpfully listed as well. I know that would be the usual practice, but I still think it’s incredibly considerate and it makes me happy anywhere. They lead me right to my destination. Here we are.

This is definitely one of the typical tourist stops recommended in Hamburg. The Speicherstadt is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a source of local pride. It’s also very popular among Instagrammers. I’m part of a uniformed crowd – sneakers, wind- and waterproof coats (just in case, you never know in this city), sunglasses, smartphone in hand, though I also see the occasional paper map. The Speicherstadt may seem intimidating at first, but it’s actually very easy to get around. Row upon row of enormous warehouses follow the line of the water, while side streets lead either to the very new HafenCity district or Hamburg’s oldest street, Deichstraße. Along the way I’d recommend stopping at the Speicherstadt Museum for a quick overview of what it was like to work here, especially in the earlier days of Hamburg’s warehouse history.

If you follow that straight line along the buildings and eventually turn left, you’ll walk right up to the Elbphilarmonie, Hamburg’s spectacular and newest concert hall. Another hotspot for Instagrammers and I also can’t resist taking another shot of this eyecatching structure. What I have somehow missed and which I discover thanks to the Speicherstadt Museum is that the “Elphi” was built on the site of the former Warehouse A, or Kaispeicher A. This was the largest and most up-to-date warehouse of that time, and it could also be approached by ships directly from the water. Like many other buildings in Hamburg, it also suffered the effects of WWII, and despite being rebuilt afterwards, due to logistical changes in the harbour it fell out of use. Today visitors and locals alike join a constantly moving line to get free (2 euros if you buy online) tickets for the Elphi’s observation platform, and that’s what I do as well to conclude my sightseeing.

A suprising number of people admiring the views from above were struggling to identify St. Michael’s Church, one of Hamburg’s landmarks and known locally as “Michel” (NOT pronounced Michel as you would in French, which I thankfully quickly discovered during my first walk there when I moved here). I refrain from butting in and acting like a smart-ass local…because I actually need a few minutes to find it myself among the several tower peaks along the Hamburg skyline.

It’s been nice to catch up.

 

This International Life

Bild von Pexels auf Pixabay

Expat is not a term I rushed to attach to myself. Perhaps because cosmopolitan or international seem like more inclusive terms that mirror my experience. Throughout my life I have felt that the international influences I encountered have given and enriched, expanding on and even melding with what was already there. Given the particular trajectory of those influences on my personal development, I’ve simply seen the whole process, including travel and moving to Germany, as a progression.

I have not denied or dropped anything relating to my roots, though I did go through a bumpy phase of placing them in the context of the new daily life I was building for myself in a new country.

A move to another city or abroad is normally something you build up to. The decision to do so does not happen overnight. Neither does the practical bit – having enough money for it and then actually relocating. Many consider relocating somewhere else to be such an enormous step (and it is), that in the general perception this enormity seems to be explained by moving with or for a partner. For me, before I even put the idea and then the decision into words, I think it all started with learning a foreign language. I grew up bilingually and then studied German in university.

The tool that ultimately enabled me to pursue living in Germany was also a reason to do so – I had invested a lot of time and effort into learning this language that was spilling out of me, and I wanted to immerse myself in it. I felt like I had done all I could do, for me, where I had grown up, and so I began looking at other opportunities. Because what I also always felt strongly about was not only taking as much as I could from a place, but giving back to it too through being a part of it, and the latter didn’t seem to be happening anymore in my hometown after a certain amount of time.

You arrive in a new place thinking you know who you are, but everything is put to the test. Or maybe you put yourself to the test. After my first few months in Hamburg I realized I had developed a new identity of sorts. And I wasn’t sure I liked it too much. It showed itself on different levels: feeling increasingly uncomfortable about introducing myself and facing confused reactions to my foreign-sounding name, even suggesting a nickname which I shed in the end (with relief, because it just didn’t feel like me); not sharing much about Russian things I liked; worrying about preconceived ideas before I would even talk to someone.

The solution to not losing yourself? Lots of self-reflection and quite a bit of overanalyzing. Plenty of reading various articles and blogs by other expats and travelers. First tentative, then increasingly open and memorable conversations with fellow international students (since I had moved for my studies) and colleagues outside of my immediate circle, who weren’t negative or condescending, but simply finding their footing in this city they had chosen or ended up in due to various circumstances. I kept communicating with people and being active socially, academically, later at work, and it opened up my world, my mind in ways I couldn’t have imagined, but that was precisely what I had wanted when I first started thinking of where to go in the future. Alongside all the aforementioned, the absolutely invaluable component in finding my way was my family.

I realized shyness was not an obstacle, but just a quality, so I started to talk to friends about my favorite Russian cartoons and stories as I would about anything else, with the occasional blushing and laughing. Everyone survived the experience and we still talk. I ask them the same questions they ask me. I stopped worrying about preconceived ideas – it’s not worth the energy. I learned that like-minded people are easier to identify than we think, because you feel it, and it’s not based on nationality.

You can keep all your layers, whether they are personal, national or international. There are no rules to say you have to pick just one. Creating a bubble of your home country abroad, though, is a mistake, because it is isolating. The trick is in the balance. There are plenty of things I like and cherish from the Russian culture, and most of them have to do with how women are treated: not asking her about her age, especially in public, consideration towards a pregnant woman’s privacy. I carry this appreciation with me and I consider the aforementioned to be entirely possible to discover in people because it is not restricted to being Russian, it can be given life through character or an internal decision. The same goes for the German experience, many parts of which mesh comfortably with my own personality – approaching time like a valuable commodity, being punctual, certain established phrases that make up polite communication, planning anything and everything. But again, this can be found just in an individual person too, whether they are German or not.

With respect towards the background I come from, and gratitude to every other place I’ve traveled to that has given me something to return with, I see my adopted hometown as an entity that has been good to me. This international life has continued making me who I am, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

10 Years in Hamburg: 10 Things I Learned Here

10 years in Hamburg! 10 years of living in Germany’s jewel of the North, eating Franzbrötchen (local pastry), buying a new umbrella at least twice a year (it gets rainy AND windy here sometimes/ regularly), saying Moin (local greeting), walking around the Alster lake and river, loving Hamburg Airport for not yet being big enough to need a shuttle train or bus, getting tipsy from sunshine when it makes an appearance, not being able to drink sparkling water (it hurts and only makes me thirstier), and affectionately cracking up every time the English translation comes on when a subway train reaches its last stop, because it reminds me of watching action films with Arnold Schwarzenegger: “This train terminates here. All change please.” Oh, Hamburg.

A friend recently asked me if these 10 years felt like a long time to me. The honest answer is yes and no, or jein in German – a combination of ja (yes) and nein (no). I remember my first few months here very clearly, as well as the years that followed, but I also feel the weight of all that I’ve experienced and achieved, in a very reassuring sort of way. I guess the conclusion is that I respect what was, appreciate what is and look forward to what will be.

It’s funny to look back and see that the two times I pondered whether I made the right decision in coming here, several years apart, were both caused by experiences which I’m sure would not have led me to such dramatic thoughts today. On the other hand, during a difficult phase when my future truly was suspended in midair, I never once doubted that I wanted to be here. On the contrary, my certainty that I had found the city for me increased by the day. There always came  a point during a trip away when I missed Hamburg. I love to travel and I love knowing that it will also feel good to come back home.

So just what have I learned while living here? Well, to narrow it down to 10 points…

  1. Say Moin! It’s short, it’s got just one syllable (I’m a big fan of short greetings, so effortless, so elegant, so quick, so easy in this busy city life on the go) and it’s undeniably local. You can say it almost anywhere – in shops, when you enter a bakery, in a club, and it might even soften up the grumpy clerk you need to approach for paperwork and whom the whole student dorm recognizes the moment you describe him. I didn’t say it as often during my first year here, but it would pop out all the time as soon as I traveled somewhere else. Not necessarily a good idea in Bavaria… But in Hamburg, and mostly anywhere else in the North, Moin!
  2. Unless you really want to, you don’t necessarily need to buy a ticket for the harbour boat trip tour. Your local HVV ticket (full-day one is the best option) is valid for ALL types of transport in Hamburg, including the ferry! There are ticket machines right on the ferry as well. So hop on at Landungsbrücken station and cruise back and forth along the Elbe as long as you please. Go to the top deck if the weather is dry. This is also a great way to unwind after work and enjoy an unexpected Indian summer.
  3. Franzbrötchen, a type of local sweet pastry with sugar and cinnamon, are constantly discussed, ranked, tested and covered by a variety of good local websites. Buy one, try one, or buy several and try them all, pick one or don’t, get in to conversations about them. Try the ones with extras like chocolate or crumble if you’re feeling adventurous, though I think in the end the original always wins.
  4. Labskaus is a traditional Northern German dish, and for years I’d find myself talking about it to people without trying it. I’d seen pictures, of course, and the moment I did eat it, I discovered it was delicious, somewhat in discord with what you think when you see it first. Have no fear.
  5. You will always find an umbrella in Rossmann or Budnikowski, those two drugstore chains sprinkled throughout the city. And trust me, you will keep needing one. Unless you prefer raincoats. Either one is indispensable around here. Although occasionally getting drenched does create a sense of community and team spirit.
  6. I have always loved being near the water and Hamburg firmly cemented this fact in my adult life. The Elbe and the Alster cover any mood you might be in. I have lost count of how many times I’ve walked around the Alster in particular. It has seen me through all sorts of phases – happy, dreamy, sad, at a loss, triumphant, the water is always there.
  7. No, people are NOT cold here. They just take their time sizing you up, and don’t forget you can do the same. Personally I like this, and it might be influenced by the fact that I’m an introvert, though a very communicative one. After some careful observing and that first coffee or drink you might find that you’ve met a wonderful friend who is still there ten years later. Patience!
  8. If you find yourself talking to a fan of one of Hamburg’s two football teams (St. Pauli or HSV), and you don’t follow either, plus you don’t know your conversation partner too well, perhaps it’s a better idea to listen to the person for a while first. Or indeed just listen, instead of blurting out, “Wait, don’t they keep losing?”
  9. There is a very high chance that your favourite band or singer will make a tour stop in Hamburg.
  10. It’s enough to be able to sing just a bit of Hamburg, meine Perle by Lotto King Karl to feel like you belong here. Everyone around you will join in and sing the rest anyway.