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.
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Hamburg Heat Wave Decoded

Today is once again the hottest day of the year and since the evening shows no signs of cooling down thus far, there seems nothing better to do than blog in the peaceful sanctuary of my darkened apartment, with my small fan plugged in, reliably churning the air, and in an outfit I wouldn’t show myself in outside. Could this bliss be more introverted? In-between typing I’m switching to watching WIRED YouTube Videos in which various celebrities answer the Internet’s most searched questions about themselves and laughing my head off.

The combination of being a list-making redhead who is voluntarily influenced by the German way of life means I’ve got this particular summer’s routine all figured out. And may I just point out that in my almost ten years living here, this is the FIRST summer in Hamburg which has lasted way, way more than two weeks in a row (someone was telling me ferverntly just this morning it’s been going on since April, that’s what’s happening to our minds now). So I actually had data for developing said routine.

You wake up in the morning and peel off whatever stuck to your skin during the night (get your minds out of the gutter right now). You open some windows in a hurried attempt to take advantage of the morning coolness, which you know won’t last long. You make a mental note to DEFINITELY shut the window before you leave for work, because the last time you forgot, and you came back to the predictable oven. You get yourself ready for the day and try to make breakfast consist of more than chugging water. Then you slap on sunscreen and walk to work, and you know exactly where all the shady spots are during your route, so you feel a sense of accomplishment, and when you reach your destination, your sense of accomplishment changes to feeling smug, because really, this was quite pleasant.

The day goes on and by lunchtime you’re seriously debating whether you’ll go outside. Again. Ever. The heat is snaking its way in. You’re not even thinking about the trip home, because it’s so far away in the future and there are more pressing concerns. You drink the amount of water you subsequently sweat out, and so the cycle continues. You also shower the same amount of times as the water bottles you emptied during the day. Unsticking your skirt or dress when you get up with a dainty grasp (not) of material between thumb and forefinger becomes second nature. Sleep is a gamble and then…see the beginning of this paragraph.

There were, of course, other things I could have decided to do after my supervisor told the department we could leave earlier as it was 36 degrees Celcius outside. Beach bar around the Port of Hamburg? Nah, based on experience all the spots in the shade would be taken, and I’ve become such a pro at avoiding generous sunlight that I don’t want to break my winning streak. Steal the office picnic blanket for an evening and stretch out in the shade of Planten un Blomen park? Nein, I went out earlier in the afternoon for a break and being in the shade felt like walking in to a wall of chicken soup. Go to the pool? Again, good luck finding a spot in the shade to lay down my stuff and I’m sure every pool in the city is bursting at the seams. It’s too hot to traipse around packing up to go somewhere out of town and clearly if one thing is obvious, it’s that I AM good at saying no (to myself), which the Internet says is an important survival skill.

Fragments of what I read in the local paper online between productive bouts of work in an office which hasn’t seen the light beyond our window blinds for what feels like months flit through my mind. Fish are, sadly, dying in the Alster river and the Alster swans were moved all the way to their WINTER quarters in what is still AUGUST by Hamburg’s very own swan father Olaf. I don’t know which of these two bits of information was more convincing, but in stealthy survival mode I crept along the shaded side of the street on my way home, stopping only to satisfy one wish in an air-conditioned shop. Because chocolate, like revenge, is also a dish best served cold, so in the fridge it goes. I’m once again experiencing a sense of accomplishment.

Alster River Trail

It’s summer, and while I’m a city girl through and through, the soul is demanding open spaces and lots of tall, leafy trees, their branches disappearing in a roof of green foliage over my head, wide paths and a bench every now and then to sit and read, or scribble…

Don’t want to go far, but want to be away from the center, though still near civilization and the possibility of public transport. Like I said, I’m a city girl. So where to? Their are several options in Hamburg, and one of them pops up on my radar immediately. Take the S-Bahn to Poppenbüttel and start from there, it’s easy to get your bearings. On your way to the trail you might stop for a glimpse of Burg Henneberg, which might be the smallest castle in the world, and then you proceed towards the Alsterwanderweg, or the Alster river trail.

Everything I had been longing for was there. Quiet water, plenty of space, old trees, shade and the green summer spilling from every corner. I’ve only covered a small part of the trail, but I’m eager to continue. Biking takes two to three hours, walking four to five hours, all depending on how fast you go and how often you stop for breaks. Considering how often I stop to take pictures I might take all weekend…

Click on the gallery to get an impression.

Rubber Boots in Hamburg Are…

A necessity? Another important step towards becoming local, after getting wet in the rain, eating Labskaus and taking a harbour boat trip on the HVV ferry?

I have held out for almost ten years, most likely because of my Siberian roots making me more used to searching for warm winter shoes rather than rubber boots. We don’t get as much rainy weather there as in Hamburg. But I do believe, if you don’t own rubber boots already, when you move to this city, you will arrive at that point. One day, possibly a day when huge flakes of wet snow are dropping rapidly from the sky, you will wake up, go outside, take a few steps and know, now. Either you splash through, get wet and DEAL with it (whether complaining or nonchalantly is up to you), or you get the proper EQUIPMENT and stay dry!

So sometimes profound life questions that we have been asking ourselves for years get answerd in one go. I enjoyed browsing silver, flower-patterned and generally glittering rubber boots priced way beyond my budget range for this month, virtuously walked away and got comfortable black ones with a dependable sole. Let the puddle jumping begin.

International Maritime Museum

One of Hamburg’s most fascinating museums is a must for history buffs, maritime fans and anyone loving this city. It houses both international exhibits and showcases Hamburg’s prominent link to maritime history in Europe and the world.

I had been meaning to go for a while and found myself making my way there one Sunday morning. The trip there holds a certain amount of excitement in itself, as one of the possible routes takes you to Überseequartier, a cavernous, gleaming station inlaid with blue (immediately reminiscent of all those sea-inspired vibes) and part of Hamburg’s most recently completed subway line, the U4. Getting out, you’ll see ongoing construction in the still new HafenCity district, and then a few minutes walk will take you to the museum iteself.

The International Maritime Museum is located in Hamburg’s oldest warehouse, Kaispeicher B. 10 floors, or “docks” filled with an enormous scope of sailing and ship-building artefacts, sketching out voyages across the world, the development of navigation, battles taking place at sea and the expansion of modern passenger sea travel await discovery.

One of my favourite sections included an outline of the history of lighthouses – it turns out the first ones were built in ancient Egypt. A detailed, intricate model of one of Germany’s most famous lighthouses called Roter Sand accompanied the exhibit, giving a glimpse in to the inside of the structure.

I spent several minutes staring at a model of the cruise liner the Queen Mary 2, built out of Lego. It took six months and roughly one million Lego pieces to put it together.

Models of ships from various centuries hung suspended from the ceiling, some against a background painting of the sea, like that of Wapen von Hamburg (III) from 1722. She sailed from Hamburg, accompanying merchant ships solely for protecting them against pirate attacks. Staring at it, it was easy to forget the strings holding up the model and to imagine her sailing in front of you for real.

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Labskaus: Another Hamburg Mystery

Hamburg, my love, you continue to delight, surprise and occasionally baffle me.

If you live here, you find yourself talking about local things to people. Local things include local dishes. Northern German cuisine is perhaps not as readily recognizable or identifiable as some others, but it exists, solidly and reliably. As with many things in the North, and that means Hamburg too, it needs some time to be discovered, and then you might feel like testing it out.

This is how I found myself looking at a large plate with Labskaus neatly scooped in the middle during my lunch break in the lovely Kleinhus Cafe und Weinbar. After many years of countless jokes, discussions with friends, incredulous exclamations, perusing articles online and trying to decide ja or nein, while all the time not having a clue what set Labskaus apart, the moment of truth was finally upon me.

Labskaus is a bit of an enigma for anyone who didn’t grow up here. Why? Simple. It looks like a mound of raw meat ground to mashed potato consistency with fried egg on top, and a side helping of gherkins and pickled herring fillets also known as rollmops. Something about the combination just makes some of us hesitate. Historically it was said to be a popular dish among sailors in Northern Germany, and the mashed consistency made it easy to eat since many of them had bad teeth.

Fast forward a few hundred years later to some wary diners. The meat is salted, not raw, it just looks that way in some cases, most likely due to a generous helping of beetroot and carrots. The dish might differ slightly in different restaurants. It’s warm, filling, and easy to eat. Don’t let what might look like a small-sized portion fool you, the helping is more than enough.

It all comes down to this. Labskaus by no means tastes how it looks…but it still looks the way it looks. Or some of us (me) overthink things. Guten Appetit!

Marble Painting for Beginners

Thanks to a friend I happened on Studio 42 in Hamburg and took their class on marble painting. Result: it’s addictive! While doing it does require some space and covering up to avoid a mess, the whole process is exciting and even a little addictive. Obviously there are various levels to the technique and the creations that full-time marble painting artists come up with are mind-blowing. But those of us just starting out or looking for some artsy, creative enjoyment can proceed with full assurance of producing a unique, (mostly) abstract print full of colours playing off each other.

Read below to see one example of how you can do your own bit of marble painting.

What you need:

Rectangular shallow basin or tray – size depends on the paper size you’ll be using for your painting

Bigger basin

Glass sheet

Drying rack

Drawing paper

Old newspapers

Acrylic paints

Paintbrushes

Toothpics

Water

Bowl

Thin sponge

Thin rubber gloves from a pharmacy

Aluminium sulfate

Ox gall

Step by step:

  1. Fill your tray or basin with water, but not all the way to the brim, leaving an inch or two.
  2. Add the ox gall to the water (if you Google this, you might find that opinions differ on how much to add and whether to add any to the tray at all – take your pick!)
  3. Put on the rubber gloves.
  4. Mix your colours in small jars or containers using the acrylic paints and add bottled water so that it will be possible to shake/ spray the paint on the surface of the water later on.
  5. Mark one side of your sheet of paper with an X.
  6. Dissolve the aluminium sulfate in a bowl of water (ditto on the amounts in terms of different opinions), soak the sponge in it and wet both sides of the paper with wide, even strokes.
  7. Set paper aside to dry.
  8. Dip the brush in the prepared colour you want to start with. Hold the brush in one hand, positioned above the surface of the water, and gently, but firmly tap it against the index and middle finger of your other hand. Ideally, paint splotches will fly off the brush and settle on the water’s surface. Repeat this with several colours. Use a toothpic to create patterns.
  9. Turn the sheet of paper with the side marked X facing up towards you, take the bottom corner on one side and the upper corner on the other, and lower the sheet, placing it on the surface of the water.
  10. After a few seconds, pick up the sheet by both upper corners, and transer it to the board or sheet of glass in the larger basin. Douse with water to get rid of excess paint, then carefully transfer to drying rack. Use wide strips of old newspaper to skim the surface of the water in the tray before the next session.

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All photos by @juniperlu