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…

How to Do Düsseldorf in One Weekend

Düsseldorf routinely pops up in various lists and rankings of European cities to visit, and with good reason. It’s convenient to reach both from Europe and elsewhere, not so large that you feel overwhelmed at choosing what to see and do during a weekend getaway, but by no means lacking in cultural delights and delicious food experiences. Read on!

Key Facts

One of the top ten most populous cities in Germany and the capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The famous Rhine river runs through the city also famous for its carnival celebrations in early spring, which pairs suitably with the fact that several established Altbier brands (such as Füchschen, Uerige and Schlüssel) typical to Düsseldorf and the region around it proudly distinguish the city further. Düsseldorf is also home to a large Japanese community. Last but not least, football fans the world over will definitely have something to say about Fortuna Düsseldorf.

Get There

By train – Deutsche Bahn offers many options and it’s a pleasant ride, especially for us northerners any time we venture further down from the peak of the country (pun points for me, as lovely Hamburg is as flat (plattes Land) a city as can be). There’s some nice green scenery to admire on the way and even several hours pass quickly. Düsseldorf Cental Station is busy, but well-planned, and the Presse + Buch shop is definitely worth a visit if you’re also departing by train. One thing to keep in mind during the summer in particular is that you will most likely encounter numerous groups of tipsy or near-intoxicated young men arriving for stag dos/ bachelor party weekends. Most of them are friendly and happy, but still best viewed from a distance.

By plane – Düsseldorf international Airport is a popular transportation hub and very nice to walk around. Airlines flying to and from include Lufthansa, Air Berlin and Eurowings. It’s well-connected to the city center, as well as the Düsseldorf Central Station, and the journey by S-Bahn train doesn’t take long.

Stay

Düsseldorf is an internationally popular city with a busy event program year round, as well as a thriving business center. There is no shortage of hotels to choose from based on budget and preferences. Another option is, of course, Airbnb, which was my experience this time and which I thoroughly enjoyed. One example of a good area to stay in, especially if you want to walk a lot to points of interest, is the Friedrichstadt district. Tip: check the trade fair calendar before planning your trip. Messe Düsseldorf is one of the largest exhibition venues in Germany, and accommodation may predictably get snapped up fast around and during events.

Walk

To Düsseldorf’s Rheinturm TV tower and explore the surrounding park, watching fellow weekenders doing yoga on the lawn.

To the arresting and Instagram-worthy Neuer Zollhof in the Düsseldorf harbor, with buildings designed by Frank O. Gehry.

To the green, sprawling and lovely Volksgarten park, and run between these clocks in an installation by Klaus Rinke. Alice in Wonderland/ White Rabbit vibes? Yeah, me too. On a weekend morning it’s an oasis of tranquility with many beautiful trees, bridges, shaded corners…and birds of all kinds! Generally a regular sight all over Düsseldorf. Step carefully.

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Visit

Of the many museums Düsseldorf has to offer, I visited the NRW Forum, well-known for its exhibitions of modern art. A particular point of excitement which is still relevant as I type this was a virtual reality exhibition with several stations titled Unreal, which had me finding my footing again after an immersive half hour in my massive headset. On the way out I walked through the Myth Tour de France exhibition, which was unexpectedly graphic and made me aware of my naive ignorance around the event. The exhibition was, of course, timed around this year’s start of the Tour de France in Düsseldorf at the end of June- beginning of July.

Eat

Time to sit down for a bite! Walking back from the harbor in the general direction of the city center around noon, in good weather you can take your pic of lovely places with tables set outside overlooking the river, and thankfully reasonably priced menus. Again, in the summertime the aforementioned groups of dudes celebrating their groom buddy are omnipresent, so take care to sit at a distance in order to be able to chat and relax amid the beer-fueled table pounding in the background.

I happened on a street lined with Japanese shops and restaurants by accident and it immediately made me nostalgic for Tokyo. In the evening my weary, but happy feet carried me to Hyuga in Klosterstraße, where I indulged in some delicious sushi.

You might hear from some that Düsseldorf is considered stuck-up. Don’t believe it and see for yourself.

Oslo Reloaded, Day 2, Opera

The Oslo Opera House was definitely a major higlight during last year’s trip for me. What would it be like, we wondered, to see a performance there? One year later we find ourselves with tickets to see a ballet based on Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, one of Norway’s most famous playrights, but more on that later.

There is never a bad time to visit the Oslo Opera House, really. The building seems to transform along with the time of day and the changing light. Each view of and from it is exciting and unique. With the traditional notion of walls, gravity and height on the mind, it is somewhat surreal to find yourself not only going in, but walking on the Opera House before you even realize it. The change of levels is so gradual, even gentle, that the view of the Oslo Fjord from the rooftop catches you by surprise.

Space and peace are the main impressions emanating from the Operahuset, as well as a sense of welcoming. It snowed in the morning. I look down at my pointed black ankle boots and my friend’s smart black pumps, and suggest we take the steps stretching out in front of us. There’s an expanse of of the building leading upwards, basically just a walkway, but that’s for another day and in other shoes.

People are walking everywhere, some are sitting down and reading or just gazing out over the city. Blues, whites, marble and glass ripple, blend together and reflect each other in the rays of the slowly setting sun. I am enchanted.

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To me, Henrik Ibsen was previously known for his plays A Doll’s House and Peer Gynt. My friend had read Ghosts before the trip and summarized it for me. Subsequently, we were both asking the same question: how can this complicated material with many-layered family drama and tragedy stretching over two generations be translated to modern ballet dancing? While admiring the spacious interior of the Operahuset’s foyer, which is just as intriguing as the outside, we got a program. In the introduction director Marit Moum Aune immediately answers that taking Ibsen’s text as a basis for a dance performance is indeed a complicated feat (“terrible idea”), but as those involved were, we too are now intrigued.

We take our seats in the auditorium we viewed a year ago from above during our tour of the Operahuset and in a few minutes lights go out as the ballet begins. The set is at first glance minimalistic, but reflective of the dark shadows in the character’s pasts, both literally and metaphorically. As the mother soon to be surprised by the return or her grown-up son dances across the stage, we are pulled deeper and deeper in to this eerily calm and increasingly tense atmosphere. A screen shows a family of three slowly making their way forward, as if in a dream, the Fjord behind them and the unurried noise of waves coming in time with their steps. Is it a dream? Someone’s memory? Or indeed, ghosts? We don’t quite know, and the possibility of interpretation, the freedom of it is exhilirating. Fast-paced dance sequences involving the whole dance ensemble on stage seamlessly interchange with the slower ones, as agonies, past and present all collide, so that it becomes occasionally difficult to undersand who is who, but at the end you are left breathless, just like the rest of the audience. The immersion is so complete, it takes a while to come back to the real world.

 

 

Oslo Reloaded, Day 2, Ekebergparken Sculpture Park

I add the various smoked salmon to the eggs and bacon (mais oui) on my plate, and then my eyes fall on the waffle iron standing on the counter opposite. You can make your own waffles here? And put Nutella on them? Or raspberry jam? Oh, wait, you’re supposed to spray the inside of the waffle iron with this can, which as it turns out, is not whipped cream? Act casual, just act casual.

The breakfast buffet at the Scandic Grensen hotel has won me over. Or maybe that already happened when I saw the salmon. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day! Good food is not to be taken for granted, and neither is good breakfast! I’m feeling ridiculously happy that we will get to come here one more time before leaving, and I know without a doubt that I will stuff my face.

“There are two types of people: those who want to know when is breakfast in the hotel, and those who want to know until when is breakfast in the hotel.”

We board a tram at Oslo S and venture out a little outside of the city, but not too much, and get out to a view of the slightly hilly Ekebergparken sculpture park. The air is fresh and invigorating and I’m itching for a panoramic view of Oslo, which I get soon enough. It’s exciting to recognize familiar areas from above.

A few minutes later I get a shot of the Oslo Fjord, then I just stare for a while. It’s very peaceful up here and I like the understated beauty of bare trees waiting for spring. Nature will take its course and everything will soon wake up.

Ekebergparken is also a national heritage site, and scattered throughout the park are indeed sculptures, each arresting and thought-provoking in its own way. Ever so often a work of art will catch your eye and pull you out of your reverie brought on by trees, moss-covered stones and thoughts of Norwegian trolls. It’s an interesting state of perpetual contrast. Another sculpture by Sean Henry, Woman (Being Looked At), stands in the passageway of the Folketeatret, where we saw Ylvis last year. The exhibit in Ekebergparken, Walking Woman, inspires our purposeful stride. Concave Face by Hilde Maehlum captivates me with its unusual beauty.

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Anatomy of an Angel by Damien Hirst leads to a monologue from me on the representation of angels in Supernatural (“Cas!”). Then I quickly forget my thread as a troop of children on ponies locked by adults in the front, middle and back passes us, with the kid in the middle astride a particularly fat pony. Its belly is almost level with its hooves and I’m delighted. A sign nearby points in the direction of a riding school on the territory, and sure enough, in a few minutes we discover it. The place is filled with happy family activity, sheep are bleating and there’s a small cabin labeled Kaniners, which attracts my attention because bunnies are Kaninchen auf Deutsch.

Art comes in all shapes and forms. After identifying that the disembodied voice half-hissing in a British accent, “Shed the body…shed the body…redemption” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets vibes, anyone?) was actually coming from the base of a lamppost, we decided it was time to head down to the Barcode district. Getting there on foot from Ekebergparken is entirely possible, just follow the tram tracks and then keep walking towards those fascinating buildings (mind the construction site on the way). We make sure not to look towards the opera house so as to keep the element of surprise alive for the evening’s activities.

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