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…

Recent Travel Reminders

Travel, even if it’s a short trip away, always opens you up. You have to make decisions along the way, the unexpected may happen, your daily routines might be left for a while, freeing time for something else or a new day rhythm. You remember or refresh things that might be useful, and discard others that are not. I love making lists and my brain starts buzzing with the random, the practical and the sentimental as I make my way to a given destination.

So here’s a selection from my recent trip

Have a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer readily accessible. Or wet wipes. Big fan, yes. And never again shall you be unpleasantly surprised by the absence of soap in the airport bathroom when you eagerly press the dispenser button or hopefully flap your hands in an attempt to activate the motion sensor.

There’s never really a bad time for a cup of hot chocolate, if you want one, but maybe there’s more variety around than Starbucks? And if not, heck, go for that Wifi.

Phones, tablets etc. are indispensable, but sometimes it’s so nice to read an actual book or magazine while waiting for boarding or during train journeys. It’s getting a tinge of rarity around it and rare is chic.

Browsing a good bookshop, if there is one in the train station or airport, is a very absorbing way to fill the time, even a nice ritual I like to follow before departure. It’s kind of like a final tourist activity to do in the place and you might find something interesting to bring home.

Headphones are the ultimate blessing and accessory for anyone wanting to be left alone in their seat, and you don’t have to actually listen to anything – I can’t get over the coolness of that one. Chatting to someone is always easy, but this bubble of time for yourself only before you return to everyday life is just too luxurious an opportunity to pass up.

 

 

 

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.

Learning French and Going to France

When you’re learning French and traveling to France, you naturally feel like you should try speaking French once you arrive on French soil, right? Wait, try? “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” You are not simply a tourist or a visitor anymore. You basically have an obligation.

Oui, Yoda certainly knew what he was talking about. I know the process of this particular trip to Paris and it automatically divides itself in to tasks in my head in reference to opportunities to parler français. With decisively German precision I follow my plan of producing short, but appropriate sentences.

I enter the plane and say “Bonjour, Madame”, “Bonjour, Monsieur” to the crew as I make my way to my seat, on the same volume level that I use in other languages, because, you know, je parle un petit peu français. I am rewarded with a “Bonjour, Madame” or sometimes still with a “Bonjour, Mademoiselle.” I like being called Mademoiselle. I don’t find it derogatory and it reminds me of when I started flying to France as a student, after first moving to Germany. The German Fräulein has said farewell and disappeared in to the mist of times past, but Mademoiselle isn’t quite ready to leave just yet.

Step two of my exciting journey en français is putting to the test our extensive lesson on ordering in a restaurant. Are you ready for it? Here goes. “Je voudrais un chocolat chaud, s’il vous plaît.” The stewardess doesn’t politely ask me to repeat my request (parfait!) and gracefully hands me my little cup of hot chocolate, following the action with a sentence I can’t repeat, but I know she’s saying I should stir the liquid. She also asks, and I’m pretty sure I am typing this correctly (confidence is everything), “Vous desirez de l’eau avec votre chocolat chaud?” And because I’m an experienced traveler en France and prepared to invest my German powers of concentration in this drink before me, I answer elegantly, “Non, merci.”

I gratefully sip my hot chocolate, because I need to fortify myself for what comes next after these linguistic achievements. Step three of my interactions en français will be to put money on my Navigo pass so I can take the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. I spend the remainder of the flight painstakingly composing various versions of what I want to say. “Bonjour, j’ai mon Navigo…non, bonjour, j’ai un Navigo…is it un or une Navigo? Wait, they don’t need to know it’s my Navigo, too much information, and I have it in my hand anyway, it’s not like I just picked it up off the floor, my picture is on it. OK, how about, bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours? Or is it de cinq jours? Or just cinq jours? Bonjour (smoothly slide Navigo towards SNCF employee behind the glass), je suis ici pour (maybe I can ask them, with that little laugh as if we’re sharing an inside joke, if pour is correct, haha, hmmm, oui, le français) cinq jours et je voudrais…what do I use for “to” or “until” when I’m talking about a stop? We recently had a few lessons where we repeated how to use en, au and aux, depending on whether you were talking about a country, city or region, and what gender they were. But we didn’t cover stops of the Parisian metro!

But my feverish race of thoughts is stopped quickly after I enter the SNCF ticket office in the airport. I only manage to get out “Bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours”, but something about it must have been convincing, because the lady at the counter released what sounded to my ears like a torrent of rapid French and the only word I understood was “dimanche”. I apologized in English and she reeled off the information I needed in the same language, but she clearly didn’t wish to pursue any longer interactions, so all my carefully constructed sentence parts will have to be saved for next time.

I redeemed myself the next morning by loudly and decisively telling a man blocking my path in the metro “Excusez-moi!”, only to see that he was a ticket controller.