Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Uhm...what is the nice word for 'slut'?" Or, Kicking Off the New Year in Hamburg...

I spent the first half the of the four-hour train ride to Hamburg trying to sleep away the hurt. Hurt from pouring rosé, chardonnay, beer, screwdrivers, champagne, and licorice shots on a delightful but dainty bed of fish and salad; hurt from going to bed past sunrise and waking up before high noon (long story short if you didn't read the last post). In days past I might follow such traipsing with a morning brew (coffee or otherwise), or my classic hangover cure: a blue Gatorade (I like to pretend I'm ingesting a glacier) and an egg/bacon/cheddar/cream cheese galaxy bagel, followed promptly by going back to bed. I have even followed such traipsing with a midterm or final.

But that was in the past.

That day, the day I traveled to Hamburg, was January 1st. I had just turned 27. And 27 meant going into hibernation to allow for my old, decrepit body to make attempts to repair itself. Except that I had made train and homestay arrangements to make my way into a brand new country.

It's funny. The summer after college I had no idea what to do with my life. Among applying for a(n ungodly) number of other positions, I made a profile on a website for international au pairs. I was in contact for a long time with a German family who interviewed me several times over Skype. They had liked me quite a bit but were in a state of conflict because a family friend had just recommended their au pair whose services were no longer needed, given their children's ages. To this day, I can remember stepping out of the Las Vegas hotel room I was sharing with my best friends, sitting on the painfully patterned carpet of the hallway, and rereading the short but loaded e-mail I had opened within the riotous room. The family had decided to go with the sure bet. Who could blame them. But I had already envisioned it, and had grown attached to that vision: living with three blonde-haired, blue-eyed kiddos; taking language classes at the university; weekend and holiday trips to surrounding areas. It wasn't just that I had lost out on a job opportunity; at the time, I really felt as though an entire life had been taken away. It was a life I had really wanted and, given the stalemate of job prospects, it was one I really needed.

But that was in the past.

That day, the day I traveled to Hamburg, was January 1st. On January 4th I would be meeting my host family in Hadsten, back in Denmark. On January 5th I would start teaching at the local school.

So that's what's funny: how things work out anyway. I cannot say what would have happened had I gotten the au pair job in Germany, but I can say with absolute certainty that I am incredibly thankful and beyond content with what came from not getting the job: a year in Park City, Utah; a three-month trip to my home country and the countries surrounding that sparked what is likely a lifelong love affair with travel; other various short, but invaluable employment positions and trips abroad; almost two years working with children with autism as a behavior therapist; and, of course, the life-altering friendships maintained and created during the years in between.

It was my work as a behavior therapist that ultimately led me to pursue a career in teaching. The teaching credential and Master's program I am in now is the reason I am in Europe this month, for an international student-teacher exchange. And, go figure, the exchange means living with three blonde-haired, blue-eyed kiddos; not taking, but teaching, (English) language classes; weekend and holiday trips to surrounding areas. So, everything in due time.

I finally woke from my New Year's Eve stupor to find a lovely young woman sitting next to me on the train. I motioned to ask if I could get out to use the restroom and, as I tried to squeeze between her and the table on the way back to my seat, I caught the cord of her head phones and pulled her phone off the table. "I'm sorry," I offered apologetically.

"No, it's no problem. It's just good they weren't on," she joked.

Local scribblings...the best words money can't buy. 
After we had gotten resettled in our seats, I asked her where she was heading. She was going to Hamburg. She had come up to Denmark to spend time in her boyfriend's family's vacation home. But, after four days trying to study for her upcoming exams with a house full of people during the holidays, she finally had to admit it wasn't working. She decided to head home a couple days early to have some quiet time to work. I was happy to hear that she was going to get off at the same stop; I had no idea where we were going, so I was thankful for the surefire indicator.

But it got better. My new German train friend, Tuula (a Finnish name), had lived in Hamburg her entire life and offered to write down some tips. Like a true student, she titled the page in my journal and even divided the tips into daytime and nighttime activities.

After a lull in the conversation and some quiet to stare out the window of the moving train, Tuula sat up quickly. Something had just occurred to her.

"Oh! You must got to the Reeperbahn."

"OK. What's the Reeperbahn?" I said, open to the idea but unsure of what the idea even was.

"Uhm...what is the nice word for 'slut'?"

The question caught me off guard. I looked upward and outward, trying to conjure a polite word from my memory bank. "Uhm...prostitute?" I suggested, unconvinced that that was very "nice."

"Yes! Prostitute. I'm a Hamburger so I don't really find it all that shocking, but some tourists..."

I'd stopped listening. I had heard of the city's infamous Red Light District. It's not that I was disinterested; I was just too amused that she'd referred to herself as a Hamburger. (Hey, I said I was getting older, but never claimed to be more mature.)

As the train pulled into the city, she pointed out the window, indicating areas to explore. When we arrived at the train station, she went as far as to take us to the exact platform we needed to catch the next railway to our home stay, and even showed us exactly how to buy a multi-person day pass for the subway (a good thing, since all of the machine screen prompts were written in German).

As we rode the subway to the home stay, Marisa commented on how lucky we were to meet Tuula. "Yeah, absolutely," I replied, altogether grateful and relieved at how easy Tuula had made it for us to find our way "home," and how generous she was with her advice. But, despite my absolute agreement that it was a fortuitous meeting (especially since Tuula had related her surprise that we were going to stay with a German family, citing that many Germans are generally more closed off and reserved), my response was only half-hearted. Because in that moment, I was reflecting on how many lucky breaks I've encountered during travel. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I am not at all unique in my good fortune. While I don't mean to dismiss how favorable my travels have been, what I am starting to wrap my head around is that the world is just altogether generous and kind. People want to reach out. People want to help, to connect, to make any small contribution to making others' lives more positive. While I never want to take a helping hand for granted, I also need to recognize it as basic human nature. I shouldn't be surprised by kindness, because it is absolutely, wholeheartedly out there. Sure, I often luck out in my travels, but it's also simply that the world is inviting and the people in it are good.

We checked into our home stay, a quaint five bedroom home run by a sweet old Syrian woman. She spoke very little English (German is her second language), but was very helpful nonetheless. Her bedroom was on the first floor, along with the kitchen and a bathroom. The second floor had one bathroom and four rooms, all rented to international travelers and labeled "Piano" (our room), "Boogie," "Blues," and another I can't recall now.
I had never used a "real" (traditional) key before. It made me rather happy.

After getting settled and getting ready, Marisa and I headed back into the city. Tuula had recommended a bar called 20 Up for a celebratory birthday drink. It was on the 20th floor of a fancy hotel and was where she always went on her birthday. I figured that was fitting. We arrived to loud bumping music cascading out of the speakers, men doused with too much cologne and women with too little clothing on, given the outside temperature. But, as Tuula had raved, the view of the city was incredible. Or at least what you could peek of it through the hordes of swanky patrons. Neither Marisa nor I were ready for anything even resembling an alcoholic beverage, given the Molotov cocktail I had mixed for myself on NYE, so we opted to order frilly virgin drinks from the bar menu. Right before Marisa went to order, I changed my mind. The beautiful thing about getting older is that you begin to realize that you don't have to do things just because you're "supposed" to. If I had been home in Santa Barbara, I would never have chosen such a flashy venue. And just because I was there now, didn't mean I had to pay $12 for a juice drink. Who says you have to order a cocktail on your birthday? I wanted dessert. 

Tuula's first suggestion might have been a bust, but the view really was grand (just not the atmosphere I was looking for). Her daytime suggestions, however, were money. The next day was perfect. 

First, we had brunch at Cafe May -- a charming little breakfast spot that offered coffee drinks and pastries to order. But we were there for the all-you-can-eat brunch. Best 5 euro you could spend. In addition to typical brunch staples, there was a wide selection of fresh cheese, none of which were less than amazing, as well as all the just-out-of-the-oven rolls you could dream of. 

Then it was off to Tuula's "biggest recommendation," the city ferry. She had even sent us a schedule by e-mail when she got home. Tuula had advised that a commercial ferry would cost 25 euro but that a public transport ferry was only 3 euro, and free with the day pass for the railways. Thank goodness for that tip; more money for silly souvenirs. 

The harbor.

Love on land for all to "sea."

After taking in the city for an hour-or so on the ferry, we hopped off to explore the fish market. Unfortunately, we missed it by a couple hours, but there was plenty more to see. Marisa and I walked by the water back to the harbor and marveled at our new locale, dubbed Germany's "Gateway to the World."

Hamburg had no shortage of fantastic street art.

Home(less) for the holidays, But you have to applaud the effort and attitude.

My favorite building in Hamburg, designed to look like a wave.

We got a bit turned around when making our way to the next destination, the Speicherstadt, or the largest warehouse district in the world, located in the city port. But getting lost led to stumbling upon an artist's studio. A while back I finally decided what souvenir I would look for in my travels 'round the world: a bookmark -- something inexpensive, conveniently light, and easily found or made, often from postcards. The female artist printed postcards of her pieces, which were far more subtle and beautiful than the ones in the tourist shops. It was a great find.

"Take it at any time. I won't even look. I'm a photographer, so I know what you're doing." I had asked to take a photo of her working; she seemed to know exactly what I was looking for. 

I wanted every single one of her pieces.
In the end, I left with two postcards, featuring layers of words and sights from Hamburg.

There was plenty to see at the Speicherstadt, including a dungeon from the 1800s and the largest model railway exhibition in the world. Marisa and I opted to go to the Speicherstadt Museum, an authentic warehouse dating back to 1888, where imported goods and tools display the work carried out by warehouse staff (storekeepers). Hamburg is Germany's biggest port and is the second-busiest in Europe. I learned about the historical goings-on of the very important port, as well as a lot about the coffee and tea imports. 

The numbered boxes to the left helped determine quality for coffee grounds. Grounds were poured in at the top and would move through smaller and small sifting holes as they made their way to the bottom.  Large "foreign bodies" would get caught in each  layer, resulting in the very finest coffee at the end. 

Relatively speaking, tea is not a big commodity in Germany. Still, 70% of the tea
consumed in Germany goes through the port in Hamburg. 

When I turned one of the corners of the museum, I walked past an unassuming stack of crates. One of the crates has a small window cut into it. There are no signs or markings over the crates, so I almost kept walking without bothering to pause. At the last moment, I decided to look inside. For no observable reason, there is a miniature room nestled in the crate. I'm not sure why it's there, but it made me inexplicably happy. Maybe that's the point. Who doesn't love a little reasonless whimsy?

Ahh! The curtains!

Mini knots, a seashell headboard...I die.

Little keys, little stein, little telephone...happy happy.

After a full day of sightseeing, we found our way to the Hofbräuhaus. I had heard really enthusiastic urgings to go there from friends who had been to the one in Munich -- stories of two stories of beer clinking patrons and lederhosen-clad waitresses carrying four steins in each hand. The one in Hamburg is considerably less grand. But the food was good.


The best wurst that could happen.

Wish no one had to "put on the red light."
After walking around the city a while and stopping into a cafe for fresh mint tea, apple strudel and ice cream, and journal writing (read: my heaven), we headed to the infamous Reeperbahn. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting to find, but I left the boulevard feeling low. Sure, the sex shops were funny to meander in. And the pastries of nipples and lady parts were entertaining. But seeing the fresh-faced and pretty, impossibly young girls standing en masse on the street corners, freezing in their down jackets and moon boots, in want and waiting, just made me sad.

OK, Willy Warmers are kinda hilarious.

Vodka and nipple pastries. A winning combination.

The next day, we had one morning left in Hamburg before returning to Denmark, so we bid our matronly home stay hostess goodbye. But not before putting a pin on for Santa Barbara on the world map for guests (the U.S. is sorely underrepresented).

One small pin for Santa Barbara, a giant leap across the pond for me!

Before we left, we ate breakfast at the Mutterland Deli, a solid recommendation by my friend Brenda. It is easily the cutest cafe I've ever been to. I really had to fight myself from buying all of the pastries and knick-knacks. 

We even had time to squeeze in a quick jaunt to Alster Lake. 

Then it was back to where we started, the Hamburg train station. 

I love that the train stations here always feature a bright flower shop atop the stairs,
especially on these cold gray days. 

I'm off to bed but will leave with a quote my friend Matt recently posted. Matt and his wife, Alicia, both dear friends from my Deer Valley days, have always been really supportive of my writing, and of my endeavors in general. Since Hamburg is a bustling port town, I really loved coming across these words:

"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.”

How fitting for my current travels, and life in general. Cheers (or "prost") to that. 

I'll write again soon. Hope you're all well.

xo Jan 

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