Saturday, February 09, 2008

Deutschland, Immer Deutschland

Editor's note: written Saturday, published today.

After having completed one full week in Germany, I have to thank The Wire (Season 2), The Impressions, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Thich Nhat Hanh for keeping my head centered and providing me with the resilience and enthusiasm to approach the challenges of a foreign, non-English-speaking land. Those and a whole lot of exercise. Ok, and The Internet should probably get it's due too. Its fascinating, the short distance between the positive thrill of being cut loose in a foreign city, maybe you know a bit of language and maybe not, and being completely overwhelmed. I am happy to report that the first week has fallen almost entirely into the former category — initial instabilities as a result of jet lag don't count.

I'm writing this (for the first time, at least) from a car on the Autobahn, driving from Hamburg to Lübeck. The thought that keeps running through my head is how thoroughly German radio sucks. Maybe it's because I've been steeped in US public radio for years and haven't listened to more than five minutes of commercial radio in months, but I seriously haven't heard a good song since landing here a week ago. (Oh wait... “Fields Of Gold.” We've crossed into the realm of the tolerable.) It's generally one bad dance song, then some treacly crap that we've all been abused with for some years state-side, then maybe something old — but cheesy-old and not groovy-old. “Living On A Prayer.” You dig. Then another bad dance song. And god help you if you should catch a little schlagermusik.

I'm based in Hamburg this time around. Three weeks, strictly personal, no business. I found a cheap flight (ridiculously cheap: $400!?), and figured why not spend the most miserable weeks of the year New York has to offer overseas... in a place where the winter is possibly more miserable but at least the trains adhere to a real and meaningful schedule. To my surprise (and probably to that of all surrounding 'burgers), it's been beautiful today, it may top off at 13°(C) and the sun is shining. Not bad for a solar-noon sun altitude of merely 21.7°.

I woke up early this morning — for me on a Saturday, that is — and immediately noticed the good-weather fortune bestowed upon us. The place where I'm staying lies only a short walk from the heart of Altona, sliced into oddly-shaped, unevenly-portioned servings by a handful of lively streets. It's been a healthy daily pattern of mine (Ooh, “Eye Of The Tiger.” See?) to walk down to Altona, pick up some foodstuffs, maybe have a coffee or a beer, and head back. Today, I brought my horn with and had myself a brisk round of pre-noon busking. I'm always surprised at how well one can do even as a solo saxophonist, busking around European cities, and I think part of it has to do with the simple fact that a handful of shrapnel in these parts carries much more weight than just that of the metal alone. One hour of playing, €30, who can complain? Pick up a handful of coins in the States, and you're lucky if you find a Susan B; here the €2 ($3 for those keeping score) pieces are as common as the next. I think to myself, self, what if you had a CD to sell, came over here, found some good spots, and just went out and busked for four hours a day? Wouldn't have much of a need for a real job for a while! Throw in a backpack and a EuroRail pass, and there's the beginnings of a plan...

My first visit to Hamburg occurred at the the top of June, exactly eight months ago, just as summer was really starting to assert itself. It certainly sits amongst the Top Five European Cities of last year's blitz. Since then, I've been back a number of times during every season except for early spring. By now, it feels familiar, especially in heavier-traveled portions such as Sternschanze or the Alster (A few more circumnavigations and I'll be able to draw a map), but as with all properly-portioned cities, the opportunities for exploration reach on indefinitely.

As such, I've been enjoying sorting out Altona. Before this time around, it was never too much of a destination except for an occasional drive-by at the Bahnhof shopping center, which always left me feeling disoriented (north please?) and detached from its context. I must be careful when comparing it with Brooklyn because they're such different animals, but certain things that make me feel comfortable in Brooklyn also contribute to the feeling in Altona: good density of residence and businesses, vitality on the street level, proper walking scale, open-neighborhood feel. Other than that, we're on, uhh, separate continents. Begin with Europe's general rejection of the American grid. I love it. Streets are all about where you're going and less about where you are. It's a subtle shift in navigational thinking, but significant. I enjoy finding places where I can still get myself good and lost a few times before figuring it out – not to toot my own horn, but it's usually pretty impossible. Also, the streets aren't well-built for autos, often covered in cobblestones, so it has a particularly villagey feel. And while not as chain-devoid as Lisbon, the American culprits aren't quite as invasive as in more touristy areas. As for the German chains like Dat Backhaus or the T-Punkt stores, they make their presence known. It's difficult to truly describe the cross-continental feeling of it all, it's just an all-over sensory whip that tells you that although this place may resemble your home in some ways, it's its own, hop-the-ocean thing — though not particularly discomforting as a result.

Having not spent too much time there previously, it's something of a tabula rasa; I can find new bits and pieces, color it as I wish. I've been here enough times over the last year, there are plenty of memories tucked beneath cobblestones and behind park benches all over the city. A trek around the Alster spins a complete story, a loose, non-sequential narrative in itself. Often it feels like being surrounded by benevolent yet puckish ghosts, but here and there one of them will jump up and cold-cock you just for the fun of it.

If in Europe for a minute, why stay in one place for the entire duration? It seems that the place is fairly well-interconnected, and a few more stamps in the passport never did anything but good. Tomorrow, I head off to London for a few days, mostly (again) for the weather, then back to Hamburg, and Berlin for a while the following week. So the travels endure. * And if anything particularly interesting happens, you might read it here.

* Flights to Helsinki were only €230, even a few days ahead of time. Moscow, even less: €219. I briefly considered...


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