Ich bin ein Hamburger

 

I crouched down near my doorway each morning last week to lace up my waterproof hiking boots. They are the only shoes that I own that can prevent the uncomfortableness of squishy, sopping socks when trudging through the rivers flowing down our street that sits on a mountain. My morning walks with Simba were a little wet with El Niño throwing his first tantrum in the form of torrential downpours. But on Friday morning, the sky was clear, shaded midnight blue with a soft blood orange glow highlighting the silhouette of Santa Cruz Island on the horizon. My theme song for the morning was John Denver’s rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, a choice unimaginatively inspired by the events scheduled ahead. I hate to go, I told Kierstin, but I was traveling to China. And of course, as I sat flying at over 30,000 feet past the Aleutian Islands, I was excited about the adventures to come and eager to write about my trip to another new country. But first, I want to finish sharing other past exploitations. Over six months ago, I was in a dark, outdoor train station at 3 am. I was in Munich, waiting to go to Hamburg to finish my experiments. I sat near a bench, trying to use my luggage as a pillow and my jacket as a blanket to get a quick nap before my departure.

Before Hamburg though, I had a slight detour. I needed redemption. If you’ve been following along in my adventures, last time we were in Europe Kierstin and I wanted to visit a friend who lived in Münster but we ended up lost in Munster. (Note: not a typo; there are two dots over that u. Those little specks form an umlaut, which changes the pronunciation, but more importantly, changes your final destination from a beautiful town rich in history to a small military village with nowhere to stay.) So this time I had to get it right. And I did. I was only in Münster for a short day, but it was a good day to visit. I was given an off-the-cuff historical walking tour by my hosts, my friend who had worked at UCSB and grew up near Münster and his co-worker who hailed from Spain but ended up reciting most of the history, as we traveled through cobbled streets past churches and markets.

The building facades, I learned, had all been bombed to pieces during World War II but were rebuilt to keep downtown Münster looking like the old city. A gothic-style church sat in the center of the city, and without my hosts, I wouldn’t have noticed that the wrought iron bell tower had three cages, just big enough to fit a human uncomfortably and built that way for good reason. When Bishop Franz von Waldeck won a decisive battle against some Anabaptists, they hung the rebellion’s leaders in the cages and let their corpses rot above the city center as a warning to future protestors. We ate a local favorite at a small farmer’s market, a thin fried crust topped with cheese and meat, like pizza but with a delicious creamy sauce. The tour was short; Münster is not a big city like Munich, and we skipped on a lot of more time-consuming endeavors to save time for later.

 

Later, specifically, was a festival; as I said, it was a good day to visit Münster. Local bands played music on multiple stages. It was a warm summer day, and we found shade and cold pils, one of the more popular brews in this part of northern Germany, and listened to Disco Halt rock out. Drummers drummed, pianists keyed, tromboners tromboned, trumpeters trumpeted, guitarists and bassists riffed, and the singer belted. After their set was done, we found our way to the waterway, to more beer, to delicious food, to more music, and to an intriguing sport being played: kayak water polo. That’s where we sat until the sun fell beyond the horizon, and we hopped on the bus to seek some shut eye until the next day, when I would find myself in Hamburg.

As with most of my travel plans, a single hitch in the scheduled itinerary is not enough. A chain of events unfolded that enabled a very strange, very unexplainable event that led me to a (perhaps unfounded but definitely reassuring) new perspective. I managed to roll out of bed early enough and find my way to the bus and train station to get to Hamburg in the early morning. The train was delayed though, just enough to throw me off when I saw a stop for Hamburg. I checked the time on my train ticket and thought that this must be my stop even though it was just slightly too small than what I thought should be appropriate for an international city center. I should have trusted those instincts because as the train pulled away, I realized I was in the wrong place. Luckily, the kind gentleman at the ticket counter found me a route that would take me near my destination. The thing is, just like with my past trips, I elected to keep my phone service off during my trip rather than pay the extra cost for international data. All of my trip planning required WiFi, and I was taken to a stop that wasn’t in my original plans. Luckily, I had glanced enough at the map to know that where I was headed was just north of my destination. My phone was dead and I left my charger in Munich, and so it couldn’t even be useful as a compass. Using the rising sun as a rough guide, I headed south through the Volkspark in that area.

 

The park was gorgeous, a verdant forest that hides the nearby bustling city. The beautiful green trees, nicely trimmed hedges, and bright wildflowers of white and yellow and purple were a welcome trade-off for lugging my baggage through the dirt trails of the park. I came across an open field. Families and friends of all ages were gathered around having picnics and playing soccer. I was entertained by the face-offs between young spry men trying to dribble past stone walls of greyed old men. While watching the game, I saw a man walking towards me along the same path as I was on. As we approached one another, I could see out of the corner of my eye his arm raise. It stayed there for an abnormal amount of time than would be necessary for someone to satisfy an itch or stretch or whatever it was I originally assumed he was doing. I shifted my gaze to his direction and beheld his arm extended with a long, bony middle finger pointed skyward with bare knuckles in my direction. He was flipping me off! At least, so I thought, and so I checked around me to see if it was directed at anyone else. Nope, no one else around. He then said something in German, which ich sprechen nischt (which I’m not even sure if that is correct.) Not wanting any trouble and being caught so off guard, I just muttered a quick apology and sped up my gait in the opposite direction.

My mind raced analyze what had just happened. Maybe I didn’t say hello, and Germans here are particularly friendly (and oddly at the same time, easily offended.) So I tried to meet the gaze of the next passerby. Not even a glance from them, let alone a cheery “Hallo!” that I would often hear from shopkeepers. Maybe he was crazy and just seeing things. I watched as he passed other people along the trail. Everyone else, he ignored. I did notice that I was wearing a rainbow bracelet on my wrist, which despite its association was only my entry bracelet from the music festival the day before, not something intended to project any personal beliefs. But maybe he was just a particularly overzealous German in the regard and misinterpreted my garb. I can speculate further and further, but really, I can’t explain why he flipped me off. Later that day, I was sitting on a bus at a stoplight when two men outside started arguing next to the crosswalk. One man was clearly the aggressor; the other kept trying to avoid the confrontation and walk away. Eventually, a punch was thrown. The man who was trying to walk away was hit right in the jaw; he broke into a run and managed to get away. Having those two things happen when I was thousands of miles from home, not really familiar with my surroundings or the reputation of the people living there, I started to think that maybe Hamburg wasn’t so safe. But then I realized that both of those events, and worse, could have happened in any city I’ve been. Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC – all of those places have random occurrences like the ones I witnessed. People can be inhumane, and it can happen anywhere. I shouldn’t let those rare instances stop myself from experiencing the world.

I won’t go into the details of my X-ray experiments; mostly, unfortunately, we had unforeseen issues. There was one good thing, which was the help from my collaborators. Despite a cascade of failures – equipment breaking, software resetting, samples ruined, and X-ray beam shutdowns – my German hosts graciously allowed me to run my experiments. What was supposed to be about 3 days of experiments turned into about 64 hours of troubleshooting with only a sliver of time left for actual experiments, most of which was reserved for me. Their hard work let me justify my trip and for that I’m very grateful. So in between running experiments, I set out into Hamburg on my own. The bus took me to a shopping center integrated into the old buildings of the port city. There was typical German architecture from times passed, spires and arches, ornate window frames, and old stone built strong and high, western consumerism filled the voids. Near the harbor, red brick buildings dominated, leftover from a period where such structurally sound and fireproof materials were needed to protect valuable goods in the popular international port city. I spent most of the time outside on the cobbled streets of the warehouse district, where cars and buses rattled along and people. Just about each day I was there, I found my way to an ice cream stand, either in one of the beautiful city parks or on a street corner, and raced the sun as it tried to melt my delicious treat. Lutheran churches in Hamburg towered above the rest of the buildings, and I was able to use the churches as waypoints for navigation as I explored. Considered the most famous church in the city, with extravagant grandeur in its architecture and décor, St. Michaelis beckoned.

 

In St. Michaelis, I bought a ticket to visit the catacombs and also to climb to the top of the bell tower. Twenty five flights of stairs led me to the top, over 600 feet above the city below. From there, I could see the entire city. The warehouses near the port; boats filling the waterways, construction in the city center, and nearly to the synchrotron on the outside of Hamburg. Wandering aimlessly led me to some other discoveries. I heard some music near the riverside and let it lead me to a tango on the river. An Argentinian flag waved in front of a courtyard where everyone and whoever danced to quick guitar strums and the harmonious whines from string instruments. Women and men kicked their high heels and pointed leather shoes, sliding sharply and gracefully, delicately brushing the fake wood floor that had been laid out. Feet would stomp, almost threatening their partners’ toes but always missing to balance the intimate closeness of the dance with a hint of fiery aggression. Steam rose off of a grill in the corner where I was able to buy some Argentinian food. So there I was in Hamburg, Germany, and rather than drinking a local beer and eating fries waterside (which eventually I would do!), I was munching on homemade empanadas and Argentinean steak and watching the tango on the river.

A couple of my collaborators, Dan and Johannes, stayed an extra day with me so that we could experience a night out in Hamburg. Nightlife in Hamburg was limited to the edge of the red light district; the shopping center that I had been at earlier closed down after sunset. The escorts on the corners knew their customer base though; the three of us without money, avoiding the dark alleys and eye contact, were ignored in favor of older men in suits who made conversation with the girls. A lit window showed a store filled with guns, which seemed appropriate for the salacious area. (Although I found out they were just airsoft rifles.) So with sex (not for us), drugs (seemingly likely), and guns (sort of) all around us, there was just one heathen vice missing: rock and roll. An American bar, as it turns out, called Cowboy und Indianer beckoned to us. Music blared from the inside of the bar, which was decorated with cow skulls, saddles, and the old stars and stripes. The tall, gaunt German bartender immediately strode up to us and took our drink orders, not letting the music hit our ears without his bar making a little money. Obviously, though, we weren’t going to stick around with dry mouths. We sipped our brews while listening to the band nail some great covers of American songs. The lead singer wore a blue bandana, which held up his shoulder-length curly black hair, to match his long blue kimono, untied. A rainbow scarf hung around his neck along with shiny chains that glimmered down to his deep V-neck shirt. He strummed the guitar, and in a thick Japanese accent, introduced his bandmates and the next song. Then, like flipping a switch, his accent disappeared and he belted out lyrics from some of the best British and American rock bands; his band’s cover of these songs like “Money for Nothing” and “Carry on Wayward Song” had us cheering for more and kept us parked in that bar for the entire night. The gold bracelets on his wrists shook as he riffed up and down the frets of his guitar. And then, he his his finale: he was jamming through a solo when he tossed the guitar pick for something a little more unconventional: his teeth. Those pearly whites deftly found each string; he finished the solo with the entire bar going crazy. After a few more drinks, we eventually had to leave; I had to head back to Munich and catch a flight home.

My trip in Hamburg ended as it started: at 3 am in a dark train station. My state of mind was a little different this time, and my appetite for adventure was whetted. In just two short days, I would be arriving on a jet plane, back to Santa Barbara summer and back home – just in time to watch Kierstin walk across the stage for her Masters graduation.

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