Posts tagged ‘hamburg’

Hints of Spring

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Today seems like a good day to write. Overcast, gray skies are just not conducive to prose production, at least not for me. For Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps, or Steven King, darkness and gloom might just do the trick, but it doesn’t wind my watch. So, today looked like it was going to be another one of those. A peek out through the curtains when I awoke revealed rain-spattered windows and a stiff wind. It rained all last night and there must have been some wind, too, because the sidewalks and streets were littered with dead tree branches–anything from twigs to baby forearm diameter–and dotted with puddles of considerable depth. However, by the time I set out for my office at the center, the clouds had broken and patches of blue were everywhere overhead. It’s March cold, though; the wind has a bite but the grass in the parks is definitely turning green. No flowers yet, but there are the beginnings of buds on the trees. It almost made me want to blow off the whole office thing and be outside, but some sense of duty reined me in.

Tomorrow, finally, I have arranged to take a tour bus around the city. I tried to do this last week, but I misunderstood the system. I had been under the impression that the tours were all run by one company and that they commenced from the main train station. Turns out, there are at least three companies and the one I had signed on with departed from a street corner halfway across town and I was unable to get there in time. They were kind enough to let me re-book for tomorrow, though, so I’ll make sure I leave in plenty of time to get there. I’ve never done this sort of touristy thing before but since I’m here for a while, I thought it might be an easy way to get my bearings. In addition, my cousin is coming from the States to visit in a couple of weeks and I want to be able to show him around and this is a good way to get started.

One final story–which you librarians might appreciate: I have a University of Hamburg library card which allows me to use the facilities and to borrow books, among other things. Well, I needed a book for one of my projects and requested it online. The library here is “closed stacks” so the deal is that you place your order and when you know the book has been retrieved by a trusty student worker, you go to the borrowing section, a big room with lots of shelves. On the shelves are the books ready for loan. Using part of your ID number, you find out which shelf you should go to and then, using another part of the number, you find your book. You then take book and ID to a machine which reads the RFID strip embedded in the book somewhere and the bar code on your ID and off you go.

That went fine, but due to my nervousness, I ran into a problem. Before you enter the area where the books are held, you are required to place your coat, briefcase, beverage container, etc. in a free locker which you then lock using a PIN. There are four or five rows of these little cabinets, about five high and twelve or fifteen long. Each aisle is color coded and each locker has a name on it–a city name, an author, a country. Works fine unless you forget which locker you put your stuff in. Yup. I tried a bunch, thinking I was in the right aisle and in the right tier, but no luck. What an idiot! So, off I go to the front desk and ask for help. The folks at the desk apparently had experienced such requests before and they were quite helpful, if a bit annoyed. The guy who came to assist me opened about a dozen lockers, none of which contained my stuff. In desperation, I tried a couple of unlikely candidates, and voila! There’s my stuff. Enough embarrassment for the next three months. But the sun was still out and I walked home in the unfamiliar light with a new book to read.

Strasbourg: City of Fattened Geese

It’s amazing. Really. Really, really amazing. I’m on my first research trip since arriving in Hamburg and I continue to marvel at what one can do while one is getting from one place to another in Europe. This trip underscores that sense, yet again.

At present, I’m sitting in a very comfortable train car, well-lighted, large windows, quiet and with more space than airline coach seats. We are whipping through western Germany in pitch dark at more than 200 km per hour and I’m composing an entry to the blog—which I COULD upload directly to Cowles Library’s web page, if I chose to do so. The trip from Hamburg to Strasbourg is almost exactly five hours in each direction and at 125-130 MPH, that means about 500-600 miles covered. Beats driving that distance in a day. And did I mention that all the fast trains (ICE-the Intercity expresses) have FREE WiFi? Meanwhile, we think self-driving cars are the way of the future. Well, we’ll see…

Anyway, Strasbourg is in Alsace, one of those areas of Europe that has been fought over like a bone for centuries. One minute it’s French, the next it’s German. Now it’s French again. Lots of French and German place names mixed in together. The city is rather small (pop. ca. 280,000) but bustling. The old town is situated on an island in the middle of the Ill River. It’s not much of a river, more like the Des Moines or the Raccoon than the Mississippi. It meanders a bit but is contained nowadays by concrete and stone walls and buckled in place by numerous bridges which connect the island to the newer parts of town. To the east, it feeds into the Rhine. The city is perhaps best known for its påte de foie gras, the cooked, macerated livers of overfed geese. Right up there with caviar as one of those foods that we all know about but can’t afford. I didn’t see to many geese; maybe they’ve all given their livers, or maybe they were in hiding.

The buildings are grand and solid; the streets are a mix of narrow and crooked and wide and fairly straight. The city is also home to the European Parliament, which sits on a site a bit closer to the edge of town toward the Rhine. Also on the east, just off the island, are a number of stately public buildings surrounding a large green area: the Place de la Republique. It’s there that I found the National and University Library Strasbourg and the object of my visit, a single example of Arabic block printing that needed to be examined. The library has 3 million volumes and is, according to Daniel Bourneman, who is the Director of Special Collections and my shepherd during my visit, the second largest library In France. Their archives are awesome in terms of storage: state of the art environmental conditions, security, and display and study facilities. Built in 1895, the interior of the building was completely modernized in 2012. When I visited today, students and other readers were already lined up in the morning chill waiting for the 10 AM opening.

I didn’t have a lot of time to explore, but I got a sense of the place and its rhythms. On Sunday evening, for example, after arriving at around four in the afternoon and settling in to my hotel room, I wandered out to see how far it was to the library. (I had only a two-hour window to study the block print and wanted to be on time for my appointment.) Having done that, and discovering that it was a fifteen-minute walk door to door, I went looking for a restaurant so I could eat dinner. I headed back toward the train station since I had seen a number of possibilities near there. To my surprise, virtually all of them were closed. My first thought was that it was Sunday so of course they’d be closed. On the point of desperation—I hadn’t had more than a cup of coffee since breakfast—I went into the first place that was open. The young woman who greeted me from behind the bar asked if I wanted something to drink. In my awful French I said no, I was hungry and wanted to eat something. Sorry, she replied. The kitchen is closed. My stomach growled. But, she continued, it opens at 6:30, so you can dine then. Relieved, I decided to have a glass of wine and warm up, glad that I might come back in an hour and a half or so and fuel up. When I did return later, lo and behold, there were restaurants open everywhere! So another cultural lesson learned. And able to sleep on a full stomach.

Settling In

Now a week into my residence here, I’m beginning to find a comfort zone, of sorts. The dreariness of northern Europe in Winter takes some getting used to; today was particularly cold–29° F/-2 C– with a scattering of snowflakes in the air. Time for a wool cap, sweater, scarf and gloves. The wind is out of the East; the Russian Steppes are out that way and you can feel them.

Last night, the Director of the Centre for Manuscript Studies hosted six of us for dinner in a nice Italian restaurant called the Etruscan run by actual Italians. I had a very nice frutti di mare with spaghetti and too much white wine, although I didn’t feel the effects until I tried to fall asleep. (Eating after 6 PM is no longer a good idea for me.) However, the gathering was extremely convivial and energetic. I again met some of the people who had attended last June’s conference here and also some new folks. One person in particular, the director of The Islamic Manuscripts Society (TIMA), was a good contact and we are going to meet up again this week before he leaves for somewhere else. The evening gave me the opportunity to discuss some of my planned activities while I’m here so I feel like I can get the ball rolling on some of them. I have one trip in the works already–to Strasbourg–for early next week and then back again.

Because of the late night and too little sleep, today was not very productive but I did take a camera with me when I went to the office and snapped a couple of pictures so you might get a sense of place. First up is the building in which I live. 34 Rothenbaumchaussee is in a relatively upscale neighborhood directly adjacent to the university (or at least a big chunk of it). The street is wide and light, even in Winter. The buildings lining it are a mix of apartments and small businesses. Traffic is heavy by European standards but to me it’s not bad. Lots of BMW’s, Audis, Volvos and Jaguars parked along the way indicate the income level of residents and customers alike. Here it is:

I’m on the fourth level facing the street; . Nice efficiency apartment with big windows and high ceilings, a small kitchen, small bathroom, couch, table, bed and desk. The scaffolding you see will be here for as long as I am; they are continually renovating apartments and other parts of the building. It is heavily used.

I remember being surprised the first time I visited here at how many pre-WW II buildings were still standing. I’ve since learned that many of them didn’t survive; most were the victims of Allied bombing in the war, others suffered various fates. Near the center of the university, about a quarter of a mile from my building, there was a synagogue that was burned to the ground in 1938. The space has been left vacant and its existence is recalled with an outline of its dimensions marked by red bricks. Right next door to where it was there is a Torah School that has been completely restored and returned to its original function.

This is juxtaposed with what I find to be a wrenching type of memorial of those times. Walking along the streets of Hamburg, one encounters small square brass markers embedded among the paving stones of the sidewalks.

These plaques bear the names, birth years and, when known, the death dates of Jews who once lived at the location in front of which they have been placed.  Sometimes there is only one, other times there may be three or four or five. But there are very, very many. It makes me want to stop writing now.

Ein Hamburger (temporarily)*

4 February 2017


Greetings, Gentle Readers.

As most of you know by now, I am spending three months in Hamburg, Germany as a guest of the University of Hamburg. Their Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures has seen fit to provide me with this time to pursue scholarship on my primary field of interest: medieval Arabic block printing–something most of you also already know…

What my day-to-day activities will be have yet to be determined but I thought that you might find it interesting to read about what I’m doing and what I’m seeing and hearing. Much of that will have little to do with my actual work. I plan to do some traveling while I’m here; most of that WILL be related to my research, but I’ll see and do things along the way that might be of broader interest to you. When possible, I shall post pictures of my surroundings, cityscapes, landscapes, people, whatever I think you might find appealing (or unappealing). One thing that I may focus on regularly is how our recent election and its results are playing here across the pond. And believe me, it’s a big deal here, too.

These entries will serve as a sort of diary of my stay in Germany and, besides providing you with temporary (and hopefully pleasant) distractions from time to time, will also serve as a notebook of sorts for the report to the university which I am obligated to write–one of the few “requirements” that I am must meet in order to get paid. Of course, you should feel free to disregard any or all of my musings. I tend to get a bit wordy once I get started–as Vibs will readily attest–so I won’t take offense if you choose to ignore me, or at least what I write here.

So, I landed in Holland on Wednesday, the first of February, expecting to make a connection there for Hamburg, which was to put me here by mid-afternoon. That was the plan. In fact, the flight from Amsterdam to Hamburg was cancelled, as was the second one the airline re-booked me on. Faced with a 1/3 mile-long line to get booked on yet another flight, I took the advice of a KLM minion and got on a train to Hamburg which put me in town at about 10 PM. There was consequently a domino effect to this arrangement which included my arriving in Hamburg with just the clothes on my back and nowhere to go, since the guesthouse where I was to be lodged for my stay here closed its office before I arrived. No real problem, though. There was a number of hotels right across the street from the main train station and the second one I inquired at had a room free. So, the next morning, I completed my trip to the guest house and found the office open. Only then did I find out that a key had been left for me at a hotel across the street so I could have let myself in. Now all this was done on the assumption that I would have access to the internet or a cell phone link during my journey so that I could learn of this courtesy. Not a sound assumption. So we got off on the wrong foot. No one’s “fault” really, but I am a bit peeved at the lack of logistical understanding on the part of the staff here. A little amateurish, I thought.

In any case, there was a second issue to be dealt with: my luggage was stranded in Amsterdam and no one at KLM could tell me where it was exactly or when it might get to the same place I was. So, I spent four days stuck in the same clothes, the word “stuck” becoming ever more descriptive of the situation. To cut to the chase, thanks to the herculean efforts and the beyond-the-job-description assistance of the women in the Centre’s office, I was finally contacted by KLM and I received my luggage on Friday evening. Now, having properly showered (with my own shampoo and soap) and shaved (with my own razor) and wrapped myself in clean clothing, I feel much better. The skies here are still gray and the wind is raw, but life is bearable again, both for me and for those I might engage with.

Now, I should tell you something about what I’ve seen in my brief time here so far. My experience on this visit has been limited pretty much to train travel and interactions with university employees and hotel and restaurant staff. The first thing that strikes me is that Germany (like the rest of Europe) is decidedly  more multi-ethnic than it has been until recently. This change began long before the refugee crisis of the past year, but it seems to me to be much more apparent now. Granted, Hamburg is a big city, a port city no less, and therefore attractive to newcomers both for economic as well as cultural reasons. It’s no surprise to have Afro-German train conductors making announcements in English, German and French, for example. Or for television personalities be of olive or dark complexion and speaking fluent German. Some things seem to remain constant, though. At crosswalks, almost everyone still waits for the crossing light to turn green, even if the street is empty of vehicles, for example. Demonstrations are a common feature of city life; I encountered a fairly large one on my first day here, with people carrying red paper lanterns and wearing plastic garbage bags bearing slogans composed with electrical tape.Train stations are still major hubs of activity and they bustle. There is still a whiff of German patriarchy apparent in things like the dial-a-porn ads and exclusively female nudity on late-night television, something I find definitely un-American in a number of senses.

On the other hand, there are features of life that provide evidence for the inexorable erosion of German culture (and European culture in general) by particularly American influences. Of course there are the American chain restaurants. Blue jeans are a common sight, even among the well-heeled (my apartment is in a fairly upscale part of town and I have seen jeans frequently, here). One thing that struck me as I ate breakfast in the main train station on Thursday morning was that the serving staff was invariably white, but the guy doing the cooking was black. If not for the language difference, I could have been in New York City, or Saint Paul. Unable to sleep last night, I flicked on the TV to find a German infomercial flogging some exercise machine guaranteed to give anyone six-pack abs. Very American, right down to the “but wait, there’s more” tag line. Cause for despair.

Perhaps the most telling thing about continued American influence here and across Europe is the amount of news coverage given to our new Prez and the Europeans’ fascination with the slow motion train wreck that has become American politics. We have access to about fifteen television stations here providing news coverage from countries like France, Spain, Italy, and Turkey (yes, there is a Turkish language TV station here), in addition to English and American programs. No one seems to be able to take their eyes or their minds off this guy. No doubt I’ll be saying more about that. But enough for now. Thanks for reading.


  • By the way, the title of this entry literally means “a Hamburger” as in the fried beef patty. Those of you old enough to remember John F. Kennedy speaking in Berlin in 1962 will recall that he famously said, “Ich bin ein Berliner” which phrase, to German natives, means “I’m a kind of bakery item.” He should have said, “Ich bin Berliner” and his audience would have understood him to say (as he intended to do) that he, too, was a person from Berlin. So, properly, if I were to say in German that I am a (temporary) resident of Hamburg, I should say “Ich bin Hamburger.” So, age-specific joke. And it isn’t a joke if you have to explain it. I’ll quit while I’m only slightly behind…
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