Posts tagged ‘hamburg’

Copenhagen (March16-17)

There’s one more trip I must take. In Copenhagen, Denmark is a small museum called the David Collection. It owns another of the block prints I’m pursuing and I’m off to see it. I bought my train tickets a couple of days ago so all I had to do this morning was roll out of bed and make my way to the central station in Hamburg. I was excited to make this trip because the it involves the train being loaded onto a ferry for the trip from the north coast of Germany across a bay of the Baltic, the sea that separates the Danish island of Sjaelland from continental Europe. The first part of the trip went along the same route I had taken with Jim to Lübeck but continued on northeast to a little seaside town called Puttgarden. The town itself lies on the northern edge of a German island called Fehmarn. The names are more than slightly Danish and it’s no wonder. The Danes and Germans fought more than one war over this real estate up here. For the present, it’s German.

Public works projects generate intense debate everywhere. It’s no different in Germany and Denmark. Up here, there is a proposal to replace the ferry service with a bridge or tunnel or bridge/tunnel combination between the two countries at this point. But there’s opposition:

You can tell you’re getting close to the ocean because the land flattens and marshes, ponds, and inlets start appearing. Before you know it, the train is creeping onto a boat—a BIG boat– and then it comes to a stop. The train is only four cars long because it has to fit on the ferry, but even so, that’s a lot of train to carry on a boat. Then, it’s “everybody out” for the 45 minute crossing; train passengers as well as car and truck drivers are required to leave the vehicle decks while we’re underway. I spent the trip on the ferry “Princesse Benedikte” wandering around on the observation deck in surprising sunshine and browsing the duty free shops and restaurants in the enclosed areas.

Soon the crew of the ferry announces that we were approaching our destination, the Danish port town of Rødby, and we return to our seats on the train. The train is among the first vehicles to disembark; we set off on terra firma but halt at the first train station, about a quarter mile from the dock. Here the train is boarded by Danish police who politely ask all passengers for their passports. Despite Europe’s generous policy of accepting refugees, Denmark has decided it has had enough so they restrict entry to those who are carrying valid passports or other travel documents. I don’t see them remove anyone from our train…

We arrived in Copenhagen (I should probably write København since we’re now in Denmark—oops: Danmark!) about mid-afternoon. I checked into a modest hotel right next to the central train station. It’s called Nebo and I’ve stayed here before when Vibs and I have had occasion to visit the city. It’s a so-called “mission” hotel because it reflects a “Christian” philosophy that everyone deserves decent lodging. At about a hundred bucks a night, in the city center; it can’t be beat. Some of the rooms have shared baths and toilets but hey, they’re clean and neat.

I spent a bit of time in my room on the computer calculating a route from the hotel to the museum. Once I had done this, I headed out to reconnoiter my path. With a city plan firmly (more or less) in mental grasp, I walked the route I planned to take the next day. Contrary to expectations, the sun was out and the streets were busy. I walked the kilometer or so to H.C. Anderson Boulevard, which runs adjacent to Copenhagen’s grand Parliament building, the Rådhus.

Crossing its plaza, which is a bit torn up due to the construction of a major subway project (the work has had Copenhagen in a traffic and aesthetic uproar for several years, now, but progress is being made…) and the erection of tents. The Danes were getting ready to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The Danes, supposedly the happiest people on the planet, are always up for a good time, even if it’s imported. On the other side of the plaza, I head up Strøget. Strøget is a main commercial street running for a mile or so through central Copenhagen. It’s a pedestrian street and the location of a number of iconic stores and businesses, some of them Danish—like Ilum’s and Georg Jensen—but increasingly American and European shops like Abercrombie & Fitch, Body Shop, Seven Eleven and, of course, MacDonald’s. Street performers were out in force: living statues of Elvis (in the later years), a black guy in dreads performing Bob Marley standards, another artist with a bucket of soapy water and a loop of rope lofting huge bubbles into the breeze. A typical city in other words.

Having determined that my route was accurate and walkable in a reasonable amount of time, I wandered slowly back toward my hotel, scouting out potential dinner locations along the way. The variety of cuisine options has greatly expanded here as it has elsewhere and the thought struck me as, later that evening, I sat at an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet. It seems that food as a cultural marker is losing its distinctiveness. That evening, across the room from where I sat, was your “typical” Danish young girl of about eight or ten: blond hair, blue eyes, Nordic to the bone. She was picking out dishes that her grandparents would never have heard of and that her parents had probably come to only as adults. Yet sushi would be a part of her cultural reference for all of her life, as natural as any other on the Danish landscape.

At ten the next morning, I presented myself at the David Samling. The building is on Kronprinsessengade, which borders one side of the park that surrounds Rosenborg Castle, the official residence of Denmark’s royal family. I met Anne-Marie Keblow-Bernsted, a conservator at the museum, who led me through a labyrinth of passageways to her workshop, where she does the labor necessary to preserve the textiles, paper, ceramics and other materials that constitute much of the collection. She had prepared the block print for me to examine and I spent a couple of hours doing just that. I also had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Keblow-Bernsted about her own work and particularly her study of Islamic ceramics. She had written a book on the subject of pigments and deterioration of glazes and such, a study of major importance in the field.

After expressing my thanks to her and the museum, I wandered back to toward the hotel, stopping off to make a few small purchases of items that are still hard to find outside of Denmark. The skies had been cloudy all morning and now the weather was definitely deteriorating. Taking a stiffening wind as a hint, I found a café where I could have some lunch and watch people through a window. Rain pounded down for a while, chasing pedestrians off the streets. A few disappointed St. Paddy’s Day revelers hustled past, shoulders hunched, hands buried in pockets, their green hats and fake red beards looking a tad bedraggled. By the time I finished my meal, the rain had let up enough that I could make a run for the hotel, retrieve my bag and make the short walk to the train station without getting soaked.

The train journey back to Germany was uneventful. Riding through the dark, we could have been anywhere. The ferry ride was a bit choppy, the boat shuddering through waves and wind but we docked without incident and by midnight I was snug at home.

A Short Week

Since I returned from Munich only on Monday evening last week (3/6), I was already down a workday. In addition, Cousin Jim was due to arrive on Thursday evening for a brief visit with me. Now, I had known that he was coming and I had been looking forward to seeing him. This was his first visit to Europe and he was taking advantage of my presence here to see that he didn’t get lost. The three days before his arrival flew by and, because I felt that I had been keeping my nose fairly close to the grindstone, I was not feeling the least twinge of guilt about taking Friday and part of Monday off so I could show him around.

His visit also gave me the opportunity to get a bit more familiar with Hamburg. Although I had taken the bus tour of the town, I hadn’t veered too far from my day-to-day route or routine. When Jim arrived, we immediately set off for a jazz club that I had found online. Jim likes music and he was looking forward to hearing some. Despite the usual fatigue generated by trans-Atlantic air travel, Jim insisted on scoping out Birdland Club. It was more of a hike than either of us anticipated, but we found it, tucked into a too cozy cellar on a main thoroughfare about a mile from my apartment. We ran the gauntlet of young smokers puffing their carcinogens on the stairway and entered a low ceilinged space with wall to wall bodies. The music hadn’t started yet and the crowd was overwhelming. Disappointed, we retreated to the street and wandered our way back home. Jet lag had finally hit and Cousin Jim collapsed into bed the minute we got home.

The next morning, we ate breakfast in a rather upscale hotel just down the street. Elysée Palace (SO pretentious!) has it all for those who have it all. Spa, health club, four restaurants, a shoe and clothing store (just in case you left your Guccis at home), and lots of other amenities. Despite this, they served a nice breakfast and a good cup of coffee at a reasonable price. Thus fortified, we set out to walk the city, across the Kennedy Bridge, which divides the Outer Alster Lake from the Inner Alster Lake, and into downtown. Having seen much of this part of Hamburg from the tour bus, I was able to point out some of the sights. We walked down to the harbor and saw an area that has recently been rehabilitated. Lots of old brick warehouses turned into office flats and apartments. It was easy to get lost, but people were helpful in pointing us in the direction of landmarks—like the grand Gothic City Hall—so we could get our bearings again. We had a couple of beers along the way and a late lunch at home. That evening, we decided to try the bar in the fancy hotel and, to our delight, they had live music. A jazz trio, composed of three guys in their eighties at least, was doing a fabulous job with the standards and we spent a pleasant couple of hours listening.

On Saturday, I had arranged train tickets to Lübeck. Lübeck is a well-preserved town that dates back a millennium or so. It was one of the original members of the Hanseatic League, that medieval precursor to the European Community. The old town is surrounded by twin moats and boasts the requisite monumental city gates and tilting 500 year old buildings, centuries old churches and cobbled streets. It was cold when we set out but Jim had brought the sun with him to northern Europe and by noon the sidewalk bars and cafes were filled with people enjoying themselves.

Earlier on, we had noticed what looked to be a concert cranking up in a park near one of the city gates. We paid only casual attention to this, but the crowd continued to grow and by the time we stopped for a noontime beer, a substantial crowd had formed, complete with banners bearing the logos of the SPD (the German Socialist Party), a drum and brass ensemble, people in 19th century costume, and other political signs and flags. The biggest surprise: pussy hats! Many, many pussy hats! Okay, so they weren’t true pink—more magenta, or maybe fuchsia—but the form was the same and so was the message. Probably the best American export in decades.

After the parade passed us by, we had lunch and one more beer before we boarded the train for the return to Hamburg. We ended the day in our now favorite hotel for dinner and another evening of music by a different jazz trio composed of even older white guys.

Sunday was a bit of a rest day; we scouted out a part of my neighborhood that I had not yet had a chance to explore and found a couple of gems. One bar that could become a local for me on those Fridays when I can’t stand another minute of the inside of the office and the lure of the apartment is weak. There was also a nice Italian restaurant that has the perfect combination of atmosphere and food that warrants return visits.

All this was a most welcome respite to my existence here. Jim got to see a bit of Europe and I got to speak something other than German for a few days. Not that I mind speaking German; I need to do more of it so my ability improves. I’m a long way from fluent, but a steady diet of newspaper, radio, tv, and conversations with Germans is moving things along.

Two Days Away (March 4-5, 2017)

I have been trying to keep myself on track with all the varied activities I have promised to undertake during my stay in Germany. So far, I think I’ve done pretty well. One month into my residence, I have completed one of three planned research trips, participated in one of two seminar sessions and done some writing. I think that’s not bad, but from experience I know that all of a sudden, one looks up and the time has all gone with too much left to do. A bad feeling.

Wanting to do whatever I can to prevent this from occurring, I set off this past Saturday (March 4th) for Munich where two more block prints reside. It’s a six hour train ride from Hamburg to Munich so not possible to do in one day. I had recently re-established contact with a former professor of mine from graduate school who has spent most of his professional life at Goethe University in Frankfurt. When he learned that I was going to be in Germany, we arranged to meet and since Frankfurt lies between Hamburg and Munich, this was a perfect opportunity.

I spent a very pleasant evening and morning reminiscing with David King and his wife Pat—I had not seen them in thirty years!—and then continued my journey south. In Munich, I spent the night in a small hotel which was so tucked away that it took me a good half an hour to find the street it was on. Even the locals weren’t exactly sure where Amalienstrasse was! In desperation, I walked into a competing hotel and the desk clerk cheerfully told me my hotel was in the next street!

This morning (Monday, March 6th), I walked the three short blocks to Ludwigstrasse, a grand, wide thoroughfare lined with Gothic piles of tooled stone to find the Staatsbibliothek, the state library.

After going through the obligatory check-in, shedding my jacket, hat, and briefcase, and sliding the pieces of paper, ruler, and magnifying glass into the transparent plastic bag I was given, I was admitted to the manuscript reading room where I spent two intense hours examining the block prints. The librarian who had discovered these block prints, Helga Rebhan, came out to greet me and introduce herself. We arranged to meet for coffee after I had finished looking at the block prints and we had a very informative conversation during the course of which she told me that she knew of another example that a colleague of hers had seen in southwestern China! The story of the block prints grows ever more intriguing…

Helga was able to provide a bit of general information about the Staatsbibliothek as well: ten million, that’s TEN MILLION volumes of print plus a couple hundred thousand manuscripts. The building was put up between 1832 and 1839 and is glorious both inside and out. The outside is solid stone, made to last; the inside has high ceilings and broad staircases. The reading rooms have all been modernized, but in a tasteful way; comfortable seating is everywhere and there’s plenty of light. It was busy on that Monday morning, due in part to the fact that the university is just a stone’s throw away down Ludwigstrasse. But the manuscript reading room was populated as well.

Very impressive all in all.

Now I’m on the train again, headed back to Hamburg and my apartment. I’d like to think I could kick back for a couple of days, but the fear of running out of time makes that seem unlikely. A cousin of mine comes to visit for four days at the end of the week and then we’re into the second week of March already. Nearly half of my time here will be gone. So, it looks like I’ll have to press on for a while before I can put my feet up.

Catching Up

What to do on (yet another) rainy Saturday afternoon in Hamburg? I managed to get all my errands run this morning while it was merely cloudy. Now the showers have returned so rather than venturing into the damp before I have to, I thought that it would be a good time to formulate another post.

This past week, I finally succeeded in taking the bus tour of the city (Stadtrundfahrt) that I had been promising myself I would take so I could get my bearings here. The pressure to accomplish this was increased due to the fact that a cousin of mine is coming to visit and he no doubt expects me to not get us lost. I took the train and a subway line to the Hamburg waterfront on the Elbe River and found waiting for me a red double decker bus. Boarding the vehicle, I surrendered my ticket and was given a pair of airline-type headphones. Once I took a seat, I plugged them in and turned the dial on the panel to “English.” I opted for the headphones because my German is fair at best and I thought I would get better information if it were in my native language. That may not have been a good choice since the English guide was pre-recorded and was more of a highlight reel, a “best-of” program. I probably should have struggled with the live-action German guide.

Off we went, first through the harbor district where an entirely new residential area has been constructed where warehouses once stood. The ground was raised 20 plus feet so it would be protected from flooding, an ever increasing risk due to climate change. The Elbe is being hemmed in by new higher flood walls, too, for the same reason. The city government realized some time ago that a city center devoted only to corporate offices meant a dead city twelve hours a day, so they began building AFFORDABLE housing and amenities (shops, services, infrastructure) to support it. It’s based principles of sustainability so all buildings are energy efficient and public transport is the rule. The gizmos you see on the roof in the photo below are wind powered generators–a new generation configuration.

Hamburg Harbor City


The city is still  major port; more than 100,000 cargo and cruise ships pass through Hamburg’s harbor each year. This year Germany had its largest budget SURPLUS in modern history. It apparently pays to invest in infrastructure. Do you think the Trumpster and “fellow Republicans” are listening or paying attention? Three guesses.

Harbor View


Of course, there’s lots of “old” Hamburg to be seen as well. The city has been around for more than a thousand years and while the original settlement is long gone, there is still much evidence of its history. Great sections of Hamburg have been destroyed over the years. There was a “great fire” (like London’s) that took out much of the original merchants’ area in the 1800s; there has been the occasional flood and then there was the small matter of WWII and the firebombing of the city that was carried out. Despite this, as I said, there’s a lot of “old town” left. The grand Rathaus or town hall, dating to the 19th century, is standing, as are a number of churches and public buildings. The center of the city has a number of pedestrian areas and shopping streets. While modern skyscrapers stretch above many streets, the general sense of Hamburg is that most of the buildings are of modest height and, rather than being torn down when they have outlived their original purposes, they are renovated or remodeled and put to other uses. The old central post office, seen below, is now home to offices for doctors, lawyers and other professionals as well as a gym.

Old Central Post Office


Then there are the churches, of course. Everybody comes to Europe to see the churches. St. Michael’s Church is THE Hamburg landmark. Destroyed twice, to the foundations, since it was built in the 1800s and compulsively rebuilt and restored each time.

St. Michael’s Church


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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