So yeah, I was cold. I mean COLD. Especially in Hamburg, which is way up north near Denmark and gets bone-chilling, damp winds off the water. Dusk fell around 4:30 PM, and in the eight days I was there it was always heavily clouded over, without a ray of sun. Plus it snowed, both in Hamburg and last weekend’s trip to Berlin. I was prepared with sweaters, a long coat, hat, etc. but I haven’t been that cold in years.
That said, I had a pretty fantastic time. I reflected on being Jewish in Germany. I trolled many Christmas markets. I had some amazing noms. And I took pictures.
The Nice Jewish Boy I was visiting had sublet an apartment in the St. Pauli district, a formerly gritty area now fashionably bohemian. It was really well-located, too, so I could walk everywhere (in the freezing cold. Did I mention it was cold?). The apartment was great, and had one or two oddities including:
Duck tiles in the bathroom. And not bath-friendly rubber duckies. Mallards. Boy mallards, in fact. Go figure.
This was on the wall in the kitchen. Can anyone tell me what it means? (Endora?)
Fortunately the kitchen was incredibly well-equipped: good cookware, sharp knives, lots of spices and pantry staples. I managed to whip up a nice expat Thanksgiving dinner of roast chicken with potatoes and sweet potatoes and broccoli, plus cranberry sauce I’d brought from New York (I learned the hard way during previous Thanksgivings in Europe that cranberries or cranberry sauce are not really available there).
Of course, I didn’t have to cook at home, because we were around the corner from a bunch of Christmas markets, which served up all kinds of deliciousness, including various wursts, crepes, schmalzkuchen (fried dough) and kartoffel pfannkuchen, which were essentially German latkes. During the day, while the NJB was at work, I was sightseeing and staying warm by eating tons of Christmas market food.
Right outside our apartment was Hamburg’s giant Media Bunker:
Built as an air-raid shelter during World War II, the bunker is absolutely massive, hulking, and looms over everything around it. After the war, there was no easy way to get rid of it—built to withstand Allied air strikes, the amount of dynamite needed to demolish it would have taken out the whole neighborhood. So windows were added and it became a center for media businesses, and a club/performance space was created inside, which is actually the perfect use for it: with four-meter-thick walls of solid concrete, you can rock as hard as you want without waking up the neighbors.
A five minute walk from our apartment was the Reeperbahn, a red-light district that’s as famous as Amsterdam’s. There are a lot of good restaurants and clubs in the Reeperbahn, so it’s not as overtly skeevy as the red-light district in Amsterdam; there are prostitutes on a lot of the street corners, and plenty of peep shows and sex shops, but it didn’t feel like everyone was there for the sex trade—at least as many were there to eat out or hear music. The NJB was a bit relieved to have a female escort—when he’d been there earlier in the week by himself, the sex workers approached him and called to him constantly, which made him uncomfortable. That didn’t happen when we were together. It was a funny counterpoint to our experience in the Middle East, where I much preferred walking around with him because men only hassled me when I was alone.
We went into a couple of the sex shops just to look around, including one that was like the Nieman Marcus of sex stores. Books, videos, lavish wardrobes of fetish-wear from corsets to full-body latex gimp suits, plus every possible kind of sex toy, from cheap plastic vibrators to extremely high-end ones. Need a gold plated clit vibe? They have one for €1000. The only thing that freaked me out was the selection of metal duckbills, speculums and catheter kits for people with medical fetishes. Yikes.
At the other end of the neighborhood was the Grindel, the old Jewish quarter of Hamburg, and I spent quite a bit of time there keeping warm at Cafe Leonar, a literati-friendly cafe with a fireplace, lots of books and newspapers, and delicious food. Across the street is Carlebach Platz, where the great synagogue of Hamburg used to stand. It was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938, when supporters of the National Socialist Party attacked and burned Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues across Germany. Next to the empty plaza is the Talmud-Tora-Realschule, which escaped destruction and since the 1990s has been revived as a Jewish school. But the school is surrounded by a high iron fence and has its own police outpost:
When I stopped to snap pictures of the plaza and the school, a policeman came out of the cop box to flag me down and ask for my passport. I followed him back to the box, where his colleague took my passport and wrote down my passport number. It was unnerving, but they were both polite and professional, and managed to explain to me in a mix of English and German that it was because of security for the Jewish school. This seemed odd—how was it helping him keep the place safe to have my passport number?—but I had no interest in getting into a confrontation. Every single Jewish school and house of worship I saw in Hamburg and Berlin had the same high, locked fences and armed police.These days the threat is Al Qaeda, not Aryans, but it’s a bad sign when churches and mosques in Germany have no security, but Jewish institutions have to be guarded with guns. By comparison, here’s the turquoise-tiled Imam Ali Mosque, which is in one of Hamburg’s most elegant neighborhoods:
The NJB is working at a German newspaper and has made a fair number of friends, and told me that conversations with them “always come back to the Jewish thing.” Not in a negative way, mind you, but in the sense that the Germans he talks with are curious and enthusiastic about Jewish culture and history, but know very few actual Jewish people (the Jewish population in Germany is still extremely small, and mostly made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union). Both of us felt more conscious of our Jewishness in Germany than anywhere else, and more inclined to speak up about it. There’s a sense of responsibility to fill the void created by the absence of so many people; based on the demographics of pre-war Germany, the Jewish community there should be well over a million. But it’s not. I give Germans a lot of credit; I never felt that the Holocaust or anti-Semitism was being swept under the carpet, as I’ve often felt is the case in other European countries. The twentysomething German man who sublet us his apartment in Hamburg, for example, had been a tour guide at the museum on the site of Hamburg’s Neuengamme concentration camp, and his friends seemed similarly aware and activist. There was no shortage of memorials. And everywhere you look in Hamburg and Berlin are solpersteine or “stumbling blocks”, placed in front of the houses of Germans killed by the Nazis. They’re subtle, but incredibly effective. I found it hard to walk past without reading them. Each gold block gives the name, birthdate, date of deportation, and ultimate fate of the people who lived there:
After a week in Hamburg, we took a weekend trip to Berlin. Hamburg was a nice city to visit, but Berlin was awesome. We stayed at the Circus Hotel in the Mitte, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It’s a small but not tiny, with a modern, avant-garde design and a terrific organic breakfast buffet. The staff is lovely and the rates are super-affordable. I also loved the way the owners made sure to tell the story of the haberdasher and his family who built the building and ran a successful business there for three generations until the property was “nationalized” and the family sent to Auschwitz. Even more affordable is the Circus Hostel one block away, which seems cheery and hip instead of slightly skeevy and institutional like some hostels.
With only 48 hours, we couldn’t even scratch the surface of all Berlin’s museums and cultural institutions. But we did get to the Pergammon Museum to see the Gates of Ishtar, which kind of blew my mind.
Because it was freezing—have I mentioned that?—we stopped to refuel constantly. At the Opernpalais, which is known for its amazing selection of cakes and tarts, I had a very indulgent traditional German dinner: roast goose with potato dumplings, roast apples and red cabbage, with apple strudel for dessert.
We also stopped for glühwein and cookies at the Hotel Adlon near the Brandenberg Gate, an extremely posh place where we could only afford one cup of glühwein. It’s maybe best known as the hotel where Michael Jackson hung his son out the window. The lobby was full of over-the-top Christmas decorations and even had a kiddie chorus singing Christmas carols.
By far the highlight of the Berlin trip was the Jewish Museum, Daniel Libeskind’s famous modern building of slanting angles and voids.
The majority of the museum is not devoted to the Holocaust, but to the history of Jewish culture in Germany, from the middle ages to the 20th century. It was an all-day kind of museum, with great interactive displays and memorials built into the structure of the building—a maze-like Garden of Exile made of concrete pillars topped with olive trees, and a stark concrete shaft called the Holocaust Tower. Best of all was the Hanukkah Market that had been set up in the large event space—a Jewish alternative to all the Christmas markets. There were delicacies like latkes and sufganiyot, Judaica, arts and crafts, and a klezmer band. I bought a beautiful hand-printed t-shirt decorated with the Hebrew phrase “Blessed is God who made me a woman”—a play on the Orthodox men’s prayer that says “Blessed is God who did not make me a woman.”
So there you have it. My trip home featured a pat-down at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam—no TSA groping or scanning on the way over, but extremely tight security on the way back—and two in-flight movies, “The Kids Are Alright”, which was excellent, and “Sex and the City 2”, which was decidedly not. This week I’ve been recovering from jet-lag by waking up at 6 AM and getting to the office early.
Would I go back to Germany? Yes, definitely. But only in summer.