In Hamburg, you have to pay attention.
Things are moving here on the edge of time. A store doesn’t open at 9:59, it opens at 10:00 exactly. People still have wrist watches not as an accessory, not as a nod to the 90s, but actually use them for their intended purpose. The train / subway / HochBahn is rarely, if ever, late. Only once in six whole months did I see a train come startlingly late (I would consider “startling late” ten minutes), and it caused panic to ripple throughout the crowd. Where is the train? How could this happen? When the HochBahn comes, it opens and closes its mouth within ten seconds and you better already be there to jump in. One time I made it, but my bag got caught. The doors do not wait for anyone or anything. Every four minutes it arrives and leaves. Time is important here, efficiency is important. Hamburg people cannot live on borrowed time, and there is something to respect in this efficiency.
In Hamburg, people stare at you.
Truly, stoically, painfully, everlastingly look at you. Never have a cold sore in Hamburg. Make sure you brush your hair. The staring, the (perceived but often not real) judgement, and the curiosity only increases between the elderly and the children. You feel 15 and awkward again in Hamburg. Why is everyone looking at me? They are not, in fact; everyone is looking at everyone else. Over the months, the stares don’t feel so strange or threatening. You begin to realize that the staring, the looking-for-longer-than-necessary-look is how people interact with each other here. It is different, it is uncomfortable, it can be unbearable and then… it isn’t. Eventually you will stare back.
In Hamburg, fashion is function over form. There are not a lot of bright colors or varieties of clothing here. Sensible black shoes, a Fjällräven backpack, a jacket that hits your knees that is both waterproof and windproof for the unpredictable dark winter. In some cases, this is a relief. You don’t have to fuss much about your wardrobe in Hamburg. It is easy to wear greys and blacks and the occasional pop of color scarf. You bundle up here. The extreme humidity in the summer means you sweat, but in the winter it means there is a sharper cold. Looking put together, clean, sharp, business ready is very important, but fashion in itself is not. Maybe it is the climate or maybe it is the culture… I can’t tell the difference.
In Hamburg, the food also does not confuse or surprise you.
It does what it is supposed to do, it does not trick you with misleading imagery. You will see sugar pellets on the tables, not “natural looking” sugar to give you the facade of health. Many, many, cured meats in sausage form line the shelves of the supermarket. Powdered chicken broth. Certainly most of the U.S. food isn’t good for you but we make an illusion that it is. Why bother? says Hamburg. You know what you are getting yourself into.
In Hamburg, people here are reserved but real.
Not constantly warm and inviting but absolutely genuine. They do not mix words, they mean what they say and say what they mean. It is not easy to have a “passive aggressive” attitude with a German person. They will not accept it or frankly understand it. Because of this cultural quirk many German people pride themselves with, you tend to build character and resilience living here, and don’t get the luxury of having things sugarcoated with false niceties. It is easy to miss friendliness and openness, but you know where you stand with people here.
In Hamburg, it’s clean and shiny everywhere, minus the cigarette butts.
Americans underestimate how much people still smoke in Europe. When we were flooded with propaganda about the dangers of smoking, Europe was laughing with a cigarette in one hand and some red wine in the other. Smoking is not “cool” here, it is common. A stress relief. A social engagement. An average part of your day. I have seen a mother smoke while holding a baby. I have seen kids who look no more than 14 light up for an afternoon puff.
In Hamburg, you will not find a tourist city.
Venice is flooded with tourists. Berlin. London. These are the cities people want to flock to for the culture and the atmosphere, but not Hamburg. Hamburg instead is an economic wonderland. Rated number 14 in the world for one of the best cities to live in, Hamburg is thriving independent of tourism. It is a well-oiled machine. This place is a secure cocoon of prosperity, growth and problem solving while perhaps lacking in some spectacles that have tourists come flocking.
In Hamburg, people are tall and fit.
Not all, but quite a lot. You step off the plane and you are in the land of the giants. Testing my theory, the internet tells me that Germany is ranked the sixth-tallest nation, only to be overshadowed by literal neighboring European countries. These long and lean people are often into sports. Over and over I am asked, what kind of sports do you do? None, I say. And they believe I misunderstood the question. So many people here won the traditionally attractive gene pool award and would be considered extremely beautiful or handsome in the U.S. There are misplaced athletes and actors everywhere here.
In Hamburg, you better not have celiacs disease.
Forget everything I said about the food earlier. Throw it away. Rewind. I forgot perhaps the most important part of living here: The bread. Oh my God, the bread. German people have said that when they visit or move to another country one of the first things they miss is the their bread. Bakeries are everywhere, Dat Backhus, Brotgarten, Ditsch, Le Crobag (to name a few) all across the street from each other, all co-existing in some sort of heavenly, gluteny alternative world. How can everyone have the same consistent, fluffy, perfectly baked bread? How do they all have the same warm lighting to shine over the glistening loaves like newborn babies? It is no wonder everyone is into sports here. My belly gets bigger with delicious carbohydrates every day.
In Hamburg, your heart better be ready for a beating.
It isn’t a walk through the park (though they have some lovely parks here), it’s more like a jog through a crowded well-dressed city block. You have tall, intimidating buildings intermixed with pre-war ones. (Yes, that war.) You have these gothic canal ways in Hafen City, the alleyways of prostitution in the Reeperbahn, you have beautiful, rich, put together mansions on the waterfront, red tailed squirrels, so many jobs related to green energy, people helping you with your luggage up the (dare I SAY NEVER ENDING) stairs. Minimal homelessness. A hodgepodge of things that make a city vibrant and thriving and lonely and forgetful.
Loving Hamburg is not easy.
In fact, I don’t know if I would say Hamburg is lovable in the traditional sense of the word. However, particular captured moments of watching snow fall in November while riding a speeding train, helping an old woman down the stairs as she whispers gratitude in German, or me successfully ordering a pizza in a language other than English makes me grateful for my time in such a sensible, functional, puzzling and flourishing city.
This story was written by Sarah Miller to be shared on AirlineReporter. Sarah, originally from Seattle, WA, is a freelance English teacher in Hamburg, Germany. She can often be found whining online, making YouTube videos reviewing children’s books, or taking day trips to fancy bakeries to eat her feelings. You can read more of her work via her blog Ham in Hamburg or on her Instagram.
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