The second instalment of John’s series about his experiences studying abroad in Germany with his wife. Watch The Voice for more instalments of this series over the coming months. For part one, see v13 140 of The Voice.
Already, we are seeing a lot of the city and finding that we really like Hamburg, but in my last column did I really suggest that our new accommodations are “heaven”? Perhaps our heaven has a few problems. Every corner has a cobweb harbouring at least one spider. This might have something to do with the fact that Germans do not seem to put screens on their windows, yet keep the windows open through most kinds of weather. We have encountered so many spiders here that I’m starting to wonder if they are Germany’s national animal. The presence of these spiders is something of a problem in light of my wife’s arachnophobia. In any case, we have adopted a no-kill policy, so everyday I find myself removing countless spiders from our apartment. The rose bushes outside of our window provide a sanctuary for our unwelcome roommates, and Angeles can rest a little more easily at night.
We also learned that our building is not soundproof. The lady in the apartment above us is very fond of high-heeled shoes. Click, click. Click, click. We can hear her walking overhead, day and night. Click, click. Click, click. It starts very, very early in the morning and is louder than one might expect. Angeles wonders if this lady even wears the high-heels to bed, as we hear her at the oddest hours of the night. Click, click. Click, click.
We know when the people above us have breakfast. We can tell because it sounds as if they are moving furniture as in very heavy furniture moved from one end of their apartment to the other. Every morning it’s click, click. Click, click. And then they rearrange furniture.
The fact that we have a (semi-) permanent residence in Germany brings about our first encounter with the German bureaucracy. Everyone living in Germany must register his or her address with the authorities. If you change addresses, move to another city, or leave the country, you also have to let the authorities know. A few days after arriving in Hamburg we went to the Bezirksamt Altona (Altona district administration office) to register our address. We pay for this service. The process takes about fifteen minutes.
As we will be living in Germany for more than three months, Angeles and I will need to register ourselves as foreigners. We make an appointment to meet with an official. We will be able to apply for our visas in six weeks.
Within days of arriving in Hamburg, we find that we have settled into life here. Every day during the week, Angeles does her research at the State Archives and from morning until early afternoon I attend German classes. And of course we get to know our surroundings.
Although Hamburg suffered tremendous damage during the Second World War, this fact is not obvious given the quality of the restoration work. It is impossible to imagine that the majority of Hamburg was once flattened, the streets were impassable and that in certain areas dead bodies were the only sign that people had once lived there. As a visitor to modern Hamburg, I would not be able to believe this had I not seen the photographs and read the accounts that recorded these events. I still cannot get my head around the effort that is required to rebuild a large city destroyed by war. That Hamburg was able to rebuild so many of its grand and historic buildings only increases my fascination with this city.
Like most tourists, we go to the harbour, stroll along the Elbe River and the city’s canals (Hamburg is known as the Venice of the North), and we take a walk through the colourful Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s famous and historic red-light district. There, the mostly male proprietors try to draw passers-by into the sex shows and porn shops that the area is famous for. It hardly matters if you are with your wife. Everyone is welcome! The district is lively and memorable, to say the least.
We find many aspects of German life strike us as amusing or odd. For example, people take their dogs everywhere. You find dogs in shops and restaurants. You also find many of them at the local shopping centre in spite of the signs indicating that this is forbidden. Indeed, given the large number of dogs in the mall, and the security guards’ complete indifference to this, the signs are totally superfluous. The situation does not lead to calamity. This experience calls into question the prohibition of dogs in Edmonton’s shopping centres.
In Germany, furthermore, it is not forbidden to drink your beer while you ride the subway or streetcar. By early afternoon on Fridays you may encounter someone who has already started his weekend festivities on the streetcar. A German friend of ours here says that, “the party always starts on the train.”
One thing that we do miss here is Edmonton’s strict smoking ban. People here seem to smoke everywhere. Cigarettes are advertised everywhere. Forget about banning the sale of tobacco products to minors as cigarettes can be purchased from machines on street corners.
Nevertheless, in spite of these liberal attitudes there are unusual restrictions on some aspects of life here. For example, German citizens must register their televisions and their radios with the authorities. I am told that for this privilege, a German household must pay about 150 Euros (over $200 Canadian). Fortunately, as visitors we won’t be required to do this.
Hamburg is very different from other European cities that we are familiar with. First of all, the landscape here is very flat. Perhaps that is the reason that most of the bicycles here are very basic. I see very few of the expensive multi-geared bikes that I am used to seeing at home. The bicycles here are well used, practical, rugged and sturdy. They are first and foremost a means of transportation rather than an expensive piece of sports equipment.
We do not have a car here and we really do not miss it. Instead, we find that the streetcar, the underground, and bus system get us to wherever we want to go. Traffic is very heavy, so private vehicles are often no quicker than public transit.
We have already travelled throughout much of the city by streetcar (the S-Bahn) and underground (the U-Bahn). Yet our knowledge of the city has so far been limited to the world that we can see from the rail lines. Cleary, in the weeks and months ahead, there is much more to Hamburg than we have been able to experience thus far.