November 2009


Wow! HH: One Happenin’ Harbor (aka Saturday)

After going to bed at 2:30, I woke up what would normally be late for me, but in this case was actually early—something like 8 or 8:30; I’m not really sure what time, I just woke up feeling incredibly refreshed and listening to two people being quiet: Mrs. Letters Home and the little red-haired girl.

They were successful—Despite sleeping for only five or six hours, I felt great. I stood up and made my way into the cozy enveloping space known as the kitchen, where Mrs. Letters Home offered me some coffee and conversation—as well as a side of silly putty—which I haven’t actually played with in years—it turns out that I miss it.

After a couple cups of coffee, Mr. Letters Home appeared as well, and the day’s plans were formulated: we were off to see the city!

But not before I got to do something I haven’t had the opportunity to do in Germany in awhile: take a great shower. Seriously—except in hotels, German showers are the best. Unfortunately in my apartment whilst I have a showerhead, I only have a bathtub—if I were to stand, I’d hit my head on the ceiling and then proceed to soak the wooden floor thus warping it beyond recognition.

And while I’ve come to appreciate the full sized luxurious bathtub with the possibility to take long soaks in piping hot water, there is no substitute for a full powered shower that blasts the dirt right off. I might note that Mrs. Letters Home apologized for how small the bathroom is—you could probably fit (at floor level) three or four of theirs into mine—but I would trade mine for theirs in an instant: I love showers.

Eventually we wandered off—making our way to what is, for me, a mythical place in German Geography: Hamburg Altona Bahnhof. I say mythical because there are a lot of trains with it as a final destination, but to the best of my previous knowledge, it was just theoretical. Seeing it was surreal—just like all the trains with destination Berlin Gesundbrunnen—trains start and finish there, but nobody actually uses the station, right? (What about Binz as a destination? It sounds more like a Jewish dessert than a place for a train, right?)

The bottom fell out...

The bottom fell out...

From Altona, it was a short hop down to the Elbe and onto a Ferry that would take us—errr, somewhere. My Hamburg geography is a bit weak and it turns out that my vague recollections of the city from my first visit were completely and totally wrong. I thought the main train station was at the south end of the city when it was really at the east end. When I finally realized that I was a moron, I just let Mr. Letters Home guide me and make sure that I didn’t do anything stupid—say like jump off the boat.

What Hamburg has in common with where I was the previous weekend, is that both are harbor cities. Rotterdam is the undisputed European champion, while Hamburg is the second largest port in Europe. One big difference between the two is that Rotterdam’s port is only hinted at from the city center, Hamburg’s port is right there on the south side of the Elbe River—hard to miss with gigantic cranes ready to lift cargo in and out of the ships. I’ve seen the same equipment in Rotterdam, but it took a specific harbor tour to the city fringes to take it all in—this was readily visible from the ferry that plies the river route—and by ferry I mean a “bus route” that happens to be a boat on the river stopping at different docks to let people on and off within the city.

Hamburg has some strikingly beautiful vistas along the northern shore of the Elbe River—old historic buildings lining up with brightly painted fronts. In there are some great examples of modern architecture and some, well, not so great examples. Across the river, the scene is a bit starker: dry docks, cranes, and an industrial feel that probably do not make the pages of a city beautiful calendar.

Closed for cable.

Closed for cable.

We rode along the river for several stops before getting off and walking along a dock, watching a Mississippi River-style paddle boat take off to give a tour of the harbor. We, instead, caught an elevator straight down to walk under the Elbe River via the Alter Elbtunnel. This is a set of tunnels under the Elbe River that opened back in 1911—with space for both pedestrians and cars—with elevators to take cars down at 2€ a pop.

One of the two tunnels was closed due to some ongoing work designed to ruin tunnel aesthetics: Cables are being wired under the river through the tunnel, but rather than bury the cables in the tunnel’s road way or under its sidewalk, they’ve opted to string them along the wall and then cover said cables with horrifically ugly white things. Lots of fantastic old tile is being covered up and/or ruined in the process.

Perfect spot for a cafe.

Perfect spot for a cafe.

Considering the large number of people walking through the tunnel, very few bothered to go up at the other end and look at Hamburg from the south bank of the Elbe River—and a darn shame. It is a nice vista—about the only thing that could make it better is a Biergarten or other café. Really, I liked the view of the city and if we hadn’t been feeling a bit peckish, I would have voted to stay a bit longer.

Impressive Surrounds and Food.

Impressive Surrounds and Food.

Instead we walked back under the river and made our way to Hamburg’s Rathaus and its basement restaurant. We both had different variations of the same thing—the name escapes me right now—in a somewhat regal setting. Unfortunately our waitress appeared either to not want to be there or was a robot that showed no enthusiasm for her work. The food was good, the service—not.

Oma disapproved.

Oma disapproved.

From there we went into the Europa Center where we did a bit of shopping, including stopping off at the Thalia, which has a generous sized English language section—and after talking literature with PapaScott, I was looking for Catch 22 – which I’ve never read. They had two copies (operative word: had), which both quickly vanished from the shelf—mine is at the top of my reading stack. Eventually we headed back to the residence, where we napped in preparation for our evening dinner.

Mr. Letters Home had made reservations for dinner at a restaurant in the St. Pauli/Reeperbahn area, and after getting there about half an hour early and looking at what the neighborhood had to offer (and already blogged), we headed to 20 Up, Hamburg’s bar overlooking the river from the 20th floor of a 20 story building. Unfortunately the bar had a dress code—and honestly I think that if I were to wear my finest clothing I would still not be admitted—it was for beautiful people, not me. (Mr. Letters Home was clearly kept out by mistake; he looked right at home.)

We were disappointed, but I wanted to immediately tweet about it, but the spelling of the word “pretentious” escaped me at that moment, and we were off to find the restaurant.

We met at Man Wah, a Chinese restaurant—we were first, with PapaScott appearing a few minutes later, followed by the fashionably late entrance of the Transkitten. Focusing on the food, for a sentence or two, we decided to order four main dishes and share. Three of the dishes were excellent—I wish I could remember all three—one was a beef-ginger dish of some kind, the second was a vegetarian-tofu dish, and the third was, I believe, Sweet-Pea greens with garlic. The greens were to die for. The one dud was a chicken dish that consisted of about 20% bone, 5% spices, and 70% fat, which left about 5% meat. It was too much work and not that good.

That said the company was fantastic: Mr. Letters Home, one of the world’s finest Canadians (I’m surprised he has not been called home to serve in Parliament and run for Prime Minister; he has the resume to do so); PapaScott, American extraordinaire and General Manager of Germany’s finest McDonald’s; and the Transkitten, who is British—and, errr… well, I could tell you what she does, but since I don’t recall reading it on her blog, I’m not sure that I should—I will just say that she has a charming accent, the kind that makes me swoon.

Randomly: Can you guess what three of us had in common?

I know that we sat down around 8:30, and I believe that we left the restaurant well after 11. I’d tell you what we talked about, but it would be meaningless without the context. I just know that time went by and I didn’t notice it happening—and that is, in my humble opinion the best way for it to happen.

The conversation continued, after we emerged—we admired the sight of Hamburg’s most famous Esso station, and then headed slowly away: The Transkitten going to her car; the rest of us to the S-Bahn. PapaScott was going south of the Elbe whilst Mr. Letters Home and I headed back to his place.

More foot-traffic than car-traffic this time of night.

Where to head after putting your tiger in a tank.

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