You can sometimes go back – returning to Hamburg after 23 years

In the summer of 1995 I completed a study abroad year at the Universität Hamburg. I recall crossing the Elbe the last time and feeling a sense of relief at leaving the city behind me as I headed south in a rented station wagon with some other students and all of our belongings for a few days of traveling before flying back to the US from Frankfurt.  That’s not to say I hadn’t enjoyed my time there – I experienced things and made acquaintanceships which have had major impacts on the paths I have followed since, and it was an important and enjoyable period of my life….  but it had taken me almost my entire time there to gain any appreciation for the city itself, and that was only a grudging acceptance in the last months that I might just as well find something I liked about the city I was in.  Although I have been back to Germany many times since then, the only time I had been back in Hamburg was a brief layover when changing trains in 1998, and I hadn’t left the station. To put this vantage point in context, Hamburg was an unexpected shock to my system when I arrived in the summer of 1994.

A few years previously I had participated in a high school exchange program in southern Germany, and I carried memories of having lived on the outskirts of Coburg, a mid-sized city with an intact medieval castle and town wall, surrounded by hilly fields and forests which I explored on a borrowed bicycle on the afternoons when my host brother had sport or music practice.  On my way to Hamburg I had stopped off and spent a few days with my former host family, then traveled west to meet the families of my grandmother’s cousins and re-establish a connection which had been sacrificed to the cultural mess that was the situation for recently arrived German immigrants in World War One era America.  There I found myself immersed in the forests and vineyards of the Rhine valley which, between a wonderful natural and cultural landscape and the warm hospitality of those technically distant relatives who welcomed me with open hearts and arms and who, over the course of several subsequent visits, became a true second family for me, I came to feel as strong a tie to as any place I have ever lived.

Imagine then the shock upon arrival at what can arguably be considered Germany’s second city of a 20 year old accustomed to a suburban American existence who studied at a large university in a small city and whose entire prior exposure to Germany had been in the types of places that are featured on tourism posters.  Gone were the picturesque surroundings, replaced with the din of a major city.  The subway ride from the station to my student housing was my first ever subway ride, and I popped out of the station into a neighborhood which was clearly not the best-off in the city.  Having found the building I would be living in for most of a year, I opened the door and, as a lifelong non-smoker, recoiled at the clouds of cheap tobacco smoke which rolled out to greet me.   It was not an arrival conceived to induce appreciation. Couple that with being on a very tight budget for the time and living in a flat constantly serenaded by the screech of elevated rail cars coming around a turn into the station a block away, and the end result was a city I wasn’t overly fond of.  So I saw no reason to ever go back.

Subsequently I’ve lived or had extended stays in other large port cities – Tokyo, Shanghai, Seattle – all of which were in some ways reminiscent of Hamburg.  There was a subconscious re-evaluation of the city, and I began to feel an attachment and that I had not really given Hamburg a fair chance.  I was not in any way drawn back to the city, but the negative feelings I had toward it gradually faded.

Once they were old enough to have real conversations with, I have encouraged my nieces and nephews to take advantage of opportunities to spend meaningful time abroad and was accordingly pleased when one of my nieces announced that she would be participating in the Spring 2018 Semester at Sea program.  Two of my other nieces were also going to be spending the Spring 2018 semester studying abroad at Harlaxton College in England.  At some point in the past I had indicated to them that I would be willing to be a travel partner if they should end up in Germany, and the three of them got together and called me on that indication, even more so since the Semester at Sea program ended in Hamburg the day after the program in England concluded.  With 3 nieces planning on meeting me in Hamburg in the middle of April, I had no real choice but to return to the city where it had all started.

On the afternoon of 17. April 2018, at the end of a 3 leg journey with stops in Dallas and Madrid, I shouldered my backpack and stepped out of the Hamburg airport into a perfect spring day.  I walked the 10 minutes or so to the hotel I had booked past flowering shrubs and trees under a clear blue sky.  As a matter of principle, I persisted with using German during hotel check-in despite realizing I was rustier than I had expected to be, but was pleasantly surprised that after a couple of phrases I was able to fully understand not only the person I was talking to but the conversations around me; it had been years since I’d listened to full speed German conversations.  After a shower and a short nap, I set off in search of food and exercise.

To be brutally honest, I had never spent any amount of time in the area around the Hamburg airport before, but I noticed within a few steps that I was in a city that I loved.  It had been nearly 23 years since I had last been in the city, but I recognized the local shops and brands, and they all brought memories back with them.  I came across a neighborhood market that hadn’t yet closed down for the day, and lured in by the promise of a currywurst stand (one of the foods I deeply associate with Hamburg) I dove in and enjoyed being immersed in the daily activity.  I found a produce stand selling locally grown Elstar apples from last year’s harvest which had the distinctive texture and taste of an apple that had been properly stored (which is not, in contrast to the prevailing myth in the US, one that was picked early and held just above freezing in a carbon dioxide rich environment), and I chatted with the seller about apples and produce in general. I found my currywurst and enjoyed it at a standing table before heading on to a further exploration of the area.  After an hour or so of aimlessly meandering the area I popped into a supermarket to re-acquaint myself with the offerings, then headed back to the hotel for a beer and a light snack enjoyed outside before falling to sleep while watching the news.

The next morning I was fully back on a normal schedule and was up by 7:30, then had an expensive but excellent hotel breakfast before I headed out and retraced my steps back to the airport to catch a train into the city.  I bought a day pass and, since my old stop was on the same line, decided to start the day off by going back to my old neighborhood near the Berliner Tor station.  As I stepped off onto the platform I awakened memory cells that had been sleeping for years, and all manner of thoughts and memories from that station flooded into my head.  The short walk from the station to my old building was a very interesting experience; I was clearly the current me, but I felt incredibly close to the person I was then.  The power of location on memory and perception is impressive. Things I hadn’t thought about in years flooded back.

I had lived in Gustav Radbruch Haus, which is a student housing unit which, at the time I lived there, had suites consisting of 6 bedrooms, a couple of bathrooms, and a combined kitchen and living area.  My suitemates were from various backgrounds – Germany, Italy, England, and Mali were all represented in addition to myself.  Other suites had similar makeups; one of the other American students shared a bathroom with an Iranian at a time when the two countries were not officially talking. As we negotiated day to day occurrences each suite developed it’s own customs and communication protocols, each a mix of the things brought by it’s combination of residents.  That building is the physical point where a previously nationalistic (or, in American speak, patriotic) and conservative mindset was forced to recognize the concept of being part of general humanity, and the falsehoods of those elements of my personality were unable to stand up to the universal truth surrounding me.  Gustav Radbruch Haus is where I became a world citizen, but it was only the hindsight of the intervening years which clarified that for me, and only by standing back in front of it was I able to put myself in the mental space to recognize it. I could see through the door that the lobby area aligned with my memory, and I briefly considered going in and stopping by the office before I thought better of it; some things are best left to memory.



I spent the remainder of the morning getting re-acquainted with my old neighborhood; there has been significant change in some areas, but enough remained the same that I felt at home. The grocery store I used to go to has rearraigned the shelves but was otherwise recognizable, and there was a bit of a pang of regret that I didn’t have a kitchen to go back; it would have been fun to have tried to re-create some of the meals that we put together as students.  Now such cuisine would be called “fusion”, then it was simply what came out of blending multiple cooking traditions with ingredients that were not quite what those traditions were based on.  I had to test if the baguettes and croissants from the pretend French bakery at the station still tasted as good as my memory; likewise the pretzels  from the kiosk across the walkway (and, in fact, all 3 tasted better!).  I found the small park, and possibly the same tree I was under, where I went to sit and stare blankly off into space while considering the frailty of life after learning that one of my favorite uncles had terminal lung cancer – and where I was found a couple of hours later by my Italian suitemate who noticed I was not myself when I had walked out of the suite without a jacket or hat; she went looking for me when I hadn’t shown back up an hour later and I recall her sitting down next to me and softly singing Italian lullabies until I was ready to talk about things.

After the old neighborhood I headed over to the University area.  It was another place of strong memories.  I opted to start at Dammtor station (which is probably my favorite train station anywhere in the world, and still amazes me) and meander through campus.  I found it somehow fitting that the cellar apartment that had been our program office and lounge area, and where the members of my program had sat through additional classes on German culture specifically for us (including, among others, an outstanding series of talks on Wagner’s “Ring”), has now been absorbed by the University sponsored daycare which was on the floor above and always complained about the noise we made when they were trying to have naptime…  I had lunch at the Kebab shop several of us always went to, and while I can’t guarantee it was the same couple running it, they did look familiar and the kebab was exactly like I remembered.  The bar I went to on my 21’st birthday was recognizable, but is now a pizza place and was closed for renovations.

With the two strongest memory locations visited, I opted to spend a few hours just wandering around the city.  When I had been there it was mainly a grey space with some hideous 1950’s and 60’s, “lets get a building up as quickly as possible” monstrosities, and several of the more historic buildings were wrapped in the green scaffolding of renovation.  Following some strategic demolitions, what seemed like new paint across the board, and some new construction, I struggled to find much evidence of the city picture I recalled.  Instead, I found a vibrant city full of people enjoying a pleasant day, and had I not been on a bit of a timeframe I could have easily joined those relaxing in the old botanical gardens.  The question which kept running through my head was “how could I have ever not liked this city?”

After a brief stop at the waterfront I decided that my feet needed a bit of a break, so I caught the train out to Wedel.  The ride was long enough to be a good rest, and once there I headed down to the Elbe and found a very pleasant beergarden overlooking the river.  Over a pretzel and an Alsterwasser I took stock of the feelings of the day and decided that in hindsight I had given Hamburg too hard of a challenge as a city; in my year of living there I had a period of immense personal and academic growth and development and hadn’t opted to put time or effort into appreciating the actual city I was in.  23 years later, that appreciation finally had a chance to be identified.

I ended my day of rediscovering Hamburg at a reception for friends and families of the Semester at Sea participants.  Originally the plan had been that this reception was to disseminate information about where and when to meet the students on the eve of their arrival, however a storm had blocked the ability of the ship to get to Hamburg so it had instead diverted to Lisbon, which threw just about everyone’s plans off.  Under that circumstance, the reception for those already in Hamburg essentially devolved into the families and friends swapping travel stories. Several people found it somehow fitting that I was back retracing my study abroad steps in the city it had all started in.

I returned to the hotel fairly late, and I was glad I had added a day to my trip to allow myself to go back to Hamburg in advance of my nieces arriving.  At 10 AM on the next morning I met them at the airport and we set off on their tour of one of my favorite cities – Hamburg.



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