This past Thursday I took a trip to Bremen and Hamburg. One of the best things about living in Europe is how quickly you can travel to somewhere fairly different. Aside from my trip to Denmark a few months go, I’ve spent the majority of my time in Germany just within Berlin. Berlin is very much an island of sorts within Germany, so it was nice to get out and see some more of the country.
I was a little nervous at first about the language issue. Although I’m slowly getting better with my German, English is almost always an option in Berlin given the international nature of the city. Although I had Insa, my native German speaking girlfriend, I wouldn’t always have the English safety net if my German failed me in a situation where I was alone. It’s funny, every time people hear us speaking English they asked if we were from England. I can’t say I blame them though, it’s still a little difficult for me to differentiate between a Northern German, a Southern German, and an Austrian. You can always pick out the Swiss though because their German doesn’t sound like German but it doesn’t sound like any other language either.
Insa is a writer and often reads some of her works to live audiences. One of her groups was performing in Bremen, a city where she did her undergraduate studies. She had made the trip between Bremen and Berlin plenty of times before. When she asked if I wanted to come along with her before I started working full time, I jumped at the idea. We were going to take the Inter City Express train, or ICE. (Sometimes the cars aren’t air conditioned properly, so the train is anything but ice.)
I had seen the larger trains whipping through Berlin and had always wanted to ride one. The ICE cruises at between 160kmph (100mph) and 250kmph (155mph). I had not really traveled on trains before (something that astounded all my European friends) and so I was really excited to get to ride one to Bremen. We would take two, the ICE to Hannover, then the IC to Bremen. The IC was slower but had windows you could lower.
One thing that really startled me the first couple of times it happened was when another train passed us just a few feet away going the opposite direction at speed. The small shockwave from the air between the two trains can really make you jump if you’re not expecting it or used to it. (My shock made Insa laugh every time because she’s used to it). You never know when it will happen! There were several in the first 20 minutes of our trip, but then there were dry spells where a train wouldn’t pass us for over half an hour. I managed to get this one on camera:
Here is some of the country side: The wind turbines were really cool to me just because we don’t really have them in the states that often.
We stopped in Hannover and quickly switched trains to the IC. Although this entire journey was routine for Insa, I couldn’t help but be excited the entire time.
When we got to Bremen, we first stopped by Insa’s university. She had done an exchange program in the US for a year and there was a meeting of the old and new exchange students from the program in one of the university buildings.
Her university had this cool tower where they drop things to perform zero gravity experiments:
The university is fairly left wing and so it’s not uncommon to see political graffiti around the campus.
After meeting some of the students from the German/US exchange program, Insa had some other meetings and a smaller performance to do before the main event later that night, so I had some time to explore the old city center on my own.
There is a cathedral in Bremen. It was first constructed in the 11th century after the previous structures were burned. Inside there is a museum wing to the building where you can see church garments, books, and coins that are over a thousand years old. (Insa always jokes that one easy way to impress an American is to show them anything that’s over three hundred years old.)
After running around old town for a bit, it was time to meet back up with Insa and her friends to go to the club where they were giving their performance. There we would also meet the friends whose couch we would be crashing on for the next three nights. They were also a half-German, half-American couple living in Bremen. (Though the American’s German is so good, the immigration office apparently mistook her for a native German trying to apply for an American friend when she went to the office for her visa work. One day I hope to get that good…)
The event called “Slam Bremen” consisted of two parts: Insa’s group were the guest stars performing their works and then a 10 person competition of various other artists performing their works and being judged by the crowd. I was surprised how absolutely packed the place was for the readings.
Insa’s group did really well and the audience loved the stories. After the show we hung out in the back room and had pizza before calling it a night and heading home. The next day we got up and I was given a tour of the city; this time with two people who knew their way around.
Bremen is famous for the Grimm fairy-tale The Town Musicians of Bremen, about a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a roster that team up to go to Bremen to become musicians. In the story they scare off some robbers by standing on top of one another to form a kind of monster. You’re supposed to rub the feet and the nose of the donkey and make a wish.
Guess where this statue gets touched the most…
There is a manhole cover in old Bremen that you can put coins in and it will make the sounds of the donkey, the dog, the cat, and the rooster:
Old Bremen has this district that’s called Schnoor. It’s really quaint and pretty:
Above is a school for learning Plattdeutsch, the local dialect.
Parts of the Schnoor can be quite narrow:
There is a cemetery in the middle of old Bremen, but under Napoleon it was thought not to be a good idea to have a cemetery in the middle of town and so it was paved over. Instead of flowers on tombstones, the old cemetery is now a flower market.
There is a street in downtown Bremen where drug addicts can buy clean needles from a vending machine. Insa showed us the machine. Here she is trying to buy needles to feed her drug habit:
(That was a joke.) We couldn’t get the machine to work. Looks like no party for us.
Insa then knew of a furniture store where we could go up to the top level and get a pretty good view of the city. We just had to pretend to be interested in buying a couch.
This person has the coolest place to sit and read:
After walking around in the city for a bit, we went to the river Weser and strolled through the parks where we found some ducks that loved the taste of ice cream cones.
Later in the afternoon we played a game of Kubb, an old viking game where you toss sticks to knock down the other team’s pins before knocking down the king in the middle. It’s a lot of fun (and is really difficult) and reminds me of the game of corn-hole that people play a lot in South Carolina.
That night we decided to stay in with out hosts and have some wine and play card games. It was one of the times that I really felt like “oh crap, I’m an adult now…” I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just thought it was funny how here we were, doing things that I as a kid always saw the “boring” adults doing: not much and having wine. Once you’re actually an adult, it’s nice to do “not much” over wine every now and then. Anyways, it’s always fun (difficult) to try and learn how to play card games in a language you’re still learning. Insa always beats me at every game we play though.
The next day we got up and took a train to Bremerhaven. (“Haven” is harbor) There we got to see some sea-side Bremen and a zoo. Bremerhaven is really close to Wilhelmshaven which happens to be the sister-city of Norfolk, Virginia, the area right next to where I grew up. When I was in the 11th grade my family hosted a German exchange student from that town. Unfortunately I don’t have his contact information any more so I don’t have a way of getting a hold of him, assuming he’s still living in the area.
The zoo was a lot of fun. One of Insa’s favorite things to do there is to watch the seals and sea lions:
After the zoo we walked around and enjoyed the maritime feel of the whole town:
It was in Bremerhaven that Insa introduced me to Matjesbrötchen. It’s a filet of fish in bread with onions. She says most Americans she shows it to don’t like it, but I enjoyed it, even if I was a little skeptical at first.
On our way back home we thought we missed the train. As we got off the bus we could see that it wasn’t at the platform. We were in a rush and were hoping we hadn’t missed it. The next train was in an hour and we had a dinner reservation to meet. As we were walking towards the station, crestfallen at having missed the train, the train pulled into the station, running a little late. A mad dash ensued and we just barely made it onto the train as the doors were closing.
For dinner we went to a sushi restaurant that was all you could eat. The coolest thing about the restaurant was the conveyor belt of food. You sit next to this enclosed conveyor belt like you would find at an airport baggage terminal and the food comes long on the belt. You open the window to reach in and take whatever you want.
After eating to the point of feeling sick, we went to a local brewery, Schüttinger, where Insa used to hang out to have “1 drink.” After 4 or 5 drinks Insa wanted to beat me in a coaster flipping game:
After listening to some German Schlager we stumbled home. The old city looks really great at night too:
The next day we said goodbye to our hosts and boarded a train for Hamburg. Hamburg is the 2nd largest city in Germany and a large import/export port given it’s location near the North Sea.
First thing we did in Hamburg was take a harbor cruise. We got to see a lot of the boardwalk and shipping facilities in action.
(A warship under construction. Insa hates everything war related and wasn’t pleased)
We passed through a lock that’s designed to inhibit the flow of silt from the ocean into the rivers.
He looks worried.
After the harbor tour Insa showed me around Landungsbrücken, a boardwalk area with lots of landing spots for boats. There’s actually a song about it.
We sat down with some beers and enjoyed the sunset and ships together.
Later that evening Insa showed me the red-light district of Hamburg. It was really kind of a crazy experience. Prostitution is legal here in Germany, and people are less up-tight about sex and nudity in general, so there are lots of things you just would never see in the US.
There is a famous street in Hamburg where prostitutes sit in chairs behind glass walls and try to get you to come into the brothel. Women aren’t allowed past a certain point.
Here’s what the street looks like during the daylight when nobody is working.
There was a very high concentration of ATMs around this part of town…I wonder why…
We later walked around the same area at night and there were prostitutes everywhere just standing around on the corner. They saw me holding hands with Insa and so they didn’t approach, but I watched them just hound any single guy walking around. It was kind of surreal. I asked Insa what I could get for 50 euros around this part of town, she said “single.”
We later met another friend of hers who was living in Hamburg for some dinner and a drink, but by this time we were both so dead tired and exhausted. It takes energy to pay attention to a conversation in another language, energy I didn’t have, so most of the time I was just quiet. I’m sure I came across pretty boring to her friend, but all I wanted to do was curl up in a bed and sleep.
We had a late ICE train from Hamburg to Berlin. You might as well be in an underground tunnel for all the difference it makes when traveling at night. The windows were black except for when the moon would periodically pop out of the clouds or when we would shoot past a deserted station.
We pulled into Südkreuz station in Berlin a little before 1am. I got home and immediately fell asleep.
Something interesting happened to me towards the end of this 4-day trip: I started to feel a little homesick…for Berlin.