I was a little low energy from the weekend yesterday, and not really expecting much from my birthday this year. Olaf was still in Berlin and I had plenty of work to do anyway, so I headed down to the office and spent a fairly productive few hours on various client work. Then Nico came down to wish me a happy birthday and tell me he was taking me out for lunch. The weather was amazing outside (finally) and so we got on the bikes and he took me to a nice alternative neighborhood in Hamburg that I hadn’t seen before. We then decided to do a little bike tour of Hamburg, and we headed down to some areas I had seen before (Hafen City) and some that were new to me (Altona). All in all we must have biked about 20km, and all over the city in some beautiful weather, stopping here and there for the view or a beer. We got home at around 7, just in time to meet up with Olaf and Werner to go out for a birthday dinner in the neighborhood. And then I came home to over a hundred birthday emails. Sweet.
– There is a weird mix of dense and empty dead zones in the city. Probably a result of 40 years of division.
– Public drinking and drunkenness is out of hand, especially on the metro system.
– I am just not as naturally(unnaturally?) fetish-minded as the Germans, not by a long shot.
– There are statues of / signs with bears everywhere.
– This one applies to Hamburg too (and perhaps all of Germany), but there is a strangely small number of places that take credit cards.
I have been to a lot of gay prides in my day, and while I love the celebration, the parade part leaves me a little cold after all these years. (To be honest, I have never really understood why people watch any kind of parade.) Still, since I was in a new city, I thought it might be fun to check it out with Olaf and Nico, so we went down to see part of it. The pride parade (here they call it Christopher Street Day in remembrance of the Stonewall Riots) starts on the Kleisstraße, right in their neighborhood of Schöneberg, and not at all far from the apartment. The parade isn’t anywhere near as elaborate as the ones in San Fran or New York, and consists mainly of a bunch of identical float trucks decorated slightly differently, each blasting out their own, competing disco beat while the people on board move to the music. It wasn’t very interesting, but became moreso when we met up with some friends of Olaf’s and jumped in the middle to walk with the parade, as a part of it, instead of watching it go by. Later in the afternoon we went to the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, for an alternative pride celebration, and I found the crowd to be a little more interesting, (and also a little more drunk). We finished up the day with a four hour nap, then got up to make it to an incredible club here call Berghain for some insane dancing until 9 in the morning. At least, that is when I left. Olaf and Nico stayed another few hours while I figured out how to get back to the apartment with a 20 minute walk until I finally found the U-bahn and a 15 minute ride after that. Berliners (at least the ones I talked to in the club) are fiercely proud of their Berghain club, and I had to admit that the spaces were beautiful and it was one of the best clubs I have been to. It is in a reworked old power plant, so you can imaging some of the industrial chic. If I had any complaints, it would be that I wish the music was a little less thumpety-thump and a little more melodic, but this is a small quibble. It was a really great experience, and a really great pride this year. I wouldn’t have missed New York at all (pride-wise) except for the fact that the state finally just passed gay marriage on Friday. I know the celebrations there this year will be especially sweet.
It seems like no matter where I go this year, I am destined to have bad weather. And then to hear about how amazing it is when I am no longer there. All through the spring we had pretty cold and shitty weather in New York, but I hear from friends there that the past several weeks (since my departure) have been fantastic, sunny, beautiful. Then throughout much of Scandinavia it was likewise bad (except for Stockholm) with pouring rain and floods. And finally here in Germany, almost no single day without rain, usually pouring down at just the moment I am on a bike a few miles from shelter. C’est la vie.
I really can’t avoid it anymore, it has become too much of a hindrance and embarrassment. Here I am, my fifth or sixth time in Germany (and my third long term stay), and the German I know is practically non-existant. Sure, most people speak English here, but less than you might think. And it makes me feel too guilty to make people translate everything for me. So I have started learning, and in case you are wanting to learn a language, I discovered a pretty awesome website for doing just that. It is called busuu.com, and I am really loving it. They offer a lot of different language courses, they run you through these really helpful exercises and lessons, and all the basic stuff is free. If I get to the point in my language learning where I will want to pay for some advanced stuff, I will probably go ahead and do so, I am that happy with the site. They also have an iphone app that runs through most of the same exercises and is likewise pretty sweet. While I don’t expect to become anything like fluent in my few weeks here, I actually have a much better expectation of what I will be able to accomplish, largely thanks to this site and my own guilt-and-frustration induced motivation. So ultimately, that makes me kind of happy. If I could change one thing about the site, it would probably be the visual design, as it looks a bit like a workbook one would have used in grade-school, but that is a small quibble given how great the instruction is.
This past weekend I went with Olaf and Nico to Berlin. They have recently rented an apartment there in the Schöenberg district, which I found to be really lovely and easy to walk around in. Most of the previous times I have been to Berlin, it has seemed somewhat inhumanly scaled and not very friendly. But for whatever reason this past weekend was quite different, and I had a nice time exploring the neighborhood. It also so happened this was the weekend of a well known street fair in the area, which was good fun despite the frequent rain. And each night we went out to a party or bar with friends and had a nice time with the locals. I also couldn’t get over how inexpensive housing is in Berlin, a decent size flat can be had for three or four hundred dollars, if you can believe that. Of course, the flip side is that the economy of Berlin is not great, with very high unemployment at the moment. Still, it is a city that seems to know how to party and forget its troubles.
One of the things that I have noticed here (that I always notice when I come here) is how very particular Germans can be about everything. For them, there is always a right way (and even more so a wrong way) to do something, and I always feel a little bit awkward here in ways I don’t in other places. One of the things that is always great about staying with Olaf is how much of a family spirit pervades his house. Everyone always eats together, and everyone always busies themselves helping out with whatever there is to do. I try very hard to make myself useful in whatever way I can, as is only right when you are a guest in someone’s home. That said, when things aren’t done the “right” way, it is pretty obvious. It might be something as simple as the thickness of a vegetable slice, what kind of plate was chosen for the meal, or the placement of a glass. Easy-going is not a word one would ever apply to people here. And as I have noticed in cultures around the world including my own, people tend to think that the way they have learned to do things is obvious, and universal. People have a very hard time seeing how strong a role culture plays in the idea of the “right” way to do something. They think what is second nature to them after years of societal conditioning is clearly the “natural” order of things.
I arrived in Hamburg without incident and then had a wild night out dancing with Olaf and Nico, as yesterday was a holiday here and nobody was working. Today I have started to get setup and back to work life. I will spend the next month here in Hamburg working with Olaf on a few projects for his site and then also doing my normal work for my clients back in the US. It feels a little weird at the moment trying to get back into the swing of work after all that travelling. But then, my empty bank account demands it, and demands it now. I am very happy to see my friend Olaf again, and it is always nice to be back in Hamburg. This is my third time, and I can no longer avoid the guilt I feel over not speaking any German, so I am going to try to follow an online course and at least take the opportunity to improve while I am here. It always feels a bit alienating at the dinner table to be listening to the back and forth of conversations and not understand a thing. I have no illusions that I will be able to do this well within a month (as this is after all one of the hardest things to do in any language), but I will at least make an effort to understand and integrate more than before.