Other End of the Telescope…

I’m always astonished at how time and space collapse when viewed through the other end of the telescope—how, as our lifelines expand, we see changes that weren’t evident as they were happening, of cycles we thought were one-offs repeating themselves, and how overseas travel helps us see beyond the forest of our everyday surroundings. The riverside restaurants in the picture above have taken the place of The Berlin Wall that stood here in 1989.

Being in Germany today heightens these reflections. I had the incomparable experience of working and living in Berlin for almost 10 years when it was an island in the East German sea, when the only ways in and out were the three air corridors or the three restricted highways between West Berlin and the rest of West Germany. I was there and walked through the Brandenburg Gate on October 3, 1990 when the two Germanys were officially reunited. All of this in my lifetime. Astonishing.

Earlier this week M and I took the train to Hamburg to visit a friend, another eye opening time collapsing experience. From our Airbnb apartment in Berlin I purchased the tickets online (138 Euros for two) and downloaded the tickets to the Deutsche Bundesbahn app on my iPhone. I could see the platform number, car number, and seat numbers and any changes to the above before our departure.

On Tuesday we rode the S-Bahn directly into the new (2006) Hauptbahnhof where our train to Hamburg was due to depart. We had an hour to spare, so we sat in one of the many state-of-the-art bakeries on one of the 5 levels of the station and drank our cappuccinos and ate pflaumenkuchen before the train departed.

The ride to Hamburg in 2nd Class was first rate. The train was spotless and the two-hour trip flew by. As usual, the flat, mostly agricultural, Elbe River plain was covered in a heavy morning fog, but the soft, shrouded landscape was reminiscent of an earlier time when farming was more important than industry and one could see nothing but cultivated fields stretching to the horizon.

Hamburg itself is one of the richest and most attractive cities in the world. The downtown core, a mixture of glass, gothic and upscale shopping is anchored by the Vier Jahrezeiten (Four Seasons) Hotel on the Kleine Alster (the smaller part of the divided Alster “lake” that is really a river) while the larger lake, surrounded by a lovely park and trails is ringed with the mansions of Hamburg’s wealthiest citizens.

Some things were as I remembered them, including the location of the Vidal Sassoon Salon where I used to come for haircuts. In those days I flew for free, had lots of curly hair and my own stylist. It was a 40-minute flight and a short bus ride to the salon. Today, it’s a train ride, a safety razor and a box of band aids. The hair is gone and so are the free flights and stylist. Those were the days. Now I’m on the outside looking in. Check out the photo.

Yet, today Hamburg is a mixture of both old and new, art and industry, land and sea. The flagship of the New Hamburg is the recently completed, wildly over-budget Elbphilharmonie that rises like a ghost ship out of the Hamburg harbor like the Flying Dutchman.

Controversial from its inception and criticized for its cost and time overruns, it is now the pride of Hamburg and its biggest tourist attraction. Tours are free and oversubscribed but unfortunately don’t include a look inside the two concert halls. Nevertheless, the outside balconies at the hall’s performance levels do provide an excellent view of the city and its famous harbor – the third largest in Europe.

Hamburg has come a long way since its reputation tilted heavily to the seamy nightlife around the Reeperbahn with its famous red-light district and clubs where the Beatles elevated their art. Those places are still there, but no longer of much interest to tourists or townspeople. Today, the home of the Hanseatic League and the Hapag-Lloyd shipping empire is a thriving upscale commercial center where Persian carpets and Ethiopian coffee are major imports and 1 out of 3 incoming shipping containers starts its journey in China. The harbor tour is well worth the hour it takes to see the inner workings of one of Europe’s most interesting cities.

But, it’s not all business and fine arts. The food scene is thriving too and Hamburg with its northern German cuisine is an interesting contrast to that of most other European cities where local offerings have given way to more international tastes. One of the most interesting restaurants we visited was Mutterland, a local place that has maintained its character, décor and cuisine. Here, 30,000 hand-painted tiles adorn the floor and walls and shown to their best advantage with upscale service and modern lighting.

Our trip to Hamburg was a quick one and it wouldn’t have been nearly as power packed if it hadn’t been for our friend Julia Hummel. 22 years ago she was an exchange student of Marilynn’s in Seattle and since then has become a member of our extended family. She’s visited us in Seattle more than once, and she and her sister, Katrin, have met us in Paris, Rome, Pirmesens (their home in Germany), and Saigon. Next week we’ll see them both in Frankfurt – another benefit of global friendships and citizenship. Here she is with Marilynn at the Elbphilharmonie.


  1. Nice piece, TJ. I always loved the elegance of Hamburg. It had a most amazing sauna there that I seldom missed when I was there for an RON. You mention the Flying Dutchman which is the first opera of the season here starting in November. I’ve had an abonnement for 25 years. It is tough to beat my three favorites in Deutschland. Munchen and Berlin join Hamburg in that group.

    • Duke:

      Thanks for the nice comments. I always liked Hamburg on layovers too. I was running a lot at the time and loved the Alster – and the sauna. One funny story – Mike Kane was there once when the big Hamburg tennis tourney was on and he rode down in the hotel elevator with Vitas Gerulitis who had a gorgeous blond with him. Mike wished him well and Vitas smiled and said “There’s no way I’ll win today. She’s been fucking my brains out for the last 18 hours. Don’t worry she doesn’t speak a word of English.”

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