Updated: Sep 7, 2019
Blog Post No.1 (28/08/2019) - 45 Minutes in London and Other Things
A brief note to my readership: My good friends reading this will know that I am starting this blog because I am in Germany and so far away from you, so this is for the passerby. I am studying abroad in Luneburg Germany for the fall of 2019 and want to record the work I do, the places I go and the adventures I have in this blog post. I will be posting every couple days or more frequently if the occasion merits it. That being said, carry on!
I thought it pretty humorous that the flight steward woke me up saying ‘Hand that over to him in case he wakes up’. By “that” he meant my breakfast and I thought it was funny because I hadn’t realized I had fallen asleep. I checked my watch and sleepily noted that we were seven hours into our eight and a half-hour transatlantic flight. Just to make sure, I looked outside. The beauty made me gasp even after all my years of flying. We were drifting over a rose-gold bed of nimbus clouds towards a glorious sunrise. But that wasn’t what caught my eye.
About 3,000 meters directly below us a rift in the clouds opened up on a dark-blue scene. The surface was a very faint confusion of dark shapes but I saw the a familiar looking ragged outline. It took me a moment but I soon recognized it. Ireland! We must have been over the coastline near River Shannon, a winnowing thread in the lingering night beneath the cloud cover. As I enjoyed my peach Chobani yogurt we rolled over the nimbus bed into open skies. Being about 12 kilometers above the surface you could have only guessed that a tiny patchwork of farms was beneath you, even in the strong light. From that high up the earth just looks very bluish-green. But it was enough to know it was Ireland, the country of Frank Delaney, King Brian, Brendan the Navigator and those Earls of Kennedy who also happened to be my great-great-great granduncles.
When I was younger, I worshipped the thought of the British Isles. Whenever I felt particularly inspired by a cathedral hymn my mind’s eye would picture the rolling emerald of Ireland or the Scottish Highlands just beyond the stained glass. And I promised myself then that I would not so much as touch down in Heathrow without being spiritually ready. Whatever that meant.
Anyhow I broke that promise because my flight plan went from Bozeman to Dallas, Dallas to London, and London to Hamburg. The sun was still shining brightly as we began our descent over Wales. Cardiff was too far below to make out but by the time we passed over what I guess to be Swindon. Now that we were at 8,000-5,000 meters I could make out details on the ground. England is the green-gold patchwork of field and hedgerows I imagined it to be, with orderly little villages studding the landscape every few kilometers or so. I had fun trying to puzzle out what I was seeing. The large field crisscrossed by roads and landing strips (?) must have been a military installation and the circles of elevated earth reminded me of a bronze age hill-fort.
The skies were clear up until we passed over Reading. Then the clouds hit and we started a steep descent. One of the two kind English grandmas sitting to my right made a remark about English weather and we started to chat. When we dropped to about 1,000 meters I could see where we were. Rows and rows and rows of those Londoner Condominiums sprouted up beneath us and the woman asked if I could see the centre of London. I couldn’t, at least not for awhile. Then I saw it. The Thames stretched clearly to my right and I traced the river until I hit a cluster of black and grey towers. I was able to make out the Shard tower, the eye of London and the tower Bridge before the plane turned away. How exciting it is to have the places you have studied all your life turn real before your very eyes? You can trace the maps you used to read outside the window with your fingertips, point to the cathedrals you’ve dreampt of and guess where along the Thames they narrated Heart of Darkness.
I spent my few minutes on English soil laughing at all the tourist shops in the Heathrow Airport and pondering if John Cleese spoke true when he said that London was “no longer an English city”. But I live by this policy: never judge a city by its airport. Heathrow was as busy as you might expect, crowded and bursting to the brim with queue lines here and there. Lines to get your passport. Lines to get into the restaurant. Lines to go to the bathroom and lines at every gate. The upside of having so many people in one space meant I couldn´t help but overheard loud conversations in all sorts of languages. I heard plenty of English naturally, but also Spanish, German, French, Hindi, Italian and even some Polish. The linguistic diversity is one aspect I really love about Europe.
I got to my gate on time and waited with the Spaniards who were there as some language group doing I never heard what. They were a funny bunch and cracked jokes about their flight and each other. I am ashamed to say I never asked what region they came from but they were certainly Castilians. I have studied previously in Spain and must say that Spanish is thus far my favorite language to speak and that Castile is a gorgeous area, but I hope that Germany provides some challenge to Iberian beauty.
I slept through most of my flight to Hamburg and spent only the last few minutes looking out the window. I sat alone near the back of the plane with no English grandmas to keep a conversation going. Having only slept a hour and a half since yesterday I appreciated the change.
After we landed I breezed through customs and bought some lunch at the only café in the waiting area. I settled in with a bottle of my favorite non-alcoholic beverage, Mineralwasser, and some sandwich thing that tasted quite good. I sent off emails informing my good friends (some of whom may be reading this) that I am in fact alive and alive in Germany! Sorry to say I dawdled off half an hour that way and was soon rushing out to the baggage claim to collect my luggage. I was too late and used all of the bad German I possessed to get myself to the right Gepackehandlungslinie (baggage tracing service). Nobody from British Airways was there but I could clearly see my suitcases gloating at me behind that counter. So I waited. I eventually caught the attention of a customer service person, signed some documents and went on my way.
I struggled with my luggage and jetlag all the way to the S-1 bahn and took that train into Hamburg. I got off the train and thanked God that I had booked a hotel close to the Hauptbahnhof where I had gotten off. The first thing that struck me about Hamburg was the humid heat. It was a solid 34 degrees Celsius (90ish degrees Fahrenheit) with a sticky icky humidity. This is unfortunate because it damped my enjoying the beautiful Brick architecture of the Speicherstadt. I hauled my three suitcases four or so city blocks over to where the tourist information desk said my hotel should be. But disaster struck. One of my suitcases was dragging strangely and making this abominable scraping noise. The wheel had become so worn down that it refused to roll! This was disastrous because I had just spent a good six hours of my time and 60 dollars getting the other wheel repaired for the same reason... and so I had the pleasure of a very intense and unexpected arm workout. I arrived at the hotel almost by accident, stumbling along a sidewalk in the Hafenstadt when I turned to my right and saw the sign for “A&O Hotel Hamburg Hauptbahnhof”. I was overjoyed at the prospect of rest and lugged myself in through the door. The first thing I did was to shower and rid myself of the sweat.
When I got out neatly dressed for the night's plan of visting the famous Reeperbahn district, my first roommate was already there. His name was Patrick and he was (as you might expect) an Irishman from Cork meeting a German friend. We started chatting about the terribly hot 33 degrees C that Hamburg was sweltering under when his friend, Marilee, joined us. The conversation then turned to the best bars, nightclubs and so forth and if the Reeperbahn was really more than a bunch of Brothels. They seemed nice and were kind enough to tell me that Reeperbahn actually has plenty of bars.
I stayed behind in my hotel for some time working on my latest paper, inspired by being in Europe. The topic was Brexit and oh boy, it followed on the heels of some hot news. Of course the Brexit negotiations will expire on the 31st of October, a deadline made all the more final when the Prime Minister controversially decided to close Parliament between Mid-september to Mid-october. The implications of that are pretty big because it´s less time for those opposed to an automatic exit on the 31st very possibly with no established deal. You can actually read that article titled "Johnson´s Brexit", in full in my Past Projects. These are truly troubling times here in Europe. At least it's an excellent muse for a Global Studies major.
I left my hostel at 7 O´clock and took to wandering the city. The first thing that I noticed was how walkable it was. Unlike Spain, where everyone was walking seemingly because the streets weren´t designed for cars- in Hamburg everyone was walking because the city was built for it. The sidewalks were so wide they were divided into lanes. It took a few yelling byciclists before I realized that the red brick portion of the side walk was not meant for pedestrians. That blew my mind. Add to that the legions of crosswalks, tunnels and overpasses and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to drive a car somewhere like Hamburg. Thankfully the streets were pretty empty so I took to strolling along the canals. The wind was briny fresh off the North Sea, though the actual water was hidden behind the red-black rows of stylish neo-gothics. I couldn´t help but take pictures of the beautiful steel bridges and Baroque churches. The Speicherstadt had a unique sort of 19th-century blend of neo-gothic and industrial. I will say I no idea that brick, black tile and steel beams could be fitted together so stylishly.
But after 30 minutes of pretty buildings and canals, I was quite hungry and it was turning dark while it started to rain. The streets were seemingly destitute of restaurants, excepting a very authentic (and expensive) looking Italian fine dinery and a closed Thai food shop. Despite being so close to the city center, affluent and built-up the area was nearly bereft of eateries and shopping centers. I would have appreciated that if I had just been walking through the area, but I had been envisioning a colorful paradise of bars and bistros with crowds mingling and ambient music playing. I was instead facing an endless (ly beautiful) row of apartment buildings and corporate centers in the greying light. Just when I was getting melancholy I stumbled onto a little square. It was lined with all sorts of restaurants! It seemed that much of the city was dominated by residential areas and business sectors with more bourgoisie service businesses in their own little corners. I had plenty of options, but I was hankering for something familiar after so much Germany. The steakhouse was called the Big Bull and had this very bright red aesthetic going. I would give more details but I was ravenously hungry and wasn´t paying much attention. To my shame I ordered my food in English, but at least I did so in a British accent! You´ll be right to call me a phoney for doing so, but I have my reasons. After some experiences in Southern France where no one could understand my ´thick and guttural´ American accent, I took to talking to Non-native speakers in a British accent because those that knew English frequently had a hard time understanding American English.
I ordered a Roma Burger (Mozzerella, cherry tomatoes, snazzy pesto all on Argetinian beef) with Pommes Frites and a Roseherbstwein from Bavaria on the side. Perhaps it was hunger speaking, but oh I missed European cuisine. It often has the genuine quality that organic food sometimes has here in the United States, mixed with a certain sort of pride that can only come from tradition. Of course this was a more modern twist, but something good always translates.
As I sat there and slowly enjoyed my meal I looked out into the rain and was happy with myself. I mused on the nature of travelling for a time. I will end this very long blog-post with an explanation. Travel for me is all about perspective. I miss the days when the world was mysterious and full of promise and living abroad allows one to do that all over again if you immerse yourself. The best moments in a day are those where you can forget about maps and language barriers, when the dark outline of a cathedral is the boundary of your known world and anything is possible beyond that. And just like that, my day in Hamburg was over.