Blog Post No.2 (29/08/2019) - Finding my new home in Germany
I woke up to the sound of some Slavic language I didn't understand. This was my first night in a hostel and it was an altogether new experience; a restless night of creaking bedstands, footsteps coming and going. Worst of all this incandescent bulb was glowering at me the entire time... making it very hard to sleep. I had an unpleasant dream where I was lost in a city of words, a nightmarish cityscape that resembled in some way Hamburg as I had seen it by night.
I woke up as the others were leaving. It was 7:30 and the German was already gone. The Slavs were packing up and Pat, the Irishman from yesterday, was not there either. The Slavs wanted to know where Pat was, because his luggage and clothes were still lying there as they readied to leave. I had no idea where he was and told them such. I went about packing up all my things and working out my day. It was a big day because I was finally meeting up with the program somewhere in the Hamburg airport. Not only did I have to get out of the hotel by 10, I also had to be back at the airport by 2... leaving me wondering what I would do with my assortment of luggage in the intervening hours.
I set out a rudimentary schedule for myself and waltzed down to the first floor. I was immensely grateful that the hostel offered morning breakfast for 7€ and put myself at the back of a queue forming at reception. This time I was braver and even asked the concierge in German how I could pay for "Frühstuck". I had heard tell that the Germans were infamous for trying to practice their English on any non-native German speaker. But today, he responded in German! That made me feel more than a little smug about my German, because I managed to come across as intelligible for the first time since landing yesterday.
If you have been in Germany before, you'll know what I mean, but if you don't here's a comic by 'Itchy Feet' that describes the feeling pretty well. Somewhat of a fan of their comic by the way so I recommend you look it up.
That aside I have never failed to enjoy a European-style ho(s)tel breakfast. The concierge handed me a green chip of sorts as proof of purchase. It all happened to be an unmonitored buffet. Europeans seem to be more trusting in certain respects. Merchandise was sitting outside in the streets later that day and if I had decided to take a plateful of that buffet without paying no-body would have noticed. In my own limited experience at home I had not seen any arrangement where a business would expect payment but never check to see if anyone paid. I must say that the Emmental cheese and croissants were well worth those 7€. As a bonus I found a series of cheapish luggage lockers sitting in one corner of the lobby. With all of my goods packed up I headed out just five minutes before check-out at ten. Some of the people in the lobby were probably chuckling as I tried to heave my heavy bags into the only open locker on the highest shelf.
My schedule was open for two good hours, which I promptly wasted by barricading myself in a cafe called "Nur Hier" with some coffee and water. The cashier was kind enough to tolerate my German and reply in kind, which I appreciated as much as I did the coffee. Looking out on the Hauptbahnhofplatz I set my laptop before me, reading bits of Frank Delaney's "Ireland" and working on my website. After a hour and a half of that I decided it was time to go. I toured around the Hauptbahnhof, the massive building adjacent to the cafe, looking for the underground line that would take me to the Hamburg Flughafen. In my tour I was disappointed to see how infested it was with American restaurants. But worst of all, the bathrooms cost one euro to use. It was a toll I obliviously sidestepped when I went in through the maintenance door. I couldn't figure out why the janitor was glaring at me until I had to walk out and saw the toll gate. Some more wandering around and I found the station I would need to be.
After yesterday's exercise in futility, I hailed a cab and donned my veneer of a British accent to make myself understood. I told him to take me back to A&O HauptBahnhof, wait there while I got my luggage out of the lockers and bring me back. The cabbie did this all for Fifteen Euros and I felt satisfied enough to give a "Dankeschön" as I stepped out. I lugged my suitcases, including the non-functional one with the broken wheel, down the flights of stairs to the underground. The weight was very tedious and I nearly tripped on my way down once or twice. I kept drawing stares while I worked my way to the platform. Being abroad and obviously foreign has a way of making one very self-conscious.
As the train pulled in and the signage was clearly "Flughafen" I caught a sign passing by. It said something like 'Die Drei Ersten Triebwagen gehen nach dem Hamburg Flughafen". Which I translated to mean "the first three railcars go to [my station]". But the train looked to have... six, eight cars? The time was short, I was running as fast as I could, my bags dangling behind me. If I waited another thirty minutes for another train, who could say if the group would wait that long? So with the sound of wheels scraping and straining for breath I struggled over the gap into a railcar further down. The doors closed a few seconds after and I was still looking. Had I stepped into the right section? To my left, I saw the end of our set of connected rail cars. To my right, there were three railcars in total. I couldn't be sure at the time but it seemed I had just barely gotten on the right train.
I gradually reassured myself that I was indeed on the right train, there were plenty of suitcases and the man to my left even confirmed when asked. I got off at the right stop and breathed a sigh of relief. Wobbling my way up the escalator I moped around the terminal and double-checked my email. Conveniently enough when I looked up from my computer, I saw the meeting spot. There were a bunch of men and women my age all wearing the same shirt and leaning on their luggage. I recognized that shirt because it was the program shirt they sent me in the mail several months previously (which I forgot to bring, whoops). I quietly said "Hallo. Is this the USAC program?" and smiled when a kind woman named Jeanine answered yes. Somebody on the other side of the group perked up and told the clipboard-toting woman in the center of the semi-circle we had formed that I had arrived. I shared my information with this woman, Steffi, and with that we were on our way.
While we stood out front by the bus waiting for the driver to sort our luggage into the stow-away compartment, I struck up some conversation with the other gentlemen standing there. We hit it off well and soon the whole back of the bus(the men) were cracking jokes about German and International Flights. We were heading to Leuphana University in Lüneburg, a medieval jewel of a Hanseatic Town. The topics of conversation ranged wildly and I had the chance to bring up my Brexit paper. The drive was short and soon enough we were in Lüneburg. We emerged from a leafy highway into the brick-laden exterior of Lüneburg. My first impression of the town still stands as "quaint yet modern". We drove alongside the blue-green river Ilmenau and got a glimpse of the old town. It looked beautiful and Baroque but I only got a glimpse.
The Bus stopped in front of a beautifully bizarre steel building. This building, die Leuphana Zentralgebaüde, is a seven (German) story abstract steel and glass contraption built to resemble a ship. We were told to leave our luggage there and were hauled off somewhere else. The University Campus had a nice college feel, with tree-covered streets and vines crawling up the red-brick buildings. After a bit of orientation we were informed that we would be waiting in a classroom for the time being while our housing was sorted out. I knew I had been assigned an apartment on Rote Straße and absolutely nothing else. Most of my companions from the bus-ride were whisked away to be with host families or taken on a tour before I could so much as say goodbye. I was left with five or so ladies and one gentlemen who were 'special cases'. I learned that the man, Austin, was a former Hertog scholar and a student of political theory. We had some fascinating conversation about his experiences with fellowships (which I am keen to apply for myself) and his stance on political theory at large. The conversation was an excellent reminder that I still have so much to learn about my own field.
But eventually they all went off to their own apartments and I sat there, waiting. It had been two hours since we had arrived and it was evening. My case must have been most special indeed because they had to wait for the one person who knew where my apartment was to ferry me over to it. The student coordinator Simon who had found my apartment for me when no more homestays were available, assured me it was a very nice place. I was admittedly skeptical but still happy to see when one of the program aides showed up for me. Although I'm ashamed to say I don't remember her name she was nonetheless markedly pleasant. I tried my German on her as we started rolling my suitcases to the nearest bus stop and she was overjoyed to see I knew some German. She kept the conversation going in German as we got on the bus and I probably missed out on plenty of information that way. I could speak my mind and understand her... mostly.
The sun was shining when we got off at our destination... we were in the heart of Am Sande during a sweltering sunset. Am Sande is the main square in the heart of the Altstadt and IT IS beautiful. Not even the most picturesque nooks of Moorhead or Helena back in the United States can compare to the high Medieval grandeur of the rope-stone towers and peaked manors. Aside from being old, it felt incredibly modern. Beneath the tudor-styled timbers there was a kebab shop and McDonald's must have stolen the place of some ancient brewery. It was a blur of buildings that passed by as my guide narrated our way to the apartment. She produced two keys and leafed through them. We stepped into an alcove and approached a set of black doors. She put one key in and turned the lock. I was home.