Ich bin Hamburger (well, I’d like to live there . . .)

The imaginative HafenCity on the Elbe River, Hamburg, an ambitious redevelopment of the inner port, on space not needed in an era of container shipping.

On Friday, March 23, I ate joined Nisha Pasha, a young former colleague at AA, and her parents Harish and Usha Gambhir, who were visiting from Chennai (I had visited them in June 2010), for lunch at an Indian restaurant near our house, then drove to DFW, bound for London and Hamburg, to the annual Aircraft Interiors Expo, the huge trade show for everything inside an airliner.  I was flying British Airways across the ocean, first long ride on BA in many years, and on a regular ticket, not an airline-employee pass.

Although American and BA (and Iberia) now have a joint venture for transatlantic travel, the two airlines have different policies, which made me, as a “real customer,” cranky.  On AA, I could reserve a specific seat when booking, but on BA I had to wait until 24 hours before the flight, whence all the choice seats were taken.  Their system assigned me 51C on a 747, which seemed so far aft that it was in a different time zone.  That was a joke, but when I saw my seatmate the fun was over.  He was Mr. Big.  Tubby did not begin to describe it.  I knew I was in trouble when he asked for a seat belt extension.  His body touched mine virtually the entire flight.  Slept a max of 40 minutes.  The tailwind was strong, but not strong enough.  It was by far the worst long ride in 4.2 million miles and 46 years of flight.

Changed planes at Heathrow Terminal 5 (I was tired and a little crabby, but for a new terminal it strikes me as remarkably inefficient, with poor attention to details).  Things got much better once I landed in Hamburg.  Regular readers know my affinity for Germany, and from then on the trip really was click, click, click.   Wheeled through customs and onto a S-Bahn (suburban) train, then the Hamburg Hochbahn (elevated train and subway), about four bucks to my hotel.  The Holiday Inn Express on Simon von Utrecht Strasse had free wi-fi, a plus.  And a hot shower, another plus.

I was fatigued but I was in a favorite city on a sunny spring day, so down the street I went.  I had done some research before departing, and learned that Hamburg, like many large cities in Europe, had an automated bike-rental system, called StadtRAD (German for “CityBike”).  One of the rental locations was a few hundred feet from the hotel, touchscreen kiosk in German and English, and in no time I had created an account, unlocked the bright red, well-equipped bike (gears, hand brakes, lights front and rear), and zoomed off.  I was smiling broadly and telling myself, out loud, how cool this was!  The first 30 minutes are free, so the trick is to find the next location, return the old bike, and take a new one.  Did that three times (I would happily have paid!), zipping into the center, down the cobbled Deichstrasse (passing a restaurant I visited on my first trip in 2008), and into HafenCity, a $10 billion, imaginative redevelopment of harbor land.  Passed the new Elbephilharmonie concert hall (designed by the Swiss superstar firm Herzog and de Meuron, it is way cool, but also way late and wildly over budget), rode along the river, back toward my hotel, then north to Holstenplatz and Anno 1905, a cozy pub I visited twice the year before.

Detail, opera house. Hamburg's old buildings convey solidity, but the decorative touches, like these cherubs, are a nice counterpoint.

The still-unfinished and way-over-budget (but pretty cool) Elbphilharmonie

St. Michael, above the entrance of his namesake church

I took a tonic nap, only an hour.  It was just starting to get dark when I left for dinner.  I could have taken the subway, but the red rental bikes beckoned, and were free.  Coasted down the hill a mile or so, found a return station, then a stool at the Gröninger Privatbrauerei, a microbrewery from way before they called them that – 1750 to be precise.  I got there at the right time, because people started streaming in a few minutes later.  My perch was strategic, just four feet from the spigot for Märzen, the spring seasonal beer.  I ordered a fish plate (what else this close to the North Sea?), herring and salmon, yum.

The pepper on the herring roll-up (rollmops in German) got me thinking about the nature of port cities like Hamburg.  Residents got all sorts of adventures without leaving the comfort of their homes.  Someone else took the risk – they just waited for the ship from faraway lands to dock.  And what about that lemon garnish?  When did the first Hamburger taste citrus?  Toward the end of dinner I fell into a T-t-S session with a Bavarian couple at the next table.  Early in the chat, for cred I showed them the picture of my maternal (and German) great-grandmother Ottilie:

I was plumb wore out.  Ambled back to the bike stand, rented a red rider, and pedaled back to the hotel (the return journey was uphill).  At ten on Saturday night, the last thing I recall was kids screaming from the thrill rides at the nearby amusement park.  Then I was more or less comatose.

We got a slow start Sunday, over to the Messe (the fair and congress hall; see my post from March 2011 on the interesting history of German fairs, which date to the late Middle Ages) about noon.  Dan, a young trainee from our owner’s other firm, Aero Technics (they do interior maintenance and engineering on a contract basis), joined us.  He was a friendly kid, about 20, first time out of the U.K.  We got to work, setting things up.  We worked hard, but it went slowly, and when we left at 7:30 we were behind where we were on the Sunday night the year before.  One of the high points that day was my first currywurst, one of Germany’s favorite snacks, sliced hot dog drowned in a sweet and only barely spicy tomato sauce, topped with a light sprinkling of curry powder.  At the risk of offending my German readers, I found it an odd and not very savory combination.  The cod dinner that night in the fancy East Hotel dining room was way better!

A lot to do: the AURA stand, barely taking shape

On Monday another Dan from Aero Technics joined us.  He was a great worker, really knew how to read plans and build, and we were rolling.  But we still couldn’t find the fasteners for eight stools and three tables, so I peeled off to find a hardware store.  Hopped a taxi to a smaller, German version of Home Depot, and set to work finding the right bolts and nuts, plus a cordless drill (someone had stolen batteries from ours the night before).  Got back to the stand and started to build furniture, hampered by lack of metric tools (Aieeeeee! When are the Brits and we Yanks going to join the rest of the world?).  But we got it all done.

I needed some time away, so at seven I rented a StadtRAD bike and rode up to Anno 1905, the pub I visited twice in 2011 (and briefly spotted on my Saturday ride).  It is such a great place, friendly and cozy.  And as I wrote after visiting in 2011, it has seen a lot of history in 107 years.  I chatted a bit with the waitress, and at some point mentioned that I was 25% German, showing her the pic of Ottilie on my iPhone, as I did two nights earlier.  She looked and said “I’ve seen her picture before.”  In a moment she showed me Ottilie on her iPhone, and we figured out how she got it – after visiting the year before, I sent an e-mail to the pub to thank them, and included the photo of my great-grandmother, mein ur-oma.  Too funny.  Rode back to the hotel.

The view of the beer taps and bar from my perch at Anno 1905 on Holstenplatz

The show started Tuesday morning.  Although the Messe was only a kilometer from the hotel, I jumped on a StadtRAD, dropping it right next to the entrance.  Cool!  The day went by in a hurry, a blur of meeting prospects, keeping the stand tidy and the food and drink fresh (no one seemed to want to do those tasks, so I stepped up).  Had beer with our team and dinner with AURA owner Steve Cloran, his wife, and a couple of us.

Your correspondent feeling very much like a local

It was a short night, because David and I got up at 6:15 and took StadtRAD bikes out for a ride around the inner and outer Alster, pleasant lakes right in the middle of the city.  The larger outer lake was especially pleasant, ringed with lovely large houses.  Quite a bit of wealth in that city.  The ride was tonic, and we were pumped when we returned to the hotel at 7:30.  Wednesday on the stand was much the same.  The Austrian leather producers nearby kindly loaned me their vacuum cleaner.  We were co-sponsoring a party that night, so I took a nap after the show, walked over to the Reeperbahn, the sex and drugs and music capital of Germany (hawkers and pimps and yuck).  I was really only looking for a light meal, and enjoyed a Döner, shaved chopped lamp on pita with onions, tomatoes, and yogurt dressing – it’s a German favorite brought by the Turks who emigrated to Germany in large numbers in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.  The party started at ten, and it was way loud.  DJs were playing nothing but German “dance music,” thump, thump, thump.  I volunteered to help with registration on the ground floor, which got me out of the noise and provided a convenient escape route at midnight.  Enough!

The AURA stand in full swing, Wednesday

Things start to wind down Thursday, the third day of the show.  We had a couple of good appointments with prospects, and a walk-in from a growing Asian low-cost carrier.  But things were quiet by 3:30, and with 90 minutes left in the show, we started to dismantle the stand.  I went behind our “wall” and changed from suit to jeans and turtleneck.  Dan and Dan had arrived earlier in the day, and we got quickly to work.  We made a good team (I was the only “white collar” who elected to stay and pitch in), and in no time had everything in neat piles.  At 5:50, Martin dropped the keys to the truck, which was parked on the other side of the vast Messe, awaiting some magic signal to the scores of waiting rigs.

On my way across to find the truck, it occurred to me that I was likely violating German law, driving a truck (and a British one with right-side steering) without a commercial license.  But that was no time to be faint of heart.  Nope, I was playing with the big boys now.  With the help of a translator, learned from a guard that there was no precise opening time, that it would be between six and seven.  Hopped in the Mercedes Benz truck (humming Janis Joplin’s memorable “Lord won’t you buy me . . .” tune), practiced with the manual transmission; happily, it had a smooth clutch and was surprising easy to maneuver.  I was toward the back of the line, but it started moving, drivers jockeying for position.  I was polite but fairly aggressive, German I think, and made my way to a loading door very close to our stand.  Dan and Dan wondered what happened to me, and some bad language issued from the driver!

I worked for nearly another hour, dismantling the furniture (still no metric socket wrenches, and the vise-grip took ages).  At 7:40 I thanked the lads.  The older Dan saluted, calling me a “genuine bloke,” which was high praise indeed from a great British workingman.  Hopped on a StadtRAD and was back at the hotel by 7:50.  Washed my face and a bit after eight got on a call with a potential consulting client in Washington.  That done I got back on a StadtRAD and rode back up the gentle hill to Holstenplatz and a final dinner at Anno 1905.

Anno 1905 a century ago; my favored seat was just in front of the brass beer taps, which are still in use. What a place!

I’ve grown to love that place.  It’s so friendly.  The young waitress from three nights earlier welcomed be back to “my” table, and brought me a big beer.  I sat down to a bit of work, and when I looked up I spotted a sweet-looking dog sitting at the other end of the bar.  It made me lonesome for home, and I couldn’t resist walking over and asking her owner if she was friendly.  Indeed, so I went down on knee to make friends.  She was a little shy at first, but then began to lick my hand.  “We’d be lost without our dogs, wouldn’t we?” I asked, and her owner replied, “Yes, we would.”

I returned to my table and in a few minutes the dog ambled over to me. The older waitress brought a dog treat from the kitchen and handed it to me.  “Sitzen sie,” I said, and she assumed a very German posture before calmly taking the treat.  The young waitress told me the dog’s name was Mäuschen (“little mouse”).   I tucked into a plate of fried potatoes and a large salted herring, which meant I ate that fish six days in a row – in my view, you just can’t have too much herring!  Had another beer, cycled back to the hotel, and clocked out.

It was a short night.  Up at 4:45, out the door (the night clerk had made me a cheese sandwich and one of salami, plus an apple and banana), onto the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, to the airport, and onto BA to London.  Found a quiet place for a few hours, and did some work, including brining this journal up to date.  And I found a grateful recipient for the two croissants that the hotel also provided; I’m not fond of them, but a plump and smiling janitress in Terminal 5 was happy to have them, agreeing with me that wasting food is a sin.

Flew home in BA’s World Traveller Plus cabin, an upgraded economy-class section, which was a way more pleasant ride than a week earlier.  Landed at 4:00 on Friday afternoon, March 30, and that was the end of travels for the quarter.

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