So we finally took our first roadtrip. Considering the Mercedes that husband deemed to be so essential to our German experience wasn’t driven for the entire month of May, it was about time. We chose Hamburg, only about two-hundred and fifty kilometers from Berlin and more or less a straight shot along the autobahn. It’s also a place we know well; husband used to take frequent work trips there and we’ve been there for the Christmas markets the last three years in a row. This includes last December when it was a tack-on to our Berlin “decision trip” and therefore the site of much agonizing, prolonged unexpectedly for three days while Heathrow tried to figure out how to clear six inches of snow from its runways. In other words, we needed to redeem Hamburg.
The journey there was a snap: all blue skies and clear roads along a mostly flat expanse of agricultural land. (The only industry I saw was a Dr. Oetker factory, a company that makes things like frozen pizzas and cake mix. It reminded me of another German brand named after a doctor, Dr. Loosen Riesling. I like how having “Dr.” in the label somehow makes eating pizza and drinking wine seem marginally healthy, like how the British call some cookies “digestives.”) We soon arrived at the Nippon hotel, our normal crash pad and only a few blocks away from the lake, the Aussenalster. We continued as creatures of habit, making our way to our first lakeside beer stop on hotel-lent beach cruiser Schwinns. For our next beer stop we broke ways with the past and explored the River Elbe-adjacent neighborhood of Altona. There’s an historic fish market here, but that starts to wind down at around 7AM so we had to settle for an Irish bar. Doubling back on ourselves we turned into what seemed like a parking lot along the river to investigate the thatched roofs we could see peaking out from behind concrete buildings. Jackpot: StrandPauli beach club, complete with sand, lounge chairs, and piña coladas. It was a little bit of Key West on the docks.
So far this roadtrip thing was working out. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening dropping suggestions for future outings on the autobahn — Saxony Switzerland, Dresden, Prague, Copehagen via Rostock, Bavaria! — into casual conversation without so much as a hint of pushback from husband. Maybe it was just the loveliness of our waterside dinner at Harms & Schacht, a favorite of ours and, I am glad to say, successfully “redeemed” with new good memories after being the official agonizing site over Berlin back in December.
The next morning we took a jog around the Aussenlaster followed by bagels and orange juice at elbgold (home of the best veggie cream cheese ever, E. coli be damned), then headed back to Berlin. Traffic was, well, as you would expect for a Sunday afternoon on the last day of a long holiday weekend. What took us two and a half hours on the way out took four on the way back. Somewhere on a self-styled detour around Neuruppin husband snapped and insisted Germany was “one of the worst countries on the planet.” When I suggested this may be veering towards hyperbole and that I could think of a few other war-torn examples that may give Germany a run for its money in achieving this title, husband accused me of unreasonably defending Germany, like I was “born here or something.” Back in Berlin he blew off steam yelling at Roger Federer in the French Open final and posting things on Facebook about the “lie” of German efficiency. So much for my dreams of a life auf der Autobahn.
We kicked off the Christmas season last weekend with what is threatening to become our annual visit to Hamburg. After checking into our Japanese hotel, the Nippon, we were at loose ends before dinner so decided to look around a nearby grocery store. Visiting a grocery store, I thought, is a great way to learn about a culture. And I was validated as we admired the long wall of glass jars holding vibrantly coloured, endless variations of sauerkraut and pickled things. Husband spent a lot of time looking at the salad bar, which reminded him of California what with its bowls of vegetables unadorned with mayonnaise-based dressing unlike the British equivalent. He was so impressed he decided to get a little bowl which he ate as we walked the aisles, an action which seemed to cause consternation among the ruddy faced matrons who were manning the place.
The mayo may not have been in the salad, but it was on the shelves in toothpaste tube packages, one of my favorite continental quirks. I seriously considered taking home a handful for stocking stuffers before my concern that they would exceed the carry-on liquid limit stopped me (lucky for all of you on my Christmas list). Next we turned our attention to the deli counter, topped with a dizzying assortment of cheese samples. Husband and I indulged in several varieties before we realized the wildly gesticulating ruddy faced matron was talking to us, pointing out a well hidden jar of toothpicks intended for use in tasting the samples. Husband smiled and shrugged, responding with an “English” by way of explanation before he speared a smoked Gouda. It seemed we were not so popular at the grocery store, and that was before we tried to pay for our sparkling water and empty salad container with a debit card and were informed of the ten euro minimum, which meant we had to hold up the entire line while we went and found some other things to buy. I suppose in the end the culture exchange of the grocery store went both ways, with the matrons learning as much about the gluttonous, unsanitary “English” as we learned about the Germans.
Saturday morning we got down to the serious German business of Christmas at the main market outside the Rathaus. The Christkindel Cafe & Bar hut was our starting point. There, a helpful, green velvet cloaked young man steered us away from our opening gambit of eierpunsch (creamy eggnog) to heidel beer (hot blueberry wine). Husband got his with a shot of rum, and we enjoyed our first drink to the sounds of a trio of south Asian Santas on accordion, sax, and clarinet. Next up was some nourishment in the form of potato pancakes, mine with sour cream and apple sauce, husband’s with a heady remoulade and streaky bacon. To cut the richness, I enjoyed a traditional glühwein while husband doubled down with the eierpunsch he had foregone in the last round. Our switchback tour of the bar huts yielded the new, vaguely-redolent-of-cat-piss-yet-surprisingly-tasty white glühwein and somewhere along the way we split a bratwurst. There was a deviation to an Alpine theme for a raclette and a welcome glass of almost chilled Beaujolais tasting spirit (at this juncture, I was pointing not asking). We finished with a hot raspberry wine to help brace ourselves against the wind and drizzle we faced on our hotel-lent bike ride home. There the Nippon greeted us with the welcome contrast of tatami mats and low, hard-bedded austerity.
Liverpudlian is what they call the residents of husband’s hometown. It’s a pleasing word to say, what with its five syllables and internal alliteration, not to mention the hint of the whimsical that comes with sounding like Lilliputian. It’s hard to think of a better thing to be called. Unless of course you are from Hamburg, which makes you a Hamburger.
We’ve just returned from a weekend trip there, our only one away from Drovers Cottage this year other than our farewell trip to Paris in the spring. It was husband’s birthday present. Like any good port city it’s known for it’s red light district, but husband swears he picked it out of nostalgia for the business trips he took here often during our first year in London (which could be one and the same thing) and, at this time of year, the Christmas markets for which Germany is famous.
We visited several, but my favorite was the one in front of that overblown gothic marvel that is the Rathaus. It had four rows of stalls, the central aisle of which had a toy electric train running overhead, serving all manner of strudel and roasted chestnuts and pfaffen-something or other. Several bars kept the crowds well-supplied with gluhwein, despite which there was not a hint of the aggression or binge drinking I would expect in a similar environment in London. We drank gluhwein and rum grog and apfel punsch mit calvados. Having had a Dutch grandmother we grandchildren called Oma, I was practically obligated to sample Oma’s Einchpunsch, which turned out to be a potent eggnog. We ate well too – potato pancakes and lox, bratwurst, a raclette. It was more Christmasey than Christmas, which is just as well seeing as we’ll be spending it amongst palm trees with my parents in Florida.