Tuesday, August 6, 2013

My First Impression of Hamburg: I See Black People!

Whoever first said that you should never judge a city by the area surrounding its central train station must have been on holiday in Hamburg. Or so I hoped yesterday afternoon upon my 1.30 arrival in Germany's second-largest city.

What greeted me was so not what I had been expecting, which was to be blown away by a blast from Germany's past, to be wowed by a brand of old-school European beauty that would make Hamburg a sort of Barcelona to Berlin's Madrid, or even a Melbourne to Berlin's Sydney, a tranquil, picturesque second city to the more hustling, bustling capital/biggest city (in the case of Sydney, which is not Australia's capital).

In the days before my departure from Berlin, everybody I told about my travel plan -- both Germans and expats -- had given Hamburg positive reviews, describing it as a beautiful place and all-around cool city, not quite Munich (which remains my favorite German experience, both visually and socially) but impressive nonetheless.

The enthusiastic appraisals of Hamburg from just about every German I spoke to did come with a caveat: "The people there are snobby," they all warned me. When I informed them that I was fully equipped to deal with snobby locals, having spent my time in Berlin surrounded by them, they cut their eyes. "They're worse than us in Hamburg!" (Blogger's note: I've been told by several German sources that in Berlin, what I might characterize as attitude or snobbery is more a reserved nature -- despite the audacity of gay German guys on Grindr, the typical German is simply less likely to start chatting up a total stranger in person than an Aussie.)

I was still unfazed, feeling fully equipped to deal with a little local attitude. It's not as if I hadn't survived a lot of it during four and a half years in Buenos Aires and one weekend in Warsaw. Bring it on!

As I write this post nearly 18 hours into my time in Hamburg, I'm still waiting for the snobbery to begin. Everyone I've encountered so far has been perfectly pleasant, which is not unlike my initial reaction to Berlin three weeks ago. I guess like The English Patient, I might have to get a little into it to realize how bad it is.

I did, however, immediately sense a difference when I walked through Hamburg's crowded Hauptbanof Central Station, which was full of people aggressively passing and pushing through, scurrying to catch a train or to escape the madhouse. It felt more like Grand Central Station in New York City than Berlin's own Hauptbahnhof central train station, whose large crowds always seem to be surprisingly controlled. For a train station, Berlin Hbf is also quite pleasing to the eye. If you can judge a city by the train station, if not the area around it, then I was in for a dirtier experience in Hamburg.

And that's precisely what I got when I stepped outside for the first time. I felt as though I'd fallen through the looking glass and ended up in a flashback to the west upper 30s near Port Authority bus terminal in New York City, circa 1999. The streets adjacent to Hamburg Hbf station were filled with hotels that looked like they hadn't been updated in decades, ambiance-free bars and restaurants, liquor stores, casinos, XXX establishments and, when I returned to the scene later in the evening, a few stray hookers looking to score.

My introduction to Hamburg was colorful indeed, but not even most of all because of this particular visual. It wasn't the unexpected scenery that made the biggest impression but the unexpected human component. There was so much diversity: From the beautiful Ethiopian cashier who rang up my toiletries order (deodorant and toothpaste) at the Rossmann drug store on the stations's first floor, to the patrons and employees in the row of Asian eateries on either side of the Wandsbeker Chaussee station near my hotel, to all of the faces of color that kept moving in and out of my line of vision as I craned my neck to see more, Hamburg was turning out to be one of the more interesting people-watching experiences I've had in recent memory.

Then it dawned on me just as I was diving into my lunch of curry chicken with vegetables and rice at one of those aforementioned Asian eateries. In my first three hours in Hamburg, I'd already seen more black people than I had in every other city I'd been to -- combined -- in the previous three and a half years since I was last in New York City.

I wasn't just seeing stray solo tourists and expats who happened to be black but entire families, some of whom appeared to be in Hamburg on holiday and many of whom seemed to be actually settled in the city, even speaking the language. They had a little hangout around the corner from my hotel called Afro Shop, which was not a barber catering to Hamburg's black crowd but a cross between an almacen in Buenos Aires and an old-school tavern, filled with people who looked like they didn't have anywhere better to be and were completely fine with it. Note to self: Be sure to look up why there are so many of us in Hamburg.

It was an unexpected and wholly welcome development and a guarantee that my time in Hamburg would be a unique experience because, for once, I wouldn't be so unique among the masses. As has not been the case in any city I've spent time in since my last visit to New York City in 2010, I probably usually won't be the only black person in the vicinity, which should mean fewer stares and lingering looks of curiosity (which were already less common in Berlin, a city with a larger black presence than Bangkok, Melbourne or Buenos Aires). And if some passerby happens to give me the once over, slightly incredulous, it probably will have nothing to do with the fact that he or she doesn't often see one of us.

For the first time in years, I can take it personally, and I'd probably be right. "Oh, no!" I said to myself as I filed that thought away. Please don't let anyone shoot me any funny looks today!
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