Posts Tagged ‘Hamburg

Germany’s Triple-X Xmas Market

- December 10th, 2012

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HAMBURG — Christmas markets are one of the seasonal joys of Germany.

 

From late November to Dec. 23, civic squares across the country suddenly sprout bustling fairytale villages of crafters and vendors in kitschy wooden huts, sparkling outdoor cafes and wine bars, grills of bratwurst sizzling over open fires and, of course, convivial crowds of shoppers, drinkers, eaters and gawkers.

 

But the Christmas market in the St. Pauli neighbourhood of Hamburg comes with a unique, sometimes startling sizzle that has nothing to do with bratwurst.

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St. Pauli, you see, is home to Hamburg’s once-notorious (now consumer-friendly) Reeperbahn red light district. And the local Christmas market reflects the port district’s native customs and practices in all their gaudy, salacious glory.

 

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Instead of manger scenes and salad bowls, the wooden crafts on sale tend to be hand-carved dildos. The designer chocolates are usually in the shape of various parts of the human anatomy. And the elves are likely to be exotic dancers wearing tassle-tipped pasties (for modesty’s sake, if not thermal sense) as they go about Santa’s business.

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Exotic dancer Eve Champagne and drag queen Olivia Jones — the 6-foot-2 unofficial mayor of the Reeperbahn — pose during the 2011 Santa Pauli Christmas Market. Here’s a short video clip on last year’s market from YouTube.

The combined craft fair/winter carnival/erotic supermarket is called Santa Pauli Christmas Market and it covers two blocks of open space in the middle of the Reeperbahn, sandwiched between the street that gives the area its name and the battalion of parka-clad (and legally sanctioned) prostitutes lining the sidewalk near the local police station.

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A Salvation Army youth group carries a wooden cross past street prostitutes in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn red light district where the X-rated Santa Pauli Christmas Market is held every December.

The Santa Pauli Christmas Market is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also decidedly tame compared to some of the more extreme entertainment options — from S&M clubs to bustling bordellos — offered just down the street behind closed doors.

 

There is a striptease tent set up at one end of the Christmas village, but its occupants are members of what’s dubbed an “American-style” burlesque troupe that specializes in the naughty-but-nice titillations of classic 1950s bump-and-grind routines. (Santa would be so pleased.)

 

A more ribald entertainment tent is the nearby “porno karaoke” where boisterous patrons are invited to supply running dialogue and commentary on porn movies (with the sound turned off) as they throw back glasses of glühwein (hot mulled wine — a ghastly German winter tradition) and schnapps.

 

At the other end of the market is an open-air stage where bands and cabaret acts perform nightly as bundled-up visitors crowd the outdoor bars and make themselves comfortable on all-weather sofas under heat-spewing gas torches.

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In between, the dozens of booths selling crafts, candies, novelties and other sexual (sorry, “erotic”) merchandise are relatively innocuous — certainly no more flagrant than the window displays in the sex shops lining the Reeperbahn. Even the local pro soccer team, FC St. Pauli, has a booth in the market selling fan gear.

 

Chief organizer Jochen Bohnsack, who started the Santa Pauli Christmas Market in 2006, makes a point of keeping it that way — naughty but not nasty. He even keeps out the big sex-supermarket chains (a thriving industry in Germany) so the small entrepreneur is showcased. And he also gently steers away any oblivious crafts people who don’t understand that the Santa Pauli market isn’t like most other family-oriented Christmas markets.

 

One very popular vendor hut is the WaldMichlsHoldi display selling wooden dildos handcrafted by a multi-generational family business. With more than 70 different shapes and sizes (and a variety of colours), there’s a WaldMichlsHoldi to suit every taste and inclination, patriarch Elmar Thüry says — and he says the spruce gooses finished in a non-toxic, environmentally friendly varnish are guaranteed not to splinter.

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As I said, not for the faint of heart. And not particularly Christmas-y either — except for the cutaway Santa costumes and jingle-bell pasties worn by the strippers.

 

But when in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when on the Reeperbahn in December, go to the Santa Pauli Christmas Market.

50 Years Ago Today, Beatles Opened Hamburg’s Star-Club

- April 13th, 2012

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Two 19-year-olds on stage at the Star-Club in April 1962 

 

“We all got our education in Hamburg. It was quite something.”

                                                                                     — Paul McCartney

 

“I might have been born in Liverpool but I grew up in Hamburg.”

                                                                                     — John Lennon

 

 

HAMBURG — The most amazing thing about Leap Year 2012 is that the extra day — Feb. 29 — pushed the celestial clock into exact alignment with the year 1962 — exactly 50 years ago.

 

So every day after Feb. 29, 2012, falls on the exact day of the week it did in 1962. Friday the 13th (of April) 1962. And Friday the 13th (of April) 2012.

 

And exactly 50 years ago — on Friday the 13th (of April) 1962 — many things happened.

 

The New York Mets played their first, hapless game of Major League Baseball at the Polo Grounds — abandoned by the California-bound Giants at the end of the 1957 season — on Friday the 13th (of April) 1962.

 

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Of course the Mets lost. They lost 120 games in that inaugural season, a feat never again matched in baseball history. But on Friday the 13th (of April) 1962 they lost by only one run — 4-3 — to the Pittsburgh Pirates. They went on to lose another 38 games by one run — not hard, actually, when you you lose 120 in one 160-game season season.

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        Feb. 13, 1962 issue of Life magazine

Many, many other things happened on Friday the 13th (of April) 1962, but by far the most important of those many things was this — the Beatles from Liverpool were the opening act for the first night of Hamburg’s hot new rock venue, the Star-Club.

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The band that took the stage on Feb. 13, 1962

The Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best — were stars indeed when they walked on stage at 7 p.m. for the first of five one-hour shows that night. Over the next 48 nights the Beatles would play 172 hours at the Star-Club.

 

A grind, followed by two more grinds at the Star-club in 1962, but sheer luxury compared to the Beatles’ earlier stints in the sleazy, violent, sex-drugs-and-rock’n'roll world of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn red light district in the early 1960s.

 

The lads — as they were generically known at the time — first arrived in Hamburg as teenagers in August 1960, farmed out by their first, amateur manager Allan Williams to Hamburg club owner (and hard man) Bruno Koschmider.

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The Beatles 1960: Left to right, Pete Best, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Stu Sutcliffe

 

Koschmider started them out at his dreary Indra club (still in operation — still dreary), then moved them over in early October to his bigger Kaiserkeller club, both on Große Freiheit  straße (Big Freedom Street — a 17th-Century religious designation, nothing to do with sex-drugs-and rock’n'roll).

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Paul Smith, lead singer for the band Maximo Park,  stands in the entryway of the Indra club, where I bumped into him in October 2010 while he was checking out the historic site before performing there.

While indentured to Koschmider, the Beatles were billeted in a cold, dank storeroom at the back of a nearby movie theatre also owned by Koschmider. They had no heat or hot water during that fall of 1960 (Hamburg gets almost as cold as Toronto) and they woke up to the sound of the noon movie starting right beside their freezing, damp, dreary bunkbeds.

 

No wonder “the lads” (including Stu Sutcliffe at the time) were willing to jump ship when rival club owner Peter Eckhorn offered them a better-paying (and better-accommodated) gig at his Top Ten Club in late November.

 

Of course Koschmider — a mean, sleazy bugger if there ever was one — wouldn’t put up with that kind of “betrayal” so he promptly ratted out the 17-year-old old George Harrison as an underage foreign worker to German immigration authorities. George was sent packing back to Liverpool.

 

A few days later, McCartney and Best set a condom on fire (as a teenage act of defiance against Koschmider) while clearing their gear out of their former moviehouse digs. Koschmider accused them of attempted arson and McCartney and Best were deported as well.

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Part of John Lennon’s 1960 German work visa

Lennon hung on as a tourist for another week before heading back to Liverpool on Dec. 10, 1960, but Sutcliffe decided to leave the band and stay on in Hamburg with his love, Astrid Kirchherr, while studying art.

 

As soon as Harrison turned 18, the Beatles were back in Hamburg playing at Eckhorn’s Top Ten Club as the house band from April 1 to July 1, 1961. They were still grinding out four and five sets a night with hardly a day off and they were still living four-to-a-room over a bar, but they were (slightly) better paid and this was where the Beatles really became the Beatles.

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Above, the Beatles perform at the Top Ten Club in April 1961. Below, Große Freiheit these days (or nights)

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… and (apart from the cars) it doesn’t look that much different than it did in the early 1960s

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Night after night the crowd went wild while the Beatles became tighter and tighter — propelled, many said, by Pete Best’s driving drums — and “the lads” threw everything at the wall, including more and more Lennon-McCartney original compositions.

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When they returned to Liverpool that summer — still kids aged 18-20 — they were hardened veterans of the rock wars and ready to step up to the next level.

 

Back in Liverpool, the Beatles (John, Paul, George and Pete Best) performed regularly at their old haunt, the Cavern Club, building their fan base and reputation as the most exciting band in the buzzing Mersey scene. Record store owner Brian Epstein had been sniffing around the band through the fall and in December 1961 officially became the Beatles’ manager.

 

Epstein arranged a tryout with Decca Records — on Jan. 1, 1962 — which did not go well: Decca eventually went with another band, the Tremeloes, that had auditioned the same day as the Beatles — because the Tremeloes were based in London and would thus be easier (and cheaper) for Decca to oversee than a Liverpool band.

 

So that’s where things stood for the Beatles — moving forward but no breakthrough yet — when Hamburg impresarios Manfred Weissleder and Horst Fascher (a former boxer and bar bouncer who had befriended the Beatles and sometimes sang with them during their previous Hamburg gigs) recruited the band to open their big new Reeperbahn venue, the Star-Club at Große Freiheit 39, on Friday the 13 (of April) 1962.

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The Beatles with pal Horst Fascher, the Hamburg bouncer who protected a bunch of talented teenagers in 1960 and then hired the budding stars in 1962 to play at his new venue, the Star-Club. 

Several thousand people could pack into the Star-Club with a large open dance area in front of the stage and theatre seating at the back of the room.

 

Before the club closed on Dec. 31, 1969, it would play host to every big name passing through Hamburg from Little Richard (with whom the Beatles shared the Star-Club stage later in 1962) to Jerry Lee Lewis to Ray Charles to Jimi Hendrix to Cream. But the first band to play there — and ultimately the biggest — was the Beatles.

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Above, Little Richard at the Star-Club in 1962 and, below, Jimi Hendrix at the Star-Club in 1967

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And now the Beatles were being treated as headliners, not fill-ins. They flew to Hamburg this time, unlike their first two stints there, when the band arrived by ferry and van. And they were boarded in individual hotel rooms instead of bar barracks.

 

John, Paul and Pete Best arrived first, flying to Hamburg from Manchester, on April 11, followed the next day by Brian Epstein and George Harrison (who had been sick). The first three were met at the airport by Astrid Kirchherr with the terrible news that Stu Sutcliffe had died of a brain hemorrhage the previous day.

 

Nevertheless, the show must go on (or whatever other tragedy-related cliche you want to substitute).

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The Star-Club was packed for opening night and the Beatles rocked the joint. Over the next seven weeks (until May 31, 1962) the band kept up a relentless performance schedule — between three and five one-hour sets every night (172 hours on the Star-Club stage in total) with just one day off. Sometimes they alternated sets with visiting rockers such as Gene Vincent; other times they just carried the crowd on their own shoulders for the whole night. It didn’t matter — the Star-Club was always packed when the Beatles were in town.

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Fifty years ago today, John Lennon was the old man of the Beatles at age 21, while Paul and George were both just 19.

And that really was the end of the pre-fame period of the Beatles’ lives, even though they returned to Hamburg for two more shorter stints at the Star-Club in November and December 1962.

 

Within a week of returning to England on June 2, 1962, the Beatles were back in a recording studio for another audition, this time at the famed EMI Studios at 3 Abbey Road in London’s St. John’s Wood.

 

The June 6 date was both an audition and full recording session and marked the first collaboration between the Beatles and producer George Martin, who was mainly known at the time for his work on comedy and novelty albums with the Goons and others. Four songs were recorded in the three-hour session (including Love Me Do and PS I Love You) and by the time the group left the studio at 10 p.m. they had impressed Martin enough to offer them a recording contract with EMI’s Parlophone label.

 

The Beatles returned to Abbey Road for further recording sessions on Sept. 4 and Sept. 11 but there was a major personnel change between between the June and September sessions.

 

The full story may never be known, but on Aug. 16, 1962, Pete Best was fired from the band. Doing the dirty work was Brian Epstein, who simply told Best, “The lads don’t want you in the group anymore.”

 

The firing is often attributed to pressure from George Martin, who wanted a better drummer. But when the Beatles replaced Best with another Liverpool friend, Ringo Starr, Martin still used a session drummer, Andy White, for most of the drum work on the Beatles’ first single — Love Me Do, backed by PS I Love You. (Ringo’s drumming from the Sept. 4 session appeared on the initial single, but was replaced by White’s Sept. 11 session work by the time the Beatle’s first album was released.)

 

In any case, the Beatles consisted of John, Paul, George and Ringo as of Aug. 18, 1962.

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One of the first Beatles publicity photos with the band’s new drummer, Ringo Starr

The first single was released on Oct. 5 and climbed to No. 17 on the British charts — considered exceptional for an unknown (relatively speaking) new group.

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That was the band — now getting plenty of radio play and media attention in Britain — that returned to Hamburg for a two-week engagement Nov. 1-14. They played three sets every night for 14 days — 49 hours on stage — and each got paid the princely sum of 600 Deutschmarks a week (about $150 at the time). Not bad money, actually, when you consider it was about 10 times more than they were paid during their 1961 stint in Hamburg and 20 times more than their weekly pay during the Beatles’ first Hamburg sojourn two years earlier.

 

On Nov. 26, 10 days after returning to England, the Beatles were back in the Abbey Road studio with George Martin to record their second single, Please Please Me (with Ask Me Why on the B side).

 

It was at that point — poised on the brink of Beatlemania — that the group returned to Hamburg for their third Star-Club engagement of the year  from Dec. 18 to 31.  Their only day off was Christmas and they were now paid the even more princely sum of 750 Deutschmarks per person per week (about $180).

 

So they played out New Year’s Eve in Hamburg and returned to England where their second single was released on Jan. 11, 1963, becoming a British chart-topper within a few weeks. (It also became the Beatles’ first U.S. single release on Feb. 25 on the small Vee-Jay label but with considerably less success — only about 7,000 copies sold and the initial pressing listed the performers as “The Beattles.”)

 

Back in the studio on Feb. 11, 1963, the Beatles recorded 10 more songs in a marathon one-day session which, added to the four songs from their first two singles, became the Beatles first album, also entitled Please Please Me.

 

The album was rush-released on March 22, 1963, became an immediate huge success and topped the British charts for 30 weeks from May 11.

 

The rest is, of course, history.

 

And for the next decade or so, we’ll have plenty of “50 years ago today” moments from the Fabulous ’60s (and the not-quite-as-fab ’70s) to look back on.

 

But for today at least, our memory is this: Fifty years ago today, the Beatles opened Hamburg’s Star-Club.

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Beatles-Platz in Hamburg

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The building that housed the Star-Club burned down in 1987. All that remains today at Große Freiheit 39 is a plaque — and a Thai karaoke bar.

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My German Anti-Nuke Protest

- April 26th, 2011

SOMEWHERE NORTH OF HAMBURG — I took part in a German anti-nuclear protest yesterday.

Not that I was planning to, of course.

What I was planning to do was take a leisurely toodle on a sunny Easter Monday afternoon around the neighbouring countryside on the ancient, eccentric motor scooter which putt-putts me through Schleswig-Holstein when I am here.

I was stopped at what passes for the main road in this neck of the woods (if there were woods of any substance in this neck) when the flashing blue light of a police car (Polizeiwagen) hove into view — slowly.

It was followed by a procession of eight buses and a scattering of private cars sprouting a variety of yellow, red and black flags. At the end of the convoy, two other police cars with flashing lights nipped at the heels of the buses like sheep dogs.

At first I thought it might be an especially large horticultural club on tour, but that was unlikely since there wasn´t a garden gnome in sight and the passengers staring out the bus windows had on their best Very Serious Faces (VSFs) — something the  Germans do perhaps better than any other nationality in the world.

The purpose of the VSF is to indicate to observers that the body attached to the VSF is engaged in Very Important Business (VIB), which said observers are encouraged — nay, impelled — to expedidate/facilitate/assist/abet/admire. Usually the VIB can better be described as VSIB (Very Self-Important Business).

Ach so,  eight buses full of VSFs escorted by police sheep dogs. The clues were piling up, but the dead giveaway to the group´s identity was the banners waving from the cars with the buses. Most were a nitrous-oxide yellow  colour with a smiley red sun in the middle encircled by black words:

ATOMKRAFT? NEIN DANKE

(NUCLEAR POWER? NO THANKS)

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Ooooo, one of the German anti-nuke protests I had heard so much about.

So, as the rearguard Polizeiwagen trundled by, I decided to tag along. At best, I would see a Deutsche eco-political action in action or, at worst, I would be led on a jaunt into unexplored territory.

Somewhere in the middle of possibilities was the opportunity to find out where the nearest nuclear plant was. It had to be close or why else would the convoy of VSFs come through my rustic, off-the-beaten-track area.

(I´m sorry to say I had neglected to take a camera with me, so there´s no photo travelogue to go with these words, although I might try to add in some images from the Internet later.)

What followed was a 20-km serpentine journey through the flat, fertile moorlands of Schleswig-Holstein as the lead Polizeiwagen sought out every secondary farm road and one-lane cowpath in the district. I´m sure the official reason for the circuitous route was to keep the main arteries from being clogged up with similar congregating convoys of protesters, but I think there must also have been a bit of officious power-tripping involved too: “See what I can make you do? Now jump through this hoop and you will be allowed to express yourself.”

We had twisted and turned so often I had no idea where we were. I actually thought we were heading vaguely north when, in fact, we were headed south from my starting point.

Our parade crested a bridge over a bigger, busier road and we left the farmlands behind for a Gewerbegebiet (or something to that effect), an industrial zone of  recycling plants and the like.

At this point, my convoy of buses was swallowed up in a flock of other arriving buses and I lost track of my VSFs.

But there was plenty of other activity to follow. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were walking down the road from their parked cars and other hundreds and thousands were swarming in on bicycles. (And, of course, there were the lazy ones who parked their cars and unhitched  bikes from their car racks to pedal in the last kilometre or two.)

And a fine gaggle of Germans it was too: Frosty-haired grandparents who were probably veterans of the early 1970s German anti-nuclear movement, middle-aged folks — some hippie-esque, others nip-tuck tidy and proper — who might have come on board in the aftermath of 1986´s Chornoblyl (or Chernobyl or Tschernobyl, take your pick) disaster, plenty of earnest 20-somethings with eco-consciences newly awakened by Fukushima, and large numbers of teens and children — the ones who seemed to be having the most fun on this beautiful sunny afternoon and who had not yet been fitted for their personal VSFs.

Many of the congregants carried flags and wore costumes. The flags were predominantly the standard ATOMKRAFT? NEIN DANKE standard and the principal costumes were variations of yellow helmets, facemasks and plastic jumpsuits supposed to put one in mind of nuclear decontamination outfits — a poor, sweaty choice of costume, to my mind, for a hot, sunny day when T-shirts, halter tops and shorts would have conveyed a more positive and realistic message.

But who am I to criticize? Really. I was here as a curious gawker — a Nosey Parker — not to express my personal outrage and opposition to nuclear power in general and the Brunsbüttel AKW (AtomKraftWerk — nuclear power plant) in particular.

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For the outskirts of Brunsbüttel was, indeed, where my bus convey had led me. I stopped to check a map and discovered I was down by the mouth of the Elbe River, the complete opposite direction from which I thought I had been travelling.

(A short aside on büttels: The world “büttel” essentially means the same thing as the English word “borough” — a medieval seat of local government. So Scarborough, for example, would be Scarbüttel — a rather fitting description in my jaundiced opinion. There are many büttels in northern Germany — Nienbüttel, Ottenbüttel, Westerbüttel, Oldenbüttel, Tensbüttel and so on, not to mention my favourite, Aasbüttel. Next door to Brunsbüttel there´s even a small town called simply Büttel — which is pretty much like naming a town “the Town of Town” or calling a cat “Cat” … showing either a serious lack of imagination or an excess of literal-mindedness.)

But Brunsbüttel was where we were, Germans in their hundreds and thousands parading down a tree-lined road toward a nuclear plant while I did my best to weave among them on my putt-putting, fume-spewing (but at least non-nuke-powered) mo-fa, as motor scooters and mo-peds are known here.

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North Germans have been congregating at AKW Brunsbüttel for decades, ever since it started operating in 1976, to protest against nuclear power. The fact that the Brunsbüttel operation was taken out of service 2007 has not seemed to dampen its attraction as a protest site.

Local authorities estimated the number of people at this protest as 6,000, but I wouldn´t know for sure: When I arrived at a polizei checkpoint that would not admit my mo-fa, I declined to carry my partcipation in the protest march/ride further. But I do think the number of protesters there was probably much higher than 6,000: I had counted about 300 people in my small bus convoy alone and there were many more bus convoys as well as the thousands upon thousands of people I had seen arriving by car and bicycle (and mo-fa).

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But I had decided to forego the ensuing speeches and other boring impedia of over-organized protest. I embarked on a demonstration of my own, a demonstration of the power and goodness of the sun, as best appreciated on a sheltered deck with a frothy cappucino at hand.

But I am remembering Chornobyl today, on the 25th anniversary of the start of that disaster, and wondering what we will think of Fukushima 25 years from now, a time when all nuclear power plants  are supposed to be gone from Germany. Gone but not forgotten, methinks.

24 Hours in Hamburg

- November 12th, 2010

This blog post relates a series of unconnected events (well, connected only by my presence) that occurred in the north German city of Hamburg between 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4, and 4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5, 2010.

In that 24-hour period, I joined a group of singing Salvation Army enthusiasts as they paraded with a wooden cross past bemused hookers in the Reeperbahn red light/entertainment district; met a British rock star on the street; watched from the sidelines as a police identification/immigration check turned into a drug bust; and got yelled at by a bunch of harpie prostitutes from their salesroom windows.

Other things happened before and after that 24-hour period — mostly to do with rain, interesting people, the Hamburg Freezers hockey team and accidently disrupting the security system at the offices of Bild newspaper — but those are other stories for other times.

I may be posting this a few days after the events happened because I have difficulty uploading photos at the moment and the story really works best with accompanying visuals.

(It now looks like it will be a week later: “Internet cafe” in many places around here seems to mean a place with one ancient terminal hardwired into the web and no wi-fi; useless if you are trying to work on a laptop; and then there are all the bizarre cookies that choke off everything when one does occassionally find a wireless connection. Don´t get me started … by the way, there is no apostrophe on a German keyboard … what looks like an apostrophe about 15 words ago is actually an accent mark … dashes are a problem too, especially when an important e-address has a dash in it and what looks sort of like the same dash on a German keyboard does not read as the same dash in the address, thus making it impossible to EVER get on to that particular website whilst using a German keyboard. Just ignore me:  I´m <fake apostrophe> frustrated and tired of spending hours and days trying to do something that should take five minutes. Deep breath. Calm, calm. Back to the blog post.)

Here we go.

There´s a Hamburg singer I like very much named Stefan Gwildis who specializes in putting Deutsch lyrics — usually with a Hamburg flavour — to American pop, rock, and soul standards.

For example, Bill Withers´Ain´t No Sunshine becomes Stefan Gwildis´Allem Anschein Nach Bis Du,  Joni Mitchell´s Big Yellow Taxi  becomes Wenn Es Weg Ist (Joni gave Stefan a very hard time before she approved the German lyrics), and Brook Benton´s Rainy Night in Georgia becomes Regennacht In Hamburg (Rainy Night In Hamburg). I never remember most of the original lyrics anyway, so I just hum along to familiar melodies and sing choruses in my version of the German language.

All of which is beside the point, except I wanted to add a little mood music and let you know that it rains a lot in Hamburg. A lot. Especially in the fall and winter.

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So, of course, it was pouring buckets when I left my hotel in the Altona district about 4:30 p.m. Thursday. I had semi-dried some of my clothes soaked earlier in the day but my only pair of shoes were still soggy leather boats. I had forgotten to bring a hat so I had a scarf wrapped around my head like some weird cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and a hijab-wearing infidel.

The clocks go back a couple of weeks earlier in Europe than in North America, so it was already dark as I headed out. Did I mention it was raining? Pouring? A deluge. In other words, a normal November night in Hamburg.

Since humans, like moths, are drawn to light in the night, I headed for the neon-drenched ersatz glitz of the Reeperbahn, Hamburg´s former red light district, incubator of the Beatles, and current home to musical theatre, bars and bistros, transvestite cabarets and, of course, a multitude of sex shops and strip joints.

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The real sex trade still flourishes on the periphery of the Reeperbahn — with younger prostitutes loitering just down the street from the local Polizei station and older (in some cases we´re talking senior-discount old, but more about that later) ladies sitting in sidestreet showrooms in their bustiers and corsets, knitting or reading (romance novels? philosophy tracts? I couldn´t really tell) or chatting to prospective clients through their open display windows.

(In fairness, I should point out that the Reeperbahn is a very small part of Hansestadt Hamburg, both physically and culturally, and the city is a large, multi-faceted, stimulating and prosperous metropolis. It is no longer the gritty, grotty seaport town of the Beatles’ day. It is still the second-busiest port in Europe — after Rotterdam — but 2010 Hamburg is a sparkling, effervescent place and one of the richest cities in Europe, right up there with Brussels and London. So much for fairness. Let’s get back to the dark side of town.)

The Reeperbahn is a fun place, great for people watching, full of surprises  and not too dangerous — as long as you avoid arguments with drunks or stay out too, too late.

So I´m wandering around the Reeperbahm in the rain (by this time I´ve added a cheap hat from a discount shop to replace my bedraggled and bedrizzled head scarf), clickity-clicking with the camera, talking to people (most Hamburgers speak pretty good English and I bumped into a few Americans and Brits, but no Canadians) and generally having a grand old time.

And then the music started. Not the honky-tonk grinder music or pseudo early-Beatles rock you would expect to hear on the Reeperbahn, but a bouncy, sugary, Carpenters-style pop ditty sung by young, enthusiastic voices accompanied by a three-chord acoustic guitar player.

I looked down the sidestreet where the music was coming from to see a glowing cross bobbing toward me. The cross wasn´t burning or anything, just shimmering from the reflection of neon lights on rain-soaked wood.

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Carrying the cross was a young woman, girl maybe, looking almost as uncynical and innocent as the young hookers across the street. Beside her was a uniformed, earnest Salvation Army officer (also quite young) and following were about 20 other young people in their late teens and early 20s, all singing their little hearts out. And bringing up the rear were some bristled, shifty-eyed older guys who looked like they had either found salvation in the bottom of a bottle very recently or were singing for their supper, as it were.

So, as  just another bristled, shifty-eyed older guy, I joined the parade (I didn´t know the lyrics, but I hummed along a la Stefan Gwildis), waited at the light to cross the Reeperbahn (Germans really do frown on jaywalking, even in a neighbourhood where sexual procurement and alcohol consumption are legal street activities).

On the other side, we marched past an equal-sized contingent of hookers loitering artfully around Hans-Albers-platz. The young band of Salvationists looked straight ahead as they marched past (although I noticed a couple of the young male singers checking out the other team) while the hookers either ignored them completely or, if they were bored and unoccupied, watched the heavenly choir pass with bemused indifference.

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I left the parade at this point (too much Carpenters-style music gives me a diabetic reaction) to stay with the creatures of the night a while longer before making my own solitary parade through the rain and darkness back to my hotel, a Carpenters song gnawing at my brain. (In Deutschland an annoying song you can´t get out of your head is known as an Ohrwurm — an ear worm. How apt.)

The next afternoon I was back in the St. Pauli-Reeperbahn area, partly because it was on my route to the harbour, partly to check out Gommorah in the daylight, and partly to make a pilgrimage to the remnants of the various seedy clubs where the Beatles got their battle scars as an hour-on, hour-off Hamburg bar band in the early ´60s.

I was surprised to find one of the Beatles clubs — the first one they were played in Hamburg, as a matter of fact – was right beside another club where I had had some dealings the previous night. There seemed to be quite a bit of activity in front of the clubs — a band tour bus, an equipment truck,  a limo, people milling about — so, as Nosey Parker, I butted in to find out what was going on.

It turned out that the lead singer from a big British alt-rock band  (if you can be big and alt at the same time) was on a small-venue European tour to promote his new solo album and was playing that night at the Indra Club — site of the Beatles´first Hamburg gig (Aug. 18, 1960) and also a regular venue for the likes of Jimi Hendrix through the  ´60s.

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The rock star and his entourage had just arrived in Hamburg from their gig in Amsterdam the night before and were checking out the famed Indra.

Who, I asked a roadie, was the rock star?

The roadie looked at me like I was a lunatic or very old (guilty to both counts) and replied: “That´s Xerzynk Ogleblup. He´s the lead singer for Glubpudfyz Nzurk.” A pause and then, as if addressing a small, ignorant child: “They´re very big, you know.”

So I started talking to Xerzynk Ogleblup, got him to pose for a few photos at the entrance to the club and got his autograph, just in case one of my kids actually knew who the hell he was.

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Turns out the guy was (and still is, as far as I know) Paul Smith, lead singer for the British band Maximo Park and they are, in fact, very big  – a headline act with several platinum records and quite a few hit songs. For the record, Paul Smith was a  nice guy, friendly, gracious, funny and really excited to be doing a gig in a dank bar where the Beatles had been regulars almost 50 years earlier.

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The Indra Club, like most of the Beatles´ Hamburg haunts, is on a sidestreet called Grosse Freiheit (Great Freedom, more or less — the Freedom referred to being religious half a millenium ago, not the current sex, drugs and rock´n´roll variety). Several of those old clubs such as the Kaiserkeller at Grosse Freiheit 36 are still there – sucking in and regurgitating Beatle-brained tourists like flat, overpriced beer — but the most famous of the Beatles´ Hamburg  homes, the Star-club at Grosse Freiheit 39 is long gone. The Star-club closed in 1969 and the building burned in 1987. If you go to Grosse Freiheit 39 now, you will find a few bronze plaques commemorating the club and a Thai restaurant.

I don´t think there is any irony there. None that I can see, anyway. It is what it is.

As I continued meadering along Grosse Freiheit, I noticed an unlikely quartet talking in the middle of the street. There was a tall, striking dyed-blonde woman in jeans, a black jacket and a backpack; a short, weather-beaten, older man in similar attire; and two scruffy guys in droopy pants with far-away eyes.

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I started watching them and slumped into a doorway to take some photos. It was soon apparent the tall woman and short man were polizei of some kind (they really were  Central Casting’s dream team for an odd-couple cop TV series) and the two scruffy guys were objects of their interest.

I have no idea where the scruffy guys were from, but it also soon became apparent that they did not have identification papers that satisfied the cops. And it was also apparent that the document check had turned into a full-scale drug search.

The blonde woman cop waved down the street and a black van soon pulled up. A tall, muscular young cop joined his colleagues and the two sad guys, leaving the van blocking Grosse Freiheit just outside the Kaiserkeller.

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An old couple pulled up behind the van and patiently sat there. I went over and told them in my poor German that a “Polizei Aktion” was taking place and they should go back the way they came.

They looked at me blankly and sat there. Quietly. Without getting out their car. For 10 minutes. They were still patiently sitting there  behind the police van when I left.

Back at the drug search, the cops were sorting through their suspects’ jackets, hats, pants pockets, even making them take off their shirts in the middle of the street.

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The two guys seemed quite calm and passively obeyed the cops with a smoky-eyed fatalism.

One way or the other, I knew those guys would eventually end up in the police van and would be spending an indefinite amount of time in government custody. So I moved on before that happened. Sometimes there is just no point in watching the end of a movie when you already know what’s coming.

Most of the area’s brothels/bordellos (Bordell in Deutsch, by pure chance) are on the other side of the Reeperbahn from Grosse Freiheit, so I wandered over there to see what was happening in the middle of a rainy Hamburg afternoon.

The bordellos are legal but relatively discreet, so there is really not a lot to distinguish a brothel from a regular apartment building in most of the neighbourhood.

One street, however, is quite different. Herbertstrasse, just down Davidstrasse from the local polizei station, is one block long, sealed off at both ends by two-metre high fences with an opening for pedestrians. Herbertstrasse has been a sex market for more than a century and the discreet view-blocking panels first went up (on Nazi orders) in 1933.

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A sign on the fence warns that women and males under 18 are forbidden entry but it is almost obscured by graffiti and advertising stickers, and overwhelmed by a tobacco ad with the tagline “Für mehr Fremdenverkehr” (“For more tourism”).  In an earlier incarnation, the ad´s slogan  was  the less-subtle  “Für mehr Vorspiel” (“For more foreplay”).

As I found out later, the wall should also have had a sign saying  “Fotos verboten” (“Do not take photos or else, dummy”).

Herbertstrasse is basically a shopping mall for sex. Once you walk through the gate, the street is lined with shop windows, each one featuring a woman in erotic costume, usually featuring a bustier or corset  – sometimes a  perky sailor suit or Marlene-style top hat and tails for variety — with fishnet stockings, killer stilettos, big hair and over-the-top makeup completing the cliche.

The shop windows unlatch from the inside , so the women can quickly open them to talk to passing men/potential customers.

But while they’re waiting for Godot, the women sit in comfy chairs and knit or read books and magazines. As I said before, I never did figure out what books they were reading. I should have asked, but in general conversations on Herbertstrasse were short-lived if they weren’t work-related.

Here’s one sample conversation (in English):

“Come inside. Fifty Euros and I will take care of the rest.”

“Sorry, I’m broke, but I’m looking for a backpacker hostel that used to be a brothel. Do you know where it is?”

Raised eyebrow and a sweep of the hand.

“There are many beds to rent around here. But only for short periods of time.”

The window shut. End of conversation.

As I walked on, a door opened and a well-dressed little old man with a Homburg hat and a cane tottered out. Behind him, an attractive 40ish  blonde in the requisite bustier helped him down the stairs and chatted briefly before waving goodbye as the little old man wobbled away.

I decided not to pry but the two seemed well acquainted, so I suppose it was probably his chosen form of regular physiotherapy.

Despite the public nature of the street, its practitoners and their clients seemed to value discretion, which was why I waited  until I was at the end of the street — near the getaway gateway — to start taking photos.

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You can’t tell from the one photo I got, but windows beside me were immediately flung open and screeching banshees began howling for my head. At least that was the distinct impression I got, although they may have been threatening some other body parts too. Since I had heard tales of unwanted guests being doused with pots of urine or worse, I decided discretion was definitely the better part of valour and scooted out the gate.

Now the one thing that really surprised me about Herbertstrasse was the age of its inhabitants. Unlike the young street prostitutes out on the Reeperbahn, the women of Herbertstrasse seemed to range in age from late 30s to (perhaps) early 60s. Most of them were definitely closer to retirement than high school.

I am an old man, so far be it for me to say that age should be any kind of barrier to sexual activity. But it seems somehow … undignified, shall we say? … for a person my age to be sitting in a window in a bustier, casting come-hither winks and moues at the passing parade. On the other hand, the women of Herbertstrasse carried themselves with a great deal of personal (perhaps “professional” is a better word) dignity. Who am I to say someone should close up shop at a certain age, especially when there are still eager customers knocking at the door?

So that was 24 hours in Hamburg, 24 hours on the Reeperbahn really. After that I connected with a friend who is the local hockey beat writer for Bild newspaper and went to a Hamburg Freezers hockey game. More about Freezers (the Toronto Maple Leafs of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga) another time.

But our 24 hours are finished and so is this story.