Copic marker, ink and watercolor sketches from Hamburg, Germany.
As soon as we arrive at our hotel in Hamburg to celebrate my Uncle’s eightieth birthday, I know I have to get out to a laundromat. My wife, my son and I have just taken our clothes to their filthy limit on the previous leg of our trip.
It’s scorching hot in Hamburg — over 100 degrees fahrenheit — but I am determined to find a laundromat so we have fresh clothes before our long-lost relatives descend on Germany’s second largest city.
Walking in the blazing sun, I am reminded of my time here in 1993 while living in neighboring Bremen — Hamburg’s fellow watery port.
Marco Polo Building, Hafen, Hamburg
Bremen and the Watts Towers
Twenty-six years ago, on a hot summer evening, I would have been sitting in the window-ledge of a small apartment on Contrescarpe Street in Bremen, Germany. The Irish rock band U2 was playing the nearby Weserstadion, and I would have taken some time to listen to the act.
As a fan of improvisational music, I would likely already have had my tickets to fall tour shows of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia Band, Phish and the Allman Brothers Band after I returned from my summer internship in Germany. The only live concert experience I had known up to this point were four hour affairs of spontaneous compositions and setlists. As concert-goer, my only concept of the live music experience was that of taking a risk with a band; as a listener, going out on a limb and accepting the high likelihood of musical failure in exchange for the adventure of seeing the possibility of musical success.
I would have known that U2 improvised little, but I remember being surprised by how quickly the concert ended. Was that even 80 minutes of music? What I wouldn’t have known is that U2 played an identical setlist the show before in Stuttgart and the show after in Cologne, and all the concerts of that summer would all have been the same. Even their 5-song encore would have been identical at each show.
I wouldn’t have faulted U2 for their style of performance, I felt lucky to have free access to their show from my window perch, but at age twenty, the effect of this comparison was already a compass for my life trajectory.
As a deadhead, I would have been vaguely familiar with Jerry Garcia’s retelling of the impact that seeing the large Watts Towers art installation in Los Angeles had on him, and how it would compel his trajectory as improviser.
"I remember one time after the Watts Acid Test, which was particularly strange. You know, it’s dawn. We drove the bus over to the Watts Towers. We got out and looked at em. See, the city of Los Angeles said, ‘These things are dangerous. They’re gonna fall down and hurt somebody.’ So they moved wreckers, and things like that in there, and cranes, and they tried to pull down this guy’s towers after he was dead. They couldn’t budge em. They couldn’t pull them down. So they said, ‘Well, they’re solid.’ So now they’re in the tourist pamphlets and things like that.
But my thoughts about that were something like, ‘Well, if you work by yourself as hard as you can, every day, after you’re dead, you’ve left something behind that they can’t tear down, you know. If you work real hard, that’s the payoff. The individual artist’s payoff, that thing that exists after you’re dead. You know, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s not it for me.’ Instead of making something that lasts forever, I thought, I think I’d rather have fun. For me it was more important to be involved in something that was flowing and dynamic and not so solid that you couldn’t tear it down."
After the U2 show, my internship would have transitioned from an office building in Bremen’s downtown to a tall, decrepit building on the watery banks of Bremerhafen. Being an unskilled English-speaker at a facility which bagged powdered fishmeal for transport into the interior of Europe, it was my job to type the English-language Bill of Lading documents in triplicate.
The smell of fishmeal was rancid, and the powdery substance was everywhere, adding a pale, dusty color to everything, and everytime my old gray typewriter typed, clouds of fishmeal powder rose from the keys. The kind, moustached director of the facility sat at a nearby desk. “They will smell you on the train when you return home,” he had explained. “Ignore them. This is a port city. This is what we do here.”
The director loved his job. He loved the industry of it all. The organization, the punctuality, the effort of work.
I found myself yearning for my lunch break, which I took early. I would walk out to the docks and stare at the water, looking for evidence of life; little fish or small aquatic bugs. To find something surprising, and alive.
My internship was a taste of the structure of work life that would come after college, and this is why there was a tinge of sadness I felt while crouched dockside: the idea that looking for critters in puddles was in my rearview mirror. The future was Bills of Lading, and typewriters.
I had been making friends in Bremen. There was my neighbor Kurt, who would stick his cigarette butts in his neighbor’s flower beds. “I am doing it so her flowers die! She is such a bitch!” There was Dirk and Otto, who would take me to the red light district in Hamburg, show me the old prostitutes in the windows, and lambast me repeatedly for my Americanisms, such as holding a paper coffee cup while walking.
I finally do find a laundromat, although its windows are facing the sun, and it’s burning up inside. I struggle to accomplish the simple task of getting our clothes in the washing units, confused by the payment system, surprised by how much of my German had vanished.
I left the laundromat in search of a water fountain --- but instead I found an ice cream shop. Perfect. Two scoops, please, I said in German, I think. “Okay, so you are sure you want two scoops?” he said, looking concerned. In this heat, I could really use three. “No, you’re right, I should have three scoops.”
“You mean like this?” the ice cream man said, wrapping his hand around an ice cream. “Yes! Yes!” I said, ravished and parched with heat.
When he handed me my ice cream, it was a single scoop wrapped in three layers of parchment paper, which was difficult to remove; the process of which caused the ice cream to partially fall apart and melt.
Hearing and seeing a language you used to speak helps bring it back, but it takes weeks, not days, to return.
Speicherstadt and the Miniatur Wunderland
Hamburg’s most sought after tourist draw is the multistory Miniatur Wunderland; a monstrous collection of tiny worlds on the scale of model trains in the Speicherstadt District of Hamburg.
Jane and I are taking our son and his cousin to see the museum, and getting there means walking across an endless variety of bridges and walkways. Walking toward the Speicherstadt District, through a rhapsody of sleek ultramodern constructions, historic timber-framed buildings and colonnaded streets, I cannot help but to be reminded of the many books, Youtube videos our son consumed as a child. Industrial scenes. Big trucks. Miniature railroads. Not only that, but his love for these young boy fantasies were often through a northern German lens. If he was watching a video of miniature construction trucks plying through dirt, it would have filmed in a place like a miniature model convention in a place like Berlin or Hannover; the adult filmmakers transfixed by their miniature world realistically depicting industry, progress, construction and efficiency.
Having leaned over my son’s shoulder through all those early years, the resemblance between those scenes and this northern German city are remarkable, and I think there is something to that—in work and play, northern Germans are captivated by the machinery of progress.
Why is this? Most of northern Germany, for most of its history, was unnavigable marshland and swamp. Northern Germany flourished as it tamed its wild marshy landscapes into canals and other controlled waterways. The name Hamburg itself means "Swampy Fortress". Do these unique characteristics come from hundreds of years of harnessing the natural landscape into a built world?
Is it any wonder, then, that the city’s most magnificent architecture, like the brick warehouse buildings of Speicherstadt, are industrial works of art, and that even the most magnificent residential buildings rise from the industrial neighborhoods, themselves lustrous symbols of progress?
Miniatur Wunderland, so popular that ticketed reservations are required, is swarming with tourists from around the world. Throngs pack into this four story world of model trains, tiny cities and rural landscapes, studying the little worlds.
To see this little world is to recognize that I have the worldbuilder itch in me too. I often prefer the overhead view of worldbuilding fiction over literature which depicts life up close. When my son was a toddler, I would build him intricate ten-story wooden block railroad sets, with the tracks wandering through tunnels and through wooden-block castles. Unable to pronounce the word “truck”, his eyes would glaze over at large-wheeled vehicles, and he would cry out, “fock, fock, fock!”
My night-time stories to him, which grew more elaborate with age, tended to be worldbuilding stories, where the kingdoms, cities, fleets of ships and island economies tended to dictate the story as much as the individual characters. To remember a character’s name, I would visualize a map of my fictionalized world. The point of the story; the arc of it was always that a world was in the process of growing, stabilizing, becoming a more civilized place.
As the characters in these night-time world grew into the hundreds, and the stories played out over years, I came to realize that I relied on my top-down view of the story in order to tell it.
Now, looking down at these fantastic little northern German-made worlds, I can see the resemblance in this ambition to create worlds; to represent progress and industry, to my own way of seeing in life. So, how do I reconcile this with Jerry Garcia’s Watts Towers? "Instead of making something that lasts forever, I thought, I think I’d rather have fun." And the fishmeal facility director, with his organization, his punctuality. "This is what we do here!"
Towards the end of our visit to the Miniatur Wunderland, I see a display representing a miniature man riding a miniature bicycle. His coat-tails appear to be swaying behind him, as if he is riding fast. This reminds me of the final days of my internship in Bremen, when I decided one evening to go out on my bicycle and just ride around. It was the first time I shed the expectation to hang out with my new friends, or to go somewhere specific. I just drove the bicycle through the city. I would buy fresh cherries, wrapped in newspaper, and sit in the park watching people go by. I dared myself into new neighborhoods
It was just a slight modification to how I was consuming Bremen, but it changed everything for me. I was having fun, learning how travel was just a broad canvas to improvise on.
Hafencity and the Elbe River
To celebrate our reunion, dozens of us board a tour boat, which will take us through Hamburg’s water canals, along the architecture-rich Elbe, and finally out into the industrial port sections of the massive rivers.
All of this is impressive, but I don’t believe I have ever been on a tour that celebrated the hulls of massive container ships, rail-mounted cranes, heavy-lifters and warehouse buildings.
And seeing all my relatives, all of them connected to northern Germany, staring down these massive machines of industry and progress like toddlers immersed in a book about big-wheeled trucks, I can’t help to wonder if maybe that trait which wants us to build model railroads and great industrial landscapes, has indeed been passed on to me, and on to my son?