Monday, June 5, 2017


“Allende Vive” says the graffiti stencil under the Allende Platz street sign on a 1920s building in the middle of the neighbourhood of Grindel, the neo-classical building strewn area where Jews used to live in Hamburg. 

Rosenbaum, Hirsch, Nachims, Cohen, Mandelbaum.

I’m back in the fray of last year's horror, briefly. I won’t stay for long this time, if I can pull myself out again. 

Acker is a German word, though the name comes from Poland. It means field or cultivating place. Put it in front of a variety of other words and it means certain kinds of cultivated herbs or plants. A German I met once joked that my name meant I was fertile - “ploughing the field!” he chortled. 

There’s an inside and an outside to the city and its people. Outside, I walk down tree-lined streets, many of the trees dating from before the war. The buildings are human-sized and gorgeous. Stone sidewalks. Graffiti’d ground floors in St. Pauli. Immaculate paint in Grindel or the downtown walking streets, or in Haffen City. When a rich developer bought the Rota Flora theatre in St. Pauli, and tried to turn it into condos, the neighbourhood banded together and protested for four years, until the government was forced to buy the building back at twice the price. Now it is a punk show venue, a squat and a backyard cafe, covered in graffiti so thick you can measure the history on the edge of the building. Rent control keeps some apartments at or below 8 euros a square metre (about 800 for a 1000 square foot apartment), which means that people have to work less, which means they have time to be in place, to create, to protect their neighbourhoods from gentrification, to band together, to fight neoliberalism and fascism in all its forms. There’s a six storey outdoor climbing wall, fastened onto the side of a WWII bunker, from which Germans shot at Allied planes. The walls are six foot thick concrete. They’ve stopped trying to destroy them, after 140,000 euros of dynamite only blew a living room couch sized hole in a giant bunker that was scheduled for demolition. Now they are techno clubs and hideouts and community gathering places. They break the rules. The rules that seem, as a larger culture, to be so stereotypically obeyed, the stereotype of which leads my thoughts to grim places.

And yet gentrification is also rampant. An article in, “Not in Our Name,” rails against the Dutch and other foreign investors that are driving rent prices up, the “glass teeth” buildings that line the river Elbe, the sustainability projects that only push the poor and artists to the edges of the city and create promenades for the wealthy (Hamburg has the most millionaires of any city in Europe). The process of evicting those who are not welcome, I can't help thinking, continues. 

I walk from the hostel across the bridge that separates the lake from the River Elbe. People sailing without motors, paddling back to their slips with one oar. One boy slaps the ass of another with his oar as he reaches for the piling. Last night, Cam and I went to the gay and Turkish district near the water, on our side of the bridge, just west of the train station. The pee smell stops there. There are many outdoor cafes. We spent a good couple of hours making fun of Germans. The efficiency. The rule-following. The abruptness. The way the south of Europe got the looks and the north got the money. The way they don’t get questions that we ask about sustainability, and respond with a version of “Why would you need to worry about that????” when we ask about stormwater management. In Germany, everything has been thought of. It’s all been done and is obvious, so let’s move on please so we shall not be late. We were awful. And it was satisfying and terrible and the root of the stereotypes irked at me, and a very blond woman sat down with her extremely tall partner in front of us, and they did not smile or touch. 

My love is a Canadian German Dane. This is his home city. He is an affectionate, heart-on-his-sleeve beauty. I sit in this river of love and longing and fear. There is an inside and and outside to the city. Inside: ribaldry, silliness, unending warmth, intelligence, deep emotional capability, sorrow, Stolpersteine. I’ve counted 64 people memorialized on my walk over here, wandering on one side of a street then another. Stopping at the groups of three or one or five brass cobbles, noting the names. They’ve left room for more. Tens of thousands. Question marks at the end of those for whom they don’t know the death location. I walk down the streets and no one smiles at me, but they are mostly good with one another. (The only domestic fight I have seen in public in Europe was a German couple this morning in front of the chocolate museum, while their children endured it.) When I stop at the brass cobbles the people move around me, and no one says anything. And they watch me as I pass the outside bars and cafes, and there’s a guardedness and only the young seem modern. Except that’s all wrong, too. Only the thin, tall, long-haired men seem modern. That’s wrong, too. My face betrays me. My nose. I realize these are ridiculous thoughts. I stop at the cobbles and photograph them, and count. And chastise myself for counting. And keep reading the names. And keep stopping. 

How does a culture even begin to take responsibility? How do they move on? How is it that their efficiency will always remind me of that ultimate efficiency in knowing how best to eliminate? One of my students wrote in her field journal, “Good community is always messy. That’s where the beauty happens.” I am a mess. And the waiter at the cafe, Pony Bar, affectionately shoes his dog inside, away from the tables. A medium-sized black dog with shepherd ears, who sits near the bar when he is behaving, and follows the waiter out to the tables when he is not. 

Cam prefers Belgium, the Netherlands, those smaller countries that have not ever been such world powers (and were disasters when they tried to be) and thus have a humility that is hard to ascribe to the Germans (or the French), such masters of engineering, so sure that the new cities they are constructing are sustainable for all. “Yes, we have a very diverse community moving into Hafen City. There are French, Belgians, Dutch, English. Even some Chinese.” The students caught that irony as well. I tend to agree with Cam. I’ve never met a more amenable group of people, as a whole, than the Dutch. Easy to smile, quick to empathize, eager to help. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have had without this class. But here, the resting expression is one of suspicion or impatience. I react badly to it. I come apart at the seams. 

So I walk, and count, and feel like throwing up, and listen to music my love curated especially for this trip, with such love and abiding affection. And the couch in this cafe is at the cusp of full wall of windows open to the street. Children run by. Beautiful music is playing. And the beautiful apartments hover above us. I smile at a woman in her fifties on my way out. Like pretty much everyone else I have tried in some small way to connect with, she looks at me like I’m a mess better avoided.