A few weeks ago (noticing a trend here?) my BFF Edwin and I went to Hamburg for the gay pride weekend, officially known as Christopher Street Day.For those of you who don’t know who Edwin is, he’s this extremely posh British guy, my age, who’s studying in Berlin for a year. We met randomly at Hannibal bar in Kreuzberg and became close friends. He invites me over for dinner at least once a week and we have tea and scones for dessert. Then we drink gin and tonics that are 2/3 gin, 1/3 tonic. He has to explain a lot of British slang to me, and I’m trying to teach him how to talk valleygirl and how to twerk. This is our relationship.
We arrived in Hamburg fairly late on Friday night. We traveled successfully with Mitfahrgelegeheit (the carpool website, if you have forgotten) and met up with some nice young women in Prenzlauer Berg. We actually met up really close to where I used to live, so I left my internship a little early so I’d have time to walk around a little and grab food. It was a bit nostalgic being back on Schönhauser Allee.
Right, Hamburg. So our Mitfahrers were sort of slow drivers, and sort of got lost, so we didn’t get there til about 11 p.m. For a country that’s only the size of Wisconsin, I still forget sometimes how long it takes to drive across it. We checked into our hotel, and even though we were tired, decided around midnight to go out and check out the Reeperbahn.
Move over, Amsterdam, and step aside, Las Vegas. Little-known fact: Prostitution is just as legal in Germany as it is in the Netherlands, and Hamburg has a seriously famous red light district known as the Reeperbahn. (We jokingly called it the “Raper-bahn” due to the sketchy types around there.) It was an experience! We were exhausted and wide-eyed and just sort of soaked everything in without going in anywhere. I took lots of pictures. It was overwhelming.
I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but I’d imagine the Reeperbahn rivals it. (I told this to one of my roommates, and he said he’d been to both and he thought the Reeperbahn was a bit more intense.) So I guess imagine Las Vegas compressed into a 300-meter strip. Bright neon lights and loud, thumping music saturate the street. Silhouettes of naked women are on the signs of most of the “clubs,” above the street hotels advertise rooms to rent by the hour, and various phallic objects are in the windows of every sex shop. (I’m blushing at the thought of my parents reading this right now.) Exhausted, around two, we headed “home.”
Saturday morning we did some sightseeing around Hamburg. We figured out the public transit (Fifteen minutes between each train! You really get spoiled in Berlin where they come every 2-5 minutes during rush hour.) We checked out a cool church and wandered around the main streets. I think we were in St. Pauli. We saw Das Verdammte Rathaus, which was much prettier than I remembered it being in 2012.
(Side anecdote: January 2012 I participated in a 2-week organ tour of North Germany and the Netherlands. Bet you didn’t know I played the organ! Anyway, we were in Hamburg and I wanted to do some sightseeing, so we spent like hours driving around in the miserable January rain trying to find this stupid city hall. By the time we finally found it, I was super underwhelmed and started calling it “Das verdammte Rathaus” (“the goddam city hall”) because I was so fed up with it.) There were little ornamental water fountains in there. It didn’t say “Kein Trinkwasser” (No Drinking Water), so I used it to fill up my water bottle. Not sure if you were supposed to do that, but I did anyway.
Around 11 we made our way down to Jungfernheide, where the Christopher Street Day parade was to be held. We wandered around the tents, looking at information (pro gay rights in Russia, anti-HIV, “vote for me because I’m pro gay rights,” etc.) and talking to people.
The parade itself was a blast! Instead of floats there were these huge rental trucks decked out with speakers blaring remixes of mostly-American pop music. There were TONS of drag queens and people dressed up in crazy ways. One group, Jugen Gegen AIDS (Youth against AIDS) was handing out stickers with words like “Aktiv” and “Passiv” and “Single” on them and sticking them to people. It was quite funny, but also kind of weird. I thought gay people didn’t like being labeled, categorized and stereotyped? No wait, they secretly do.
I was surprised at how many political parties were represented at CSD. There is a big election coming up in Germany on Sept. 22, and the campaign season had just recently started. (They have laws about when you can campaign in Germany – I think it’s 11 or 12 weeks or so before the election. No year-long campaigns here! And campaign donations are unthinkably illegal.) For those of you not familiar with the multi-party system in Germany, I highly recommend this SPIEGEL article explaining it all. Basically every party except for the CDU/CSU was represented there, because the CDU is the conservative Christians and have been carefully avoiding tackling anything to do with gay rights. The SPD was handing out condoms with advertisements for their party on them. I found this all quite funny.
We were exhausted, so we went back to our hostel in the afternoon and I passed out for two hours, solid. (I have an incredible ability to sleep anywhere, anytime, I’m discovering, and sometimes for really long amounts of time in the middle of the afternoon.) We went out for dinner at a little Italian restaurant we found in a theoretically gay part of town, but it seems all the gay people were at the parade because all the shops and clubs and bars were closed. So in the evening we went back to Jungfernheide. We wound up meeting up with some nice young people we hung out with for the rest of the evening. Later we all went to a big student club on the Reeperbahn. It was tons of fun, but I got kind of weird vibes from a lot of the guys there. Like, predator vibes. Date rape vibes. But our little group stuck together and we didn’t have any major problems.
On our way home, Edwin and I stopped by a food stand for a 4-am Döner Kebab. (Döner is a Turkish dish, popular in most of Europe but especially in Berlin, made of really crap meat that I, like Gordon Ramsay, only eat when I’m drunk.) It cost 4 euro. We’re not in Berlin anymore, Toto! In Berlin 2.50- 3 euro is about average for a Döner, although I saw them as cheap as 1.50 euro once. Belligerent and drunk, I complained loudly about the prices. “You!” I shouted in German to another customer who was in the shop and had been watching us. “Where are you from?” “I’m from Hamburg,” he said. “Ah, okay, then you’re used to these crap prices. In Berlin you can get a Döner for a euro fifty! Did you know that? One fifty! I mean, I personally don’t eat euro-fifty Döner, but you CAN buy it…” The man carefully sidled out the door before I could harass him further. Oops. So I started in on the man behind the counter. “You hate tourists, don’t you? Yeah, I hate them too…”
Sunday was lovely. We checked out early in the morning, stocked up on sandwiches from the hotel breakfast and went straight to sightseeing. I fell in love with the city again, but for different reasons. We went to the area of Hafencity, which was on the Elbe river with lots of ship traffic and bridges and canals, and it reminded me of coastal cities on the West Coast. The beautiful brick buildings were just like you’d see in parts of Seattle, or Astoria, or San Francisco. The only thing missing was the salt in the air. The Elbe is no Pacific Ocean, but it was big enough to make me homesick for it. We checked out the Maritime Museum (but didn’t go in due to it being expensive) and watched the ships come in.
We eventually made our way back to Christopher Street day. We stopped by the Jacobikirche because I wanted to show Edwin the organ loft I had gotten trapped in during the Organ Tour 2012, but it was (ironically) closed on Sundays. Go figure. So we went back to the CSD area and danced around for a bit before it was time to meet our Mitfahrers for the ride home. 6:30 came all too early!
All in all, I really enjoyed Hamburg. It’s not as big as Berlin, but it still has a great party scene and is very beautiful. It’s small enough that, to just stay in the city center where we were, a train ticket isn’t really necessary.
Standing in line for the toilet, I had a nice conversation with a woman from Hamburg who’d also lived in Berlin for a time. “Berlin is too big,” she told me. “You meet someone and you never see them again. In Hamburg, every time I go out, I see someone I know.”There’s a lot of German cities I visit that I think, well, that was nice, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Hamburg is not one of them. Hamburg is no Berlin – nothing can ever replace Berlin in my heart – but it comes pretty damn close. Maybe I’ll wind up back here again some day…