I took a trip to Germany four years ago and wrote up this report shortly after launching this blog. Unfortunately, I lost the post until recently. I wasn’t going to publish it when I found it recently, but felt it was appropriate with the blog’s 3-year anniversary coming up. Plus, a few readers have expressed interest in more personal stories. This is about as personal as it gets.
I grew up in Hamburg and moved to the US in 1997. I had a great childhood in Germany after my family left Afghanistan during the civil war. East and West Germany had just reunited and my earliest childhood memory was driving to East Berlin as a kid shortly after the wall was toppled (my parents recalled seeing hawkers on the street, selling pieces of the Berlin Wall).
Anyway, I had fond memories of Hamburg and I was looking forward to going back after 14 years. This was going to be a trip down memory lane and it did not disappoint. While I had expected to feel detached going back to my old neighborhood, seeing my school and where I grew up, that wasn’t the case at all. It felt familiar and very much like “home.”
Our entire block was being renovated. The facade, which had been brick, was now white and hideous. The lawn, where I would lie on a clear summer day to draw or watch the clouds pass, was tiny and obstructed by a chain link fence. It didn’t look the same, but still felt very familiar. A new cigarette vending machine had been installed right by the playground. Kids in Germany aren’t nearly as sheltered as kids in the US….
The tree that I fell off as a kid when a giant spider came crawling up, was still there. I half expected the same 70+ year-old ice cream man to come peddling on his bike, with the most delicious home made ice cream in town. I sadly realized he must not be around anymore.
The local grocery store had closed down and there didn’t appear to be anything in its place. The Turkish grocery store on the same block had expanded and the Lotto Totto kiosk, where I bought scratch-off tickets, coloring books and candy as a kid, was still around. I wondered if the same two elderly sisters still owned the place, but didn’t go in.
One day my sister and I were being followed by a man on his bike and we ran inside for safety. The two women walked us to the back exit and told us to make a run for it, rather than actually calling the police or accompanying us home. Good times!
Grundschule Archenholzstrasse (My Elementary School)
We went back to my old elementary school, Grundschule Archenholzstrasse, which was just a brief walk from our home. With the students out for the summer, the main gate to the campus was locked. I walked around to the side, past the janitor’s house, remembering he had a young daughter and a bunch of cats that were ever present on campus. While the gate was closed, I was able to push it open and walk around. The campus was the same, but it did seem smaller. I walked to the classroom where I spent four of my formative years, learning some of the only things that have actually been useful to me.
I headed to the on-campus daycare, which was normally open during the summer, to find the door locked as well. This was disappointing, as I had hoped to go in and say hello . After this, we walked around a bit but the place was so much smaller than I remembered, so it didn’t take very long.
As we drove off, I caught a glance of the meadow behind the school, where a creepy Vincent van Goh-looking guy used to hang out and accost the kids walking home from school. None of the adults at school did anything about it. There was an incident involving three of us after school, heading towards the meadow with a metal rod to intimidate the guy into leaving his post, but I made a last-minute judgment call to inform a nearby police officer of the man’s presence. Of course, that backfired when the officer let Van Gogh off with a warning and he swished past us a few minutes later on his bike, undoubtedly looking for a new school to camp out in front of…
After this, we stopped at our favorite sandwich place for lunch. It used to be called American Crox, but the name had been changed to simply “Crox.” When we moved to the U.S., my biggest disappointment was finding out that there was no such thing as “American” Crox. What makes their sandwiches special is the bread and an insanely delicious garlic sauce. I got my usual turkey with swiss cheese and extra sauce. It did not disappoint!
I was adamant we go to my best friend’s house, who lived a few minutes away. We had kept in touch for the first two years after I moved to California and occasionally via email. Seeing her in person would have been a nice surprise.
While it had been 14 years, I remembered the exact path to her house. I arrived at her doorstep and discovered she wasn’t home. I slipped a note under the door with my contact information and was thrilled when she emailed me a few days later. Turns out she had been on vacation in Spain with her family and was sorry that she didn’t get a chance to see me.
Eis Cafe Hille
Next, my sister and I headed to a local ice cream parlor, which was famous for it’s Spaghettieis – ice cream shaped like spaghetti. My sister didn’t know what to order, so I asked the guy behind the counter for a sample of their pistachio ice cream. She wasn’t thrilled with it and kept looking. She asked if he spoke English and his response was, “No, I’m German. I only speak German!” which is bs, because all German kids learn English starting in the fifth grade. His belligerence brought to mind the famous saying, “Thank you very much, English lernen is quatsch (learning English is nonsense).”
Anyway, at one point I asked for a second ice cream sample. He responded with, “Are you going to buy anything or sample ice cream all day long?” I told him my sister had never been here before and didn’t know which flavors were good. “All of them! They’re all good” was his convincing response. My sister ordered the hazelnut and I choose the Spaghettieis, which was nothing like I remembered it. It tasted like whipped cream. My sister made a face as she tried it, wondering why my older sister and I had talked this place up for all of those years. We sat for a while longer, then took off, with our ice cream bowls still full. The guy gave us a cheerful goodbye on the way out and we ignored him. Customer service really isn’t Germany’s strong point.
JUKICO Kindertagesheim (AKA My Pre-School)
Next was a quick visit to my pre-school. In Germany, kids to go what is called Kindergarten first and then on to Vorschule, which literally translates to “pre school.” It looked exactly the same: A beautiful brick building with a huge front yard. I remember getting in trouble during my first week, when I refused to clean up after playing in the pretend kitchen.
The other kids were still playing and it made no sense to put my stuff away because they were still using it. A tug of war ensued when I refused to go to time-out and my teacher dragged me outside and made me sit on the hallway bench until my dad picked me up. The only thing more enraging was when she told my dad I had karate chopped her to avoid going to time-out. I’m assuming that’s what she was describing, based on her hand gestures. My dad didn’t believe her. In fact, he seemed kind of amused/proud when I told him of the fight I put up because I disagreed with her nonsensical rules.
I realize some of these stories may paint a bleak picture of Hamburg. But it was great going back and I have nothing but positive feelings towards the city. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to go back soon and see some old friends this time. It would also give me a chance to stay at the Park Hyatt Hamburg which, as a Category 4 property, is one of the cheaper Park Hyatt hotels at just 15,000 points per night.
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