When I turned 18, my best friend Adam and I decided to ditch college for a week and take off somewhere. It has been a highly debated issue whether we knew before we booked that we were going to be staying smack bang in the middle of Europe’s second largest red light district (after Amsterdam, obviously), but I will go as far as to say that I had an inkling.I suppose this is a coming of age story – The trip that, in many ways, was the making of the man you’ve come to know as the Drinking Traveller. It is also the only time Adam and I have travelled together, outside the UK, just me and him, so will always hold a special significance for me.
As with all childhood holiday memories – before we become old, grizzled travellers and realise that getting no sleep is no fun – we were up at four in the morning, eyes full of sleep and heads full of anticipation. We had packed the night before and Kevin picked me up in the frosty pre-dawn and drove us to Heathrow for 6.45. We ate breakfast in the airport as the sun rose, flew Lufthansa, and arrived in Hamburg airport to find nearly a foot of snow on the ground. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen snow.
From the shuttle bus I took (bad) photos of old trucks, graffiti covered buildings, underpasses, men in long, heavy, navy blue coats and those hats – the kind of things you see from Oslo to Varna but that back then were strange and new and photo-worthy.
After some confusion at Hauptbahnhof we took the U-Bahn to the Reeperbahn – a long, famous street in the notorious St Pauli district and the aforementioned red light district. We found our hotel on a sleazy strip amongst dark alleys, strip clubs, sex shops, porno theatres, boarded up buildings and on closer inspection, a Catholic church.
“Jesus!” said Adam.
We dropped off our stuff, unpacked – something I don’t think I’ve done since. Be honest, who uses the drawers and cupboards in hotels? – but, too excited to hang around, within minutes were back out on the streets, exploring the Reeperbahn (the sinful mile), Große Freiheit (great freedom), Hans-Albers-Platz, Hein Köllisch Platz and the Fischmarkt, where there was no sign of a market, let alone any fish.
We stood watching slabs of ice the size of buildings float slowly along the river, colliding with one another and producing loud, cracking sounds.
A group of German youths threw a snow ball at us and it whizzed past my ear.
“Don’t do it, don’t do it,” Adam was saying as I picked it up and hurled it back at them.
I’m going to be honest; I was shitting my pants too and ready to run. The kids dove out of the way but in doing so one of them ran face-first into it. We waited on tenter-hooks for their reaction. In a couple of seconds we were either going to be running for our lives through the backstreets of Hamburg – a 20-strong mob of bloodthirsty jungen in hot pursuit – or strutting proudly back to the hotel with at least one good story to tell the folks back home.
It was the latter. The kids laughed it off.
We went in a bar called Joker – which apparently still exists. It was empty but, of all the bars I’ve ever been in (and maybe this is nostalgia and youthful ignorance kicking in) was one of my favourites. Words just can’t describe the feeling of being on the cusp of adulthood, sitting in a dimly lit booth in the back of a strange bar in a strange, faraway city, eating rich, creamy, aromatic ham and mushroom tagliatelle and drinking my first (and best, to date) White Russian – the scent of the vodka going to my head and sitting nicely on an empty stomach.
Another refreshing thing about Joker – the girl behind the bar was the only person on the whole trip who didn’t speak English and so my only chance to practice my German. (Back then, I could still say I possessed “my German”.)
After dark we got a Hesburger (a little, hole-in-the-wall burger joint round the corner from our hotel) (Hamburg is after all the home of the Hamburger…I guess) and hit the Reeperbahn.
Street musicians sat at the icy roadside, jamming away.
The shabbiness was now replaced by sleaziness, the graffiti nudes by bright neon nudes, the frosty blue sky by a coat of black. Signs everywhere offered SEX, SEX, SEX.
Despite Adam still being 17, Bouncers cum Promotions Guys were trying to usher us into strip clubs and various other dodgy establishments. It was Wednesday – a slow night – so ID checks were out of the window.
I woke up to Adam watching German cartoons. German cartoons in the morning, German porn by night: that’s pretty much how things went down in the room for the duration of the trip.
We went for frühstück. Our hotel (the Hotel Stern) was supposed to be a big ship, so I guess the breakfast room was the galley or mess-hall or whatever. It was eerily quiet for such a large room. Just us and a couple of strange guys (no, it wasn’t a mirror) kicking around.
We had a hard time getting used to the huge selection of breads, all of which were impossibly dense; a recipe for constipation. There were also jam, margarine and, if you’re lucky – which on this occasion we weren’t – hard boiled eggs.
Our first full day in Hamburg. We took the U-Bahn back into the stadtmitte, got currywurst in a stand-up sausage place in the station (I had the Krakhauer menü, says my diary, in case you were curious) and wandered around the Kunsthalle (art gallery, I promise).
Later we explored all seven floors of Saturn (an electronics superstore much like those in Japan) then ate in the rooftop restaurant in the five-story ski-shop opposite – which came to be known as Salmonella’s after Adam saw the guy using the same tongs he used for a raw chicken kiev to portion butter onto Adam’s freshly cooked meal.
So far un-afflicted by food-poisoning, we strolled down the main street to Das Rathaus, all lit up at night in a certain shade that came to symbolise Hamburg for me and that I’ll never forget (anyway I have a photo of it). We trudged through snow and clouds of our own breath, past glittering yellow fairy lights and those lamps like yellow-white bulbs on black sticks, cars parked up on snowy sidewalks, shoppers in fur coats sliding briskly by, people in ads the size of giants.
We managed to fuck up one of Adam’s films (yes, this was 2006 – digital cameras were expensive and shit and the iPhone was a sperm somewhere in an iPod’s uterus) trying to change it with gloved hands. (My camera was also prone to producing unintentional photo-montages, like so:
It was so cold we took the train, to St Pauli, then to Landungsbrücken, then to Reeperbahn.
After midnight, still out, we had another Hesburger.
On TV – during the ad breaks between the porn – I watched an episode of Highlander – the one with Lord Byron. In the episode there’s a great cut to that painting with the guy standing on the rocks, cane in hand, looking out over a tumultuous mist. It’s called the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. We’d been face to face with the original this morning…
…I must’ve fallen asleep with the TV on.
After sundown the snow on the pavements would freeze into thick, slick, uneven, compacted sheets of ice.
Every night it re-snowed.
We walked to a sculpture exhibit by Hanz Somebody-or-other, then went up in the HighFlyer – a hot air balloon on a giant rope. I’ve never seen this in any other city, so it’s something special! (Oh, apparently there’s also one in Torquay.)
There we were, what felt like a thousand meters above the city, drifting slowly this way and that with the gentle wind, taking photos of winding patterns made of roads and train tracks, the cars like ants, the people all but invisible, the cracked, frozen River Elbe, running away towards the North Sea. It felt like an age passed – the golden sun beginning to set behind the far reaches of the city – the fresh Spring wind on our cheeks – the balloon tottering about, straining on its rope, crying to be set free, to go higher, further still from the people and the cars and the city.
Eventually, of course, it did have to come down. When we hit the ground again we went to a place nearby called the Deichtorhallen for more art and photography. The snow was piling up outside in huge drifts, lit on one side by the streetlamps in the gathering dusk.
We dropped into a few more galleries until Adam said, “no more! I don’t want to go in any more art galleries or exhibitions.”
“Well, what do you want to do instead then?”
“I don’t know. Anything.”
“There must be something else to do.”
“Then what? What is there to do?”
I never have been able to answer this question and “What is there to do?” has been with me ever since, when I’m travelling and even when I’m at home, not going anywhere.
If anyone has the answer, please, do share.
In the meantime, I’ll cope, by keeping myself occupied with long-distance bus rides and books and beaches…and alcohol, which has now replaced art galleries as my go-to thing-to-do.
Anyway, we warmed up a bit in the hotel then wandered the full length of the Reeperbahn, to St Pauli station and the Alter Elbpark, which as far as I could make out was a large square field of snow, with a statue in the middle. Down the network of alleys and passages we found live music venues where the Beatles came and played when they were our age and gambled their education on a life as touring musicians.
A smart move!
Adam also bought a bottle of Evian, and thus began the first of many Volvic vs. Evian arguments.
Back in the hotel we wandered the labyrinth of corridors, listening at people’s doors to the squeals and throes of sex. Eventually we found a door that led out onto the roof. We found ourselves looking down on The Dollhouse “Diner” – the very epicentre of Hamburg’s red light district.
We stayed up there a while, crouched on the roof, shooting the shit, until we got cold again.
Saturday arrived. I had an essay to write for college on The Merchant of Venice, which I’d conveniently managed to forget until now, but which was actually due in the day we left the UK and this was one of my main reasons for needing to get away and buy myself some time. So Adam left and I stayed in the room and wrote the damn thing.
Adam came back about four. I finished just after five. Adam was now asleep so I switched out the light and went to bed myself.
At seven we both woke up, showered (not together!) and hit the town for our big last night in Hamburg!
We ate in the “traditional” German restaurant next to our hotel, which we’d promised ourselves since day-one. I had breaded turkey escalopes with fries and mushroom sauce and other shit I can’t remember. I have no idea what Adam ate. I do, however, remember that he had two forks instead of a knife, or that he dropped his fork, or I did, or something like that. Anyway, it was a good meal.
We then took to the icy streets and though we weren’t used to the price of bottles of alcohol, Adam bought a bottle of whisky (Johnnie Walker Red Label?) and I bought a bottle of rum (cheap; nondescript) and a porno mag’ called “St. Pauli Girls” and we drank them back in the room. The magazine was full of obese chicks, pensioners and hairy men – Not a good reflection on the girls of St. Pauli.
Out in Hanz-Alberz-Platz we got into the Becks bar (which is also an Irish bar) without being ID’d. I don’t remember much of what followed but I can say it was one of the best nights of my life. I can say this because it was spiced with a kind of childish naivety and energy and lust for life that we lose forever once we realise all clubs and bars are essentially the same tragic ‘hole and that all nights (no matter how good) end the same way…swiftly followed by a hangover.
An English band played Johnny Cash, the Stones and so on and afterwards we spoke to the drummer for a bit. A busty barmaid meandered through the crowd carrying two-pint stein glasses, each full of frothing beer – Becks, most likely. At some point we’re down the Platz in the “London Pub” which doesn’t share any of the charm of its Irish neighbour. We’re watching the Arsenal game (Adam is – or at least, once was – a devout Arsenal fan) and some English hooligan-types are shouting about Wigan and pissing on themselves while climbing on the urinals in an attempt to see their mate taking a shit in the cubical. It was as though the Reeperbahn had been asleep all week and had now come to life. On the streets, Adam pointed out the hookers that I had been innocently oblivious too, in their bomber jackets, long johns and moon boots. After that, they were everywhere I looked. Thanks, Adam.
Back at the Becks bar, this time Adam got ID’d. But he played it cool and they let him in. Many trips up to the bar followed. We got right up to the stage. As we tried to leave some girls grabbed us and started dancing with us. We were soon surrounded, totally immersed in the music.
The band ended. We went across the road for kebab and fries and Adam got water, but the night wasn’t over. Next we’re in one bar, then another, marching through, picking up the chant of “Football’s Coming Home” with everyone else in the bar and then taking it out onto the streets, arm in arm, singing our hearts out, well into the Hamburg night.
We went back to the hotel but I couldn’t sleep and minutes later, about 5am, I got dressed and crept out again with the romantic notion of sketching a prostitute in the nude, the way my favourite artists once had…only I forget to take any of my art supplies.
We packed our bags and went for our last breakfast.
I felt sick – not hung-over, but a kind of melancholy, emotional sickness (which, I would learn later, is a common symptom of a hangover).
I didn’t want to leave, yet at the same time I was looking forward to getting home – one of the big paradoxes of travel.
We left the St. Pauli Girls under my sheets as a thank you gift for the cleaner.
Then we had some hours to kill so we locked up our bags and took a walk. We found the fischmarkt after all. (Big surprise, it’s open on a Sunday.)
Everything is closed on a Sunday in Germany, we discovered, and the streets were dead silent and eerily void of people. Just us, padding down the once bustling main street with no place to go.
Adam got frisked by security.
Back on English time we dropped Adam off and I went home to sleep for a long time.