Archive for the 'Hamburg' Category


my bike split in half in the middle of the street

Well, it wasn’t my bike.  It was wife K’s, but I use it when out running errands.

Crossing at a busy intersection just before noon today – on the green – thinking about how much I’m looking forward to the rest of my day off and about my mountain biking holiday coming up this Friday, and three weeks in Newfoundland next summer, what I should get K for Christmas, and all those sorts of things that just rattle through your head when you’re not focused on anything in particular, when all of a sudden WHAM! The bike simply falls out from under me.

In a flash I’m hitting the ground and land in a heap on the back half of the bike, the front half splayed out in front like some wheezed-out mule.

It just split in two.  Just like that.

Sinking to the pavement in the blink of an eye is the last thing you’d expect to happen at any time of day, so for a second or two I just lay there feeling like I’d suddenly found myself underwater, confused as hell and not comprehending.

I get up and realise I’m scraped on the elbow and knees, but I’m more shocked and bewildered than anything.  I look around and a lady is asking if I’m all right, another picks up and hands me the air pump that popped from its mooring and skidded away, and then HONK!  HONK!  Some prick behind the wheel on the cross-street figures I’m taking too long clearing what’s left of the bike off the street, so I should just get the hell out of the road.

Then the cops come over.

I’d seen the pair of them while approaching the intersection, all decked out in their police biking gear and e-bikes to boot.  It’s a tall man and a short woman.

“Did you see that?” I ask the man.

“No,” he says, “but looking at your bike – I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Are you injured?” the woman asks me.

“Naw,” I say, pulling up my pant leg, “I’m more shocked than anything.  I just can’t believe it.”

By now the male cop is taking out his iPhone and taking photos of the wreck that was wife K’s bike, purchased three and a half years ago after hers got stolen, and only three days ago outfitted with a new front light and internal hub generator.  He says he’ll send them to me the photos in a day or two.

“Guess I’ll have to take this in to the shop where I bought it and get them to replace the frame,” I say.

That’s what I did this afternoon.

They were pretty shocked to see the wreck that was a bike as I wheeled it in, the two halves still connected by the brake and gear cables.

I hope they replace the frame at least. It’s just had normal riding around town, nothing out of the ordinary.


Picking blackberries in the big city

About five minutes from our place a squad of bulldozers and front-end loaders flattened a whole city block alongside the commuter rail line, leaving a huge pile of bricks at one end and an ugly wasteland on the rest.

Not so unusual, except that there was nothing there in the first place except a vacant lot covered in thick patches of blackberry bush.  Every summer until this one we’d head over every two or three days or so dressed in old shoes and paint-stained jeans, heading home again with scratches on our arms and another load of what my mother used to call wild Himalayan blackberries.   I’ve been picking them since I was old enough to pick up a pail.

There was also a great spot we used to have close to where I work, but last year they ruined half of it by making a park out of one side and putting up a two-metre-high fence around the rest, making it nearly impossible to get to the berries except in the evenings or on weekends, because you now to go through a schoolyard to get to them.

Now that our best places to pick have been obliterated, we’ve been forced to look elsewhere.  It took a few spins on the bike, but I found a patch by a railway bridge and along a lane.

It’s not that Germans don’t know what blackberries are, because I do see people out picking from time to time, but this one patch, so full of berries, was left mostly untouched because it sits on a steep hill and most of the best were well out of reach.

So the other day I set to work getting to those rich, fat, black pieces of fruit that had been hanging there for days just waiting for someone like me to come along with a six-foot stepladder and a determination to make some blackberry pie.

I must have been quite a sight surfing atop the ladder along the upper brambles, because some Turkish kids came by and started throwing sticks at me.  When I turned around to glare at them they scampered away.

When I left the ladder unattended for a couple of minutes at the bottom of the patch a couple of kids from the kindergarten across the street scampered over to grab it for themselves, but a teacher gave them hell for pawing after stuff not their own.

Later on a Turkish lady dressed in that grey, bell-shaped garb you often see floating along the streets stopped and, in the best German she could muster, gave me pointers on where to find the best ones and cautioning that I really should take care not to fall off my perch lest I end up in the thorns.

I’m not used to picking berries in public at all, and avoid being on a stage of any kind if I can help it, but with so little choice left in the area, I’m going to have to get used to it if I want any more before the short season is over.

The results are the same in any case: fresh-baked pie that doesn’t last long.


Hamburg car burnings hit close to home

A wave of car torchings that started in Berlin a couple of years ago and spilled over to Hamburg hit close to home over the weekend.  This burned out lump of charred Mercedes was sitting just around the corner from our place when I came across it this past Sunday afternoon.

There have been well over 300 car burnings in Hamburg so far this year.  It’s even worse in Berlin, where more than 500 have gone up in flames.  Police are powerless to do anything about it because it’s completely random who’s doing it and for what reason.  Putting an extra 200 Hamburg police on night patrols didn’t work out, so now they’ve scaled them back to 20, with just as much effect. 

Some say there’s a political motivation behind the attacks, that it’s the marginalised of society roving around getting their kicks watching fat-cat Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches reduced to scrap.   But there’s no pattern to the burnings or their timing, and there are never any notes left behind.  A couple of yahoos here and there have been charged and thrown in jail, but it just keeps on happening.  

We always thought we were living a decent life in a safe and modern country.   But having once again been the victims of theft and adding up everything that’s going wrong right in our midst, sometimes we get the feeling we’re living in some besieged Middle Ages village, its citizens left to fend for themselves and wondering when the next attack will hit.


Facebook planking craze hits Hamburg!

Planking, the Facebook craze destined to last at least a few more hours one more week, has gone global.  Even the sleepy backwater of Hamburg, Germany has caught on.  We in Hamburg are more sensible than the rest, though.  Understated refinement is how we go about things here.

And because already at least one person has plunged seven storeys to his death in pursuit of the perfect planking position, in the interest of safety the editor and staff at Letters Home recommend you at least be sober before attempting your plank.

OK, so I bent a few of the official rules here.  But the penguin IS lying rigid on a 31-year-old German turntable.  Top that, plankers!


How I got to know a neighbour, stole his music, and gave it back again

Bert lives in my neighbourhood one street up and one street over in a small apartment one floor up.

I didn’t know Bert before a couple of weeks ago, but even before I met him, I knew a lot about him.

I knew, for example, that he was a fan of the Bielefeld German Football League team and had recently been to one of their games.  I knew that he was a fan of the Beatles, old Dr. Hook, and the German one-hit-wonder Nena, that he collected old magazines and 45 vinyl records, and that he buys books and CDs on

How did I get to know so much about a stranger before even meeting him?  By stumbling upon the contents of his softcover suitcase, which lay strewn in a jumble in the lane behind our place.  It was 6:30 in the morning and as I looked over the rain-dampened disarray I thought, this guy probably left his bag in his car, someone saw it and smashed the window, brought it over here, rifled through everything, took what they thought was good for re-sale, and took off.

I gathered up the lot and brought it upstairs to our apartment.

Now what?

I go through the bag and discover a receipt from for some books he’s recently bought.  I look up his name on an online phone book but he isn’t in it, so I write a note to the guy, then walk over to his place thinking I’ll just leave the bad news for him in his mailbox.

I ring the bell just in case, and he’s home.  Half-way into explaining who I am he buzzes me in and I walk up the stairs.

A slim man with short hair in his early 30s is at the door to meet me, curiosity and suspicion on his face.

“Uhhh… I think you’ve been the victim of a theft,” I tell him.  “I found this along with a lot of your clothes and stuff in a suitcase behind our place this morning.”

“Ohhhh, shit! he says, raising his hands to his head, his face clouding to shock.  “Oh my God.  I got home so late last night and had to park a few streets away, and I didn’t feel like carrying home my luggage in the rain.  Shit, shit shit!”

I let him know he can come and pick up what’s left of his stuff back at my place, so he throws on a jacket and we start to go over.

We fill the time walking down the street and waiting for the crosswalk lights with the kind of talk you have when you’re forced to be with someone until it’s over.  Like riding an elevator for 20 floors with a colleague you vaguely know, so you feel compelled to make small-talk.  But in this little vignette there’s an element of accidental intimacy.  He knows that I’ve had a look into his private life, however indirectly.  But does he know that I’ve looked through everything?   I guess the thieves overlooked the selection of  um…adult entertainment DVDs I found tucked in a side pocket.  In the whirl of activity since discovering he’s a crime victim, does he even think of it?  If so, does he even care if I know or not?  Is porn now part of the travel checklist along with toothbrush and wallet?

I’m not going to mention it, but in the conversation’s pauses I get to thinking about what airport security people get to paw through and what they find, only with them it’s different.  They rarely get a chance to put a face to a name, and if they do, it’s all in a day’s work.

We get to my door and I show him in.  I gesture to the floor and his bag and its jumble of contents I’ve put back in as orderly a fashion as I can.

“I guess you should be checking on your car now,” I tell him as a way to say good-bye as he’s on his way out again.

The story doesn’t end there.

I’d told my wife about the find as she was heading out the door that morning, so she had a look around the same spot, too.  She comes home that afternoon with three CD boxes, one of which is “Time Flies” a beautifully crafted and obviously expensive 4-disc boxed set of Oasis music and videos.


“I guess I’d better head back over there,” I tell her.

First though, I fire up iTunes and proceed to copy the three Oasis CDs, contemplating as the discs are spinning how I’ve come to be stealing a great collection of music from a famous British band thanks entirely to the misdeeds of some anonymous smash-and-grab thief.  I start to wonder if what I’m doing is actually theft twice over, because neither Bert nor the band has said I’m free to rip it into iTunes.  But then again, does my giving it all back to him – the same day and no questions asked – absolve me?  Does copyright theft even compare to original theft of the actual goods?  And should I tell him that I copied the disks before giving them back to him?  Would that taint his enjoyment of them forever?

I pack up the boxes and head for the second time that day to the home of someone who 12 hours before was a complete stranger to me.  He answers the buzzer right away and again, I walk up the stairs.

“You were right about the car,” he tells me as I approach the door.  “The back window was smashed in and my blue overnight bag is missing.”

“My wife found these near where I found your suitcase,” I tell him, holding up the CDs.

He takes the Oasis box and holds it between his fingers as delicately as if it were made of fine crystal.

“My God,” he says. “I thought it was gone forever.  This album is almost like a holy relic to me…. Uhh…wait here.”

He disappears into his apartment and I can hear him rummaging around.

“I’m not much of a connoisseur, but if this is anything it’s to say thanks for all that you’ve done for me today.”

I laugh a little awkwardly and take the bottle of wine, telling him it’s nothing, really, and that I’d hope that if something like that ever happened to me, that someone out there would do the same.

And that was that.  Haven’t seen him since.


Waterskiing and wakeboarding without a boat

Of all the weird ideas, right?  Who ever heard of waterskiing or wakeboarding without a boat?  I certainly hadn’t up until not too long ago.  Having learned to water ski the usual way on summer afternoons at our Canadian prairie lake, it never occurred to me there was any other way to get pulled around the water’s surface.

But the not-so-little-any-more red-haired girl came home from a birthday party a while back with tales of waterskiing at a lake only a few minutes’ train ride from our place.   “There’s no boat – you’re towed along by a cable,” she said.  “It was fun, but I never got out of the water.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her.  “We’ll go back this summer and we’ll give it another try.”

It’s not at easy as it looks.

Once fitted out with your wetsuit and gear you stand in line for the lift, side-stepping down the ramp to the launch area.  When it’s your turn on deck you stand on a plastic grass pad and grab ahold of the handle.

The operator sitting in a booth beside you gives newcomers like us a few tips on how to get ready.

“Stand on that red stripe, sit right down on the back of the skis, and make sure you don’t get pulled too far forward when the rope tightens.”

Sounds all right, but once you get going?  The contraption that sends you skimming around the lake is not much more than a huge cable loop strung around five pulleys suspended about 10 metres above the water. 

As your rope goes around each pulley – assuming you actually manage to launch OK –  you have to position yourself just right in the water so that not too much slack builds up, otherwise the force of the rope tightening again after it rounds the pulley will jolt you forward – if you manage to stay up – or rip the handle out of your grasp and send you for a flying face-plant.

That happened to both of us a couple of times before we got the hang of it.  We each had to walk back from the far end of the lake after having fallen half-way around, but by the time our two-hour ticket was up we’d each made it four times around in one go.  That’s how many turns you’re allowed before you’re supposed to drop the tow for the next person waiting in line.

We could have bought a day ticket, but we also wanted to do a little bike ride through the countryside afterward, so the two hours were just right.  My arms were aching by then anyway, so I was glad to get on the bike and let the legs take over.  But on the train ride home, we already made plans to try it with a wakeboard next time.

For a look at the little red-haired girl’s second time up on the water, I present you one of the shortest videos you’ll ever see on youtube:

If you’re near Hamburg and want to give it a go, you have to get yourself out to Pinneberg, a suburb 25 minutes or so by train northwest of the city.  From the S-Bahn station the lake is an easy five-minute walk through a park alongside the tracks back toward Hamburg.


Hamburg construction site to be a world-class landmark

At least that’s what the city of Hamburg is hoping its new concert hall will be: an iconic structure to rival the Sydney Opera House in sweep and grandeur.

For now, the immense brick and concrete mass jutting out into the harbour of this northern German city at the mouth of the Elbe is a tangled mess of scaffolding, cranes, support beams and butt cracks – nothing unusual as concrete gets poured and sets the same way all over the world.

Nothing unusual about the tangled mess of financing it has become, either.  We taxpayers are going to be on the hook for upwards of a half-billion euros by the time the first violin string is heard in 2013, a cost explosion that’s pissing off Hamburg citizens no end as we ride along crumbling streets dodging the potholes, witness cutbacks at daycare centres, schools and other social services, and on and on.

But there’s no turning back.  It’s going to be there, it’s going to be stunning, and it’s a must-see – not just for the architecture itself but for the new vantage point upon what Germans call Germany’s most beautiful city.  Especially when compared to Frankfurt.

I got a look behind the scenes at the work in progress on a tour with 25 colleagues the other day.   After signing papers saying we knew we were entering a construction zone and the dangers involved, and agreeing not to make any audio or video recordings or pee in any corners, we donned gumboots and hard hats and set off for the walk along the quay to the site.

The first thing you see is the first rows of what will be nearly 1,100 huge one-tonne glass panels, each one individually curved in a random pattern to give the impression of choppy seascapes, and shaded with patterns of miniscule round dots for protection from the sun.

It’s so huge, it took nearly three hours to see it all, but it may have been because we lingered so long at the midpoint: a wide, open space several storeys above ground that anyone will be able to enter without so much as a ticket.  You’ll get there by stepping at ground level upon a long, sloping escalator similar to those long causeways we now take for granted at airports.  At the top of the escalator you’ll step out at the west end, where the building juts out to its narrowest point.

From there you can hang out and enjoy the view in any direction, go to a restaurant, check into the hotel, settle into a seat at one of the three concert halls, or simply head home –  if you’ve got the bucks to already put a down payment on one of about 45 flats that will be selling for about €17,500 a square metre in what will be the city’s highest living spaces.

What will make the huge public space unique is that it will be a wide-open sandwich slice half-way up the building.   The lower half is actually a reinforced refurbishment of an old brick warehouse.  As you walk around the open public space – for now a stark jumble of dangling wires, stacks of insulation, piping and cement mix – you will be able to walk under and around what looks from below like a concrete soup kettle to feed 1.5 million – with leftovers.  That’s the underside of the main concert hall, and it’s going to remain bare and white, a stark reminder of the building’s main function.

The open middle space is quite windy, though, and on stormy days I wouldn’t be surprised if they have to close it off.  Either that or have ropes along pathways so you can keep from getting swept away into the river. 🙂

Err, umm, speaking of which, I should mention that when one of our group asked if they’ll let just anyone go up there to hang around if they’re worried about terrorism, our guide said they’re already thinking not of terrorism, but that because it’s such an open space – with very little in the way of barriers and with such a huge drop-off to the water below – that it will become a magnet for jumpers much as the Golden Gate Bridge has sadly become.

Moving right along…

Up and around, through a wide doorway, suddenly you’re standing on stage – or the area that will be the concert hall’s stage.  Though you’re looking right now at its raw concrete and metal skeleton,  your jaw drops – it took my breath away – just looking at the scale of the 2,160-seat main hall.

Pulling ourselves away from the open space we walked the steps up another dozen or so floors – where the apartments will be – to the highest point.  For the first time I saw the entire sweep of the lower Elbe from the harbour all the way down to Wedel, my usual cycling target about 20km away.  It’s an amazing sight and one I won’t forget soon.

Anyone can take tours if they book far enough in advance.   Hint-hint, people! You don’t reeeeaaaallly want to meet up this year in Frankensteinfurt, do you?

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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