Hamburger Tagebuch, für Peking

[Thursday evening] I’m sitting in an express train, heading for Hamburg, my home town in Germany’s north. With close to two million people, Hamburg is a wealthy place of trade and industry – it has one of the world’s biggest ports -, and belongs to the most beautiful cities in Europe. Especially in summer time, when its abundant park and garden scenery bridges all social gaps and sunlight brings smiles even to the notoriously morose faces of my fellow countrymen.

The train is crowded, full of people who like me commute between a distant workplace and their home. Most of them are exhausted from long working hours, having pushed a whole week’s tasks into four days, thereby prolonging the stay with their friends or families. The voice of the chief conductor coming through the on-board speaker system, announcing next stops and welcoming new passengers, annoys us with its calculated gaiety. By and by, people are leaving the train, until Hamburg-Altona, the final stop and destination of my trip.

The ritual of arrival, normally around 11 p.m., sees me as one of the last customers to my favorite cafe. It’s located in Ottensen, a colourful neighbourhood where young domestic intellectuals live side-by-side with turkish merchants and a rich blend of other ethnicities. Even though a strong thunderstorm rainfall has brought a sudden and considerable evening chill after a warm summer’s day, people are still sitting outside, agitatedly discussing their day’s affairs. (The Hamburgians are mocked for gathering outdoors buying ice cream at the slightest showing of sunshine, even when other people would still convene around the furnace and rub their hands.)

Arrived at the cafe, called Tazza d’Oro (italian for ‘golden cup’), I order my regular treat, a glass of strong south italian red wine, with a small plate of assorted antipasti, a very spicy and oily dish. But what an oil! It’s cold-pressed from fresh sardic olives, tasty and aromatic, sending an impression of beautiful mediterranean flavours to this nordic place.

[Friday] Yesterday’s thunderstorm must have been apocalyptic. Newspapers classify it as a small tornado, a very uncommon phenomenon in this country. In little Innocentia park alone, close to the beautiful Alster lake that graces the center of town, the gale is said to have uprooted 50 trees. Fortunately nobody was hurt. But now the Hamburg summer has turned back to normal, meaning moderate coldness with a little sunshine and the occasional shower.

I take the car to meet a friend at Worpswede, a one hour trip southwestward through the fertile agricultural land of Lower Saxonia. The highway is flanked by majestic windmill powerplants. Above the flat horizon towering cumulus clouds with their Himalayan height and dramatic lighting make clear why so many north european painters projected their visions to an imaginary sky.

The small village Worpswede shows off beautiful farm houses and a rich choice of flowers under big trees. The place once harboured one of the most famous artist colonies in our country. Painters like Mackensen, Vogeler, Modersohn and Modersohn-Becker searched here for a special German way into 20th century modernism. Still busloads of more or less educated art pilgrims visit the place to breathe some pre-inspired air. Our aim, however, is no museum or gallery, but a small non-profit concert hall, where tonight there will be the rare performance of an East German singer and songwriter, the passionate Barbara Thalheim.

Thalheim enters stage and introduces her only co-musician, the accordeonist Jean Pacalet, calling him mockingly “the arch-enemy”: Pacalet is French, and for centuries the French and Germans have made a habit of killing each other – until the end of World War II. So this concert is the peaceful result of a two-layered approach: Between German and French, and between East Germany and Western Europe. Thalheim herself tries to find a balance in her work between Brechtian social criticism and the more intimate emotional turmoil of french chanson.

After some songs, most of them strong and poetical, the singer relates an encounter with the german chancellor Gerhard Schröder. At the opening of an exhibition of an acquainted sculptor she met the artist standing together with the politician. When she greeted her friend with a small peck on the cheek, Schröder, who had never met her before, also claimed a kiss. “You could earn yourself even a french one”, she had replied, “by renouncing your Reform Agenda 2010 with its brutal social cuts.” Everybody laughed – Schröder is notorious for his womanizing – but the audience clearly did not agree. Most Western Germans know that a reform of our over-expensive welfare system is necessary if the country is to get out of its current economic crisis. Most Easterners however, like Thalheim, it seems, are still used to protective governmental care.

[Saturday] A former fellow Ph.D. candidate and sportsmate of mine who is now working in the advertising department of a big health insurance company has invited us to celebrate with him his 40th birthday. When my wife and I arrive at the given address we are sure that we’ve made a mistake: It’s the only forsaken corner in an otherwise well-to-do part of the city. But then, behind a parking truck we discover a small deserted town house with broken windows and a nailed-up gate. And finally we find an entrance to the derelict bar that our friend has rented for the occasion.

It’s another globalized trend: Intellectuals tend to gather in ruins. The original lofts of New York City, the bombed-out and never re-built places in Berlin that served as improvized nightclubs after re-unification, the abandoned factory halls in the outskirts of Beijing where artists exhibit their latest production, all of them point to a need for the borrowed authenticity of lost grandeur. Or is it just the archaic appeal of a life in caves?

In contrast to the picturesque location the party talk circles around typical midlife topics: everyday neuroses, career obstacles, broken marriages, child care, the quality of food. Our host wears a big handwritten sign around his neck, reminding us that his birthday will only begin at midnight. So he tries to avoid inauspicious premature congratulations.

One of his colleagues is substituting for a DJ. He provides the congregation with fashionable loungy loops and danceable beats. In all this noise a little boy of maybe eight years is sitting at the bar and reading a fantasy novel. Later he will cuddle in one of the fauteuils and sleep through the rest of the party, dreaming of his fantasy princesses as if this was the quietest and most peaceful place on earth.

One of the few successful german media startups of the last years, the youth magazine Neon, sports the slogan “Actually, we should better grow up”. This strikes me not primarily as a fitting slogan for Neon’s targeted age group, the 20-32 year-olds, but more as the suiting motto for a whole generation of urban intellectuals, ours.

[Sunday] The evening sun is shining directly into my study, confronting its contemplating owner with the woeful fact that it might be time for some window-cleaning. Some passer-by smiles at me as I stand at the window looking outside, preparing myself for the coming week of duty.

(Ziemlich genau zwei Jahre alter, gerade wieder ausgegrabener Beitrag für eine Beilage des chinesischsprachigen “Economic Observer”, Beijing)