The whole point of travel is to see Red Light districts around the world. That’s what I assume my German publisher C.H. Beck thinks. Or maybe that's what they think I'll like. Anyway, they keep sending me to Hamburg, which has one of the most famous naughty neighborhoods in the world.
At the invitation of the extremely professional Harbour Front Literaturfestival and in the company of my Beck “handler,” I made another visit to Hamburg last month. I really like the place tremendously. Not because of the Reeperbahn, the red light strip, but because the city faces the wide River Elbe in every sense, it’s affordable, and its people are liberal and open.
That’s a very pleasant change for me, given that I live in the Middle East, a region where there’s no water, things are quite expensive, and the people… Well, I think you’ve read about them.
I wandered the Reeperbahn with Miriam Froitzheim, the wonderful Beck lady whose job is to get me on the right trains, feed me, and pretend that it isn’t boring for her to listen to my same shtick every night at my readings. We particularly enjoyed the public toilet on the center-island of the road, which was decorated with two little neon boys peeing pink neon streams of urine at each other.
Other than that, it must be said that red light districts put me in mind less of sex than they do of sexually transmitted disease. Not to mention theft and violence. I gave some money to a beggar because it seemed better than putting it in the slot of a peep-show and headed for the river.
I stayed a couple of nights on the Cap San Diego, a 1920s ocean liner which is now a floating hotel in the heart of Hamburg’s docks (It goes downriver to the sea twice a year). It’s only 80 Euros a night, which makes it pretty cheap for a hotel anywhere in Europe. Its comfortable wooden interiors look out onto the cranes of the dockyard across the rolling Elbe.
You can see the yacht Roman Abramovic (Russian oligarch owner of a boring English soccer club) is building at 1 million Euros a meter, which is less than what he pays for soccer players but still quite expensive. It’ll be 150 meters long when it's finished early in the winter. Along the river is a new Philharmonic building, which probably cost less than the yacht and isn’t crass or disgusting.
From my porthole, I also watched boats ferrying people to the theater on the other side of the river. Now showing, “The Lion King”: a nine-year run, booked six months ahead. Another boat went by advertising “Tarzan,” a musical with songs by Phil Collins which was cast on a German tv reality show.
I commented to Miriam that I’m insulated from such pop-cultural crap. By living in Jerusalem, a city where nothing ever happens. Except terrorism.
She used the opportunity to introduce me to a very useful German expression: “Was bringt dich auf die Palme?” Literally, what sends you up a palm tree? (ie. What drives you nuts?) Answer: Phil Collins musicals, of course.
En route to Hamburg, my train stopped in Hannover. Throughout the intifada, I drove a Mercedes armored car through the West Bank. It had Hannover plates (I’d imported it from Germany). I gave a quiet thanks to the town which had stopped a few bullets for me.
Then it was off to Aachen, near the Dutch border, where my reading was in Charlemagne’s 1200-year-old hunting lodge, the Frankenbergerhof. Charlemagne is the main man in Aachen. His throne sits in the town’s cathedral, which is a beautiful hodge-podge that looks enormous on the outside and is quite small on the inside. Unless the Aachners were hiding some part of it from me.
They also have the Devil’s thumbprint on the door of the cathedral. That happened when Lucifer got his finger caught in the door. The Devil being that stupid, you see.
Opposite the lovely Aachen town hall, I sat for lunch at the Brauerei Goldener Schwan. While some may travel for red light districts, I go for the food. I ate Aachner puttes, also known as Himmel und Erd (Heaven and Earth): blood sausage of a very soft consistency, fried onions, fried apples, and mashed potatos. More Himmel than Erd, I’d say.
I worked off the “puttes” by wandering Aachen with Miriam, a native of the town. Actually I didn’t really walk off the lunch. As we strolled, we bought a packet of Aachner Printen, the clovey gingerbread-like cookies for which the town is famed (not really gingerbread, which is sweetened with honey; these are sweetened with sugar). So on balance I probably got fatter in Aachen.
But at least no one peed neon at me.
Next post: I finish my German-language reading tour in Switzerland and actually take a vacation for the first time in two years, bumping into someone who used to play football for Roman Abramovic… Next post after that: I field emails from people telling me that reading tours sound much like vacations, so I oughtn’t to complain that it’s been two years since I had a formal break….