By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
My recent trip to Hamburg, Germany unexpectedly tied in with the trouble in Charlottesville, when white supremacists holding Nazi flags protested a decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
What’s interesting about Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, is that it’s thought to be the origin for hamburgers. It was in the news lately because of the G20 Summit, which President Donald Trump and the other global leaders attended.
It would be difficult for Germans to understand why some Americans glorify Nazism. Sprouted in Germany, Nazism destroyed not only Jews, and many European countries, Adolf Hitler (he committed suicide), and eventually, Germany itself. It’s painful history for Germans. During World War II, Hamburg was completely wiped out — only two buildings were left standing.
Today, you won’t see any Nazi flags in Germany. You won’t even see anything remotely related to the swastika or the white supremacist movement, because it’s illegal.
Including this trip, I have now traveled to Germany five times. In 1997, I was in Cologne; 2000, Berlin; 2002, riding a train from Amsterdam crossing through Germany to Copenhagen, Denmark; and 2005, Munich.
The Germans I met talked about Nazism not with pride, but with deep shame. They were shameful that they were connected with evil — Hitler and everything he stood for, and how he brought down Germany during World War II. Fortunately, the successful and peaceful reunification of East and West Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, revived their spirits and hope.
The white supremacists who rallied at Charlottesville, waving racist flags, obviously had little clue about Germany’s past and present. I don’t blame Germans for laughing at America’s neo-Nazis being so ignorant and dumb!
The truth is, anyone carrying the Nazi flag in Germany can be locked up in jail for up to five years for inciting hatred, and promoting violence against a group or individuals.
Why G20 at Hamburg
Why Hamburg was picked for the G20 meeting in July is probably because the Germans wanted to showcase its new crystal concert hall, Elbphilharmonie, nicknamed Elphi, built on top of an old warehouse building, and completed in April.
The goal for Elbphilharmonie was to be like the Sydney Opera House — for foreigners to identify it as the symbol of Hamburg.
The building and its location on Elbe River is amazing. It’s the unused old and new combined to create not only beautiful, but spectacular architecture and functional space. The price became the critics’ target. It’s 10 times over budget, from 70 million euros to 870 million euros, and seven years overdue.
Asians did have a role in Elphi. Designed by acoustics expert and the in-demand Yasuhisa Toyota, its sound system is one of the best in the world. And the project has the influence of Beijing’s Ai Weiwei, the design consultant for China’s Olympic stadium.
If you ever make your way to Hamburg, Elphi is a must see. My husband and I toured the neighborhood and Elphi. It probably possesses one of the world’s longest escalators, all the way to the top of the old warehouse. When we got out at the intersection between the warehouse and castle on top, you could see the concert hall and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the city. It’s free for visitors. To support Elphi, I bought a DVD of the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra’s grand opening performance. It was splendid, and the performers were stationed in different sections of the hall with the audience as background. A new concept indeed!
Music is an important part of Germany’s heritage — Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Strauss, among others. When the orchestra performed in the concert hall, the music is in sync with the blazing lights outside and inside through the crystal, illuminating the river far and near.
In addition to the concert hall, there is a smaller theater. It is also home of the Westin Hotel, 45 private apartments, six studios, and other education projects.
We took a cruise on the canals (built in the 16th century) and the river to see the old warehouse district, now turned into housing, retail stores, and art studios. The one-hour cruise allowed us to see many interesting sights on both sides of the bank. The only bad thing was that the captain spoke only German.
Hamburg’s waterfront is bustling with activity. It’s a couple of miles long and packed. There were six different kinds of cruise ships for tourists, and all six had long lines of people waiting to get on.
One of the reasons I think they are successful is because they have a four-week summer festival. Beer drinking is a favorite past time in Germany and all the bars were filled to capacity.
We accidentally stumbled into a Portuguese town, mainly restaurants, which was close to our small hotel. Portuguese food is very spicy, but satisfying and reasonably priced. Most of the customers were local. Every restaurant was packed on a Friday night and with long lines of customers waiting. I wish ID restaurants could attract that kind of traffic.
One thing we should learn from Germans is that when they dine, they are totally engaged with their friends and company. Of all the restaurants we hopped in and out of, since we didn’t want to spend a lot of time waiting for seats, only one guy was using his cell phone.
Hamburg and hamburgers
When I first traveled to Germany, I had no idea it was the birthplace of the hamburger. What I noticed was Germany’s restaurants didn’t serve very many veggies, and there were many beef items on the menu.
Hamburger, with minced beef combined with garlic, onion, salt, and pepper, then formed into patties and packed into a sandwich, was introduced in the 19th century from Hamburg. Later, German immigrants brought the inspiration to New York and Chicago, opening burger restaurants.
In Hamburg, the big burger poster is displayed in many restaurants’ windows. I avoided those restaurants. So I’ll never know if Hamburg’s burgers taste better than the ones in the United States.
When I travel, seafood is on my agenda, not red meat.
The most recent news about Hamburg was the G20 Summit — President Trump and other global leaders met there in July. We took a taxi from the airport to the hotel. I instructed the driver to pass through roads where the protests happened. Evidence of the riots was still fresh when we visited — broken glass of some retail stores remained unfixed and businesses unopened.
The driver told us that it was a terrible time for the city during the G20 Summit.“You couldn’t go anywhere. Business was bad. The city shut down. All the roads were closed. I know that before they (protestors) came, so I took a vacation. Only 25 percent were local (protestors), the rest came from other parts of Europe.”
Asked what he likes about Hamburg? “It’s a nice city, it gives me a job, but it also rains a lot.” That sounds a lot like Seattle.
He is right. It rains two to three times a day in Hamburg. Bring your umbrella when you visit. ■
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.