Saturday, December 3, 2011


I arrived in Hamburg as the sun was westering low on the horizon introducing me to a cold I’d long forgotten after my years in the tropics.

The sun set around 4 pm casting a pale gray over the city like a thread-bare shawl, allowing the unfamiliar chill to soak into my bones. But despite the frigid air, I was greeted with warm hugs and laughter as my friend, Stefanie, welcomed me to the city of her youth.

Stefanie and I first met over ten years ago when we both lived in Spain. We’ve kept in touch over the years, seeing each other as time and distance permits. Reconnecting with her after all this time was like stepping back in time.

The day I arrived, Stefanie still had a few hours to work; so I walked around the city. Once she got off, she drove me back to her place where I met her husband for the first time and got a better look at her pregnant belly.

She lives on a beautiful suburban street, but one that is still marked with war relics. Tucked between the off-white apartment buildings and mini-vans, sits a WWII bomb shelter. Gray and solid, it blends into all the other buildings on the street except for one thing --it’s windowless.

A square rock. A symbol of refuge. A fortress too strong to destroy.

Apparently dozens of such buildings dot the city. They were built to withstand direct bombs; they were built to last. Today, they serve no purpose... but are too expensive to dismantle.

A symbol of an era. An unmarked tombstone of the realities of war. 

Each time I passed it, images of frightened children and trembling mothers flashed through my mind.  What was it like to run for its shelter as the sirens wailed? Did its walls shake as they slept through the bombs?  What did they wake to find the next morning?

But my mind did not stray too long on such thoughts. Seventy years have effectively hid the scars of war beneath towering trees and neatly trimmed gardens.

Stefanie took the day off to show me around town, so we toured the city on bikes.

As we sped along the Upper Alster’s shores, Hamburg’s beauty unfolded before us. The skyline of boat sails and church spires spread from East to West.

Taking it in while dodging joggers and mutts dressed in tiny coats, proved to be challenging but totally worth it. The twenty-minute ride downtown was one of the most picturesque of my entire trip. We crossed canals, weaved through parks, and meandered along river shores.

When we reached the city center we wandered through various Christmas markets and caught up on the details of life. But by 3:30 pm the sun was already starting to fade; we had to head home or risk colder degrees.

Later that night Stefanie had a swimming class, so she suggested I join her but go to the thermal bath part. I happily agreed forgetting that nothing in the building would be in English.

It was challenging not having my translator with me. Which bathroom was female? Was this the woman’s changing locker or the men’s? I hesitated, chose a door, held my breath, and entered. I sighed audibly to learn I’d guessed right and put on my swimsuit.

I had to ask a handful of people before I found an English speaker who could tell me where the steam baths were. But when I did, I happily flipped-flopped my way toward them and sat down.

Once inside I was surprised to learn they add special aromas to them --chamomile and camphor. As I breathed in their essences I could feel my body relaxing on a cellular level. 

Afterward I returned to the pool for the jet streams which massaged my back. Then I saw a door with ‘Sauna’ written clearly next to it. It was the only word I understood, so I pushed open the door and entered. Suddenly 120 degrees of heat engulfed me, drawing me in like a hug. I breathed in shallow gasps and lay down, remembering Sudan.

A few minutes later two naked men entered and sat down.

I sat up in surprise and asked in English (the only language I could muster):
--“Is this the men’s sauna?”
The men hesitated in this foreign tongue, exchanged glances, but eventually answered me.
--“No. This is mixed sauna,” one stuttered in a stilted accent.
--“Really?” I asked trying to hide my shock, “Men and women share the saunas here?”
--“Yes.” More hesitant glances.
--“Oh,” I said flushing in confusion and lay back down.

But my mind could no longer relax; it raced round and round.
--Am I allowed to wear my bathing suit in here? I’m not about to strip naked... so why did I care? Were these guys as uncomfortable as I was...? What’s the big deal? It’s only naked men...

As a third naked man entered I closed my eyes tighter and concentrated on my breathing.
--What made white naked men any different than black naked men that I might see in Sudan?

But I couldn’t relax anymore; my skin was red as much from the blushing as the heat. So I decided to head back to the pool and leave the mixed saunas to the Germans.

Later when I shared my culture shock with my friend she laughed and reminded me that “this is Germany. People don’t worry about being naked here.”    

I laughed with her.
    --Yes. Clearly they don’t care at all!

Next on the agenda... Switzerland!