27 December 2023

Christmas Tidings

It's been a funny old Christmas this year. To kick off with, I went down with a virus - the second year running - and I reckon I have a choir concert on 13 December to blame. A soprano directly in front of me was coughing her head off, despite us all being told not to turn up to rehearsals or concerts if we have colds or covid. Lo and behold, three days later I went down at first with a sore throat, then several days later I completely lost my voice and ended up over Christmas with a tickly cough which was worse when I lay down in bed. Last year at the same concert I picked up covid (probably from the same woman, as she always stands in front of me.) Next year, I'll trip her up at the rehearsal the week before and save myself the bother of being third Christmas unlucky!!

The second problem was that Kay was working nightshifts over the Christmas period. So she was working  the nightshift on Christmas Eve into Christmas Day at a very busy central London Intensive Care Unit. Her fiance had gone home to his parents for the festive break, so as to avoid being home alone. Fortunately Kay came home (very exhausted) to me on Christmas morning and went straight to bed. We arranged I would wake her at 2pm to give her a bit of rest and at the same time help her flip back to daytime hours again. We therefore managed to have a nice Christmas meal in the late afternoon, wonderfully prepared by me while she was asleep. With the meal and a prosecco or two or three, we were both dozing on and off during the rest of the evening.

On Boxing Day, Kay left to drive down to join her fiance and his parents in deepest Kent for two days. I'll see her again on the 28th when they both return to celebrate a proper Christmas with me. After that it will soon be the end of another year and a very exciting 2024 ahead. Happy New Year in advance.  May we all get peace in the world and health and happiness.

20 December 2023

Germany - Part 4 - Hamburg again

Apart from the day on my birthday reminiscing and revisiting all the old haunts, as I described in my last post, we also did the usual tourist things and went on two walking tours to see the main sights of Hamburg. The weather was still very cold and, despite wearing five layers of clothing under our coats, we were still shivering, as we stopped at various points to listen to the tour guide. I knew a lot of the sights from having lived there, but of course Kay and her fiance had never been there before, so it was all new to them and there were one or two surprises for me too.

We started off at the Rathaus or City Hall which is a magnificent building in the heart of Hamburg. It was also the site of the main Christmas market, so we ended up there quite a lot during the few days we were there and because it was not far from our hotel.

Inside is even more impressive.

Not many people know that Hamburg, although known for its docks, has a massive lake in the centre of the city known as the Alster.  It is so big, that ferries operate to take commuters from one end to the other.  It is cut in two by a road bridge so the smaller bit of it is known as the inner Alster (Binnenalster) and the larger part known as the Outer Alster (Aussenalster). I always found it amusing that a shandy (half beer and half lemonade) is known there as Alsterwasser (Alster water). The smaller Binnenalster is close to the Rathaus, making the whole area very attractive and home to many 5-star hotels and embassies.

In winter this huge lake freezes over and people go skating on it. You can already make out the ice forming and it's not mid-winter yet.

The walk took us past two famous Hamburg churches - St Michael and St Nicholas - the latter having been left a ruin since it was bombed.

St Michael

St Nicholas

We then moved on to the Dockland area. There are many sights to see in that area. The newest (and one I had not seen before) was the Elbphilharmonie, a concert hall finished in January 2017 to a cost of 870 million euros.  The glass construction resembles a hoisted sail, water wave, iceberg or quartz crystal resting on top of an old brick warehouse. Inside is quite impressive and you can get on a long escalator to the top with amazing 360-degree views of the dockland and city.

The escalator to the viewing platform at the top

The views of the docks are magnificent. Germany does not have much coastline and Hamburg (although not exactly on the coast but downstream on the very long river Elbe) is the main shipping port for the entire country. In the past, it built U-boats and navy destroyers, as well as being a major import/export hub. We were told it is now a favourite place for Russian oligarchs to have their yachts built - for the same price as the cost of the Elbphilharmonie mentioned above!

The area houses a lot of warehouses which, like many in the UK, have been turned into expensive flats and shops.

The walk ended up in the area where I had not spent my student life - The Reeperbahn. It is Hamburg's infamous night club and red-light area close to the docks. (I had visited it once with a gang of students on a rowdy night out but never seen it during the day.) It is still a red-light area but women visitors are not allowed in certain streets or the ladies of the night will throw vile things at them. It is also home to where the Beatles first started out and this has been acknowledged in various monuments  and street names.

Beatles monument

Poster still in the club where the Beatles used to play

Can you believe,  I took over 300 photos of my nine days in Germany and these are but a few. There was so much to see and so much to reminisce in. I leave you with a couple of pictures of the Christmas market to get you in the mood for Christmas.

mulled wine and hot eggnog

We left Hamburg in driving snow and -6 degrees. As we sat on the plane, waiting for them to de-ice the wings and clear the runway, I was sad to leave. It had been the most wonderful return to Germany after so many years. I can't wait to return.

14 December 2023

Germany - Part 3 - Hamburg

Our train journey from Berlin to Hamburg took us through the former East Germany or the Russian sector. My first train journey the other way from Hamburg to Berlin back in 1972, had involved stopping at the border between East and West Germany where East German guards boarded the train with ferocious looking German Shepherd dogs to examine our passports and look under the trains with mirrors to ensure there were no stowaways. There was none of that this time and our train left Berlin main station dead on time and sped through the countryside towards Hamburg. Apart from an occasional farm and huge stretches of forest, there was little to see until we got closer to what was originally the border with the West, when villages and towns sprung up wearing their brightest colours. 

As the train pulled into Hamburg main station, I felt very emotional. I had spent the academic year of 1971-1972 there as part of my university course studying German Language and literature and had been assigned to a grammar school in Hamburg to teach English. I had not been back since.  Hamburg had not changed a lot, as it was already back in 1972 enjoying the freedom and successful economics of a Western democratic country. It was also one of the six founder members of the European Union or Common Market as it was known in those days. If anything, today, it has become very international in that it has many of the same shops we have here, which is sad, because I like to go abroad to see something different and not see the same shops I can find in my High Street - MacDonalds, Starbucks, H&M, Pandora, The Body Shop, Levis, Hollister, O2, Vodafone, Sketchers to name but a few. There are shopping malls there too which are new, but then I guess we didn't have many in the UK back then either.

Our first full day there was spent indulging me, because it was my birthday, so I dragged poor Kay and her fiance around in driving snow, hopping on and off underground (U-bahn) and overground (S-bahn) trains to visit all the places I had lived in Hamburg. During the course of that year I had lived in 4 different places. The first room was assigned to me by the school which employed me. It was in a vicarage, but literally on arriving in early September, the vicar showed me to my room and pointed out that the room did not include bedding, so I would need to go out and buy some. At that time Harold Wilson was the prime minister in Britain and had restricted money being taken out of the country to £70. I had taken the full amount with me to Germany, hoping to eke it out until my first pay cheque at the end of the month, but had to blow nearly the whole lot on bedding in the first few hours on German soil. The other thing the vicar told me was that I was not allowed to use the family kitchen or eat in my room and that I must eat out. As a young girl in a strange city famous as a raunchy seaport with a famous red light area, I was terrified to eat out alone, in case a passing sailor took a fancy to me, so used to squirrel rolls and cakes into my room and hope not to drop any crumbs. After a month of putting up with that, the school found me another lodging - this time with free board and use of the kitchen but having to look after two small children every evening while their mother went to evening school to get qualifications she never got at school. After a day teaching, I did not fancy using up my evenings to look after what were two very spoiled precocious brats,  particularly as I was an only-child, only 20 and not experienced in childcare whatsoever.  It meant of course that I had to say goodbye to any social life. I persevered until Christmas when one evening the mother was later coming back from her evening out than we had agreed which meant I had to miss something important I had arranged. After that, as my social life improved and I found the weekday childcare evenings were not helping with the whole German experience my course was meant to give me,  I left with the agreement of the mother and stayed a few weeks in emergency university accommodation during the university holidays, but had to leave when term started again. Finally (fourth time lucky), I found the ideal room with a little old lady who fussed round me and made me very welcome. She more than made up for the bad experience I had had up to that point.

The vicarage - my room was the three windows at the top.


The church across the road

My room in the old lady's flat was here at the very top

The grammar school where I taught English

The rest of my birthday was spent hunkering in the warm from the snow eating humungous  cakes, that only the Germans can excel in and finished off our day sheltering from the snow in the Christmas market.
Yummy birthday cakes

More to come of our Hamburg trip in the next post.

09 December 2023

Germany - Part 2 - Berlin again

As I mentioned in the last post, Berlin is a city with baggage. The sights reflect this with so much to see about the Nazi era and the Cold war. I am old enough to have lived there and personally experienced Berlin (and Germany) when it was divided by a wall, so many of the "history" was well known to me. For the younger generation, like Kay and her fiance,  though, it was interesting to learn about how it was. 

The Jewish Holocaust memorial is amazing. The competition to design it was won by the New York architect Peter Eisenman. The memorial was ceremonially opened in 2005. On a site covering 19,000 square metres, Eisenman placed 2711 concrete blocks of different heights - small as you enter, but getting taller and taller in the centre, giving you the impression of being hemmed in and oppressed. The ground beneath your feet undulates, making you feel uncertain on your feet and unsafe.  You can just about see the buildings around the perimeter, but you are not part of it, giving you the impression of what it is like to be in a ghetto where you cannot leave.  The stones are roughly coffin-shaped and the paths between them narrow. You can occasionally bump into people as you meander through the site, but then never see them again, much as it might have been in the Nazi era when people were disappearing overnight, so it is very clever and well-thought-through monument.

Another must-see is Checkpoint Charlie - the border between the American sector and the Russian sector, where there was tension and a stand-off in 1961. If you want to read more about that see here.  I visited Checkpoint Charlie in 1977 when it was still an active border crossing, 
held by the Americans,  but today it is a tourist sight complete with museum about the Cold War history and stories of attempted escapes across from East to West.

A favourite form of escape was to hide inside the engine of a car

Most of the wall which divided Berlin has been removed, but there are still sites where bits of it have been left intact. One such place is East Side Gallery. At 1.3 kilometres long, the open-air artwork is the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. Immediately after reunification in 1990,  118 artists from 21 countries began painting the East Side Gallery, and it officially opened as an open air gallery on 28 September 1990. Here is just some of the artwork to see.

Another interesting bit of the tour for me was to visit Bernauerstrasse. It was in the West of Berlin and right on the border with the wall which was at that part in an L-shape forming a corner. 
At that spot in 1977, I had climbed onto a platform up about 20 steps to peer into the East. 

1977 Climbing the scaffold to view into the East beyond the wall.

Now the spot is marked by metal poles to show where the wall went.
2023 the spot of the scaffold

The same view in 1977 from the scaffold. The white wall is visible and the minefield in front of that

Apologies for the quality of the photos taken of 1977 - they are taken off a cine film made by my husband. East German guards sat in a watchtower across the way and it was patrolled with East German guards on motorbikes watching me, no doubt to see if I would pass messages to any passing East German citizens.
1977 East German guards watching me

The other view from the scaffold in 1977 was of a building directly ahead. It was drab and grey and bore the signage Klub der Volkssolidaritat (club of the people's solidarity)

This is what it looks like now. Freshly painted in yellow and minus the signage.

The view I could see beyond the wall in 1977 but much changed today

Another reminder of the past is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church located in the West of the city. Built in the 1890s it was badly bombed in 1943. Instead of rebuilding it or demolishing it, Berliners decided to keep the shell as a constant reminder of the pointlessness of war and built a modern version next door. I had never been inside the old church before, as back in 1977 it was still very much a ruin.  Now, you can go inside and I was amazed how beautiful it was even as a ruin.

The old and new church side by side

Inside the old church


The magnificent ceiling

Better view of the new church

Inside the new church

The Stalingrad Madonna inside the new church drawn by the German soldier Kurt Reuber in 1942 at the Battle of Stalingrad
Many of the underground stations situated in former East Berlin have been modernised and some have shops in them, but this one at Klosterstrasse in the picture below seems very drab and bears the scars of Soviet occupation.

Another quite emotional part of the visit for me was to find my great-grandparents' graves in a Berlin cemetery, which I had been unable to do before, because (you've guessed it) it was cut off in the Eastern sector. I had heard their names mentioned dozens of times  in family folklore, but to stand before their graves was surreal. Despite a few freezing cold and hithertoo rainy days beforehand, the sun came out at that point, as if they were saying hello back to me.

On our last evening in Berlin, before moving on to Hamburg, the Christmas markets - of which there are many dotted all over Berlin  - officially opened. Of course that was an excuse for Bratwurst and Glühwein. Here are a couple of pictures of the main one in Berlin.

More of the trip to follow in the next few days.....