A day in Hamburg: witbier and the Third Reich

Germany began with another free walking tour of Europe. It began over at the Hamburg Rathaus, the German word for town hall, so we walked towards the city center. We arrived early and decided to sit down at a café and kill the time until our tour started. I decided to order apple strudel (German strudel made me think of Inglorious Basterds) and my first beer in Germany.

In the United States I might get disapproving looks for ordering a beer with my breakfast but there were numerous locals enjoying a cold one despite the early hour. Beer in Germany is cheaper than water, and thus I think their societal attitudes towards the brew is very different. In the United States, a beer normally means five o’clock. It means sitting in the hot sun barbecuing or lying on the beach, or out at a bar getting the party started. In Germany, it seems like just something to drink. I don’t mean to suggest that the Germans don’t take their beer seriously (there are so many varieties available that it’s importance is quite clear). It just seems that Germans are responsible enough when drinking beer that it’s not anything close to being taboo.

Our tour guide Ralph was a colorful character. In his lifetime he’s has many professions including tour guide, courier, cocktail waiter, and taxi driver. He led us around to the various sights in the Hamburg city center. Hamburg is a beautiful city but I find myself going numb to old cathedrals and cobblestone lanes. What I really appreciated about Ralph’s tour was his commentary on what life in Hamburg was like through the various centuries. He began his story at the beginning when Hamburg was a small village and continued the tale through its rise as a trading port, the destruction of World War II, and it’s modern revival. I’ve always wondered how native Germans feel when talking about World War II and Ralph definitely answered my question. There’s no shame amongst Germans in 2013. Most of them weren’t alive during the Third Reich, or if they were, they were the ones suffering under the oppressive regime, not the ones oppressing. However, they are fully cognizant and weary of their country’s past and feel that it’s an important to remember what happened to ensure that it does not happen again.

After our tour we settled at a small German restaurant on a quiet pedestrian street for lunch. The restaurant offered a special deal on schnitzel or haddock for members of the tour group. As much as I enjoy schnitzel, I wanted to order something different; a German food that is rarely found in the US. I ordered labskaus, a Northern Germany specialty consisting of corned beef, potatoes and onions that are boiled, minced, and fried in lard. It looks like corned beef, especially in context with the fried egg that’s plopped on top, but it certainly doesn’t taste like breakfast. It was yummy and a finished every bite, but I don’t see myself ordering it again.

Once we were settled into the restaurant, our tour guide Ralph bid us adieu and was on his way. Some of the other SASers essentially stiffed our guide, tipping him at the rate of 83 cents an hour, and so I felt obliged to make up the difference. One of my biggest frustrations in traveling on “a college budget,” is that people use this as an excuse to short change people when they’re given the opportunity. The “college budget excuse” is readily given when it’s time to pay the tour guide, who works only for tips, but at the bar there’s usually enough money in that same college budget to make do. Regardless, I paid the man what he deserved and we enjoyed some hours in the warm sun sipping witbier and watching life in Germany go by.

The classic and dark sides of London

The morning started with hostel breakfast. I was disappointed there was no peanut butter because buttered toast and rice crispies are not sustaining enough for a busy day in the city. Regardless, we ate up and then headed out on a free walking tour of London. Our guide Josh works off us tips and spent the morning showing us the highlights of the City of London. I say the city of London because London proper is only the one square mile in the middle of London. Kind of like New York City’s five boroughs, each area outside of this one central square mile has its own name. This dates back to when it was walled city and everything beyond this mile was on the outside. The naming makes sense to me but what confused me is that this one square mile has separate public services. I don’t see the point in having two separate police forces, but that’s the way they do it and done it for centuries. I don’t see the point in a royal family either, but I guess that’s why America is its own country; so we can do things our own way.

In fact, Josh asked us who thinks the royal family is pointless and I raised my hand and he responded by yelling “TREASON!” There is still a law on the books that says it’s illegal to speak out against the crown but no one has been prosecuted for the crime for 120 years, so fortunately I wasn’t immediately hung drawn and quartered. I did, however, volunteer for the hung-drawn-quartered demonstration in which Josh demonstrated using his lanyard how enemies of the state were gruesomely prosecuted. First they were hung, but not until they died, just until they passed out. Then they were splashed with cold water to wake them up so that they would fully experience their stomachs being slashed open and their innards being exposed. Lastly, while still barely hanging onto life each limb would be tied to a separate horse. The horses would then be whipped so that they galloped off, ripping the victim apart, limb-by-limb. Each limb would then be sent on a separate world tour so that members of the British Empire would receive a gruesome reminder of what their fate would be if they stepped out of line.

We learned a lot of other fun facts that day. At Trafalgar Square we were told the origin of the phrase “a stiff drink.” Lord Horatio Nelson died in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and his body was placed in a barrel of brandy so that it could be taken by ship back to London for a proper hero’s burial. When the barrel arrived home the brandy was almost gone. Some of the sailors had gotten thirsty and decided to imbibe the brandy, disregarding the corpse infusing inside. I was glad for the walking tour. Seeing the sights with an informed viewpoint makes the experience far richer.

After our walking tour we went to a British pub for some standard pub grub. I had bangers and mash and Erin had fish and chips. We washed it all down with a nice pint of warm British ale and then headed back into the streets. We walked along the Thames, enjoying the sunshine and taking in our surroundings. Eventually we headed back to the hostel for a little R&R before beginning the evening.

Rather than head out for a night on the town Erin and I decided to learn about the side of London many tourists never see: the East End, London’s underbelly. We walked across the London bridge, heading against the raging current of Londoners in their business attire that were returning home after a day at work, and met our tour group at a nearby underground station. The tour began at the site where a multitude of the Crown’s enemies we gruesomely beheaded centuries ago. We learned about how Lord Lovat is responsible for the expression, “laughing your head off,” after he was beheaded while in a fit of laughter, and his head continued laughing in the moments after it was separated from his body in1747. Next we walked to a number of sites where Jack the Ripper grotesquely murdered and then disemboweled numerous Whitechapel prostitutes. Our guide was very well versed in the legend and lore around the serial killer, giving us detailed descriptions of the victims and how they met their demise. My favorite site on the tour was a piece of the original London wall that still stands behind a fancy restaurant. The piece of the wall was excavated, revealing its original foundation some fifteen feet below street level. These fifteen feet are the accumulation of trash, former buildings, and sometimes even corpses on which London has risen for centuries.

After our tour of the East End we headed to Brick Lane, the Little India of London. Here restaurateurs stand on the sidewalk and barter with you for your meal. We were approached in front of one restaurant and made an offer of 20% off our check and 2 free rounds of drinks. When we told him we would consider the offer and began to walk away, he stopped us, saying, “Okay, okay, okay! Appetizer, entrée, rice, nan bread, and dessert, plus two rounds of drinks, for 12 pounds each!” We figured this was as good as an offer we would get, and we were hungry so we headed inside for our meal. The service was subpar but the food was delicious, so overall I was satisfied with our Brick Lane experience. After dinner we headed back to the hostel via a double decker bus and went promptly to bed.

Kyoto

One of Japan’s must-see destinations is the city of Kyoto. The only thing I knew about Kyoto before this journey is that its where the Kyoto Protocol was formed, the legislation on global warming that only the US refuses to sign. It’s actually more than that. It’s full of world heritage sights, like castles, temples, and gardens. Given that there is a lot to do in Kyoto, its all in different parts of the city, and you can’t just hire a tuk-tuk to drive you around all day for $3, I decided it might be smart to do a SAS trip. Normally I despise them but I decided this one would serve its purpose, taking me to the best spots in the city for the day, worry free. Normally the Kyoto SAS trip was $120 but I bought it off someone else for $40, and so the next morning I reported to the coach buses in front of the terminal. Our guide’s name was Hiroko and she spoke English impeccably well. She made our hour long drive to Kyoto productive by telling us all about Kobe, Kyoto, and Japan. Kiyomizu Temple was our first stop. The temple was beautiful, as they usually are, but more special were the beautiful gardens surrounding the temple, full of cherry blossom trees in full bloom. Our voyage was rather fortunate to catch the cherry blossoms because they only bloom for one week a year, and the timing can be affected by the strength of the winter weather that precedes it. The temple is built by the Otowa spring which Buddhists believe will make your wishes come true if you drink its water, so of course I had to drink the holy water. It was delicious. There were metal cups attached to long poles which you would take and hold underneath the water flowing out of the spring, then pour the water into your hand, and then drink the water. Despite the fact that the Japanese people never put their mouth to the metal cup (not that I would have found that offensive given the things I’ve seen this semester) they still had a UV lamp to put the metal cups in after use to sterilize them. I’m telling you, the Japanese are very health conscious. In fact, as part of going through immigration we had to walk by this camera that read our temperature as we walked past it. I wonder if Japanese tourists are particularly susceptible to illness when they travel abroad given all the care they take to ward off germs in their home country.

Anyways, after drinking the holy water I made it back to the bus, onto our next destination, more beautiful gardens. Everything was in bloom and after feeding some koi I watched a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony occurring in the park. Next, on to lunch. We went to a sushi conveyor belt restaurant where each plate was an astonishingly cheap ¥173. With sushi less than a dollar a piece, I went nuts. I was stuffed with delicious sushi of all varieties for less than the equivalent of $20. Next, we walked around the shops, amazed by all the funky fashion that is popular in Japan. After lunch it was back onto the bus and onto the next activity. We stopped at the Shogun’s castle. The Shogun is the medieval Japanese equivalent of a prime minister, with the emperor being its version of a king. Ceremonially, the shogun is the emperor’s subject, but in reality, the shogun was more important than the emperor. The castle was amazing in that it is made out of wood and yet incredibly well preserved. I’m not sure how the Japanese did it, but they did. Besides all the interesting tidbits of Japanese history, the coolest feature, to me at least, of the castle was the floors. Why? Because somehow they were built to be extra noisy. Not creaky wooden planks noisy, but it almost sounded like a little music box was playing whenever you walked around the castle floors. The reason for this interesting feature is that it prevented any assassins from sneaking up on the shogun unheard. How they designed these floors to make this cool noise is still unbeknownst to me.

After Edo castle we had one final destination. It was the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), which was constructed in the 1390s as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and features a three-story pavilion covered in gold leaf, topped with a bronze phoenix. Unfortunately by this point the rain was pounding pretty hard, and the combination of rain and exhaustion led to mostly apathy towards the pavilion besides a collective response of, “Dang, that’s a lot of gold.”

After the pavilion a number of SASers left the bus and headed out on their own adventure. Like China, we were traveling between two parts of the same country. The ship was in Kobe, but would leave tonight and be in Yokohama the day after tomorrow. Everyone had the option to travel aboard the ship or undertake the voyage overland if they wanted the extra time. Given that my Japan to-do list could be completed while still taking the slow option, traveling shipboard, I decided to spare the expense and remain with the ship, but all of my intrepid peers who chose otherwise, undauntedly departed our Kyoto trip in the pouring rain, making their way East towards Tokyo.

When we arrived back at the port there were still a few hours until on-ship time. Although I was forgoing 36 hours in Japan by taking the ship, I would not waste these 3 more before on-ship time. I changed clothes and headed out again for dinner. I explored downtown Kobe for 20 minutes before settling on one particular restaurant where I had a bento box and a pint of beer. Then, as darkness fell upon Kobe I walked around, the wet ground reflecting the neon-colored glow of all the signs. It was around six thirty and everyone was making their way home from another busy day. The rain had subsided and so had the pace of the day as I slowly returned to the ship for the journey to Yokohama.