Stammplatz. Your favourite table in a café. From the same people who got you schadenfreude and fernweh — the Germans, known for manufacturing words that encompass indefinable feelings and situations. As a tourist, returning to the same restaurant is a sign of admitting defeat. You are constantly propelled onwards, trying to feast on new experiences.
I am in Hamburg for about a month. More than a tourist, less than a resident. A month is enough to catch a glimpse of the hidden rhythms that every great city dances to, long enough to find a favourite café and then a favourite seat. Long enough to discover a stammplatz.
I find mine on Schulterblatt, the “shoulder-blade” street in the tony district of Sternschanze. I have found a Portuguese café, drawn to its low-cost yet wholesome quiche, and a corner table overlooking the street.
I am here as part of a cultural project that aims to link Hamburg and my hometown of Hyderabad. I’m working with an artist from the city to put together a story in words and pictures. I know next to nothing about Hamburg, except whatever filters through the common consciousness — which usually begins and ends with The Reeperbahn. The only other file comes from far childhood; a pocket edition of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where the adventure starts from Hamburg. Certainly, it is famous for voyages; it was part of the Hanseatic League, a group of cities who were figuring out globalisation long before the rest of the world did.
Despite being nearly a hundred kilometres from the North Sea coast, that Hamburg is a port city is the first thing that the visitor must wrap their head around. This is thanks to the Elbe River, whose tidal pulls have long determined the city’s fate. The League began by trading around the Baltic sea, for which Hamburg was not ideally positioned. The “discovery” of America and India by the Europeans meant that transoceanic trade took over and Hamburg became a trading powerhouse.
By Indian standards, it is about the size of Indore, but in Germany it is the second-largest city. Its dimensions makes for an ideal destination for an urban traveller — compact and yet densely layered with culture and charm. From my window seat in the café, I can see that the streets are a tessellation of red and gold. Autumnal leaves, much beloved by the poet Rilke, are falling, “from far distant gardens withered in the heavens”. People are trying to squeeze in every last bit of the sun — long walks in parks, lingering in street cafes, meandering through the boulevards. Autumn is a season unfamiliar to most Indians – except experienced second-hand through 19th century poetry (“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”). The sun-seeking impulses of Westerners in India suddenly becomes understandable.
Even with this nip in the air, the greatest pleasures can be found in walking. A plan-less drift, not bound by “must-see” monuments or places, but just to walk aimlessly, to slip into small book stores, investigate odd pieces of architecture, or just wander down side-streets merely on the basis that they look interesting.
My place of work is an atelier also on the “shoulder-blade” street. These bones once belonged to a whale, and hung above a bar, now long gone. The nautical history of Hamburg is a ghostly imprimatur on the streetscape. Reeperbahn, for example, was once the rope-making district, which meant that the street had to be very wide to accommodate the ropes — a single sailing ship needed about 50 kilometres of rope on an average. This excessive width meant a street originally on the outskirts became a thoroughfare.
The atelier has everything going for it as a place of work, but the streets have too much promise. I take every opportunity to go off on coffee breaks. These segue into extended wanderings as I rarely choose the most optimal path to them.
From my café window I see the weathered hulk of a once-grand building, which is now encrusted with pamphlets and posters like barnacles on a ship. This was the genteel Floratheatre, an opera house built in the 19th century. Now it is “Rote Flora” or Red Flora – the oldest squat in Europe. Taken over by left-wing protestors in 1989, the site has seen both conflict and cooperation between the squatters and the city council. This fraught history has been overlaid with fresh violence, with the riots that disrupted the 2017 G20 summit turning this street into a warzone. Spidery cracks on shop fronts, scrawled graffiti intoning “welcome to hell” on the walls are all unmistakable spoor of protestors.
The streets around the opera house are covered with posters, as innumerable as the autumnal leaves. Demonstrations, talks, protests called by Communists, Kurds, anarchists. The streets are a landscape of struggle; the walls a literature of protest.
When we undertake such walks, whether consciously or not, we are mapping out the psychogeography of a place — defined as the “study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”. Such a cartographical agent would be a flâneur, a “connoisseur of the street”, commonly known to Indians as a loafer. Desi tourists on a budget are natural flaneurs; like most European cities, Hamburg is best experienced on foot.
Nowhere is this better shown than Spreicherstadt, the warehouse district. Hanseats (never Hamburgers) are keen to point out that their city has more canals than Venice. The warehouses are overlain on a grid of canals that once served as a kind of 19th century Amazon, shipping goods all over the continent. Now they serve as perfect backdrops to Instagrammers. Even the most talent-challenged can take a good picture here, with the reflection of stone and sky, red bricks trapping the light, and the peculiar double-decker bridges serving as perfect vantage points.
The sky is now a deep blue, accompanied by a perceptible chill in the air. Time for dinner. I find a restaurant run by a friendly Nepali chef near Sternschanze station. The area is a broth of nationalities and languages. After the obligatory references to Amitabh Bachchan, we talk about his signature dish — the Kathmandu curry. He proudly explains that he had to come up with something that appeals to all nationalities, ranging from Caribbean to German, that frequent the district — a dish that sums up this melting pot of a city.
This article appeared in print with the headline: Table for One.