Germany's Port of Rock 'n' Roll

by Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko

16 November 2008

Hamburg harbor 

Where the Lights Burn Red and Blue

The Reeperbahn on Friday night is a different animal from the comparably mild night prior. Hetero couples are demonstrably “sucking face” (the behavior is that pronounced, and so the phrase suits). Rough looking kids with beer in hand are clustered on corners. The feel is louder, rowdier, somewhat unpleasant but—perhaps it’s traveler’s euphoria – the kids hanging around are not terribly menacing. Since we’re not part of their scene, we’re not on their radar. We pass groups of revelers unmolested and make our way up and down various blocks of St. Pauli, seeking out venues on our itinerary.

The Lion King in the Hamburg harbor / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

We pass some beautiful young women, all wearing white down coats, propositioning men. It’s painful to see these young people working the streets, girls whom we’d like to put our arms around and say “C’mon, honey, let’s get you back in school.”  Of course they would scowl at such sentiments.

“These girls look a lot healthier than the ones in Amsterdam,” says a journalist colleague. Ah, perhaps that’s thanks to Germany’s health care system, and Hamburg’s interest in perpetuating the Reeperbahn’s longstanding reputation – it is good for business, after all. But alas, in many cities throughout the world including Hamburg, the Internet is a change agent in moving prostitution from the sidewalks to hotel rooms. This spells changes for the Reeperbahn. Changes we’d like to see both as women and festivalgoers.

As for the young women, well, one can’t be a prostitute forever. What becomes of them?  Are there programs to educate them and integrate them into society?  Ah, but if they are on the streets like the women in white jackets that we saw, they “want” to be there, we’re told. If a woman is good, she can make a lot of money. Good at … prostitution. OK. Per our guide at the Emigration Museum (Ballinstadt), there are social organizations to help women who are enslaved in prostitution, but funding for those programs is very poor under the current political party in rule.

As we ponder this while watching the women proposition shaggy-haired indie kids, yet another taxi bearing the lewd visage of a David Duchovny on its side drives by. Californication, America’s latest cultural import, is slapped on nearly every taxi and bus – this in lieu of billboard advertising.

TUI Operettenhaus / Photo: Sarah Zupko

TUI Operettenhaus / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Where the Light Burns Red, Another Burns Blue
Right across the street from hipster haven, er, the Neidklub, an operetta is letting out. From the TUI Operettenhaus middle-aged and elderly “blue hairs” spill out onto the Reeperbahn sidewalk, directly into the busses waiting just for them.

A German friend tells us his mother would never come to the Reeperbahn until they opened the German-language operettas. Now she comes frequently. Notably, this crowd doesn’t stroll down the Reeperbahn after this evening’s show lets out, but rather, they head directly for the busses awaiting them.

We’ve enjoyed the Pop and now it’s time for the other side of the German cultural equation. We’re craving music from the other end of the artistic spectrum, which we naturally find at the Hamburg State Opera in the form of Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The opera season is deliciously long in Germany and Hamburg is no exception. It’s quite possible at most times of the year to find an opera or symphony performance to attend, often many in just a short time period. On this night, we pass a pretzel vendor outside the opera house steps, a line is forming at her portable pretzel stand. Our fellow opera goers at the nearly full house are primarily middle-aged and elderly, of course, but there is a healthy sprinkling of young adults, too; couples, it seems, on a date. We realize that the elders in our midst were kids or teenagers during the Second World War. What have these people lived through, we wonder? These are suitable thoughts for this opera, one of the darkest in Verdi’s esteemed canon and given compelling treatment by this fine opera company.

Kunsthalle and Gallery of Contemporary Art / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Kunsthalle and Gallery of Contemporary Art / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Another day and we are traversing the hallowed halls of the Kunsthalle and Gallery of Contemporary Art, Hamburg’s premier art museum. Sarah is a major geek for both art from the German Romantic era of the 19th century and 20th century Expressionism, so the bevy of Caspar David Friedrich paintings in a single room, including the iconic “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”, satisfies that first craving. The Kunsthalle is smaller than the National Gallery in London and at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but it’s a carefully curated collection and anyone with even a passing interest in German cultural history will find it well worth an afternoon. Hamburg is home to 45 museums, including a very well-regarded House of Photography.

Caspar David Friedrich / The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog / Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Caspar David Friedrich / The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog / Kunsthalle, Hamburg

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