Hamburg: so productive, except with babies

Our boat shimmied its way through narrow canals lined with uniform brick buildings that seemed interminable, converging at a point far in the distance and glistening from the heavy drizzle that dampened the mood in Hamburg.

That is to say, it seemed somber until we turned the corner into a glossy, modern section of town. At that point our boat captain became animated, his rosy cheeks becoming even more vividly crimson as he told us about the young, affluent couples that inhabited the neighhborhood. And their selfish ways.

I’m sure they work very hard, but they are very lazy in baby production!”

When I repeated the captain’s joke to my German landlord, he just shook his head woefully and said, “That is a very big problem!” (It’s tough to quote a German without using exclamation points; it just doesn’t look accurate.) A low birth rate combined with an aging population foretells economic and social strains, strains which the German government is trying to mitigate through family incentives like kindergeld, a monthly child stipend, and maternity/paternity leave that allows for 2/3 of your normal salary for up to 14 months.

Speicherstadt, the "warehouse city" of Hamburg. Photo courtesy Tanja Reeve

Speicherstadt, the “warehouse city” of Hamburg. Photo courtesy Tanja Reeve

However, the city of Hamburg continues to grow, with foreign immigrants and nationals alike gravitating towards a place seemingly unaffected by the world recession. One of the ten largest ports in the world and the richest city in Germany, it is a center for banking, insurance, and – you guessed it – shipping. In fact, it’s the most populous city in the European Union that isn’t a national capital. As I travelled some of the 2300 bridges (more than Venice) on a hop-on, hop-off bus the day before (the best way to get a quick overview of any large city with distinct neighborhoods), I was surprised to hear the tourguide describe not only what each neighborhood was known for, but the average cost per square meter of real estate.

Hamburg shopping district

Hamburg shopping district

(A quick word to the wise: What was advertised by Top Tour Hamburg as a bilingual bus tour turned out to have a German-language-only-tourguide, and I was forced to glean my information from a pre-recorded audio recording in Spanish. Just because we all know Germans start studying English in elementary school, don’t assume they’ll admit to it.)

As might be expected when money ammasses, two of Hamburg’s prime offerings are shopping and sin. The historic center is filled with shopping arcades that twist from one to the next, while the famous Reeperbahn street and surrounding red-light areas of the St. Pauli neighborhood entice their own special brand of tourism.

But luckily there’s much more to see and do in Hamburg, such as welcoming outdoor spaces (like the two central, manmade lakes, the Inner Alster and the Outer Alster, for boating and the Planten un Blomen park for water-light concerts); a large University; a portside concert hall in production comparable to the Sydney Opera House; two active gay neighborhoods; and a pervailing “Hanseatic influence” (Imagine the clean, no-nonsense nautical appeal of the Massachusetts shore translated to the North Sea. There are even several Nantucket-esque islands nearby to support the comparison.).

Planten un Blomen, a public oasis in Hamburg

Planten un Blomen, a public oasis

It all helps bring diversity and … life … to this hardworking, dynamic city. Which, in its way, brings us back to the captain’s comment. A yogi would say (and a physicist would agree) that all energy is reincarnated (or recycled), flowing from one form to the formless and back. And on that note I would argue the true litmus of a city’s future vigor lies not with its population, or even directly its people, but with the energy they attract and what they choose to create. In Hamburg’s case, judging by what’s unfolding there now, it’s blue skies ahead.


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