Hamburg Hostel

I was going to tell this story at The Moth tonight, but it refused to come together in a tidy way. I couldn’t come up with an ending… Life is, after all, just a bunch of middles, and we assign beginnings and endings to anecdotes so they can be satisfying stories.

That said… In 1977 I graduated from Columbia College (subtitled, then, “Columbia University’s Undergraduate Liberal Arts School for Men”), and was bound for graduate school at Berkeley. Berkeley is a top school, and their Physics department is world class, but I had been invited back to grad school at Columbia, with a full fellowship package. I turned it down, because I couldn’t stand being in New York anymore – it was full of my parents.

I didn’t understand at the time that the parents I wanted so badly to escape from didn’t live in a Classic Six on West 72nd Street, but tucked cozily inside my amygdala. No matter where I went, there they’d be. But, with the impenetrable illogic of youth, this is the decision I made.

Before going to graduate school—which, by the way, I was dreading; I wanted to take a year off, but I was not such a great student that they’d let me do that with a guaranteed place; I’d have to reapply, but with a year off to account for—I decided to do the obvious thing which everyone did: a Grand European Tour, with backpack, EurailPass, guide to youth hostels, and a ticket on Icelandic (a fabulous airline, called Icelandair today; every flight stops in Reykjavik, and they force-march you through the gift shop, full of amazing sweaters, books of Sagas, and assorted nordic tchotchkes). I was going to go for ten weeks, land in London, take a train to Vienna, then circle around via Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, and back to Vienna. And all this would cost about $1200. That’s right, travel included.

There were two aspects of this trip that weren’t utterly stereotypical. One was that I would be traveling alone. The same impulse that made me want to leave New York, namely to get away from my parents, made me want to travel by myself. I had only traveled en famille, and it just had too many downsides. Constantly being told where to go, what to do, what to eat, how to eat, how much to eat, when to speak, when to keep quiet, how to dress, when to write Granny, what to write Granny… It was suffocating. However much I enjoyed countrysides and museums and cities (and I enjoyed them, and enjoy them still, a lot), being with my father cast a pall of anxiety and oppression on everything.

[In case of the unlikely event that anyone in my family reads this, I’m more or less over that phobia. I don’t mind so much being noticed and focused on… though I still don’t like being asked skeptical questions. You know what I mean; the ones that begin, “Are you really going to …?”]

Yes, I know – first world problems. But they are the problems I had, and I intend to roll around in them like a puppy on a freshly manured lawn.

So, FINALLY, I got on the plane with my backpack, and I was on my own. The freedom was thrilling. Just being free of skeptical or corrective comments was exhilarating. We landed in Reykjavik, and I dutifully browsed in the gift shop (if it had been winter, I would definitely have bought one of those amazing sweaters), then got on the connecting flight to London.

This brings me to the second aspect of my trip that wasn’t stereotypical. I had a lot of friends and family in Europe. This is mainly because my father was European, and I went to a European school, with a lot of Europeans. It pains me to this day that I don’t have a European passport (I do, however, have a Canadian passport, courtesy of my mother, which is some small consolation). Granny lived in Vienna and kept a little studio apartment in Munich; my sister lived in a ski resort in the Italian Alps; I had a school friend in London, and another in Paris. So I could save a bit on housing, though housing was not the expensive part of the trip. Hostels could cost as little as $2 a night, or as much as $11 (crazy!). Of course, I would have to rub elbows with a lot of other people, but I was okay with that, as long as they didn’t talk to me too much. Strangers tend not to comment on your clothes or food as much as family does. Rarely will a complete stranger tell you, “You’re really having a second beer?” Though, of course, the bartender might say something after the fifth. And quite appropriately, too.

Back to my itinerary. I landed in London and stayed with my friend Poor Philippe. Poor Philippe always seemed anxious and put-upon – he also had an oppressive father. Actually, to be fair, his father was much, much worse than mine. M. B___ (he was very French, so I’ll call him Monsieur B___, and the French abbreviate Monsieur as a simple M.) was hypermasculine, a bit like my father, and Mme. B___ had been a model, like my mother. In fact, in the late 1940s, they roomed together in the Barbizon Hotel for Women, when they were dewy young models. M. B___ had four sons, and adored two of them. He utterly despised the other two, Poor Philippe and Alex. He would slap and hit them in front of company. I hated and feared him. My father used to hit me; but, while it was terrible and inexcusable, it wasn’t quite as bad. My father would slap me across the back of the head when he was irritated (and he was easily irritated). M. B___ would slap across the face from the front, in rage. Much more violent and frightening.

Poor Philippe was pathetically accident prone. I remember we were playing in Riverside Park, and there was a round, weathered stone sticking up from the ground about two feet, with a natural slope to it. It wasn’t a very big slide, but it was fun that it was a stone, somehow, and small – built to our scale. Philippe saw the stone, saw its sliding potential, and, instead of walking to the top, sitting down, and sliding serenely down the two feet to the ground, as I did, he took a running dive and slid down hands first, into, as it happens, a small pile of broken glass. Luckily, my house was right across the street, so our horrified housekeeper (Maudie) could wrap up his bleeding hands and call his mom.

After London (where I bought my first pair of Church’s shoes and a Harris tweed jacket that wore like iron for 25 years), I took a train all the way across Western Europe to Vienna, and visited my grandmother. Granny was an amazing lady, gifted with exorbitant energy and enthusiasm. She had, for a while, enjoyed three apartments, in Vienna, Munich, and Berlin, but, by 1977, had given up the Berlin apartment. People thought she was a millionairess, and she loved that, and encouraged the misapprehension by wearing gigantic costume jewelry and ratty minks. She pulled it off, though. She accomplished these feats of high living thanks to three pensions: she was a US citizen, so she got Social Security; she was an elderly resident of Vienna, so she got their old-age pension; and she had fled the Nazis, so she got the charmingly named Wiedergutmachung. That translates, literally, as “make it better again.” And I love the idea of ex-Nazis handing over some money and saying (in a B-movie Nazi U-boat captain accent, of course), “There! All better? No hard feelings? We are all friends now!”

After Vienna, I went to Salzburg, and Granny called ahead to arrange a room for me at the Österreichischer Hof, a grand old hotel where my family used to stay. It was far too expensive for me, but Granny arranged for me to stay in one of the chauffeur’s rooms. The second floor of the hotel was for the guests’ servants and, normally, you couldn’t rent one unless you also rented one of the lavish upstairs rooms. But thanks to her old crony the concierge, I was in, at $24 a night. A lot compared to a hostel, but worth every penny to have an ancient beldame bring me my morning coffee in a silver service, along with a crusty roll with butter and jam.

After Salzburg I went to Munich, where I stayed in Granny’s apartment, at Schönfeldstrasse 14, just down the street from the US Consulate (where my sister and I would go for hamburgers in their cafeteria when we got homesick for American food; which, I must say, did not happen often; I could still eat Brathuhn and Leberkäse regularly).

And then, after three days ambling along the Romantische Strasse in Bavaria, where I enjoyed small local museums filled with paintings of martyrs carrying their severed body parts, I went up to Hamburg. It was on the way to Denmark and Sweden, and my father had arranged with his old crony, Leo Bodenstein, to put me up in his palatial high-rise apartment. Leo was, like Granny, a Jewish refugee who had gone right back to Germany as soon as the shooting stopped and the smoke cleared. Granny went back because she spoke the language and liked the food, and, after all, there were anti-semites everywhere, even in America. Germany, she felt, was no more anti-semitic a country than any other. Leo, on the other hand, went back so he could oppress the pathetic loser ex-Nazis by being constantly in their face and by being the big loud Jew they couldn’t ignore. He wasn’t going to let anyone intimidate him – quite the opposite, in fact.

After I detrained at the Banhof, and found my way to Leo’s apartment, the first thing he said to me, before even inviting me in, is that he couldn’t, as it turned out, put me up. His girlfriend was coming in from London that night. So, he boasted (and Leo’s tone of voice was such that, no matter how trivial the statement, it would sound like a boast) that he would put me up in a hotel. No problem! But, of course, the only hotels he knew about, in his hometown, were the big expensive ones, and he wasn’t going to pay for that. So, to find a cheap hotel, fit for a long-haired 20-year-old, he picked up the phone book, turned to “Hotels,” jabbed his finger at the first one (the equivalent, I suppose, of shopping at AAA Flag and Banner), and called them. He hustled me out the door, and into his car.

I was anticipating a nice, cozy German hotel: jolly innkeeper with luxuriant moustachios, his buxom daughter carrying five liters of beer in each hand, a steaming platter piled high with sauerbraten and kraut. I would have enjoyed that.

Instead, he took me to what appeared to have recently been a doctor’s office. The entrance was on a main street in a bland apartment building. Just inside the unmarked door was the desk – a steel office desk, manned (as it were) by a stereotypical women’s prison matron, but wearing nurse’s whites. Leo walked in, slapped a fat fistful of Deutschmarks on the table, and fled. As his Mercedes squealed into the afternoon sun, Matron pointed at one of the doors off the hall.

The hotel (or club, really, as it turned out) could once have been a periodontal surgeon’s office, but they had stripped out all the medical apparatus. In each former examining room was simply a steel bed and a wardrobe, as in “Lion, Witch, and”, but made of particle board with wood-grain laminate. My room had a window looking out onto an air shaft. And the wardrobe contained two or three outfits, clearly belonging to Ilsa, She-Wolf of, if not the SS, then something equally sinister. There was even a little green felt hat with a feather. [Sidebar: what an odd fashion – as if every German Hausfrau secretly dreamed of being Robin of the Wood]

Well, it was certainly bizarre and depressing, but it was a bed and it was paid for. I wouldn’t be spending any time there. So I locked my door, and went out to sightsee Hamburg.

As much as I drew away from the company of people, I was desperate for sex. I was, after all 20, and as hormonal and undersexed as many guys that age. So I visited the unfortunately-named Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red-light district. I had heard of the prostitutes sitting in shop windows, displaying their various wares for salacious passers-by. Nothing, in my imagination, could be more exciting. When I was actually there, though, nothing could be more depressing. These poor women seemed sad and resigned. I was utterly turned off, and miserable about the entire human condition, and, in particular, my loneliness.

I eventually found my way back to the place, and went to my room, but now there were other guests. There were about six or eight men, in stocking feet, flared slacks, and wife beaters. Or perhaps I should call them ‘sleeveless tees.” They didn’t seem violent, and I don’t think they had wives. They were paired off – one couple was walking tentatively hand in hand, and another – their door was wide open – was sitting on the edge of their bed, also hand in hand, deep in conversation.

It was utterly silent – stocking feet on carpet. They were speaking in whispers, and seemed shy and rather downbeat. Not actually very gay at all.

Now that I think about it, it might have been me. You know that trope about the observer changing the thing observed? It’s possible that had I not been there, it would have been Mardi Gras. But I doubt it.

I had a feeling of being out of my depth and profoundly unwelcome, and in a situation which I only barely understood, rather feared, and wanted to flee. I picked up my backpack, which I had, presciently, not unpacked, and left. They could keep Leo’s money.

I looked at my little guide to Hamburg, found the youth hostel, and for less than three dollars, stayed the night. I left the next day, and this time I found traveling companions – two French Canadian guys who offered me headache hash and worse red wine. But, heck, they were company.