Saturday, July 02, 2005

Hansa & Co.

It was a nice, sunny day Friday, so I decided to do something I've wanted to do for a long time. Actually, I knew I was going to do something before I decided what it was: my friend K has offered to drive to Montpellier with me in two weeks' time, and I wanted to see if we could stand being with each other cooped up in the very tiny confines of a Smart. A two-door Smart.

I also wanted to see how the thing would perform on a highway, specifically the German Autobahn we're going to have to use for nearly all of the first day's travel. So I hauled down the map and looked at it. Funny thing: I know more about the geography of other European countries than I do about Germany. Since I almost never drive here, I have only the vaguest notion of where any but the largest cities are. As for the concept of "four hours from Berlin," I had no idea. South seemed to be a nice direction to go, but I noticed that this would get us to either Dresden or Leipzig, and, much as I like Leipzig, I've been there a lot. Then I looked at Hamburg. Don't much like Hamburg, but that sort of northwesterly direction was less known. And then I saw Lübeck sitting there.

About the only thing I knew about Lübeck is that it looked neat when the train stopped there on my trips to Denmark back when I was working for the Wall St. Journal Europe, and that the downtown was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That's right, the whole downtown, because it served as the center of the Hanseatic League. I actually knew nothing about the Hanseatic League except that it was a powerful force in German history until the Journal sent me to Bergen, Norway one year, and, during the course of studying the city, I took a tour of the Bryggen complex, the Hanseatic settlement there, which was established so that the League could control the trade in salt cod. This may seem like a trivial commodity, but in the Middle Ages, reliable sources of protein in the wintertime were eagerly sought after, and salt cod keeps seemingly forever. Thanks to the wide-ranging Hansa trade, it's found its way into the national cooking of innumerable European countries where cod isn't found, and is a tasty addition to the cuisines of places as far away from Norway as Italy. Thanks to the extremely informative guided tour that's available in Bryggen, I learned plenty about the culture of the Hanseatic League, its training of young men to go into business and acquire personal wealth while advancing the general wealth of the League, and, in Bryggen, the absolute separation of the Hansa settlement from the Norwegian one, thanks to the U-shaped harbor there: one side was totally forbidden from mixing with the other, and those poor German guys had to go home and marry German women, because they had to be unmarried while they were training, after which they were sent home. (You'd understand why I call them "poor" if you got to see enough Norwegian women, believe me). I also realized that, over the years of their operation, the Hansas basically invented modern-day capitalism.

Thus, Lübeck was one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and this naturally manifested itself in its architecture. So, with the curiosity to see more, I did some quick math and decided that's where we'd go. We set off around 12:30, which gave me some pause; if the car was slow -- it has a maximum cruising speed of about 120 km/h (74.5 mph), and I wasn't sure it'd actually do that for any long period of time -- we'd make it too late to actually see anything.

As it turned out, the car boogied right along on the highway, and although there were the usual BMWs and Mercedes and one particularly obnoxious Porsche Carrera who loved to ride up on the Smart's tail while I was passing trucks, it kept at that 120 very nicely and it also proved to be comfortable to sit in, which was a huge relief. Not as comfortable as it might have been, because the interior space is very, very limited, but comfortable enough. And when we pulled into Lübeck at about 4, there was plenty of time to see things. One space in particular, the square outside the Rathaus, was gorgeous, and was filled with a market at which I noticed plenty of good-looking vegetables you can't find in Berlin for sale. (Don't get me started about Berliners and fresh peas, which I have yet to see for sale here this year). There were hordes of tourists, but a quick check of the map in the Rough Guide showed that by walking down Breite Str., which ran along the top of the Rathaus square, we'd work our way to one end of the inner city and see plenty of old stuff along the way.

K was immediately talking about moving there, and this reminded me of yet another thing about Berlin that I've had to accept, albeit with great reluctance: the plain fact is, this city was mostly built in the 1870s and 1880s in response to the Industrial Revolution and the great manufacturing dynasties -- Borsig, AEG, Siemens -- which grew up here. In fact, the city was a tiny town until the mid-1700s, and even then, building was restricted to a very small part of town. It's not because the city was so badly bombed during the Second World War that it looks the way it does, it's because there never were any old buildings in the greater part of the city. Even living as close to the historic center as I do, I don't get to see anything particularly old, and that was always one thing I was hoping to get out of moving to Europe. And, as I noted to K in Lübeck, if you lived there, you might well not live in one of these 15th Century merchant's houses, but you'd damn well see them on your way to the bank or to your friends' houses or if you went to the market at the Rathaus. You might easily find yourself eating at the Schiffergesellschaft restaurant, in the old sailors' union house. And, as I realized as we walked back to where we started along the road by the harbor, the views up the side-streets leading into town were amazing: some of the alleyways had houses with flowers planted all around them, other streets were more commercial ones, with old merchants' houses, some dating to the 13th Century.

I think it's the esthetic thing which has been one of my biggest disappointments here, and which is making me long for change. I can live anywhere, as long as I've got plenty of interesting paying work, but with too much time on my hands and the need to wander around, I find my eyes are getting too poorly nourished. And, again, there's the question of the resonance of the past, and the past here, at least that which is most visible and celebrated, isn't a pleasant one. So when I see someplace like Montpellier, with a whole hill covered with ancient buildings in which people live in perfectly contemporary comfort, I'm ready to jump on it. I can't imagine there'd be anything much to do in Lübeck other than trying to come to terms with Plattdeutsch, the local dialect, and eating more fish than I currently do, but it sure made for a great road trip, and I even wound up with a bag full of good bagels, courtesy of Bagel Brothers, a German chain which isn't to be found in Berlin. Should have picked up some of those peas, too, come to think of it.

Anyway, the dress rehearsal is over, we made it back here in decent time and didn't kill each other, I wasn't too stiff to move after eight-plus hours in the Smart, and on July 17, it's off to Montpellier for the better part of a week to research the move.

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