I’m trying really hard to think of a more miserable trip. Like really, really hard. There were the fourteen hours in a mini-van with my then-boyfriend’s entire family en route to a Thanksgiving in Arizona. That was claustrophobic and trying, but, hell, that’s what you do when you’re in a relationship. Free sex and semi-conditional love do not come without their costs.
There were the three days in Bumble F*#k Nowhere, working at the Mall of America and stuck in an airport hotel with a breakfast buffet of plastic croissants and instant coffee. Top five, definitely.
Then there was that trip to the Dominican Republic with Earth’s most self-aggrandizing douche bag who said, and I quote, “I just like a Dominican worker you can give a bag of blow to and that’s all they need to slap a smile on their face.” On multiple occasions, I debated the ramifications of a murder-suicide.
But no, nothing tops this. Hamburg is the worst. Hamburg is like Washington D.C. (stately and grand and gubernatorial) and Seattle (cold, damp, and perpetually depressed) had a bastard child together and then left it on the northern shores of Germany to raise itself. And then that bastard child became really dour and really dull and really hell bent on bumming me out.
This has been the most miserable two days of my life.
And I’ve had a few.
The trip begins innocuously enough, as trips most often do. The cab drops me off on a charming, cobblestoned street of verdant trees and precious apartment buildings. Lucky me, I think.
O, sweet hubris.
I ring the bell with Per’s name on it. Per is my Airbnb “host”, my first experience with the website and one I will likely not repeat, given my desire for privacy and my mistrust of people with penises.
The door unlocks. I fail to ask what number the apartment is, or even what floor. And so I hoist my 17 kilo piece of luggage flight after flight, until I come upon a landing with a cracked door and a man talking loudly in German on the phone on the other side of it.
I peek in my head.
I see a man who looks like the photograph on the Airbnb website and I wave. He’s got floppy blonde hair and a raging smile with symmetrical dimples on either side. Per is handsome in a grown-up version of that kid on the Kinder Bueno bar kind of way. That is to say, he’s especially handsome if you’re anti-Semitic.
He motions for me to come inside and continues to talk on his phone while I roll my luggage into what I suppose constitutes a foyer. It is dark and lined with metal storage cabinets, on top of which are stacked a multitude of things that could surely find better homes: empty plastic bags, magazines, plastic coffee mugs.
To the right, there are five doors, each with opaque, beveled glass windows reminiscent of old schoolhouses or the offices of film noir private detectives. Two of them are for the restrooms (one with the toilet, one with the shower), the other two are (I’m assuming) bedrooms for roommates I will never see but will hear playing video games and watching cartoons the entire 48 hours I’m here.
Per hangs up the phone.
He shakes my hand.
And just like that I am in the home of some random stranger and everyone is hoping that everyone else is not a knife-wielding psychopath.
Per opens one of the aforementioned doors and shows me my room. It looks like it does in the photos online: white walls, a tan sofa, a sparsely decorated mid-century bookshelf butted up next to the head of the bed. There’s an empty rack on which to hang my clothes, green curtains against the windows, wooden floors.
What the pictures failed to capture, however, is the sickly dampness of the room, a moisture that makes the place smell like your grandmother’s house two days after a flood.
“Looks great!” I exclaim, because I am a liar. Sometimes I feel like my entire life has been a poker game in which I’ve been repeatedly given a hand of shitty cards and I’ve been bluffing for hours, months, years.
He walks me into the kitchen, shows me the bathrooms, asks me if there’s anything else I need to know. Nope, I say, because I’m not really here to have fun. No, I am here for meetings scheduled for this afternoon. The purpose of which I will leave vague, as it doesn’t matter. Just know two things. One, the meetings did not pertain to prostitution. And two, the meetings did not go well.
After the second failed meeting wraps, I realize that I am now stuck here, staying in Per’s half-hospitable apartment for the next 30 hours with no friends, nothing to do, and the lacerating shame that accompanies knowing I’ve come to Hamburg for nothing, and spent a chunk of money doing it.
The whole thing feels like sitting across from your boyfriend at dinner when he tells you he’s not in love with you anymore and that you’re worthless but really nice. He recommends you look for another boyfriend, perhaps someone older and with lower expectations. Then, you have to sit there and finish your meal together because you’re eating sushi at Masa and you’ve paid your $500 upfront for the omakase and they’ll charge you anyway if you leave. You and your now-ex-boyfriend have to sit across from each other in silence for the next hour and a half gnawing on food that should be delicious but suddenly tastes like nothing. The next day, the tuna tartar gives you a delayed bout of food poisoning.
If I could change my flight for that afternoon, I would.
Per is on the phone again when I come home, laughing and talking in the kind of German that irritates people on an international level.
I make instant coffee in the kitchen after stuffing some groceries in a tiny little fridge filled with tomato paste in toothpaste tubes. Per comes out of his hole to talk to me briefly. He asks about the appointments and I lie, telling him that I’ll find out how they went when I get back to the U.S.
“They went okay,” I say, and I turn around and head into my rented bedroom to wile away the rest of the afternoon and evening scouring Facebook for things that make me happy, to little to no avail.
Dinner is a banana, leftover almonds, two liters of instant coffee, and some stone-wheat crackers. I wait for the sun to go down but it doesn’t – not until nearly 10:30 in the evening because I’m so fucking north on this fucking planet. These long European summer nights must be hell for the depressed, each torturous day the longest and most horrible of their entire lives.
I wake up the next morning with an empty itinerary, because aside from the appointments that may or may not drive me to be a suicidal ex-pat headline today, there is nothing to do in Hamburg. The number one attraction is the harbor, followed by the Reeperbahn. And frankly, I’m not very into boats, nor am I very into whores and cheap beer. I do, however, feel obligated to experience both.
Even though it’s July, I pull on a pair of pants and a jacket because Hamburg is (unsurprisingly) the epicenter of miserable weather. I take a nearly empty subway filled with mostly lifeless people down to the harbor, which turns out to be the same as any harbor I’ve ever driven past en route to somewhere more interesting. Cruise ships pass, big ugly cranes reach for the sky like under-watered weeds, and there’s a walking promenade from which to view it.
Underwhelmed, I continue to walk. I pass the fish market (another Top 10 Hamburg Highlight), but it’s closed for unknown reasons. I debate a 9-euro tour on a wartime U-boat but the idea makes me feel a little claustrophobic and a little cheap and I keep walking.
My interest piques around an area that is reminiscent of punk houses I’ve been to in the States. Rows of weird apartment buildings covered in graffiti and loud colors appear out of nowhere, exploding from the white, banal surface of Hamburg. It’s like having a piece of juicy, succulent bacon after years of unsweetened oatmeal and vegetarian sausage links. I head in that direction, climbing a weedy staircase until I’ve arrived at a particularly sketchy area that I come to find out is the Reeperbahn. This is apparently the only part of the city in which people have a pulse.
Germans that look like Iowa meth addicts drag on cigarettes and leer at me suspiciously as I walk the streets in my expensive coat and my patent leather backpack, a pair of black loafers on my feet. I’m a dead ringer for a lost yuppy reporting on the underworld. Two men loading boxes of beer into a bar bark and meow. After passing a metal gate cordoning off a street that tells me women and minors are not allowed inside, I decide it’s time to head back to Boring Town.
The only thing left to do is have lobster at Hummer Pederson, a restaurant my friend told me to go to. And so I do. I sit alone on a stool watching a man in a black shirt working the grill, flipping fish and plating salads, always adding a special pink sauce that looks like the putty they make retainer impressions out of when you’re a kid.
I eat my lobster. I drink a bottle of fizzy water. I pay my bill. I leave.
By four, I’m already back at the apartment. As far is Per is concerned, I am a manic depressive hermit who came to Hamburg to “end it,” which is pretty much what I feel like at the moment. I take a three-minute shower, scrubbing the essentials but leaving my hair unwashed because it’s so goddamn cold. While I lather, I begin to plan what time I should leave for the airport the next morning. My flight is at 1, but I could easily leave at daybreak. Even the worst airport I’ve ever experienced is better than Hamburg.
Around 5 in the afternoon, I put on pajamas and crawl under a skimpy comforter better suited for countries that actually experience summer. I watch episodes of pirated television on my computer while I finish off a bag of trail mix and work on a tray of veggies with orange curry dipping sauce. louds swallow the skyline above the Smurf-blue apartment building across the street. Time crawls. Occasionally, it rains.
Thirty minutes later, I am overcome by the urge to vomit.
I sit up, waiting for it to pass. When it doesn’t, I walk across the hall into the bathroom that isn’t mine and hover over a toilet that isn’t mine and listen to the roommate I still haven’t seen laugh while he watches cartoons. I want to vomit. God, I want to vomit so badly. My mouth waters but the whole operation is countered by my repulsion of puking into what may as well be a public toilet.
Defeated, I walk back into my room and close the door, until I have to get up again and walk to the bathroom, hover, debate, and return, defeated once more. I lay down on my side, watching Zoey Deschanel be obnoxiously and topically adorable. I feel my insides swirl. I close my eyes. Maybe if I just fall asleep, it will all go away. Maybe if I just…if I just…if I just…
Nope, I’m definitely going to puke.
I lean over the side of my bed and grab a plastic bag from a German supermarket. First comes the veggies, then the nuts, both of which are still decipherable in color and form. The next wave is the deeper cuts: lobster and bread, acidic brown coffee. Everything is bubbling and messy and I am sure hell feels something like this.
When I am good and emptied I tie the episode up by the handles and figure that the only solution is to leave it on the balcony until tomorrow, when I can smuggle the load down the stairs like Anne Frank before I leave for the airport. Better that than risk being misperceived as the creepy, bizarre, bulimic hermit and get bad reviews on Airbnb.
I fall asleep shaking under my sheets, watching another episode of The New Girl, feeling like The Dead Girl. All I want to do is be home. I feel my life-force slipping out the door like a draft.
When I wake up, I feel better. Not because the nausea from yesterday has left me, but because I am relieved that I will never have to come to Hamburg ever again. In 48 hours, I had done everything you could possibly do in Hamburg, including seriously contemplate suicide, which, in case you didn’t know, also makes the Top 10 list but often goes unreported for obvious reasons.
As planned, I am en route to the airport by 9 a.m., where I use the four hours before my flight to blissfully peruse the fish sandwich options and mooch free WiFi.
And when my plane finally departs, I stare out the window, watching this beautiful, horrible place disappear under layer after layer of thick clouds, smothered into gray irrelevance, just where it belongs.
Danke for nothing, Hamburg. Danke for nothing.
For more from Jenny…