On a whim, I’m in Hamburg. Doesn’t matter how or why. Again, someplace new, walking slowly, noticing, expecting nothing, appreciating everything. I can say, for instance, this river is beautiful – and it’s true: it’s the most beautiful I’ve ever seen it. Hamburg. I have no associations with this place, no expectations, no tribal memories, no cultural references – at least none that come to mind. I took a ride with a mitfahrgelegenheit driver, he dropped me off somewhere, and that’s it.
But how foreign can a European city be? I went to the nearest train station, bought a day travelcard, looked at a map hanging on the wall, picked a neighbourhood near the port, and rode there. Here I am then, wherever this is. Little café by the river, beer and a sandwich, looking out at the grey skies. All unhappy families are the same, all unhappy cities are the same too. Empty office buildings, clean paved streets with glass store-fronts, bored mannequins staring dreamily into open space, waiting for Sunday to be over and to be ogled by mercantile crowds, street signs, rusty-green statues of forgotten kings doomed to eternal apathy, bridges over dirty water, children being dragged from here to there by worried parents out of fresh ideas for filling up Sundays, cars stopping at red lights and stop signs, going when they’re told they can, other cars parked dreamily on both sides of the street, too lethargic to move yet. Cockroaches! The cars are like so many thousands of coloured cockroaches scuttling about the streets of the city everywhichway, eventually slowing to a halt and bursting in a putrid explosion, sending maggots to crawl out and find other host bodies to travel on.
Beards. Glasses. Smartphones. Coats. Rucksacks. If the driver today had dropped me off at any other town in northern Europe, out of communication problems of just old-fashioned malice – I doubt I would have noticed. Were I to close my eyes and not notice a whirlwind lifting this café up in the air and dropping it down in Rostock or Bremen or even Poland, I wouldn’t notice anything amiss – the same coloured cockroaches would scuttle down the same asphalt roads, the same mannequins would stand in the shop windows , gazing out with blank faces, no eyes, silently whispering: be like me. Be like me, mumbles the filthy beggar on the stairs of the train station. The pretty waitress hands me the bill with a handwritten note: Be like me. A seagull flies over the sailors and the prostitutes at the port and shrieks three times: Be. Like. Me.
Street signs point and tell you where you’re not. 250 metres to here and 400 metres to there. Cigarette machines covered in cryptic kabbalistic graffiti. Tourists stand in groups of three and four, arguing over the orthodox reading of their city maps. Domes and spires desperately crave attention, but the residents of the city haven’t looked up in years, and the tourists are busy reading maps, guidebooks, or iPhones. Here’s a nice app: a couple on their honeymoon walk along the pier, and she stands in the wind while he walks back a few steps to take her picture. He looks at her on the screen, composing the frame, ready to send his and her facebookfriends proof of their happiness and existence, and he taps the screen. She disappears. He looks at the screen again, and all that’s there is the wooden pier, the string barrier, the grey sea blending into the grey sky. He slowly lowers the phone and looks: she’s really gone. Maybe she fell? Jumped? He walks over to the sea, careful not to get too near the edge, but he can’t see any trace of her. Small waves crash on the pier, it’s cold and windy, seagulls caw. He looks around, some other tourists are walking alone or in pairs, no sign of her. Should he call for help? Call the police? What would he say? Sheepishly, he looks at his phone again, flicking through the pictures (there she is, in front of the church, eating breakfast at the hotel, on the train, and the empty picture of the grey-blue sea). He swipes the screen, looking through the different settings and options, but feels silly. He notices that he’s not sad, nor scared. He takes a last look at the sea, and then walks back to town, absentmindedly twisting his wedding-ring off his finger and throwing it into a paper-recycling bin at the corner of the next street.
Have you ever seen a finished city? Cities build themselves, tear themselves down, rebuild, refurbish, ugly becomes slum becomes chic becomes posh becomes ugly. The most ubiquitous feature of any city skyline is cranes. Proud and erect, towers of Babel, they point up to the sky as if to say: just wait! The city’s not finished yet! It may be ugly now, cold and sad, but just wait! At the foot of the one of the cranes, on the street corner, a hopeful young girl, pierced lips, torn black t-shirt and green hair, sits and sings “Be like me”. A huge poster covers the building above her, a babyfaced model with superwhite teeth smiles innocently, dark blue letters spell out Be Like Me. A taxi-driver slows down nearby, leans over to look at the late-night crowd at the bus stop, whispering Be Like Me. A blind man walks with his guide-dog, nobody cares for either of them except for the other, and yet he is not unhappy when the dog barks Be Like Me, and he strokes it behind the ears and whispers the same words back. Be like me, be like me, the words gurgle in the drainpipes and drift in the evening breeze. Even the faithful in the synagogues and churches dare say these words to their Lord.