Guttentag, mein damen en herren. I am currently in Hamburg, where I have just achieved a lifelong ambition by eating a hamburger. That sounds like the beginning of a Kenneth Williams skit, but in fact, ever since I was a young boy staring at a map of the world and wondering how big it is, I’ve been fascinated by eponymous foodstuffs.
Part of it is that nagging conviction bred into English-speaking South Africans of a particular era that everything we experience in the subtler arts of living is a second-rate copy of the real thing, that the originals are all elsewhere and will never come here, and that life would be unimaginably fine if we could somehow be there with them. I had no realistic prospects of that ever happening, but I remember the doleful intensity of being ten years old, eating a Vienna sausage, trying to imagine the splendours of one day travelling to Vienna for the real thing.
Inevitably, it’s always slightly disappointing. The Viennese proved unexpectedly resistant to the idea of a pink soft sausage in a tin, and their schnitzels were too crispy and stringy. Cornish pasties in Cornwall are marginally better than their cousins in Durban, but they are still indisputably pasties and therefore horrible. I’ve yet to eat spaghetti bolognaise in Bologna or Welsh rarebit in Wales, but I could find no bun in Chelsea, no turkey in Turkey and now it turns out that the hamburger doesn’t even originate in Hamburg.
Apparently, similar to how the name “Brazilian wax” originated not from Brazil, but from Manhattan nails and waxing joint run by a Brazilian family in the late 1980s, the hamburger was popularized in Chicago by a German immigrant at time when America really was a melting pot, and people were frequently identified by their place of origin.
“Say, that ground-beef patty between two soft buns looks good,” one hungry stevedore would have said to another. “Where did you get it?”
“Oh, from the Hamburger’s stall,” the other would have replied.
“The Hamburger, eh? I’ll give it a try.”
Still, the habits of envious comparison with the first world are hard to shake. Yesterday I went to the Kunsthalle, the art museum on the banks of the Alster. In the basement, before you get to the Munchs and the Manets and Caspar David Friedrich’s splendid “Sea of Ice”, there is an installation called The Dripstone Machine, by Bogomir Ecker.
Normally I have short shrift for the twerpiness of contemporary art, but this is something else. Rainwater is captured on the roof of the museum, funneled through some sort of handmade biome in the lobby that mimics the effect of passing through limestone, and is then piped to an elegant contraption in a glassed-off room downstairs that allows a droplet of water to fall in carefully regulated intervals onto a small slab of marble. The drip-rate is inflexible, the contraption is precisely placed and can never budge. Before our eyes, in real time, an emerald-green stalagmite is being made at nature’s own pace. The installation was made in 1996 and will be in place for 500 years. In 2496 it will be disconnected, and Hamburg citizens will be able to gaze on the final product: a stalagmite 5cm high.
There is much in this project to cause wonder – at the scale of human life and striving, for instance, measured against the long arc of the world – but what I most keenly pondered is how it must feel to have such faith in the stability and security of your civic future that you can conceive of a project that must remain – maintained, funded and unmoving – for half a millennium.
But then later that afternoon I visited the church of St Niklaus. It’s no longer really a church – it’s just a steeple standing 147 metres over the outline of vanished ruins, preserved as a corrective to future dreams of war. The church burnt in the firestorms of Operation Gomorrah in 1943, when Allied incendiary bombers killed 42 000 civilians in a week and entire neighbourhoods were obliterated, a million Hamburgers fleeing the city before a swirling column of fire rising more than 200 metres in the air. That was 72 years ago, but the church that died was itself only 100 years old. In 1842 a fire broke out in a warehouse in Diecherstrasse and burnt the old city to the ground, including the town hall and the churches and parishes of St Nicholas and St Peter.
The city of Hamburg has been destroyed twice in two centuries, and rebuilt each time yet still believes in art and trusts to the future. Civic continuity is no one’s birthright or guarantee. It’s a guess, a cast of mind. It’s always only an act of faith.
Times, 19 August 2015