Hamburg and the luckiest man on Earth

Life lessons can come anywhere, even in a shoe store in Hamburg.

That morning I’d hired a bike and cycled down past the botanical gardens to the Reeperbahn. I was looking for Beatles-Platz and the clubs on Grosse Freiheit where the Beatles played their first gigs, back in 1960 when Hamburg was a seedy back alley of wharves and sailors and bad tattoos and worse behaviour. 

Before they took up residency at The Cavern, the Beatles played at the Indra and the Star Club, and those establishments are still there, but before lunch on a weekday both their doors were locked. From the Indra I heard the distant thunk and throb of that night’s act rehearsing in the basement; if ever a Danish heavy-metal group called Mega-Oktopus ever become global superstars, I can say I heard them first in Hamburg.

At a kebab place on the Reeperbahn, I spoke to a Turkish guy. He was four months in Germany and was hoping to become a permanent resident. It wasn’t easy, he said. There were lots of Turks around and they were helping him adjust but none of them were family. You need your family, he said.

I asked him why he had left Turkey to come so far north to this place with its long misty winters and closed faces and hard stone streets. He wanted a good life, he said. He wanted euros. He wanted to live in a place where people came, rather than a place where they left. A part of me understood what he meant.

I cycled back through the tidy Hamburg streets and looked at the comfortable burghers in their smart camel-coloured coats and their quietly expensive cars, sipping their cappuccinos, reading their newspapers. It must be nice, I thought, to live in a place where so many people are comfortable, where prosperity cushions you like a padded insole in your shoe. These people are so lucky. They were born into luck.

I couldn’t acquire societal prosperity but I could buy some shoes. The assistant was a young woman with hair like a glossy starling’s but a face that seemed incapable of changing expression. We made conversation as I did up the laces.

‘Where are you from?’ she asked, in a voice that implied she might throw herself from the window in sheer boredom if I dared to answer. 

Cape Town, I told her, and something extraordinary happened. 

‘Cape Town!’ she gasped, as though suddenly remembering the answer to a very important question someone asked a long time ago. Her face seemed suffused in a golden glow. Her eyes widened, her eyebrows shot up. She stared. She beamed. She has always wanted to go to Cape Town. At home, she has pictures of Cape Town on her wall, and also whales. Are there whales in Cape Town? There are, right?

I said there were, but not all the time. She frowned. But quite often, I said. She beamed. She dreams of Africa, she said. The sunlight. The horizons. The whales. She said she feels like she would be able to breathe there.

I told her she should visit. It’s impossible, she said. She has a small child and a boyfriend who doesn’t work, and a mother to look after. She has duties. She has a life, even if it is a life that makes it hard for her to breathe. But one day, she said. One day. 

I bought the shoes and she shook my hand and asked me to send her a postcard from Cape Town. I promised her I would, and that I’d dip one corner of it in sunblock. I left the store and when I looked back she was still watching me, as though catching one last glimpse of the luckiest man on Earth.

Getaway, January 2017