Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Fischmarkt Loons

Well hey!

When I heard someone tell me, "I thought you dropped off the face of the earth" and "Are you still alive?", I knew it was time for a new post.

The past few months I've been living in Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany (population in the greater area around 1.7 million) and located in the northwest part of the country (a four hour train ride east from Amsterdam). There are three points to make about Hamburg. I'll tell you the first one today.

First off, Hamburg has the second largest port in Europe and is home to about 40,000 university students. Now, the two facts might not seem relevant to each other, but then there's the fischmarkt. The fischmarkt is German for Fish Market, held on every Sunday morning from 5:30a.m. to 10:30a.m and is one of the main tourist attractions of the city. The German's say it's popular because it shows the true essence of the city -- a bustling modern Europe with a taste of the historic past and hectic present. I say it's popular because you see people act like true lunatics -- together, in a historic German way.

I say lunatics in general but there really are three distinct types of loons. The first kind I'll call the Classic Lunatic. These guys are sober, I think, and claim their insanity the classic way -- by shouting out nonsense to passersby and throwing things in their face, like fish. Yes, these crazy fish men point their sausage fingers in the air, brush their big bellies against cutting boards dripping with fish blood, wrap slabs of every sea creature imaginable in waxed newspaper and literally toss them into the hands of an onlooker.

The toss can be a graceful swing or harpoon torpedo, depending on how much fish he has to sell. And his face turns red, and his forehead furrows, and he SHOUTS SOMETHING IN GERMAN!, and you have no clue what he said but for some reason there is a kilo of squid that just slammed your chest and now the man wants your money.

There are dozens of them, their carts lined up and forming tiny allies on the harbor, each competing to see whose voice carries the furthest. If I stand back and watch them they remind me of those animals in small cages that can only pace back and forth, lashing out to those who watch them. Further down the market the men change their aquatic weapons to fruits and vegetables, not as smelly but there's definitely more weight in a giant, thorny pineapple.

So you've got the Classics that echo nutty phrases across the market. In reality, their turrets-like blurts are quite entertaining. "If someone doesn't take this fish I'll SLAP YOU!" "Someone gets this mackerel for five euro because IT'S UGLY! HIDEOUS!" "Three cauliflower for two euro OR ELSE!" Or else what? No one asks.

Then there are the Modern Lunatics, and by that I mean Drunk Sailors. When sailors get in the harbor after being away at sea for ages, they want the two things they've always wanted for centuries -- liquor and whores. Luckily for them, the Reeperbahn is a ten-minute walk from the harbor and meets both demands.

Reeperbahn means Rope Way because it used to be a street run by sailors who, sold, sailing stuff. I guess that included prostitutes. Nowadays it's the central area for Hamburg nightlife, well-equipped with bars, clubs, concert venues and beer halls. Strip clubs, sex cinemas and sex shops are squeezed in between, but the prostitutes are scattered on the streets.

These aren't your ordinary prostitutes. They have missing eyes, legs and heads. No, just kidding. I mean it in a sense where they don't dress scandalous. In fact, there's a dress code each one has to abide by. In the winter weather, it's a puffy pearl pink or powdered blue parka, paint-on jeans, fanny packs (yes, those fanny packs) and platform sneakers by Sketchers.

Unlike Amsterdam, the girls aren't behind windows, they're on the streets. Which means groups of them attack men at once, like a full out feeding frenzy of hyenas clawing at their prey. It's crazy. They come from three directions, one grabs an arm, another grabs another arm, the third struggles and settles for stroking the chest, grabbing a waist or just following closely behind. Most of them have a superpower that can tell quickly if the man speaks German or English. So they walk a few yards with the man, whisper in his ear and hold on tight until the man pries them off with his hands.

Anyway, I don't know how much they charge but they seem to get a lot of business after 3a.m., that's when I see more ugly men with pretty girls with parkas at least. And that's usually the time the Modern Lunatics come in from the port.

So babes and boozing starts late for the Modern Lunatics, and naturally it carries on until morning. When the fischmarkt is up and running I can spot sailors dozing off on the sides of fish carts and on the harbor streets. Others stumble around and stare with red eyes as the tourist snaps a photo of their sailor hats, sailor overalls and sailor tobacco pipes. If they're not mumbling to themselves on the fish-juiced gutters, they're in nearby morning pubs that sell pilsner and schnapps, luring all lunatics in with the sounds of German folk bands and the clanking of beer mugs. This is where the Postmodern Lunatics come in.

The PMLs, as I'll call them, are the youth generation that just can't stop partying their big German asses off. They are college students, 30-something-year-olds with first jobs and even young travelers in search of unforgettable European moments. They started Saturday night drinking at a friend's house. They moved to a pub. They moved to a bar. They wound up on the Reeperbahn and were attacked by prostitutes until they took shelter at a club.

Drinks are cheap, the sun never rises, and five in the morning creeps up before the dance hall can finish Billboard's Top 40. The drunken craving for food kicks in, and wait a second, the fischmarkt has a LOT of food there! Awesome. Let's go.

Thus, PMLs are completely wasted at the fischmarkt. Wait that's an understatement. PMLs look like zombies with humpbacks and glossy eyes. They claw at things like pretty tourists and fried fish sandwiches. They try to speak but their motor abilities already struggle enough from lifting one leg at different times in an attempt to "walk". It doesn't work well. The only thing they do well is eat fried fish sandwiches and scare people. Unless they're in the morning pubs, and that's where the lunatics come together to embrace each other for being so much alike on Sunday mornings.

I've stuck my head into these morning pubs, but when I open the doors there's a fierce wind created from the sounds and smells of inside that always blows me away. Sailors and students with arms over shoulders, swaying their beers in hand and belting off-tune sin-a-longs to music I never wish to learn. Beer, fish drippings, body odor, salt, bad breath and tobacco mix together to form a swirl of nauseating musk that can only be favored by those who emit it. Basically, it reeks. Yet in a way, it's cute to watch a sailor smooch the cheek of a lawyer in a business suit. Maybe. If you look at it outside from a window.

And there you have it. Somewhere within it all I find myself content and pleased with what Hamburg has to offer. Soon I'll move on. But for now I'm here, trying to find my placement in a city that can't speak my language but sure as hell can entertain me.

Much love,

Audrey "Ich sprekken die Deutsche, baby" Sykes


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