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Hamburg

Euro 2012 is raging in Europe. Everywhere, we’ve seen German flags on cars, draped round people’s shoulders, on houses, and hanging out windows on tall buildings. This is by far the most nationalism I’ve ever seen in Germany, to my surprise…and I’ve been here eight times. In our hotel, many of the guests huddled round a TV set set up in the foyer. To Jean’s surprise, when the German national anthem played at the start of the Germany v Portugal game, not one German guest sang a single note. But I knew why. As one of the guests said, it is a legacy of the Second World War.

In the 1980s, the young West Germans of my generation were appalled at their country’s recent past. The horrors of the Second World War and the fundamental inhumanity of the Nazis saddened many, turning them very pacifist. The Nazi experience and its intense nationalism vaccinated so many post-war Germans against nationalism that this sentiment is today very much in their DNA. In the 80s, the Cold War was still raging, and Germany was divided into two, with the eastern half suffering under the leadership of a Stalinist regime of the ugliest order, whose policy was to murder anyone attempting to cross into the west. So the Germans of my generation saw the atrocities of Germany’s recent past as well as further inhumanity still perpetrated by Germans against Germans in the east. For Germany, the 20th century ended in 1989 – just 23 years ago – when state-sanctioned murder in Germany was finally swept away.

Now there is a new generation of young Germans who look to a new future. They can be more nationalistic than their predecessors. As the hotel guests said, the flag waving is coming more from the young, and not so much from them.

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We bought a Hamburg card from the Hamburg Underground (U Bahn). We bought one for five days that covers the two of us, and allows us to go anywhere on the U Bahn. The cost, at €59.90, is fairly comparable fo paying for Oyster cards for the Underground system in London. Like London, you can also use the buses here with the Hamburg card. But unlike London, there are additional benefits: You may use the Hamburg card to gain discounts on certain voyages on the Alster, and with the card it is free to journey on parts of the Elbe. The Hamburg card also offers discounts to museums, which, unlike Australia and the UK, do charge admission.

Our cousins, Christine and Renate, took us to Blankenese, 41 minutes by bus to the west of Hamburg. Blankenese, which celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2001, is built on the side of a hill overlooking the Elbe, with little narrow streets that snake their way around the townspeople’s homes. Everywhere you go, you encounter diminutive dwellings that are at once private houses and tourist attractions that please the visitor’s eye. A front door here greets a steep public pathway there. A small manicured lawn shared with the passer by over this way sits next to a hedge-hidden garden over that way. Near the top of the steep Kroegertreppe, a rhododendron and a Japanese maple reward the weary walker with aching calves, forever perambulating up and down, in and out and around. From all of these vantage points, the Elbe appears in the background, a feature of every scene. It’s around that corner. It’s behind that dwelling. And it smiles on that garden.

I told Jean that the Elbe meant a lot to my ancestors. They sailed past Blankenese whenever they sailed to England in the 1820s and 1830s, but even after the 1790s. And my great-grandfather sailed past this spot when voyaging to Australia in 1884.

We had come to Blankanese by boat from Hamburg. We headed back down the Elbe to Finkenwerder, where we saw houses that had been built in former times. Christine explained that Finkenwerder had belonged to Hamburg when Hamburg had been an independent state. That was of course long ago. History is all around us here.

My favourite beer in Germany is the Weizenbier. I’ve had it at home too, but it’s even better here in Germany. I admire the shape of the glass that Weizenbier is served in too. It’s like a good woman, curving inwards towards the middle as your eyes slide lovingly up the glass toward the top, then becoming slightly more broad and inviting toward the top. And it’s light and easy to hold. Yum! I’ve also had Duckstein, auch mit einem guten Geschmack!

My favourite beer in the UK was Carling. I didn’t like Carlsberg that much, but Kronenbourg was fine. Stella Artois also fine. In Carmarthen on the day of our good Rolf Harris luck, I tried “Cwrw”, which is Welsh for “beer”. Also not bad. From memory, it was dark in colour. Hopefully, someone might clarify for me. Of the ciders I tried, I liked Strongbow, Magners, Bulmers, and Black Dragon that I can remember. Sweet, medium or dry..I don’t mind.

In the 80s, I thought Guinness was absolutely disgusting, but I promised myself that one day I’d try it in Ireland. Pleased to say I like it much better now, but we’ll see how it tastes in Australia. Everyone knows Guinness doesn’t travel well.

My distant relative, Christine, whom we’re visiting here in Hamburg, had been for some time in possession of letters and a diary belonging to my great grandfather, Felix Thode. They had been sent to her by some other of my relatives for translating. Now some years later, Christine has passed them on to me so that the items can be in the possession of one of my great-grandfather’s descendants. I’ll take them back to Australia now and pass them on to the next generation when the time comes. Meantime, I need to wade through the material and come to understand my ancestor’s life a bit better.

Really, we should have had a little ceremony when these ancestral materials passed from Christine to me. We should have organised a drum beat, or a band playing, while we drank Weizenbier….

The letters and diary are very old, old-looking, fragile, and moth-eaten.

We are now in Hamburg, staying at the Novotel Hamburg Alster on Luebeckerstrasse. At the airport yesterday afternoon, I had the pleasure of finally meeting my distant relatives, Christine and Renate. They are third-cousins; we have common great-great grandparents who lived in the 19th century. Christine has, over the last year, given me vast amounts of information, so getting to meet her and her sister here in Hamburg, the place of our ancestors, was a real thrill for me.

Today, after a good, filling breakfast at the Archaeological Museum (where it costs €15.40 for two people’s breakfast, some of which you can take away for your lunch), we took a good long walk along canals that are connected to the Alster, through the Speicherstadt (an area where there are old warehouses that used to house spices, coffees and carpets from all over the world), and on to the church St Katharinen. Here, in the 18th century, our ancestor from eight generations ago, Joachim Zimmerman, was the preacher. Unfortunately, restoration work prevented us from going inside. Christine said he had pictures taken of himself every year (paintings or pastels, presumably) and he got fatter every year. But he died of a fever – not of his fatness!

We continued walking until we reached the Elbe, and Christine showed us the spot where my great-grandfather, Felix Thode, most likely departed for Australia on the Sorrento in August 1884. We saw the spot from both sides of the Elbe. We crossed to the other side via a tunnel under the river. Both pedestrians and vehicles were lowered to the tunnels in lifts. Amazing. At length, we visited Hamburg’s main landmark, St Michaelis church, the most famous baroque church in north Germany.