Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not reflect the view of Let’s Go Publications, Inc.
I arrived in Hamburg, Germany with a sinking feeling in my stomach. With the G20 Summit under way and the corresponding protests growing in scale, the city had become a hotbed of political and social tension. The night before I was set to travel to Hamburg from Cologne, I received an email from the train company I’d booked with saying that, because of the demonstrations, they were cancelling all train services to Hamburg. Of course, all of the information was in German, so I had to rely on the woman working reception at my hostel to translate the email’s contents and call the company to request a refund on my behalf. I thought about delaying the trip, but I couldn’t stay in Cologne, as accommodations were all full for the start of Cologne Pride. So at 9:30pm, less than 8 hours before I would have to wake up in the morning, I ran to the Köln Hauptbahnhof to find a different ticket.
On Saturday, after a two-hour delay, I got off the train in Hamburg and could sense something was different. Like my fellow passengers, I tiptoed past the police swarming the Hamburg Hauptbanhof and stepped outside into a ghost town. I walked away from the train station into the city center on what is usually a major shopping thoroughfare, but everything was closed. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, yet few people walked the streets. The group of British men laughing loudly beside me and rolling their suitcases down the middle of the road felt profoundly out of place.
Buses were not running, so I had to improvise a subway route to reach my hostel—not a difficult thing to do, but a stressful one, for I’ve been traveling without phone service for the majority of my trip. As my subway train breached the earth on the edge of the city center, it seemed trapped in a bubble of unnatural stillness.
There were no cars on the roads. The only people in sight were, alternatingly, groups of police blocking bridges or ambling along the edges of thoroughfares, and groups of kids—teenagers and 20-somethings en-route to the demonstrations. News footage played on the subway’s small TV monitor, silently streaming images of the riots from the night before.
It felt strange to be an American headed into the fray. Though G20 gatherings tend, historically speaking, to spark controversy because of their subject matter, this year’s protests were intensified by the presence of President Donald Trump. To be clear, the protests were not aimed directly at Trump—they countered capitalistic and bigoted threats to democracy all over the world. Still, Trump (naturally) became a target. Anti-Trump signage was posted throughout the city. If I were in the U.S., I’d consider this a welcome sight—a statement of shared values, that our community was stronger than our president and his platform. At home, an anti-Trump sign is a symbol of the power of community—a reminder that we value our differences and believe people can and should be united by more than religious or ethnic commonalities—that we can reach beyond the symbolic boundaries that have the potential to divide us. In Hamburg, I didn’t know what to expect. President Trump has been running amok around the globe, alienating our allies and, frankly, portraying Americans as inconsiderate simpletons. So now, abroad alone, I didn’t know what being an American in this moment would mean. I didn’t feel endangered or scared; the feeling I was experiencing was one of, well, shame. My country was being verbally attacked, and yet I felt we deserved it. I was self-conscious, I guess, about how I would be received by the city’s residents. But I was wrong to worry. If travel teaches you anything, it’s that people will welcome just about anyone who embraces their culture with open arms.
Back on street level, I began walking to my hostel and soon entered Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood. Here, people cracked beers as they talked politics on the sidewalk curb, and students my age moved briskly towards the protests in groups. Suddenly, the city felt alive again. Amid the protesters themselves, I felt at ease in Hamburg for the first time since my arrival.
Riots broke out again that night. The next afternoon, I set out on my first day of research in Hamburg, and I saw something I hadn’t expected. People were out on the streets in force…cleaning. All over the neighborhood people carried garbage bags, picking up the trash left behind from the prior evening. When I reached Schulterblatt, a popular street lined with trendy cafés and shops, it was a mess: the storefronts of entire blocks were covered in spray paint, many stores were closed, police officers were never far off, and crowds gathered around signs and banners left by protesters. Despite the unsettling scene, café doors remained open and patio seating filled to the brim. If not for the graffiti everywhere, it could have been a block party.
As I wrote the introduction to Hamburg for Let’s Go Europe 2018, I thought about the numerous times Hamburg has been destroyed throughout its history. It’s been bombed, flooded, and burned to the ground, and each time, it was steadily rebuilt. In my mind, what differentiated Hamburg from its counterparts was its lively spirit and its unwavering perseverance. Writing the introduction then, I wondered if anybody would notice that spirit today. And yet, here it was in front of me. Hamburg was, once again, in ruins—this time a product of self-mutilation performed with graffiti and broken glass—but it had already begun picking up the pieces.