Sometimes great happiness isn’t very far away. Sometimes it isn’t necessary to get on a plane or on a train or even on public transport. Sometimes all it takes is my mom’s bike and going downhill, ever downhill from my parents’ house until I reach the beach. I was born and raised in Hamburg. I’m not sure if there is a place in the world that comforts me more than the Elbe River beach.
When I was a little girl, my parents would make us go for a walk along the river on weekends. I must have been 10 or 11 when for the first time I went down there for a stroll with friends *voluntarily*, and we thought we were the height of cool and very grown up.
I’m not often home in Hamburg, in fact I go there too seldomly. But when I do go, I make it a rule to go down and say hi to the big grey river at least once. When I moved to Tübingen in Southern Germany and was worried that I would miss the water, people told me: “But they have the Neckar River!” People who have seen both will understand my reaction, which must have been a mixture from a chuckle, an actual laugh and a sniff. The Neckar is gorgeous, but it’s not a river – more like a creek. Playful, cute, harmless. Besides, it’s green. Or brown. It’s got all the wrong colors.
The Elbe at Hamburg’s outskirts is a stream, a powerful monster, wallowing along, taking my thoughts away with it whenever I need to clear my head. It is sometimes blue, but usually it is a thousand different shades of grey (ok, that phrase is basically ruined for me thanks to E.L. James, but if you ever come to my beloved river, you will see that there is more to the expression!). In summer, it’s a glistening mirror…
… and in winter it can be iced over, edgy, harsh. No matter the season – when big container ships come along, there will be waves, and when there’s good wind, there will be sailing boats, showing their pretty and colorful spinnaker sails if you’re lucky. The fact that I even know the word for this specific sail, even though I cannot sail myself, proves that I am from here. This is home, in any weather, under any condition, looking whichever way. As long as I know that this place exists, I will always strive to discover new and different places – because I will know that I can come back here, where everything feels safe and secure even in its instability. Sometimes the river floods and causes horrible damage. Usually it is merciful though, and it gives its all to the city. The port, one of the largest ones in Europe – Hamburg wouldn’t be what it is without it today and all through history.
It started when I was about 13 that every year we would go to see the Easter bonfires down at the river. If you lived in Blankenese, you would meet everyone you knew on that Saturday before Easter. The fires at the beach, the waters throwing back their warm light, the anticipation of it all – it has always been truly special. Four great fires are built up at the beach, and they rival each other for which one burns the longest. On each fire, at the top of the rod that everything is put up around, there will be a straw doll symbolizing the evil spirits of winter. Once it falls into the fire and burns, spring will gracefully come onto us. It is a deeply pagan tradition, and I like the fact that it is honored. Also, to me it was always deeply intertwined with Christianity nonetheless, because while my oldest friend and I would always stay at the Easter bonfires long into the night, we would still go to church at 5 o’clock the next morning – sometimes without sleep, coming directly from the beach.
The latest story I have to tell from the Elbe River is one of particular beauty, because it combines different things I love. Water. Fire. Music. People. In the summer, two of my oldest friends got married and had their reception in a beautiful restaurant right by the river, so close to the places where all of us grew up and had spent so many happy hours of our childhoods and our adolescence. I felt slightly melancholic with the densitiy of reminiscing, but at the same time I was bursting with happiness for my friends and being in awe about the beauty of it all with a childlike wonderment.
And when the time came to present the couple with our gift, I was so much more nervous than I usually am when I’m performing, because it meant so much more. One of my oldest friends stood there in her beautiful wedding gown, holding hands with one of my oldest friends, her groom; and one of my oldest friends was lighting the fires for his game of poi, and I started singing. And I tried to sing for them what I wished their life to be like. Allowing me to wish them well in this way was a gift for me too, and I don’t think I will ever forget it. You can watch it here: Fire spinning and live singing.