Living in Europe: Dateline Hamburg

View of the Hamburg skyline of the Binnenalster taken from Lombardsbrücke. Taken by Wikipedian IqRS

My first experience of living in Europe was an internship in North Germany. I’m not sure that I’d recommend that one’s first experience of fending for oneself should be on a foreign shore but that’s how it was for me. I still possess (somewhere) the tear-stained letter which I wrote home from my first digs, in a B & B on the outskirts of Hamburg.

Leaving home

Having finished my A-levels and sat my Cambridge entrance exam, I had nine months to fill before going to University to study Modern Languages. Through my father’s contact with the London correspondent of German broadcaster WDR/NDR/ARD, Karlheinz Wocker, I received an offer of an internship on the television programme Panorama broadcast from Hamburg.

I was so excited at the prospect, that I didn’t properly check when Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR the North German broadcaster) was expecting me and jumped the gun to start my adventure.

Consequently, when I arrived in Hamburg in January 1965 and presented myself at the Head Office on the Rothenbaum-chaussee, no one had a clue what to do with me. Panorama wasn’t ready for me, so on a temporary basis I was assigned to Regional News.

I was not then, nor am I now, a journalist, nevertheless I found myself gathering printed pieces of paper from the news-wires and then required to knock them into some kind of shape, ready to be broadcast on the local bulletin.

It is impossible to describe the ecstasy of hearing a brief item on an explosion in a mine, which you had presented to the news editor 30 minutes earlier, being aired to all the listeners in Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony.

Just as impossible is the description of the agony of accidentally stapling your two index fingers together while playing with the stapler on your desk!

Treffpunkt Kantine

I never made it to Panorama, modelled incidentally on the BBC program of the same name. One lunchtime, in the canteen, I was approached by a grey-haired gentleman, who introduced himself as Werner Baecker. He asked me about myself, and why I was there, and invited me to join his team, which was responsible for producing a weekly live topical  show called Die Aktuelle Schaubude. This was broadcast from a makeshift studio in the centre of Hamburg, in the Gänsemarkt, or Goosemarket.

What I didn’t know was that this gentleman was an award-winning writer, journalist and film-maker, well-known in Germany for his series of programs Treffpunkt New York (Rendezvous New York). In fact Werner had only recently been pulled back from New York to re-energise the Schaubude for NDR’s regional programming.

Samstag am Gänsemarkt

Die Schaubude, although it was a TV show, had its office at Rothenbaumchaussee, which was essentially the radio station, rather than out at the new television centre at Lokstedt.

The reason for this was that early every Saturday the Opel showroom of Ernst Dello at the Gänsemarkt was stripped bare and turned into a temporary TV studio. All the windows were covered so that no-one outside could see any of the action occurring within. This consisted not only of the placing of lights and camera dollies, but also the necessary rehearsals.

Outside on the square a huge OB wagon stood humming. This was filled with all the equipment necessary for powering the equipment in the studio and feeding the output directly onto the north German television signal. It was also responsible for running any films which had been made earlier to be slotted into the programme.

One such film was of a visit of Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band. Unlike many of the show’s guests Acker and his band didn’t come to the studio, but filmed a performance in the street during the week.

As evening gathered and the street lights came on, the sheets came down off the showroom windows, revealing to us in the studio the crowds of viewers who had gathered at the rail around the showroom, now peering in to watch the show live.

Sonntag Mittag in der Stadt

Quite by chance, a classmate of mine, Iain, had been sent by his father to work in a shipping office in Hamburg. So he and I, and a Yorkie colleague of his, got into the habit of meeting up nearly every Sunday at a little restaurant in the centre for a lunch of Frikadelle and chips. As we ate, we solved the Daily Telegraph crossword and discussed what was going on in our lives.

I mention this particularly because, as the months rolled by, the percentage of our vocabulary that was German rather than English grew exponentially. The Frikadelle is associated especially closely with Hamburg. It was taken thence to North America where it became today’s Hamburger.

»Vorsprung durch Technik«

Die Schaubude went out live on a Saturday evening, but it was also recorded for rebroadcast on Monday morning. Recording TV was something new. In German it is known as MAZ, pronounced “mats” which is short for magnetische Aufzeichnung. The recording was done on titanic Ampex machines, which took up a whole room, using two-inch magnetic tape. They were extremely noisy. 

It was while I was in Germany that I encountered the very first domestic TV recorder. In April the show travelled to Hanover to cover the Hannover Messe, the annual technology exhibition. The only thing that I remember is gazing in wonder at the reel-to-reel television recorder being exhibited by Grundig.

Well, there is another thing that I remember. It was at dinner on our last night, at the age of nineteen, that I experienced my very first French kiss!

Glückwünsche zum Geburtstag!

I had celebrated my birthday in March, and was touched by the attention of my colleagues in the Schaubude office. They gave me a lovely presentation box of Tabak soap and aftershave. What surprised me, though, was that they also presented me with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. They hastened to assure me that this was quite normal in Germany.

Kleine Sprachschwierigkeiten

One morning I awoke with a very sore throat. So sore that I was sent to the in-house medical officer, who diagnosed a streptococcal infection and prescribed bismuth suppositories. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing and asked for an explanation.

They were to be inserted into my darm, I was told. I had no idea where my darm was, so for further clarification I employed a rather more colloquial term, referring to a nether orifice. I finally understood.

On another occasion I was sent for an interview to obtain my student work permit. At one point the officer asked me where I was untergebracht. Another term which I had never encountered heretofore. I requested an explanation, finally discerning that it referred to my lodging or housing arrangements.

The official looked at me balefully over his spectacles and, in a very bombastic tone of voice, declared, “Herr Kerr, if you wish to live in our country, you must learn our language!” He wasn’t wrong.

Was ist Kirchensteuer?

It must have been when I attended to get my residence permit that I was asked which Christian denomination I belonged to. It was explained to me that the office needed to know, so that my Kirchensteuer would be paid to the correct church. I protested that I didn’t belong to any church, but had a terrible time trying to convince the officer. Finally I succeeded, and didn’t have to pay any church tax for the extent of my visit.

Was ist Buttermilch?

It was late in the evening as I returned from the studios. I realized that I had no milk for my Rice Krispies but, good luck, the corner shop was open. The only milk left at the end of the day. was a single litre of ‘Buttermilch’. “What is ‘Buttermilch?” I asked the shopkeeper.

In vain he tried to make me understand. In any case it was ‘Hobson’s Choice’, ie that or no milk, so I paid the price and finished my journey home. Let me tell you, Buttermilch does not go well with Rice Krispies and sugar. However, it does make a delicious refreshing drink.

If I’d been American, I’d have known instantly that ‘Buttermilch’ is cultured milk, but for some reason we eschew such delicacies on this side of the North Sea, except for cooking. So far as I can see there isn’t a litre carton of buttermilk to be found in the United Kingdom.

« Tu Parles Comme un Allemand ! »

At the end of my six months in Hamburg I travelled south to Paris, to meet up with my family for a holiday together in Hungary. I stayed a couple of days with a family whom I had known for some years.

Their reaction on first hearing me attempt to speak their beloved French was that I sounded quite German!