The trip from my home in Frankfurt to Hamburg was not my first since the lockdown lifted in Germany. Back in July, after the restrictions eased, my husband N and I made our way to a friend’s vineyard in the Pfalz area, where we spent our time cycling through villages. The brief breather came at a crucial time, especially for N, who had been in some emotional distress during those five months of being apartment-bound at our home in Frankfurt. This time though, I was on my own, visiting a friend.
My train to Hamburg was unusually empty, even for a weekday. The few people that I could see were, by and large, wearing masks. Now, in Germany, it is not mandatory to wear them in public, only in indoor commercial spaces such as restaurants and grocery stores. But in Hamburg and in Lübeck—the small town outside of Hamburg I was headed for after meeting my friend—people seemed to be observing various degrees of social distancing. At my friend’s, we greeted each other not with hugs, but with the ‘corona handshake’ (elbow bumping). It was strange, but also an act of solidarity necessary in current times. Schützen sie einander, right? ‘Take care of each other’: as the train’s PA system periodically droned.
In Hamburg, restaurants and beer gardens were back in business, although (roughly) at a 30 per cent capacity. In the Ottensen area, people queued up for gelato, respectful of social distancing. On a Saturday night, outside of pubs, crowds spilled onto the pavement in muted celebration on the popular Lange Reihe boulevard. Drinking in clusters seemed to be one of the few pleasures left in the city known for its exciting nightlife and discos. Even so, the signs reminding people that they are living through a pandemic were unmistakable—some cafés and restaurants scattered their usual seating to avoid cramming. But pandemic or not, there’s no stopping Hamburgers from enjoying their summer evenings. At the restaurant D. José, tucked inside the Portuguese quarters of Hamburg not far from the river Elbe, my fish dinner of roasted cod and salmon seemed almost celebratory. Masked waiters ferried plates of seafood. For its diners, Jose has done away with mask regulations, instead separating their dining tables with plexiglass, giving the air a semblance of normalcy.
Eating out, or navigating the beautiful streets of Lübeck, my arsenal consisted of hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes, and the government-recommended Corona-Warn App, which tracks your exposure to the virus. Worth it, for Lübeck looks the part of a town that has been home to the likes of Thomas Mann and Günter Grass. In this historic (and usually touristy) place famous for its marzipan chocolates, I spent my time visiting churches and quaint little eateries. I noticed that international travellers had been replaced with domestic tourists, desperate to catch up with the lost summer of 2020.
Berlin, where I made a stop on my way back, was far busier. The subways were jam-packed, even though the second-hand bookstore I visited was missing its usual crowd. The city had recently seen thousands gather in protest against the coronavirus regulations, and although masking was mostly in place (often enforced by cops roaming the stations), Berliners seemed to treat it as a necessary evil, some subway folks unmindful of their masks hanging well below their nostrils. Its lakes, where locals flock during summer months, still seemed to have their fair share of visitors.
Before the pandemic struck, I was scheduled to travel to Cannes, and then Tunisia. Right now, I cannot imagine getting on a flight, for at least another six months. But these escapades help break the static—it felt so good to see the world up and running! It reminded me that there is hope still, of the world getting back what it lost. And that while it slowly recovers, our social mores will shift ever-so-slightly. They already have.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.