REVIEWED BY ANNE WEISGERBER
Letters from Germany
Traditionally, travel guides offer must-sees and must-dos, and Matt Potter’s travelogue of time spent in Hamburg and Berlin, Germany, does have a bit of that, but he also gives the solo traveler many heads-ups on what one should expect to feel. As Potter says in the foreword, one of the best things traveling and living abroad did was “it made me feel I belonged, in some measure, to my own culture.”
Hamburgers and Berliners is a collection of emails Potter sent to friends back home as he resolved his mid-life crisis through travel. In partaking of this very friendly and conversational read, one becomes Potter’s confidante.
Potter spent nearly six months living solo in Hamburg while working per diem as an ESL instructor for Airbus. His preparation included a month-long ESL course in his native Australia, selling or storing his belongings, and flying from Adelaide to Germany. Hamburg gave him “the most concrete offer” of a job, and so Hamburg it was.
His insider view of German Kultur is not written a la Frommer’s, delineating for tourists how to get around or where to dine and play, but instead is written by someone who dropped himself in the middle of a foreign culture and figured out the day-to-day: residential registrations, navigating S-Bahn and U-Bahn train systems, knowing where the Internet access and fresh croissants are, and even having the pleasure of sticking it to a scammer landlord who connives ways to keep a security deposit. He offers some great tips along the way – for instance, the importance of noticing what others do, and looking for them to cue one’s own behavior (as in how to pay for items in a Turkish market).
There are two standout chapters among many. The chapter called “The United Nations of Frühstück” has Potter observing guests’ shady doings at a hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet without mercy, but I think the chapter, “Bring a Book” best documents the fortitude needed for solo travel. During a meal, Potter is relocated by Turkish restaurant staffers from table to table, and finally relegated to a shared singles table as space is continually made for larger and more profitable parties to dine. He reports all of this without judgment and with aplomb.
Here’s a humorous interlude: part of his acclimation to Hamburg included bouts of dry skin. He went to a department store and asked, in imperfect German, for help to find a face cream, and wound up coming home with self-tanning lotion!
“I was wondering the other day why some of my fingernails were turning a vague orange. Not all of them were, just some. And people have recently commented on the ginger colour of my beard.”
In typical Potter fashion, the gaffe is treated with self-effacing laughter and good humor.
Potter’s residence in Hamburg: Goethestrasse 32, 22767 Hamburg (Google Maps)
In the second half of the collection, he tours for just over four months, with Berlin his base. He does make a perfunctory attempt to land a position as an ESL teacher “in a factory that coats metal products, deep in the former East,” but this doesn’t stick. It’s just as well because he is free to travel, including excursions to Copenhagen, Denmark; Lisbon, Portugal; and Vienna, Austria.
As a reader and writer (full disclosure – Potter, via his Pure Slush publishing venture, has published two stories of mine), I enjoyed Potter’s prose. He sometimes throws down a verb that delights: he “fossicked under the sink,” (fossicked is Australian slang for rummaging around or looking for gold) in one episode, and he “swanned through” a boring museum in another. The writing is catchy.
In the Berlin half of the book, I like how Potter has trained the reader to read and decode some German phrases in context. (Ich habe meine neue Adresse in Berlin registieren = I registered my new address in Berlin.) Potter is also quick to counter any objections by stating: “if my use of German is annoying you…” and then offering a translation website URL. Potter’s personality swans through!
Potter’s residence while in Berlin: Ahlbecker Strasse 5, Berlin, Germany (Google Street-view, July 2008)
This is an entertaining and thoughtful travel journal, written for friends by a friend who is open and honest enough to confide that traveling solo means “having a great time and having a sad and lonely time too.”
I recommend it for anyone who contemplates traveling solo but is afraid to give it a try. It might be just the pep talk needed!
Anne E. Weisgerber has recent stories published or forthcoming in New South, The Airgonaut, Tahoma Literary Review, Vignette Review, and Jellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or hanging out with the #fishtankwriters. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.
Read More by This Author:
- I’m from Electric Peak by Bud Smith
- Rattle of Want by Gay Degani
- Jean, 1948 in Issue 2.1
- Mexicali Blues by Joseph Grant
- RIFT: Stories by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan