For once I was in constant contact with my AirBnB host and she knew when to expect me. For some reason phone service was working again.
Her name was Anke, Danke without the D, and she was just delightful. A strong, independent feminist type so I was completely comfortable in her badass penthouse apartment near the train stop.
It was a fifth-floor walk-up with two outstanding bars nearby. What wasn’t to love. She was laid back, rode a cool tricycle bike everywhere she went with a huge basket connected to the two front wheels and had decorating style and a cook’s kitchen. I needed the five stories to walk up at that point. I’d dropped weight walking all over the cities of Europe and saw the added challenge as a test of stamina and lung capacity.
That would bite me in the ass later.
Anka spoke, of course, perfect English and her guest room was normally reserved for months at a time by students at the local university. It was a cozy place filled with mementos from an interesting, well-traveled life. Something I could appreciate, someday wanting the same for myself. The room was at the top of some tricky loft stairs that offered the opportunity to fall backward down them or to the unprotected left approximately 15-feet onto the livingroom floor. Noted.
She was well read and worldly, warm, patient and confident. She reserved the right to like me or not until we spoke at length about life in general. Then we became fast friends, not your average, bullshitty host/guest relationship. She was (and probably still is) self-assured and physically fit (obviously, considering the bike and five flights of stairs) but not broadcasting it, she dressed comfortably like a PE teacher but semi-stylishly. Not that kind of PE teacher. She has a boyfriend.
I liked her immediately.
After a cup of coffee and some direction on what to do in the city, I headed out – under her guidance – for my traditional “put the bags away and get a beer.” Two hundred yards away was Bistro Frappe, which I found attractive by name alone, having had an introduction to proper frappes in Athens weeks before. Inside I found buried treasure.
To this day, I have no idea why it’s called Bistro Frappe. It’s a bar, a smoking bar, with dart boards and no coffee that I could see. The family that runs it tried to kill me. With both kindness and strong, frequent pours. Where in the hell to begin? From the moment I walked in, Hilda smothered me with attention, aggression and beverage. She wanted me bad but was a fireplug of a woman in her 50s (maybe), who likely would have ended me.
Her sisters, one was the owner, Katja, the other – Sonja – also found me quite irresistible. But the showstopper would reveal herself as Daniella, Katja’s daughter, an attractive blonde in a lumberjack shirt who took a shine to me for reasons still unknown. Daniella and I had a very good time. Of course, they all knew English to varying degrees, with the exception of Hilda, who only knew reverse-Benny-Hill-chase-me-around-the-bar-grab-assing shenanigans. Which I chose to find charming.
Katja was an absolute hoot, a true bar owner from the old school. We smoked and drank and talked about Germany while Daniella got more and more comfortable in my presence. Which I found out was encouraged by mom and dad. Dad being an amiable older man who hung out and encouraged good humor from guests.
Collectively they were/are the Richter family and I’m surprised they’re alive. I’ve never seen such a display of haphazard drinking in my entire life. Well, not since college.
This was how my first night in Hanover/Hannover would begin. And it’s how my last evening in the town would end. What a rich tapestry of humanity I’d stumbled upon.
After an hour of bantering about Texas and politics and soccer, (Go Hannover 96!), a gentleman named Tomas bought me a beer and asked me to play darts. I’m not terrible at darts but much like pool and chess, I’m exponentially better after a few beers. I just wasn’t ready yet. But he forced me to play on their BS electronic, plastic boards. The bar hosted a darts tournament that night at 9pm and Tomas was looking to practice.
He destroyed me in six rounds. Six. Should have been five but he missed a bull. The bar made fun of me and uninvited me to the tournament.
The Richters got me tipsy and I needed food.
Across some fun high-speed road traffic and streetcar tracks was a place called Woodstock, which had the best schnitzel, I was told. I knew it wouldn’t live up to Tom’s at Bi BA BO in Leipzig but I’d give it a spin. There was an American football game on in the backroom, the smoking room, so I took my dinner in there, being a heathen raised by wolves and all.
Dinner was lovely, I no longer felt like a ship in a storm and made it up all five flights of stairs back at Anke’s place, plus the perilous sixth flight without crashing to my death.
The following morning, I made a cup of coffee in Anke’s kitchen and she pointed out some things that were wrong she was hoping to fix, and did I know anything about this type of stuff. An IKEA cabinet light was out, a shelf had come loose, something was going on with the this and the that. I said sure but I had to get some work done then she could tell me where the German Home Depot was and I’d take care of it.
I finished client work around 1 p.m. and she was gone. So I went out to explore a bit, letting her know via text.
Hannover is beautiful, yet another smaller German town with everything, rich architecture, well-laid-out parks, a massive soccer stadium, Gothic-yet-modern central train station and of course, it’s pristine. I’d gone to the central portion of town and found a cool place for lunch where I could then sit and read with a beer and – they had a smoking room with a fireplace. The girl bringing me beers was from Houston and was in Hannover studying linguistics at the university. After a long stretch with no reminders of home, it was great to discuss our favorite Whataburger menu items.
Still no word from Anke so I ventured on and, like the creature of habit I am, returned to Bistro Frappe for a couple beers with the ladies. Daniella began telling me about Hannover’s Oktoberfest which was just getting up and running. She introduced me to some new things I didn’t really need to know, for health reasons. It seems the Hannover Shooting Clubs had already had their annual “Schützenfest” but also have a tradition at Oktoberfest Hannover.
The boys come out in top hats and tails and drink. A ton. And it’s a special drink. A dangerous drink.
They put on white gloves then a special bartender pours a small shot glass of schnapps and a larger, small rocks glass, of lager. You then take the bigger glass between your thumb and index finger and cradle the smaller glass with your ring finger, propped up against your middle and pinkie fingers, and simultaneously shoot both. It’s called Lüttje Lage and, while tasty, will catch up to you quickly.
You’re going to make a mess the first two times unless you’re some kind of special forces person. But then you’ll get good at it. By the time you get good at it, you’re looking for a referee to send you out of the game. I’m what you might consider a drinker but Germans, specifically the Hannover/Hanover folks, put me to shame – to use an antiquated term for how vices are perceived.
After my fifth one, I needed some local food. And a cab. And three-four weeks in a hospital.
Anyway. I’d call Hannover’s Oktoberfest memorable but it wasn’t. All I recall is the head Shooting Club guy saying something, then having drinks poured, then being hugged by some Richters, then there may have been some food at some point. Then I woke up at Anke’s house. My notes from that day-night aren’t very helpful.
What did I want to do while in Hannover? Anke wanted to know. I’d read about the heavy metal scene, it was world-renown, I knew that from an old friend in Austin. Billy Milano is the lead singer for Stormtroopers of Death and other projects, he’d mentioned Northern Germany and had played some festivals there. I’m not a huge fan of the heavier metals but I wanted to see a live show.
There was a bit of internet searching and eureka! Anke was familiar with the venue. After a nice vegetarian dinner of fresh produce, she took me out to the far west side of town to a little (not so little) club called MuzikZentrum. The band that night was called SkullDeathF-ck or some such nonsense, but I was in. Off she went, smirking and wishing me well.
The show didn’t start for another 90 minutes so I walked a few blocks back across the tram tracks to a place called Nische, (maybe), bar. It was perfect. A small, horseshoe bar against the far wall. A cramped area where four-five tables separated the bar from the jukebox. Tom Waits photo on the wall. Perfection.
The bartender, another well-read German bartender, poured me a Jameson and a delicious local lager. He eyeballed me for a few trips back and forth then started with the questions. Where was I from, why Hannover, why his place, I’d heard it before. My answers are always honest. My host had brought me down because I wanted to see a death metal show, Hannover just because, his bar because it was there and allowed smoking. We joked, we bonded over songs that played and places we’d been.
Time for the show.
The venue got real sweaty real quick. The music was insanely loud. I didn’t understand the lyrics, not sure I would have had they been in English. Not sure they weren’t in English. The drinks were a bit too hard to receive. After almost three songs, I anticipated the direction of the rest of the set list and decided to salvage what was left of my inner ear structure and sanity. But it wasn’t wasted time, I’d done what I’d come to do and made Anke proud. Maybe. She’s hard to read, that one. I made a b-line back to Nische.
I was in a good mood – having checked ‘death metal show in Hannover’ off my list. The bartender remembered my order and I just sat at the far corner of the bar enjoying my memory of the previous couple hours.
Here came Emma.
She looked like one of the girls in the Robert Palmer videos from the 80s. Black turtleneck dress, hair pulled back tight, perfect makeup. She wanted to know what the hell I was so happy about, what I was doing in that particular bar, why I was in Hannover… the bartender grinned at me. I got worried.
She was a forensic psychology professor at the university. We talked about foreign affairs, culture, travel, happiness, whisky and just what in the hell forensic psychology was. An hour later, I was in her apartment watching YouTube videos of her favorite German music and drinking Scotch. Her job was not only to figure out if a murderer is fit for trial, it was also to teach students the skills required to do so. She was all up in my head quick-like.
When I got back to Anke’s the next morning, I got a nice cup of coffee, another smirk and the third degree.
Coffee. I adore it. I can’t imagine being one of those folks who doesn’t like the taste or drinks decaf for medical reasons. I’m sure that day will come for me but until then I’m going to try the consensus “best” cup I can find in every city I visit. In Hannover, it was a little place about a mile up the road called – just take a finger and zigzag it across your keyboard, that’s what it was called.
It was sometime after 10 and before 11 a.m., I know that much. There were Hannover 96, the local soccer team, signs and paraphernalia everywhere. A poker machine currently in use near the door, a small dog wandering around and six pensioners lining the bar in patches of stools, all but one drinking what I would later learn is called a Labamba (best I could tell), cold milk and almond brandy (not amaretto).
Dear God, why? This made me nauseous so I had to order a coffee and begin a line of questioning.
The only thing I learned was that they didn’t much appreciate me coming in their ritual watering hole and asking a lot of questions. Big Mama in charge, the one tossing back the most Labambas, was more pleasant than the others, not that they were unpleasant but I’d entered the equivalent of an Elks Lodge or VFW and stirred up shit. I took ownership of that and tipped my hat and went on about my business. I think it went south when I introduced Laverne and Shirley to the situation. I don’t think they got my jokes or references.
The coffee sucked.
I was starving, it’s not a feeling I have very often but I was kind of in a no man’s land and I sure as hell wasn’t going to deal with – just take a finger and zigzag it across your keyboard, again. The closest place was, I’m half-ashamed to admit it. A McDonald’s.
Why? You might ask? Well. It was a borderline emergency, my little sister calls it “hangery.” I turn into a monster pretty quickly, like a toddler who needs nappy time. So, for the good of international relations, I went in – DURING McRIB SEASON mind you – and had at it. Best McRib I’ve ever had and I’m a connoisseur, ask around. They have a lot more FDA (whatever the FDA is in Germany) regulations/requirements for restaurants and fast food joints and it shows in the quality. Even when it comes to the McRib at McDonald’s. I’d go so far as to recommend you eat at a German McDonald’s. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Pulp Fiction, blah, blah…
Why do I keep referring to Hannover/Hanover? Do they spell it one way for the rest of the world and one for Germany? Is it two cities in one, like Buda and Pest? I’d seen it spelled differently in so many confusing iterations I had to start surveying people. Everyone had a different answer. They simply seem to be interchangeable. That’s all I can come up with.
Anke said Hanover is the English spelling and Hannover is the German. However, Germans in Hanover have adopted the Hanover spelling so it’s more widely used while traditionalists refuse to spell it any other way than Hannover. I trusted her more than most as she had several history books about both Germany and Hannover.
It’s not out of the ordinary, I don’t know why I choose to obsess over the things I obsess over. But this is one of them.
However you spell it, the Allied forces bombed the everloving shit out of it in 1945. Some folks hold a grudge over this type of thing despite what was going on at the time. Anke explained that this was likely why I wasn’t welcomed with open arms at – just take a finger and zigzag it across your keyboard. Turns out it was a well-known hang out for “the old guard” so to speak. She even called the Labamba a “drink for racists.” Good, it sounds disgusting, I hope they choke on it.
In the 80s, I worked at my family’s conveyor company in the summers. A less-than-refined gentleman used to punctuate the end of his proclamations with, “If it ain’t so, I’ll kiss your bare ass.” If you can find a consistent spelling of Hannover, I’ll kiss your bare ass.
It was the final day in Hannover and I had to fulfill a promise to Anke. She had a storage space in the basement of the building and I’d agreed to help her bring up her grandmother’s antique “table,” as she called it. I owed her that since she’d already fixed all the broken stuff on her own. We headed down the six stories where she had even more bikes and a bunch of cool things collected through the years.
Here rested the antique table. A 90-year-old peddle sewing machine. It weighed 300 lbs. With each step up the 120 in total, I could feel it slipping. I had to rest on each landing. Anke was getting sick of my shit, at one point saying she could probably get her neighbor, Else, to help her. That was all I needed to hear. We made it into the apartment and me and my heart attack went to get a beer.
FYI – She was going backward, which I appreciated, but that meant I was basically carrying the damn thing.
One last night in the ol’ Frappe proved to be a terrible idea. It was Hilda’s birthday party and she was in rare ass-pinching form. Daniella was in drunk-kissing-mode and Mom was doling out shots like a sorority girl with terminal cancer. Darts were flying all over the room, techno versions of old German standards were pumping louder than I could handle. It was maybe 50-degrees F outside but I was burning alive.
Once the regulars found out the “guy that’s from where Elvis is from” (I’m not and wasn’t) was leaving, the drink-to-me ratio increased exponentially.
I reluctantly said my goodbyes to the Richter family and friends and it was like getting off the phone with my mom. It took an hour to leave after I’d begun with the well-wishing and “nice to meet you”s.
I miss those crazy bastards. Mama Richter sent me some pictures from the party via email and they’ll never see the light of day, I hope and pray.
The following morning-ish, after almost missing the train to Amsterdam, I took a lovely nap in a cushy first-class chair. When I woke up, we were already in Dortmund, home to my favorite Bundesliga team. Turns out I actually do like German soccer after meeting a couple from Dortmund who taught me the team songs and bought me a beer in Playa del Carmen.
The German landscapes by train are something to behold, as if perfectly planned and executed by the Olmstead Brothers themselves. Striking structures in city centers leading to plush gardens and manicured farms. I could look out the window of a train traveling through Germany for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy. Though I’d probably have to use the restroom at some point. And eat. And talk to friends.
It was actually a bit sad to leave the border and enter the Netherlands. Then again, everything I love about Germany was stepped up a notch in Holland.