First weekend back in Hamburg, June

I’m in Hamburg for the moment. Two more weeks and I’m back home with my beautiful, inquisitive and loving bride. I trust the future will take care of itself, with as much help as I can provide from the present, so I’ll rather spend this update on the recent past.

Since travelling to Europe four weeks ago my life has once more turned into one long adventure. Sleep is elusive and snatched fitfully between the hours of midnight when the sky finally relents to full darkness and 6am when the bright daylight burns me from where I sleep on the floor of my apartment.

Upon arriving in Germany I realized that my first weekend would be a long one: the Monday was a public holiday. I hadn’t planned any trips for that weekend and towards the end of the week I was convinced I was going to have a lame, rainy weekend alone. I briefly considered flying to Malaga, Spain for the weekend but for some reason I decided against it — I’m glad I did! On the Friday evening after work I set out.

I strolled to a lovely geek store selling everything from weapons and medieval dress, to Dungeons & Dragons, board games and books. Several patrons were furiously playing a card game, Magic the Gathering, which is to say everyone was quietly frowning intensely at the tables around which they sat.

Intrigued I asked in broken but passable Geekspeak what they were playing and soon I was being taught the intricacies of deck building by one of the locals. I left a while later having been gifted a brand new deck of Magic cards by the proprietor. Such generosity!

Elated at having made contact with the natives and my new gift, I decided to revisit a hideout known to only a few. I retraced the steps from half a year earlier (read more about that experience here.)

Not two minutes after I bought my first bottle of sweet honey wine I was prattling with a young gentleman who soon suggested that he was not “nerdy” enough for the Einhorn. Now, I can smell a nerd a mile away so I asked some probing questions. It turns out that this young man was a Furry. Furries form a strange subculture related loosely to Cosplay but clearly distinct in their philosophy. Imagine someone dressed up as Goofy or Donald Duck or some large mascot suit. Now imagine a whole crowd of these people ambling awkwardly down a street in your local town or city. There you go: furries. Of course this neglects the emotional and social aspects of the endeavor. There is rumoured to be a current of unquestioning acceptance and mutual adoration underlying their societies which I am wary of and I prefer enjoying their creativity and enthusiasm from a distance. I quickly assuaged the young man’s fears that “he wasn’t nerdy enough for this place.” I doubt there is any place he isn’t “nerdy” enough for.

The mead flowed and soon the bar was once more speaking English as I enthusiastically shouted wildly above the din! Glorious! At one point I felt myself detach and in a moment of clarity knew that the night had reached its zenith and to linger would begin to detract from the experience. I hit the road and soon fell crashing to my bed. Checking the time I noticed a message from my friend Evan who lives in Berlin. I had messaged him earlier in the day to know whether he’d like to have some fun and make the best of the long weekend together. His reply had just arrived and at roughly 2am I read (paraphrasing):

Sorry man, I can’t make it. I’m on tour in Prague with my Rugby club. But if you want to play Rugby you’re welcome to join us. We’re playing at 17pm tomorrow afternoon.

High on life and mead I considered for a few seconds, checked the flights from Hamburg to Prague and promptly let Evan know that I don’t have any Rugby gear whatsoever but what I lack in gear I make up for in enthusiasm and I would see him noon the next day. Content I lay back and fell into a deep sleep.

I woke with a start and a pounding headache. I dimly recalled my last conscious minutes and as my mind sorted dreams from memories I snatched up my phone only to find that I was, indeed, playing club Rugby in Prague in about 7 hours. I rushed to the train station and from there the airport. Soon we were touching down in the Czech Republic. A very optimistic set of public transport transfers later I arrived at the hostel and met the gentlemen.

What happens in Prague stays in Prague but I’ll say that those group of Berlin boys sang beautifully and whenever they start harmonizing you know whatever drinking, party or choir song is coming, it’s going to lift the roof.

Those fine gentlemen quickly found me a pair of Rugby shorts, a jersey, even a club T-shirt! These were followed by more donations of Rugby togs, socks and even a mouth guard! The mouth guard was shaped to the man’s own teeth but we figured we both have a top jaw so it should work.

With mounting bravado we made our way to the match. Upon arriving we found that a band of giants had replaced the Slavic team and a quick huddle was called. One man pointed out that this was a friendly match, many of us had wives and children and if anyone didn’t feel comfortable tackling giant tree stumps hurtling at you with hatred in their eyes they should speak now and we’d play touch Rugby instead. I kept appropriately silent but tried to spread my enthusiasm telepathically as much as I could, silently willing the fact that that we had some massive gents ourselves, that I was sure it would be fine, and other encouragement to the rest of the men.

Of course, these lads had been playing an entire season of Rugby, had trained hard, and were still somewhat intimidated, whereas I had played a game or two when I was twelve and was completely unqualified to make the call. There was a respectable silence, a space where any man could bail, then after the proper delay the giant prop said in his British drawl that “If we’re playing touch, I’ve wasted my time coming.” I could have kissed him and the huddle was adjourned. I expected no less and now people had their game face on. ’Twas beautiful to behold. At it’s core, the game seemed simple: channel your own momentum through a rigid core into your opponent or divert his momentum away from yourself, depending on who is tackling whom. And something about a ball, whatever.

To those who dislike violence, I suggest a refinement of their tastes: violence done between two parties where one party would rather not participate is indeed atrocious, but violence between consenting adults with rules strictly adhered to that prevent gratuitous injury is a thing of marvelous beauty. I have not gained nor granted such respect in so short a time as on the Rugby field and I look forward to playing again soon. Before the match we were passing the ball around and it was determined that I would throw the ball in at the line out — apparently being in an all boys high school in Stellenbosch meant that I had some pretty mad skillz in some areas of the game less practiced by my team mates.

I ran onto the field at outside center and alongside fellow center, wing and my friend Evan on full-back we quickly made telling tackles. I even got the ball every so often and with unrestrained glee I smashed straight ahead into men intent on stopping me. It was glorious and time and time again I violenced my way into and over some unfortunate opponent before inevitably being forced to concede to gravity, taking to the earth with a wild grin.

With an excellent wing on my outside and a good friend backing us up from full-back it was a pleasure to “laat die bal die werk doen” and I loved helping clean away greedy opponents when my friends got taken to ground. If played cleanly, Rugby is immense fun and I will never forget that mad game.

As it was a friendly and we were playing with rolling substitutions I got rotated to full-back as well as eight man during my time on the field. I’m not sure which of those I prefer. Eight man gets to tackle more, but tackles made from full-back were usually more memorable. My lasting impression of the game is that of constant and utter exhaustion.

After the game, those new to the tour were forced to line up for a “chilli eating competition.” The six or so men were split into two groups and each group got given a sealed can along with an opener. The other team joined the rest of us in a wide semicircle to watch the spectacle. As the openers bit into the can, an immense stream of putrid liquid jetted from the punctured can, drenching those nearby and drizzling us onlookers. Instead of chilli’s these men were opening cans of Surströmming. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Surströmming hails from the depraved minds of ancient Swedes holding out against the winter darkness. The Wikipedia article describes it well:

When a can of surströmming is opened, the contents release a strong and sometimes overwhelming odor.

Just enough salt is used to prevent the raw fish from rotting

According to a Japanese study, a newly opened can of surströmming has one of the most putrid food smells in the world

I can attest to that.

Each new man had to eat some fish and I could not let the opportunity pass by to experience something so safe and yet so horrific so I had two pieces. Some of the lads had more. The stench is indescribable. Some poor dog owner had brought his best friend for a stroll and the dog had a wonderful time rolling in the putrid juices. I pity the fool.

The rest of the day was filled with lots of beer and general merriment and even the most fatigued joined for a night out exploring the bars and wonderful cobbled streets of Prague.

The next day saw me back in Hamburg, barely able to move but smiling ear to ear. Monday dawned bright and I spent the day walking short distances and sitting for long hours drinking beer next to the Hamburg lake, eating ice cream on various busses and generally being as lazy as a tourist can get.

In retrospect I find it amusing that I had feared for a boring, lonely weekend and ended up having a wild adventure with good friends, old and new.

Thanks Evan, jy’s die legend!

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