Red Lights and Animal Rights – Hamburg p.1

Hamburg is an ice-rink. For some time now the temperature has been ocillating between +1° and -5°. When it’s above zero the rain comes and starts to melt the ice, but then when it drops again a shiny new layer of frozen ice is added to the already few inch deep slab covering the city.

The van skids and grinds over it as we try to track down our couchsurfer’s flat. Eventually we do and are welcomed by some delicious spaghetti in cashew sauce. I found her after using my now time-honoured method of typing “vegan” into the keyword search on She is also involved in the animal rights scene and invites us to the weekly anti-fur demo on Saturday.

We take a few days to have a look around and find our feet in the city, find the best vegan junk food, (for reference, it’s in Hin and Veg on Schulterblatt) and work out what else there is to do.

Hamburg, like Copenhagen, has a lot of  people’s kitchens. Hafenvokü is one of the better ones. We meet our host and some of her friends there, all very lovely people, especially Sarah who we get on with very well.

After three nights couchsurfing we move the van to the notorious district of St Pauli and park it next to a few other trucks with tell-tale chimneys and electric wires running into them from some of the squats at the side of the street.

St Pauli has a long history of squatting and today is home to a blend of vagrants, prostitutes, punks, squatters, crusties and the like. Well then, we should fit right in.

We are two streets away from The Reeperbahn, or “Sinful Mile”. I have never seen so many sex shops all in one place. One whole street is closed off by a massive fence with a billboard over it declaring “Men over 18 only”. Pete goes to have a look and suggests I do the same, but I am too scared. Later I find a page about it in the St Pauli brochure saying women are liable to get eggs thrown at them if they go down there. Didn’t want to see it anyway!

Rote Flora is the big infamous social centre. Neither of us are all that into hardcore, so we go for the vokü (people’s kitchen). It’s ok. A fairly typical punk social centre, but there doesn’t seem to be much going on apart from the vokü and the punk gigs. It’s still squatted though, which is really something in Germany as squatting is now completely illegal here. Rote Flora has been squatted since 1989 and must be one of the oldest squats in Germany. The building is huge, which makes me think it’s really a shame there isn’t more going on.

On Friday we visit the Schwartzmarkt Infoladen, which yields some results. We now have information about the weekly Fischmarket (which sells a lot of fruit and veg also), a good skip, a libertarian library and another social centre, Centro Sociale, showing a film that night about the 2010 olympics. Also a place nearby called Schwartze Katze that “might” have food tonight and… a tree-camp protest-site, right here in the city of Hamburg!

Schwartze Katze is an anarcho-syndicalist place. They seem surprised to have strangers turn up, but are welcoming anyway. We sit at a table alone and wait for a meeting to finish, which it never does. We are the only people there who aren’t in the meeting. We eat a bit of soup and look at the library. The building is very clean and neat and not at all like a social centre. They have hand-stitched black and red curtains. Cute. We thank them and go to Centro Sociale to watch the film, which is in fact very interesting, inspiring and in English.

It’s late, but we take a detour to visit the tree-camp. We meet Olivia and Jürgen, sitting around a fire in front of the tree they have occupied for the last two months. They are quiet and a little self-conscious, especially of their English (which anyway is quite good), but also open and friendly and I take to them immediately. We sit and chat with them a while before moving on on our urban scavenging expedition of “containering” – the German term for what in the UK is called “skipping” and in the US is called “dumpster diving”.

We return to the van a few hours later, dejectedly clutching our “bounty” of two crusty bread rolls and a small bag of potatoes, to find our van surrounded by shifty looking men selling drugs and Onkel Otto, the squatted punk bar we unwittingly parked outside playing hardcore punk at full volume. Some people run out of it screaming monkey noises. Ok, Time to leave. We pack up the bikes, drive back to the tree-camp and park up on the road outside. Trees. Peace. Perfect.

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