Remember that time you went to Hamburg with two hours notice, no accommodation, no plans, no contacts and next to no money?
I feel like I’ll be asking myself that one for a while.
Just over a week ago I took part in Escape and Pray, a faith adventure organised by Fusion, a charity that is passionate about seeing students come to know Jesus. I see silent alarm bells going off in your mind. “Escape and Pray”, ” faith adventure”, “Jesus”. It’s going to be one of those posts, isn’t it? Yes. Yes it is. Sorry, not sorry.
Escape and Pray aimed to give students the opportunity to live out Luke 10. Though obviously not quite to the letter, seeing that we’re not the group of middle Eastern agitators to whom the words were originally uttered. Basically, it was a chance to have an adventure and to trust in God to provide and to connect with students and with churches and just to generally meet new people and to go to Europe and to have a lot of fun. So here’s the premise: organise a group of mates, turn up at the airport and open an envelope containing your European city destination, your tickets and €20 per person. Then go to said destination with only the time before your flight to frantically try and find accommodation and contacts. Standard.
Arriving at Manchester airport with my amazing team – Rob, Emily and Rosie – I was a little nervous but heavily excited. A couple of minutes before finding out our destination, for reasons unknown to myself, I unwittingly set my heart on Valencia as a possible destination. Who knows why, but I was crossed-fingered for Valencia. Then we opened the fateful orange envelope. “You’re going to Hamburg!”, said the orange piece of paper. I stared at the words. Jet black on orange. They stared back, the paper mocking me with its hue, the precise shade of the Valencia orange. I fell to my knees in anguish.
No I’m just kidding. My disappointment lasted about as long as it it took me to realise that Hamburg was in Germany, the land of beer and sausages. (See previous posts to understand why beer is now significant to me.) My excitement soon became sprinkled with worry. I don’t know anyone in Germany, talk less of Hamburg. And the Hamburgular’s really busy at the moment with his makeover so he wouldn’t be able to help us out either. Just like any other millenials, we turned to social media in our time of need. And I called my mum too.
After paying for a bus with our tails between our legs, we wandered around town for a while, starving, trying to find the cheapest traditional food, one of our challenges being trying a local delicacy. We went for Currywurst and never have I enjoyed curried sausage so much. OK that was the first time I’ve ever had curried sausage, but it was good. No, it was great. After dinner, we met the girl who’d kindly organised accommodation for us, having been messaged by a friend about our predicament. She was a lovely student and she let the girls stay with her and found some mates to house Rob and myself.
The next morning, I felt great. We’d spent ages chatting with our hosts and joined them in their morning prayer sesh so I started the day on a real high. Wandering around the University of Hamburg was fun. We were able to tick a few more challenges off our list including crashing a lecture. We sat at the back for a while looking conspicuous and English, often one and the same, but hightailed it out of there when the lecturer put some incomprehensible symbols on the overhead projector (I know, right?) and it became clear that we’d have to spend an hour listening to a lecture in German that I’d have struggled to understand in English.
Next we made our way into town to try and find a church for some good old-fashioned Christian sanctuary. Most of them were closed – unsurprising seeing as it was a Monday afternoon. The evening before, we had found a fast food joint that had free WiFi at Hauptbahnhof, Hamburg’s main train station, and this became something of a headquarters for us. Or rather, the spot on the floor just outside it, where the WiFi still worked but there was no pressure to buy anything, became something of a headquarters for us. We soon came up with a hilarious team name – #TeamHamburgers – a name that became much less funny when we realised that people from Hamburg genuinely call themselves Hamburgers as the meat-related Americanism clearly isn’t as much of a thing for them. As expected, the trip was full of poor jokes about eating the locals and abuse of burger emojis on social media.
Afterwards, we wandered toward the harbour and took a picture with the Hamburg State Opera House – selfie with a monument, check! We were quite hungry but were reluctant to buy anything to eat because we’d already spent a fair bit on food and transport the previous day. One thing we’d agreed on was that we wanted to give away as much of the money as possible. (That was also one of the challenges by the way, so not just us being selfless saints!) Having spent the day wandering around with our stomachs rumbling, we saw a homeless man outside of a church and one of the team suggested we buy lunch for him. This didn’t sit quite right with my self-preservation instincts, but I wasn’t about to refuse a man on the street lunch so I went along with it. It was oddly humbling buying food for him and none for ourselves. It was also quite humbling realising that the empty stomach feeling that we had was probably how he felt most of the time. I’m not going to pretend it was easy giving out money that we felt we needed, or that the clouds parted and a heavenly beam of approving light shone down, but I think it did me good to think about someone else at that time and to put things into perspective.
Later #TeamHamburgers returned to the university to make use of its WiFi. Eduroam is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Counting our money in the university dining hall, it turned out we had a little more than we’d thought – enough to buy some food and still be able to afford the next day’s train fair to the airport. With that night’s accommodation confirmed, we splashed out on the cheapest dish served by the canteen. Let me tell you, you’ve never had better pasta and tomato sauce. We shared two meals between the four of us, like two pairs of besotted dogs from different social classes enjoying Italian food on a particularly bella notte. The person who served us didn’t ask for any student ID, our dishevelled appearance no doubt telling her all she needed to know, so we were charged the cheaper student price that obviously wouldn’t have been available to us if she’d known we didn’t actually attend that university. Talk about stealing benefits. This extra windfall of $2 allowed us to treat ourselves to some waffles too and I gleefully smothered them in a blizzard of powdered sugar. Bearing in mind that I’d been up for 11ish hours and had eaten nothing more than a slice of malt bread, a Toffee Crisp and a morsel of cheese, this made me feel amazing. The hungry, grumpy afternoon was long forgotten and I felt ready, once again, to take on the world.
Earlier we’d responded to an ad we’d seen on a noticeboard asking for foreign students to discuss real estate in their home countries. The ad promised free coffee or beer for the participants. Naturally, we jumped at the chance. We met the three girls whose project it was for in a coffee shop and talked for a while about house prices, living conditions etc. for students in England. After we’d finished discussing their topics we just chatted for ages. One thing that transpired was that Germans pay something like €300 per semester for university. €300. This was such a slap in the face to the £27,000+ bill that I’ve racked up over the last three years. I struggled not to spit out my coffee in shock. To be fair though, maybe if they sprung a little more than €300, they’d be able to afford more than an overhead projector in lectures… Yeah I went there. Afterwards the girls insisted on buying us a delicious pastry that was native to Hamburg. It was a sort of cinnamon roll/croissant hybrid and had a name that we all struggled with. It was something along the lines of “fransbrochoweivenoborgeniebrushettastiplwievelsknitcheluchen”. Something like that. When I say the girls insisted on buying us this treat, I mean it. These generous students walked us to three different bakeries before they found some fransbrochoweivenoborgeniebrushettastiplwievelsknitcheluchen to buy for us . Once again we were bowled over by the unwarranted kindness of strangers. Earlier, we’d prayed for food and drink and we’d had a great meal and dessert, followed by coffee and more dessert. Suffice to say we felt very grateful.
As evening came in, #TeamHamburgers (I’m not even sure that the hashtag is ironic anymore) made our way to our second host’s house. This woman had got in contact, having heard about us from a friend on social media. From the moment we stepped foot in the house, we were welcomed like guests of honour. All four women who lived there were so lovely and generous to us. They made a curry for dinner and I ate so much. Like a rude amount. It was delicious. We stayed up and chatted for a while, but they had work in the morning and we wanted an early night too so we soon went to bed. The next morning, they provided a lovely continental breakfast of various meats and cheeses. We laughed about the differences between German and English food. It would appear that Germans find the concept of the full English breakfast ridiculous as they prefer a lighter start to the day. Apparently they can’t be dealing with sandwiches for lunch either – they like a hearty hot lunch. And quite frankly, that’s something I can get behind. Two slices of bread and a smear of filling can only take you so far at lunchtime. And why are sandwiches so expensive? I need answers. But this can be discussed later. Anyway, after praying with our hosts, we left for the city centre, laden with a packed lunch that had been lovingly prepared for us. Honestly, the kindness of strangers. Overwhelming.
After a ferry ride to a ‘beach’ that mostly consisted of stones and disappointment, we prayed for different areas of the city. On a whim, we also walked along the Old Elbe Tunnel that was 426m long and 24m below sea level. Coming up on the other side, we found little more than severely underwhelming industrial estates. Ah well, it can’t always be Narnia.
We were all exhausted as we headed back to the airport. Exhausted but grateful. Exhausted but content. Exhausted but elated. Looking at the #escapeandpray hashtag in the airport (thank you, Turkish Airlines for the free WiFi), it was exciting to see all that God had been doing with the other groups dotted all over Europe.
So what did I enjoy? The many opportunities Hamburg offered me to take pseudo arty Instagram pictures. What did I struggle with? Living, quite literally, on a prayer. The trip helped me realise that I don’t really trust God in my day to day life as I rarely ever lack anything I need, or even want. What won’t I forget? German efficiency. Honestly, the public transport system in Hamburg is ridiculously good. €6 for a day ticket in all zones and all forms of prompt and timely transport, including ferries. And don’t even get me started on their university fees. What will I take from this? Generosity. The kindness of strangers. It, quite frankly, amazed me that people would allow foreign strangers to sleep in their house with merely hours of notice. Actual strangers. We weren’t even friends of friends. Not really. I quite like what this group who went to Oslo calls it: unnecessary generosity.
Getting home felt great. As did our celebratory McDonalds. After ordering my main meal (BBQ Chicken Legend Deluxe with bacon), I showed my student card to get a free burger. Student life has many perks. Free burgers and crushing debt. Anyway, surely proving that God has a sense of humour, the McDonalds lady asked me: “Will that be a cheeseburger or a Hamburger?” I’ll let you guess which one I chose.