It was a brisk night in Hamburg.
The rain had stopped, leaving the air misty. I stood stiffly in the middle of such an unfamiliar place. My stomach churned, but also trembled with excitement. I was in the heart of the Reeperbahn. People crowded the streets in fancy club outfits and the loud music sent vibrations through my body. The only source of light was coming from infinite neon signs that lined every building. There were nothing but bars in sight, an element I wasn’t used to. It was an uncomfortable feeling that somehow peaked my curiosity.
Earlier in the day I was roaming the cobblestoned streets of Hamburg. People were dressed in big heavy jackets, awaiting the rainfall that was going to happen later that afternoon. The sky was painted blue and a few billowy storm clouds were starting to roll in. Down the street, a guy was dressed in a large gray puffy jacket and black skinny jeans so tight I could see the definition of his leg muscles. He had piercing green eyes and a scruffy brown beard. He wore a loose knit beanie with a backpack hanging low from his back. I was lost in the depths of Hamburg and desperately wanted to find where the Red Light District was so I could see what all the hype was about.
“Sprichst du Englisch?” I approached him.
“Yes,” he responded in shock.
“Can you point me in the direction of the Red Light District?” I asked, assuming he was from Hamburg.
“Head south until you hit the Reeperbahn, but I wouldn’t visit now. Go in the night time because that’s when it comes alive.”
Why not go during the day? Wasn’t it safer in the day time? I had heard about the Red Light Districts in other countries, but never in Hamburg. I was curious about it; Did it include the same experience as others? Were there more prostitutes? Drugs? A dangerous place to be at night? So many questions were running through my head at 100 miles per hour.
“Go in the night time because that’s when it comes alive.”
“Is it not safe?” I asked.
“Hamburg’s Red Light District is one of the safest in Europe!”
How can a Red Light District could be safe? Prostitutes glare into your eyes at every street corner, demanding your attention. They stand tall in their 6 inch black stilettos, dressed in thin lacy lingerie with their makeup glimmering in the red lights. Drugs are passed around so freely and among so many people that someone could slip something into your drink and you wouldn’t even notice. Presumably, nothing good happens here and everyone fears the unexpected.
“You can’t come to Hamburg and not go experience the nightlife and what our Red Light District has to offer,” he advised. “Although I would recommend staying north of the Red Light District.”
The red light district had something to offer? To someone like me, so innocent? I couldn’t imagine what that would be.
The sun slipped behind the horizon and the night life was hopping.
I called for a Taxi to take me to St. Pauli, the core of Hamburg’s Red Light District.
“Alright, no turning back now!” the taxi driver stated in an ominous tone as if he was going to drive off and abduct me without a trace. Sitting in the depths of the back seat, all I could hear was my heart pounding while the taxi driver’s voice faded into the background. I remained silent and quickly shut him out due to the million thoughts racing in my brain. I kept reminding myself that everything was going to be okay. I started to listen to him again because he was awaiting my response. He kept telling me how unsafe Hamburg was, and how it has become extremely dangerous because of all the recent influence and immigration of Middle Eastern people.
Nearing the Red Light District he continually stressed to me to be careful. He was telling me how the Mafia hangs out around this part of town and prays on girls that are seemingly out of place.
“They are going to come get you and take you away. Sex, money, drugs, you want that!?” He yelled at me in his thick German accent.
I stayed quiet. I was scared and couldn’t wait to get out of the taxi.
“I just came here with the intention to explore the area and experience a different culture that I’ve never seen before.”
His beady eyes were glaring at me from the rear view mirror. He thought I was crazy.
“Bye bye now.” he said softly.
I hopped out of the taxi, shut the door, and scuttled away. Almost immediately after, the man sped away into the depths of the night.
“Sex, money, drugs, you want that!?”
During the day the streets of St. Pauli were completely different. It was dirty. Streets were filled with homeless people begging for change, stray dogs were running around, graffiti covered almost every building wall, and tourists were gathered in groups with cameras hanging from their neck while people lingered on the streets glaring at everyone as they passed by. Looking out and seeing the dreary gray fog hovering over the city made everything seem black and white. However, as the day shifted into the night, St. Pauli transformed into a completely different scene.
Standing there in the darkened hours of the night, I took a long look around [me]. The street was filled with nightclubs flooding with teens, sex shops, strip clubs, and bars with people stumbling in and out holding beer bottles in their hand while bouncers were checking ID’s. Lights flashed from every angle reflecting light off the damp streets. It was loud, music blasted from clubs while people yelled at each other from across the streets.
For a second I started to feel unsafe but as I looked around I saw police everywhere. The area was under heavy surveillance and to me felt like a small college town on steroids. Strangely, it felt normal, people having a good time hopping from bar to club. As I walked down the strip of Reeperbahn I stopped at a little outside bar and ordered myself one of those fancy girly drinks, a vodka cranberry, to sip on while I explored the streets.
Out of pure curiosity, I started to wander south where the hotspot for prostitution happens. I was curious, but also terrified of ending up in an uncomfortable situation. The pit of my stomach grew larger as I wandered deeper into the red light district. In the distance I saw a gate, the Herbertstrasse gate, which led deep into the red light district where the German man from earlier told me not to go. Behind these gates were prostitutes hiding in windows. The gate was at the end of an alleyway with stickers covering every inch. There was a sign that read “Entry for men under 18 and women prohibited.” It was crazy to think that only men were allowed beyond the gate. It left my imagination running wild.
After exploring the south side of Reeperbahn, I decided to head back north like that guy I met in the city advised me to do in the first place. At this point I was a little tipsy and the alcohol soothed my anxiety. I wandered into a few bars but nothing exciting happened, so I decided to bar hop. Running into one, staying for 5 minutes, and then running into another. I couldn’t decide where to go; so why not try them all?
I found myself rushing into this one bar because they were playing High School Musical and I couldn’t resist. The second I ran in I was immediately approached by a guy who started targeting me with questions. He was drunk. I could tell by the way he was running through the bar to grab my attention. As soon as he opened his mouth he reeked of beer.
“What do you think the most common German male name is?” he asked. I thought to myself why in the world he would be asking me this question.
“Marian?” I responded in confusion.
“No! Johannes!” he screamed giving me a look as if he was offended by my answer.
I awkwardly laughed and asked him if he was from Hamburg. He told me he was and I thought it was weird that he would be in the Red Light District since it was such a touristy place.
“Most people come here to bar hop. It’s easy for the time to pass by fast here, a few drinks in and with the blink of an eye, it’s already 5a.m. and the sun is coming up.”
He took a sip of his beer and continued, “Every Sunday morning people head straight to the fish market from the bars. They are all drunk of course, but this is a normal thing we Germans do.”
“Although we do try to stay away from this area just because it can get so chaotic, but sometimes we need a reminder of how fun and frenzied the night life can be,” he admitted.
“sometimes we need a reminder of how fun and frenzied the night life can be.”
The rest of the night was a blur, and before I knew it, it was 5am. I looked up into the sky and the stars started to fade away. The sky was becoming less dark.
I stumbled into the fish market that morning. It sat right beside the water, which made the air crisp and created a slight breeze that ran through my hair. I could hear yelling from miles away. Vendors loudly offered their goods. It sounded like an auction. Many of the vendors put on a show to try and grab everyone’s attention. The atmosphere was filled with the party crowd. People meandered, still drunk. There was loud music, beer and fish. As the sun started to rise above the horizon more people started to pile in and you started to lose the party feel.
The guy at the bar was right.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user IK’s World Trip