Ayako Ezaki is originally from Tokyo, but moved to the USA to study. She lived there for several years, working in the field of eco-tourism. Spending time in Washington DC and Portland (Oregon) until her visa ran out, she met Ferdinand and adopted Mai, their loyal canine companion. Ayako, Ferdinand and Mai could have lived anywhere on the face of this earth. All the more reason to ask: why Hamburg?
I met up with Ayako at Balzac, which is a Hamburg coffee-chain, in Ottensen. Ottensen is part of Altona, one of Hamburg’s hippest quarters that has changed hands between Germany and Denmark over the years. Altona was an independent city before becoming part of Hamburg in 1938 and is the stage on which many controversial discussions about urban development are played out – and one of the City of Hamburg’s aims is to make Hamburg attractive to internationals, or the “creative class” to which Ayako undoubtedly belongs.
After drinking a coffee and briefing her a little, I asked Ayako to take me somewhere nearby that has some particular significance for her. On the way, she talked to me about why she chose Hamburg and I recorded the interview on my phone. Mai was happily trotting along a few footsteps behind us, with Ferdinand on the other end of the lead.
Our destination was a small courtyard in Zeißstraße, where we stopped to take the photos (below). The area is interesting in itself: formerly home to working families, the houses have been preserved and renovated and visiting the street feels like a step back in time, with its cobbled roadway and brightly-coloured houses. The courtyard she showed me used to belong to a factory, but these days it is a museum and a school.
And hence the special significance for Ayako: it was here she went for lessons in German language and culture as part of the integration course that almost all non-EU residents have to take as a condition of being allowed to stay in Germany. Ayako quite enjoyed the course and found it interesting to learn together with other women from very different cultures: from various African countries, Pakistan and Turkey.
I was surprised to hear such a positive response, expecting such courses to be more of an irritating piece of bureaucracy. Ayako found the courses quite easy because she is used to studying, but some people with a non-academic background had more problems. Learning about German history in “broken German” is, understandably, a challenge.
Germany or Japan? Why Hamburg?
So we set off on the ten-minute walk, and of course my first question was – of all cities in the world – why Hamburg?
To cut a long story short (and, admittedly, to exaggerate a little), moving to Hamburg had more to do with Mai than with Ayako or Ferdinand. They found their now five-year-old mongrel in a dogs’ home in Washington DC in 2009 and had no intention of leaving her behind. Moving to Japan would have meant putting Mai into quarantine for three months. By choosing Germany, they spared Mai the distress, and themselves the guilt, of solitary confinement. So Mai is the best-travelled dog I have ever met, and Ayako and Ferdinand’s reason for moving to Hamburg is as heart-warming as you can imagine.
But why did they choose Hamburg over, say, Berlin or Munich? The couple have more friends in Hamburg than elsewhere in Germany, and having a network of friends around is important to them. Their friends told them that Ottensen and Altona, in south-western Hamburg, are the nicest places in Hamburg:
Because of our friends and what we knew about Hamburg and what we heard about Hamburg before coming here … we knew from the beginning that we wanted to be in Altona.
According to Ferdinand, they aren’t disappointed with their decision. The historic atmosphere and the culture in Altona appeal to them:
We moved to Ottensen and Altona … because it’s small scale, so you see the history of places. You have old structures, there was an old workers’ quarter here in Hamburg. So we really like this combination of old and new; modernness, but culture and history as well. This you find specifically here in Hamburg in Ottensen … You have nice bars here, we have our friends here in this area as well, so we like it here.
The concept of community, or belonging, was what made them move from Washington DC to Portland when they were living in the States: although Washington is a well-to-do city, they realised with time that roughly every four years a great deal of the population would be replaced with newcomers. This in turn made it more difficult to feel part of a community, which was a down-side for them. They first visited Portland on a business trip when they were planning an event, and they fell in love with the city to the degree that they wanted to live there. Working in jobs that allow them to relocate quite easily, they took the plunge and moved to Portland, Oregon.
Indeed, when I asked what their favourite city quarter in the world is, they both agreed that the district they lived in in Portland was their favourite. Portland is green, laid-back, and they found it easy to feel part of the community when they were there. Those of us who have been to Portland (which I have, briefly) know that it is renowned for the European atmosphere, culture, good cuisine, and open-mindedness that the couple talk about.
Putting a face on the “creative class”
I must admit, I was sceptical about whether I would find any members of this “creative class” during this blog project. I was expecting to hear lots of people saying “it’s more complicated than that.”
Ayako and Ferdinand moved from to Portland from Washington DC simply because they liked the place. They weren’t fazed by the prospect of moving from the USA to Europe, or even Japan, delegating the decision to their dog. (I love that story!) The attributes that make a city attractive to them would be familiar to many urban developers – a sense of community, not too big but not too small, a sense of history and culture combined with modern facilities.
Ayako told me that since moving to Germany, the couple has had the chance to get to know Berlin and Hamburg better and make a more informed comparison between the two. Apart from the career opportunities that would present themselves were they to move to Berlin, the capital has certainly caught their eye:
From the beginning we had these two cities in mind and somehow Hamburg won. But once we got to know Hamburg a little bit more, and Berlin, I think Berlin has much more human community culture feeling. Hamburg is great, but … there’s a little bit of that missing. Some corners of the city that are a little bit dirty and crazy … one of the things that I miss in Hamburg is the really vibrant scene of local small businesses. Not just surviving, but thriving.
So it really appears that – at least if Ayako represents a greater group of people – the Richard Floridas and Ed Glaesers of this world are on to something. What a shame it would be if people like Ayako and Ferdinand chose to seek their fortunes elsewhere. If they do, I sincerely hope that their four-legged friend uses her veto!