Taking refuge in a shopping arcade.

Mélanie came to an unknown city for work. Six years later she tells us why she loves Hamburg.

Mélanie was desperate to live in a city. A city – any city – would be preferable to living in the middle of nowhere. Having studied Food Industry in Rennes, most jobs that fitted her profile were anywhere but in the centre of a bustling metropolis. So when she had the chance of a job in Hamburg, it was quite literally a case of “any port in a storm”.

If, like Mélanie, you have lived in Lyon or spent time in Sydney, you are likely to have high expectations of a city. Your first night in a gloomy, rainy, northern German city – far from the Alps, not a sunny beach in sight, away from your friends and family – might be enough to make you turn tails and head home. Perhaps she would have, if her car hadn’t been towed away that evening.

Six years later, she’s still here. Either they haven’t given her her car back or there is something about Hamburg that makes it worth staying. So on a grey and gloomy, windy and wintery Sunday afternoon we meet up in a café next to the lake in the centre of Hamburg and I ask her: why Hamburg?

International Hamburg

The short outline above is, admittedly, slightly exaggerated. Two further factors at least explain why Mélanie ended up in Hamburg: firstly, because she liked the idea of coming to Germany to brush up her German, which she had learnt at school. Secondly, because she enjoys working in an international environment – being part of an international community, working in a language other than her mother tongue. And let’s admit it: we internationals do enjoy feeling exotic.

From that perspective, she is satisfied with her choice. Hamburg, she says, has a large community of international people and it is easy to get to know them through organisations like Internations. Initially she was more intent on getting to know the locals and brush up her German, which is why she didn’t make a particular effort to network with other French people. But with time, she found herself getting to know more French people more or less by chance. Although she has few friends from Hamburg, she estimates that the majority of her friends are from elsewhere in Germany:

It is more difficult to get in touch with locals. Perhaps that’s because they already have an established network of friends and acquaintances, whereas people coming from abroad are looking out to meet new people.

Flat hunting

Hamburgers often complain about the high property prices, with Hamburg being one of the most expensive places to live in Germany. If you want to live in one of the most popular areas, you are likely to have a long wait, you will have to search for a long time and you probably will have to pay well over a thousand euros to an estate agent for doing little more than organising an en-masse visit and handing over the keys.

Finding a place to stay in Hamburg wasn’t all that problematic at the start: Mélanie moved into a room in a couple’s house for two months, which bought her time to find a shared flat. She did this in order to meet some local people. Only recently did she find a flat of her own, which was more difficult and chimes with the experiences that most Hamburg people will report:

I had to search for a long time, but luckily I didn’t have to pay an agent’s fee. Obviously Paris is more expensive, but compared to other cities in Germany and France it is expensive. But for foreigners in France it can be more difficult to get a flat because they have to have a guarantor who will be held liable if they stop paying rent.

The area she lives in, Eimsbüttel, is pricey because it is popular. She loves the cafés, where you can hang out on a weekend and watch the world go by, and where you can while away the hours on a Sunday with friends over brunch. “Brunch” has become something of an institution in Germany’s cities, where everything is closed on a Sunday and people presumably have nothing better to do than drink cappuccino and scoff all-you-can-eat bread rolls and Nutella.

Why stay in Hamburg?

Mélanie said that she had heard of Hamburg before coming here, but beyond that knew nothing about Germany’s second largest city. Oblivous to the Reeperbahn, ignorant of the Michel, blind to the Elbe and Alster; she didn’t really know where it was on the map. What may come as a surprise to Hamburgers and Germans in general is that the city they know and love, which they even claim is the most pleasant in the world, is well off most people’s radar elsewhere. Off the back of a six month stay in Lyon, a city she fell in love with, it was naturally difficult to recognise the unlikely charms of a completely unfamiliar city.

Yes, like its inhabitants, Hamburg can play hard to get. Most people who get Hamburg don’t want to leave. Mélanie is no exception:

When friends visit from Paris, they ask me why the public transport is so empty. The underground system is great – you can get around really easily, even at night and on the weekend. I love water, so having a lake in the city centre is amazing. And the city is very green, so it’s the perfect balance between a large city and a relaxed atmosphere.

And coming from a French person, this is a huge compliment:

The culinary offering in Hamburg is great!

Favourite Hamburg districts

Altona, formerly a city in its own right that once belonged to Denmark, was where Mélanie first lived in Hamburg. On the north bank of the river Elbe, it’s a great place to go jogging and there is a river beach that is popular in summer. Here, and in the parks, people often get out the barbecue at the first sign of sun:

I couldn’t believe at first that people were allowed to barbecue in the parks! In France, you’re not even allowed to walk on the grass. I love the chilled out atmosphere in summer!

Generally, she prefers the parts of Hamburg where there is water – so around the Alster and along the Elbe. The Schanze, the stronghold of the alternative scene and recently the stage for a series of protests and a stand-off between the police and protesters, is her favourite place for going out of an evening. Mélanie enjoys visiting the odd photography exhibition, and despite, by her own admission, not being a culture-vulture,  a lively cultural scene is, somehow, important for her.

What would it take to make you leave Hamburg?

Mélanie is here for the foreseeable future, even though she thinks at some time she will leave. Why? And where would she go?

I assume I won’t be here for the rest of my life, but every time I think about leaving, I don’t like the idea at all! But if I were to leave, I would probably want to be nearer my family, and nearer the Alps.

The country is not an important factor for Mélanie, but being in a city and the factors she mentioned above are. Ideally she would love to live in Sydney because the people are so relaxed, the weather is great and – despite inferior public transport and a concrete core – the beaches make it unbeatable. But being so far away means it’s not a viable option for her.

So in Mélanie’s case, job, geography, weather and quality of life seem to be major factors in choosing where to live. At the moment, Hamburg has got enough of these to keep her and has benefited from six years and counting of a young professional’s time. Well done Hamburg!