Maria and Lucas inside the Kampnagel venue.

“We’re glad we gave Hamburg a second chance!”

Crouching in front of María and Lucas, trying to get the perfect photo. The right composition, a bit of flash to lighten up the foreground. Using the flash limits the exposure time to 1/200s, meaning the aperture has to be as small as possible. Which increases the depth of field, but I can live with that.

The Spanish couple stands in front of the huge Kampnagel logo, smiling down into my camera; I negotiate with my Nikon, apologising with each release of the shutter. Presented with the finished object, you might be oblivious to the balancing act that goes into producing the photo, or the options that were discarded along the way.

Similar, you might say, to the decision for or against a place to live. María and Lucas, both from Valencia in Spain, live in Hamburg. But how did they end up here? What factors did they weigh off against each other? Or, in other words: why Hamburg?

You can’t change a first impression – but you can reconsider

María’s first impression of Hamburg was not particularly positive. Here for what was supposed to be a four-day visit, she left early and returned to her then home in Amsterdam.

The weather was awful, and you couldn’t go outside. If someone had told me I’d end up living here, I wouldn’t have believed them!

Given that the things she likes most about Hamburg are outdoors – the lake in the city centre, the parks and trees – it is no surprise that she didn’t fall in love with the city immediately. Indeed, one of the few downsides that the she mentions is the weather. Hamburg is notorious for its rain, and being far up in northern Germany, on some winter days it doesn’t seem to get properly light at all. Lucas points out that Hamburg is difficult to visit as a tourist unless you have someone to show you around, but as a city to live in it’s great.

The decision to reconsider María’s doubts about Hamburg came when Lucas, then living and working in Lyon, heard about an Airbus recruitment and training programme. He applied, and had the opportunity to move to Hamburg. A decisive factor in the decision to give Hamburg a second chance was advice from German friends that he knew from his Erasmus study-abroad year. They told him that Hamburg is a pleasant city with an interesting alternative scene and that it is a nice place to live. He arrived here three-and-a-half years ago, and María followed in February last year.

A place to stay

When she and Lucas first looked for a flat together, they were spoilt for choice: looking in quarters like Uhlenhorst, Winterhude, Rotherbaum, Altona, St. Pauli and Eimsbüttel. They chose Uhlenhorst, a mere 15 minutes’ cycle from the city centre. She and Lucas say they enjoy an unbeatable combination of city living, cultural offerings, greenness, quietness and family-friendliness.

María has clearly changed her mind about Hamburg now.

Different ways of working – learning from other cultures

María gave up her part-time job as an architect in Valencia to take up employment in Hamburg. Lucas is an industrial engineer. Highly qualified and multilingual, he doesn’t think he would necessarily have problems finding employment in Spain. However, it is no secret that the job market is more difficult there. María and Lucas agree that job prospects are better in Germany at the moment. They say unemployment is a daily topic of conversation and concern in Spain. People have a different attitude to employment: here in Germany, people see having a job as a right; in Spain, both employers and employees see it as a privilege.

María had no trouble finding a job here. In particular, her qualifications as an architect were recognised without hesitation. We had a long conversation about how Germans do things differently in the workplace. Not necessarily better than other countries, nor worse, just differently. Having worked as an architect in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, María has a unique perspective on how her colleagues operate:

There is more investigation in Dutch architecture about “how people live nowadays”, and therefore, they create new kinds of spaces according to the requirements of contemporary living.

As we agreed, Germans don’t waste time talking but are keen on execution. In my (slightly exaggerated) words: they are great at doing things properly, but not always great at doing things differently. María emphasised that working abroad enables you to learn about different ways of doing things. In her case, she is now better equipped to conduct projects at all stages, from design through to execution. María and Lucas were keen to emphasise that you can’t say which country’s approach is better, but should learn as much as you can from different cultures. María says:

I’m going to take as much benefit as possible from working and learning here for my future, wherever I end up living.

Or, to adapt my previous exaggeration: María wants to do things properly and differently; to combine creativity with thoroughness.

What’s great about Hamburg?

María and Lucas clearly came to Hamburg more out of coincidence than due to Hamburg’s international reputation. Now that they are here, they seem to like the place a lot. What is it that is so great about the city that claims to be the “most beautiful” in the world?

The answer to this question was clear before we even met. I met María and Lucas in the café at Kampnagel, a former factory that is now an event location for performing arts. Lucas chose Kampnagel for our meeting because I asked him and María to suggest somewhere with a special significance for them.

I love coming to concerts at Kampnagel because there is a special ambiance here. Unlike the clubs along the Reeperbahn, it is not right in the centre. This means people come here because they really want to see a specific performance. It’s easier to get into conversation with them during the break because everyone shares a certain affinity for culture and music.

For María and Lucas, Kampnagel epitomises the cultural offering that makes Hamburg such a great place. They say there is much more going on here than in Valencia.

They say its greenness, the public transport, and the individual quarters all make Hamburg very liveable. The Alster, a large lake right in the centre of the city, is a great place for recreation.

I asked what it would take to make them leave Hamburg. Interestingly, Lucas left Lyon for Hamburg despite falling in love with the place. Lyon has many things that Lucas really likes: he says for Spanish people the language and the culture are easier to adapt to. The nearby mountains were a great destination for weekend trips. The climate is better. And the French joie de vivre.

Lucas was on the look-out for new personal challenges and enriching experiences; but in the end, a major factor in the decision to move was that his friends and acquaintances were steadily leaving. And Lucas says that if one thing were likely to make him leave Hamburg, it would be that. So you could move mountains to make Hamburg more like Lyon, or change the climate to make it more like Spain; but it would all be in vain without personal friendships and a network of like-minded people.

Loving Lyon, hating Hamburg – and choosing the latter

María and Lucas gave Hamburg a second chance. The lakes, the culture, liveability and good career chances make Hamburg a place they are planning on staying in for the near future. The downsides to Hamburg – the weather, and the dullness in winter – are things that no urban planner can influence. So on one hand, what they seek in a great city is nothing new.

But on the other hand, Lucas loved Lyon and María hated Hamburg. It was only by chance that they ended up here: a combination of an evaporating social network in Lyon, new work opportunities, a thirst for personal challenges and recommendations from Erasmus friends.

And so the choice of a city really is a bit like photography. You do your best, do what you think is right … and end up choosing the first option that you initially thought was awful. And in the end, you’re pleased you took a second look – see photo gallery, above.