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When a weekend day of sunshine arrives in the middle of a dreary winter, the citizens of Hamburg take to their green spaces in droves. Winter days are short, and a day of bright sun is like a dollop of fine chocolate, boosting energy levels in the grim, gray season. One of the premier jogging trails in the city is around the Alster, a man-made lake that is a short walk from our new home- Rothenbaumchaussee 34, the University of Hamburg Guesthouse.

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The lake has been separated into two parts, the Aubenalster and the Binnenalster. That “b” in Aubenalster is actually a double “s”, but that is beyond the scope of this post. We would be getting into German, which sometimes seems as alien to me as Chinese, even though I did manage to plow through Chaucer.

The boundary of the two lakes now carries a considerable amount of traffic via two major bridges, but the split was created by the Wallenberg fortifications, built in the 17th Century. The inner lake is quite small, and its southern edge is in the very heart of Hamburg.

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The Aubenalster measures three kilometers from one end to the other, and the jogging trail is a 7.6 km loop. Dedicated runners pound their way around it in significant numbers, even when the weather is miserable. In sunshine, it seems like the entire city empties itself on to the edge of the Alster. Joggers compete with bicycles, baby carriages, dogs and strollers, threading their way with admirable aplomb through the migrating crowd. Cell phone addicts interrupt the flow with their irregular head nods, glancing at an incoming text. The numbers of cigarette smokers shock one accustomed to North America.

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The Hotel Atlantic Kempski anchors the southern end of the eastern shore. It was built in 1909, has 252 rooms and its own, private movie theatre. Known to locals as “the white palace on the Alster,” it has looked after the likes of Charles de Gaulle and Michael Jackson. On the opposite shore, not far from the Gasthaus, is another enormous white hotel, the Intercontinental. For real class, however, one must book a room at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten (the Four Seasons), on the Inner Alster. It has been around since 1897, attracting luminaries like Sophia Loren, Aristotle Onassis, and the Rolling Stones.

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In addition to fine-looking mansions, boat houses and coffee stops, the outer Alster is home to the Imam Ali Mosque, the Litteraturhaus, and a number of fascinating public sculptures, from kite flying children to man-made meteorites. Everywhere you look there is a new vista and something surprising, a face in a tree or a bridge full of padlocks, linking lovers to the one spot in busy Hamburg where time stands still, if only for a moment.

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There may be easier ways to get from Grand Pre, Nova Scotia, to Hamburg, Germany, but the most direct way is the flight to London from Halifax. Unfortunately, it is a red-eye, scheduled to leave around midnight. It lands in London around 9:30 AM. The first available, reasonably-priced flight to Hamburg leaves at three in the afternoon. On paper, that doesn’t seem like too much of a problem. In reality, it is a nightmare. The night flight to London is too short to get a proper night’s sleep and there is nowhere in that section of Heathrow offering any semblance of rest or relaxation.

So, we arrived in Hamburg absolutely exhausted. Our handful of German words had disappeared and the taxi driver was quite dubious about our destination. He offered to take us to the Elysee Hotel to pick up the key, but had no idea where the Gasthaus might be, even though I had the address and assured him it was only a short distance away.

People who are nearly catatonic so easily pass for idiots, especially when they don’t speak the language. In the end, it all worked out just fine. When in doubt, dress well. That’s our motto.

For those readers unfamiliar with the two hemispheres, it is now summer in Melbourne. It is a good time to be elsewhere as the temperatures in Australia tend to soar into the stratosphere. This year, our escape entailed a return to our home in Nova Scotia (for Christmas), and a visit to the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg, Germany for January and February. Not to mention a brief stopover in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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You sentimentalists will be happy to know that our Christmas in Grand Pre was white, although the snow disappeared soon after it arrived. Maritime climates are fickle that way. Two years ago they were skating on the lake called the Alster, within walking distance of the Gasthaus. This year it is fine for boats and birds. It is a winter of rain.

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We are fortunate to have found a home away from home at the Gasthaus of the University of Hamburg, a building that has some serious history and a wonderful staff. We are not the only visitors here associated with the Max Planck Institute, which runs a centre dedicated to Comparative and International Private Law.

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The nearly 80 research institutes of the Max Planck Society conduct basic research in the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and the arts and humanities. They have a total staff of approx. 13,000 permanent employees, including 4,700 scientists, plus around 11,000 non-tenured scientists and guests. Their budget for 2006 was about €1.4 billion, with 84% from state and federal funds. The Max Planck Institutes focus on excellence in research, with 32 Nobel Prizes awarded to their scientists, and are generally regarded as the foremost basic research organization in Germany and Europe.

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We are talking big potatoes for a country this size. Exploring Hamburg and the surrounding area will be a new adventure, challenging for both us in terms of language and culture. This is will be the first of several posts based on my sojourn here. And I have some catching up to do, so you will find me backtracking to do a couple more posts in Australia. Things have been a bit hectic of late, and I’ve been preoccupied. We are in a good place to write now, so stay tuned.

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