The Alster: Then and Now?

I decided to come to Germany this  summer when I was visiting last winter. I wanted to take a few weeks of a German refresher course and do some visiting. Then, I quit my job, summer turned into fall, a few week course turned into a week, and I did some visiting and traveling and learning. I’m thrilled with my decision.

I wanted to come to Hamburg because I have lots of happy memories of the city. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. I love the cafes, the shopping, the harbor, and the running. It is a friendly, open city, and I always imagined I could live there because it’s big enough to have some English stuff going on, too. (Sometimes it’s nice to do things in your native language.) When I signed up for German lessons, I wanted to live near the Alster, but I ended up on the Elbe (and much closer to school), and that was fine.

It was great to have some time to walk around the Alster though. I never got my act together to run around it, but in the end that was better. The Alster isn’t summer for me, it’s winter. It’s the dark days of the end of December, and I’m traveling alone in Germany for the first time. My mom has just left after her Christmas visit, my friend Tara is traveling abroad, and I’m feeling a little out of sorts. On a running website that I frequent, a woman announces that she is running the Hamburg marathon and would love a training buddy. Hannover isn’t too far from Hamburg, so I message her.

I met Ammi in the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. She had just transferred to Hamburg for work, and though I think she was the age I currently am, she seemed so sophisticated and world-savvy. We went from the Hauptbahnhof to the hotel her new company was putting her up in, changed clothes, and set off around the Alster.

It was about seven o’clock at night. The weather was icy and still. We could see our breath. At times we had to shuffle over the puddles that had frozen into ice. Around every corner of the Alster, I was enthralled. Huge homes towered over the shoreline. Their lights glittered. Turning a corner, the city of Hamburg seemed to rise up from the huge expanse of water. My nose was bright red and dripping, but I was in love. I guess it always happens by surprise.

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Walking around the lake in the summer gave me more time to think and look around. At one point, I saw this statue.

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Though I must have passed it dozens of times while I was living and running in Germany, I never noticed this statue of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s only in hindsight, after teaching this myth to three years of freshman English students that it meant something to me.

In that moment, I was reminded of Catcher in the Rye.

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Though Catcher in the Rye is not my favorite book, I enjoyed teaching it because my students love it. At this moment, in the warm autumn air, standing in front of the Orpheus and Eurydice statue on the banks of the Alster, I thought of Holden and the museum. The protagonist of Catcher, Holden Caulfield is averse to change, and he clings to places like the Museum of Natural history, where everything is under glass and stays the same. It’s a world he can orient himself in.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move… Nobody’s be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.” –Chapter 16

Oh Holden.

Walking around the Alster, five years after I first ran around the Alster, seeing Orpheus, thinking of Holden… made me wonder, think, conclude.

I decided to run a marathon in Hamburg because I wanted to run a marathon in college. I trained for it, but I ended up getting a nasty little hip injury so I had to put if off. My friend Caitlin helped me through the disappointment by saying that it would be just as exciting to run a marathon in another country and it was nothing I needed to achieve in college.

College was a time I discovered my athletic ability. I flirted with running and working out before, but at William and Mary, I got certified to teach aerobics. I taught spinning, kickboxing, Pilates, weights, and I started to run. I loved running. I ran a bunch of half-marathons, and I definitely wanted to achieve a marathon. At W&M, a lot of my identity was tied up in my athletic aspirations. I was also very vocal about my activities because I never felt that I looked like an athlete. It caused a lot of problems for me.

I ran a marathon in Germany, and I continued running off and on as I moved cities and then moved to Delaware. But it always felt awkward. Like I was trying to cram myself into an old identity or reach some ideal I had decided was important years ago. Very Gatsby-like of me. I created an image of success in my head at a young age and forced myself to fill it.

I think my greatest aspiration was something not uncommon to young women. The thinnest one wins. You could get good grades (check), move to another country (check), and do amazing things with your life (check!) but unless you are smaller than a Macy’s mannequin and hanging off the arm of a guy, you would lose.


As I’ve had time to myself this month, as I’ve sat on the train and stared at the passing scenery, as I’ve gotten up in the mornings for casual and beautiful jogs in tons of different cities, I think I’ve realized something.

I need to get over that. We all grow up in different ways and with different expectations, and as a bullheaded perfectionist, I grew up setting and achieving unreal goals. I got into a great college! I ran a marathon! I moved countries! I’ve graded 100 papers in a week!

But sadly, I’ve never really learned to take care of myself, or be nice to myself, or open myself to depending on other people. I’ve been afraid of being soft, and I’ve always always struggled with my body. And I think it’s time to move on…

As I stood there, staring at Orpheus, leading his love out of Hades, looking behind to make sure she was still there and losing her forever, I realized that I needed to lead myself out of a Hades I’ve created or lose myself in a very real way.

It’s taken me awhile to put my thoughts together in this post, and it’s something I’m still tackling as I stuff myself with (delicious) German bread and other favorites, but it’s something very real. I don’t need to measure myself against some unreal standard and declare myself a loser every time I fall short. I need a new way…

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About Heather

I'm a literature-loving adventurer.
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One Response to The Alster: Then and Now?

  1. Larissa says:

    Beautiful, Heather! What a wonderful gift to be able to return to somewhere you love!
    Perfect preparation for a stint in Greece! You can run around the ancient Olympic Stadium and hang out on Mount Olympus for a while instead of running away from the depths of Hades.

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