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Imagine you are marching in heat of about 100F, and the sun is intense–no clouds to protect you; imagine you are in a city, with the sun bouncing up off the pavement, and high humidity. You sweat uncontrollably for hours. Ok–now you are with me in Hamburg, Germany on July 4th, 2015. But how did we get here?

Well, way back in Winter, once I learned that the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden wanted to display one of my bottles in an exhibition on Friendship, I knew I had to visit Germany. But I wasn’t just going to visit the museum and come home! No, no, no. I had unfinished business with Germany! First, I wanted to meet Sabine Roy, and was so grateful that I was able to do so.

Then I learned that an internet acquaintance, and fellow message in a bottle enthusiast, Peter Stein, lives near Hamburg, and we got to talking about meeting there. Peter is an avid sender of messages in bottles, and he also writes a blog about messages in bottles, which you can visit by clicking here.

We both knew the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg has on display the world’s oldest message in a bottle, so Peter and I decided to meet for the day!.

Anyway, Peter mentioned he was going to be late getting to Hamburg for our meeting, so he had arranged for one of his other Facebook friends, Andrea, to meet me at the station and help me find my accommodations.

Now this is one of those moments that a “normal” person might pause and think something like this…

Meeting a Stranger's Internet Friend

But instead, I was like…

Moar Frendz?

Moar Frendz!

It’s a good thing I’m not, like, a zebra or something. Lions would have gotten me long ago.

“Look out for a nice charming girl holding a message in a bottle on the platform!” Peter wrote, and sent me Andrea’s photo.

So when I got off the train, I headed to the exit and there she was, Tante Andrea, holding this sweet message in a bottle made just for me!

Treibholzeffekt Message in a Bottle or Flaschenpost Welcome to Hamburg

She actually made the paper by hand herself. Cool hey?

I was intrigued to learn that we were BOTH more or less clueless about each other! So we spent the train ride to my accommodations trying to figure out how each of us knew Peter, and, ultimately, what we were doing in the same place.

Turns out Andrea is a blogger herself, and writes about sea-related things that she finds, collects, and uses in crafts, including driftwood, sea glass, etc. Check out her blog, Treibholzeffekt, by clicking here. You can read her post about our meeting by clicking here. Of course, you’ll want to brush up on your German for either of these! You could always run the page through Google translate, too, which is usually good for a laugh.

I’d say it was in the 90s F on the day I arrived, July 3rd, and I was admittedly a little sad to find that my accommodations were on the top floor of a 5 story walkup. Inside the building, I could feel the temperature rise with each flight of stairs, since heat rises and accumulates on higher floors.

Un-air-conditioned Building in Summer

Andrea accompanied me all this way, and once I “landed,” she invited me to join her and her friends at a small street fair. There was a part of me that just wanted to go to bed and sleep for the next 3 days straight (since I hadn’t slept much in Dusseldorf, where my bedroom was probably 90-95 F even in the dead of night, with no fan, no a/c, etc.).

But I was determined to make this trip about more than just messages in bottles–I wanted to immerse in the cultures I was visiting, to understand not just the specific individuals I came to meet, but also the social and cultural milieus in which they dwelt. I wanted to see the world through the lenses of their experiences. The decision was simple: I would go to the street fair! And of course I would come home early in order to be well-rested for the big day Peter had planned for us, right? …right?

Before the street fair, though,we were joined by one of Andrea’s friends, Saddia, who was extremely friendly and intelligent. Andrea took our little group to a beach-themed bar. I’d never really been anywhere like this. Here’s what it looked like:

German Beach Bar Hamburg IMG_3240

It’s sandy everywhere, so you can walk barefoot! Well, if you are trusting enough 🙂

Eventually, we headed to the street fair in Altona to meet more of Andrea’s friends. It turned out we met not only the folks she intended to meet, but also some other people who were all connected via Andrea, so we all just stuck together!

There was live music, and this band switched between singing pop songs in English and German–I mean, within a single song, one verse would be English, then the chorus would be German. That was new for me!

Altona Street Fair

Our group drifted along through the street fair for a while, enjoying the food, beer, and live music. I had really engaging conversations with Andrea’s friend about work, politics, vacation time in Germany vs. the states, and more. It’s funny that one stereotype of Germans in America is that they are cold, efficient, work machines. And yet, they get significantly more vacation time than we do!

At each stage of the night, in my head, I’d think something like, “Well, it’s 9:00, better think about heading home to get a good night’s sleep before I meet Peter tomorrow and spend all day walking in the sun between museums and whatnot…” then, “Well, it’s 10:00…the fair is over…better go home…” then, “Well, it’s 11:00. I’ve eaten some falafel in a potato and now I’d better get home since it’s getting late…”

This train of thought continued as someone suggested we go sit by the river. Is it close, I wondered? Sure, it’s close…

So we grabbed a few beers and proceeded to walk a few miles to the river, and then to a beach on the river that was covered with young people. There were little camps here and there with stereos set up playing everything from house music to rap and beyond. Lovers smooching and fussing around under beach blankets. The moon was almost full. Out across the Elbe, I could see docks where massive cargo ships are loaded with freight. All night, these little robot-looking vehicles drove back and forth, moving stuff around. No photo can capture the eerie beauty of that sight, but it was a little like this:

Cargo Loading Docks in Hamburg Germany

Each tiny red dot along the middle of the photo, left to right, marks the top of a really massive crane, even though they look small here. The little black shapes along the bottom against the reflections on the river are the silhouettes of people hanging out on this beach.

It was probably a little after midnight when we reached the beach. The walk down there was lovely and fun–just a bunch of people talking about everything. I loved listening to the rest of the group speak to each other in German because it helped me learn. Also, I just love the sound of German. It’s funny to me that it has a reputation as a “harsh” language. To my ear, it’s really beautiful. And getting to know Andrea’s friends was great. They struck me as smart, interesting, adventurous people. There were entrepreneurs in the crowd, an artist, and people who’d spent serious time–like years–abroad.

Finally, it was time to leave that ethereal scene and head home. My plans to get to bed early were obliterated by the fun I had hanging out with these total strangers. I don’t regret losing that sleep for a minute!

So, we walked. And walked… and… walked…

We passed through some kind of fishing or seafood district. It was something like 2:00-3:00 a.m. when I saw this scene:

Hamburg Seafood District Unloading Crates of Fish

Those white crates just to the left of those guys caught my eye–I see those on the beach all the time! These crates wash up constantly! They must be used to store fish at sea as well as to move them around on land… Ironically, a lot of times when I find these plastic crates washed up on the beach, it’s because some sweet, concerned soul has come along and tried to pick up other waste and collect it in one place–i.e., in the plastic fish crate, like so:

Plastic Fish Crate Used to Collect Trash

Or like so:

Fish Crate Used to Collect Trash ... Plastic

The motivation here is admirable. Even beautiful, lovely, and inspiring. Imagine: Someone on vacation is willing to spend their precious time picking up other peoples’ trash!

But–and I hate to be a dark cloud here–I can guarantee you one thing: The cure for plastic trash is definitely, 100%, NOT more plastic…

Aaaanyway, we walked most of the way home that night–hard to estimate the distance but at least several miles. I got home around 3:30, and as I was drifting off to sleep a little after 4:30 a.m., I heard birds chirping. It was already getting light out! Hamburg is so far north that it was light until well after 10:00 p.m., and began to be light again around 4:00 a.m. So a little less than 6 hours of actual darkness. Probably closer to 5–and not like pure black darkness that folks in most American states are used to–more of a soft blackish gray… it was “darkish”. Madness. In a few hours, I needed to be up and functional…

Peter had said he wanted to pick me up between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning. When I woke to my 9:00 a.m. alarm, I was really hoping he would come toward the end of that window… But, as I stepped into the shower, I heard him ringing the apartment. Ah! I had to get downstairs!

Peter is such a nice man–right from the start he was happy and friendly. He wears these cool steel-rimmed glasses and he strikes me as someone who stays active.

I’ll never forget meeting Peter, because one of our first interactions–just steps from the building I was staying in–was when Peter stopped me to point out a small brass plaque set into the concrete. There was a name and a year, and some other writing. Peter explained that these plaques, set into the concrete all over Hamburg, commemorate victims of the Nazis. This particular plaque gave the name of a young woman who had lived in a house at this location, and it gave the date she was dragged out of that house and sent to a concentration camp where she was killed. You might assume she was killed because she was Jewish–that was my first thought. But the plaque actually said why she was killed: she was simply disabled. Who knows exactly what “disabled” means in this context. All we can be sure of was that this young woman was deemed unworthy of life by the Nazis. I almost couldn’t believe what I was looking at, or where I was standing. In America, almost everything about WWII and Nazis has been so thoroughly subjected to Hollywood treatment that it’s hard to grab onto how very real this history is. In Germany, you are surrounded by it constantly, almost everywhere you go. I stood there thinking, “Right here. Right here this happened. Not in a movie, not in a textbook. Under my feet, on this spot.” Incredible. For the rest of the day, every time I saw one of these plaques (and as you can imagine, they aren’t exactly scarce), a dark cloud passed over my heart. This was heavy, heavy stuff.

From there we went to meet Andrea at the nearby metro stop, and the three of us found a place to have coffee. It was around 10:00 a.m., and already it was uncomfortably hot. Little did we know we would experience near-record heat for the rest of the day.

Our first major stop was the a place called Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie (The Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany), and I will abbreviate it in this post as BSH.

At the BSH, Peter’s wife and daughter joined us. This bureau has many responsibilities. Among them is keeping track of ocean currents and recommending the best paths for ships to travel. Because of this, they have a great deal of historical data about oceans and currents as well. But most interesting for me is their massive collection of messages in bottles from long, long ago!

The BSH owns a collection of about 660 messages in bottles, all sent by BSH officials, and returned by people who found them. Their use of messages in bottles to track ocean currents dates back to a guy named  Georg Ritter von Neumayer, who started sending them in 1864 with instructions to finders to mail the messages back, including the location and date of recovery. You can read about their message in a bottle collection here. And you can see their oldest message here. 

In Peter’s blog post about our visit, he explains that Neumeyer coined the term “Flaschenpost,” which is the German word for “message in a bottle”. It translates directly as “bottle mail,” which I think is great!

During our visit, we got to see wonderful things. The folks at the BSH are so nice, so friendly and helpful! I found myself wishing I could work there… Talk about the ocean all day, hang out with these great people…it would be awesome!

After showing us a very old, sealed message in a bottle, which looked like this:

BSH Old Message in a Bottle Flaschenpost

We went back into the archive area, where the BSH folks pulled out these ancient looking books bound in black. Inside, carefully pasted to the pages, were chronologically arranged messages from bottles dating back to the 1860s that had been found and returned to the BSH.

Old Message in a Bottle Flaschenpost from BSH

Two messages from 1891!

For each message, the exact “start” and “end” locations were known, as well as dates tossed and found; thus, researchers could work out, roughly, the speeds and paths of various ocean currents. These messages formed the core of Germany’s knowledge about ocean currents for decades. From these and other messages, vast, elaborate charts of ocean currents were made–items that were extremely helpful to mariners and ocean researchers.

Old Chart of Ocean Currents from Messages in Bottles and Flaschenpost Data

Yes, messages in bottles are romantic, but they are also pragmatic. Of course, these days we have more high tech versions of MIBs that provide far more information than these little bottles ever could. But that doesn’t make them useless–occasionally messages in bottles behave in ways that scientists working strictly from modern technological methods have a difficult time explaining, and we are reminded that the ocean is still a mysterious place.

The BSH folks also shared with us beautiful old nautical maps–some of which were hundreds of years old.

Old Map of Africa in BSH Hamburg

Mermaid and Whale Detail From Old Nautical Map in BSH Hamburg

One thing that blew me away is that the maps weren’t oriented to the compass points. The word “orientation” has “orient” as it’s root (from latin “oriens” or “east”). Thus, many old maps are “oriented” with east at the top of the map. In other words, the map “pointed toward” the east, so north would be off to the left. Crazy, huh?

Another way nautical maps would be oriented was based on how the shoreline would appear to you as you approached in a ship. In other words, forget the actual direction: what was important in these maps was to make landmarks and the coastline appear, on the map, as they would appear when you saw them from your ship. So, let’s say you wanted to sail almost due west from Sardegna in the Mediterranean sea to the Catalonia region of Spain, which is kind of Spain’s northeast coast. Here’s what an old, west-oriented map would look like–note that it mimics the way modern GPS systems show you always going forward or “north”. Even though you are traveling west, this old-timey “GPS system” depicts Catalonia in the “straight ahead” or “north” position:

West Oriented Map in BSH Hamburg Germany

So straight “up” on this map is west. North is off to the right. Got it? Ok, happy sailing!

The other thing about these old-timey maps is that they would include artwork. In this case, a map of Brazil is adorned by depictions of some kind of large cat hassling some monkeys, which seem to be in turn going after a tropical bird. Watching all this is a small group of people depicted as natives in that special, bizarre way of old-timey European drawings.

Brazil Map Adorned With Artwork in BSH Germany

After this, Peter’s family, Andrea, and I all went into an even deeper archive/library type room where we got to see other old maps, including one of whale sightings in oceans around the world. Spoiler: There used to be A LOT more whales…

I left the BSH building feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of nautical knowledge housed in that building and in those people. Amazing.

Next stop was one of the BSH’s research vessels, called Wega (VAY-gah).

BSH Research Vessel Wega in Hamburg Germany

It just so happens that Peter’s daughter, Henny, works on one of these vessels, so we lucked into having our own personal tour guide! She explained her work, which has to do with chemistry in the seas. This wild giant glass thing is a tool involved in sampling water gathered from different depths–the goal is to figure out which kinds of metals are present in the water and in what quantities or concentrations:

Henny Explaining Her Work

This is very specific, detail oriented work–I’m glad someone’s doing it! The ocean is a big place, and we need to know all we can about it if we want to keep the age of humans cruising along.

It was fascinating being on this ship. I kept seeing things that I recognized from beaches–i.e., things that are fairly standard on any ship, and which are apparently often lost at sea.

There was the standard life preserver and emergency beacon, which I see washed up all the time:

Wega Life Preserver and Emergency Beacon EPIRB

So there’s both on a boat. Here’s a life preserver on the beach:

Carnival Victory Life Preserver 2013

And a couple emergency beacons:

Emergency Beacon on the Beach Emergency Beacon on the Beach 2 Emergency Beacon on the Beach 3

Then there were these big orange buoys–these things wash up on beaches all over constantly, whether orange or some other color:

Orange Buoys on Wega Research Vessel

Big Green Buoy on Beach

Various kinds of rope–another common beach find:

Beach Rope on Wega Research Vessel

Rope on the beach:

Osprey Nest With Plastic Rope on the Beach

Well, that’s actually an Osprey nest full of plastic rope, but you get the idea. This stuff is everywhere.

Would you be surprised to learn that hardhats wash up on beaches all the time? I usually find 5 or 10 on any given beach outing in the Caribbean. I always figured they came from construction sites or perhaps oil rigs. But it turns out they are used on research vessels, too! Here’s some hanging inside the Wega:

Hardhats on Wega Research Vessel

Can you spot the hardhat on this beach?

White Hard Hat on Beach

After our visit to the Wega, we ran to get lunch in a nearby cafeteria–I had currywurst, and I loved it!

By this point in the day, it must have been in the mid 90s with high humidity. Suffice to say it was uncomfortable outdoors. But I was totally unprepared for what came next.

I thought, as we approached the building where we would eat, “It’s the dead of summer and very hot outside…surely THIS building will be air conditioned so customers can eat in comfort, right?” Wrong!

There was no air conditioning. Inside the cafeteria, where we ate, it was far warmer than it was outdoors. I’d say definitely around 100 F and just as humid as outside–it might have been even more humid, from the cooking, and no air moving. Within a few minutes, I was drenched from head to toe in sweat. I’ll probably get made fun of by my German friends for expressing how intensely uncomfortable this lunch experience was (even though the food and company was great), but I can’t help it! I mean, I live in the American desert, where temperatures over 100 F are routine. The other day I ran a couple miles when it was 102 F. This heat is just part of life here, no big deal. But that cafeteria in Hamburg–I was miserable! I’m not sure if anyone else was–we never discussed it, probably because we were too traumatized by it! But it was unbelievable. In America, I am certain that any business–restaurant or otherwise–that came to be this hot indoors would shut down either voluntarily or by law because of the acute health risks. Quite frankly, it was unsafe. By the time I left, my brain was a little fuzzy, so the rest of the day rises in my memory as a hazy, fluid mess.

After we ate, we parted ways with Peter’s family, and Andrea, Peter, and I walked to the International Maritime Museum, the pinnacle of our Hamburg outing. Keep in mind it was around 98 F at this point with full sun and high humidity. The walk was just under 2 miles each way, but it felt like 5. I was drinking water constantly, but in that kind of heat, it’s impossible to stay adequately hydrated. I became fixated on (or obsessed with?) how crazy it is for a developed country to have almost no public water fountains. We saw one “water station” that day, and there were probably 20 or so people in line at any given moment. Again, this was serious, dangerous heat.

But we trudged along to our destination, and made it alive! See!

Clint, Andrea, and Peter at the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg Germany

I couldn’t believe it! I’d been thinking about visiting this place for so long, it seemed like a dream now that I was finally here… I remember reading about a German fisherman (named Fischer!) who hauled up the “world’s oldest message in a bottle” in his net a few years before. From the moment I heard the story, I desperately wanted to see this message in person. Part of me thought I never would–but now, standing outside the museum, I knew it was just through those doors…

So, in we went, and in just a few minutes, we were shown to the room where the bottle is on display. It was one of those moments when–it’s hard to describe–when I experienced something that was both deeply profound and incredibly simple all at once. It’s just–there it was, all of a sudden, in all its tiny glory, a very significant artifact:

Wolrd's Oldest Message in a Bottle Hamburg Germany International Maritime Museum

I really couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Clint Buffington With World's Oldest Message in a Bottle in the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg Germany

It is completely amazing to think that this bottle floated around, submerged, for 101 years before being found–in a fishing net of all places! Who knows how much longer it could have survived if it hadn’t been caught? 5 years? 10 years? 101 more years? I suspect we will only begin to learn the answer to this question as time goes on, and we continue to discover messages in bottles from the early days of “drift bottle” science and ocean current investigations. (See note below!)

This message was sent by Richard Platz in 1913, and found by Konrad Fischer (a fisherman) in 2014. Platz’s grandaughter, 62 year old Angela Erdmann, was contacted about the find. She said it brought tears to her eyes to learn of this message from her grandfather whom she never met.

I couldn’t help thinking about how this bottle was sent before my grandparents were even born! This bottle was sealed and set adrift, and then a little while later, the first World War happened. Many years later, the second World War. People didn’t own cars when this thing was sent in 1913. It was a different time. In England, the summer of 1913 has popularly been remembered as a sort of high point or crescendo of an idyllic, pre-war era, even though it was a socially and politically active time in the country, as this article explains. But it’s hard not to think of those pre-war days as an age of innocence, before the mind-bogglingly massive atrocities of the World Wars to come.

No doubt about it, though, the world would change fundamentally and permanently several times while this bottle floated along the sea floor, waiting to be discovered. A lot of great things happened, of course–we visited the moon. We landed robots on Mars (and lets not forget Venus! People always forget that…). As always in human history, we did great and terrible things throughout the decades this bottle waited.

I think bottles like this one are special in a way that the average artifact can’t be. It’s not like finding some famous old person’s pants or something–this old bottle is a time capsule. It carries a sealed little bit of an earlier time and place…

What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just a message from 1913 in that bottle; rather, the bottle contains 1913 itself. See what I mean? It’s a very special item.

But there’s something I have to mention here. This message in a bottle, while beautiful, fascinating, and old, is most likely not the world’s oldest message in a bottle. Gasp!

It’s true that the folks involved in this story had this bottle examined by a variety of experts to verify its authenticity, and that’s something Steve Thurber hasn’t yet done, and may never do. Steve Thurber claims to have found a message in a bottle 107 years old at the time of discovery, and I, for one, believe him. You can see some video of the bottle here. If you’d rather read about it, check this out.

Of course, I’ve never seen Steve Thurber’s bottle, but it seems to me like the real deal. My guess is that it didn’t spend a lot of time at sea, and when it washed ashore, it was buried in sand–all of which helped to preserve it for over a century.

(EDIT: Holy crap! Two days after I finished drafting this post, Peter and Carol Meyers both wrote me to tell me about an even OLDER message in a bottle recently found in Germany. It’s 108 years old! Read about it here...)

After our visit to the International Maritime Museum (and there is a LOT more there than just this message in a bottle!), we found a place to sit and write. Write what? Why, our own message in a bottle, of course!

_DSC4208 _DSC4215

Me, Andrea, and Peter Write a Message in a Bottle

Peter planned for us each to write a small message and seal the bottle–later, he would deliver it to a ship’s captain who would take it far out to sea before sending it. I’ve never even been part of sending a message in a bottle before, so that was fun! It’s a challenge to figure out what to say in such a message… What would you write?

By the time we finished making the MIB, we were all pretty wiped out and destroyed by the sun–it was time to head to our respective accommodations, and recharge. So, after two more miles in 98 F heat under blistering sun and thick humidity, I made it to my accommodations and just rested a bit.

That evening, Andrea and I hung out, and she showed me her excellent driftwood and beach glass collections:

Andrea's Driftwood Treibholzeffekt

Andrea's Driftwood 2 Treibholzeffekt

As well as some shadow boxes she’s made with tiny found objects from the sea–shells, of course, but other stuff too. Check it out:

Andrea Treibholzeffekt Shadowbox

How cool is that?!

There was a bizarre little storm, and when it passed, we went out for food. I had Flammkuchen, a dish loved in Germany, which is a bit like pizza but on paper thin crust. When I say “thin crust” I don’t mean “New York Style”. I mean this stuff is literally about the thickness of a few pieces of paper. American “thin crust” pizzas have crusts probably about 5-10 times as thick as Flammkuchen crust. Here’s an aerial view of my pizza, though you can’t see how thin it is:

Flammkuchen in Hamburg, Germany

Just so you know, it was DELICIOUS!!! Just saying.

It was already late, and I knew I needed to get to sleep since I had to catch the train to Dresden the next morning. So, Andrea and I parted ways, and I headed home and passed out.

The next morning dawned clear and bright–another beautiful day. When I got to my train and boarded, I sat there kind of dazed. Here I was in Hamburg, with no real excuse to be there except that I wanted to see an old message in a bottle. And look what had happened! I spent a long beautiful night with a small gang of German folks who will forever hold a special place in my heart, plus a full day trekking around the city with fellow bloggers rooted in the small world of beachcombing–driftwood, sea glass, and messages in bottles. I’d seen a collection of several hundred ancient messages in bottles, as well as a 101-year old message in a bottle. My time in Hamburg was an incredible gift–to spend that time with Peter, Andrea, and their friends and family. All of this because of messages in bottles!

It’s times like this that make me laugh when I meet people who seem indifferent to my little hobby. Most people, I think, understand why I get so obsessed, or at least why I enjoy it. But every now and then, I meet someone who indicates very clearly that they think what I do is a waste of time, that I’m not taking life seriously or something. Which is fine. To each her own, you know? But, when this happens, I think of Peter, and I think of Andrea and her friends, and I know how lucky I am to make such friends. What could be more serious or important than connecting meaningfully with as many people as possible in my short time on earth?

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