Cautionary Tales of Travelling without Style.
Have you ever: hitch-hiked? been ski-ing? been camping? travelled by train? been on a Weekend Break? been on a package holiday? been on a school exchange? been on a boating holiday? had a disastrous holiday? Then you should enjoy “V.A.C.A.T.I.O.N”, Oliver Gray’s memoir of a lifetime spent travelling without style.
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For a brief taste of what it’s all about, read on:
I may well be the only person in the world who wishes that the Berlin Wall had never come down. True, from any political or humanitarian point of view, this is an untenable point of view, but it’s also undeniable that, for the tourist, Berlin is now a less exciting city than it used to be.
My first ever visit to Berlin was to set the tone for all subsequent ones. It was tense, dark, cold, intimidating, yet at the same time thrilling. I was a young student and became involved with a gang of people who worked at night, fly-posting for a travel company. Armed with extremely messy buckets of flour and water paste and enormous paintbrushes, we were transported in a van on a tour of building sites, all of them clearly marked with signs forbidding bill posting. It was January, when Berlin is at its bone-crunching coldest. And we were in permanent fear of arrest, having, on several occasions, to scatter and flee from the police down cobbled side streets. Okay, so maybe bill posting wasn’t quite in the league of inter-state espionage, but it did feel a wee bit like something out of a Len Deighton novel.
For some reason, it was again in the depths of winter when, in 1970, some German friends and I set out from Kiel to Berlin, five of us crammed into a very uncomfortable VW Beetle. We negotiated the border controls at Helmstedt and embarked on the spooky trip through East Germany, during which you were not allowed to stop or to deviate from the deeply pot-holed motorway. It was dark and slightly confusing as we reached the crucial junction where you either headed into West Berlin or off into the wilderness of the DDR, eventually ending up in East Berlin (which, of course, you were not allowed to do). The trick (which we didn’t know) was to watch out for signs saying Berlin-West and to ignore any saying Berlin – Hauptstadt der DDR. I’m pretty sure it was my fault that we took the wrong one. The windows were misted over and I think I just saw a sign saying something about Berlin and directed the driver that way.
Before long, we became aware that there was suddenly no traffic around any more. And, shortly after that, that a strange rumbling sound was emitting from beneath the Beetle, which was driving along at a bit of a strange angle. We had had a puncture.The second we pulled onto the hard shoulder and stopped, the DDR police were with us, unfriendly and threatening, as if they genuinely thought we could be spies (a laughable concept). Did we realise that we were trespassing without permission in a foreign country and that the penalties would be severe?
No excuses or explanations cut any ice at all with these automatons. Even in the dark, even a foreign person should be able to tell the difference between Berlin-West and Berlin – Hauptstadt der DDR. It was clear that we were there on purpose and up to some unspecified no good. Eventually, they agreed to lead us back to the correct highway in return for the statutory fine. But first, there was the little matter of the flat tyre. The policemen retired to their patrol car and watched as we struggled with iced fingers to undo the rusted bolts and replace the wheel, accompanied by many curses, insults and recriminations.
When this operation had finally been completed, we were led off on what we were later told was standard procedure: a seemingly pointless wild goose chase round the DDR countryside, designed, in fact, to empty our tank of petrol. The policemen made us follow them for what seemed like several hours down all sorts of country lanes and through dark forests until they drove onto the forecourt of a petrol station, where we contributed to the East German economy by filling up with their petrol. Having driven such an enormous distance, we couldn’t even protest that we didn’t need any.
Back on the correct Autobahn, we finally arrived at our destination, which was, I can’t remember why, a nurse’s home in a clinic on the outskirts of the city, where someone had lent us a room to stay in. Sadly, it being the middle of the night, the building was locked, so we crashed out in the car park. Five adults in a Beetle are cosy but not comfortable, so sleep was fitful, to put it kindly. Every bone in our bodies ached, and of course it was below freezing as well.
As dawn broke, we were awoken by an angry doctor, whose private parking space we had unwittingly taken, tapping on the window. Loads of attractive nurses were streaming into work and staring at us curiously. Sadly, attractive was not an adjective which could have been applied to us, because we were pale, unshaven, ill-looking and yet inevitably puffing on our first cigarette of the day before we were even properly awake. The medical passers-by must surely have been confident that they had spotted some future candidates for treatment.
Later in the day, we decided to enter East Germany legitimately. There were convoluted rules on how to go about this. If you were a resident of West Berlin, you weren’t allowed in at all, because West Berlin wasn’t recognised as legitimate. If you were any other West German citizen, you could visit, as could people from other countries, but you had to use different transit points. So, effectively, I entered East Berlin on my own.
For a person of my relatively young years, the procedure was very intimidating. Descending from the S-Bahn at Friedrichstrasse, you then entered a long series of dank, grey tunnels until you came to a row of steel-doored cubicles, like tiny cells. When your turn came to enter one of these, you had to stand in it until, suddenly, a flap about the size of a letter box would clank open and you would be confronted by a pair of cold, steely eyes staring straight into yours. A brief interrogation would then take place, accompanied by a minute inspection of the passport and a seeming pore by pore, eyelash by eyelash examination of the passport photo. This was of particular interest in my case, on account of the fact that the photo showed a fresh-faced, short-haired freckly schoolboy, while the reality was an exhausted, unhealthy-looking stubbly adult apparition.
Before you were allowed onto East Berlin soil, you had to change five marks into DDR currency at the rate of one “West-Mark” to one “Ost-Mark”. This didn’t seem like much money, but such was the gigantic disparity between the two currencies that it was virtually impossible to spend the money in the East, no matter how hard you tried. Plus, there was absolutely nothing in the shops that anyone would want to buy.
We travelled around the city a bit on the trams, but not even that was a good way to spend money. In a system which I still believe to be the finest example ever of how to run a public transport system, the East Berlin trams operated on an Honesty principle. Each carriage contained a loo-roll of raffle tickets on a string. You took your ticket and, if you felt like it, you inserted some kind of coin into a thing like a little wooden church donation box. Anxious to conform, we watched to see if anyone would put any money into it. Nobody did, so we didn’t either. Unsurprisingly, all the trams were packed with grateful passengers.
I spent some time in a bookshop near the Alexanderplatz. This emporium specialised in books for teaching German to foreigners, all of them tailored to the world view which was compulsory in Communist Eastern Europe. These artefacts were so fascinating and potentially useful for my language coaching activities that I took several of them to the checkout, where I discovered that I had managed to exceed my allotted five marks. Never mind, said the kind assistant, we accept West-marks as well. So, with no further thoughts at all, I handed over the difference in Western money.
In the evening, we went in search of some bright lights in the form of an East Berlin discothèque. Having travelled a great distance into the suburbs, we were treated to a stilted evening in what amounted to a youth club, with wooden benches, soft drinks only, virtually no girls and uninterrupted “Volksmusik” (because, of course, Western pop was verboten on account of being decadent).
I knew that I had to be back at Friedrichstrasse by midnight because I had only been issued with the standard 24-hour visa, which expired at 12 o’clock. Arriving back in the steel cubicle with the eye-level letter box, I felt reasonably sure that no incident involving pumpkins and glass slippers would occur, and that the procedure for getting out wouldn’t be too much worse than the one for getting in. But I had reckoned without the politically-correct teaching matter in my bag.
The officials did their sums and noticed the discrepancy. How had I managed to buy seven marks’ worth of books if I had only exchanged five marks? Because I had paid the rest in West-marks. Oh yes? We don’t think so, because, if you had, it would have been marked as such on the receipt, and it wasn’t. I had quite clearly been changing money on the black market, which was, as they were sure I was aware, a very serious crime indeed.
I was dumbfounded. Heck, it was only 24 hours since the last time I had completely innocently stumbled into a situation in which I was regarded as a criminal. All I could think of suggesting was that I could go back to the bookshop and claim the correct receipt. But it was way past shop-closing time, so there was no choice, they said, other than to detain me overnight. Feeling extremely frightened after a long and aggressive interrogation, large parts of which I hadn’t been able to understand, I slept intermittently under a smelly blanket in a small, cold, grey cell, accompanied by a young oriental-looking man who spoke neither German nor English.
In the morning, in the company of a monosyllabic official, I was allowed to return to the bookshop, where – phew – the assistant recognised and remembered me. The correct receipt was issued and I was free to find my way back to the nurses’ home and my worried friends, who had been more than a little concerned about my welfare. I spent most of the day asleep.
Starting to leaf through “Deutsch – Ein Lehrbuch für Ausländer”, the exciting book which had nearly got me locked up for life, I realised that it said a great deal about the world view in Eastern Germany. Here is an example of the kind of passage it contained:
“Foreign journalists are often surprised about the status of women in the DDR. They are very interested in Equality For Women, and therefore often ask questions about it. You can find women in almost any profession. Over 70 percent of women between the ages of 16 and 60 are in work. For example, about 40 percent of building workers and about 70 percent of health workers are women. Of course, they receive the same salary as men for their work. Working women don’t have an easy life, because they also have to do the housework. The men help them, and the State has introduced a numbers of measures to make life easier, for example Kindergartens, and a system whereby the housewife hands in a shopping list at the factory gate at the start of her working day, and can collect the groceries when she leaves.”
That was the glory of Communism. It all made such perfect sense, it was all so reasonable. Unfortunately, it was also largely a pack of lies.
Back in West Berlin, I began to have a vague (and naturally unfulfilled) notion of doing some research into ideologically contrasting teaching methods of German teaching, and so set out in search of a Western equivalent of “Deutsch – Ein Lehrbuch für Ausländer”. I soon found “Heute Abend”, which displayed a view of Women’s Equality somewhat different from its DDR companion:
Translate into German:
“How are you, Mrs. Miller?”
“Quite well, thank you. And how are you?”
“Very well, thank you, but I have a lot to do. Spring is a terrible time for us housewives, isn’t it?”
“Yes, you’re right. The men don’t know what it’s like. I hardly have time to cook these days, and my husband complains, but I can’t help that.”
“Are you papering your rooms again this spring?”
“No, not this year. Are you?”
“Yes, I am papering the sitting-room. I bought a beautiful light-blue paper last week. I always think a paper looks nice in the sitting-room. But the other rooms I only distemper.”
“Are you doing it yourself?”
“No, I can’t do it; I have a man from the shop who does it for me. He papers and distempers very well.”
“Is he very dear?”
“He’s not cheap, but I said to my husband, I must have him, I can’t do it alone.”
The last evening was spent in what must be the oddest pub in Europe, with the possible exception of O’Donahue’s bar in Dublin. Leydicke still exists, but back then, it was still run by “Mutter Leydicke”, the aged and eccentric owner, who by then was well into her nineties. This place was the ultimate student haunt, so full that in order to get a drink, you had to give your money and your order to the person nearest you and watch it as it was passed from hand to hand to the bar, and then watch again as the drink gradually wended its way back to you. This is a system which also operates in O’Donahue’s.
What was particularly odd about Leydicke was the nature of the drinks. The only thing they sold was their own home-made wine, which they manufactured out of unlikely and deadly combinations of fruits. The best one to order, I was assured, was the speciality of the house: Stachelbeerwein, or gooseberry wine.
Everybody has their own “I’ve never been as pissed as …” story, and this is mine. So severe was the intoxication inflicted on me by my ribald friends’ plying me with Stachelbeerwein (it wasn’t my fault, obviously), that I myself can’t remember anything of the events which allegedly occurred. As we left the pub, I failed to notice that there was a large hole in the road where it was being repaired, and thus tumbled head first into it. Unwilling to put in the effort required to climb out again, and anaesthetised by gooseberries against the sub-zero temperatures, I announced my intention of sleeping there. It apparently took several people to drag me out.
This appalling behaviour continued back at the nurses’ home. In fact, come to think of it, that weekend consisted mainly of being arrested for things I shouldn’t have been arrested for, whilst not being arrested for things I should have been arrested for. It is said that I spent the night charging round the building hammering on doors and yelling in English, “Where are all the nurses? I want some nurses!” The high point came as I dragged blankets and pillows from a laundry cupboard, shouting “I’m sure there are some fucking nurses in here somewhere!”
That’s why I plan to entitle my debut album “Anaesthetised By Gooseberries”.
In later years, I visited Berlin many times, on account of having made friends with one Albrecht Schwab. By day, Schwab was a high-up and highly-paid (and respected, nay feared) tax official, by night, he was a natural party animal. Schwab could no doubt have had a country mansion and a Mercedes, but chose to live in a tiny fifth floor flat in the Moabit area and travel around on a battered bicycle. He was the world’s most convivial and welcoming host (i.e. he liked a drink or two), so visiting him in Berlin was always an interesting prospect.
Almost every day, Schwab cycled to the Zoo park in order to play open air table tennis. But as he grew older, he also became more conservative. In 2001, the world governing body for table tennis decreed that the dimensions of table tennis balls were to be changed. Schwab was having none of this. He promptly bought up the capital’s entire remaining stock of original table tennis balls, of which there were several thousand. This gave Schwab a couple of alternatives: He could play for the rest of his life without ever having to adjust his technique; or he could open a table tennis ball museum. But, knowing how canny he was, I suspect that he planned to flog the lot when their rarity value made them much desired relics of a bygone age of ping-pong.
A couple of years before the Wall came down, Birgit and I spent a few days in Schwab’s flat while he was away. Of course, the obligatory thrilling excursion to the Eastern sector of the city was irresistible, so we found ourselves on the Alexanderplatz, desperately searching, as usual, for something to spend our money on. This time, it was harder that ever, as the main department store seemed completely bereft of anything. The toy department had only one item, a yellow wooden duck with wheels, to be pulled along on a string. In the absence of any other possibilities, we purchased this item and took it for a walk around the Alexanderplatz.
The weather, unusually for Berlin, was sweltering, but even so, Birgit’s choice of outfit was possibly not the most tactful. For reasons best known to herself, she wore a minuscule, Persil-white cotton dress which covered very little. The contrast with the drably-clothed East Berliners could hardly have been greater, and my memory of the Alexanderplatz was of being followed by hundreds of pairs of eyes displaying a mixture of scorn, fury, jealousy, disapproval, amazement, envy and lust, as we pulled our duck round the fountains. Uh-oh, I thought, we’re gonna get arrested again.
When Schwab returned, he invited us out to one of his favourite haunts, which he had aptly christened “Die Ruine”. This was a virtually derelict building, standing alone in the no-man’s land near the Lehrter Bahnhof, just by the wall. Unaware of precisely what awaited us, I failed to warn Birgit against wearing “that” dress again.
Now one of my specialities in life is stumbling innocently into terrifying pubs which offer the promise of not emerging alive, but the Ruine beat them all. Every client had some kind of severe deformity or physical attribute which one tried not to look at for fear of causing offence: cross eyes, hare lips, unsuccessful tattoo removal attempts, missing digits, coke-destroyed nostrils, cauliflower ears, blackened remains of teeth, all were present. And everybody was drunk, not as in jolly slap-you-on-the-back drunk, but as in look-at-me-and-I’ll-stab-you drunk.
We each ordered a bottle of beer (that being the only thing on the menu) and took in the surroundings. Doors hung off their hinges, every window was smashed, lumps of plaster fell off the walls and, the coup de grace, one wall was entirely missing, which meant that the passing motorists could look in. And, incidentally, what was it with those motorists? Why were they all driving so slowly? Ah, explained Schwab, that would be because that particular road was the “Autostrich”, where punters cruised for the plentiful prostitutes who, yes, now we came to look at it, were present in abundance. Well thanks, old pal, we’re on the Autostrich and my wife is dressed in little more than a paper handkerchief.
As I looked around, I became aware of several things: The majority of the strangely deformed clientèle had Mohican haircuts, inordinate amounts of piercings of unlikely extremities of their bodies, and displayed a keen interest in Birgit’s dress. The tall ones looked down it, the short ones looked up it and the rest tried to look through it. Me, I tried not to look at anything or anybody, for fear of, well, death.
The beer having been downed with unusual haste, we tiptoed out and attempted to hail a taxi, a risky and easily misinterpretable business in the circumstances.
I wonder if the Ruine is still there? They’re probably selling bits of it in souvenir shops.
My last adventure in East Berlin took place immediately after the fall of the Wall. I’d gone to Berlin alone, in order to attend a music trade fair called BID (“Berlin Independence Days”) in a doomed attempt to promote an album by a band called Automatic Dlamini. John Parish, the leader of that band, was also in town to perform in a showcase with an obscure instrumental outfit called the Guitar Orchestra. This event was to take place in an off-the beaten track club, deep in what had, until recently, been the inaccessible Eastern Sector.
During the afternoon, I took the opportunity to walk through the Brandenburg Gate into the East unchallenged and unarrested, a novel experience. Wandering round Prenzlauer Berg, I found that nothing had changed at all. The Friday afternoon ritual was taking place, whereby large parts of the population claimed its wages and then immediately drank most of it in the nearest bar. Schnapps and vodka were cheap and plentiful, and in a couple of places, you had to pick your way across senseless bodies spreadeagled on the floor.
For some reason, I felt the need to view the Wall from the Eastern side, a possibly futile but still grimly fascinating experience. You’d walk down a road and suddenly find that it came to an abrupt end. But, unlike on the Western side, you couldn’t climb onto a platform and have a peek over the minefields and fences. All you could do was stare in bafflement at the breezeblocks forming a sudden and definite termination of your freedom of movement. Still, the shops in Prenzlauer Berg did have a good stock of rare DDR-issue Billy Bragg albums. Dear Sir William had been the only UK rock artist whose records were sufficiently politically sound to be on sale in the East.
The Franz Club was terribly hard to find. A long and creaking S-Bahn journey was followed by a spooky walk through dark, deserted and threatening-feeling streets. Of course, all the record company people attending the BID had had the sense (and the money) to take taxis there. In a crazy piece of mis-matching, the Guitar Orchestra was supporting someone called David Cross, a violinist who had been in King Crimson for a while and was now promoting an awful prog-rock album on which he wailed and miaowed for hours on end. But he had fans, notably an American woman whom I misguidedly tried to interest in the Automatic Dlamini album. When she discovered that there were no famous names in the band (at least, not famous then, hee hee), she returned to extolling the alleged brilliance of David Cross.
No instrument is less suited to rock music that the electric violin. Even David Cross’s fans started consulting their watches a few minutes into what was shaping up to be a marathon set, and, as it was getting on for 2 a.m., I decided to set off in search of a taxi. This was an optimistic thing to do. Vaguely thinking that there might be a taxi rank back at the S-Bahn station, I started to walk down the pitch-black, deserted cobbled road, keeping to the middle of it in order to avoid the shadows. I soon became aware that, behind me, there were some more echoey footsteps other than my own. Someone was following me. Was it my long dreamed-of involvement in a Len Deighton novel or was it merely another person trying to escape from Death By Violin? I quickened my pace and so did my follower. I broke into a trot, and so did my follower. I began to run, and so did my follower. And then he called out:
What? Surely the man from the Sex Bar in Eckernförde couldn’t still be pursuing me after all these years? Still, at least he was using the polite form of address (a skinhead would certainly have said “du”), and the Stasi were no longer in action, as far as I was aware. Nevertheless, it was the equivalent of someone shouting, “Oi, you!” Would you have stopped? My heart was racing but at least I had the presence of mind to plan what I would do if he tried to mug me. An old-fashioned knee in the bollocks ought to do the trick.
“Mensch, halten Sie doch mal an. Ich tu Ihnen nichts!”
Surely a mugger would have expressed himself with more economy of words? This one was asking me to stop (well, that made sense) but also reassuring me that he wouldn’t do me any harm. With knee primed for bollock-crunching, I stopped and turned round. In front of me stood an out of breath young man, quite respectable-looking. His body language was anything but threatening, and he immediately explained the situation. Did I want a lift anywhere? If so, he would be happy to drive me for a reasonable fee. It was my only option, he said, because there were no official taxis at that time of night and the S-Bahn wouldn’t be open for several hours. How could I lose?
Well, were he to drive me to a lonely area, threaten me with a knife and steal my wallet, yes, I could lose. And since I had no wallet with me, he would no doubt stab me in a fit of fury and leave me bleeding in a gutter. But actually, he genuinely seemed like a nice chap and so, still on high alert, I accompanied him back to his car, where he politely explained that I should be aware that I wasn’t insured. He also detailed the precise basis on which he would be charging me, and gave me a map with which to work out the most direct route.
On the way, he told me that he was in fact, a student, operating what was called a “Schwarz-Taxi” (an illegal, un-registered operation) in order to help to finance his studies. And he did, indeed, take me all the way back to Schwab’s flat for a fraction of the normal fee, accompanied by some pleasant, informative, humorous conversation.
Which sort of goes to prove, once again, that you shouldn’t automatically think the worst of people. Mind you, Schwab did tell me afterwards that I had been mad to accept the offer, and that he knew of plenty of such gullible passengers who had, in fact, been victims of the get-mugged-and-end-up-bleeding-in-the-gutter option. Ah well.
As for Berlin, it’s still a great place to visit, especially if you like a crane-filled skyline and are into Techno music. But, along with the Wall, something of its mysterious charm has disappeared. My personal motive to visit it has also diminished, as dear old Schwab died of lung cancer in 2009. He was my dearest friend, and I think of him daily, but he had a hell of a life.