I was happily listening to someone at a travel function recently about the new routes for Rail Europe and the new timetables and new trains for Germany. Back in the day, I travelled on trains a lot through Germany, they were always on time, efficient and clean.
And I’ve always been fond of the architectural beauties of the European railway stations, great caverns with iron as the constructing base for every shape and grand curve.
In the early 80s I had not such a grand experience at the old Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main railway station).
I was staying in Munich in the dead of winter with friends and decided to go to Berlin (which I had never been to before) and surprise a ‘holiday’ boyfriend. How hard could it be.
In those days there was an agency in Munich call the Mitfahrzentrale ( I think it still exists). It was kind of like safe and legal hitch hiking, which wasn’t easy out of major European cities because of the Autobahns. I digress.
I signed onto the agency list – you say where you are going, where your pick up point is, pay a few Deutschmarks (pre Euro) for insurance and Bob’s mein Onkel!
I got a lift in the smallest car I’ve ever built, and there were two in the front and two of us in the back for the long, long, windy and snowy drive to Berlin.
They were pseudo hippies and played cassettes of reggae music all the way. We all smoked cigarettes and a little weed along the way and the air was stinking! We were stopped at the border between East and West Germany and a youthful soldier carrying a big gun was dealing with us through the window. The nationals were OK but in my limited understanding of the language I thought he was asking me for 50 (funfzig) marks for a visa and no way was I paying that and started to get stroppy. My travelling companions told me to ‘shut ze up’ and as I shut up I got the gist that it was only funf (five) marks. ‘Well, OK then.”
So on we trundled and my fellow travellers looked shaken and told me they had ‘contraband’ in the car and I could have had us all in ‘the gaol’. I never did ask what the contraband was – best not to know.
We arrived in Berlin mid evening and I had to unfold my creaky limbs out of the chariot. Nice folks but that ‘beschissen’ reggae music . . .
I had not really thought this venture through. I arrived with the equivalent of about 10 bucks in my wallet, a small backpack with a few items and that was it. I phoned my friend several times and there was no answer. But, always the eternal optimist I sat in a cafe in the middle of town (the middle of the half of Berlin then), bought a large beer, a sausage and fries. How cool was I? And lucky I had the big scark, gloves, beanie and the parka. Soooo cold.
The night dragged on and Berlin in the early 80s was a darker place that today. Lots of shady folk coming out at night as the club scene was dangerously good! I moved to a park bench, well-lit and in the middle of a lot of seedy action – and felt secure. But still had to go back and forth to a phone box. This was the olden days, no mobiles, no credit cards, no atm, in fact I had nuthin’
After a thousand phone calls I tried to curl up and sleep under the park bench (hidden for safety) and as I snoozed I was kicked sharply in the kidneys by the Politzei. They moved me on and I strolled around the town feeling less than optimistic about my survival til morning.
Back to the phone box to call the police and found a nice bloke with good English to tell my tale of woe to. He told me I was a stupid girl and he could not help me but . . .there was a christian charity set up at German railway stations that helps travellers (old people, sick people – and idiots like me) in trouble when they arrive off the train. He gave me the address and it was inside the Hauptbahnhof.
I can’t remember the name of the charity but roughly translated to ‘Travellers Aid offices. So around 2am I walk in the dimly lit, empty station and to my left is a doorway at the end of a corridor with a light above it. And before I can make the journey to that door I have to run the gauntlet for about 20 metres of groaning, fighting, vomiting and even singing junkies and drunks. Now is the time to gird my loins – if I can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So, I took off at a healthy pace, backpack bumping along with me as I sang very loudly and slightly madly “Waltzing Matilda’. Piece of cake!
As I bashed on the door a fresh-faced young man opened it to a blubbering, stupid girl. He was so kind, and I explained I had no money til I could find a bank on Monday (it was still only Sunday morning). He told me to sleep on the office couch. No nightmares, nothing and I woke to the aroma of filtered coffee and hot rolls.
Such kindness and he got me into a hostel (with hostile wardens) for the next night. Still phoning and leaving my new address in case someone could come and fetch me.
My ‘holiday’ boyfriend had been across to East Germany for the weekend and was rather shocked at my exploits. After he picked me up he warned me about hanging around the centre of the city late at night and going to the railway station. OK, warning taken.
When some money came through I took a donation to the Travellers Aid and gave it with great thanks.
It was a night to remember.
Writer Bev Malzard returned to Berlin several times but has not been there since the Wall came down. She likes things a little dangerous.