Innocence Abroad: Chapter 13



The banana peel route to Berlin

Outside Hannover, Germany: July 5, 1991...




found the perfect spot for a freeway hitch - a final red stoplight, slowing the traffic as it entered the autobahn. They all had to pause, before going by my BERLIN sign. And they did. For almost an hour, until one pulled up for me. He wasn't headed for Berlin, however. In the tangle of our efforts to communicate, I finally made out that he was going to Magdeburg, about forty miles beyond the old East boundary - which was forty miles away itself. Balancing for only a moment on my hesitancy about the eastern zone, I quickly gave in. I was tired of watching that endless stream of cars go by. After all, Magdeburg was just off the autobahn; it wouldn't take me off course. I got in, and we sped off.

As we put fragments of conversation together, a word here and a flash there, I learned my driver was a displaced Afghan. His name was Conrad, and he had married an East German woman two years ago and come to live with her in Leipzig. He drove this commute every week, 140 miles each way to a factory job in Hannover, and considered himself lucky for having it, though he had been schooled as an economist.

Leipzig! I suddenly realized he was going on through Magdeburg, and another sixty miles south in the old East territory, to a prominent city - an old center of German culture. A chance, and possibly the only one I'd have, to experience the fullness of that recently socialist German world - if I dared. I hadn't even given a thought to doing anything like that, but it would provide a much better glimpse of what East Germany had been like than the limelight area near the Wall. The Good Neighbors list was handy in my pack, and I quickly checked. Sure enough, Leipzig was on it with more than a dozen host possibilities.

It was that crazy sort of idea that once given a toe-hold shoves every caution out of mind. I had put East Europe off limits right from the start. The prospect was still scary, fraught with more risk than I wanted. Somehow, with angel rescues and pure dumb luck, nothing had gone wrong for me - but how far could I push it, this innocence? Conrad might make it there before the banks close, but . . . what if he doesn't? Can I even use my VISA card in the old East? But none of these uncertainties could dislodge the adventurous impulse - not even the persistent specter of Tom chuckling in the back of my head.

Halfway to Magdeburg we crossed the invisible line into the former territory of East Germany. Remnants of fencing and guard towers were still there, a year since the old order had collapsed, but no other indication of a different kind of country. Not until I glimpsed the looming, dark huddle of ancient Magdeburg, where we turned off the autobahn. We zoomed through an edge of the city on a bypass - brooding, grey stone walls of immense size, but few people in view and even less auto traffic. Streets were rutted, their shoulders overgrown by weeds and ragamuffin shrubs long ago lost to any gardener's attention. The contrast with Hannover was immense, the plunge so sudden - notwithstanding our eighty mile passage - as to jolt the senses.

I had a great urge to be let off, right there - partly in a last flash of diffuse insecurity over what I was letting myself in for, aware that I could easily get back to the autobahn. But partly from an uncontainable desire to see more of this fortress-like, Medieval city than I realized our swift detour would allow. I tried, in fact, to convey to Conrad that I needed to find a bank, and that Magdeburg might be my last chance. But it was too complex for our level of communication. His swarthy face broke into a grin as he nodded agreeably and continued on through.

On we went, along a two-lane highway with a fair amount of traffic, turning this way and that, as roads once did, through villages that looked - for all of my own world - like the towns in border Mexico: dusty, nondescript shacks leaning against shabby, nondescript buildings, with unkempt foliage growing everywhere. Barren, dreary living conditions. Yet, with a certain coarse charm, just as one finds in rural Mexico. The honest truth below the facade of modern urbanity. All the artifice, the sterile hygienic preoccupations of the western world, chrome-plate and plastic, finished concrete and tidy landscaping - all of it suddenly gone, flipped over in a time warp. Startling, ugly . . . but somehow, in its realness, almost refreshing.

We had to stop for gas - benzene, Conrad said. While we waited ten minutes in line, I bought a litre of apple juice, just over a quart, paying fifty-eight cents. But the delay was nothing compared to an hour-long roadblock farther along our way, which wiped out any last hope that I would find a bank open in Leipzig. I expected to see the remains of some horrid auto accident when the line started moving again, but we had simply been stalled for road work. An hour-long traffic tie-up for roadwork!

It was five o'clock when we reached Leipzig, and I asked Conrad to drop me at the rail station. Before anything else, I had to get a ticket to Berlin. And this evening's departure schedule, in case my host list should fail me.

But something more critical failed me at the ticket counter. If I hadn't bought the apple juice, I would have had enough for the fare.

All was not yet lost. I spotted an exchange booth in the station, still open, even though it was supposed to close at 5:00 - geschlossen, one of the first German words I picked up. But they couldn't deal with my VISA card. I was down to the last resource I had - the travelers checks . . . American Express . . . don't let me down!

It was the magic name that unlocked the cash box. But I just about blew it, at this point. I was so cautious about using travelers checks, my ultimate bottom line - my ticket home, if it came to that, or the reserve for next winter's settlement - that I cashed a single £10 check . . . fourteen extravagant dollars. I immediately purchased the ticket to Berlin and stashed it safely away.

The next hurdle was the telephone - which, as I had already come to learn, is a game of wits in Europe, no two locales using the same sort of device. The range and diversity of their invention is marvelous to behold. These in Leipzig - once I found one in working condition - called for the coin to be deposited before the mechanism actually required it. At some point midway in the dialing the coin box sucks it in, and it had better be there in readiness. I got it by trial and error.

Not all the hosts on my list even had their own phone. But the first one I reached said I could come, and they lived fairly near the station. I was elated; but I told them I'd be awhile getting there. Realizing the economic situation of these hosts, I felt I should get some dinner for myself before I went, and possibly a loaf of bread for them. Besides, I was aching to have a footwalk look at this city and didn't want to wait.

When Conrad had pulled into the heart of the city, it seemed as lively as any other. But that impression quickly dissolved as I walked away from the depot. The few shop windows along my way displayed very little in their windows. Many were entirely bare, with backdrop curtains veiling the interior. Food stores had two or three items massed in a repetitive, uninspired display, often dusty as if they had been there for weeks. Those few shops I could peer into revealed a simple counter-top layout with a thin and limited selection on the back-shelves. But most were already closed, even though it was not yet six p.m. Hardly any people walked the streets.

Aside from this lack of visible life, however, and the cheerless absence of decor, the buildings presented a massive, multi-story stone facade, characteristically European, like a faded old photograph from the past. It was as if I had stepped into an old film of Europe Before The Great War - allowing for the deterioration of time, for the facades were in need of a good cleaning. Perhaps even re-surfacing. But it was a patina of age, which only served to enhance the elsewhen-in-time effect.

I came at last to an open area created by the intersection of several streets, with quiet signs of vitality including a sidewalk cafe. I almost passed it by from pure habit, streetside dining being out of my budget range. But with choice so scarce here - and this being, after all, a tidepool economic area - I took a chance on it. I picked the least expensive á la carte entree, some kind of ragout as near as I could tell.

It was a quite picturesque spot - an old market square, I guessed. I sat in the sun, almost in the shadow of a lovely old tower, twenty stories high I'm sure, capped by a verdigris cupola that rested on several tiers of arched portals in a circular colonnade. My admiration was torn from it by the aroma of the plate set before me, a mini-casserole sizzling fresh from the oven, with a dark mix of meat and mushrooms in a piquant sauce topped by a taffy-thick melt of white cheese. And I plunged into my most indulgent dining since Paris. With extras and a tip, it took almost half of my remaining cash-on-hand, about $5.40. But with a ticket to Berlin in my pocket and a place to stay for the night, I didn't let it worry me.

I found my evening's hosts, Jeno and Renate, in a second-floor apartment in one of the massive, colorless buildings. The street entry took me into a vaulted outer hallway, dark and gloomy. Upstairs, I knocked at a pair of doors towering to twice my height, and when Jeno opened it narrowly I once more had that feeling of slipping into an old film. A movie of intrigue and espionage, this one. He moved softly and spoke with a kind of hush that blended nicely with the darkened vestibule he led me through. It was only a crossway area with a fan-spread of closed doors leading to various rooms - yet, the size of a room in its own right. I followed him into a huge study or library that had been given over to Renate's use. She was bed-ridden with a broken hip, and I had a flash memory of watching Katherine Cornell play Elizabeth Barrett Browning, many years ago, in just such a stage setting. Indeed, the room was easily as large as a theater stage.

When I expressed my amazement at the sheer sense of space, Renate told me that the original apartment had been split to make two. To her, it was crowded! She also apologized for its run-down condition, though I assured her that anything wanting in that respect was more than offset by the sense of gracious living her home bespoke. These were not well-to-do people by any measure of their own culture. Jeno was an engineer, and Renate a teacher of English. But they had lived here all their married life, and she before - going back about thirty years. I slowly took in the room as she talked . . . a grand piano, even diminished by the room's size; shelves of books that climbed toward the high ceiling; a generous assortment of cushion-back chairs and lounges; drapes that might have been museum tapestries on the tall windows - there was no reason to seek life outside this home, which is the constant provocation of the tight space Americans have come to accept.

For space, in some peculiar way, is not just space - it is time. I could instantly feel, here, a sense of leisure imparted by the generous dimensions. Or perhaps a sense of life's proper pace. Just as one is moved to speak softly in a cavernous interior, from some deep inner quieting, so is it that one moves with an ease - lives with an ease - in a large contained space, time becoming a part of the experience and not just a measurement of it. When we cramped ourselves into mean little enclosures for the necessary sake of cost (in our world of affluence!) we lost that gift. This was surely the point at which we created the true ratrace: a small enclosure that encourages one to run. We wonder, today, why `the good life' ever eludes us. We left it behind by gambling with space . . . and forfeiting the sense of leisure that once enriched our lives.

Jeno and Renate were in their early fifties and desperately afraid, now, for the rush of changes that were suddenly complicating their world. A shallow platitude or two, on my part, revealed my ignorance about it and Renate gave me a recent issue of Time Magazine with a cover article on the disillusion that had set in after the first year of German unification. I was up late, that evening, getting a fast education. The two Germanys, for so very long denied their natural linkage, could not seem to stabilize with each other. My hosts had lived their entire lives under a system of guaranteed security, a platform suddenly falling away, and they were already feeling left behind in the struggling tumble of a newly competitive world, the pressure for change having grown to where it couldn't possibly be relieved in any smooth, painless transition.

Nothing I could say to them would ease their anxiety. I tried to encourage them to take a positive approach - to start `inventing' their future by dealing with realities of opportunity, the way an American learns to do. But my efforts came across, I'm sure, as mere insensitivity. They were trapped in the lifetime they had lived.

As was I! For in their home I was suddenly in my grandparents' simple world, as if I were truly a traveler in time. Yet, I didn't dare try to express my sense of that - of what they were about to lose - lest it compound their anxieties. To me, their private world was a vanished time; but they were still in it. No . . . Jeno and Renate were already racing through time toward my present, a journey they would have to complete - for good or worse - before they'd be able to see their present world as I did.

In the morning, I had a chance to see the positive side of the changes. After sharing a typical European breakfast of rolls and cheeses, Jeno took me to a huge Saturday street market not many blocks from their home. Neophyte capitalists by the score, selling what they had managed to grow or create at their workbench or kitchen stove. It was bubbling with vitality, like a London street market but moreso. I wandered happily through it for more than an hour, gorging myself on the cheer and excitement, a complete reversal of the mood in the empty streets of the previous evening. I bought a few cheap things, mostly foodstuffs, and then headed for the railway station to get on toward Berlin. Enough remained of my detour funds for a bowl of surprisingly good onion and meat broth in a cafeteria. I had very little coinage left by the time the pint-sized Gypsy panhandler accosted me at the station. She was impossible to satisfy, which is what one learns quickly about Gypsy children, and I narrowly escaped, as the entire family descended on me like pigeons flocking to someone dispensing crumbs. When I counted what was left, on the train, it came to exactly eleven pfennig - all of six cents! Skidding along on the banana peel again.

I SHARED A COMPARTMENT with an engaging young Fräulein from Dresden with streaming blond hair, on her way to attend a rock concert with her eastside Berlin boyfriend. I learned from her that the train would drop us at the East Berlin Bahnhof (station), and I'd still have to make my way across the city divide. Barriers were down but the cultural division remained, slicing the city in the old rutted split. She assured me it would be no problem, for the Berlin Metro system shares the rails there and would accept my train ticket to complete the trip. And in Berlin, I should once more have access to funds.

But when I arrived in downtown Berlin I discovered, with shattering dismay, that not a single change bureau was open. I found myself, for all appearances, on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Here, it was called the Kurfurstendamm, but the traffic, the noise, the modernity, the rushing crowds - everything felt like Metropolis, U.S.A. I had completely overlooked the possibility of short hours on Saturday, and all financial resources were locked down for the weekend. I was stranded on Wilshire Boulevard with six cents - not even enough to phone my Berlin friends.

I finally found a small hotel willing to cash another £10 travelers check at a slightly worse rate than I had gotten in Leipzig. It was about 6:30 p.m. when I reached Uta on the phone, to announce my arrival and get directions to her place out in the Friedenau section, an area on the south side that had largely escaped the wartime damage responsible for central Berlin's descent into California urban intensity.

My visit with Uta was also, and maybe primarily, to reconnect with a longtime friend, Lowell, whom I had lost touch with some years before. In fact, I only knew Uta through Lowell. They had met in California in the early 1980's, traveled the States together in a small van for awhile, and then Lowell joined her when she returned to Berlin, just about the time I was leaving California for Seattle.

That was the way I remembered it all, but things had turned around since then. They were just good friends, now, no longer in a couple relationship. Uta now shared a large apartment with another woman and was better able to host me than Lowell - who happened to be between residences at the time I was there. For the moment, Uta was providing Lowell with living room space until he found new quarters. So he and I shared her living room that week. But space was no problem, for it was another one of those expansive old apartments of pre-war times.

Other than the brief couple of days I had spent at Carty's apartment in Haarlem and the mixed time at de Voorde, this was my first opportunity in a month of travel, since leaving London, to completely let down and release the tensions of being on the road. In a larger sense, it was the longest break in nine weeks of travel since my last secure residence in Balham. Collapse was in order, and I made the most of it. It was the ideal moment for it, too, with summer now at full blast. Days in the mid-nineties, sweaty like a sauna, and sudden afternoon thunder showers that sent down torrents. I could relish its intensity in my momentary sheltered immunity from it.

Best of all, though, was the rare company of old friends, a pleasure I had almost lost sight of. Uta - slim, tall and tanned, radiating an incredible youthfulness for her fifty-odd years, intriguing as much for the warm interest that her blue eyes invariably registered in even the most casual conversation, as for English skills so rich with accent I sometimes thought it was really German she was speaking. And Lowell, slim and tall himself, a few years younger than Uta, reserved and quiet almost to the point of self-effacement. Lowell has pursued a life of continual transition, in constant search of something he has never been able to articulate.

When I first knew him, he operated a Bay Area electronics repair business. He sold that and ventured into long-haul, big-rig truck driving. The next thing I knew, he had turned to flying and made his livelihood for several years as a courier. Wearying of that, he joined a collective at a country hot springs . . . but it proved no more the goal of his search than anything else had. It was there that he met Uta, who had come to study massage therapy. In Berlin he took up garden maintenance work and studied German language and culture. But this, too, had apparently lost its edge and he was already talking of moving on. I've always been intrigued by the way Lowell can change his life so radically every few years. At the same time, the weariness suggested by a search that never ends is almost palpably painful to me - for I am an Aries, too, and know the feeling.

Lowell was my guide, of course, for what might be worth seeing in Berlin. The Wall, to begin with - and it was not nearly so impressive as I had imagined. Most of it had come down, but long stretches still stood, with art and graffiti in a running `commentary' that celebrated its demise. I was more impressed by the brooding old Reichstag building on the east side, relic of the Hitler years and somehow more the emblem, to me, of Germany's twentieth century anguish. But the most impressive sight of all was a towering, awesome remnant of World War II standing right in the heart of the city. The stark shell of a great church, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtnis, a strangely beautiful monument to war, though it is nothing but a blackened, silent hulk that sits square in the midst of hyper-modern architecture and high-intensity activity - almost in rebuke. A mute counterpoint to the crashing disharmony around it. But more: a wordless sermon on the multiple tragedies of runaway nationalism . . . and the ethno-centrism that nationalist power ultimately reflects and thrives on.

It seems banal to highlight one of the world's great cities in a context of despair and destruction; but I found little in Berlin with anything better to say to me. The heart of the city had been entirely rebuilt as a result of the wartime damage, and my Wilshire Boulevard comparison just about says it all. I valued a museum display of turn-of-the-century Jugendstil art - the German counterpart to Art Nouveau. And I found my way to the westside suburb of Spandau, where an ancient castle called The Citadel stands on a peaceful riverbank among overgrown greenery, seemingly undisturbed by the ages. But other than these minor rewards, the only worthwhile thing I really got from Berlin was a much needed rest.

LOWELL TOOK ME on a local jaunt eastward, outside of Berlin, to visit a friend in the countryside village of Friedrichshagen. It was a quite ordinary community; but the smalltown flavor of casual neighborhood, after the madness of Berlin's Kurfurstendamm, felt so charming that it fueled my growing interest in the East European experience. His friend, Astrid, was much more upbeat about it than my hosts in Leipzig, though she, too, spoke of the challenges - most currently, having to cope with a sudden 600% jump in rent, as a compensating offset for the recent conversion of marks that had suddenly made every East German six times wealthier. Astrid said that people had quickly gone out and bought automobiles before normalization raised those prices, too. The impulse led many to foolishly plunge more than they could afford.

Here in Friedrichshagen, we were halfway from Berlin to the Polish border. Every experience I'd had of the East and its people, starting with Ashka, was softening me to the prospect of taking a side trip into Poland. Berlin, itself, had been a side trip to begin with. I hadn't even wanted to venture through eastern Germany to reach it. My sole 'risk' into East territory was to be Budapest, where I had a friend; and then I added Georghe, in Romania, to that prospect. But it all felt different now. Leipzig, for all my fears, had come off easily. More than that, it was a particularly exciting experience and I wanted more of it. I had no GN host list for Poland, though, and wasn't at all sure I could get hold of one in a few short days.

I went with Lowell to the American Embassy to see what I could learn of the passage through Romania and Bulgaria, and was told there would be no problem. Romania might require a visa, but that could be had from their Budapest consulate just as easily as from Berlin. I learned also, to my surprise, that Czechoslovakia no longer required any minimum daily money exchange, and suddenly the speculative sidetrip to Poland seemed a perfect opportunity for a visit to Prague, too. Why not?

I was even willing to risk it without host lists, though they would be immensely helpful if I could get them. I called the Berlin GN coordinator to see if there was any chance of it on such short notice. His only copies were in the hands of another traveler; but he might have them back by the weekend if I could possibly wait.

On Friday, in ninety-degree mid-day heat, buckets of rain suddenly poured down, and then a murderous assault of hailstones, some as large as an inch in diameter. I laid out a loose route, that day, for a weeklong swing into eastern country. It should give me time enough to see Warsaw and Prague, and come back into Germany through Dresden. The young woman on the train had stirred my interest in Dresden, but it was a place that seemed to have a magic pull on me anyway, though I couldn't say why. All I knew of it - or thought I knew - was that it had been shattered by one of the most concentrated, senseless incendiary bombings of the entire war. Hardly a reason to want to see what's there now, but who can explain wherefrom such obsessions arise?

Dresden, like Leipzig, was on my Germany host list and I selected what seemed a congenial and promising host on it, a young woman who spoke good English and had an interest in matters philosophical and spiritual. I sent her a letter of introduction noting my likely date of arrival. There was no time left for any confirming reply, but at least I was giving prior notice this time. (Never mind that it had always backfired on me, before.)

I made a serious effort to slim down my pack at this point, too. It had become paper-heavy with an accumulation of maps, souvenirs, journal-notes and such. I sent a packet home to Terry. But the real weight was in the hefty handbooks that had seemed so necessary when I planned the journey. They turned out to be `worry books.' I hadn't made a bit of use of them. The realization of this was wonderfully liberating, and in a sudden surge of confidence I threw out the whole batch except for my international hostel directory and a small multi-language dictionary. No more Let's Go . . . no more Hitch-Hiker's Manual . . . no more Traveler's Survival Guide. There was no further point in carrying the weight of old insecurities on my back, anymore than in my head.

On Sunday, the host lists came: two slim booklets, one for Poland and the other for Czechoslovakia, with hundreds of names. Considering the recency of open relations between east and west, the GN lists were surprisingly extensive. Without knowing the full history of it, I could only assume that these lists had been growing for many years.

On Monday morning I hit the road again, after nine well-sheltered days in Berlin. I took a train east through Friedrichshagen, and onward to Frankfurt-am-Oder - Germany's smaller Frankfurt on the Oder River. I wanted the experience, this time, of walking across the border into Poland. It was a sunny, cheerful morning and there were many making the crossing by foot, a walk of just a few hundred feet. The border guard could see at once that I was not one of the locals, but he waved me through at the flash of my passport without even looking inside to make sure it was mine.

The small town on the Polish side was called Slubice (the L has a slash through it and is pronounced more like a W). It had no charm whatsoever, a plain street bordered by plain buildings, around which hovered a plain-looking assortment of people engaged in their mid-morning affairs. One and two-story buildings indistinct from one another; not until I was up close could I tell that one of them housed a change bureau. With a week's worth of foresight, knowing I could not rely on my VISA card in eastern Europe, I had brought $100 in deutschemarks with me. Now, I exchanged only a tenth of that for Polish zlotys - 125,000 of them - for there would be no way of turning them back into marks, or anything else. In this low-cost economy that might even be all I'd need, in the way of Polish funds.

My sheltered week in Berlin had taken only $76.75, and brought my five-week average all the way down to $85.91. But I had yet to discover what can happen in a land where everything is cheap and I have suddenly, by the simple effect of relativity, become `wealthy.'



"...expansive old apartments..." That living room held a massive old radiant-heat oven built of kiln bricks and tile facing, almost as large as the apartment's bathroom. Yet it was easily contained in the living room's dimensions.



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