Travel throws up all kinds of odd and unexpected scenarios. Finding replacement tyres in Poland; improvising a caravan stand from a jack and a large tin of peaches; rushing back to the UK when your mother and brother are taken into hospital on the same day for different reasons. All run-of-the-mill stuff to the perpetual nomad.
However, I never envisaged launching an international missing person hunt from Berlin.
At 6 am, when we received the phone call, we were already driving into the city to avoid stress and traffic.
“I’m thinking of taking loads of pills and alcohol and ending it all.”
Our friend Neil’s cosy, self-contained life had shattered when his long-term partner had left. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with aggressive, probably incurable cancer, lost his mum and moved to a new and isolated location just before the first UK coronavirus lockdown. He knew no-one, had no support network was so terrified of catching coronavirus he refused to leave the house.
I can’t say my response of, “Oh Neil, please don’t,” was the most profound, but it came from the heart. He’s a beautiful, gentle soul; ill equipped for this world, and we love him.
I signalled Mark to pull over, as the phone signal in Europe’s leading industrial nation was unreliable, and we talked.
“I feel sick. I think the cancer’s come back and I need to go to hospital. But I don’t want to die alone in hospital.”
I did my best to reassure him calmly with the facts.
“But Neil, all your tests are clear. You no longer have cancer. If you had, it would show up.”
After half an hour or so, he said he felt better. I left it that he could call us any time, which he did just as we were trying to find the Sony car park. With me removed from the navigation equation, Mark somehow entered a tunnel and we ended up six miles from the city centre – almost as far out as the campsite – when our intention was simply to nip around the block and return to the Parkplatz.
Without the added worry of our friend in dire need, driving in Berlin was nerve racking, mostly because of the kamikaze bicycles. They take and offer no quarter. Even on a green light filter, a cyclist might shoot up on your inside to go straight on, and seemingly have right of way. The Teutonic abuse we received from one radfahrer certainly suggests this is so. He was so determined not to apply the brakes, he would have broadsided our van deliberately, had we not executed a swift reverse.
I can’t say it was the short, relaxed mosey into the city we had planned. Despite climbing out of bed at 5.20 am, we did not park up until 9.30!
I was starving and needed the loo, so we sat at what looked like a pavement café, with people tucking into hearty breakfasts. We realised too late it was a hotel. Mark ordered coffee and waited patiently for someone to bring a menu while I used the facilities. Thankfully, when we tried to secure breakfast, they got our order spectacularly wrong. I say thankfully because on perusal of the menu, a single American breakfast cost €32. Two would have blown our food budget for the week. Welcome to the city!
Breakfast, when it arrived, was a saucer bearing two eggs and two slivers of bacon, both cold, plus two glasses of lukewarm milk, masquerading as café latte.
“I ordered flat whites!” Mark whispered.
Seemingly, coffee for two was a concept they could grasp, but supplying a brace of breakfasts for a pair of patrons was an extravagant leap of logic. We were relieved, because the bill for our meagre rations still came to €17; two night’s site fees in Poland.
London has Big Ben; Paris the Eiffel Tower; and Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate. We reached it past the tree-filled Tiergarten, and found it a bit underwhelming. The gate itself is massive and impressive, crowned with the Roman goddess Victoria in a quadriga (four-horse chariot), wielding a lance bearing the Prussian eagle. She was once kidnapped by Napoleon Bonaparte and sent to Paris, but was restored to her proper place when Prussia got its own back and defeated him. The iron cross wreathed in oak leaves was added to her lance as a ‘Yah, boo, sucks’ celebration of Prussia’s triumph over France.
Yet what surrounds the most iconic and Instagrammable shot of Berlin can only be described as a big old load of shite! Clearly, the Allies bombed Pariser Platz to pieces in the war, but what was rebuilt is not much of an improvement. It is square, grey and soulless – and is not the backdrop featured on most Brandenburg Gate selfies!
As usual, we’d forgotten to bring our carefully marked-up sightseeing map, so went to the Tourist Information Office. A sign on the door said it opened at 10 am. Since it was 9.50, we waited. Nothing happened. Upon investigation, we noticed a further note claiming it didn’t open until 10.30. So much for German efficiency!
We wandered over to the Reichstag, Germany’s seat of Government. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ego-on-legs that is Zaphod Beeblebrox is the only person known to have survived the Total Perspective Vortex (TPC). The TPC is a horrifying form of torture. For an instant, it shows its victims a glimpse of themselves amid the enormity and vastness of the Universe. Demoralised by the realisation of their absolute and utter insignificance, they fall dead.
Standing next to the Reichstag gave me that same sensation. It is a colossal, solid and belligerant building that oozes power.
(The TPC actually exposed Beeblebrox to a computer-generated simulation, which showed HIM to be the most important thing in the universe. Besides allowing him to survive, this did not surprise him at all!)
Nearby, we got to the paved banks of the River Spree, where brass plaques marked the line of the Berlin wall. It was easy to see how the Berliner Mauer had just been plonked down, arbitrarily splitting neighbourhoods and streets.
At the end of WWII in 1945, following the Potsdam Agreement, Germany was divided into East and West, while the city of Berlin was split into four zones. Allied powers occupied the three western sectors while, like the rest of East Germany, East Berlin was under Soviet control. This left West Berlin a capitalist enclave amid communist East Germany.
A flow of refugees to the west prompted the East German government to erect the Inner German Border in 1952. This separated East and West Germany, although travel was still possible between East and West Berlin. Berlin became the leaky bucket through which East Germans could escape poverty and repression for the more affluent and liberal west. Estimates suggest 3.5 million of the brightest and best, almost 20 per cent of East Germany’s population, defected.
Clearly, Joseph Stalin was not content with this ‘Brain Drain’. He needed professional people of working age to rebuild East Germany. In addition, this stream of emigrants was an insult to the communist ideal. (I love the irony that building a wall to prevent escape from his communist Nirvana was not!)
The situation reached a head on 13th August 1961. Known as Barbed Wire Sunday, East German police and military closed the border between East and West Berlin at midnight. Through the early hours, they ripped up streets, installed barbed wire fences and mines. Troops had orders to shoot defectors on sight.
By the morning, families were split, neighbourhoods divided, and those citizens with jobs in the west were summarily unemployed.
Construction of the 155 km (96 miles) of 4 m (13 feet) high concrete wall to fortify the original barrier started two days later. There were actually two walls, separated by a barren corridor of land known as ‘the death strip’. Booby trapped and mined, the death strip offered no cover for escapees and a clear line of fire for border guards, who were posted in 302 watch towers along its length.
The plaques we saw on the ground were part of the Berliner Mauerweg we’d encountered at Dreilinden. Some bore the names of those killed as they tried to escape.
When they opened eventually, the Tourist Office charged us €1 for a map. Tourist maps have been free in every other city we’ve ever visited!
While Mark was negotiating terms with the Tourist Office, I contemplated the moving memorial to the Sinti and Roma in the Tiergarten. After visiting Romania, my understanding and respect for these wonderful but persecuted people has grown massively. Half a million Roma are among the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. The circular pool of black water reflected the sky, and the memorial, which documents the timeline of the genocide, is in sight of the Reichstag.
I felt it was a grave reminder of how destructive nationalism can be, just as it is once again on the rise across Europe. During our recent transit of Poland, the news highlighted that some Polish towns had declared themselves LGBT-free zones, and Poland had recently withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty to prevent violence against women.
On our way to grab a coffee and some calories to top up our costly but insubstantial breakfast, we ran into Eric Clapton Man. Such conversations happen when you wander the city streets with four dogs!
“My favourite band is Cream!” he announced as he admired the Pawsome Foursome. “My favourite guitarist is Clapton. I was going to see him in Antwerp, but it’s cancelled until next year because of covid.”
I said, ”Mark is from near Ripley, where Clapton’s mum ran the Post Office for many years.”
“Ah! Ripley!” he replied, misty eyed. He knew all about Ripley, a tiny village in Surrey. “I read about it in Clapton’s biography!”
On the Pariserplaza, an imposing line of embassies towered above us. We found a café where a woman with arms the size of hams, who looked like she’d been hit in the face with a spade, all but hurled coffee and croissanty-type things at me. Service comprised yelling at the stupid foreigner in German through a facemask. I knew asking for a flat white designer Kaffee was pushing my luck, but my polite request for Milch was misunderstood or disregarded, because the yelling spade-faced woman slammed two black filter coffees on the counter and turned her not insubstantial back on me.
Our meanderings took us through elegant boulevards to Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous crossing point between east and west Berlin. It was the location of prisoner exchanges, daring escapes in cars, such as Heinz Meixner who slid under the barrier in a convertible Austin Healey with the windscreen removed, and a tank standoff over a visit to the opera that nearly sparked World War III.
The furore started on 22nd October 1961 when, on his way to the opera in East Berlin, US diplomat Allan Lightner refused to show his documents to East German border police. The US did not formally recognise the East German state, so Lighner argued that only Soviet officials could inspect his papers. Showing them to the East Germans would be a tacit acknowledgement of sovereignty, and also undermined agreed permissions to cross the border. To strengthen his case, Lightner employed his full repertoire of diplomatic skills and returned with jeeps and armed militia.
Then US General Lucius D. Clay weighed in to defend Allied rights “by force if necessary”, and deployed ten M-48 tanks. Predictably, the East Germans replied with ten T-55 tanks. For sixteen hours on 27th October, the Fight at the Opera continued with tanks staring each other down across Checkpoint Charlie. The world stood on the brink of war until Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed to play nicely.
Since we had the pups with us, we didn’t go inside the Checkpoint Charlie museum building, but spent a while perusing the open-air displays. As with Potsdam, we’d seen only a fraction of what Berlin has to offer. However, as the temperature scorched its way into the mid-thirties once again, two beaten tourists couldn’t summon the energy to see any more of the sights marked on our forgotten map.
Cities are not normally our thing, but it was very moving to be in a place that is so darkly iconic and has played such a huge role in modern history. I found some of the small things most sobering – like the Roma Sinti memorial and running my fingers over nondescript bricks in a section of wall next to the Reichstag. Rather than division, this piece of wall symbolised unity, and the beginning of the end of communism in Eastern Europe.
It came from a Gdańsk shipyard and was part of the wall climbed on 14th August 1980 by Lech Wałęsa, when he organised the strike that led to formation of the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union. Popular at home and abroad, particularly in East Germany, the Solidarity movement paved the way for the democratisation of Poland, and helped set in motion events that would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
We had touched base with Neil several times throughout the day and he had seemed okay. However, at 4 am, he phoned us.
Fast asleep, the phone rang off by the time we leapt out of bed and found it. We called back immediately, but there was no answer.
We redialled a few more times, but he did not pick up. Despite our concern, we both eventually dozed off. As soon as we awoke, we tried to call again, before we were distracted by the day’s tasks; to get out a caravan blocked in between an electricity post and a small campervan that had cosied up to our rear.
Throughout the day, Neil’s phone went straight to ansaphone. By mid-afternoon, we called the hospital in desparation to see if he had been admitted. He hadn’t. Then, we felt we had no choice but to try the police.
I assure you that this is not a simple task when you’re out of the country. British emergency numbers like 999 and 101 don’t work from abroad, but we found the number for his local police station on the internet. When Mark rang, a recorded message instructed us to ring 101.
While Mark played telephone tag, trying to contact friends, relatives and the police, I emailed the charity, Missing People, who replied by return with lots of helpful advice.
Eventually, Mark spoke to a person. Despite explaining that someone considering suicide had gone missing, they passed us from pillar to post with no sense of urgency. When we actually reached a man who we’d been told could help, he said,
“You need to call 101.”
Exasperated, Mark said, “As I explained, we’re abroad and can’t ring 101! Our friend could be lying dead on the floor!”
At that point, the man agreed to send an ambulance to check on Neil.
I had mixed feelings shortly afterwards, when Neil called us back.
“Why on earth did you ring an ambulance?!”
“You called us at 4 am and we’ve not been able to contact you all day. After our conversation yesterday, you must understand we were really worried,” Mark explained.
The reply was as unexpected as it was bright and breezy.
“Oh. I was tired because I’d been up all night. I turned off my phone so I could get some sleep.”
Although I was delighted that Neil was safe and well, I can’t deny that a small part of me was channelling another Victoria. Not the Roman goddess of victory atop the Brandenburg Gate, but the grandmother of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
One was not entirely amused!
Join us next time as we discover witches, hexes & the scary see-through cable car in the Bodetal!
Don’t Miss The Scary See-Through Cable Car.
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Please note that as with everything I write, events in this blog are true, but I have changed our friend’s name to protect his privacy.