‘Germany hits highest coronavirus cases since April, with 1,707 new infections,’
With quarantine already imposed on travellers returning to the UK from France and the Netherlands, the newspaper headline caused us considerable disquiet.
We had already brought forward our return to the UK by a month. Our plan was to flee to Aachen, from where we could drive to Eurotunnel non-stop through France and Holland. This ‘Travel Corridor’ exempted us from quarantine, but now, with the possibility that Germany might be red-listed, we decided to head home immediately, lest border closures caught us out.
It was a scenic drive to Camping Oase Wahlhausen, through the secret misty forests of the Harz national park. We drove almost to the top of the highest peak, the Brocken, then wound through spectacular countryside to the outskirts of the gorgeously half-timbered town of Bad Sooden-Allendorf.
“It’s pretty, but it’s not France!” I joked.
Once again, we were right on the former East/West border, spookily overlooked by a watchtower, although unlike Berlin, this one was not inside the campsite. The tower formed part of the Grenzmuseum – a border museum that was instantly elevated to my ‘must see’ list.
I walked the dogs up to the tower while Mark set up. He used our piece of the Berlin Wall to level the caravan. By the tower, I found a wooden statue of a woman stepping through a door to symbolise freedom. It’s hard to comprehend what life was like in East Germany under Russian control.
I had been starving since 11.30 and when I returned, it was nearly 3 pm, so we drove into town to get some lunch. The only place open was a kebab house, where we sat outside to consume a dry and unusual-tasting Doner presented in a ciabatta, rather than flatbread. We washed it down with a very welcome and somewhat more conventionally flavoured Weissbier.
The Fab Four attracted the attention of the couple at the next table. As she fussed over our pups, the lady said,
“I’ve just lost my dog. He was aged 14. He was with me all the time. It is very hard for me.” I could have wept for her. I am dreading that day when it comes.
A few phone calls interrupted our conversation.
“It’s my daughter!” she explained.
“Trouble?” we asked.
She added, “I’m on my way to see my 96-year-old mother.”
Her companion chipped in,
“I am Austrian,” he said. “Her mum liked me immediately, because Hitler was Austrian!”
I was truly shocked.
I thought history had judged Hitler. In my reality, it is a truth universally acknowledged that he was a really bad guy. I could not comprehend that anyone could admire someone who had perpetrated such evil, and on such a grand scale.
The following morning we brought forward our Eurotunnel crossing, made a vet’s appointment for the dogs to get their mandatory worming treatment, then discovered that we’d forgotten it was the August Bank Holiday in the UK. Every campsite we tried was full. Another problem to solve!
That afternoon, we walked to the Grenzmuseum. Although the route was partly shady, the weather was roasting. Poor little Rosie, who had been stung by a wasp at the campsite, got zapped by an electric fence next to the footpath. Kai was lagging, presumably because of the heat. As we stopped to chat to a young chap who told us he lived on the mountain called the Messner and had chosen this area for the nature, Kai flopped in the shade, then seemed reluctant to carry on.
When I looked more closely, I noticed his left eye was purple and swollen shut. I could see something stuck in the corner – it was a bee sting.
“We need to get him to the vet!” I shouted to Mark.
We removed the sting carefully and poured on some cold water to relieve it. Then Mark picked him up, and we ran back to the campsite. Since we had phoned for an appointment only that morning, we already knew where the vet was. We bundled the pups in the car and drove there, hoping against hope that it wasn’t closed on Wednesday afternoons. Thankfully, it was open, and the vet saw us straight away. She administered some cortisone gel, which immediately reduced the swelling. Kai came out of the surgery with his eye slightly open, which was a relief.
“Five times a day today, then three times a day for the next few days,” she instructed.
As when Rosie was stung, our worst fear – that he would go into anaphylactic shock – didn’t happen. Kai was sorry for himself, but didn’t rub his eye too much. The vet re-examined him during our official appointment the following day and assured us there was no lasting damage.
Emotionally, I felt drained and close to despair. My world seemed to be closing in on me. Like any dogmother, it broke my heart that my fur family was suffering. Besides Kai’s ocular emergency, they all had upset tums from the oppressive heat and humidity and although we had applied bicarbonate of soda to Rosie’s wasp sting, her pained whimpers cut right through me.
Touring in a pandemic because we couldn’t go home had also taken its toll. We’d had little interaction with people and our every move was governed by news of outbreaks here and spikes there. Then, my concerns about the enormous truck we’d bought unseen and our plans to drive it to Mongolia through an area of increasing political instability bubbled to the surface.
Mark and I had a heart to heart.
“I feel blighted. It seems like everything is going wrong,” I said.
“But everything that’s gone wrong did in a really good way!” he replied. “When the caravan got stuck on the hairpin in Italy, the workmen got us out in ten minutes with hardly any damage. It’s bad that it happened, but on the road, you’re inevitably going to face some problems. That could have been a real predicament! I couldn’t see any way out without trashing the caravan. What’s important is the resolution couldn’t have worked out better. Yes, Kai had an emergency, but we’d already researched the vet, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I’d say that actually, we’re really lucky!”
“But what if the pups get bitten by snakes or stung by scorpions in places where there are no vets?”
He assured me, “There aren’t that many worrying things in Central Asia!”
“But what if we have done the wrong thing? What if the truck’s too big!”
“It is undoubtedly too big, but we’ll have fun with it. Nothing is ever exactly right. There’s always a compromise. I’m looking forward to Norway next year, and even if we only go to Morocco with it, it will fare better than Caravan Kismet. I am always worried about her even on slightly uneven roads. She is just not built for it. And I wouldn’t trust Big Blue on another long trip.”
Our van Big Blue was definitely due for retirement. She had been a hard-working and faultlessly loyal travel companion, but was ready to go out to grass. Her eyes were rheumy and her rear suspension collapsing like the back legs of an old Alsatian. (To nurture her through her MOT, we had to polish her cloudy headlights with toothpaste and replace both rear leaf springs!)
The following day, we walked to the Grenzmuseum in the cool early morning. No stings or zappings by electric fences. I found it quite moody and humbling to walk along the border, where stretches of the intimidating metal barrier were preserved. Occasionally, crosses marked locations where citizens had lost their lives. The regime concealed the death toll and destroyed the records when it fell, so there is little reliable evidence of numbers, identities or circumstances of those killed trying to escape across the border.
Exhibits in the museum described everyday life in the GDR. During ‘Operation Vermin’, some 10,000 ‘politically unreliable’ individuals were forcibly relocated at night. ‘Operation Consolidation’ bulldozed entire villages near the border. Families were split and the authorities threatened those who refused to move with violence.
I tried to imagine being dragged from your bed in the dead of night by thuggish state officials, before seeing your home and sanctuary destroyed.
Compared to the rest of the Eastern Bloc, standards of living were high in the GDR, although the population still suffered shortages. From an early age, citizens were moulded and trained in socialist ideology, and surveillance was widespread. In 1950, the regime introduced the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security). Better known as the MfS or Stasi, the unit collaborated closely with the KGB, Russia’s notorious security service. The Stasi claimed the dubious crown of exceeding the reach of any secret police force in history, including the Nazi’s Gestapo.
In its 40-year existence, this ‘shield and sword of the party’ employed a quarter of a million personnel. It also enlisted an unofficial network of almost the same number of private individuals who spied on their neighbours’ lives. Every apartment block in the GDR had its own Stasi informer.
The Stasi was relentless in its pursuit of opponents, and did not shy away from blackmail, imprisonment, or assassination. They could call on the Russian military for backup, as they did when they brutally suppressed the People’s Uprising in June 1953 using Soviet tanks.
They also employed an insidious program of psychological harassment known as Zersetzung, which translates literally as ‘biodegradation’. Targets might have their relationships and careers sabotaged, have unnecessary medical treatment administered deliberately, or be subjected to ‘gaslighting’ attacks. These took the form of subtle disruptions to their life, such as having their furniture or pictures moved in their absence. These tactics made the individual question their sanity and sometimes led to lasting mental illness and suicide.
In this pandemic year, we all have first-hand experience of how it feels to be separated from loved ones; to suffer shortages in the shops; and to have restrictions placed on liberties we take for granted.
My thoughts strayed back to the grandmother who so admired Hitler. What if the Soviet regime in East Germany was so unbearable that it made Nazi rule look like Nirvana? I pondered what she might have endured, particularly so close to the border. Perhaps her life would have been better if the Führer had been victorious in WWII. I wondered whether those bombarded with Nazi propaganda, then imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain ever found out about atrocities like the Holocaust, which only came to light after the war.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet uttered the famous aphorism, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
It was a poignant reminder that every now and then, you need to question and recalibrate what you think you know for certain, and try to understand why someone might have a very different viewpoint when their life and experience is completely removed from your own.
It was a long drive to Aachen. We passed a place called Titz, which obviously cheered us both up, and Mark gloated about going such a distance without a wrong turn.
“There’s still time!” I said, and there was.
In a tunnel, the satnav lost its signal. We missed a turning, and had to tow straight through the centre of Dusseldorf.
Places in the Stellplatz Aachen campground are available on a first-come-first-served basis. Although it was packed and popular, we drove straight into the only empty space on the site. The chap next door said,
“It must be your lucky day!”
“It makes a change!” I grumbled to Mark. “After all the things that have gone wrong on this trip, it’s about time something went in our favour.”
Mark’s reply surprised me. He looked directly at me and said,
“Every day’s a lucky day.”
And do you know what? When you think about it, he’s right!
It was the end of an era, which fizzled out like a damp squib as we made another break for the border across three countries in the pouring rain. We made the UK unscathed and managed to get a winter membership at a private campground on Calshot Spit, overlooking Portsmouth, the Solent and the Isle of Wight. Despite assurances that our new truck, The Beast, would be finished by July, she was anything but ready.
Our tenant moved out in October and we went back ‘in the brick’. There seemed little point in paying to store Caravan Kismet when our intention was to move into The Beast as soon as she was converted. We said a sad goodbye to Kismet, who was snapped up by a dealer with a waiting list of pandemic staycationers. On their website, she showed up as ‘Sold’ the same day.
The sale of our principal residence completed, but since we couldn’t find a short-term rental that would accommodate four dogs, we were relieved when our buyer agreed to rent it back to us.
When the UK locked down for a second time in November, Mark pointed out once again how lucky we were to have got our house back with such impeccable timing.
I had my first date with The Beast…
And that is how our new adventure begins!