“dda, what are you doing next week?”
“Nothing, really, except a Korean culture exam, why?”
“I’ve been summoned by a Berlin judge to testify in a court of law. They’re paying for the air fare. Wanna come?”
“Er, yeah, but I am not flying. Too expensive! And a train to Berlin will take forever…”
“Well, yeah, but since the first day I’ll be in court, you can travel while I testify, and then we can party in Berlin.”
Spring 1989, Germany still spells either as DDR or BRD, depending on which side of the Iron Curtain you stood. And Berlin is still two cities, West Berlin, a fragile member of the Free World, carved out of the western part of the original Berlin and its western suburbs; and East Berlin, covering most of the original Berlin – sans most of the historical buildings, which had been flattened out by Allies and Commies alike. I’d been a lot to Germany, since I have an auntie who lived many years in Köln, but I had never been to Berlin. Never one to pass up on an opportunity to visit a new city, I head home to my collection of timetables.
Ralf, my German friend, is a natural when it comes to being involved, even only as a witness, with court proceedings. An immensely strong man, he financed his studies, starting in high-school, working as a construction worker. Good genes and years spent manipulating a shovel turned this young man into a poster boy for an Aryan Power recruitment ad. Except the guy’s political leanings are way to the left, and if he had it his way, he’d hand over the keys of Munich [a very conservative city] to the people – preferably his pals – and send politicos to reform camps. But he’s a very nice man once you go past his political ideas, and a very gentle, friendly guy. His girlfriend is a cute little thing with anxiety problems, and they make the most improbable couple – except that when you know her, you realize that she needed someone like Ralf. Anyway, he’s a great pal, and if he says Let’s go to Berlin, I just reach for the train time tables.
Not so fast pardner. Going to West Berlin isn’t going to be that easy. First, I have time constraints – I need to take that bloody exam before I go, and the next train departing from Gare du Nord for Northern Germany after my exam leaves me 2 hours to take the exam and scram from Jussieu to Gare du Nord. Gulp. And that train goes to Hamburg, wrong place. This is before the Internet and sncf-voyages.com. Scheduling a trip involves either dealing with station employees, something I try to limit to its minimum, or hack it myself from timetables. Lucky me, I have a collection of thick timetable books from my summer job, since the “Big House” was kind enough to let me keep the whole assortment of timetables I was issued to help travelers on board our trains. And that collection, while it changes every quarter, is a precious help when you travel as much as I used to… After leafing through a couple of books, I find out I can transfer either in Aachen, Köln or Düsseldorf for a night train to Berlin. Off to the International Trains counters to book a ticket. I hand over my precise itinerary, along with my FIP card, the precious bit of paper that made traveling in Europe oh so cheap.
“Well, are you sure the schedule is correct?” asks the clerk.
“Right out of the Chaix indexes,” the old name for these timetables.
“I see… Well, looks alright. Want to book the return ticket?”
“No thanks, I’ll do that in Berlin.” Should I mention to the clerk that ticketing at Deutsche Bahn counters was already computerized, and, of course, efficient as hell? Probably not…
Thursday comes, and it’s time to sit on that Korean Culture exam. Fortunately, it’s easy, maybe the professor wanted out early too… I hand over my exam sheet – 18/20 if memory serves, thankyouverymuch — and head to the metro station in front of campus, carrying a big rucksack. Why I would bother with so much luggage back then, I have no idea… One transfer and there I am in Gare du Nord. Except that in my schedule I didn’t figure in the maze of corridors one has to run through in order to reach the platforms. Gonna be a stretch. I reach the end of the platform with seconds to spare, and sweating like a pig, head to the first loo I can find. Too much information, probably, I know. I’ve always been a bit anal on cleanliness, and starting a 15-hour train ride marinating in sweat is not what I want. I have developed a technique to get the equivalent of a shower out of a train toilet, even if it turns the toilet into a swimming pool once I am done… Refreshed and clean, I head to the middle section of the train, since chances are that wherever I transfer – hopefully Köln – stairs to the underground and other platforms will be located close to the middle of the train. Six hours to Köln, more or less, via Maubeuge in France, Liège in Southern Belgium, and Aachen, in Western Germany. Then it heads north, through the Ruhr Valley, and onwards to Hamburg. Since I’ve been dozens of times to Köln, and love the food there, I decide to transfer there – I will probably be able to grab a Flönz [a sausage] and a Kölsch beer before heading east to Berlin. Chances are that the train to Berlin will be an old train, with bare-bones service – at best, a food cart with dishwasher coffee until the border, and nix after that. Better fill up before we leave civilization.
The train is of German manufacture, efficient and clean, if unremarkable. French, then Belgian, and finally German border police check our IDs. Might sound weird to Norte Americanos, but having to hand over your identity card to various cops — including Belgian guys while still inside French borders — is something very natural to us. But this time I had my passport with me, since crossing into East Germany meant we needed to get a visa on the spot, even if the final destination, West Berlin, was part of the European community. Back then French passports, especially those made in remote provinces, were hand-written, I kid you not. Imagine how it looked to suspicious border policemen to have a young dude with lots of hair and clothes that cried “Down with authority!” hand over a passport that’s hand-written… Yeah, I’d be like him, too… However things go pretty smoothly. I am sitting across from a German girl who studies in Toulouse, France, and since, back then I was, among other things, a double major English-German, we got things in common, and the trip up to Köln is fast enough. We chat in French and German, and we have just enough fun — this is Germany after all, fun, like anything else, is metered out in standard-size bites.
We reach Köln, and, on a whim, decide to push as far as Düsseldorf on this train. The reason is that the train to Berlin is going to be a crappy cross-border night train, so I should just as well stay in a comfortable train as far as I can. As soon as the train stops in Köln Hauptbahnhof, I dash towards a sausage kiosk, right on the platform, godblessthegreedygermans, grab food and drink, and dash back to my train. Chomp, chomp, slurp, life is good. The train’s still half full, and will probably stay that way until Hamburg. As for me, next stop Düsseldorf, and another train, Richtung West Berlin! As expected, the train, which left Aachen 15 minutes after us and followed us up to here, is a World War II piece of antique best suited for a museum. Alright, I may be exaggerating slightly, and this train, being German, will still be transporting cattle and tourists by the time I retire. No need to kick the tyres on this one, it’s built to last. And the comfort is par for course. No one is going to submit this design to contests and earn awards. But somehow, the wood panels, the straight-up seats, the glass panes, the large mirrors make for a kitsch look that’s almost enjoyable to observe. And observing is the only thing I have to do. The train is quite empty, a few people per carriage, and since the carriages are divided in compartments, the few passengers in each carriage have mostly a compartment each. No food carts, no restaurant wagon, nothing. A couple of train conductors come by and check my tickets, and beside the PA announcements for each station, strictly monolingual by now, the only sounds come from the tack-tack of the wheels on the tracks. Nothing to see, it’s dark, and there are not many lights outside.
When we reach the West-East border, lights are aplenty. It’s not like we’re trying to smuggle people inside the country — but “we” might not apply to the CIA and other Western intelligence services. The train enters a kind of corridor, bordered on each side by a thick wall of concertina wire, and huge krieg lights sitting on top. Border patrol soldiers walk the length of the train on each side, inspecting the underside of the carriages. Sniffer dogs walk with their handlers, looking probably more for people than illegal cargo. But who knows. Two border guards and a dog check every compartment, and my passport is given a thorough look-see. I am issued a transit visa — I am definitely not allowed to get off the train, an idea that would never cross my mind anyway… — a piece of paper that has to stay inside the passport until I reach Berlin. Sure thing, Mister. I’ll hang on to it as lice on a bum’s pubes. Inspection lasts all in all 45 minutes, I’d say, not that it matters; this train is scheduled to arrive in Berlin at oh-dark-thirty, so any delay plays in my favor anyway. Ralf told me to call him when I made it to Berlin Zoologischer Garten, the then main train station in West Berlin. And I think he’d appreciate if I called at a more reasonable hour than 5.30 or whatever ungodly hour this train was scheduled to arrive. And knowing Zee Germans, they’ll be on time, despite the Commies and their dogs.
If I thought the Reds were thorough when entering the GDR, I had something else coming now: more dogs, more border guards, more lights at the West Berlin border. They sure didn’t want anyone without the proper documents to leave the worker’s paradise. Bye bye, Ossies, here I come Berlin! Crossing into West Berlin proper was a formality. As soon as the West German border guards see my French passport, they move on. Not that they were friendlier than their Eastern colleagues, a Feldgrau is a Feldgrau after all. Eins Zwei Drei Vier!
When we reach Berlin Zoologischer Garten, it is still dark, and we are almost on time. The station served both as a train station and an underground hub. A few U-Bahn lines intersected below the train station, I think they still do. I call Ralf, he’s staying with friends who live in a WG, a Wohngemeinschaft, a flat where every bedroom is rented by a different person and the costs split between the inhabitants. There’s a communal spirit to this kind of housing arrangement, it’s not just about sharing a flat and fighting high housing costs, it’s also about living together and sharing. Or was. It’s been a long time since I’ve had any ideal, but back then it felt cool and hip. And staying in a WG helped improving my German tremendously – as I was expected to interact with the members of the WG. I am given precise instructions on how to reach the WG, and I find the place effortlessly after yet another long ride, this time in a series of U-Bahns.
During my stay in Berlin, we went to East Berlin for a day-trip, and this was something else. We had to take the underground to Checkpoint Charlie, passing a couple of ghost stations, below the border. I wish I had taken pictures. The memories I have of this trip are fading, but the somber, oppressing atmosphere is still alive.