CHECKMATE CHARLIE

March 2006

Berlin brings a lot of things to mind, but I can’t ever remember thinking of friendliness as one of them. So arriving at the West Berlin bus station late one slushy January night, it was with little surprise, and no little dismay, that I listened to the husky voice at the other end of the telephone line tell me that no, it was not possible to stay, that the friend of a friend now ill with a un-named and unconvincing ‘communicable disease,’ would not, as previously arranged, be able to put us up.

A second phone call produced the name of a hostel at which we might find shelter from the storm, a vague address and the number of a bus that would surely take us to the door. Rominter Allee, I said to the bus driver. Jah, he replied as we sat down. But after fifteen minutes of driving through the dark and wet Berlin night, Rominter Allee remained as elusive as a needle in a wet haystack. Aware of our plight, some of our fellow passengers suggested in broken English that, no, this was perhaps not the bus that would take us there, wherever it might be. We changed buses, but our luck was no better. We changed to a taxi. Surely a taxi driver would know the city well enough to get us to Rominter Allee. The driver was more friendly than the bus driver and seemed to know the city well enough. Ah, Rominter Allee! Jah, he said, and we felt reassured. After ten minutes we ended up at a British army base.

We changed strategy. We asked the driver to take us to a cheap place to stay, but after the second three star hotel in a row, and with the witching hour closing in, we had to insist that cheap really meant just that. He finally obliged and although we had no idea where we were, we felt relieved as we ascended the small creaky staircase to our second story room. It seemed like a palace. Our happiness only increased as we drank the bottles of wine that we were no longer obliged to share with our unwilling host.

In the morning our heads were cloudy but everything else was clear. The hostel was located in a reasonable area, the cost was within reach and the rotund and garrulous owner, while not the godmother of last night’s fairy tale, did seem decidedly good natured. The weather was less so, but that and the brick wall visible from our room seemed pretty much irrelevant. We had two days to kill before we left for Poland; we spoke no German, but we had good boots. We bought a map.

We walked and walked. The weather held and a weak sun occasionally poked its welcome face through the murk. We ate bad donner kebabas late at night outside the main railway station, wary of the fierce looking punks and drug zombies that lurked in its dark recesses. We paid the obligatory visit to the Wall and Check-Point Charlie, peering spy like through the mist into the forbidden zone of East Berlin. We took shelter from a tidal wave of demonstrators that moved at surprising speed towards us and away from the helmeted, shielded and truncheoned police that chased them. We made preparations for the journey.

There was the problem of the Polish we didn’t speak, and Polish-English dictionaries, we realized, were not high demand items in Germany. But by then it was too late to worry, we had survived these last days without much German and surely it couldn’t be worse. We made our way to the station as dusk approached and the furtive night dwellers began to take up their positions. We settled into the train’s old style compartment. The only other occupant was a small overweight woman in a fur coat accompanied by two large suit cases and a small son who said nothing. She told us in strange American English spoken with heavy accent that she was from Riga the capital of Latvia. The train jerked, clanked, and left the station.

Unexpectedly, we stopped a few minutes later in East Berlin; Soldiers lining the platform. This was not part of the agenda. No one else was visible apart from a man in a different colored uniform who we took to be the station master. Our traveling companion who might have been expected to know more than us, looked disturbingly confused. Passengers began disembarking while we looked at each other in panic. Did we need to change, perhaps this train only went as far as East Berlin and another would take us on to Warsaw. We had no idea and no way of asking. We looked at each other blankly. No, we should stay on the train. Yes, we should get off with our bags.

The Latvian woman decided to make her move, lowering her bags and disembarking. We decided to follow suit. We changed our minds and put them back on. We took them off again. We asked the station master about our destination. He looked at us disdainfully, spoke a few words we did not understand, and moved away, imperiously issuing orders. We walked up and down the line of soldiers who stood, impassively, bayonets fixed, along the length of the platform. They were guarding something but it wasn’t clear what. Keeping us in, or keeping others out? We pleaded with one who seemed to show just a flicker of sympathy. “Warsaw, Warsaw,” we said, gesticulating as if somehow our hands would magically would produce the answer our words could not, but the guard stood mute. There was no other way out. We got back on the train and waited.

Events of January 1990

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