Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Years ago we drove across Belgium, through what was then, West Germany and East Germany and on into Czechoslovakia.  Back in that time, we were scarily behind the Iron Curtain as soon as we had left behind the jolly 'oom-pa-pah' music blasting out from one of the offices at the West German border-point.  The East German border guards gave us a span of time to travel across their country so we had to arrive within the specified time at the exit border in order to transfer into Czechoslovakia, otherwise they came looking for you.  That was pretty nerve-wracking, and we prayed we didn't break down, or have any other kind of adventure during our frantic drive across.
Up to that point, our trip travelling with our three year old daughter had been sunny and exciting.  I remember us deviating from the auto-ban to try to find somewhere to buy lunch, and subsequently driving towards a beautiful Bavarian chalet restaurant, set a little way from the road surrounded by shrubbery and tall trees.  It's frontage was completely festooned with scarlet geraniums, cascading in froths so wonderful that even now, I have only to close my eyes to conjure-up their ruby delight-fullness.  We clambered stiffly from the laden car stretching out our achy limbs to wander inside. The place was empty of people, but all the tables seemed dressed for a feast.  Presently we were attended by two lovely ladies, who gently informed us that the restaurant was closed that day for a wedding party.  However they were so kind, taking my little daughter by the hand they motioned for us to follow them through into a small back room just off the kitchens.  There to prepare a delicious pork schnitzel for the three of us, even though they were closed and must have been really busy.  Just as we were leaving the bridal party arrived, amazingly, a stunningly beautiful bride in the most gorgeous wedding dress,  all billowing and rustling carried by an ecstatic bridegroom, both of them surrounded by a gaggle of laughing,happy people, it was so romantic!
 Imagine then the contrast, between that friendly and welcoming sojourn and the frightening experience of us reaching the East German/Czechoslovakian border.  Darkness had fallen by the time we drove up to the metal barriers and we were dazzled by the starkness of the massive overhead  arc-lights.  Snow was falling, an icy wind catching the flakes, swirling them about like swarms of midges below the blue-white, starkly beaming lights.  A soldier in a grey-blue worsted overcoat strode up to the car and ordered my husband to get out with our papers.  Meanwhile another soldier angled a heavy, long handled mirror beneath the car, whilst two others, both in their bulky worsted overcoats,  fur edged hats and heavily armed with guns, accompanied by Alsatian dogs snarling at their leashes, moved this way and that peering into the car.  This being not that long after The Ipcress Files film and James Bond it was mighty intimidating and later we were told they could have made us empty the whole car of its contents, searching for contraband goods or stowaways.  Most likely because it was late at night, midnight, in a snow storm and maybe our small daughter being asleep in the back of the car made them show a little compassion, who knows?   Eventually after a long wait and anticipating all sorts of scenario's.... would we disappear into some dungeon to be brusquely interrogated? Never having been to an Iron Curtain country we weren't used to being in the vicinity of guns, never mind soldiers! However, thankfully we were handed back our passports and papers and motioned roughly on through the striped metal barrier.
 How can I explain what was on the other side?  I still clearly remember my first sight of that steely-blue-grey moonlit strip of concrete road, either side lined with massed rolled up barbed wire and wooden barriers, whilst beyond deserted buildings loomed in the night, their window's glass-less, dense black pits in broken-down abandoned dwellings.  Great pot-holes and rubble strewn everywhere and not a soul in sight.  Just the moonlit empty concrete-blocked road stretching ahead of us into the darkness.   No street-lamps, no sign-posts nothing to point us in the right direction, and no-one anywhere to ask.


Jacqueline @ HOME said...

Hi Jane,
I loved reading of your experiences behing the iron curtain.
Our son spent a year in Germany for his degree. He chose to go to Magdeburg which would have been East Germany and, although the wall had come down and things were much different to your experiences, you could still feel the difference between East and West.
Thanks so much for your lovely comment today and, Fried Green Tomatoes is one of my favourite films and Steve McQueen was my favourite actor.
Hope it's not raining too much where you are !! XXXX

June said...

Hello dear Jane, reading this makes me realize what a sheltered life I have led here in my state of Idaho in the US. I loved reading the contrasting visions you experienced in this trip. I always love reading experiences like these and gaining from them. I think we are both rather blessed to live in the countries we live in, don't you?
When you write, I feel as if I am right there along side you. You have such a talent my friend.
sending hugs from here...

WOL said...

I empathize with your Iron Curtain experiences. I spent three years in what was then West Berlin during the 1970's-- I lived at Tempelhof Airport, in the building Hitler built (The US had an Air Base there and we shared the terminal with the commercial airlines). We were surrounded all around by East Germany. Because of my security clearance, I was not allowed to travel in East Berlin or East Germany except on this one particular train that took all night to get from Berlin to Frankfort because the Soviets placed it at the lowest priority and it had to pull off on a siding and let every East German train go past. The windows of the train were painted opaque on the outside and welded shut. I could only fly in or out on the American or British commercial jets, and "Western" air traffic could only fly through this one narrow corridor and were shadowed by Soviet and East German fighters to make sure they did not deviate. Back then, Tempelhof was still a working airport and passenger jets landed there -- right in the middle of the city. (Hitler had the airport built with the final approach to the runway over a Jewish Cemetery.)The West German government paid a man to run 30 head of sheep in the large grassy area between the runway and taxi way to keep the grass "mowed." (kind of jolting to have been traveling for almost 24 hours from Texas halfway around the world, look out the window as we landed, and see sheep grazing right next to the runway!)I spent one Easter Sunday morning with the Army MPs in a helicopter flying patrol around the Wall. East-West relations were pretty tense during the time I was there. All around the city alongside the wall there were areas of trip flares, and fenced in strips with ferocious dogs loose in them, and guard towers every 100 yards. Our duty site was near the edge of the city up on a hill within sight of the wall, and at night sometimes a wild animal or stray dog or cat would set off a trip flare. The guards were under orders to shoot first, and then go see what it was. Our building had no windows, and sometimes at night when the weather was fine, when we took a break, we would go stand outside. It was pretty startling to seea flare go off, and the search lights come on and the machine guns open up. We always hoped it was an animal that had set off the flare and that they missed it.

helen tilston said...

Hello Jane

What a scary experience and particularly travelling with a baby.
I did travel from Berlin through to East Berline when the wall still stood and it was a very moving and different experience - I remember the mirror being held beneath the bus and when the Guards came on board, they inspected the overhead bins to ensure we were not smuggling a person.
Thanks for your comments today and wishing you the joys of 2014
Helen xx

Sacha said...

Hello Jane
Happy new year, my best wishes for health, happiness and joy every day throughout 2014 as well as for your loved ones, family and friends!

Marsha Splenderosa said...

Oh, Jane, thankfully the world has changed so much. But there are many places where one feels this same way today. All we can hope for is that politics will eventually be run for the people and not for the politicians. xx's

Ruthie Redden said...

Dear Jane, what a fascinating & amazing story you have to tell here of your travels. I was sat on the edge of my seat whilst reading, you have a very eloquent way with words. I should imagine that whenever you see scarlet geraniums it reminds you of that day! So good to see you back to blogging, we missed you lovely lady x x x x

Teresa Evangeline said...

What an amazing piece of your personal history you have offered here. Very intriguing and a wonderful read. Thank you for sharing this with us.