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.