Drowning in Berlin: Half-way to Heaven II

Once again, it was that time of year, so once again I packed my rucksack with a wide variety of unpleasant T-shirts and headed off into the wide blue yonder in search of excitement, adventure and VHS video cassettes.

My holiday started a day later than planned, since I went to the Scala all-night film show on the Saturday, more out of curiosity, since it included ‘a surprise feature’. Some surprise. It was ‘Driller Killer’, a film previously shown there with no secrecy at all – ever feel like you’ve been cheated? The films on the boat across to Holland weren’t a lot better – ‘Twins’ & ‘Working Girl’ failed to compete with a comfy chair and shut-eye.

Amsterdam, for the fifth time, and I don’t think I’ll be going back there for a while. Difficult though it may be to believe, the air of sin has lost its novelty value; even the hookers in the red-light district didn’t seem as plentiful or as pretty as they used to be. Mind you, having said that, there was one who was absolutely stunning – all your fantasies made flesh (or at least, all mine) and well worth fifty guilders plus the possibility of catching a social disease. Unfortunately, I failed to strike while the iron was hot and when I came back for another look, a couple of glasses of Dutch courage later, I was just in time to see her curtains close. Hell, she wasn’t all that pretty, anyway…

Gerd Eichmann / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

When not drooling at under-dressed, over made-up bimbos, I wandered round the shops in search of films. The Netherlands’ much touted lack of censorship led me to think that Amsterdam would be a city where every shop was stuffed full of uncut ‘Toxic Avengers’ and full-length copies of ‘Videodrome’. This wasn’t quite the case – while even the Dutch equivalents of Woolworths and Our Price had their video shelves over-flowing with films where the box art alone would set a customs officer’s nose twitching at thirty paces, these were restricted to titles like “Shaved Pink” or ‘Inside Desiree Cousteau’, with splatter generally being British imports. The only exceptions that I came across were Dutch subtitled versions of ‘Faces of Death’ & ‘Faces of Death 2’, both costing the equivalent of 9.99. I didn’t bother.

By now, I had a rough idea of where I was heading – Inter-Rail V was to become a quest, a pilgrimage to pay homage at Nastassja’s birthplace. Which is why I found myself arriving at Berlin Zoo station following a surprisingly quiet journey through East Germany – about the only thing of note was that even when passing through the centre of towns, at about 8 a.m, very few cars were visible. And most of those I did see looked distressingly like Skodas!

Priority one : find somewhere to stay. This was accomplished very easily; courtesy of the tourist office I found a place in a newly-opened, low-budget, pseudo-youth hostel for DM.25 per night, or about eight quid – that included an all-you-can-eat breakfast which is a little better than most places offer! Priority two : hit the video shops. Surely I’d be able to complete my collection of Nastassja-pics, here in her birth-place. First find your video shop, though – back to the tourist office and a quick flip through the local Yellow Pages turned up a couple of possibilities. However, one of these proved totally untraceable, and the other only did rentals. Putting that idea onto the back burner, I went sight-seeing instead.

Started off with the thing Berlin is most famous for: The Wall. At first sight it’s not up to much, being a lot lower than I expected, perhaps a dozen feet high, and almost totally covered in graffiti. Some of this is admittedly very artistic, but most of it wouldn’t be out of place in any railway siding here. However, at certain points the West Germans have built towers, from where you can see over, and it’s only then that you can appreciate the scale of it all. For about a hundred yards on the other side, everything has been levelled; you can see, cut by the wall, the disused tram lines continuing into East Berlin.

Visited the Reichstag section next. Here, the border is a river, patrolled by East German motor boats, which occasionally try and drench the tourists on the bank by kicking up a wake (and getting an ironic round of applause when they fail). Since the river is East German territory, presumably any poor sod who gets splashed will be torn to shreds by machine-gun fire for trespassing.

I spent four days in Berlin, a little longer than planned since I wanted to take in a football match at the Olympic Stadium on the Saturday. On the second day, I did the obvious thing, and took a trip across to the Communist side to gawp at the primitive lifestyle of the oppressed masses, after queueing for ages to get my visa and change my 25 West German marks into 25 East German ones. This is compulsory – they clearly want to get their hands on our decadent, capitalist hard currency since the rate going the other way is 10 DDR to 1 DFR. Even that’s not available to tourists, who have no option except spending the Communist currency, because Western banks collapse in hysterical laughter if you try to exchange them. There is a flourishing black market; I was accosted while writing postcards in a park by a seedy individual who offered to sell East German marks at a good rate. As I could foresee difficulty getting rid of the ones I had, I declined.

My first impressions of the Communist world weren’t great. This was due to me coming out of the border post and heading in completely the wrong direction, into some sort of industrial estate. I eventually regained my bearings and went up the TV tower, carefully positioned to loom over the nearby cathedral as if to demonstrate that socialism is bigger than God.

The people seemed rather sullen, not really surprising considering they’re regarded as exhibits in a human zoo by most tourists. The pedestrian subways were full of people engaging in a little illicit free-marketeering, selling fruit & veg, crockery and even records. Duran Duran seemed especially popular – since the only Western artist available in the ‘official’ shops is Kylie Minogue, I can quite understand the appeal of Simon Le Bon & co.

Despite desperate attempts, I had just about failed to use up any Deutschmarks; I bought postcards for 20 Pfennigs (about 7p), stamps to send them home with for the same amount (and they took about four weeks to arrive) and a Biro for about 1.60 – presumably the high price helps keep these dangerous items out of the hands of dissident subversives. That was about it – everything else was either extremely shoddy or imported and hellishly expensive i.e. a simple mono record player, of the sort last seen here in the 60’s, cost over 1200 DM, the best part of FOUR HUNDRED pounds.

However, on looking at a poster showing “What’s on in East Berlin”, I saw a local theatre company was putting on ‘My Fair Lady’ that night, not far from where I was – I was a little surprised at this, but on consideration, ‘My Fair Lady’, with it’s idea that the rich are just like you and me, except with funny voices, is about as Marxist as musicals get. I went to the box-office hoping my remaining marks might buy me a cheap seat somewhere and discovered, to give them their due, that the government there do support the arts. Compared to a theatre in London, where seats are eight quid up, this one was astonishing; 2 marks (65p) got you a place in the roof and 15 marks, less than a fiver, got you into a box. If prices were like that here, I’d support the stage rather more.

The theatre was a little old-fashioned but perfectly restored, complete with a huge chandelier. The programs were also highly impressive; 16 A5 pages in colour for 30 pfennigs makes the idea of publishing TC from Berlin almost viable! The musical had been translated into German but since I knew the story of Eliza Doolittle from the film, this was no real problem – in fact, Professor Higgins’ dialogue almost gained from the change, since staccato, clipped German suited his character well. The actors seemed, from my limited knowledge, well up to scratch – what was perhaps lacking in polish was more than made up for in energy (the dance numbers were especially energetic) and it was overall highly enjoyable. It also gave me a chance to see East Germans ‘at play’ and they seemed no different from us at all.

LutzBruno / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)
[May not be ACTUAL East Berlin theatre, but the Admiralpalast WAS one such!]

As I write this, the Berlin Wall is collapsing – it’s astonishing to think that just 2 months ago, when I was there, nobody would have even considered the idea of a unified Berlin anything more than a idealists’ dream and there were no signs of the dramatic upheaval that’s taken place over the past few days. I’d love to be there now – the atmosphere must be absolutely incredible.

Back in the Western world, with it’s luxuries like Coke (although there was a similar substance in East Germany, it tasted even worse than Pepsi!), I tried a few bars with my fellow-travellers. There are two problems with German bars; one, they all have different beers and there’s little notion of ‘brewery pubs’ as we have here, so when you go to a new area, you usually end up drinking a totally different set. Good for variety, bad for consistency. The other problem is getting served. In Britain, you make eye contact with the bar staff. In Germany, they always seem to be looking three inches above your head and studious ignore you. Of course, it might have had something to do with ‘English’ people not being flavour-of-the-month; the 50th anniversary of Wrld Wr II was just past and English soccer fans had been honoured ambassadors of sport again and trashed most of Sweden.

I eventually managed to track down a video shop. No joy there, either as I find out that of the three Nastassja-pics I don’t have, two are no longer available and the third will cost me fifty quid and take two weeks to order. The fifty quid I could stand, the two weeks I couldn’t. Instead, I discovered the illustrated script of “Paris, Texas” in a bargain bookshop which cheered me up a bit – the only other bit of memorabilia I spotted was a postcard of her, and that was printed in London.

Berlin is very well served with cinemas; roughly 80 or so, and all showing different films rather than the latest block-buster. I went to see ‘Pink Flamigoes’ at what must have been the Berlin equivalent of the Scala – a couple of weeks later and it’d have been ‘Lair of the White Worm’. This set a new record of the minimum audience for a film : eight people including me and two who walked out half way through!

Saturday, I watched a football match at the Olympic stadium. The complex is very impressive, though I don’t know how the idea of an open-air swimming pool would go down these days, and the stadium itself was immense; Blau-Weiss Berlin are only 2nd division and the 8,619 spectators, including a pleasing proportion of families, rattled around a bit like Linnea Quigley’s brain-cells (yeah, let’s force the simile further than it was ever meant to go). Here seems an appropriate place to tell the only example of Teutonic humour I heard during my stay there : &n Did you know Hitler let 100,000 Jews take part in the Berlin Olympics? &f They were the cinder track. It seems to me that certain Germans are no longer feeling as guilty about the war as they might do…

Next time, we head into the Alps, discover that Switzerland is not quite as boring a place as it’s reputation has it and try to decide between buying ‘Ilsa: Harem- Keeper of the Oil Sheiks’ and going up a mountain.

**** 4. “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off whatever it is!”