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Germany 1986 - an American's Memoir

Updated on January 27, 2011

In the summer of 1986, I travelled by train from Paris, France to Peine, Germany. At the time, Germany was still divided by the Cold War. And Peine was located in the West but very near what was then the East German Border. Peine was, and I imagine still is, a quiet little town located near the Hartz Mountains and slightly east of the city of Hanover. Sad to say I haven't kept in contact with the wonderful family that welcomed me in, showed me the sights, and shed a tear when I left. There was some history, some drama that transpired between their youngest daughter and myself, and I fear this tension ruined what could have been a life-long friendship.

The morning I left Paris it was chilly - I could see my breath - the temperature was in the high 40's and this was mid-July. I wore a white, cable-knit sweater and bluejeans; I packed light because I have always hated being weighed-down with luggage. One thing that still amazes me if just how cold it can get in Northern Europe during the summer. Ticket in hand, I took my place on the train. Due to a tight budget, I bought a low-priced ticket for what would amount to a twelve-hour trip - one-way. At the time I believe I paid a little over $100 for it, but as with many things, some of the details have faded from my memory.

The train compartment consisted of two long benches, vinyl covered, that faced each other and a sliding door separated the actual compartment from the adjoining hallway. The car was cramped; I would guess around 35 square feet at most. And as it ended up, at least for part of the journey, eight people including myself were cramped in this tiny space. As it happened, my compartment mates were seven Dutch girls, teenagers all, who had been backpacking around southern Europe on summer vacation and who desperately needed a shower and fresh change of clothing. As our train would pass through Belgium and Holland before crossing the border into Germany so it was a fair bet that for about one third of the journey, well we would all need to get friendly in order to survive. But at that point in my life, I suffered from paralyzing shyness. For the first four hours, I never spoke a word - I stared out the window hoping I could wish or daydream the time away. The cold glass felt good on my cheek and forehead as I watched the countryside race by my window. Meanwhile, my compartment mates, all eight of them, were conversing to each other in Dutch, rolling cigarettes, smoking cigarettes, rolling more cigarettes - a blue fog of tobacco smoke literally rolled out from under our compartment door and into the hallway.

Finally, I got up the nerve and asked, "Could you roll me a cigarette?" I smoked at the time and it was either smoke one myself or become violently ill.

"Why sure love... are you English?" the curly-haired girl in the middle asked me. What I didn't know at the time was that almost everyone in Holland speaks English - English is a mandatory subject in their schools and the Dutch start teaching it in grade school. Immediately, all of the girls switched from Dutch to English - I suppose on my behalf. It was a very surreal experience that lasted a few more hours. At some unpronounceable town inside Holland, my Dutch travelling girls got off the train and for the next leg of my trip, I would sit alone in a very smokey compartment that smelled more like a pool hall than a train and pray that the gentle sway of the car on the rails would eventually rock me to sleep. But my prayers were in vain - I didn't sleep a wink on the twelve-hour voyage.

Leaving the train station in Holland where my Dutch girls had gotten off, I wondered how long it would take to cross the border into Germany. And to this day, I know we crossed the border - the train stopped at a station, apparently inside Germany, where a portly German Customs agent stepped on board and asked to see the passengers' passports - but I don't know exactly when we crossed it. There was no ceremony, no sign that I noticed - we simply went through a tunnel in a hill and apparently ended up in another country. And this is something that Americans find or will find amazing when they travel in Europe - crossing a road or literally walking through a farm field can land you in another country complete with another language, different laws, different culture, religions, etc.

After endless miles of countryside punctuated by the occasional small town, our train began to slow. I could tell a large city was off in the distance. We crossed a bridge over the Leine River and eased our way into the train station. We had finally arrived in Hanover, but this was just the beginning of my anxiety - in Hanover I had to change trains. You see the train I had been travelling on's final destination was Warsaw, Poland. And while I had taken German in highschool and two quarters in college, my German was horrible at best. But the ticket said I had to change trains in Hanover. I needed to take a regional train in to Braunschweig. And it was there that the German family would pick me up.

I pulled my carry-on bag from under my seat, took a deep breath, and stepped down onto the platform. The station was enormous - not bigger than La Gare du Nord in Paris where I had started this journey, but big enough. And the language barrier was immediately palpable - German was all around me and I wasn't understanding a word. I began to panic. I had no idea how to read the train schedules posted on the large boards that hung above the station floor. I saw a sign written in several languages one of which was marked in English and said INFORMATION. So I got in line and waited my turn; there were maybe ten people ahead of me. Once my turn came up, a heavy-set man in his mid-50's motioned me over. I asked him very slowly in my best English I could muster if he knew which platform that train I needed to take would board from. He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face and said, "De schedule is right der."

So now full panic set in. I listened around for someone, anyone who spoke English - no one. I sat down on a bench - I needed to compose my thoughts, pull it together. This wasn't a time to panic. Our of the corner of my eye, a short, dark-skinned man - clearly not German - was walking toward me. I had read that there were many Turkish immigrants in Germany. They had come to the country to fill a labor demand and were called Gastarbeiters or guest workers by the Germans.

"You lost?" he asked. His accent was extremely heavy, but he spoke English - at least a little.

I explained to him that I was indeed lost and told him where I was going. He checked the train station schedule for me and after a few seconds he said, in broken English, "You go down - down - the train is down below..." I thanked him heartily with a handshake and a smile. He nodded and smiled, and I walked down the wide stairs to the bottom of the station and, lo and behold, my train was there just waiting to depart. I don't know who that Turkish gentleman was, and more importantly, I have no idea why he decided to show me such kindness, but I have never forgotten his face nor his generous assistance.

Braunschweig was now in sight. This, after all, was the last leg of my trip and by far the shortest part of it. This regional train was much smaller than the train I had taken in Paris. And I had the impression I was riding on just another commuter train- a train an ordinary German might take to and from work, etc. And this train ran much slower than the other and stopped at many more stations. And with each stop, hand fulls of people would get on-board. I remember one older man who, at the time, was well into his 60's. I couldn't help but picture him in another time as a much younger man, likely in the German army during the war, and how I would have been his mortal enemy and he would have been mine. And during the war he would been just about my age now - 19-20. And I found myself trying to imagine the things that he had seen.

LOOK FOR PART II OF Germany 1986: An American's Memoir's link below.


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