Left-handed under the Iron Curtain
Or: what do you mean there’s no toilet on the bus?
It was a pretty average looking bus, really. The sort of bus you’d go on a school outing in, in fact. You know, a day trip to Aboyne, or Montrose at a push. The kind of bus you’d be heartily sick of, and rather uncomfortable in, after an hour or so. A particularly late-seventies kind of bus with all the modern conveniences – translucent plastic squares in the ceiling, and luggage racks. Oh, and the driver had a cassette player. Or maybe it was a radio. Well, anyway, there was an entertainment system. So a perfectly normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill school outing-type bus. And we were going on a school outing in it. We were going to drive south from Aberdeen until we reached the English Channel. And then we were going to take a ferry to somewhere in Belgium. And then the next day, we were going to drive east until we reached the Iron Curtain. No ordinary school outing, this – two days in a bus with no toilet.
I have absolutely no idea how I came to be on the bus. I was not one of life’s volunteers, and I cannot now imagine the process by which I came to be persuaded that it would be a good idea to get on a bus and go to Germany for two weeks. I also suspect that it was not a cheap adventure (although it’s true that there might have been a bit more money spent on transportation) and I don’t imagine that my parents were falling over themselves to fund another trip to Europe. Three years before, I had been to Norway with the Scouts (by train, mostly; the Scouts knew how to do things properly) and although I remember endless jumble sales and sponsored car washes, that can’t have been cheap, either. And did I show my gratitude by going on to become a Scout leader? No, I dropped out within about ten minutes of getting off the ferry home.
But, somehow, I’m queuing up outside Hazlehead Academy to get on this bus. It’s early summer 1978, Scotland are about to win the World Cup and I have a shameful secret. Alone of all the boys on the bus, and unknown to anyone but me (and, looking back, probably the teachers) I am to be billeted with a girl. I’m not sure how this happened – imbalance in the numbers, I suppose (although I now know that not to be true) – but I’m 15 and easily embarrassed; no-one is going to find out that Erik is really Erika. Well, not until we get there, and that’s two days away. Time enough to worry about that later. For now, I’m thinking window seat. I can’t imagine anything worse than rumbling all that way without being able to see out properly. I plonk myself down, and immediately realise that this probably means days of cramp, but David Robinson has squeezed his ridiculously-tall-for-a-15-year-old frame into the seat next to me, so here I am. Before we even set off, I am consumed by the typical adolescent concerns – what am I going to do for two days, and is there any food?
Out of my capacious rucksack come the same things which I carry with me to this day – a large stack of paperback books, and some squashed sandwiches. I’m probably too wound-up to eat, but I might as well start on the books. There are several Graham Greene novels – I imagine he was a key component of Higher English – and a few frankly terrible thrillers, which might have seemed like a good idea at the time, browsing round Watt & Grant’s, but are not exactly cool. I don’t, of course, discover this right away. First, I get started on my dreadful book, then people start asking me what I’m reading. Then I hear some impromptu readings from the back of the bus.
If you’ve never encountered the work of William Kotzwinkle, then I don’t recommend starting with Dr. Rat. It’s an uncompromising anti-vivisectionist novel, sections of which were declaimed by Christine Watt with much glee from the back of the bus at regular intervals. We were, of course, fascinated and enthralled. I quietly put my Ken Follett back in my bag, and replace it with Graham Greene.
Slowly (and I mean slowly – there was virtually no decent road north of Perth in 1978) but surely, we lumber on south, stopping every so often so that we can terrorise the odd service station. We read, we sang, we talked to our teachers – no, really – we ate junk food, we told terrible jokes, certain persons – who shall remain nameless for now – taunted lorry drivers with bananas, we got fed up with each other’s company. And then we reached Dundee.
After several more squashed sandwiches, and around a dozen bouts of cramp, I looked up to find that we were getting a quick sightseeing tour of central London – no M25 in those days – and decided that this was actually not a bad way to spend a Saturday. Having said that, I didn’t realise how long it was still going to take to get to Dover, and I hadn’t seen the ferry yet. By the time we hit the quayside in Dover, we were a pretty worn out bunch, but that wasn’t going to stop us – I’m sure some people found places to curl up on the ferry, but mostly we wandered the decks, and generally behaved like teenagers let off the leash. Indeed, someone managed to procure a bottle of duty-free Martini, and at least one of the party enjoyed it sufficiently to perform a very passable impression of a telegraph pole going over in a storm – I imagine he was carried back on to the bus. There wasn’t really that much else to get up to on a car ferry in the middle of the night; they weren’t the most salubrious of places – I suspect they still aren’t – and piling back on the bus in Oostend may actually have come as some relief. At some point we must have had some breakfast and freshened up in some way; I have to admit that my memories of that part of the journey are somewhat hazy – perhaps I slept through it; I don’t have the violent aversion to Martini shared by some, so I doubt that was the cause of my haziness.
I do remember rumbling on through Holland and on into Germany; endless motorways, fields and electricity pylons. The journey was beginning to lose its glamorous sheen, and even I, still nurturing my guilty secret, was longing for it to be over. Then, suddenly, we were on a road which someone suggested was one of Hitler’s Autobahns, and there was a clear sense – a restlessness and sudden breaking of the inactivity – that we were almost there.
How much did we know about Obersuhl, the village we were heading to? We must have talked about it in the weeks leading up to the trip. We must have looked at maps, and talked about the school and the people we were going to visit. We must have done all of that, but what we knew was we were going to the Iron Curtain. I, and I suspect, several others, began to search the landscape. What I was hoping to see, I’m not entirely sure – a Berlin Wall, a fence, an actual Iron Curtain? What we did see was the abrupt end of the Autobahn. This road goes no further, and was that a glimpse of fence up ahead? I can’t be sure, and now I’m assailed by my familiar trepidation. Any minute now I’m going to have to face the fact that I haven’t been entirely truthful with my colleagues. I am, of course, oblivious to their trepidation at meeting their hosts, and in truth, the whole thing passes off in a flurry of welcomes and luggage.
My hosts – Erika and her parents (and, I think, her older sister, although I’m a bit vague on this point. In fact, I’m shamefully vague on the whole family: was their name Schneider? I can’t be sure) are, of course, friendly and welcoming, and determined, it seems, to fill me with good, solid, German food at every opportunity. Then, it seems, there will be dancing. More precisely, we are to drag our exhausted, travel weary bodies back to the school for a disco. Somehow, we all manage to keep it together long enough to have a perfectly pleasant time – I remember having a conversation with someone about the ‘old-fashioned’ music we were dancing to: ‘Satisfaction’ must have been all of 15 years old, we managed to dance to it nevertheless. I imagine we all slept pretty well that first night.
And so to Monday morning, and breakfast. There are all manner of oddly-coloured and shaped breads; sausages and – wait a minute: Nutella? Is that chocolate spread? They eat chocolate for breakfast? We could get used to this. Suitably over-filled with things our mothers would not have approved of, we somehow find ourselves at school at 8 o’clock in the morning. This seems, alarmingly, to be normal – people are going to classes, and doing the everyday school-type things. I see some Aberdonian faces in the milling throng, all of us shadowing our hosts, and going to some intriguing, and in some cases, unlikely classes. I naturally end up in an English class, where my lack of knowledge of the intricacies of English grammar and phonetic spelling quickly mark me out as slightly odd. That, however, was nothing compared to how odd I was about to declare myself. At one point, the teacher asked me brightly if I’d like to write something on the whiteboard (A whiteboard, I thought? What’s one of them, then?), and I, naturally agreed. I strode confidently to the front of the class, picked up the marker pen, and began to write. Consternation.
It seems that left-handedness is unusual, to say the least, in this part of the world. The rest of the class was spent, at least in my memory, discussing this physical oddity from the fringes of civilisation. In truth, of course, we probably spent a couple of minutes talking interestedly about it, and then moved on. I was, as you might have gathered by now, a particularly sensitive teenager. I still am puzzled by that first morning, however. Is it really the case that none of these people had ever seen a left-hander before? How else am I to explain the genuinely disconcerted rumblings I heard as soon as I picked the pen up?
Left-handedness notwithstanding, a day at a German school was altogether intriguing. There was, of course, the unexpected delight of being at school without being expected to do any actual work, together with the fact that, if we were ever asked any questions, we could genuinely plead that we hadn’t quite understood; perhaps it could be rephrased in English…. The truth was, our hosts’ English was significantly more impressive than our German – well, more impressive than my German, anyway. For a language-based exchange visit, we seemed to spend a lot of time talking in English.
And the school itself – I find today that it is called Blumensteinschule, but I had forgotten that, if indeed I ever knew it – was full of unexpected differences from our own, dear, Hazlehead. Whiteboards, for one thing. And where we had a big patch of grass out the back for doing sports on, this school had an athletics stadium. Well, a proper track, at least, and some covered seating. They clearly took their sports a little more seriously than we did. I seem to remember congregating there at lunchtime, several of us contemplating how to politely dispose of our packed lunches, mainly composed of black bread – no butteries here! We munched our lunches, and slowly came to terms with the fact that this was actually the end of the school day, and that we would be free to do as we liked for the rest of the afternoon. Of course, what I want to do is go and see the border. Fortunately, Erika is quite happy to show off her local tourist attraction, and we strolled off out into the countryside – at least, that’s where I assumed we were going. It turned out that the first “Achtung! Minen!” sign is pretty much at the end of the main road through the village; one minute there’s a row of shops, the next, there’s a patch of wasteland, and, beyond it, fences, ditches and walls. And barbed wire. Erika took me out of the village, and we began to walk alongside the fence. Beyond was a clear patch of ground, and then an enormous white wall. Beyond that, more barbed wire was visible, and then, a few hundred yards away, a huge observation tower. Inside, we could just make out the East German armed border guards; presumably waiting for us to make a break for it, scale the wall, and claim asylum in the East.
That afternoon is still vividly with me, 25 years later: I can close my eyes and see that great white wall, the tower and the barbed wire. It was not so much unreal, as beyond my normal experience in a way I couldn’t quite grasp. Not just being in a village so very far from the sea, but being in a field, staring at everything that ever needed to be said about 20th century European politics. Just over there – close enough that I could clearly make out their uniforms – were people quite prepared to kill me for what they imagined I believed in. Well, perhaps I exaggerate a little – they were certainly under orders to kill anyone trying to go the other way over the wall. Just beyond it, we could see another village, much the same size as this one we were in – I was subsequently told that it was Untersuhl, which made sense, but increased the oddness quotient a notch or two. Of course, what seemed so other-worldly and exotic to me was simply part of everyday life for Erika’s generation. I imagine that, for her parents, the experience must have been quite different, but somehow we never did properly talk about it.
Of course, having expended all that effort to get to Obersuhl, we were going to take every opportunity we could to get back on the bus and go somewhere else. The whole trip seemed taken up with bus trips to various places – I remember going to Fulda, and at least one other gothic town; I remember a gliding club, for some reason, and I clearly and most vividly remember going to a place called ‘Herkules’, which is near Kassel. Herkules and the Wilhelmshöhe park were truly spectacular; built in that mad, 18th century style so popular with princes and despots around then. Full of fountains and follys, waterfalls and palaces, it was in many ways what I had expected Germany to look like.
So many of the details of the trip have faded now, of course – I wish now that I had kept a diary, but try telling the 15-year-old me that. Among the faded memories are a truly spectacular thunderstorm on our way back from one of those day trips, and some curiosities I can’t quite get straight. Why, for instance, were we listening to the Wimbledon Ladies’ final sitting on the wall outside the school – did someone have a shortwave radio? Did some of our party actually go into East Germany at some point? And if they did, why didn’t I? Why did I agree to take part in a Red Cross exercise, and find myself bandaged and fake bleeding on a pavement? Did I really get shown photographs of a relative of Erika’s in his wartime uniform? How was I supposed to react? And did David really tell the Bamber Gascoigne joke in painstakingly translated German to a whole pub full of people who had never seen, or even heard of, University Challenge?
Of course, now I’ve mentioned the pub, and I’m going to have to explain that whole aspect of the trip. Up to now, I may have given the impression that I experienced this whole expedition more or less alone, but of course, we were a bus full of pupils and teachers, with the teachers more or less in charge. I remember Mr. Lee and Miss Dey; Miss Davie and Mr Steele, Mr. Valentine, of course – I think there were probably two more, but it’s a little vague. Some of the teachers were sympathetic to the fact that German licensing laws were much more relaxed than Scottish ones, and joined us in the pub – we quickly learned that simply claiming to be 16 was sufficient to get served – even those, like me, who were blatantly anything but 16. So, some merry evenings were had, too – without, I hasten to add, anything particularly untoward happening. We were, somehow, generally well behaved, dancing to music which would have got us severely ostracised at home – Gerry Rafferty, Genesis, that kind of thing, and working out how to smuggle those attractive-looking ashtrays and beerglasses out.
Of course, some of our party became quite attached to some of our hosts, and there was a deal of – there’s no delicate way of putting this – snogging going on. Being the kind of person I was, a lot of this passed me completely by, and it wasn’t until I contacted some of my fellow travellers many, many years later that I discovered the more salacious details. Ah, the innocence of youth. On the final, or perhaps penultimate, evening there was a real cultural novelty for us all – a gigantic outdoor barbecue in the middle of a field somewhere. We simply didn’t have barbecues in Aberdeen – scout campfires don’t really count – and there was, as I recall, a real end-of-term feel to the whole thing. At some point that evening, Christine and Frieda tried to convince me to take up smoking, but I was, and still am, too much of a good boy, and I really didn’t like the taste anyway.
And then, suddenly, it was time to pile back on to the bus and face another two days on the road. There were many tearful farewells, and a long, silent first couple of hours, but we soon perked up, regaling each other with tales of smuggled ashtrays and other derring-do. The return trip did, of course, drag on for what felt like weeks – once we were out of Germany, we all just wanted to be home. However, there was the hedonistic excess of the cross-channel ferry to come, and, emboldened by our experiences in German pubs, we were determined to make the most of it. Some of us made more of it than others – I remember vodka-fuelled giggling at signs in Dutch, and peering wistfully over the side as being the extent of my rebellion; some others may have partied a little harder…
The remainder of the journey has faded, thankfully – I have a vague memory of the Blackwall Tunnel, and a suspicion that we might have been on the wrong side of the road for a time, but I may have dreamt it. The whole of the trip back that Sunday is extremely hazy, and the only things I remember at all clearly are trying to call home at Hamilton services, and finding no one in – surely they weren’t all standing outside the school gates already – and someone finding ‘The Northern Lights’ by Renaissance on the radio just as Aberdeen came into view. We all groaned; it was too corny for words. As we all staggered off the bus in to the arms of our expectant parents and resentful siblings, not a backward glance was spared for the bus or the poor driver who had tolerated our racket for two weeks; we just wanted to be home.
Of course, the adventure didn’t end there – there was a return visit to deal with; all these people who had looked after us so well were going to be subjected to two weeks of life by the North Sea. There would be more dancing, fewer pubs, more revelations about teachers, renewed friendships and romance, unreasonable amounts of jealousy at the fact that our guests arrived by train, a lunar eclipse, and a dead Pope.
But that’s another story.