All of the hoo-haa this week about David Bowie’s new single and its referencing of his days in Berlin has me recalling my own trip to Berlin in 1983.
I had travelled to England to fulfil a lifelong (at 21!) dream of going to and being in London. And in London I was. I wanted to stay forever … But it was very expensive, so I quickly retreated to my friend Rowena’s parents’ house in Luton, Bedfordshire, to regroup. She and I took a trip to Paris, travelling on the hovercraft in choppy seas – I never liked cigar smoke and that trip really did me in – all the duty free cigars being smoked on board. We stayed in a tiny room near Sacre Coeur and I learned about negotiating my way around in another language. After that, when we got back to the UK, I thought I’d be fine going to Berlin by myself. Despite having only a smattering of German.
My old friend, Anxiety , however wasn’t so sure and insisted on coming along for a ride. I didn’t quite make it to the train on the first night. But I was determined and on my second try I headed off from Luton to London, to take the train to Harwich, then the ferry to Oostende in Holland, and then another train through Germany to West Berlin.
The journey itself was uneventful – I had booked a couchette and along with my co-travellers, settled down to sleep the trip away. No-one told the East German border guards about this plan though. They boarded the train some time in the night, made their way through the carriages, turning on lights willy nilly, demanding to see “passeports!”. I readily handed mine over, awed by their guns and their attitude – apart from the odd editor at The Australian, I hadn’t come across anyone who had spoken like that before. Their guns frightened the devil out of me, as did their uniforms and well, their attitude. No-one was going to mess with them, least of all me. And I was, at times, well known for my attitude.
Arriving in West Berlin in the gloom of the October morning, I had not booked accommodation – a stab at being freewheeling, and I regretted it straight away. I went to the accommodation booth at the train station and following some negotiation, lumped my bag about half a kilometre to an … interesting … boarding house. Fortunately, I had spent lots of time among drag queens in Newcastle, so the resident group of transsexuals didn’t phase me much – who else would you expect to stay with in Berlin in 1983?
Finding somewhere else to stay was out of the question – I had paid good money to the agent for that room; I was exhausted from lugging my bags around, plus I had already lost a day due to my false start. So I was stuck with it.
The door on the room locked, after a fashion, and I think it’s the only place I have ever stayed in through all of my travels where I took everything I had with me into the bathroom when I went for a bath. Goodness knows what they thought of me with my big blue duffle coat, fake snakeskin boots, close cropped hair cut (red) from a high street salon and Elvis Costello glasses. Live and let live, I suspect, like trannies all over the world.
And like Bowie, I headed to the famous department store, Ka De We, and made a couple of judicious purchases – a scarf for my sister and myself amongst them. Then I wandered the streets in the rain, soaking up the atmosphere, and checking out the restaurant menus out of interest. I think I went to the Brandenburg Gates and peered through into the East.
Going to East Berlin was one of my goals and it was surprisingly easy. I can’t recall how I got to the gates of Checkpoint Charlie – the border crossing between East and West Berlin operated by the Allies until 1989. But I do recall the guard who processed my visitor’s application. “You will go for one day.” I thought he was telling me, but I realised later he was merely asking me – I hadn’t understood the intonation because I was focused on the big gun at his side, and his size – he was like a bear. If he told me I was going for one day, then I would go for one day – no problem.
Visitors were also required to change a set amount of money into East German currency, and spend it there. This was quite a challenge, and even after eating lunch and checking out the shops, I knew I would not be spending up big. There was nothing to buy! I found a little German doll – a lamplighter, and a pair of bright blue mittens – both of which I still have, but the rest of the money went unspent.
I recall getting the underground train back to the western side, through the Berlin Zoo station, and although I don’t remember my passport being checked, I am sure it would have been.
My only other recollection is buying two Checkpoint Charlie t-shirts – one for me and one for Rowena.
When Rod and I travelled in Europe in 1991, we went to many different parts of Germany, but not to Berlin. I’ve always hankered to return though.
Maybe, after 30 years, it’s time for another look? If I can, like Bowie, I’ll go back to Ka De We. I assume, like all good capitalist symbols, it’s still there.