Remembering arriving in Berlin freezing and hungry

The first time I arrived in Berlin I was freezing cold and ravenously hungry. I thought back on that time as our bus tour took us past the glittering, new Hauptbanhof where I first arrived all those years ago.

It was December 1981, eight years before the Berlin Wall came down, signalling the beginning of German reunification. I’d come from Warsaw Gdansk Station on a train that had started in Moscow and was heading for Ostend. I’d been in Warsaw, my first time in an Eastern European country, gathering material for an article on alcohol policy in Poland. I remember a woman putting a pillow over the phone, prostitutes in the hotel ringing my room all night, the cold severity of Warsaw, and my long journey on a tram through the snow to what seemed the edge of the city to celebrate the life of John Lennon on the anniversary of his death in a flat high in a soulless block.

Martial law had just been imposed (or was about to be imposed, I can’t remember which), and people were trying to get out of the country, filling the planes. I couldn’t get on a flight and so had to take the train. I hoped to be able to get a sleeper, but when I got on the train the Russian guard of the only sleeper carriage demanded “Two hundred US dollars cash.” I didn’t have it and went to one of the Polish carriages. It was around lunchtime, but I had no food. Then I discovered that there was nowhere to buy food and drink. My romantic notions of travelling luxuriously across Europe came to nothing.

We were supposed to reach Berlin at six in the evening, but as we travelled across a flat, snow-covered, featureless landscape I realised that we were falling behind time. We eventually arrived in East Berlin at about midnight and were shunted into a siding. By now there were only two carriages: mine, and the Russian sleeper carriage. The heating in my carriage failed, perhaps because the heat was supplied by an engine we no longer had. It became colder and colder. I put on all the clothes I had, including my pyjamas. I wondered if I could get off the train, but it didn’t seem wise to leave a train in East Berlin in a siding. I paced up and down, beating my arms, doing all I could to keep warm.

Berlin Wall

At six in the morning an engine arrived and hauled us through to West Berlin.memory, almost certainly distorted, is that we passed from total darkness into a brightly lit neon city, West Berlin. When we arrived at the Hauptbanhof I leapt off to buy food and coffee, but I had no Deutschmarks –and the vendors wouldn’t accept any other currency or a card. What to do? I couldn’t face a food less journey to Ostend or, indeed, any more time without food.

I got off the train, walked out of the station and found a hotel. Still wearing all clothes, including my pyjamas, unshaven, and exhausted, I must have looked like a refugee; but when I waved my American Express card, as in an advertisement, they smiled and showed me through to the restaurant. I still remember that breakfast as the breakfast of my life. When I looked at a map I thought that I had spent the night just a few hundred yards from where I had breakfast.

PS. After breakfast I made my way to the airport and caught what turned out to be the last flight into Heathrow that day. We landed in a snowstorm in the early afternoon with snow banked up three feet high on either side of the runway.


2 thoughts on “Remembering arriving in Berlin freezing and hungry

  1. My first, and second time in Berlin, also well before the wall came down, were very different, I was the Canadian representative on the committee to set up the Berlin meeting of ISPOG (the International Society for Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology), and we went in March to inspect the magnificent new auditorium that was to host the conference in July. West Berlin was opulent, and rich. All was well. Then, after we left there was a big snowfall, and the roof of the auditorium collapsed. What to do with 5,000 people coming in two months? The authorities made the Reichstag available to us, and once again all was well, in this most perfect possible world.


    • Was that when the Reichstag had its splendid new dome, which I was disappointed to learn you can visit only by appointment?


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