On my last day in Berlin, I visited Flughafen Tempelhof Airport to look into another historic event that fascinates me – the Berlin Airlift. Apart from the fact that it’s one of the few heart-warming Cold War stories, I have an interest because my dad was with the British Royal Engineers and involved in building the airstrips for the airlift.
The airport (no longer in operation) was built by the Third Reich on a massive scale. It was intended to be part of an even bigger project to show off Hitler’s mighty air power. Fortunately, he lost the war and it became an American base for the next twenty years. During the twelve months of the airlift, US planes landed here every 90 seconds, with others landing in the British and France sectors, bringing in everything the Berliners needed to survive – this the only plane left now.
West Berlin was our first destination on the epic trip of ’78. We drove there via the Bundesautobahn 24 through East Germany – one of the few access roads that crossed the border.
One of our party had gone AWOL at that point and it was just me and my friend Robyn. In retrospect, this seems fairly adventurous; I was 24 and she was only 21 but, as I recall we weren’t too fazed. In fact, we stopped to make a cup of tea on the side of the road (not realising that stopping was completely verboten) and the military police were called to deal with the situation. We were quite put out and asked if we could at least finish our tea!
Berlin was fascinating then (as it is now) and it wasn’t really clear to me until I got there that the wall didn’t divide the city, it encircled West Berlin. We pitched our tent in a camping ground beside the wall and swam in a lake with a guard tower in the middle of it.
We went over to East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, very strange to see that side of the city still had bombed out buildings.
Berlin has taken such a beating but the Berliners are incredibly helpful and hospitable, and these days young people are flocking to Berlin because it’s cool and many have a fascination for the history – especially since border walls are apparently in vogue again.
The irony of the Berlin Wall was that East Germany wasted resources and funds trying to prevent people leaving, instead of trying to make the country a better place to live.
In 1978, towards the end of a couple of months traveling through Europe with my (then) partner and a friend (in yellow overalls), I spent a few weeks living on a beach in a remote part of Corfu. (Yes, that’s me on the right.)
There were a couple of dozen others living on the beach and a loose community formed. We were all young and idealistic and spent many evenings drinking local red wine under the Mediterrean moon talking about the world and our future in it.
A group of Germans from Nuremberg had attempted to drive an old Mercedes down the goat track to the beach and got throughly stuck – which offered daily entertainment involving donkeys and tractors until, after about a week, it was pulled back to the top.
I am still friends with one of those Germans today and yesterday I visited him in Nuremberg and showed him the little notebook in which I had kept a note of expenses on that trip. The notes on the left are his recommendations of German authors to read, and on the right is his shopping request for when one of us had gone into town. Little notes from forty years ago!
It’s quite amazing to think we have kept in touch these years (and I still have that notebook!) only actually meeting up half a dozen times. And it’s magical to share a meal and talk about who we were back then and the experience of living in that idyllic situation, even for a few weeks. Something that was never planned, it just happened, and can never be repeated – or forgotten.
One of the most famous bookshops in the world, Shakespeare & Company in Paris has a wonderful story behind it and has played host to many luminaries of the literary world.
On a nostalgic journey myself right now, I was intrigued to see that the two front sections of the bookshop are devoted to the ‘Lost Generation’ (Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gerturde Stein) and the Beat Generation (Kerouac, Ginsberg etc).
The place is a magnet for young people, especially Americans, and these long dead writers seem to possess a romanticism that has never faded.
Writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald came to Europe at a time when it was cheap to live in Spain or the South of France. You could take a house for the summer or live in a quaint hotel overlooking the sea while tapping out a masterpiece on a typewriter. It seems as though, for all privileges and conveniences we have today, many young people yearn for this simpler time when it was possible to get away from the world. And who can blame them.
Paris is the most romanticised city in the world, although not so much by people in the rest of France who generally hold a dim view of Parisiennes.
It does have beautiful buildings and good food (then so do most places in France) but even in March it is bulging with tourists; legions of British, Americans, Eastern Europeans and young Asian women wearing French berets seemingly without embarrassment.
It’s a wonderful city to walk and observe, although it’s wise to look out for dog doo and also for motorbikes and speeding Segways on the pavement and great clouds of smoke from people vaping.
But all the people I’ve come into contact with have been lovely. For some odd reason, my French often seems to elicit a bemused smile and people sometimes add a little helpful correction here and there – very sweet.
I’m anything but a hoarder and have given away hundreds of books over the years. But, by some miracle, have managed to hold on to the book I was reading in 1978 when I was in France – Colette’s The Rainy Moon and Other Stories which made a huge impression on me at the time. Interesting to delve into it again after forty years!
Cosy isn’t it? It was a very strange experience to visit the building in Battersea where I lived from 1977 to 1979, and to stand in the foyer outside the old flat and feel the memories flooding back.
I lived here on the 17th floor with my then partner and my best friend from NZ, as well as a series of visitors from home who slept on camp stretchers (before the days of inflatable mattresses). One thing that hadn’t changed was the lift still smelt of stale pee!
Even then, finding a flat in London was incredibly difficult and expensive and the thrilling part about this place, which belonged to my employer, was the rent was less than half what we had previously been paying – which made life sooo much better.
We had a million quid view of seven bridges down the length of the Thames and could walk across the Battersea Bridge and up the Kings Road in Chelsea where everything was happening. Punk was in full swing especially around the BOY store which had taken over from another boutique called SEX established by Malcolm McLaren and Vinnie Westwood.
It was a grotty little place but, standing outside that flat, I had very vivid memories of my time there; the funny old black typewriter I used to bash out short stories on and my dreams of becoming a writer. How strange to be here 40 years later to complete the circle.