Monday, 11 May 2009

20 Years On: Part 1 of Account of Hitch-hiking through southern West Germany

I have said before that I often envy those people in a position to put up accounts and photos of their trips to various parts of the World and last August/September I posted entries from my diary and photos from my trip by train through West Germany and Austria twenty years to the day in 1988. I then thought of another trip that I made it what was then West Germany in May 1989, the only time I ever went on a hitch-hiking trip anywhere. I had been living in Köln since the start of April and was to remain there until late July. This was part of an exchange organised by my university and funded by the European Community's (predecessor of the EU) ERASMUS scheme which apparently still runs today. This meant I took out a term (we had three terms in those days in a university year rather than the semesters of now) and went to study at a German university. My department was very poorly set up for the trip because they expected me still to submit all my course essays from West Germany even though I would be attending lectures there on different subjects rather than my subject lectures back in Britain. They also did not take into consideration that I would miss the examination period, so I had to do the examinations with the people doing resits in September.

I was the only person who applied to go on the trip to West Germany, everyone else knew that it would damage their grades for their degree. I was keen to get away from the house I was sharing where the landlord's step-daughter, a Music student-teacher at our university, who lived there, was making my life a misery. My parents were always nagging me to go abroad, they were constantly trying to get me to emigrate. These reasons are why I broke my promise of the previous September never to set foot in West Germany again. My department had to send me otherwise it would have had to go back to the university to say, no it could not use the grant ERASMUS was giving and it should go to another department. So off I went with very poor German skills. West German universities are in sharp contrast to British ones, there were no personal tutors for pastoral care and students were very much left to themselves. My university was seen as a large one in the UK, with 6,500 students, Köln University had 53,000 students, the English department alone had half as many students as my entire home university.

I was lucky to be allocated a room in the 'foreigners' block' outside the city limits, because the accommodation office, behind a thick, black steel door was only open one hour per day. Being in a suburban area, West of the city, we encountered great prejudice and dealing with the local government bureaucracy took almost the whole of my first month in Köln. The local council took my passport and only returned it when me and other British students got the British consulate in Düsseldorf involved. Government offices in West Germany were only open three hours per day, longer on Thursdays and the staff were openly racist and xenophobic; even the university administration was hostile to foreign students and one woman staffing the desk in the university registry told me, English, 'get back on the ferry!', I said 'Das ist nicht möglich!' (that is not possible) which I think was a twist of a quote. Ironically I had almost ended up in the West German Army (the Bundeswehr) because I was at Köln station the day young men were being sent off to their military camps and I was there aged 21 with a suitcase and they assumed I was only pretending to be British to escape national service. I fled on the first local train I could get on having been pursued by the Feldjäger (Military Police).

While in Köln I attended a conference about the ERASMUS exchange system which asked why only 1 British student came to West Germany for every 8 West German students who went to British universities. I was able to give them a long list of reasons not only from personal experience. Since then I have read loads of articles about how difficult and depressing it is to go abroad during your degree, because university is handled so differently in various countries. For the British it is the toughest as our universities have the best pastoral care and we are the least travelled people of any country sending students abroad. The liaison women for me and other British students, Monika, described going to a West German university as like 'being parachuted into jungle warfare' and I could not describe it better myself.

I was so depressed by my reception that I tried to hang myself on the second day that I was at the university. The only reason why I stepped down from where I was standing on the foot of my bed with the noose around my neck, tied to a hook in the ceiling was that I had been given £670 by ERASMUS and received a grant of £280 per term all of which went on my rent of the room. I thought I might as well spend the ERASMUS money before killing myself. Being in the foreigners' block (well, in fact blocks, they were two 13-storey blocks of rooms) meant that there were a lot of British and Irish and foreigner-friendly Germans around and I made a good group of friends, I nicknamed 'The Raj'. Even though they were all doing German or French & German degrees they rarely spoke German and never attended many classes so we spent our time drinking beer, partying and picnicking. I embarrassed myself attending classes as I could not properly understand even what our liaison woman, Monika, was saying and in the Politics classes I taught, which were taught in English, the tutors could not understand my English accent.

Anyway with £670 of ERASMUS money, £280 of British local education authority money and £250 brought and sent from home, after the first month, I was able to have an enjoyable, drunken time and survived to return to the UK. My university had worried I would 'go native' and stay in West Germany and get a job (apparently one predecessor of mine had been found working on a pig farm). However, the opposite was the case. Without the bribe I would have come home after the first week. My treatment in West Germany built up such a resentment, that though I made friends I have kept in contact up until the 2000s, I swore not to return. I did not go abroad again for six years and I did not go back to Germany until 2004, by which time it was no longer West Germany and the scars of the trip had been able to heal a little. The trip did purge me of any desire to live abroad again and I ignored all the pressure from my parents to emigrate. When I foolishly took a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification, I realised I could only get a job teaching in Britain as the thought of being alone in some European city utterly terrified me, to the extent that completing the course I had nightmares about being back in Köln during that first month.

Anyway, this is a huge background to what is going to be an account of a very short trip. In May 1989, Becky one of the other British students there, wanted to go and visit her boyfriend who was on a similar trip in Innsbruck in Austria. She also wanted to visit friends from her home university who were at universities across southern West Germany. She did not have the money for a train ticket (and being in West Germany we could not get an Inter-Rail ticket which would cover West Germany, there was always that home country rule) but she was an incredibly experienced hitch-hiker having been all over Europe and experiencing lots of exploits which I may recount on another occasion, but she wanted someone (male or female) to travel with her for safety. I had intended to go to Hamburg (though in fact given there was only 5 months until the Berlin Wall came down I should have gone to West Berlin) but agreed to accompany her, so for the second time in 8 months I set off for Freiburg-am-Breisgau but this time hitch-hiking. I fell in love with the town again and foolishly, not yearning for Melissa this time, dreamt of meeting a nice German woman and having a family there. Given the hostility I experienced in West Germany even attempting something like that would have led to more abuse than even the level I have experienced in my town here in the UK.

Hitch-hiking was very common for students in those days, my university's students' union ran sponsored hitch-hikes across Europe for charity, but it was something that terrified me and Becky's stories did not help. Anyway, even though this trip was trouble-free I never did it again, probably sensible given my luck.

I remember Becky was annoyed because the first man, in his early thirties, who gave us a lift invited us to a wedding for when we got back to Köln, but I refused to go as I found such a random invitation embarrassing and had no desire to attend a wedding of strangers speaking a language, which, by now I knew for certain I would never grasp. The second man was surprised to find Becky spoke German and was British, he assumed we were Dutch. He said to us in flawless English that he had heard that in Britain 'only fools and spies speak foreign languages'.

Thursday 11th May 1989

Today I woke up at 07.00 but fell back to sleep and re-woke at 08.15. After breakfast I met up with Becky and we went to the main road to hitch to Freiburg. We were lucky as after only thirty minutes we got a lift to the motorway and then from the service station from a middle-aged ITT employee to just outside Karlsruhe and he was very friendly and bought us some tea and gave us an atlas. Then we had a lorry driver to just outside Freiburg and from there to the centre of town in a battered Mercedes and then by tram to Becky's friend's Sara's hall. Then after chatting we went to the youth hostel which was almost completely full up. Then we went to a studenty pub and had some pasta. We then walked around town looking in the shops and returned to the pub where we were joined by Sara and her boyfriend Peter, then went to another pub. Then I came back to the youth hostel by taxi; Becky is staying in Sara's room.

Weather: Rainy at first, dry later, mild.

River Valley outside Freiburg-am-Breisgau, West Germany in May 1989

This was the 'noisy' river which ran passed the youth hostel. You can see how shallow it is despite its breadth and make out some of the stones on the bottom that made it so noisy.

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