Military history

Sunday 05 August

I’ve always been a WW2 affection-ado.  I might have mentioned this.  I used to make little models.  I had toy soldiers.  I played war games.  With myself.  I didn’t have any friends.  This is probably very understandable for a guy who sits and measures out the blast radius of a frag grenade on green baize.  Why I didn’t have a girlfriend until 19 is beyond me.

Anyway I’ve discovered that Dresden is home to an incredible German Military history museum.  As I’ve persuaded Katty to call in sick tomorrow and stay, she is subjected to being dragged, against her will, to view tanks, guns, uniforms and such like.  She’s not happy.  I’m like a kid in a sweet shop.  Especially if the sweets are Panzers and Half-Tracks.

If you’re ever in this neck of the woods I would urge you to go.  Don’t be put off thinking it’s one for the boys, as the nature of the exhibits, art installations and incredible incite into a troubled nations history eventually won Katty over.  The museum is one of the best I’ve been to, well constructed, monumentally enormous, with thousands of interesting memorabilia, artifacts, vehicles, memories and stories.  We didn’t have time to get round it all comfortably, but certainly learnt a great deal more than what we thought we already knew about.  Heartbreaking in places, astounding in others, fundamentally you come away with a notion you already knew to be true.  War is bad.  Unless it’s played on a little table with perfect scale model housing, army regiments and wonderfully painted miniature Spitfires.  Then it’s fucking fantastic.

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Techno nonsense

Saturday 04 August

The day drifts away as you would expect from a lazy weekend, but we’ve been convinced to go to an Electronica festival by a strange German girl who has arrived in our midst.  She seems to be jumping from a French Canadian guy to a Dutchman, both of whom are staying in our dorm room.  Awkward much?  At this point I feel I should apologise for using ‘awkward much’ as a description of the situation.  I’m not 12.  Not physically at least.

We mess around doing very little until the sun starts to go down, then with this being our last night together, and the German girl choosing the Canadian, Katty and myself have somehow inherited the Dutch chap.  He’s a nice enough lad, but I feel we’re babysitting for much of the night.  A third spoke in the wheel if you will.  He’s not really getting the message, although I’m not being rude, I’m merely hinting he should bugger off.  Three’s a crowd an’ all.  Apparently this night out is in walking distance.  It isn’t.  We trudge some miles up the road only to turn back after being affronted with hideous heavy techno warehouse nonsense.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good bit of dirty techno, but much like drinking coffee when you thought it was tea, it’s left a horrible taste in my mouth.  I expected green fields with ambient tunes, a beer garden atmosphere, people sitting around having a smoke and chilling out.  I get pill head, hard core mental East Germans, inches away from either starting a fight or selling cocaine.  I try to encourage the Dutch guy to give it a try, that the girl might be inside.  In the end we find out she didn’t go.  The epitome of a wasted evening.  We manage to offload the hanger on though when we get back into town, so it wasn’t a total disaster.  Especially if you’re really quiet

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Friday 03 August

Some would say my plan to hitchhike to India hasn’t got off to a very good start, since I’ve managed to get all of two hours down the road to Dresden.  However there is method in my madness.  After doing a little research I discovered to my utter delight that we are not too far from a place that created so many heroes, adventure stories, games, films, TV series and books.  I’ve wanted to go here ever since I knew what it was, and read about it in Commando!  – army comics you could buy from a newsagent for 60p.  Today I was to visit Colditz Castle.

Now unless you’re a boy of a certain age, you probably have no idea what on earth I’m talking about.  Actually I shall re-phrase.  Unless you’re a boy of a certain age and you’re NOT from Germany you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.  Asking around, even older members of the German public haven’t the foggiest idea where this place is or what it was.  Katty has asked her Dad and various other family members, only to receive vague expressions and puzzled looks.  Nobody knows about it.  If you’re from the UK, perhaps France, Belgium and Poland, then you know exactly the legacy of this clandestine legend.  Colditz was an infamous WW2 Allied POW camp where they sent the best of the best; genius escape artists who had broken out from every other effort to contain them.  The Alcatraz of the 3rd Reich. The problem for the Germans was, if you put all the greatest minds in one place, you’ll need to be on top form to foil some of the most daring, dangerous, crazy and downright insane escape attempts the world has ever seen.  Fascinating stuff as a boy, an emotional homage as a man.

I remember seeing the famous board game Escape From Colditz on the shelves of Toy’s R Us circa 1985.  I never did get it.  I don’t think my mum liked the Swastika logo, which was changed to a German eagle on some re-release boxes.  The imposing picture of Colditz adorned the cardboard, striking a wide eyed wonder chord which used to scare the hell out of me.  Yet I still wanted to play as one of those little wooden pieces, trying to find the skeleton key card, or tunnel off that perfect Colditz floor-plan game board.  I’ve made a mental note to hit up eBay as soon as I stop traveling.  Hopefully I can find some fellow affection-ado’s to escape with.

The town itself is very quiet and not all that remarkable, save the daunting presence of the fortress on the hill.  After the war it served as a hospital, but now it includes a museum, art school and youth hostel.  The extended tour was gate-crashed by a Colditz historian, and it was a real joy to be regaled with stories of daring escapes, from dressing up as women, to impersonating camp commandants, to making a glider out of bed sheets.  Tales of real heroism and heartbreak, but also of a gung-ho camaraderie that was perhaps unheard of in other theatres.  There wasn’t many places you could get away with dropping water bombs on a German guard to distract his attention.  As daunting as it appears, Colditz held fast to the Geneva convention, so little wonder it served the boys adventure story so well, encapsulating the phenomena of romanticism in war.

It is with a pang of sadness that I return to our hire car to drive the hour back to Dresden.  The sun hangs low in the beer garden as we finish supper and I look up at the white walls of the castle, painted after 1945 to return it to its previous, less foreboding exterior. This was my pilgrimage; a life-long dream finally come true, which has only sought to ignite those boy-hood stories once again.  I’m downloading the Amiga version as we speak, but the board game will have to wait; as I have my own adventures to plan.  Yet contrary to all those remarkable men, I have nothing to escape from, and continue to bask in a freedom that they so desperately sought.    Tear down the walls boys; I raise a glass to you.

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Lightning strikes

Thursday 02 August

I’m thanking my lucky stars that Katty has arrived to keep me company this weekend.  Since I was still in Germany, she has very kindly decided to come and visit from all the way over in the West, taking an 8 hour train to see me in my hour of need.  Well, hour of hating Australians at least.  She breezed in yesterday afternoon to make everything better.

The sun has got his hat on as we rent free bikes from hostel Lollis Homestay and head for the Altstadt (old city) side of the river Elbe.  This is the tourist area, with most of the city’s architecture and culture residing here, along with a mountain of camera wielding crazies.  Including myself.  If you visit, I suggest renting some decent bikes to see the sites.  Dresden is very cycle friendly, but not all the bikes are people friendly.  Unfortunately ours continued to fall apart when hit with so much as a pebble.  Although there are plenty of cycle lanes, there is a fair share of cobblestones, tram lines and rocky paths to trouble the boneshakers we landed ourselves with.  Make sure you get a bike with decent suspension or you’ll be afraid to sit down for two days.

The more I see of it, the more I like it, the more it is a possible new home when I come to rest my weary bones.  At only two hours from Berlin and PragueDresden is in a uniquely perfect position.  It’s a big city which feels likes a village, and so far I’ve found it has everything anyone could possibly want.  It’s even got it’s own beach by the river.  We cycle along the banks, through cloudy sunbeams and the threat of rain, but it does little to dampen our spirits; even when an epic thunderstorm hits and my back wheel comes off.

The skyline broods in the distance, a fight between sun and thunder.  Lightening stabs the earth frequently, a reminder that cycling under these trees might not be the best idea.  Raindrops as big as golf balls soak those foolhardy enough to be out of shelter.  This includes me, as I’ve made a break for the bridge to get a beautiful photograph of the dramatic weather.  Water stings me eyes and a tram nearly runs me over, but I return triumphant to a none too amused Katty, hanging around like a hooker under a bridge.  Only the promise of a beer could cheer her up, and as blue sky peaks through the angry clouds, we sit by the river watching a golden sunset dry the drenched Dresdeners.  With an ambient movie soundtrack playing somewhere in the background, I flirt with the idea of never leaving, losing myself in the laziness of the afternoon, and the company I keep.  Have I found what I’m looking for this early?  I suppose I’ll know after a trip around the world.

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Starting fights and stealing cheese

Wednesday 01 August

I didn’t want to bore you with an overly long entry yesterday, so I decided to tell you about last nights debacle today.  I arrived back at the hostel to discover a pretty girl in reception, and I casually inquire at the desk while unashamedly throwing my voice if there was somewhere good to go tonight.  To my delight the girl turns and informs me that her sister wants to indulge in some drinking and would meet me later on.  I’ve been set up on a sudden blind date, while her sister probably knows nothing about it.  An interesting and unusual situation, but if her sister is as good looking as she is, I’m in for a good night.

She is.  And she’s older.  Monica is a very attractive American girl, and she is just as surprised as me to be on a random date set up by her younger sibling.  We spend a lovely evening at a local restaurant bar, conversing with Dresdeners and tourists alike.  At one point a middle aged gentleman asks us to improve his translation for a poem he has written.  We tell bad jokes.  We share the same love for The Dark Knight et al.  We get on like a house on fire.  Five hours fly by.

Entering the club and we’re dancing like loons, before she pulls me close for a passionate kiss.  I’m feeling on top of the world and I own the place as I slip away for a quick smoke in the designated area.  Upon returning, I discover her wrapped up with some tall Aussie dude, arms all over her, totally shameless.

“I’m not a bad person, but I’m going for a drink with this guy”.

She walks away to the bar, and he’s put his arm to her waist.  Then I do something I’ve never done in my life and I bitterly, bitterly regret in the cold light of day.  I can only blame the Vodka.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”  I demand as I shove the guy in the throat.  I follow with another vicious attack pushing him a fair distance back as I advance.  “Is this some kind of fucking joke?”  He’s stammering something of a response and although he’s twice the size of me, he’s bolted away from my reach.  Monica is slurring about not fighting and wanting to “explain” as I give chase, then all his giant mates start to come down the stairs.  “Please don’t fight” she moans.  Probably used to the line.

Now I’m drunk, but I’m not stupid.  I’ve said something along the childish lines of “fucking outside now”, and with as much conviction as I can muster pretend I’m leading them all out, before moving at pace to slump round the corner in the gutter.  My head finds the cold uncomfort of the road sign next to me, and tranquility momentarily takes over.  What the hell just happened?  I wipe away my usual melancholic melodramatic tear.

I return to the hostel alone in the early hours.  A perfect night perfectly ruined.  Hunger takes over and I open the kitchen fridge door to see if there is a rogue slice of salami with my name on it.  Yes I know it’s not mine but one wouldn’t hurt.  I find some Leerdammer cheese and reach to console myself.  Three shelves of the fridge come crashing loudly down, everyone’s shopping spills onto the floor, a tomato pasta sauce jar smashes across the tiles.  Really Jesus?  Really?

Thank you Monica Jones from Seattle.  Perhaps you aren’t really a bad person, and you’re not a total bitch.  Perhaps I just misunderstood our lovely evening and subsequent embrace.   Perhaps starting fights and stealing cheese causes fridges to break.  Perhaps I deserved everything I got.
At the very least, you gave me a good story.

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Dresden and Co

Tuesday 31 July

I went out last night, as you might come to expect, because apparently in Dresden the good nights are Friday, Saturday and Monday. I had wanted another night off, but the nice hostel lady has informed me that Mondays are the new black.  It would be rude not to go out.

So I’m sitting in a popular and rowdy bar called Rosies, which is a favourite for the young local crowd and students alike.  It’s a great place, with an eclectic mix of people and music, and I’ve settled in the smoking section which is playing some quality swing.  The DJ is sporting braces, slick back hair and Buddy Holly frames, and totally looks the part.  It’s not long before I’ve fallen into conversation which a very attractive tall blonde German girl.  Then it all goes a bit weird.

She’s flirting outrageously with me and practically demanding I look at her breasts.  Her male friend is informing me she is a serious tease and I need to be careful.  She’s then whispering to me how much she adores giving blow jobs, before regaling me with a tale of how she once had four guys at the same time.  “Dat was hard vork” she enthuses.  Classy.

As horrible a thought as that is, she’s still gorgeous, but after spending a couple of hours batting her eyes at me she suddenly goes cold and informs me that she doesn’t do that anymore.  If she came back with me she “couldn’t trust herself” and has been promising to reform and not be so slutty.  She wants a relationship and to walk away from her twisted porn star past.  What a catch.  Still I’m slightly disappointed.  Don’t judge me.  You would have been too.

There are no curtains in my dorm room so I’m baked awake by bright sun.  I’m still alone, as nobody has checked into my dorm room.  This seldom happens, but it’s nice I’m paying dorm prices with my own key and nobody to rummage through my underwear pocket.  Not that they would; but there are creepy folk out there.  Just sayin’.  I rise and check the map.

Curry & Co is apparently the best Curry Wurst and award winning chips you can buy in Germany.  This I need to give a go.  I take a leisurely stroll through Northern Dresden with camera in tow.  This is the hipster area of the city, with good looking people, bars, clubs, record shops and street art.  As it was less bombed than its Southern counterpart over the river, it is actually older than the ‘old town’, with many buildings a painted expression of freedom after the wall fell.  Being in the East, this city was under Soviet control, and most people over a certain age speak Russian as their second language.  However it was the allied destruction of the city that left the most scars, which if you take some time to read about, you will discover was totally necessary and bordering on a war crime.  Dresden is a culture capital and it’s wonderful to see it rebuilt from the ashes of the firestorm.

A group of Dresdeners came together to raise funds to rebuild the Lutheran Frauenkirche; a beautiful church in the city centre.  Totally destroyed with bombs, a British charity was also set up to help repair it.  One of the gifts they made was an eight metre high gold cross and orb, which was constructed with medieval nails taken from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, also reduced to rubble in similarly horrific raids.  Part of this was crafted by the son of one of the pilots who took part in the bombing.  Coventry and Dresden are now twin towns.  An uplifting story indeed.  If you get the chance, I suggest a visit to this beautiful city; and being only two hours from Prague, I’m considering it a possible spot to one day rest my weary bones.

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