The Longest Day
This may sound like a Second World War story but it isn’t. It does involve invading Germany, but only for a short break in Munich! Like any day long story, it starts the day before. August 1977, twenty three years old; my first adventure abroad. Travelling alone will always create some interesting scenarios.
I travelled to London by train, continuing on the tube to Liverpool Street station. Catching the boat train to Harwich, leaving around seven o’clock in the evening. I was making use of the generous travel facilities afforded to railway employees, which included the ferry crossing. I’d never been to Harwich before, in fact I think it was my first venture into Essex. There I was directed through passport control to the boarding area by a multitude of multi-lingual signs. My ferry was due to leave for the Hook of Holland at ten o’clock. Darkness had descended on the Essex port, the harbour lights shone brightly illuminating the cranes, sheds and dockside areas. Forklift trucks shuttling backwards and forwards.
I’d booked a berth in a four berth cabin for the overnight crossing, sharing it with three other intrepid explorers, sadly all male. It was a calm sea but I still felt queasy with the rocking motion. Sleeping was virtually impossible, the noise of the engines was a constant drone. My cabin was on a lower deck, near the engine room by the sound of it. I thought the gentle rocking of the waves would help me sleep, but my stomach thought otherwise.
We arrived around five o’clock in the morning; bleary eyed, my head pounding, arriving in a foreign country felt strange. I’d chosen Germany (West Germany in those days) because I’d studied the language at ‘O’ Level. After three attempts I gave up on the exam, getting a worse grade each time. Not quite fluent, but I knew a decent number of phrases and sayings that would no doubt be useful. This was Holland though, and whilst the language may have similarities to German, it is pretty incomprehensible. My train left around seven thirty in the morning so I ventured into the station buffet to find some breakfast. From memory (it is almost forty years ago) I had a strong coffee and something resembling a croissant filled with cheese, probably Edam. This was in the days before Euros, the Dutch currency was Gilders; odd shaped coins, some very tiny ones as well.
I boarded the Rhine Express which would take me all the way to Munich in around eleven hours. Travelling through Holland looking at the architecture of towns and villages, steeply pitched roofs, not too many windmills. Cycle paths everywhere; women riding heavy ‘sit up and beg’ type bikes and sportier men riding lightweight racing machines. The friendly guard (ticket collector) wore a dark blue uniform, jacket and trousers with a low slung tan coloured leather satchel carrying all his money, tickets and such like. The train pulled into Venlo, the border station with Germany. On the platform German police seemed taller, broader, meaner looking, some with large Alsatian dogs. Once over the border the style of architecture changed to a distinctly German style, apartment blocks in the towns and larger individual houses in the villages.
The Polizei came down the train, opening the compartment door and barking ‘Pass’. A fearsome sight; sharply pressed olive green trousers; automatic pistol holstered but intentionally on view. His shirt was a pale brown / dark yellow colour again perfectly laundered, complete with officious looking peaked cap. He looked at my passport photo, checked my face and handed it back to me. He asked where I was travelling to and I managed to reply in German; ‘Munchen’. He closed the door firmly without a ‘dankeschon’ or acknowledgement.
The journey dragged, the sun had risen to a warm, pleasant summer day. The train stopped at Cologne with its impressive black stone, twin spired cathedral. The city was an interesting mix of old and new buildings. The new ones presumably as a result of the wartime bomb damage. The train took its name from the middle part of the journey running alongside the famous river. Steep sided valleys with dark forests, endless vineyards on the hillsides. Elegant white steamers ploughing up and down the river offering cruises, calling at the riverside towns for wine tasting and sightseeing. Rounding a sharp bend, the infamous Lorelei rock towering up overlooking the river. This is where the river is apparently at its narrowest, most shallow point. Lorelei was a distressed maiden who awaited the return of her lover but eventually threw herself into the river. Her spirit is said to sit combing her golden hair luring passing sailors to be shipwrecked on the nearby rocks.
Late afternoon the train calls at Stuttgart before the final leg of the journey. It was just after six o’clock as we pulled in to Munich. Further reminders of the war just outside the station, passing dark, bullet riddled buildings. I’d chosen an hotel in the city centre close to the station; I knew I’d be tired from the near twenty four hours journey. Setting foot in Germany for the first time I soon got my bearings and found the hotel in a matter of minutes. After the virtually sleepless ferry crossing and virtually twelve hour train journey I was looking for an early night. I was on a bed and breakfast deal, so needed something to eat, especially as my food intake during the journey had been frugal.
Once I’d left my bag in my room I took to the streets to find a reasonable eating establishment. I was so tired I just headed back to the station to try the food there. Not the best choice, I ended up with a mediocre salad and a cup of heavy duty coffee. I headed back out into the city centre around seven thirty or eight o’clock. I decided a medicinal beer would be good to help me sleep. Munich is after all famous for a variety of beers and the Oktober Beer fest. I soon realised that they didn’t have pubs like England, the only places seemed to be restaurants.
Just around the corner from my hotel a neon sign advertised ‘Bar’, this seemed to be what I was looking for. There was only a door off the street in between two shops. I thought it odd, but accepted that maybe it was the norm here. A quick mental resume of how to ask for a beer and I pushed the door open and ventured inside. From daylight out on the street it was so dark when I went through the door. It closed behind me and was difficult to see anything at all. I couldn’t immediately see a bar, or any other customers. As my pupils adjusted to the darkness, I could make out something that looked like a bar. It was small; the size of a desk or small table and no one behind it serving. Looking around I could now perceive couples in even darker alcoves.
I approached the bar and stood there for a moment; out of nowhere a tall blonde woman appeared behind the bar. It was not easy to see her face; she seemed attractive and I think she was smiling at me. At last I was going to get a drink, although mystified at the customs in their hostelries.
‘Ein beer bitte,’ I proudly asked in my best German.
‘Beer und schnapps oder beer und cognac,’ came the reply.
Bemused by the concept of such a potent combination, I tried again.
‘Ein beer bitte.’
‘Beer und schnapps oder beer und cognac,’ she replied again.
This seemed weird to me, I’d never heard of mixing drinks like this, and surely it wouldn’t hurt to switch a couple of lights on. I tried again, thinking it was maybe my Yorkshire accent that was confusing her.
‘Ein beer bitte!’ I stressed.
At last this prompted a different response, this time in English.
‘You drink the beer and I drink the schnapps.’
In today’s idiom it could be called a light bulb moment. I now appreciated that they weren’t selling beer, and what the couples in the alcoves were doing! Panic would be a good description for my reaction; I headed for the door quickly. As I took those few steps I expected to feel a knife being thrust into my back. Opening the door I rushed out onto the street; daylight again. I kept moving, incredulous that I had not been stabbed! I didn’t look back.
It had been the longest day.