Category Archives: Germany

Flight from East Berlin.


Berlin went apostate after the Wall’s crumble – it is now a free-for-all, one of those clichéd multicultural hubs, the EU’s sociological vanguard. Not so back in the Honecker days, a Stasi-sprinkled 1984.

The audacity of this escape is bonkers, so too the entirely legit video recording of the getaway. Old Skool VHS-C home video footage isn’t half gnarly when the camera roams free in the exterior à la Paul Greengrass. No one wants to see a wee sprog from the States wail like Chewbacca on an ecstacy overdose upon opening a Nintendo 64; mind-blowing vistas is what it’s all about.

Escape artists:

Ingo Bethke, a border guard, fled East Berlin on an air mattress in 1975, crossing the River Elbe into West Germany. In 1983, his brother Holger did one better, using a zip line from an attic to Ingo’s car on the other side of the wall. It was six years later that the two brothers, having learned to fly, dressed in military garb, painted Soviet red stars on two planes, flew over the wall, landed in a park (with one place circling overhead), picked up the third brother, Egbert, and then flew back into West Berlin, arriving at the steps of the Reichstag. They then went off and got pished on a smorgasbord of alcoholic delicacies. Incredible.


Icarus (x3) they were not. Totalitarianism breeds creativity, just ask Jean-Paul Sartre. And nothing spotlights the stupidity of that lunatic Soviet ideology than getting a free pass to fly around with abandon merely because there are red stars on your plane.

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) so comically captured those last dying days of the GDR. Imagine that mixed with The Great Escape of the Bethke brothers. Why isn’t this a movie yet?

Further reading:


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On the sauce in Salzburg and Munich.

Back to Salzburg and Munich again for a double-headed session. To think the birthplace of Mozart and Doppler was now the temporary milieu of beer-compromised attempts to retrieve a Snickers bar from a dilapidated vending machine at 4:16 a.m.


Salzburg is a place with many bars, sadly few ATMs (seeking a Geldautomat is depressing), and with a most varied supply of charming newsagents, which appears to my primary interest these days. Somewhere down the line vistas ceased to be of fascination. I couldn’t find a Lidl, though. Gutted.


The salient memory of Munich was feigning a limp in order to use a disabled toilet, and attempting to escape the city for the airport. There was “something wrong with the tracks,” they kept barking at me in the station. I don’t think I’ve ever been on so many trains to get to one destination, and so drained of vitamins throughout. I thought I was going to die on that plane home from an overdose of fatigue and amaretto. But I didn’t.  Good times.


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The Great War – YouTube channel.


YouTube is littered with pointless garbage (cat videos, webcam rants, ‘best fails’) that perplexingly garner millions of views; this, however, is one of the gem finds. A week-by-week account of the First World War told in ten-minute (or thereabouts) episodes, what impresses is the sheer volume of research and breadth of detail. As far as I know, the programme makers are not professional historians in the traditional sense or have emerged from the academic field, but everything is painstakingly researched and just as accessible as your weekly Gangnam Style and all that.

Perhaps this is the New History, online sources our breadcrumbs trail to books.


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Berlin and Szczecin booze crawl.


Back to Berlin again for the fourth time. I’ve seen every Lonely Planet tourist site to death in the Grey City so these days reserve my curiosities to the bars and the incredible possibilities of the late-night U-Bahn adventure. I did glimpse the Brandenburg Gate from a taxi but was too busy reading an article on The Telegraph website about Jupp Heynckes and his Bayern Munich resurgence to take any extended interest. When I first set eyes upon that Prussian landmark I thought it a wonder to behold; now I’m not even bothered it exists. Weird.

What I lionise about Berlin is its seeming randomness and that it’s embraced by the locals (one presumes) as just another quirk on the city grid. It’s one of the reasons I never make a plan or an itinerary. Going for an ad hoc five-minute nap on a concrete pallet outside the Fernsehturm TV Tower was never on the agenda, but then neither was venturing out that evening. Berlin, may the Flying Spaghetti Monster bless you.


Szczecin, Poland.

This town has little to offer. If Berlin was the party, Szczecin was the crypt. I got the sense that it’s just a memory of a place, residue from a forgotten age. It’s decent for a pint but architecturally has all the appeal of a urinal concocted from toilet paper. This is the only photograph I took, a shot of my two travel companians walking on the pavement, such was the boredom of the topography. You’d be better off drinking in your living room whilst watching daytime television than entering this wasteland.


Bus oddities.

We took the bus to the Szczecin hovel. It was your usual journey peppered with beer, energy drinks, trance music, and a gruesome shit in an appropriately depraved toilet designed for midgets. The return mission was sadly characterised by a Vladimir Putin doppelgänger in the seat in front who demanded our ears for a two-hour monologue about the trials and travails of his life. Reeking from a single beer, he burst out laughing at our most innocuous observations on Szczecin, and upon our arrival back in Central Bus Station ZOB asked us to wait with him awhile to discuss the comparative footballing merits of Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller. Odd bloke. Escaping him was a convenient metaphor.



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Gäubodenvolksfest in Straubing.


The airport is a micro city, something you’d design back in the day on The Sims when you’d be sat in your jammies before the PC thinking yourself a Svengali creator. The airport design is pants, though, and the online maps a shambles, too. Why have low-resolution JPEGs all over the web airport guides? Even the official site is lacking in detail and shoddily put together. For someone as obsessed with airport preparation (I like to escape them upon arrival and not waltz/shuffle around like a penguin on Valium) as I am, a detailed exit plan is desired. Anyway, I tell myself it’s just an airport.

Straubing, Regensburg, and the Autobahn.

Upon arrival I think of Richard Wagner and mad King Ludwig in that period when Bavaria, under the Hohenzollern yoke, somehow in a rapidly modernising new Germany managed to bridge a link to a romantic past of myth and folklore. I think of Visconti’s Ludwig (1973) especially, this a half-baked banality of a movie.

I have a vision these days of a latter-day Julie Andrews doing her hills-are-alive thing, but only this time it’s now tainted with the image of a dreadlocked lady in a trackie clutching an alcopop in one hand and a boombox in the other. The Sound of Music (1965) scene was of course shot a fair bit away at Obersalzberg, but one can be forgiven for thinking this encapsulated all of Bavaria before time caught up with it.

I was expecting ‘Old Bavaria’ here – tradition, peace and quiet, a conservative(ish) enclave. It was this to an extent but such things are now fantasy. It’s this globalisation virus again – granted, the same virus which enabled me to stroll off a cheap easyJet flight for the price of two bottles of Jack Daniel’s. Every city feels the same for me, and I even reckon Venice will be anonymous by the end of the decade. Nevertheless, the bantz was top quality and taxi drivers aside (they refused to stop on countless occasions) I thought it a cracking wee adventure.


Oh aye, the ethanol intake was high. This I figure is the reason mosquitos were nibbling me to smithereens in my sleep – I was a free drinking session.



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D-Day – then and now.


I love these concoctions. What do you call them? I think this is Omaha Beach, 6 June, 1944 (though I could be wrong). It’s stuff like this that gives these historical photos real reverence. The record almost comes alive here.

Further reading:

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Kolberg (1945) – last looney propaganda piece of the Third Reich.

Kolberg (1945) is frankly bonkers.


The most expensive German film of World War II at eight million marks, and shot between October 1943 to August 1944, this monstrosity depicts the defence of the eponymous fortress town against French troops at the height of the Napoleonic Wars (1807). It’s a kind of metaphor for German fortunes after the failures of Stalingrad and Kursk; with strategic initiative lost, the remainder of the fight on the Eastern Front became a series of attritional, reactive operations with no chance of success.

The extras comprised 187,000 people and 50,000 soldiers, apparently the second-highest cast of all time behind Gandhi (1982).

The city of Kolberg itself was declared a fortress town a mere month after the film’s opening, this consisting of regular showings in Berlin whilst air raids pummelled the capital.

Imagine the ideological fanaticism of a regime that, as ultimate annihilation beckoned, it still felt the need to plough such ludicrous resources into a movie of epic undertaking, resources that could have been of immeasurable human and material value in the war effort. This Nazi-opus Gone with the Wind (1939) just serves to highlight the tenuous grip on reality exhibited in the last years of the Third Reich, and an overbearing emphasis on *will* as the essential component in turning the tide of war.

Further reading:




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Verisimilitude on the Eastern Front.


I’ve always wondered about this one, and have no way to verify whether it’s a legitimate piece of footage or not. It appears to be shot on the Eastern Front, capturing brutal house-to-house fighting between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht. Stalingrad, perhaps? I know re-enactments were commonplace, and especially right after battles. It’s an eerie proposition, though, that a soldier’s passing would one day be played back in an Edinburgh slum on a Friday evening, the viewer drinking Southern Comfort from a ThunderCats mug.

Any further info welcomed.

1:32 on the clip.

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Holidaying under the Iron Curtain.

A cursory Google search finds voluminous clips and blogs offering snippets of trips to former communist countries before Francis Fukuyama declared the End of History. Many of these comprise vintage polaroids from the ’60s and ’70s or VHS-C camcorder footage from the ’80s. A sequence shot of a Saint Petersburg Metro journey in the time of Brezhnev would ten years ago appear a trip down an irreconcilable lane. Born in ’85, I even whitewashed my early years, banishing the Cold War and its messy aftermath to the dustbin. Not so now.


Millions of westerners briefly experienced life behind the Iron Curtain and a not inconsiderable number of easterners did the same in the west, this with greater restrictons imposed by their home governments. Hammer-and-sickle enclaves were popular destinations for a kind of ‘police state tourism’, the almighty Soviet Union the predominant attraction.

The Soviets’ need for hard currency was the driving factor in this contradictory embrace of the outsider. Exchange rates were highly inflated, and what you could and couldn’t do was restricted. The visitor was obliged to stick to one’s pre-disclosed itinerary, and, officially, not trade on the black market. This was, however, unoffically permitted as a stimulator of commerce which the often struggling economy needed.

I’d rather travel to the Soviet Union of 1985 than the Russia of today; astonishingly, it appears more hospitable and the people more cordial yet at the same time more exotic. My experiences the past few years have been a mixed bag  – so many cities are so alike in their banality that after a mere six hours in them I long for the return flight home as I recall that memorable line in Fight Club (1999): ‘Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.’ I could be in Frankfurt but it may as well be Milan – much-vaunted landmarks aside they both house the same old shit and the same faux-charming narratives, with English the certified Esperanto of the city experience.

We are, however, as a reaction to the ill-thought-out effects of globalisation now less likely to dance around the Schengen fire to kumbaya and exalt in the multicultural utopia. Just east of the EU, Russia as it is today in its hideous incarnation makes those archive clips on YouTube appear a snapshot of a more civilised time. For good or bad, as the European federal project continues to erode from within, we may return to the fully autonomous nation state system our parents dismantled. It perhaps makes travel more purposeful, with destinations the more fanciful. We’re going back to building walls in order to bridge a way foward.

Further reading/viewing:

Leipzig in the 1950s:

A rather depressing video of a mile-long queue for a newly opened McDonald’s:



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München, Salzburg, Berchtesgaden, Alkohol.

Guten Morgen.

Arriving in Munich, we wander around the Hauptbahnhof before our 17:54 Salzburg departure, stumbling into an assortment of ghetto eateries (for the booze). What is it about train stations and their surrounding streets that attracts the oddballs and the riff-raff? I’ve never felt entirely safe sparking up a ciggy near a railway. One is invariably sniffed by the local hyenas wishing to devour their carcass of tobacco. We escape a verbose gentleman in green dungarees and find our seats on the train. When I finally conduct my Trans-Siberian Express jaunt, I wish it to be just like this, but with several suitcases filled to the brim with liquor.


The delights of Salzburg. They have some cracking pubs – notably Alchimiste Belge – and a fag machine. And a SPAR selling Bacardi Breezers. What more could one want in a city? Oh, and a born-again Christian outside a nightclub gave me a book about God and things. I endowed it to the hotel for a lucky person to devour.

The wee Sunday market left the most memorable impression. Tiptoeing from stall to stall with a beer in each pocket, I got the sense that I was somehow intruding upon this idyllic community gathering. They all appeared so happy and thoughtful, like this was the day to take stock of the week’s events and indulge in a little R&R. There’s an ersatz ‘German Market’ back home in Edinburgh – it mostly consists of teenagers in tracksuits being very loud. No comparison, really.

Morning entertainment.

A spot of Apocalypse: The Second World War (2009) and a Jägermeister chaser performed their noble role as Room 304’s pre-eminent hangover cure. The hotel were showing The Sound of Music (1965) on a loop, but it’s just not graphic enough for my sensibilities. Julie Andrews doesn’t do it for me; I need proper carnage.


To Obersalzberg.

Driving to Hitler’s notorious crib above Berchtesgaden and peering up awestruck at its twin delights of the Berghof and the Eagle’s Nest and all the tumultuous, tragic history that was made here, left me with a sense of being quite insignificant. The overwhelming splendour of the milieu merely magnified the feeling that I was an ant ripe for a trampling.

Munich (again).

By the time we reach Munich and go our separate ways after a few more drinky-poos, I’m content to conk out on my bed as Richard Wagner emanates from a tacky Bluetooth speaker. I wake up in darkness and feel my way around the room, realising I’m in Munich and not a lucid dream three minutes into this escapade. I crawl to the shower, then luxuriate in another cheeky nap, and depart at the first sound of a cleaning lady (I presume) patrolling the corridor. In the railway station I get visions of an anthropomorphic dog in a leg-cast playing Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” from a boombox. I don’t know why.

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