Leaving Australia



In 1975 an old tennis mate proposed a partnership involving opening a coffee shop in Surfers Paradise. Neither myself nor Nina had any experience running a coffee shop, but Richard and Deanne assured us there was nothing to it and since we had nothing better to do at the time we agreed to have a go. We arrived on the Gold Coast in about June of 1975 and set about setting up the coffee shop from scratch. We called it Charlie’s coffee shop, themed on Charlie Chaplin and we had photos of this era all over the walls. It looked great, but we soon realised that we were absolute amateurs with no idea of what was involved. We bombed out before we even got off the ground.

In the mid 70's Australia was in recession and we soon discovered that the Surfers Paradise Motor Inn was for sale by the receiver. $175.000 was the going price. I got a couple of mates also from our tennis club in Melbourne to come and have a look at this alternative business venture. There would be four owners and Nina and I would run the motel for the partnership. It soon fell apart as one of the new partners could not come up with his share and another could not agree with Richard on anything.

With tails between our legs Nina and I returned to Melbourne, where at St. Albans Tennis Club we got to talking to another old mate George. While we were in Queensland wasting our time and money chasing rainbows he was in Poland where he met his new wife Danuta from Krakow. Whilst in Poland he met a distant cousin Jasiu who was a big time shifty operator with many contacts at the local level of the communist bureaucracy. Jasiu told George that he as an Aussie could go even further than anything Jasiu was doing. With western passports and western money the possibilities were endless.

George and Danuta were now about to return to Poland and proposed that we join them. Neither of us had ever been to Europe let alone behind the seemingly daunting Iron curtain, so we were interested but a little apprehensive. George assured us there was nothing scary about Poland, in fact it was more like a bungling incompetent annoying bureaucracy than the scary image prevalent in the west. We decided there and then we would go.

In January 1976 we were on our way catching a Qantas flight direct to London. During the flight we noticed that when the hostesses had completed their rounds selling cartons of cigarettes they had plenty of cartons left over. We decided to take a chance and offered to buy all the leftovers. The friendly hostess pointed out the limit was one carton per person, but we assured her this would be our problem and not hers. She agreed and we purchased a big plastic bag with about 50 cartons. We took this off the plane and headed for baggage claims where we placed the plastic bag right on top of our baggage on a trolley, and casually walked past the customs officers. They looked at us, we smiled at them, and they looked at our baggage and waved us through. We had done it and were not even in Poland yet.

Passport control was not as easy. The surly officer aggressively asked me if I intended to get a job in London illegally. His rudeness annoyed me so I assured him in a very calm voice that since wages here were pathetic compared to Australia I would need to be mentally impaired to even contemplate such an absurd idea. This was the Harold Wilson Labor party era and England was on her knees financially. Colonials like me were an annoyance to our former colonial masters who once in a bygone era had lorded it over the ignorant colonials. This particular official took it personally and his animosity was evident.

He could do nothing however and begrudgingly let me through. Little did he know that under his nose was a big plastic bag with illegal cigarettes being smuggled into his beloved UK by the low life colonial standing in front of him. I was happy, he was disgruntled. We sold the cigarettes to a tobacconist for a nice little earner. This was the beginning of something that was to become bigger than Ben Hur.

We booked a pokey room at a guest house in Earls Court where all the Aussies stayed. It was a bed and breakfast and the breakfast was as unimpressive as our room. Compared to Australia this place was expensive and yet their wages were not even half of ours. When we went for a walk we saw all the bad things we had back home. All the public phones we passed were covered in graffiti and the connections were all ripped out. Not one working phone did I see anywhere and had to wait to get to continental Europe before we could ring home. We walked all day and never came across a butcher shop. When we asked people they directed us to a big supermarket which had a small meat section with prepared plastic wrapped bits of horrendously expensive cheap cuts of meat.

I suppose the touristy parts of London would have been more impressive but we had booked a ferry overnight to Hook of Holland, and would not have time to see the tourist spots. I personally preferred to see how the people live and that was not very impressive. The ferry itself was a big improvement. It was run by a Dutch company and was spotless and efficient. The meals on board were a dramatic improvement on London cuisine, and the showers worked.

We arrived in Holland at 7.00am and were immediately stunned by the cleanliness, efficiency and friendliness of the country. Customs did not seem to have a problem with us entering their country and in fact welcomed us very warmly. The train to Amsterdam was just outside and purchasing tickets was easy. They all spoke English perfectly. The train was clean and fast bringing us into the centre of Amsterdam in about an hour. When we stepped out into the town our reaction was Wow! This place was a picture postcard in real life, and made Australia look a little second rate, never mind London. This was another world for us. We booked a cheap room which was half the price of London and twice as good, and then went for a walk.

George advised us to buy a car in Holland and drive across to Poland. We parted company here as we wanted to look around here and then take our time checking out Germany etc before we got to Poland. Danuta was in a hurry for some family event so they took of looking for a car dealer and would meet us in Krakow whenever we arrived. We stopped in quaint little coffee shops and incredible little pubs. We were enjoying ourselves so much we nearly forgot about getting a car.

That night at our hotel the concierge gave us directions to a car dealer just around the corner where after a fantastic European breakfast we purchased a VW beetle, only a few years old for $300. Insurance is called green card and is compulsory. We purchased only enough to get to Poland where international insurance is dirt cheap. Seven days insurance in Holland cost about $100, but one year would have cost more than the car itself.
The dealer helped us arrange the insurance and registration which took most of the day.

We finally hit the road about 4.00 pm which was right into peak hour traffic. This was my first time driving on the wrong side of the road and it took a lot of effort to get out of Amsterdam, especially with Nina trying to read the map. It is true, women cannot read a map! When we entered Germany they were less interested in our passports than they were in our green card insurance. George was right, because he had done it before.

Germany was every bit as impressive as Holland, if not more so. We stopped at a service station on the superb autobahns. Here we filled up, ate a meal and showered. The shower area was so spotless you could eat lunch off the floor and it was free. We hit the autobahn heading roughly east towards Poland. Driving along the autobahn was a little scary. Our VW was only capable of doing 130kph flat out whilst other cars whizzed past as if we were standing still. We stuck to the inside lane as we were passed by Porsche s BMW's and even trucks, all doing more than our pathetic flat out 130kph.

Eventually we came across a truck so heavily loaded it could only do 128kph and was holding us up. It would take me a while to get past him so I had to wait and wait until the coast was clear behind us. For a mile back the coast was clear so I made my move slowly chugging past the truck. When I was level with him there were suddenly cars galore behind me tooting and shaking their fists at me. As soon as I got out of the way they shot past and were out of sight in seconds accelerating back up to 200kph plus whatever.

At the next reasonable size town I decided to get my car serviced and checked over properly, and where better than Germany. George advised me to buy parts in Germany, where they were cheap but get the work done in Austria where labour was cheaper. This would entail too much messing around so I decided to do everything here in Germany. I found a VW dealership along the way and pulled in. At reception they advised they were booked out for a few days. Now I pulled out my Aussie passport showing I was born in Germany and came up with my best German telling them I was a tourist and not a local.

With German efficiency my car was whipped inside and we were directed to a viewing area above the workshop where we could have a complimentary coffee and watch our humble VW get the royal treatment. I was astounded by what I saw. The workshop area was as spotless as any hospital I had been in. There was a chief mechanic or meister and he gave orders to all the young apprentices who had their own extensive toolbox on wheels. The apprentice got to work instantly and actually sprinted between toolbox and car. The workshop was a flurry of totally organized activity. The reception guy came over and gave me a list of things to be done and prices included. It was very reasonable and I agreed and signed. Another hour and I was down at reception to receive my car. My head was spinning at the sight of this incredible Teutonic efficiency which I had heard of but never experienced.

It was truly legendary and I was impressed, even proud that I was actually born in this country. I told the man how impressed I was and thanked him for the express service. When we shook hands I swear, he actually clicked his heels in true German style. We were on our way and my $300 VW...well actually now $500 was purring like a kitten and now squeezed out 135kph on the autobahn with no effort at all. I had made the right decision.

We would have visited Backnang and Aalen the towns of our birth but they were near Stuttgart which was way down south and we needed to be heading east to meet George in Poland. Because our purchase of the car in Amsterdam went smoothly as did the service in Germany we were ahead of schedule for Poland, and took our time. I was in love with Germany and savoring my experience in my country of birth. We stopped in many small towns to look around and be more and more impressed. The meal I best remember was when we bought a loaf of rye bread at a bakery, then some cheese and sausage at a little deli next door. We took this and stopped at a parking bay on the autobahn watching the Porsches and BMW's rocket past at 250 kph or more. Our rough sandwiches were incredibly tasty for such a basic meal.

We sat down and did an assessment of what we had seen so far and we both agreed. Australia was very good and what we were used to all our lives. England was at a level clearly below Australia. Western Europe. ie. Holland and Germany, were far superior to Australia in general terms. We wondered what Eastern Europe would be like. We accepted or had an idea it would not be as good as here, but we had no idea of the extent of what we were about to experience, when we crossed into East Germany tomorrow. How bad could it be? It was still a part of Europe after all as we constantly reminded ourselves, and we did not come this far to go back home when I was about 1000kms from meeting my Polish brother for the first time. Nina also had an Auntie in Poland and an extended family in USSR. We were heading east for better or for worse, no turning back.

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