Having enjoyably spent the last few days among the bright lights, lively restaurants and friendly people of Western Europe, Nina and I were now approaching the grim, grimy and decidedly unwelcoming, border of Communist East Germany or the DDR (German Democratic Republic), very aptly named. I don’t think.

The signs of gloom and foreboding were everywhere, and I could not help steal a nostalgic glance in the rear view mirror where the blue sky, green grass and freedom were clearly visible...yes, we could actually see and feel the freedom behind us as we drove into the abyss. We actually felt like actors in a horror movie. My wife looked at me and her eyes pleaded, ‘let’s go back’, but it was too late: we were now in the border queue. An enormous female border guard was aggressively approaching with a Kalashnikov (Soviet semi-automatic assault rifle) over her shoulder and a German shepherd guard dog at her side.

What on Earth possessed me to come here, was the overwhelming feeling that engulfed us both. However, curiosity and the feeling of stepping into another world, almost the way Armstrong must have felt when he landed on the moon, were slowly taking over. There was no way this place was still Europe, more like another planet, but I knew in the back of my mind, or at least hoped, that the insurance policy (Australian passport) we carried, would protect us.

Relaxing slightly, I looked around at the watchtower, barbed wire, searchlights, anti-tank barricades and minefields. My thoughts now turned to the millions of people forced to live in this ‘democratic republic’, and the initial fear was slowly but surely being replaced by an overwhelming feeling of loathing and intense hatred, for the ‘bastards’ responsible for this ‘workers’ paradise’. I miraculously fired up, as if I was the chosen one sent here to give the commos a bit of their own medicine, and even up the score for the downtrodden defenceless masses.

Incredibly, the overwhelming feeling of initial fear morphed into a desire to 'stick it up the bastards' and here was my first opportunity to do my bit against the ‘commos. Nina knew that look in my eyes and immediately fumbled for her best friend, a jar of prescription valium.
‘Big Bertha’ of the Gestapo was now at my window aggressively demanding I fill in a foreign currency declaration and prepare to have my car searched. Transporting a kilogram of clandestine gold rings, bracelets and chains in the transmission tunnel meant a search was not altogether convenient. Since there was no way of knowing how thorough they might be, diversionary tactics were required.

Some Germans seem to feel superior to non-Aryans and this arrogance was to be of great benefit. This overweight Amazon was definitely the superior, arrogant type so I decided to acquiesce and act inferior, playing the bumbling fool. I counted my coins as well as notes, dithering and dropping them nervously as she stood over me, arms folded menacingly, glaring at this idiot bumbling around and obviously, feeling intimidated by both her racial superiority and official authority. As she watched, she made rude remarks about me to another guard who had come over to watch my public humiliation. She wrongly assumed I knew no German and so they both enjoyed themselves at my expense, but I understood every word and knew I had her undivided attention as she mercilessly ‘rode roughshod’ over what she thought was a hapless and thoroughly intimidated foreigner. Even Nina rolled her eyes in disgust and was visibly embarrassment at my pathetic performance, which unknowingly helped to authenticate my brilliant performance.
'Bertha' was enjoying herself but eventually could not take it any longer, suddenly putting a stop to proceedings, bundling me unceremoniously into the car and of course, forgetting about the aforementioned search. What were the chances, she perhaps thought, of such a dill having anything illegal in his car? Nina asked me what that was all about. Even in her valium induced stupor she still managed to feel embarrassed for me. I asked her 'How long have we been married?' She looked puzzled by the question but mumbled 'About seven years' 'Right' I said 'and still you know nothing about me? It was about them not searching the car and it worked a treat'. She looked at me and still understood nothing. At that point I gave up on explaining any further. This was my first skirmish with the enemy on their home ground and I was ecstatic. Yes...what a rush!

We now headed deeper into enemy territory but with an early victory under my belt and invaluable confidence gained, which I felt may well be handy for future confrontations, of which there were to be many more.

Their so-called autobahn was the original cobblestone road built by Hitler, I was told later, and the ‘commos’ had done nothing to upgrade it since his demise.
Driving along in a $300 dollar VW it became apparent that this car was all class compared to the scrap metal all around. When we stopped at the only roadhouse before the Polish border, people swarmed around to admire the exotic car that had just appeared on the scene. The quality of the local cars was in direct contrast to the magnificent VW. Most were a local made car called a ‘Trabant’. These were made of fiberglass or even Masonite (chipboard), which encased a two-stroke engine too primitive to be used in our lawn mowers, and this was the people’s car. After the fall of communism, this was the car that became a cult must- have item, affectionately known as the Trabbie, no doubt due to its uniqueness and ridiculousness. The restaurant itself was not too bad. The beer was cold, the menu limited and the service slow, but the boring sauerkraut pork and potato was ok.

Back in the car park people, offering to swap the old VW for their brand new Trabant accosted me. I had no time for this nonsense, and as we took off for Poland, their disappointed faces were disappearing in the rear view mirror. Bouncing along the cobblestones, small towns and factories were visible in the distance set well back from the road. Everything looked grimy and completely devoid of colour or the cleanliness, that was such a feature of Western Europe. This autobahn was the only road through East Germany to Poland and all factories and villages were set back from the prying eyes of westerners. This was to ensure no one tried to get off the autobahn illegally for a closer look. Militia continually drove up and down this road patrolling to make sure.

Within a few hours of this depressing scenery, the Polish border appeared, and we were soon pulling up at the end of an enormous queue. I immediately assumed they were checking cars very thoroughly and became really nervous again, regretting that I was stupid enough to let my mate George talk me into bringing in so much gold. ‘No worries’, he said, ‘your first trip to Poland mate, your passport is clean so they won’t even blink’. Year right! I thought. How do I get talked into these situations? Nina for her part, was beyond worrying about this. She was going to let me suffer alone. ‘I don’t know anything about the gold’, was the last thing she said promptly swallowing half a bottle of valium and going into a half conscious about solidarity and support.

The famous quote ‘behind every great man is a woman’ came to mind, but I knew I was not a great man, and looking at my wife it was obvious, she was not behind me, mumbling something like ‘I know nothing… nothing’ as per Sergeant Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes.
It looked as if we would be here all day, so having plenty of time to think, something else my mate told me came to mind. 'Always stay calm, keep your wits about you, don’t panic and most importantly, act stupid at all never fails'.
Eventually a semi-calm returned, but as I sat there I realised there was no feeling in my legs. Even worse, my hands had such a grip on the steering wheel that if anyone tried to pull me out forcibly the steering would come with me. Alternatively, they would have to break all my fingers. The car in front was English, and by some miracle, I managed to get out and go over to talk to him. He was surprised to see an Aussie, saying he was on his way to the annual international trade fare in Poznan. Furthermore, the delays were not due to anything other than laziness and incompetence, certainly nothing sinister at all.

A certain calmness now returned but I was not totally convinced, when a rather bored looking militiaman (commo version of policeman) appeared along the line of cars collecting documents. Reading my name on the passport he spoke in Polish, but here I followed more advice from George and replied, ‘speak English?’ To this he mumbled to a female who had now joined him, about how annoyingly typical it was that someone obviously Polish, soon forgets their mother tongue when they manage to get out to the west. He had no way of knowing that this guy had never got out of Poland because he was never in Poland to begin with. This was actually my first trip into Poland and I spoke Polish fluently.

He looked at the passport and asked, ‘where is Backnang?’ pointing to my place of birth. ‘Germany', I replied. He was really confused now. ‘Polish name, born in Germany, Australian passport, I give up’, he said to his partner, as he took the passport away for processing. After collecting a few more, he took them to a little window for processing and disappeared. Everyone now relaxed; some even dozed off for the next couple of hours, like Nina who was still in a stupor. Not me however, I was all ears trying to anticipate their next move.

Looking around, the scene was one of tranquil serenity, broken only by occasional conversations about who has a hangover, whose turn to get the coffee and guess who got caught with whom the other night. I started to relax noticeably as I realised these were normal people and not monsters. The pile of passports was lying on the desk as undisturbed as we were, while everyone stood around drinking coffee and gossiping. This was normal everyday public service slackness, just like back home. Feeling returned to my arms and legs as the tension receded from my body...I felt human again and was now back in control.

Suddenly there was action. The customs officers appeared from wherever it was that they were doing nothing, and started to pretend to inspect the cars. My turn came. He asked me to open the boot for a cursory glance, and with a sharp salute, our passports were returned and we were on our way into the Peoples Republic of Poland.

Immediately it was noticeable this place was more dilapidated than East Germany. The roads were terrible...there were horse drawn carts (furmanki) everywhere, ramshackle smoke belching old buses and ridiculous looking two stroke cars everywhere. This was pre-war 1930's Europe again. The road was so bad I suspected we must have strayed from the highway somehow. Drunks were walking along the shoulder, as there was no footpath, whilst cars were swerving to avoid them. I pulled up and asked one of the drunks 'Excuse me Sir, could you direct me to the highway?' He looked at me with a sneer and mumbled ‘fucking smart-arse’. As we drove on a sign appeared with the appropriate highway number indicating Krakow 100 km. This was on the highway after all. This was it.

Needing petrol desperately now, we pulled into the grimiest, most dilapidated petrol station on earth. The stench of spilled diesel fuel was everywhere, the pumps were pre-war, the dingy office looked closed and I was desperate. A passer-by advised the next petrol was seventy kilometres, we would not make it. I looked into the office and all was dark, but a radio was playing softly and this meant the bludger in there was sleeping on the job. Calling out to him elicited no response except for switching the radio off.

I was now furious. Pretending to talk to my semi-comatose wife loudly I said, ‘we’re in luck, there’s no one here and the pumps are not petrol, this is fantastic, what a break for us’. As if propelled by a giant slingshot the bludger shot out and immediately attended to my needs, claiming to have been in the toilet. In all the hullabaloo, he forgot to check if I was a local or foreigner. We therefore paid 300zloty, the equivalent of three dollars at the black market rate, rather than thirty dollars, for a tank full of petrol. An interesting system operates here: locals pay in zloty at the local rate, whereas foreigners are required to either buy coupons on the border with a generous 25% discount off the massive western price or simply pay in dollars at the full western price. Neither of those two options had much appeal, so the name of the game was to always pay with local currency, if possible. Turns out, that was always possible.

Further on down the road, was a better-looking petrol station and although we still had half a tank, I decided to test the system. Before the station, I pulled over and neatly pressed a “PL” sticker over the “NL” original sticker on my Dutch car. The reason for purchasing a Dutch car was that the number plates were exactly like the Polish ones...yellow letters/numbers on a white background. With Polish looking plates and Polish sticker, I pulled up at the pumps. Jumping out and stretching myself I said, ‘fill er up’ in my best Polish. No problem, he was so convinced he did not even check the sticker. As we discussed the weather, and how hard he had to work, my car was filling up at the local price, and in no time, I was on my way to Krakow at the rate of seven cents per litre.

Our destination was Georges in-laws address in central Krakow but we soon realised we were lost, so seeing a militia station I went in to ask directions. As usual, they were all standing around talking and doing nothing at all except ignoring me completely. I soon realised that standing there politely was getting me nowhere, so I knocked on the window and begrudgingly one of the bludgers came over and slid the window open growling…. 'What?’ I politely to the point of sarcasm, apologised for disturbing him and asked for directions. Without looking at me, he waved in the general direction and slammed the window shut in my face walking back to his interrupted conversation.

I was starting to develop a little animosity towards the people’s militia but as soon as I stepped outside I asked the first person I met and they went out of their way to explain in great detail, as did the next person I asked until we finally arrived.

Marian and Zofia as well as Jurek their son, were the nicest and most hospitable people one could ask for. All within our first day in Poland, I developed an affinity with these people of the non-militia variety. In fact, the first impression of the militia variety was totally correct and there was to be many a confrontation with them, but those episodes are for later chapters.

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