Monday, September 12, 2011

Hitch Cricket

Tuebingen. Far too pretty a town for a scruffy Herbert like me.

When studying for my German degree I was required to spend a year in Germany in order to become more fluent in the language, and also to immerse myself in German culture and so on.  Most of my fellow students were able to land well paid jobs in German schools as English Language Assistants, but no such luck for me; instead I attended the University of Tübingen about 30 miles from Stuttgart.

Tübingen was very much a university town, where students easily outnumbered the locals.  There were students from all over the world and in time I got to know Tunisians, Venezuelans, Koreans, Americans and of course Germans.  There was plenty of time for socialising, especially once I realised there was no actual requirement to attend lectures, and I decided I could just as easily become fluent in German and get to know the country by hanging out with friends and travelling around Germany, Austria and Switzerland on the cheap.

This makes me sound lazy doesn’t it? Well I was, I admit it, and I had a great time.  I knocked about with some fantastic people and although a couple of them owned cars, our usual method of transport was thumbing a lift.  Hitchhikers were a far more common sight in the early 1980s.  Many of the university buildings were situated in the town, but the majority of students lived in a ‘student village’ on a hill a couple of miles away.  There were plenty of buses but they cost money, so with typical German efficiency, the students had years before created a ‘Tremperstelle’ or hitchhikers’ bus stop.  You simply joined the queue and a succession of cars would pull over, fill up with complete strangers and give you a lift home.  You didn’t even have to stick your thumb out.

We travelled quite some distances too.  If a group of us were going to Munich for example, we’d divide into groups of 2 and arrange to meet up in a bar as and when we made it.  I always felt reasonably safe, but I did find myself on more Autobahn slip roads than I care to remember.  The German police really don’t like you hitching there, but if that’s where you get dropped off there’s not much you can do about it.

A friend and I invented a game of ‘Hitch Cricket’ in which the winning team was not the one that got to the rendezvous first, but the one which covered the greatest number of kilometres with the fewest lifts, thus allowing for variations in routes taken by the different hitching teams.  So, kilometres were runs and lifts were wickets.  We’d ask our driver to tell us how far they’d taken us and compare our scores later at the rendezvous: 150 for 9 was a rubbish score, 170 for 3 was much better.

We went all over the place and often slept rough just to save money.  We went to Munich for a Rolling Stones gig (sleeping in the ‘English Gardens’ that night with the police wandering around with torches looking for vagrants), then on to Salzburg in Austria for a bit of sightseeing (and a proper night’s sleep in a small hotel).  We also did Zurich just for the hell of it (sleeping in yet another park) and variously went to Bonn, Frankfurt and Karlsruhe, where, just in case you ever need to know, the police do not allow you to sleep in the waiting room at the railway station; “but we’re waiting for a train, officer!”

One place we couldn’t hitch to was West Berlin, at that time an island of neon and concrete in the middle of East Germany and accessible on land only by driving along the Berlin Corridor.  This road was crawling with East German police who were forever leaping out of the bushes to photograph your vehicle.  Car drivers were understandably reluctant to take complete strangers across the border with them, so instead we went on an organised coach trip over the Easter period.

A slimmer, younger me in front of the Berlin Wall, Easter 1982

West Berlin was fascinating. You hear a lot of old tosh about cities being vibrant or exciting, but this place really did have a unique atmosphere.  We did all the usual touristy things, like posing for photos in front of the Wall, but the real interest for me lay in crossing the border for a mooch around East Berlin.  We did this twice; the first time was on an organised coach trip through Checkpoint Charlie, and it was basically just a bus tour with an East German guide trying to explain away the queues outside all the shops with their empty shelves.  Far more interesting was going across unescorted on foot, which we did the following day and it gave us a glimpse of what the tour guide didn’t show us.

A lot of East Berlin still looked much as it must have done in 1945, with quite a few bomb damaged buildings still waiting to be bulldozed and redeveloped.  The ubiquitous smoky Trabant and the occasional ancient Mercedes were a far cry from the swish cars being driven around the other half of the city, and somehow everything seemed a little grey.  The underground trains were rickety old museum pieces with slatted wooden seats (I got told off by a policeman for taking a photo of one of the carriages – filming the public transport system was ‘verboten’ apparently), and the whole experience was like stepping back in time.
Checkpoint Charlie

Every now and then some shady character would sidle over and offer to buy Western currency from us. We’d been warned about such approaches; it was reputedly a favourite method for the secret police or ‘Stasi’ to entrap Westerners so they could impose heavy fines on them, although this now seems a little far fetched.  We weren’t however tempted to break the law in this way; we already had all the East Marks we could possibly use.  On entering the country you were required to exchange 25 Deutschmarks for 25 East Marks, and you weren’t allowed to take any back with you.  So we spent it on books, coffee, beer (no smoking allowed in many of the bars over there by the way, even 30 years ago) and stale sandwiches, and I even got a horrendous pair of bright red pumps from an incongruous looking department store which only seemed to have foreign shoppers in it.

My lazy approach to my year in Germany seemed to work out OK. I achieved a reasonable fluency in the language and back in the UK the following year I got my degree.  I didn’t return to Germany for nearly a decade, when my job required me to live there for a few happy years.  I was a husband and father by this time, and more to the point, a car owner.  There were fewer hitchhikers by then and to be honest I never stopped for those I did see.  The car was generally full of family and baby paraphernalia, although in truth I was probably just too selfish to pick them up.  Even so, I did sometimes wondered if these youngsters had ever heard of Hitch Cricket, and if they viewed my car speeding past them like a dropped catch.

At tea he was 127 for 6

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