Friday, September 19, 2003

On borders, the gender of German rivers, and not visiting Poland.

There are certain species of independent traveller. One of these is what is known as a "border freak". A border freak is someone who feels the urge to visit as many countries as possible. If he is getting closer to the border with another country, a certain urge to cross the border into that country starts to overcome him. It doesn't really matter what the country is. Visiting anything in that actual country isn't the issue. The point is simply entering the country.

Some people take this to extremes. Your real border freak will swim a crocodile infested river, before crawling through a jungle filled with landmines in order to enter some country not normally open to foreigners. Having done this, he will then crawl back without actually looking at anything.

I am not an extreme example. But I do feel certain urges in this direction occasionally. Which is why on Monday I found myself on a train from Berlin to Franfurt an der Oder, a town to the east of Berlin. The River Oder marks the border between Germany and Poland. As it happens, I had been there before.

In 1992, I went on my first substantial solo trip. The central European places I visited were a little dodgier than anywhere I had been before. (Today they are all a piece of cake. In fact, they weren't in reality very dodgy in 1992. They just felt that way to me at the time). I flew to Berlin, and then via a series of train rides went to Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest, before a bit of travel in rural hungary with an insane Californian television journalist I had met at random, and then by boat down the Danube to Vienna, from where I flew back to London. (Although Western, Vienna was and probably is in reality the dodgiest place I visited on the whole trip, although I didn't understand the subtleties of this at the time).

In any event, after a few days in Berlin, I set of for Warsaw. The overnight train left from Berlin Ostbahnhof, the main train station for long distance trains in the former East Berlin. Not much rebuilding had occurred in East Germany since the wall had come down, and the station was dark and dilapidated. The train was an dirty old diesel thing with "DR" (Deutsche Reichsbahn) on the side rather than the "DBB" (Deutsche Bundesbahn) written on the more sparkling Western trains. I was heading east into the void.

As it happened, the first stop of the train was at Frankfurt an der Oder, after which there were passport checks. The Polish smugglers with who I was sharing a train compartment bribed the customs officers, and we went on into Poland. (The Polish smugglers story remains one of my best travel tales to this day, but it is not the one I am telling here).

And so Frankfurt an der Oder remained one of those places that I had visited in a physical sense but had never visited in most more practical senses. Its more famous namesake, Frankfurt am Main, also fits into this category, as I have landed at the airport and even changed planes and gone through immigration there on a number of occasions, but I have never left the airport. (The river Oder is feminine whereas the river Main is masculine, which is why the words for "on the" are different for the two rivers. See "Grammatical Gender is stupid").

In any event, when in Berlin this last week, I thought it would be nice to see somewhere outside Berlin. I went to Potsdam (which I had also not visited in 2002) but while this is technically a separate city, in practice it is part of the Berlin metropolitan area, although this is complicated by the fact that until 1989 Potsdam (being to the west of Berlin but in east Germany) was in a different country to the parts of Berlin close to it. However, I also wanted to go somewhere further afield. And that Frankfurt place I had been through at night in 1992 seemed as good a place as any. So I bought a ticket to Frankfurt and hopped on a train.

But of course, there was another factor in this. It was my border freak tendencies calling me. I knew that full consumation of my desires in this department could not take place, as Australian citizens require a visa to enter Poland I didn't have one, and it certainly wasn't worth the cost and hassle of obtaining one just so that I could cross into Poland, sit down in a restaurant and have a meal and a couple of beers, and walk back again. But the border drew me just the same.

But anyway, I went to Frankfurt. It was a perfectly nice little Prussian town in a river valley, I wandered around the streets a bit, and down to the Oder. The river was not especially wide, and it didn't look like a great barrier to anything much.

If I had really wanted to cross into Poland, it did not appear that it would have been hard to walk downstream a little, and swim across. (I have no idea whether the banks of the river were fortified in any way to prevent this. Perhaps there might have been something). However, I was certainly not going to do this. All I could do was enviously watch all those Polish and German people with shopping bags who walked onto the border control area on one side of the bridge, flashed their ID cards, and then walked on. I knew that if I tried to cross the same bridge, I would be turned back. And that made me sad.

So to drown my sorrows I went to an outdoor cafe on an open square in Frankfurt and ordered a weizenbier and some food. I put 10 euros or so into the German rather than the Polish economy. It was their loss. But also mine, as I would have liked to have visited Poland.

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