On wishing you were back in the Cold War

It’s three am and you can’t sleep*. You can distinctly remember the last time you felt this distressed by weather related unpleasantness. It was in Berlin in 1989.

One of the fringe benefits of belonging to orchestras in your youth was that they went on tour. Not as often as you’d have liked. There was a peculiar phenomenon back then that every orchestra you joined stopped their regular jaunts abroad for virtually the duration of your membership, but you did get a few trips in before they realised you were there. Mainly to Germany and central Europe. You went to Maarstrict before the treaty, Prague before it became fashionable for stag nights, Saltsburg well after its heyday and Berlin before the wall came down. Also Kolm/ Cologne. There is a river in Kolm, which is virtually everything you remember about it.

Anyway, the thing about being in a Youth Orchestra is that when you go on tour it is also most definitely a jolly. An educational jolly, mind, which accounts for the fact that you were staying with a German family in a flat. No, an apartment. You, the girl from darkest suburban semi land, were most impressed, particularly by the high ceilings. And the bidet.

There were also a lot of outings to places of interest, nearly all of which turned out to be related to Nazi atrocities. In fact, the whole visit seemed to consist of an extensive apology by your hosts for the second world war, which you can only hope was because your group were British. ‘We’ve got some Brits coming to stay,’ you hope someone asked, ‘what would they like to do?’ ‘Watch us heap sackcloth and ashes upon ourselves in many and varied ways. You know how they are about the war. They’ll never get over it until they beat us at football again.’

And of course, whenever the German exchange students came to your school back in the UK, they always got taken to Coventry.

Now it could be that the war was more constantly uppermost in the average Berliners minds at that time because they were living in an enclave in East Germany with a dirty great wall across their city. Enough to turn the strongest constitution to history, that. And the wall, or rather, Checkpoint Charlie, the place where East and West met and occasionally crossed over for the historically challenged among us, was where it happened.

You were defecting to East Germany. For the afternoon. To see what was either an exceptionally the dull museum, or an exceptionally dull art gallery. You actually can’t remember anything about it. I think you had all been expecting James Bond to come crashing round the corner at any minute though, so anything else was bound to be a let down when that failed to happen. Anyway. To get there meant going over the wall, which meant having you and your companions’ passports grilled, which meant waiting, which meant sitting in a coach on a hot day with the engine, and thus the air conditioning strictly switched off.

So there you all were in a metal box on tarmac in the full blaze of the sun with a full load of sweaty teenagers.

It was hell. It was particularly hell because you did not know how long it would last although you suppose now it couldn’t have been much more than thirty minutes. Long enough for your resin, the tree sap that string players use to make their bows sticky, which usually looks like that a polished stone, to liquefy, you do know that.

Since that time, this has been your benchmark for feeling unhappy with heat. And believe me, you are ever unhappy with heat, so it’s not like you haven’t made comparisons. No longer. Today the smog has descended again, and in a spirit of solidarity you stayed at home with the Star. With the windows shut.

It was thirty-nine degrees outside today. It was thirty-five degrees inside the flat and, because of the number of showers you all felt the need to have, humid. The Star actually weathered it quite well, but then he doesn’t seem bothered by physical discomfort. He does have a nasty heat rash although you are blaming that in part on the number of times you have had to wash him this holiday. The Star’s skin does not take kindly to being overwashed. Or being ill and having antibiotics.

You on the other hand would probably have thrown off all your clothes and gone and danced naked under the street tap the builders used if they hadn’t shown Howl’s Moving Castle in TV at 5pm. Even then, as soon as the Star drifted off to sleep you went and sat on the balcony, in defiance of the smoke, and cooled down enough to contemplate taking your place by the Star’s windowless side.

Unfortunately, you woke up in a pool of your own sweat about an hour ago and have had to come into the kitchen to get a breath of burnt tasting air. It’s probably about time you went back though.

Thank the Gods you are going home, well, tomorrow* it will be now.

*Or not. See What I did on my holidays part 1.


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