When I was a university student, much longer ago than I’d like to admit, I had been a member of the Student Christian Movement. A few years ago I joined as a supporter. When a general email went out, inviting students to go on a trip to Berlin in the summer, I asked whether I might be able to apply. I mentioned that I have worked with young people and am fluent in German, so maybe I could be an asset to the trip?
In May I was invited to accompany the group. In particular, I was to assist Rowan (not their real name), a student who uses an electric wheelchair, in the train journeys from London to Berlin and back again.
So a rainy Tuesday morning I rose early and left home at 7am. I’d arranged to drive to a friend’s house, leave my car there, and she would take me to Wellingborough train station. Trains from that station went directly to St Pancras International in London, and with the threat of a tube strike it seemed a better option than my usual route of Northampton to Euston.
When I rang friend’s doorbell, she appeared a minute later in her pyjamas and looking rather tired. ‘Oh, no, I forgot!’ To her credit, she was dressed and ready to take me five minutes later.
At the train station, I asked the guard what I needed to show for my journey. The SCM had organized Interrail cards for the trip, and although I’d been told this would cover the journey to London, I’d never used one before and it was all on an app on my iPhone. The guard accepted what I had, and later when I was on the train the ticket inspector brought up the necessary screen.
Into London, and I found the group by a large statue. We slowly collected others from the group. Another set of students had already travelled to Brussels, and we would be joining them there. I introduced myself to Rowan. We discovered that they had been booked on a child’s ticket rather than one for an adult, which did give them a nice cartoon to colour in as part of their ticket.
We reported to the assistance desk at Eurostar. The price difference between the child’s ticket and the adult was only around £3.00 and the woman at the ticket counter didn’t want the difference. Eurostar books disabled passengers and one companion (me!) on to Premier Standard at the same price as Standard, and we were escorted through to security. The guard gave me a light stick (think small light sabre, flashing yellow, but sadly made of plastic rather than a laser) to hold aloft in warning whilst the ramp was deployed. I muttered, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…’ as I struck up a Statue of Liberty pose. Rowan boarded, and in the carriage there was a large space for their wheelchair and a seat for me on the other side of the table.
Lunch and drinks were served at our seat as we went through the Channel Tunnel. On the other side, we emerged into grey skies and France. The countryside didn’t actually look that different to what we’d left behind in England.
At Brussels we left the train (ramp provided) and had two hours in the station. I lost the group during a trip to the loo, and found them sitting near a waffle place. Numerous members decided that it was only right and correct to have a Belgium waffle whilst in Belgium, and chocolate topping was the most popular choice.
An assistance man saw us and dropped by to speak to Rowan. He explained that no one had advised the station personnel that we had need of assistance, but he would return to help.
Around twenty minutes before our train was due to depart, the rest of the group set off for the platform. I became increasingly anxious when our helper did not reappear, so we agreed to head up to the platform ourselves. Once there, another man emerged. He found a ramp, but kept expressing concern that we might not have assistance in Köln. We were perplexed about this. It wasn’t like we were going to abandon the next part of the train journey. ‘One step at a time,’ I said. ‘We’ll work it out when we get there.’ What also really bothered me is that the guard addressed all his comments to me, rather than to Rowan, even though they were able to converse with him in French and I could not.
The area in which we were to sit had a clear space for the wheelchair, and two seats opposite which had been reserved for us. But one seat had a man already sitting in it. There was a lack of seating in the carriage, and although Rowan didn’t want to spend the entire journey in the wheelchair, they didn’t want to make the man stand, so they stayed in their wheelchair and I took the seat next to him.
When we arrived in Köln, there was a ramp waiting for us. A very nice guard communicated with me in German to explain what time and where we were to report on the platform so he could assist on getting Rowan on to the train to Berlin.
This time we had around an hour before our next train, and most of us bought some form of food. At the appointed time, we returned to the platform. The guard checked in with us and gave an updated time at which he would provide assistance.
When we entered the carriage, we found it very full. Two people were in our reserved seats, but this time we asked both of them to move. Rowan took the window seat and I placed myself on their right. A lot of people stood in the carriage, although there were reports of more seats further down the train. It took a while for the crowd to clear.
A lack of air conditioning in the restaurant car meant it was shut. An area in First Class was taken over for a small kiosk, selling drinks and snacks. I bought a beer and a packet of crisps, as well as water for Rowan. During the five hour journey, various members of the group joined us for a chat. One outlined her plans for her life. She would meet her man when she was 27.5 years old, marry him around three years later, then have three children, spaced around 18 months apart. In her mid-fifties the children would all be off to further education, so she could then buy a boat and travel the world. She wasn’t quite sure how her career would fit into all this…
We arrived in Berlin just after midnight German time. Off the train, through the station, then on to the tram. This was another challenge. Although we went to the carriage doors marked with a wheelchair sign, there was a gap too large between the platform and the carriage for Rowan to safely travel over. The driver came out of the front of the train and used a device on his keyring to unfold a ramp. The ramp was put away, and had to be pulled down again when we reached the stop for our hotel.
So around 1am we finished the short walk and entered the reception for our accommodation. The man who attended to us had a shirt marked ‘Security’, so I think he wasn’t used to being on the front desk. There were room cards and paperwork, and each of us had to fill out details about ourselves including our passport numbers. But rather than letting all of us get on with this, only one person at a time was permitted to complete a form. I picked up my key, and after checking with the leader, was told I could clock off and go to my room.
I was semi-undressed when a message came through the WhatsApp group asking me to return to reception. I quickly changed out of my Dalek themed pyjamas and pulled on regular trousers before going back down. Confusion was reigning. The man at reception was not happy about something. I tried to find out what the problem was. Nineteen people had booked on to the trip, but five had dropped out, leaving us with fourteen. Originally most people were going to share, but due to the lower numbers only four (two sets of two) were to share rooms. But the man was troubled that the paperwork indicated that there were meant to be two people in rooms but now there was only one?
I told him in German, ‘Let’s start again. There were meant to be nineteen people in twelve rooms. Now there will be fourteen people in twelve rooms. Five people have not come. So the people they would share with will now be in the room on their own.’ I wondered if he’d thought we’d changed our minds about sharing rooms and were expecting him to come up with nineteen rooms? At any rate, although he still seemed troubled that rooms were only going to be holding one person instead of two, we finally managed to process everyone and send them away. I finally returned to my room at 2am. My iPhone kept pinging as people continued to WhatsApp each other and I grumbled, ‘Come on, everyone, time to go to bed!’
It took me awhile to fall asleep, with surprised me after the long day we’d had. I rose at 7.30am and looked forward to making a cup of coffee. I’d packed a travel kettle, coffee bags, and sachets of milk. However, I discovered what I’d not packed was the cord for the kettle. Sigh. A mistake I won’t make again.
I went downstairs to have breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. The price was an eye-watering Euros 18.50. I felt too tired to look for alternatives. I had cereal, a couple of bread rolls, cheese, meat, some pieces of fruit, and lots of coffee. The view into the hotel garden was rather lovely, and they offered honey from their own bees.
The group met up at 10am at the Berlin Wall Memorial. A woman from the local church gave us a talk and guided us along the outdoor site. She explained the history behind the division of Germany, and Berlin, along the sectors taken over by the winning countries of World War II. Great Britain, the USA, and the French sectors were run as one unit, and the Soviet Union oversaw the fourth sector. Berlin was like an island within East Germany (the DDR). People who wanted to leave Soviet controlled East Germany could make their way to East Berlin and pass through to West Berlin before then going on to West Germany. Although many East Germans did not want to emigrate to the West, and some who did came back, there was a steady drain of some of the most needed people such as doctors, dentists, and scientists. My own mother, who grew up in East Berlin, left for the West three months before the Wall went up.
The first iteration of the Wall, mostly barbed wire and barricades, was erected on 13 August 1961. Over time the Wall became larger and more fortified, with a ‘death zone’ between two lines of concrete wall. DDR soldiers shot anyone who tried to cross between. Streets were cut off from one another and houses which straddled the wall had their windows bricked up (because people would try to escape by climbing or jumping out). Families and friends were cut off from one another. It was possible, but with great difficulty, to sometimes obtain a pass to visit West Berlin and go through one of the checkpoints.
I told a story from my own family history, as related to me by my grandmother. My grandfather had always had budgies. The last one had died, and he was unable to obtain one in East Berlin. They managed to get a pass to visit West Berlin, and in a pet shop they bought a budgie. The small bird was placed into a cardboard box, which he hid in his coat. Whilst in the queue to return to East Berlin, the budgie began to chirp. My grandfather coughed loudly to try to hide the sound. ‘Aber Vati,’ my grandmother said, ‘Your coughing is attracting more attention than the bird!’ They managed to cross over. Yes, dear readers, I’m sorry to say that my grandfather was a budgie smuggler.
A section of the wall has been preserved, and the no man’s land is now grassed over. A memorial stands nearby with photographs of some of those who died trying to escape.
We continued on to the Chapel of Reconciliation. The original Church of Reconciliation was built in 1894. When the Wall was built, the church was in the Soviet sector, and the congregation were on the other side, in the French sector. Only border guards could access the church. The East German government blew up the church in 1985. The cross from the tower fell off and members of the church hid it until the end of the Cold War. In 1999, the Chapel was built on the site. The Chapel is a modern structure, constructed out of pressed clay and wooden columns. It’s included in the Coventry Cathedral’s Community of the Cross of Nails and has a replica of the Coventry Cathedral’s Statue of Reconciliation.
A small field of rye surrounds the Chapel, planted in 2005 as an art event with the slogan ‘Where it is possible to sow, there is peace.’ The rye was being harvested as we visited.
At noon, a short service is held inside the Chapel to commemorate those who died at the Wall. Normally this is only in German, but since most of our group didn’t speak the language, our guide offered an English translation. We heard about a young thirty-three year old man, married with two children, who tried to cross to West Berlin but was killed by twelve bullets, shot into him whilst he was in no man’s land.
There was free time afterwards. A number of us went to a café for lunch. Afterwards we navigated our way across Berlin by public transport, again tackling the challenges for a wheelchair user. We entered the S-Bahn system at Nordbahnhof, which had been one of the ‘ghost stations’ not used during the time of the Wall as it would have enabled people to escape. We found a lift, but when we boarded the carriage the driver (who brought out a ramp) asked us where we planned to disembark. He told us we’d have to leave at a different station but not why as he hurried back to the front of the train. Assuming that there was no way for a wheelchair user to leave the station, our leaders frantically tried to plot a different way to reach our next destination.
At the revised stop, a couple of us stepped out to look for the driver and ramp. He leaned out from his control area and asked again where we wanted to go, a telephone in his hand. When we told him, he indicated that we could stay on board. And, indeed, when we arrived at our destination he managed to find a ramp for us.
We caught the bus (driver flipping down a ramp) and finally arrived at the church in which Martin Niemoller had served. A member of the church met us and talked to us about Niemoller and his life. Niemoller was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor who had initially supported Adolf Hitler. However, he opposed the Nazi control of the churches and was one of the founders of the Confessing Church. He was arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps, surviving the experience to later on be active in anti-war movements and a campaigner for nuclear disarmament.
The plan had been to walk through the church’s graveyard to what had been Niemoller’s house. Steps meant this wasn’t possible for a wheelchair. We made our way along the road instead. Although the house had a lift, this was out of order, so we all gathered downstairs in a storage area for the longer talk about Niemoller and his life. Afterwards those who could climb stairs visited the house, and in particular the kitchen in which the Confessing Church members had met.
The current pastor for the church joined us soon afterwards. We went to a local pub, where we ordered drinks and talked about the day. Some of us stayed for dinner, and I had schnitzel. The portion was two large slices, so I split it with another member of the group.
Afterwards we navigated the rather confusing bus system. We had to take a bus in the opposite direction we wanted to go, leave the bus at one stop, walk a few hundred yards down the road to pick it up again, before being taken in the direction we wanted. At least the S-Bahn was more straightforward. We stopped at a small shop before arriving back at our hotel around 9pm.
Avid readers of my blog will know that I have written what the impact of being an older woman has had on some of my holidays, particularly a grisly episode in Ethiopia. I don’t plan to write at length this time, let’s just say that it was rather inconvenient to discover that I have not yet hit menopause. Particularly as I had a spell of vertigo early in the morning, one of the curses of this time of life.
Therefore I didn’t head out from the hotel until 9.30am. I had some items for breakfast in my room, rather than pay for the expensive option at the hotel. Soon afterwards I was enjoying a large coffee in a café before heading over to the visitors’ centre for the Berlin Wall. I watched part of a documentary about the Wall, browsed in the shop, then took the S-Bahn to meet the group at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
The original church was built in the 1890s. It was badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1943, and only the old spire remains. The area below the spire is a memorial hall and features mosaics of German monarchs and biblical stories. We went inside to admire the scenes and to look at the displays about the original church.
The new church was completed in 1963. The chapel features 21, 292 stained glass inlays, inspired by the glass in Chartres Cathedral. Among the items honoured inside is the Stalingrad Madonna, a charcoal drawing of Madonna and Child made by the German soldier Kurt Rueber in Christmas 1942.
The church is linked to Coventry Cathedral, a church also destroyed by bombs during World War II. Each church says prayers for the other on Fridays. Coventry Cathedral gave the Kaiser Wilhelm Church a replica of its cross of nails, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Church gave Coventry Cathedral a copy of the Stalingrad Madonna.
After taking time to soak in the atmosphere of the chapel, we went our separate ways to find lunch and then make our way to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer House. Rain had settled in for the day, and I was glad I’d packed a waterproof coat as we walked through the quiet neighbourhood.
The house was the home of Bonhoeffer’s parents. Those planning the resistance against Hitler met there, and Bonhoeffer wrote sections of his book Ethics at a desk which resides in what had been his bedroom. It was also here that he was arrested by the Gestapo on April 5, 1943.
A volunteer met us and we were taken inside. Coffee, tea, and biscuits were provided, and we fell on them with gratitude. The volunteer told us about Bonhoeffer’s life and work, in particular his role in the Confessing Church and his time in prison. He was executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
We visited parts of the house, including what had been Bonhoeffer’s bedroom. This has been reconstructed based on memories of those who knew him. Some people sat behind his desk, and I must admit I touched the wooden top with a feeling of reverence.
We returned to the S-Bahn station and the group split up in search of food. I went with three others to a very small Italian restaurant, when I had jumbo shrimp (a bit overpriced in my opinion, as all that arrived on the plate were the shrimp plus a small tomato!). I did enjoy my glass of Gewurztraminer.
We made our way back on the S-Bahn and dropped into a small supermarket to buy some snacks for the journey home. Then back to the hotel, where I paid for my breakfast and a small beer. I enjoyed the latter whilst downloading photos and doing some packing, ready for our departure the next morning.
An unwelcome discovery that I would need more feminine sanitary products sent me out into the rain, walking to a nearby supermarket. I returned the hotel, finished my packing, and joined the group in the lobby at 8.30am. We walked together to the tram and took the short journey to Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
Rowan and I reported to the information desk, where it was confirmed that their details were held. We were told where and when to report for assistance, and duly did so. A very helpful woman explained, at the platform, that we’d been upgraded to First Class. This was rather welcome for the longest train trip of the journey. The carriage was nearly empty, and other members of the group came to join us for chat and several hands of Uno.
We changed trains at Köln. And this is where our plans began to unravel. Another very nice assistance person had met us with a ramp as we arrived, and told us where and when to report for the next train. However, the train to Brussels was delayed, and the tardiness only increased. We finally boarded 50 minutes late.
The train was packed. The wheelchair space had two fold down seats in the wheelchair space opposite the regular seats, and a man using one of them resisted being moved. Our carriage had standing room only, and I assume the rest of the train was equally full. At first the man sat at the window, which meant that the wheelchair was being bumped by luggage and people making their way through the carriage. We convinced the man to let us put the wheelchair by the window, and he sat on the fold down chair in the aisle. Rowan and I sat side by side opposite.
I was quite annoyed with the man, but Rowan explained that they were quite used to this. To get angry over it wouldn’t help.
We realised that there was no way we were going to be on the Eurostar train for which we’d booked, not with their insistence of closing any boarding 30 minutes before departure. Rowan and I decided we’d try for some special pleading, as it would be far more difficult for them to find, say, accommodation if they missed the last train home than for someone who can walk anywhere. We dashed off the train in Brussels, went to the booking desk, but there was no flexibility.
Our leader managed to book everyone on to the next train. We settled into the lounge and my friend in Wellingborough assured me she’d still be happy to collect me from the train station. At the appropriate time, we made our way to the departure area, and an assistance person met us and we were escorted to the platform. When we found our seats, I was terribly excited as the screen in the carriage stated we were in Business Premier. However, the meal served to us was that for Standard Premier, and no champagne was on offer. I settled for a beer.
We pulled into St Pancras around 10pm. I said my goodbyes to Rowan and hurried through the station, managing to catch the next train to Wellingborough with a few minutes spare. Catching my breath, I contacted my friend to let her know my arrival time. As promised, she was waiting for me. I drove home very carefully, pulling into my driveway around 11.30pm.
A few thoughts about the trip.
I found the train travel rather stressful! When the choice is mine, I will fly!
Never mind my stress over trains, I had no idea of the challenges faced by a wheelchair user. And the discourtesy which can be shown by others. On the other hand, we did have some lovely assistance people along the way.
Berlin features large in my mind as my family were impacted not only by World War II, but the aftermath in the division of Germany and of Berlin. I must arrange another visit…
Above all, many thanks for the Student Christian Movement for sorting out the complex arrangements for the trip, and Project Bonhoeffer for generously funding so much of the cost for both myself and the students.
If you’ve enjoyed reading my travel accounts, you might enjoy reading my books! The first novel in my ‘Penny White’ fantasy series is only 99p for Kindle, free on Kindle Unlimited, and also available in paperback. Click on the image below to be taken to Amazon to buy your copy. My author website can be accessed by clicking here.