A former border, a bike repair, and war refugees

The light winks three times from the direction of the dark shoreline. I relax– the ‘goods’ are ready. All is quiet. All we have to do now is wait, our own lights off so that the patrol vessels won’t detect us. Our boat is wooden so that it won’t show up on the coastal surveillance radar. The night is moonless, carefully chosen.

The ‘goods’ will be with us in about an hour. I adjust the fishing lines paid out over the stern to make it look like we are just innocent fishermen trying our luck for night fish in the event we are detected. I open the flask and drink the tea in it while we wait, the hot liquid burning its way down my throat. What a world we live in, I think. A country that does everything it can to prevent its citizens from leaving, even to the extent that it will shoot to kill any of them found crossing the border. Perhaps if they had a better system, people might be flocking to live there, rather than trying to escape its repression. The ‘goods’ in this case is a high-ranking official who has had enough, and wants to defect to the West.

Before long, we hear the creak of oars in their rowlocks, the dip of blades in the water. In the darkness, a torch flashes on and off for a second. The small rowing boat we are expecting is nearly here. We get ready to help its passenger to board our boat.

Suddenly there is a throb of engines. A search light flashes on, illuminating a patrol boat a few hundred metres away from us, its machine gun on the foredeck trained on the small boat nearing us. It must have been patiently waiting there all the time, invisible in the darkness. Have we been betrayed?

The machine gun stutters as the bullets trace a line of splashes towards the small boat …

GDR Border Police patrol boat (from Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-35031-0001 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

“You look a bit shocked”, says the First Mate, coming up from the cabin. “Did I surprise you? Here, let me take that cup of tea. I’ll make some more. It’s lunchtime.”

“I was just trying to imagine what it must have been like to have been involved in smuggling people out of the old German Democratic Republic to the West”, I say. “I was about to receive a fugitive from the East when the border police intercepted us. It didn’t end well.”

We are have just crossed the former border between West and East Germany in the Lübecker Bucht and are now in the former GDR. Not that long ago we would have been illegally in no-go land.

The border between the former West and East Germanies.

“Ah, the GDR”, says the First Mate. “Do you remember that time we were in Weimar? We had just arrived late at night and were tired and hungry. We found a pension to stay in, but they didn’t do food in the evening, so we had to go hunting around town to find somewhere that served dinner.”

“I can remember seeing lots of theatre-goers walking the streets all dressed up to the nines”, I continue, “But every restaurant that we found had shut at 6pm. In the end the only place that we could find that was open was the restaurant in the railway station. Even then, we were given a table to share with a young couple who were embarrassed and really didn’t want to talk with us either in German or English, and left shortly afterwards, not finishing their meal. I always felt guilty after that for spoiling their evening.”

Old memories! The First Mate and I had only met a few months earlier, and I was still recovering from an operation on my knee to repair the cruciate ligament. The Wall had just come down a month earlier, and once I could walk again we had decided to drive over to eastern Germany to see what it was like.

“And what about that time we were in that café in Eisenach, and we were listening to these young guys talking about the new cars that they had bought?”, she says. “The problem was that they were all so used to driving Trabbies and the like that they had no idea how to handle the power of a BMW or Audi, and were ending up crashing them on the motorway, or worse still, killing themselves.”

“Interesting times”, I say, philosophically.

We arrive at the small harbour at Timmendorf on the island of Poel. On the way in, we touch the bottom as we stray a little off the narrow entrance channel. Luckily it is only sand.

We tie up next to a motor boat. The occupants are a retired couple from Hamburg. “You speak good English”, I say, as they help us moor.

“I was a ship’s captain for much of my life”, he says. “I travelled all over the world.”

Tied up in Timmendorf harbour, Island of Poel.

There is a lot of activity on the green area in front of the harbour. “It’s a craft fair”, says the retired sea captain’s wife. “It finishes at five.”

“We have an hour”, says the First Mate. “Come on, let’s go and have a look. I always like a good fair.”

We find ourselves at a stall selling home-made spirits and liqueurs, and try a whisky flavoured with vanilla. It’s tasty and we buy a bottle.

Home-made spirits and liqueurs at the craft fair.

Afterwards, we sit on deck eating our dinner and watching the market traders pack up their stalls. Behind, last of the sun catches the lighthouse tower and reflects off the glass to reradiate a soft glow.

“I wonder if they go home happy with what they have made today, or do you think that it is a fairly hand to mouth existence?”, I muse.

“They must have a few overheads to worry about”, says the First Mate. “Their vans, the gazebo things for their stalls, all their merchandise, the fees for the stand.”

“Well, they can’t be doing too bad for themselves – those vans must cost a bit. They all seem pretty new.”

The wind drops, and the water in the harbour becomes like a mirror. One by one the market vans are packed up and disappear. Eventually the green is clear. Two or three couples walk their dogs along the small promenade. A noisy motor bike appears, disturbing the peace momentarily, but roars off again. Small swallows dart and dive around the boats, alighting on the mooring lines and defying their swaying motion. All is at peace with the world.

“I love these little harbours”, says the First Mate. “They are so full of character.”

Peace and quiet reigns supreme.

The next morning, we decide to do a cycle ride around the island. It’s only about 10 km in diameter. We unload the bikes and follow the route on a map the First Mate was given by the harbourmaster. We leave the main road and take a narrow track across fields of barley blowing gently in the wind until we pick up the coast again.

Through fields of barley.

My bike starts to rattle.

“Oh no”, I say. “My front mudguard has come off. Look, the screws that held it on have come undone. Perhaps we can find somewhere to fix it.”

We stop in a village called Am Schwartz Busch for lunch. The view out over the beach is great, but the service is slow and when our lunch does arrive, the portions are small.

“I still feel hungry”, I say, when we have finished.

“Me too”, says the First Mate. “I don’t think that I would recommend this place.”

Beach near Am Schwartz Busch, Poel Island.

As we leave the village, I suddenly stop.

“Why are you stopping here?”, says the First Mate. “I thought we wanted to press on?”

“I saw a sign for a bike rental shop”, I say. “Perhaps they have some screws that I could use to fix the mudguard.”

The man in the bike rental shop looks at the bike and then the mudguard.

Ich denke wir können das reparieren”, he says.

He brings out a huge box of assorted screws he has accumulated over the years.

“Where do you come from?”, asks the First Mate as he searches through it, looking for a screw that will do the trick. “Your accent sounds a bit like it might be from Hamburg?”

“Born and raised on the island”, he responds. “Lived here all my life. Seen it all – communism, wiedervereinigung, capitalism, you name it.””

“Is it still an issue between East and West?”, asks the First Mate.

“Not now”, he says. “It was at first though. We in the East felt that the West dominated everything – any thing from there was just better without question, anything from the East was inferior. We would have liked to have had more time to sit down and discuss how to select the best of each system and merge them together into something unique. But that didn’t happen.”

“But over all, it was good that wiedervereinigung happened”, he continues. “It’s right that we are one country again, and our standard of living has improved. I have a much better pension than I would have had otherwise. The only thing is that we don’t like that the government is bringing in too many foreigners. Tourists like yourselves are OK, but all these refugees, there are just too many of them.”

“What, do you mean the Ukrainians?”, asks the First Mate.

“No, the Ukrainians are all right”, he responds. “It’s not their fault they were attacked. No, it’s all the others I mean.”

The First Mate presses him to explain, but realising that he might have already said more than he wanted to, he refuses to be drawn.

“There you go”, he says, tightening up the screw. “That mudguard should be fine now. Have a good trip.”

Back on the road.

We press on. On the north coast the paved cycle path gives way to a smooth track through the woods. Through the gaps in the trees, we can see the sea.

Through the woods.
View of the Baltic Sea from the woods.

“It’s absolutely beautiful”, says the First Mate. “I wouldn’t mind living here.”

“You say that about every nice place that we go to”, I say.

We cycle back round in a loop that takes us to Kirchdorf, the village in the centre of the island, and have an ice-cream overlooking the bay and the harbour.

“We could have brought Ruby Tuesday in here”, I say. “But it is quite a bit longer and a very narrow channel up the bay.”

“I think I like it better where we are”, says the First Mate. “There’s something about these small harbours.”

Harbour at Kirchdorf, Poel Island.

The next day we decide to take the bus to Wismar. It takes about 50 minutes. At one stop on the way, a large group of people are gathered, mostly women and children. The bus stops and they clamber in.

“Probably some sort of group tour”, says the First Mate.

Each one is carrying a shiny new blue passport.

“I think they might be Ukrainian refugees”, I whisper. I catch a glimpse of one of the passports. Sure enough, it says Republic of Ukraine. It looks like it has been newly issued.

Ukrainian refugees board the bus.

“It’s so sad”, says the First Mate. “When you see the pictures on the news of the horrendous destruction that the Russians are doing to their cities – apartment blocks and houses completely wrecked. They could be the homes of some of these people. And their husbands and fathers might have been killed.”

“It’s all so senseless”, I agree. “What sort of strategy is it to unify similar people by bombing their cities to pieces and forcing them all to flee to neighbouring countries? That’s one of the justifications for the war, after all. Weird logic.”

The group of Ukrainians gets off at the Lindengarten stop.

“Perhaps they are going to a language course somewhere”, says the First Mate. “You know, to learn German.”

We get off at the bus station, and walk towards the city centre. We end up in the Market Square in front of the Rathaus, where there is a market on. In one corner of the square is the Wasserkunst, an ornate structure that was built in the 1600s to dispense water to the citizens. Behind it is the Alte Schwede, supposedly the oldest house in Wismar, originally built around 1380, but later lived in by a wealthy Swedish merchant when Wismar was ruled by Sweden from 1648 to 1903. Nowadays it is a restaurant.

The Wasserkunst in the foreground, the brown Alte Schwede behind.

“Oh, look”, says the First Mate. “Here is a market stall selling Thüringia sausage. That was always one of my favourites growing up. Let’s get some for lunch.”

“How was it?”, I ask afterwards.

“Disappointing”, she responds. “Not as good as I remember it.”

The First Mate trying to relive her youth.

We come to the St Georgen Church. Like many of the churches we have seen in these northern German cities, it is massive, soaring 80 m into the sky. But on this one, you can take a lift to the top and get a great view out over Wismar.

View from the top of St Georgen church, Wismar.

The view certainly is stunning. But looking down on the church below, I am filled with awe at its forgotten builders. With no cranes as there are nowadays, it takes a certain type of person who is comfortable climbing to such heights and willing to do a day’s work putting bricks in place when there. I am not sure if I could have done it.

Not far from the church is the UNESCO World Heritage House of Wismar, originally built by a wealthy Hanseatic merchant. Houses built in the Hansa cities at that time had to follow common building regulations – all had to be built with bricks and have a firewall between neighbouring houses, for example. Refurbishment started in the 1970s under the GDR government and has continued until the present day. Of particular interest is the restored wallpaper depicting the Greek mythological tale, Travels of Telemachus on Calypso’s Island. Wallpaper was a relatively modern invention when this was first put up in the 1820s.

Part of the restored wallpaper in the World Heritage House, Wismar.

On the way out, I sign the Visitors’ Book and read some of the comments.

“It’s so great to see the spirit of preservation and reconstruction”, says one. “So different to the destruction that is going on in Ukraine at the moment.”

The next day is very windy, too strong for pleasant sailing. We decide to stay on Poel another day.

“I think I might take the bus into Kirchdorf while you work on the blog”, says the First Mate. “We need to do some shopping. Is there anything you want?”

“Not much”, I say. “Perhaps some fruit. We are running a bit low.”

“I’ll be back later in the afternoon”, she says. “I’ll call you when the bus gets back, and you can come and help me carry things.”

Catching the bus to Kirchdorf.

She arrives back at the boat around an hour later.

“That was quick”, I say, putting the finishing touches to the blog. “Did you manage to get everything?”

“No, she says irritably. “The whole place was closed because of the Himmelfarht holiday, and not all the buses are running. I had to get the next bus back again or else I would have had to wait four hours with absolutely nothing to do. I completely forgot about Himmelfarht.”

“So it was a fruitless journey?”, I say.

If looks could kill …

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