During the Cold War era I spent a few years in Germany, first as a twenty-one-year-old graduate student and then with the military. I spent my first Christmas holiday season putting a Eurailpass to good use, randomly hopping on or off trains as I allowed the whims of time and place to determine my next destination.
One bitterly cold night I found myself stuck in a small town on the border between West and East Germany. A blizzard blanketed the region, and here I was stranded before the Iron Curtain. With no choice in the matter, I took to the streets in near white-out conditions. My intent was to find inexpensive lodging at one of those private homes with a small sign offering Zimmer, “a room.” The town was covered in snow and battened down for the cold. Only a few prospective innkeepers even bothered to answer their doorbells, and no one had a room for me. I was pulled along by the sharp smell of burning coal coming from chimneys which suggested a warmth and refuge I couldn’t seem to find.
At last my wanderings caught the attention of the local police. Perhaps someone had phoned in about my meanderings. The cops were suspicious of an American out under such conditions. They eyed my papers carefully before gruffly sending me back to the terminal, and the little green-and-white police car crunched along behind my plodding steps, making sure I didn’t try any escape.
The first train out wouldn’t depart before morning. I curled up on a wooden bench of the waiting room, resting my head on my suitcase and taking comfort in the roof over my head and the little bit of warmth. A railroad worker finally took pity and led me to the empty train standing beside the platform. Already positioned for its morning departure, its locomotive was fired up and pumping welcome heat through the cars. The compassionate rail man unlocked a first-class compartment and encouraged me to curl up and sleep undisturbed. At six a.m. he awakened me before anyone else was allowed to board and I moved back to second class.
It wasn’t long before I found myself on the streets of Munich. Again it was late at night, but this time after a date, and I had over a mile to cover to reach my hotel. There wasn’t a taxi in sight, so I raised my collar against the bitter wind, wrapped my wool scarf tighter, and set out on foot along the deserted streets. Near to my hotel I caught sight of what appeared to be smoke rising from the sidewalk beneath a streetlamp. As I approached, I realized it was a pool of fresh blood, steaming in the winter air. Drag marks pointed toward an unlit alleyway. I didn’t stick around to investigate, but hurried on to my room. (Some might recall this image, which appears in Corridor of Darkness.)
A day or so later, while navigating a crowded train corridor, I came face-to-face with a very large Bavarian man. Both his slurred speech and the odor emanating from his clothing suggested he’d already consumed more than a few liters of beer. Despite our best efforts to get past each other in the rocking train, I was blocked on every move. He kept talking to me in his thick regional accent, each word more slurred than the last. Finally, sensing the futility, I told him I was an Ausländer, “a foreigner,” and couldn’t understand. “Ah,” he replied (and this much I understood), “let me guess…you’re from Berlin!”
With Christmas just days away, I entered a beautiful square in wintertime Strasbourg. Vendor booths were doing a good business selling candles, wax tree ornaments and roasted chestnuts. A quick glance up a side street brought me to an abrupt halt. As if looking back in time, I saw a scene of wartime devastation: deserted multi-storied houses, shattered windows and doors, piles of rubble in the center of the street, torn curtains blowing through broken window frames. A single wooden chair, its caning shredded, sat atop a pile of broken stones. Bullet holes pocked the crumbling walls. Two decades after the end of WWII, reconstruction had yet to reach that part of the city.
On Christmas Eve morning I found myself boarding a train in Zürich. Friends and I had arranged to gather at a chalet high in the Swiss Alps for a holiday celebration and skiing vacation. It was to be a beautiful traditional European Christmas. Arriving at the village, I left the train station and trudged down through the deep snow drifts to the rented house. An idyllic scene stood before me: a meter of fresh snow on the roof, wood smoke curling from the chimney, skis leaning against the wall beside the entry. But the door opened to coughing, fevered sick people cowering beneath blankets and occupying every available horizontal surface in the overheated chalet. The only healthy person left was the wife of a fellow grad student, who pleaded with me to stay and spend some time on the slopes. Anything that didn’t involve waiting on all those moaning and hacking friends. Weighing the benefits of graciously obliging versus the likelihood of suffering the flu over the rest of my month-long vacation, I gave apologies and regrets at the threshold and retreated back up the hill. Not the most thoughtful of moves.
The next local train arrived shortly at the station. I hopped aboard and joined the few other travelers out on Christmas Eve. As we neared the summit of the Oberalppass, we came to an unexpected and jerking halt. The conductor informed us that we would have to cross over the pass on foot, for our electric locomotive had derailed in the snowdrifts. I grabbed my bag and trudged along the tracks, following two unaccompanied little Swiss kids, a brother and sister in traditional dress. Each held a handle on a big basket covered by a checkered scarf. My guess? Christmas presents or home-baked treats sent home by or being delivered to Grandma. A quarter hour later we reached another train waiting to complete our journey. The children jumped off at the next village, while I returned to Zurich.
So there I sat on Christmas Eve, alone at the Hotel Bristol and thinking of past holidays surrounded by a large family. Determined not to fall into melancholy and homesickness, I went out on the icy streets and bought a warm roast chicken, red wine, some cheese and a small loaf of freshly baked bread. Spreading newspapers out on the floor of my hotel room, I laid my feast out before me, then sat with the drapes open, eating with my fingers while watching the sparkling lights of the snow-covered city.
A knock on my door. I opened and found the hotel manager holding a big bar of Swiss chocolate, a Christmas gift for guests forced to spend the evening alone in their rooms.
A nice dessert.
A different sort of European Christmas.