Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A cold winter in Europe - 1973

If you are reading my blogs for the first time, welcome!  However, this is possibly not the best place to start.  I hope you will eventually dip into them all, but if nothing else, please read "and so back to England 1973" before reading this - it might provide a little more context.
...and so it was that on a particular day in September, a few days after my father had returned to Australia, I found myself, together with a bunch of other hopefuls at an artificial ski-slope at Esher near London.  
A couple of years earlier some Sydney friends had spent a winter working in Saas Fee and having succeeded in making it sound like the most exciting thing on earth, I was determined to find out for myself what it was like.  I had done a little research and after an over-the-phone interview, I was now an aspiring candidate for the alpine working holiday of a lifetime.  There was only one small catch - the job required a standard of skill, which my previous efforts on the intermediate slopes at Falls Creek and Perisher might not meet.
The job was described as requiring a standard of competency around the mountain sufficient to be able to operate a T-bar lift, chip ice off machinery and be available at which ever part of the resort needed a pair of arms and legs. To ensure that we were capable of carrying out these tasks, candidates were required to demonstrate a level of proficiency as a skier which was at least above that of novice.
I’m sure there are now larger dry slope fields, many of them indoors, but at that time the Artificial Ski Centre at Esher was described as the largest slope in the UK and as I looked down it that afternoon it seemed a daunting challenge.
I had never considered myself a great skier, but I thought I was competent enough to do the job. The challenge appeared simple. We had to be able to negotiate the slope twice without the help of poles while carrying an empty wooden cable drum supported by a section of galvanised pipe about a metre long pushed through the axis of the drum. We each made our way to the top of the slope and one by one were made to balance the drum and length of pipe in the crooks of our elbows and asked to ski to the bottom. One or two did it as if they had been doing it all their lives.  Others, came to grief - some as they set off, others as they tried to slalom down the hill, and others as they arrived at the bottom, unable to stop.  It was terrifying to watch, and finally it was my turn. I felt like a paratrooper about to make his first jump, with a not so friendly sergeant standing behind waiting to kick me into space.  I took a deep breath and launched myself on to the slope, looking for all the world like someone auditioning for a spot on It's a Knockout. Frank Spencer could not have looked any worse as I flew down the slope, skis pointing in every direction, displaying all the dignity of a tight rope walker in a gale. The only thing preventing my arms from flailing like a windmill was that I was hanging on to the cable drum as though my life depended on it.
I don’t know how I twice made it to the bottom of the slope without turning my high speed balancing act into an imitation of a cartwheel from a wrecked stagecoach  bouncing randomly downhill – but I did. The guy who had organised the event, shook his head at me saying it was the worst exhibition of skiing he had ever seen. He could not imagine how I would survive a real ski slope, let alone one high in the Swiss Alps, but he obviously thought I was going to be someone else's problem and as good as his word, he gave me the job. 
I’m not sure whether I was pleased at this news or not, but at least I had a job to go to. Bob arrived a week or two later and after he had done the rounds of friends and family we were ready for our European Odyssey.
So it was that on a bleak and wintery day in late November of that year Bob and I set off in the capacious and stately Rover, with freshly fitted amber headlight reflectors for our destiny in Switzerland. We were planning to take our time getting there partly because we weren’t expected in Saas Fee before the second week of December, and partly because we had not planned on the 1973 Oil Crisis which had started the previous month and was likely to restrict our access to fuel at times.
We took the ferry across from Harwich in East Anglia to Esbjerg in Denmark on the Jutland Peninsula. From there we drove across Denmark to Copenhagen where we spent a night with Riis and Solveig Petersen a young Danish couple who I had sailed with on Dona Clausen where they were third mate and radio operator.
We spent a couple of nights also in Copenhagen, a lovely town where among other things I introduced Bob to a few more of my former shipmates from Dona Clausen, and they in turn introduced Bob to Messrs Aalberg, Tuborg and Carlsberg, although I don't believe any introduction was necessary. We dived headlong into Danish culture. First, a visit to Helsingør where we visited Hamlet’s castle at Elsinore and stared across Øresund to Helsingborg on the other side of the strait in Sweden. We followed Shakespeare's inspiration with a visit to the local cinema to see Deep Throat and Linda Lovelace, for at that time cultural experiences such as these could only be had in enlightened and progressive countries like Denmark and Holland.
We had started our European journey by travelling across Denmark because I wanted to see the land I had recently heard so much of and because I wanted to see again some of the friends I had made since joining Clausen Company. I also wanted to explore other work opportunities and while in Copenhagen, I went to see another well known and fast-growing shipping group, Lindinger. They were new to shipping with about ten vessels in their fleet having only recently embarked on a major building and recruitment program. Lindinger had been described to me as a “bukser selskab” (literally a trouser company), a name given to a company with no prior links with shipping (for example, a clothing manufacturer) who had taken advantage of the Danish Government’s generous tax concessions by entering the shipbuilding business. This was beneficial to me, (not to mention a whole industry of ship builders and engineers) and I was offered a job on the spot. I agreed to sign on as First Engineer on Lindinger Amber due to sail from Liverpool to North Africa sometime in late January. My thinking at the time was that if the Saas Fee adventure failed to materialise (or if the predictions of my ski-ing examiner proved true), if nothing else, I would have something to do. Ah, the heady days of full employment for all!
Now at this point I have to confess that as much as I was enjoying the adventure, and of course the pleasure of Bob's amusing company, my thoughts kept returning to Pauline and the fact that I had already decided I was going to marry her (a thought I had not actually at that point shared with her). Not long after the meeting with the folk at Lindinger, I called her long distance to say hello - not something done lightly in those days before mobile phones, and made more difficult by the fact that she had no phone at her mother's house where she was living.  Having established contact - she in her crowded office at work; me in a telephone kiosk outside Tivoli Garden - I told her that I was going back to sea in the new year and the Danes being more liberal than their British counterparts in their attitude towards officers’ wives and partners on board ship, I asked her if she would like to come with me. “But I have a good job at the Co-op" she said, "I can’t possible leave that!” I asked her to think about it and she said yes OK, she would think about it.
After about a week in Denmark we drove to Gedser, the southernmost town in Denmark on the island of Falster, where we crossed on the ferry to Rostock in East Germany, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR).
The countryside was thick with snow and the roads were icy as we drove around Rostock looking for a way out. Our destination that day was Berlin and we thought we were well on way when we saw a motorway sign pointing to “Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR”. Pretty soon we were speeding through the night along a spanking new motorway, thinking – this can’t be bad. We had about 200 km to drive to our destination and it was going to take no time at all on motorway like this. I can’t remember how long we were humming along in the dark down this lovely new road which I have since discovered is now the E55 Euro route. 
The traffic became lighter and lighter and soon ours was the only vehicle travelling in either direction. Then all at once, the motorway stopped. By that I don’t mean that we came across one of those “end of motorway” signs, or anything like that. I mean it just stopped and we were driving along a hard gravel surface with no markings, no median strip and clearly no longer harbouring any pretence of being a road. Fortunately we were able to quickly come to a stop, or who knows where we might have finished up that night – in a field presumably, or worse someone’s back garden. 
And there we were - in the middle of a freezing winter’s night, surrounded by snow and ice, in East Germany – stuck at the end of the Autobahn to Nowhere.
With great deal of circumspection we turned our stately and capacious Rover around, and ever so carefully retraced our steps, until we were able to bump back up on the tarmac of the motorway again. We did have a map, but regrettably our road wasn’t marked on it, so when we arrived back at the last exit point several kilometres back in the other direction, we still had no idea where we were.
Happily, we did not have to drive around for very long before we found another road and a signpost with the familiar “Hauptstadt der DDR”direction. This time we had a road to follow which took us through numerous towns and villages and eventually delivered us into Berlin en route to our final destination that night, West Berlin. We drove to Checkpoint Charlie, the name given by the West to the best known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin. It was here that we were subject to a rigorous search of our vehicle by the Volkspolizei, the East German police, otherwise known as the VP. They looked under the car with mirrors on trolleys and under the bonnet. They opened the petrol cap and shone a torch inside and went through our entire luggage until they were satisfied that we weren’t trying in any way to carry anything back into the West that we hadn’t taken in with us. Once we were allowed to pass we drove to the western sector of the wall where the West German border police had a cursory look at our passports and waved us through thus ending forever our links with socialist realism. We spent a night in West Berlin (enjoying the nightlife) and left the next day for Munich, where we did more exploring of the local social scene and the delights of the Bavarian Bierkeller.
Bob was a great travelling companion and we shared a lot of laughs. He and I had met about four years earlier when we were engineers on the SS Francis Drake. Bob was from Plymouth and after getting to know each other as shipmates we also became housemates in the early 1970s. For some reason we started calling ourselves Smithers and Saunders and effecting a toffee-nosed upper class British military accent, “I say Smithers, jolly close call that, what –stiff upper lip eh?” Well, we thought it was funny.
It was somewhere between Berlin and Munich or maybe it was between Munich and our next destination Milan, that we started to find that capacious and stately that the Rover may have been, it was certainly no longer as reliable and trustworthy as we would have liked. She broke down a couple of times in the hills and we frequently found the formerly healthy sounding six cylinder engine running with only five, four or sometimes just three cylinders firing. Of course it was bitterly cold, and one night when we had to sleep in the car, we woke the next morning to find our beer and wine rations (kept in the boot, purely for medicinal purposes) frozen solid. Worse, the water in the radiator, despite the fact that we had poured liberal amounts of anti-freeze compound into the system, had also frozen.
We hadn’t intended to travel as far south as Milan; Switzerland was after all our destination, but a look at the map seemed to indicate that there was a lot more downhill than uphill by diverting to Italy (and parts of Switzerland are of course, seriously uphill). There was also more chance of finding a Rover dealership in Milan. So it was that a few hours out of Munich and after the aforementioned rough night in the car, Saunders and Smithers managed to continue on to Milan where they were able to get some repairs affected to the capacious, stately and extremely unhealthy Rover.
I remember little about Milan except it being wet, but since we were sleeping in the car at this time, I think it was a preferable environment to having several feet of snow piled up outside the door. We did however manage to get some repairs done to the car and were thus able to proceed in our stately way north, via the Simplon tunnel (which meant putting the car on a train for part of the journey) and thence to our final destination at Saas Fee in Switzerland.
It was early December when we arrived, and to our amazement there was little or no snow, and apparently little or no chance of employment for at least two or three more weeks. We didn't even bother to stay overnight.  We had both had enough.  Bob was happy to return to the UK and thence to Australia; and I was keen to find out whether Pauline was going to run away to sea with me or not. So we left.
After a brief stopover in Paris we headed west to Dieppe and then on the ferry to Dover. There is not much memorable about the trip home, except that we had about exhausted all our funds by the last French motorway toll booth, and were able to manage only a few relatively small Danish øre which we pitched into the automatic collection basket, and drove on to the sound of ringing bells and flashing lights – quite an exit, I thought at the time.
So Bob returned to Sydney not long after, sadly leaving his ski-boots in the back of the Rover never to see them again. What followed for me was a highly enjoyable Christmas with Anne and the family in Nuthall – my first winter Christmas since 1955 and on 5th January 1974 I set sail as First Engineer on MV Lindinger Amber from Liverpool to Algeria, carrying of all thing a cargo of refined lubricating oil.
Oh yes, I almost forgot to tell you - Pauline had said yes. 

She wouldn’t be able to join me until the second voyage in mid-February so this first trip I had to do on my own and I can't wait to tell you what happened next...


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  2. Thanks for the feedback - always appreciated.