Friday, 30 May 2008

The DDR with Matt

I first visited the DDR in, I believe, 1984 [11.04.1984 according to the visa stamp]. With Matt. We'd forgotten about the unsavoury incident in St Sebastian station (the closest I've come to a fight in my adult life) and were travelling together again.

The trip was quite complicated. We first went by train to Prague and then continued on to Dresden and Leipzig. I'd already visited Prague and had a good idea what to expect there. The DDR was virgin territory.

It was no surprise to discover that much of Dresden city centre had been rebuilt after the war. War criminal Bomber Harris's fault. The firebombing of Dresden was one of the most senseless and inexcusable acts of the British military during WW II. Harris deserved to be in the dock with Göring in Nuremberg. We were staying in an Interhotel on the main drag, a street almost as soulless as the centre of Frankfurt. It was a tall, concrete box with all the charm of Swindon bus station.

Our first task was to find somewhere to have a drink. I didn't expect it to be quite as a difficult as it turned out. My only experience with the Eastern block was Prague. Finding a pub in Prague (or anywhere else in Czechoslovakia) wasn't exactly a challenge. They were on almost every street corner. Dresden was very different. Perhaps the chief planner had been a teetotaller. There seemed to be zero pubs. We resorted to asking passersby "Wo ist eine Kneipe?". We got plenty of weird looks, but no directions.

Eventually we found somewhere promising: a large cellar beerhall. We had to stand and wait in a queue at the entrance because, in typical DDR fashion, there were no free seats. There were plenty of empty seats, but they were all at tables decorated with a "reserved" sign. They hadn't been reserved, of course. These were just the tables the staff couldn't be arsed to serve. Matt insisted on going straight to the bogs for a shit. While he was doing his unspeakable business, some people who had come in after us were given seats. When Matt finally emerged we had a good deal more waiting to do.

It looked very promising. I could see them serving a lovely-looking dark lager. Brilliant. I was staring to get a real thirst. That first pint was going to be so sweet. After quite a bit more waiting, we were shown to a table. My order was easy: "Zwei Bier, bitte". "What do you want, Matt?" (I could have said "Do you want a beer, Matt?" Despite knowing him for more than 30 years, I still find that funny.) My joy was short-lived. The waiter informed us that they stopped serving beer at 14:00. It was 14:05. Triple bugger.

Rather ungallantly, I blamed Matt and his shit for missing out on a memorable beer experience. Come to think of it, my resentment is still simmering just below the surface. Why else would I remember the incident so well after all this time?

More frustrating exploration confirmed the city centre as a disaster zone, pub-wise. Time for plan B. We decided to try the outskirts. Jumping on the first tram we saw, we frantically scanned the passing streets for a boozer. "Gaststätte - that means pub, doesn't it?" We jumped off and took a closer look. It certainly looked like a pub from the outside. We entered. It looked like a pub inside, too. It wasn't even that crowded. (Getting a seat immediately in a DDR pub was a rare event.) A half-litre of a beer-like substance was soon sitting on the table in front of me. I relaxed for the first time that day.

That evening, we took the easy option and drank in the hotel bar. Bottled Pilsner Urquell or Wernesgrüner. After one of the latter, I stuck with the Czech beer. Wernesgrüner never impressed me, even though it was supposedly better-quality than most other DDR beers. I always preferred either Thüringian beer - Mühlhausener Pilsator was a great beer - or Berlin beer. Sternquell in Plauen brewed a good Pilsator, too. (Pilsator was a style specific to the DDR. Brewed from better quality ingredients than the standard Pils and actually - unlike 99.99999% of Pilsners - quite similar to Pilsner Urquell in flavour profile.

Type OG FG app. attenuation
ABW hop gm/hlcolour EBC CO2

Deutsches Pilsator 12.5° -13.3° 2.75° (max) min. 78% 3.8 - 4.5% 300 max 12.2 0.40%

[At this point, in my speedily-written original (no time to check anything too technical) it said ******* ADD SOME TECHNICAL STUFF ABOUT PILSATOR. *********. The table above is that information. The columns don't line up. I know that. I'm not stupid. But to fix it would take too long. The kids want psycho slasher game. It shouldn't be too much of a challenge to your intelligence to work it out. A pencil and paper should suffice.]

The next day we tried our luck across the Elbe in Dresden-Neustadt. This part of town mostly survived the war. It wasn't much more heavily-pubbed than the other side of the river. We did, however, find a kiosk with a few outdoor standing tables clustered around it. Here we drank bottled beer and looked out over the Elbe. I'll tell you what reminds me of it very much. Have you ever seen Tatort? The episodes set In Cologne feature a similar kiosk with a view over the Rhine to the Dom. The two detectives go there and drink Kölsch a several times every episode. Sadly, it isn't real. The kiosk is only there for filming. Shame. I wonder what happened to the one in Dresden?

After two nights in Dresden, we took the train to Leipzig, hoping it would be better for pubs. Well, I was hoping that. Who knows what goes on in Matt's mind. I gave up wondering about that years ago. We were staying in another charmless Interhotel. That must have been their mission statement: to provide non-socialist foreigners with adequate acomodation in an ugly building at a slightly unreasonable price.

Leipzig wasn't quite as severely rearranged by the RAF as Dresden, though there were still plenty of ugly holes in the city centre. My mind is a strange place. I couldn't tell you what I ate for breakfast the day before yesterday, yet I could lead you to the Leipzig pubs we drank in. At least their locations. I don't think they're all still pubs.

The first place was a pub/restaurant behind the Town Hall. As usual, we had to queue for a seat. We'd been travelling for 6 or 7 days by then and Matt's conversation was even more sparse than usual. So I started reading the book I'd brought with me. After about three pages the waitress came past, spotted my book and told me to stop reading. I'm not quite sure why. Maybe she'd been taught as a child that it was impolite to read at the dining table. Or perhaps whe was just being weird. Or power-crazed. You didn't argue with the staff in Eastern Europe if you wanted to drink another beer sometime in the next week. I put my book away.

The next day, we stumbled on a pub not far from the station. "Since 1982" a sign proudly proclaimed. See, things were getting better. Once we'd got our beers, Matt decided he wanted to buy a momento of the DDR and disappeared into the department store opposite. I wish I could remember what he bought. It was bound to have been something weird, pointless, tacky or all three. I was happy enough just having a seat and a beer. No way I was going to move, short of nuclear war.

That was it for my first visit to the DDR. I've returned to Leipzig several times, but never to Dresden. Surely there must be more pubs there now? (This pub guide seems to confirm that. I hope the author knows what he's talking about.)

3 comments:

Sid Boggle said...

Doesn't Koln have a little schnellie kiosk across the river from the Dom? Sort of left along the embankment from the Hohenzollern Bridge?

I have a recollection of food there after a tiring day drinking...

-- Boggle

Ron Pattinson said...

Here's another admission: been to Deutz. So I can't comment.

Boak said...

I went to Dresden in 1996, it was still looking bombed out. Didn't see any interesting pubs but I was underage and on a school trip at the time.