Postcards No.6: wartime hangover

German scout house near Stade
Postcard from Germany: old wool mill restored and thatched by scouts for their own use

Some travels rouse a far greater depth of feeling than others.

For example, a gentle meander through the chateaux and vineyards of Normandy and Burgundy could not be compared to visits made to Buchenvald, Auschwitz and Dachau.

And being in battle-scarred Santiago at the time of Allende was light years away from the mere doddle of gently touring the Dalmatian coast.

Lazing away a week in the balmy Cook Islands was a far cry from being held at gunpoint by the Jordanian Army in a sweltering Amman. (I was only taking pictures, officer!)

However, few journeys provoked such a lasting whirlpool of emotions as stirred by the next couple of postcards in this random collection from ages past.

As the postcards record, I was having “a wonderful time” and “the hospitality is amazing.”

Yet simmering away unrecorded was an anger and resentment which, although I never allowed them to come fully to the boil,  lingered for many years after.

This was July 1953 (for once there is a readable postmark), only eight years after the end of World War II. And I was in Germany, one of a group of students from Cornwall Technical College at Camborne being home-hosted by  German families.

Why the college decided this was the right time and place for such a week-long excursion is difficult to fathom. An exercise in building bridges for future generations? A gesture of reconciliation?

Perhaps too soon. Memories of bombing raids, air raid shelters, gas masks, shortages and deprivations were still well to the fore. Rationing would not fully end for another year.

No complaints about my hosts in the ancient coastal town of Stade, 45 km from Hamburg; a lugubrious and uncommunicative father, his pleasant and attentive wife and their friendly teenage daughter, Helga, who took constant and solicitous care of her British visitor.

It was other aspects that at first surprised, even shocked, and eventually rankled.

I saw and ate my first banana, was introduced to milk shakes, saw goods in the shops that were unattainable back home or, at best, remained rationed. A world of wonder; a young man’s Aladdin’s Cave.

This posed a question that continually nagged at me. Only good manners (or a fear of stirring up a hornet’s nest?) left  it unspoken. Who won the war? (My Basil Fawlty moment).

Apart from this undercurrent of resentment, this first experience of “abroad” went exceedingly well.

Helga was a diligent host and companion, an excellent tour guide for walks and excursions. She encouraged my nascent German language skills and even took me to the movies to see a dubbed Burt Lancaster swashbuckling his way through Der Rote Corsair (or The Crimson Pirate to the folks back home). A memorably weird experience.

Hamburg's Unser Michel reduced size
Saint Michel: Hamburg’s historic landmark thrice destroyed and still standing

As these postcards remind me, there were trips to Hamburg that included a climb up the 498 steps of the famed Saint Michel Church tower and a weekend of  youth hostelling.

Understandably not mentioned, however,  is the late night escape through the hostel’s dormitory window to make a forbidden visit to local licensed premises. Just one of several laddish escapades that punctuated this inexplicable excursion into still recent enemy territory.

On the plus side, I was “doing very well with my German and can walk into a shop and usually get what I want”.  However, “some of the food is good, the rest awful and the sausages untouchable”.

The memory has been further jogged by the comment on one card sent to confirm my safe arrival in Stade that “I don’t think any of us slept on either Friday or Saturday night”.

As I recall it, one reason for this was the invitation from two young ladies for me and my mate to join them in their carriage on the long haul from Truro to Paddington.  A sleepless night indeed.

Yet through all the refreshed memories of this farewell to schooldays (I was to join the West Briton as an indentured journalist on 25 shillings a week on my return) the one impression that has remained with me down the decades is the one that has always rankled: why were we the ones who felt deprived and impoverished? The poor relations dining at the table of a benevolent host.

I have returned to Germany many times since, always a happy and enjoyable experience. At times even memorable, such as Munich at Fassching time, crossing through Checkpoint Charlie and a friendship shattered by the Berlin Wall.

Plus, of course, a 2:42.42 world masters championship marathon in mizzling rain in Hanover.

But that school trip so soon after the war probably remains the starkest in the memory. It needed no old postcard to bring it to the fore.

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