Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Wednesday, September 17, 2003
"Baby, I'll Never Let You Go"
Precisely one full quarter-century and two days ago, at exactly 21h48, I arrived in Berlin, at the main Bahnhof Zoo station, not knowing what to expect, but certain it would all be played out to a David Bowie soundtrack.

It was the first time I'd ever been outside the UK, let alone to Sin City Central. The Strangers had never done Abroad before, largely through a lack of funds, but also because a rainswept, knobbly-kneed week at Butlins in Pwhelli was reckoned to be miles better than a fortnight in some fancy, lah-di-bloody-dah place called the Costa del Sol, where posh people went to eat foreign muck.

My awe of all things continental meant I spent much of the five-hour journey from Cologne contemplating the fly that had become trapped in my compartment at Helmstedt on the East-West German border. "That's a fly," I remember saying over and over to myself, "that's a real, genuine, honest-to-goodness German fly." To this day, I'm still not sure whether my very first German fly (of the winged variety, anyway) was a nasty Commie, or One of Us, but I remember him with great fondness. He was the first friend I made in Germany.

Sharing the carriage with me and Herr Fliege was a bunch of fellow foreign-language students, like me Berlin-bound to spend a year skiving teaching English. Far more worldly-wise and experienced at this whole travel thing than me, they'd all arranged to be met at the station by a representative from their respective schools, before being whisked off into the Berlin night.

No one was waiting for Stranger, apart from an army of heroin addicts, underage rent-boys, dirty old men and drug-dealers all hanging around the seedy, piss-stinking main railway concourse. Armed with just a contact phone number and address on a crumpled piece of paper, I was left to make my own way to the accommodation fixed up for me. This is commonly known as being thrown in at the deep end. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, indeed.

Two years of University German had equipped me for detailed dissection, in my best Hochdeutsch, of Brechtian politico-theatrical theory, and symbolism in the work of Gunter Grass. Unfortunately they'd forgotten to teach me how to ask for the location of the nearest payphone. To this day, I'm still grateful to the anonymous, trannie tart-with-a-heart, clad in real fox-fur and killer stilettos, who took pity on the babbling Brit and directed him to the nearest cab-driver who wasn't on the make.

And the rest is my history: I arrived an innocent and returned with a cheeky grin on my face, and a funny way of walking. So the past few days have been this queen's very own Silver Jubilee tour, an unashamedly self-indulgent Nostalgia-Fest. Strolling down the magnificent Unter den Linden, taking in the scent of the lime trees. Stopping off at Kranzler's for Kaffee and Kuchen, or a champagne breakfast at the café where I used to hang out. Checking out my old flat, where I threw my first party, which was gatecrashed by two perfectly pleasant Stasi agents and the smacked-up prostitute they were taking turns at shagging. Walking up to the Wall which isn't there anymore. I even managed to catch up with a couple of people I'd met all those years ago. And the nights in the gay triangle around the Nollendorfplatz were even more fun, but you wouldn't want to hear about them.

And to those I admonished a few days ago for thinking grubby thoughts, I'll come clean with you. Yes, I was celebrating that anniversary as well. . .