Taxi-driver August 5, 2006Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
Tags: Soviet, Tegel
“Tell him I was a Soviet officer.”
My eye tarried perhaps a moment longer than is socially acceptable at such moments, but I wanted to get a hint of passive disdain across as best I could. I thought this was perhaps the worst conceivable conversation I was going to be forced to have with a taxi-driver. I knew nothing about him, of course, and how could I know if he was a straightforward Wessi, in which case he might not give a toss about my fellow passenger’s past as a Soviet officer, or a West Berliner, in which case he might find it vaguely intriguing, or an Ossi, in which case he might have thought, “Were YOU personally here fucking up my country?” or an East Berliner, in which case he might have uttered, “Thanks for the memories”? I tried to think how I could best bend the translation as much as possible to make me not seem like an utter twat. Time for deliberation was short.
“Not a Russian officer. A Soviet officer,” the fellow passenger went on.
The taxi-driver could see this Russian ranting was meant for his benefit. He looked at me inquisitively. I began my first ever (unpaid) simultaneous interpreting mission, without a booth or earphones, from Russian to German. “My fellow passenger wanted me to tell you that he was an officer in the Red Army.” The taxi-driver was d’un certain âge. Not old enough to have fought in WWII himself, but no doubt old enough to have remembered it. To stop my loquacious Russian gent’s ceaseless flow of free association, I decided to naughtily use my tool, i.e. a language he didn’t know, German, to take the conversation off on a bit of a tangent that would make the taxi-driver think I wasn’t a total arse.The taxi-driver was a diamond geezer, it turned out. An East Berliner with a Polish wife who not only listened politely to talk of the private past of someone who’d been in his motor for half a nanosecond, but doubly politely engaged back, asking where we were all from, pointing out sites of interest – admittedly, not many between Tegel and Pankow, but for the airport Tegel itself, I suppose – and then, which, of course, my Russian guests thought was normal, speaking to them in passable Russian and giving them a quick round-up of German history from Hitler to the present-day.
Hands up who knew that Tegel was originally a missile-testing launch-pad? OK, you probably all did, but I didn’t, and the Russian word for such a thing – poligon – instantly made me think of hexagons and Tegel’s hexagonal shape, which is, no doubt, a red herring. Once my Russian guest had got bored of the taxi-driver’s and my tangent and had started out down the long road of his next anecdote, “When I was transporting nuclear weapons to Kazakhstan…”, and once he paused for breath, I thought it was time, you see, to regale my guests – a married couple with a child – with Berlin stories. I knew the wife – my friend – would be slightly uninterested and would much have preferred we get straight down to gossip, but she listened politely. Her husband, with the mention of airports, walls, East and West and cold wars, was agog.
“Tegel airport is the West Berlin airport, and that’s why it’s (sort of) right in the city, because, as you well know, West Berlin was completely surrounded by East German territory. So we’re now still in the West, and won’t get to the East until we cross a bridge at Bornholmer Straße, which, incidentally, was the first place the border opened on that famous night,” I began, primly. This was when the taxi-driver’s linguistic credentials came to the fore. He could follow that I was giving a remedial-class history lesson in Russian with a queer accent. I explained all, but for the Russian boyfriend. He then got down to business and decided to take my talk from remedial-class level to somewhere between A-Level and first-year-university.
So Tegel was a missile-testing thingy. And then, if memory serves, from 1948, the French military airport. Tempelhof – West Berlin’s other airport, now deceased, sadly, sort of – was coming into its own, and, of course, had its moment of true glory during the airlift. But as aeroplanes grew, Tempelhof could no longer cope. Tegel had to step in, and, from 1974 – these are all taxi-driver dates – took over as West Berlin’s airport. The taxi-driver even explained how, after the war, German missile experts plied their trade with whoever happened to be in control of their sector. And the allies were more than willing to have them, as the Germans were leaders in their field. (The former Soviet officer accepted this intelligence without a peep.) Hitler peppered the conversation liberally. No sphincters snapped. We were all paragons of post-war, grown-up civilness.
We got home and dashed to the French restaurant on our quiet street. I explained the boss was your actual French.
“Might he be interested to know I was born in Siberia?” asked my guest.
It’s been a long couple of days.