When you and I were young Maggie, 150 years ago, your faithful agent did a lot of foolish things. When you are a callow youth, foolishness is to be expected (and forgiven). Only memory reveals how goofy were things in the past. This time, your agent was noodling about Europe on a Vespa scooter, a machine that didn’t go quite fast enough where you could kill yourself but could still get you in a lot of trouble. Your agent had made it as far as Stockholm, to visit the parents, Hungarians who had lived in Shanghai, of a dear friend.
The project at hand was a rendezvous, on July 1 in Warsaw—at high noon under the clock in the main railway station—with an acquaintance of the female persuasion. This involved a long trek, one presumed, back down through Sweden, across to Denmark, down through West Germany and then to the isolated bastion of West Berlin sitting in East German territory.
My friend’s father, a sensible doctor, pointed out that from the southern tip of Sweden there was a ferry going across the Baltic Sea to Sassnitz in East Germany. Being dumb and young and foolish, it did seem to save considerable time and mileage, that romantic meeting under the clock awaiting. Your agent arrived in Sassnitz, sans visa or official papers, naked to the machine-gun-toting authorities. After much consternation, it being determined that I couldn’t swim back to Sweden, your agent was issued a one-day pass to cross East Germany and get to West Berlin forthwith.
Forthwith did not include, some hours later, heavy rain and a sudden patch of cobblestone on the roadway. Your agent’s Vespa went one way and your agent went another way. A kindly farmer picked up the remains of both of us, dragged us into his barn and, beneath the puzzled gaze of his cows, filled me with hot tea while he hammered the wretched machine back into working condition.
By the time the body and the Vespa were back in shape, there was no hope of making Berlin within the one-day instructions. Rounding a corner, there appeared a scene right out
of the Katzenjammer Kids: a flock of shouting, flailing Germans in front of a delightful country inn. It was not a riot or a family feud as first suspected; the rotund innkeeper, drunk, had fallen into a ditch and such was his tonnage that there was a struggle to get him out.
A room was supplied, with an eiderdown four feet thick, and your agent gratefully went downstairs for dinner in the tiny inn. There, sitting across the room, were three greenshirted “Vopos,” the dreaded East Germany fuzz. Your youthful agent’s heart sank, his oneday pass in his pocket, his head attempting to bury itself in his potatoes. Farewell, world.
A large flagon of beer arrived on the table. Puzzled—and more than full with my own quota—I looked to the innkeeper. The Katzenjammer host, pleased, pointed to the three polizei across the room who were raising their glasses in tribute. This a joke? This real? Hurriedly, your agent—no dumb bunny—sent
a round their way. More raised glasses at a distance. More rounds sent back. The mutual admiration would not end. Midnight approached. Did the future of European reunification rest on suds? It was a too-long and tremulous night.
In Berlin—this was four years before the Wall was built—the Vespa used to take its jockey through the Brandenburg Gate over to the other side just to see how bad the restaurants were. They were. In West Berlin, there was purchased some Polish walking-around money. An innocent as always, your agent one day drove through the Brandenburg Gate for the last time, threaded his way through some tank barriers on the edge of the city and pointed for Warsaw.
Once there, a problem evolved. The Polish currency is the zloty. In every zloty there are 100 groszys. The official (i.e., artificial) rate
was one zloty to the dollar but it seemed I had purchased them in West Berlin at four to the dollar. The bulky groszys, therefore, were not only tearing a hole in your agent’s thin jeans but were practically worthless and so were tossed into the waste-basket in the Bristol Hotel, which served the best pickled herring in memory.
There was another problem. Your agent had lost his glasses in a ditch in Holland while helping a magician change a tire (which is another novel). So we had to wear sunglasses, even at midnight. A beard—mandatory for any goofy youth roaming Europe — had turned out to be bright red for some strange reason. The rumors of a madcap American millionaire in dark glasses and a red beard who threw money into wastepaper baskets in
the Bristol Hotel resulted in waiters elbowing each other in the teeth when I appeared in the dining room. It was my one and only impersonation of a Rockefeller abroad.
The problem with the 24-hour sunglasses reached such a state that I confessed to the government tourism people that I had to cut the visit short to get to West Berlin and some new spectacles. There were serious problems—young, dumb, stupid, no papers—getting out of Poland and back through East Germany (would you trust anyone with Hollywood shades and a red beard?), but eventually we—the Vespa and I—made it out to Frankfurt, the Bay Street of Deutschland, and there waiting in a bank account were the remnants of my zloty account—translated back into the official exchange rate.
Your puzzled agent ended up with a profit. It was obviously the start of the Polish debt problem. And the lady never did show up.
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