7 January 2005

Travelog: Spy games and a flasher (picture below) in Berlin

Everything I knew about Berlin I learnt from spy novels and reruns of Hogan’s Heroes. Len Deighton and John le Carré in particular served as my pre-visit guidebooks, and taught me that the simple act of calling a thoroughfare ‘strasse’ rather than street would transform it, at least in the mind’s eye, into a place of history and culture, with a delicious hint of intrigue.

As my flight arrived at 9 am, with my eventual destination being Poland, I thought of spending a day sightseeing. Then Joanna and Jonathan, who had preceded me to Poland, suggested they join me. So I set about finding a hotel using Google and the words ‘cheap’, ‘budget’ and the like. That’s how I happened upon the Hotel Crystal, on Kantstrasse, relatively low-cost and close to everything. Reviewers on the web seemed to think the place clean, but what really caught my attention were phrases such as “a piece of the old Germany” and “like something out of a Cold War novel”. I was in like a bullet from a Kaleshnikov.

The Hotel turned out to be everything I could have imagined. The small darkly wooded reception area with ancient Chesterfields led to a tiny archaic lift in which no self-respecting woman could have travelled mit baggage. Worn carpet led through a twist of gloomy corridor to the small dark brown door which was to be ours. The room itself had a very high dark brown ceiling, joined to the heavily worn carpet by fading 60s wallpaper. It was clean, had a large and respectable bathroom, and was charmingly daggy. I was not disappointed.

That was before I had sampled the beds, of course. The wretched things, composed of two single mattresses in a double frame, sagged like huge sagging things (the only decent simile I could think of was unpleasant) and started me on a procession of backaches I was to endure for some weeks. I found myself sleeping perched on the very edge because it was the only firm spot from which I would not roll into the bottomless abyss which lay in the middle.

What this bed needed, I opined on several occasions, was a ruddy great board under the mattresses. On our last day, as we were packing to leave, I searched under the beds for anything we may have dropped, and lo and behold, under each mattress was a cupboard door, matching the cupboard in our room. So much for my initial hypothesis. New working hypothesis (which I unfortunately did not have time to test): what this bed needed was to be thrown from an upper story window.

Of course, what ultimately makes a place is the people, and so it was with the Hotel Crystal. The owner was a small, angular and quite elderly woman with a huge, frizzy blonde wig, who insisted on wearing tight animal print leggings and alligator stilettos. It’s almost too obvious to say she looked like the Madam of Berlin brothel. Joanna was reminded of the Leonard Cohen song Closing Time:

My very sweet companion gets me full and gets me laughing
She’s a hundred but she’s wearing something tight.

But the character of the moment was the Day Manager, Vasco. From the outset he wore the drole smirk of an eccentric public school master, and amused himself by making obtuse comments about anything and everything. We were at a loss to decide whether he was rude, weird, very funny, or some combination of all three. What Vasco Said became a daily topic of conversation. As time passed we grew to like him increasingly, and actually found him helpful in an indirect way as he clearly started to warm to us as well.

Vasco was in our room one morning attempting unsuccessfully to fix our telephone which had lost the somewhat defining ability to make telephone calls. Somehow the conversation turned to names, and under some badgering from us he confessed that his surname was ‘Flasher’. Apparently telephone enquirers regularly hung up on hearing this, and when he sent out confirmation faxes there were an unusually high number of no-shows.

Joanna and Vasco

But it gets worse. His father’s name was Alfonse, which to an Englishman is smarmy enough, but in many parts of Europe actually means ‘pimp’. Alfonse Flasher. The mind boggles.Go to eebahgum!

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