Thursday, 2 October 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 7 Prometheus (1)

'Halt!' Someone called. 'Stop!' Someone else. 'Warten sie mal, bitte - '

In the failing light George and I looked towards a field entrance where the shouts appeared to come from. Several swarthy white-shirted figures appeared out of the near-dark, waving and shouting. What was this? An ambush? Were we being attacked? Were we going to be robbed? Instinctively I did something which might have turned out to be very dangerous: down the frame of my rucksack I kept a 10-inch (25cm) kitchen knife, the handle just at the back of my neck for easy access.

A man about whom I remember very little had dropped us, almost the last of a succession of short lifts that day, on a country road somewhere about Kerpen, a village west of Cologne. On picking us up he'd wanted to talk, but extended conversation was far beyond us and we gradually fell silent. Eventually he stopped outside a farm cottage. He claimed he had to visit whoever lived there: it would take some time, he didn't want to hold us back, so if we walked on a kilometre or two we would arrive at the main road to Cologne. If he found us still on the road, he'd pick us up again. We got out, thanked him, said Auf wiedersehn, to which he replied Ja, vielleicht, and shouldered our rucksacks. Not ten seconds later he sped past us, foot down hard on the accelerator, not having made the slightest attempt to contact whoever lived at the cottage. Clearly he just wanted rid of us. We walked on in the gloaming, scandalised by this wretched man's utter despicability. After a good airing of some of the picturesque oaths we were given to at the time, and after some perhapsing and maybeing we concluded that he was in fact Germany's champion bore, that he was in full training for the forthcoming World Narcolepsy Championships, that by chance he'd lit upon these two agreeable young fellows thumbing lifts somewhere east of Düren. Wunderbar! Prima! Here was somebody to practise on . . . and then, imagine his chagrin when he discovered that his two passengers, his captive audience, had so little German that they could barely understand a word he said.

I remember George shouting Wunderbar! Prima! at the top of his voice to the evening sky, and being answered a second or two later by shouts of Halt! Moment, bitte! and the like. What do you do when a gang - there were six or seven of them - of black-a-vised white-shirted men leaps out at you from behind a hedge when it's almost dark? I drew my knife: I wasn't going cheaply . . .

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