“So you are travelling alone? “, people asked, sometimes incredulously
“No with the dog”, I’d reply.
Travelling with a dog. Not just any dog naturally, but the beloved Kali, aged 4, border collie, no sheep. We have a deal (at least it’s my deal) he protects me and in return I forage for his food and ensure his happiness. Happiness. There are times when I look into his sad brown eyes, wondering if he is longing for that known green grass of Halesworth water meadow, rather than the restless move onto yet another place, which he and I must get to know. And know he does, after one journey from camp to river he knows the turnings, he knows the direction of the Visular river, particularly if we walk the other way towards a bar for example, when he lets his disappointment show in an uninterested head down walk. Yes, he has attitude. But he is patient, (under the table in the bar), and the bringer of much happiness, and, naturally, also human contact. I wouldn’t have done it without him.
There was no particular plan except a hope to reach Istanbul. A journey from west to east, after living in the east, in India, for many years – a curiosity for a bridge. A journey to a place I first felt attracted to after writing a chapter about Istanbul in Sugata’s story (Bird of Passage), a city he escaped to (like many Jews) from Nazi Germany in 1935. A journey to wake me up from a difficult, dormant and non moving time. A journey without a guide book and a 1998 atlas kindly given by Kingsley some months back. The sat nav was invaluable, as Kali cannot map read.
No guide book meant the journey unfolded without expectation and often surprise. It also meant I missed some ‘things’, which I heard about afterwards. I had to talk to people, find out where I was, where I could stay, what was around, and be attentive to their voice. I looked at maps, and called on my past (at 56 there is plenty of it), going to places I’d associate with different people – like my uncle who bombed Wilhelmshaven, or places i’d written about in the book of Sugata’s life I’d written 10 years ago. The dog of course had no inkling of this lack of plan, or sentimental journeys, he just wanted water and fun.
First I must garner the dog rules of the country. In Peenemunde for example, through the useful explanations of English Michael who by haphazard chance (the ‘on your bike’ of Norman Tebbit back in the 1980s) lives on this sea boarded wasteland piece of rocket history, I come to understand why I had been receiving such frowned looks with Kali off lead.
‘German dog police’, he said, ‘they fine you 30 euro on the spot if they see a dog off lead. And don’t leave your dog unattended in Poland.’ he added ‘or here near the boarder. Some Poles kidnapped my dog last year. Yes it was devastating. They fetch good money, and yours will be attractive.’
Useful information. No dogs in the cathedral of a power station, now Peenemunde museum, but there are acres of waste land around; the German development of the v2 bomb (a few of which landed on London, more would have were it not for the courageous sabotage of the prisoners of war forced labour, like urinating on the copper connectors) was centred here, and Van Braun – thanks to that sticky bit of history called Operation Paperclip – went to NASA, he was chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the super-booster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969.
The island land is left since that time, huge industrial architecture, unexplored bombs beware, land for us to roam, wet woodland full of cormorant birds who in their thousands have stripped the trees bare, then cast them eerie white with their shit. We wild camp here, no charge, plenty of bush.
In Pulow, staying with Thomas (who I met in that metropolis of meeting place, Focus Organic, Halesworth) in his converted railway carriage on his land, a meadow of cornflowers. We were in dog heaven. Always off the lead, no police here. Definitely eastern Germany, arable, poor, wholesome. Together with Thomas we made a versatile 5 hour walk to the sea and back, through forest of hornbeam, ash, fir, over fields of wild grass up to Thomas thigh, my waist, swimming amongst the reeds, or in Pulow lake, once on our own, my nervous fear abated, helped by a demanding dog who wants sticks thrown. No boundaries here, no walls demarking property, but a community of cooperatives, weavers, herb growers.
At Ravensbrook, a women only concentration camp on the way to Berlin, dogs not allowed. Anyhow he’s male. It was a good prelude to Auschwitz, being only women and not so popular among visitors, in fact I was the only one there when I arrived. He rested under an ash tree, and so I was at liberty to walk the charcoal grey stone ground, where once two hundred huts stood in lines, where once two thousand women toiled lived and died. ‘work shy’, political, gypsies, homosexuals, yes no Jews. There was one particularly fierce woman commandant who bestowed such kindness to her dog, in contrast to the human beings she worked amongst.
We were safe in Berlin, staying in Martians flat, in a swish residential area. I’d gone to school with Martina all those years ago, and she like I is a cockerel in the Chinese calendar, given to showing off her exuberant feathers, which unlike me she has. However it was the dog smell that precipitated our departure, and I’m reminded of a saying guests should leave before they start to smell. Kali took to having a siesta on Martina’s bed. Her husband, Magnus, was not amused. Smell of male dog on matrimonial bed not good. Kali had also scratched their new large screen tv, it was tennis naturally. He always gets involved with tennis. Magnus was magnanimous though, and baby sat the dog for days, which allowed Martina and I freedom to roam the city, the east west wall divide, her own story of escape to the west, via the Place of Tears, a checkpoint at Freidrich Strasse station, with a fake family; the holocaust story epitomised in the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, or Topography of Terror, the HQ of Gestapo and SS with some of their background stories. It was a freedom I have not had since then. Near by to Martina’s apartment was a glorious and huge wood, Grunwald, where we’d walk morning and evening, along with Berlin fit runners, cyclists or an occasional fellow dog walker, often getting lost, and where we found a delicious lake for us both to swim, nice and naked. Germans don’t mind naked. Later Martina informs me it is the haunt of homosexuals. Is Kali a homosexual? She asks. On the way back we’d stop at the cake shop and buy the best cakes for breakfast, queuing with men in crocodile shoes and little dogs.
At Oświęcim I took a shower. You know how it is, after days of travelling and increasing heat, the body needed it. Unlike those souls who had lived on the other side of the road, I was in a catholic compound, a grass rich campsite from which I could come and go as I pleased. The river was near by for the dog and we both bathed daily in its cool water. Oświęcim, a name the Germans could not pronounce so they gave it another name, Auschwitz.
No dogs in Auschwitz, but once again the waste land plentiful. I discovered later from a local Pole who’d lived in London for some years and missed the place and chance it gave, (he’d returned for a woman, not going well, but he still claimed uk benefits, he told me brazenly!), no company would willingly invest in such a place, he said. Too many died, and there was a strong Jewish lobby who’d recently opposed a shopping centre, much to the chagrin of the local Oświęcim people. A vibrant and dramatic thunderstorm broke the first night, Kali petrified, hid under the steering wheel, brown eyes looking up at me as if to say, why have you bought me here, while I imagined the poor souls across the road with their leaking roofs, inadequate thin striped clothing, and knowing they had to work the next day in their ill fitting clogs in mud earth or be shot. I re read Primo Levi’s If this is the Man.
Few stay in Oświęcim – the mass of tourists arriving come from Krakow on day trips, so we have the evenings to ourselves, often walking the 2 kilometres up to Birkenau, the 2nd and huge camp, the one with the railway line that goes through the gate, almost as far as the bespoke built gas chambers.
There were few dogs in Krakow, small pocket sized dogs, and correspondingly few grass areas to walk the dog. The Visula river was the great attraction, with generous cycle and grass paths the highlight naturally when I found a stick or more probably a used beer can to throw into the wide river by the occasional steps. It was getting hot in the day. So we walked early mornings from 6 on, took an afternoon siesta, then began again the walk down to the river come evening. No dogs in cemeteries, Jewish predominantly as the city had become a mecca for Jews escaping Russia end of last century. They were a day time haunt of mosquitoes, so for both reasons they were brief forays.
I’d opted to say in the city centre, and found a central hostel, who refused me to have Kali sleeping in the van, while I pay 10 quid a night for a dormitory, so i accepted a room alone with the dog, for 20 quid. He costs me. But a wise move. The van would have been too hot. The young things with long legs in shorts, flat bellies and make up for the evening, (Krakow streets full of themed bars for the young to be seen) cooed over the dog, in between checking their iPhones for email. Kali acquiesced. Such a flirt. Usually nose strait to the crutch to check it out, much shy giggling.
The last day we walked to Podgorze, the concentration camp where the Jews that had been ghettoised were frog marched to; after the Warsaw ghetto uprising the Germans felt nervous, closed the ghetto, killing women and children, marching the rest to the work camp. Not so far from the city, it involved a brief climb, and we were in a hay making field, free to run and jump, before arriving at the now wasteland of the camp, a haven for wild flowers and life. And us. Nature reclaiming a brutal past. Cornflowers, purple vetch, white daisy, the hum of bees.
It was at Plac Botaterow (the square where women and children were massacred) that I encountered the Polish police and had my first warning. I’d done what Michael told me not to do, and tied Kali up to a lamp post outside the chemist shop that was converted into a museum. The Aryan chemist, within the ghetto, was allowed to operate and became a safe meeting place, and exchange of news between the Jews inside. It was an imaginative museum, with people talking of their experiences then on video or through an old fashioned telephone that rang when you came into the room. I was on the phone when,
“Your dog? The guard said to me.
Outside 4 policemen, young but stern.
“Not allowed in Poland. Very hot today. Dog must be kept inside in cool. This just warning. Next time fine.”
So I found a ticket office woman happy to keep Kali for a few minutes more. I’d had the same problem when I arrived unexpectedly at Schindlers museum. It was a Monday, and entrance was free. Bus loads of tourists were there. I went into a singular shop room with no idea of what it sold, and where an older man sat reading a newspaper. He spoke no English.
No problem, I said and made to leave. He spoke again in the same gruff tone, but as if to say, no need to go, just tell me what you want, so I did, pointing to the dog, then museum. He understood. He took me to a next door shop, spoke polish to a young shop assistant girl who nervously said yes, taking my passport as ransom. So it was I got an hour to see Schindlers museum. And the gruff man smiled when I came back, happy with his successful coordination. I liked him. Poles are not Italians, they are far more taciturn, rarely engaging in look, but this man had something of a past. The smile was rare and warm.
Once when I had to shop in one of these huge shopping complexes for a USB adaptor, I found some young English travellers, 3 days Berlin, 3 days Krakow, who took care of him. Lucky. Otherwise no adaptor.
The heat augmented. Either a hair cut for Kali, or head out to the mountains. The Carpathian Mountains boarder Poland and Slovakia, curving into Rumania. Primo Levi could see them from within his Auschwitz camp. I’d had a lucky meeting with a salesman in a north face shop (I was searching for a mosquito net), who loved Kali, and gave much useful information where to go, camp and cross the border. So it was we arrived at Zakopane, to get a map and mosquito net. No net as no mosquitos, it was deliciously cold and full of mountain rain. Dog happy. However, I discover no dogs allowed in the National Park of the Tatra mountains. That was a serious set back. All those great places are not open to me and dog. So camp in Zakopane, to take stock.
The salesman had mentioned Zap, as the highest village in Poland, so enabling people to drink as much vodka as they liked. The logic escapes me, but no doubt altitude has some altering physical property, irrelevant to dogs. Close to the camp site (dogs on leads), is a ski lift that goes up the steep hill to the road to Zab.
“Nix problem” the attendant says to me, when I point to Kali.
How many dogs can say they have travelled on a ski lift? That’s just it, there is no dog forum for such an exchange, where they’ve been to what they’ve seen. No ticking off of countries or experiences. Just one day to the next. Clearly he’d have preferred to have been on the grass, 20 feet down, amongst the sheep. Yes sheep. I’d forgotten mountain sheep! After his initial playing dead in the chair, he was all alert.
It was a 6 hour gentle hike in the lower allowed Carpathians, with an occasional glimpse of the mountains in the distance. A Rumanian I’d met on the camp, told me that the Tatra mountains were the only high mountains the people from the communist eastern block could visit, pre 1989, so had become a popular destination for Germans, Poles, Slaves, Romanians, and Hungarians. Many had bought huts here. It was a useful context, to mull as we walked. Not that Kali speaks these languages. No. But there was one language he became familiar with. The fuck off my patch bark. Every other house had a guard dog. Mostly thank goodness on a chain. But all vociferous. The journey was peppered with these barks of alert, as well as looking out for sheep. Not relaxing. By chance, and I wonder if its Saturday, we came across a street market, horse drawn carriages, food shops, wood carvings of the Virgin Mary, all along a ridge way from which the tall Tatra mountains could be seen through the rain cloud that lifted and fell. The BBQ chicken was a welcome breakfast for Kali, bones and all. I’m so glad I’ve bought him up on chicken bones. Naturally I tried it first, and it was like chicken from my childhood, gamey, sinewy and very tasty.
Travelling without a Lonely Planet or Internet makes everything met a surprise, and to value the offerings given by people in the way. I think of the salesman we met on the way, who told me about this place.
We did not take the ski lift down. We tired to find a track and failed, and this was where Kali came into his own, he carved a route down the exceptionally steep hillside, through dark tall pine forest with plenty of under growth, through steep meadows where luckily we did not meat any sheep, so steep I slid down on my bottom on herb wet grassland. A small adventure off piste.
I did venture into the Tatra mountains. It was odd walking dog less. A gentle hike through pine forest, carpets of orchids, gentian, vetch, and at the top a mountain church with unusual and creative plaques to those who died on the mountains, complete with crampons and rope. In return, I took Kali on a ridge walk outside the national park, and gathered there that in Slovakia, dogs are permitted on the Tatra mountains.
Tomorrow another country, in human being terms. Slovakia. Dog friendly mountains.