Monday, March 14, 2011

Parquet and Piano

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With the huge unemployment in postwar Germany our large house in Hamburg, which had been requisitioned from the family of a German admiral, was well staffed. In the basement was Willi and his family. He was the hausmeister (janitor), as well as the stoker of the boiler, who had been a merchant seaman. Upstairs were a live-in maid and a cleaning lady who came each day, and a nanny for my baby brother. The live-in maid was blond, buxom, Hannelore, a simple country girl from East Prussia, who spoke no English. In contrast, Clara the cleaner was an intense, well-educated woman in her twenties. Amongst her duties was the weekly chore of cleaning the beautiful oak parquet flooring. This entailed slipping an abrasive wire pad beneath one shoe and then slowly working her way to and fro over the intricately patterned wood blocks until all scuff marks were removed.
Half way through her first day Clara threw an almighty tantrum, screaming and cursing and finally burst into tears before she ran off and hid in the toilet. When she finally reappeared she apologized, saying that she was not a cleaner but a concert pianist, but had to do something to help feed the family.
My mother, the headmistress at the International School and experienced in dealing with outbursts in many tongues, quietly led her to the Admiral’s Bechstein grand and suggested she play something. From then on each afternoon, after some token cleaning, the ballroom in the house echoed to Chopin and Liszt.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Applying for a Chinese Visa

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Gaining access to China in the 1960s was nigh on impossible without an invitation from the Chinese Government but I was determined to get there somehow.
Since the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic in 1949 nearly all foreigners had been expelled and there were relatively few countries that maintained diplomatic relations. Two academic friends had succeeded but they had letters of introduction from Chinese contacts whereas I had nothing. Despite that I still decided to give it a go.
I had been told that the only visa that I could expect to get was a transit visa and that would be for 14 days. When you think of it, there was really no reason why China should grant any transit visas for travelers from Europe so I had to create something.
The Soviet State travel bureau, Intourist was happy to sell me a ticket on the Moscow – Peking Express, so that was stage one. The next step was to send a reply paid cable to Luxingshe, the Chinese State travel bureau, requesting hotel accommodation in the capital.
Needless to say the Chinese did not reply but they did have my money for the replied paid cable.
With these two items in place I rocked up to the Chinese Embassy in London to apply for a visa.
As I approached the building I noticed that all the blinds on the windows facing the street were drawn and it looked as if the embassy was closed. However, when I rang the bell the door was opened and I was pointed up a long staircase to reception. There sat a man in a black Mao-style suit with a pair of scissors in his hand, cutting up papers. ‘Visa’ I said? And was wordlessly passed a form to complete. I filled in my details and attached two photographs and waited, and waited while the receptionist continued to cut paper. Nobody came and nobody went. Nothing happened. It was like waiting for Godot. Closing time came and the receptionist indicated that I should leave. I left.
The next day, Friday, I arrived at the opening hour and the blinds were still drawn. I climbed the staircase and said good morning to the scissor man and waited. At lunchtime he indicated that I should leave and pointed to his watch. I returned at two o’clock and continued to wait. Closing time came and once again I was politely evicted. The only interruption to my reverie had been the arrival of the post and a courier. This was real isolationism.
I returned on Monday morning and resumed my wait. After about two hours a man came out and explained to me that it was really not possible for someone to just decide they would like to visit China. ‘But, but, but’, I said, ‘I have bought a ticket from Moscow to Peking; tried to book a hotel, even sent money for the reply paid cable so at the very least the Peoples’ Republic should repay me that part’. The man nodded and walked out. Closing time came and I left the embassy.
The next day (Day Four) I resumed my place facing the scissor man and maybe an hour had gone by when suddenly in swept a new person.
‘Mr Blackall’ he said. ‘You are a nuisance’. His English was impeccable. ‘Why don’t you take the train straight across Siberia?’
‘Because the ports are all frozen up in winter.’ I didn’t know this to be true but he seemed to accept it.
‘Oh, all right’, he said. ‘Have you got enough money?’
‘Yes, yes’ I said, making a pile of Persian reals, Russian roubles, Japanese yen, a few hundred US dollars, and other assorted currencies. It was a large pile but the value was insignificant.
‘Give me your passport and come back in an hour.’

With passport and visa in hand I literally danced along the street.