Autobahn

SOME YEARS AGO, I began listening to music performed by the German group Kraftwerk, formed in 1970 in the West German city of Düsseldorf. They specialise in electronically generated music, a field in which they were pioneers in their country. In the 1980s, I used to drive across Europe from my home in North Kent to places as far afield as Italy, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. The cars I drove at the time were equipped with music cassette players. I recorded my own cassettes from LPs and CDs in my own large collection. Amongst the music I found satisfying during the long journeys I made were some of the creations of the Kraftwerk band. Amongst my favourite of their albums were “Autobahn” (first released 1974) and “Radio-Aktivität” (released 1975). The music was a great accompaniment to speeding along the highways of Europe including Germany’s Autobahns.

I used to break my journeys along the highways at regular intervals, stopping in villages or towns to take a short rest and refreshment. On one journey, I drove off the Autobahn into a picturesque small town in Bavaria, whose name I have forgotten. I entered a busy Gasthaus (pub with a restaurant) and found a vacant seat next to an elderly gentleman who was enjoying a stein of lager.

I remember seeing people sitting nearby drinking beer with slices of lemon. However, what I remember most is the brief conversation I had with my elderly neighbour. My German was, and still is, rudimentary but sufficient to have a simple conversation. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing. I explained that I was driving to Yugoslavia. Then, I said something about the high quality of motorways (Autobahns) in what was then West Germany. The old man smiled, and said (in German):

“Naturally. They were made by our leader Adolf Hitler.”

I was at a loss for words because few if any Germans I had met until then had ever mentioned Hitler and certainly not in such a favourable light. Without waiting for me to respond, he explained that he had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Russians during WW2 and had spent many years in prison camps there. I would have loved to have discussed this with him in detail, but my German was not up to it and also, I had to get on with the journey I had planned for that day.

Most people, including yours truly, credit Hitler with stimulating the building of Autobahns and similar highways. This is a mistake depending how one defines a motorway. In this context, a motorway is a road often with limited access and limited to motorised vehicles.

While Germany was being ruled by the government of the Weimar Republic, work began on an ambitious scheme to build a car only highway/motorway linking Hamburg to Frankfurt/Main and Basel (Switzerland). Parts of this were constructed before Hitler came to power. That road lacked a central reservation as found on modern motorways, but excluded traffic such as cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles pulled by animals. The Autobahns constructed after Hitler came to power were similar to those currently constructed.

In the 1920s before Hitler ruled Germany but after Mussolini became Italy’s dictator, Italy was the first country in the world to build motorways reserved for motorised vehicles travelling at speed. The first Italian autostrade (motorways; singular: autostrada) were completed between 1924 and 1926 and by the end of the 1930s, the country had over 250 miles of both single- and dual-carriageway autostrade. It is sad to relate that the UK had to wait until 1958 for its first motorway, the Preston by-pass, now part of the M6. In 1959, the first section of the M1 was opened, linking Watford and Rugby. This stretch of highway had no central reservation, no lighting, no crash barriers, and no speed limit. Things have changed since then.

When I used to cross Germany, the motorways (Autobahnen) had long stretches where there were no speed restrictions. Once, I decided to check out the ability of my box-like Volvo 240 estate car on a German Autobahn. To my surprise, the vehicle whose shape looked anything but aerodynamic, effortlessly achieved a speed of 105 miles per hour going up a steep incline. When driving at high speeds in Germany, you can be sure that there will be plenty of vehicles that shoot past you at even higher speeds.

After the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, many former East Germans flooded the Autobahns with their poorly powered Trabant vehicles. Often when driving along the motorways in Germany I saw these slow-moving cars valiantly sitting in the overtaking lanes trying to pass vehicles with far more powerful engines. The drivers of speedy cars like Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes Benz, needed fast reflexes and good brakes to avoid crashing into the Trabants being driven by those who were enjoying the freedom of travel after many years of repression in the former DDR.

My days of driving across Europe from the UK have ended. The short journey from Kensington to the Channel crossings is tedious on account of the heavy traffic in London and South East England. Also, it is tiring to drive for at least a day and a half before reaching lovely countryside, be it the south of France or the mountains of Switzerland or Austria. I still enjoy driving but not the great distances I used to cover, and my enjoyment of the music of Kraftwerk remains as great as ever.

Death of a theatre

ON SATURDAY THE 17th MAY 2020, an act of cultural barbarism was performed in Tirana, the capital of Albania. The National Theatre of Albania in the heart of the city was demolished. It is unclear who ordered this demolition of a much-loved cultural monument located in a part of the city where property prices are high. The theatre was built in 1939 during the period that the Italians, under Mussolini, were ruling Albania. It was originally a cinema designed by the architect Giulio Berte, but later its screen was replaced by a stage.

TIR 4 BLOG

In 2016, my wife and I visited Tirana and attended a dramatic performance at the National Theatre. I have described this in my book “Rediscovering Albania”:

“…we visited the National Theatre, a building that dates back to before Communist times. A Pirandello play (Play without a Script) was to be performed in Albanian that evening. The charming ladies clustered around the ticket desk assured us that we would enjoy it because it was going to be full of song and dance. We bought a couple of tickets … The rectangular auditorium of the National Theatre was delightfully old-fashioned, with many drapes and an upper gallery that extended around three sides of it. Everything was red including the plush upholstery of the comfortable seats. Although we did not understand a word of it, the Pirandello play was acted beautifully. The expressive acting was so good that we were able to get a rough idea of what was going on. Some years earlier in London, Lopa and I once attended a performance of Gogol’s Government Inspector acted by a Hungarian troupe entirely in Hungarian, and on another occasion a play from Kosovo in Albanian, during the course of which one of the actors threw a fake chicken at me! On both of those occasions and also in Tirana, great acting compensated for our inability to understand the words. If the actions of actors move me more than their words, I feel this is a sign of truly skilful acting. As the great Constantin Stanislavski said: “The language of the body is the key that can unlock the soul”. This is exactly what the actors in Tirana achieved. The audience was appreciative, and, unlike at the opera, hardly anyone used their mobile ‘phones during the show.”

That has now disappeared. So, has also the unusually attractive appearance of Tirana as it was when I first visited it in 1984 during the dictatorship of the faithful follower of Joseph Stalin, Enver Hoxha. In those repressive times, Tirana was a quiet city with only one high-rise building, the 12-storey Hotel Tirana. Of course, back in 1984, times were tough for the average Albanian citizen. They remained quite difficult during the decade following the ending of Communist rule in 1991. Even now, many Albanians prefer to increase their prosperity by seeking work abroad.

When we visited Tirana in 2016, I found it to be a far busier place than it was in 1984. The traffic was busy – a sign that motoring, an option not available to most Albanians during the dictatorship, had become popular and also affordable. Some of the charm of pre-1991 Tirana remained, but many picturesque old buildings, examples of traditional Turkish and Balkan vernacular architecture, had disappeared (or were about to). In their place, there were many high-rise buildings of little or no architectural merit. I suspect that whoever ordered the demolition of Tirana’s historic, much-loved National Theatre has in mind to construct yet another aesthetically unpleasing edifice.

If as Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage”, then the demolition of this theatre in Tirana is yet another tragedy enacted on that stage.