It would be fair to say that I have been blessed with the genetics of a sloth. As a child I was forever being chastised by my parents & siblings for not keeping up. It was that I never really saw the point of rushing anywhere. When, much to my familys’ surprise, I joined the army, aged 17, things really didn’t change that much. As I tried to explain to my Troop Sergeant during a route march, as long as I reached the destination eventually, who really cares about how fast I marched. Unfortunately he really didn’t see my point of view & decided I needed extra motivation in the form of running around the camp with my rifle above my head. Surprisingly, I did actually survive basic training with my life intact & just after my 18th birthday, I found myself on a flight to Dortmund, the beer capital of Germany.
To begin with, I loved the adventure of it all. I was living in a foreign country, at an age where my friends hadn’t even let go of their mothers’ apron strings. But sadly, it wasn’t long before the military life & I clashed views once again. Just like being at school, I felt like I didn’t really fit in with the ‘crowd’ mentality & slowly I began to feel trapped by the system that I had naïvely volunteered for. Although this feeling of confinement is not unusual in the military & many revert to the time-honoured tradition of dealing with anything negative by regularly consuming vast amounts of alcohol. But although I enjoyed a beer, now & then, it wasn’t going to be my personal form of escapism. For me it came in the form of ‘bimbling’. In the civilian world, the word ‘bimble’ was defined as ‘a leisurely walk’, but in army-speak it meant ‘to undertake a simple journey by foot, vehicle or animal’. And although I cannot verify its validity, rumour has it that the late Captain Oates, uttered these immortal words as he departed his tent on Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition – ‘I’m off for a bimble. I may be some time’.
As a born dawdler, bimbling naturally became my ideal pastime. At the weekend, if I wasn’t tasked with some mundane duty, I would saunter up to the nearby tram-stop & spend 20 minutes rattling along into Dortmund zentrum (city centre). I always had a liking for trains so more often than not I would end up at the Hauptbahnhof (railway station), where I would enjoy a beer & a bratty (German sausage), while I watched the world go by. Growing up in Basingstoke, the departure board in the town train station would indicate departures to Bournemouth, London Waterloo, or even as far afield as Birmingham, but the board in Dortmund would display daily ‘international’ departures. I liked the fact that I could if I wish, travel on continuous rails from Dortmund to Amsterdam, Paris or Brussels, although I was a little concerned that the Russians might invade while I was away (it was the tail-end of the cold-war after all). One particularly dismal autumn day I looked at the departure board & decided just to go for it – the army & the Russians, for that matter, could do without my services for a day. In my best fractured German, I ordered a return ticket for Frankfurt, a city about 200 kilometres away. The German trains, being electric, were much quieter & cleaner than their UK counterparts. They were also warm & comfortable, which made the perfect environment for snoozing. As the train click-clacked through the sidings of Dortmund’s industrial suburbs, I settled back into my chair & happily gazed out of the rain splattered window at the dormant, graffitied rail carriages, while Paradise City blared through the earphones of my Sony Walkman. And as I looked & listened, I no longer felt trapped. In the anonymity of that carriage I was just another ordinary, spotty-faced teenage kid on the train, albeit one with a very short haircut at a time when the average German youth sported a dapper mullet, complete with a 70’s porn-star moustache.
That initial escape, gave me the confidence to go on adventures further afield & over the next couple of years, I forayed all over Germany by train. I went to Kiel in the north, to München in the south, to Hanover in the east & to Köln in the west – I even went to Zeebrugge, which was a good 8 hour trip, just to try some Belgian waffles. In fact I was sat in the station café in Zeebrugge when it was announced that the Berlin wall had fallen. And If I ever hear David Hasselhoff singing ‘Looking for Freedom’ again.
My bimbling adventures increased dramatically when I then got posted to Berlin. Following the 1948-49 airlift where British forces helped the West German population get vital food & aid, the Berliners agreed as a thank-you, that all Allied personnel were to be given free travel on public transport within the city – an act that was still in operation until the last troops left in 1994. So when I arrived in early 1992, I found I had a massive city full of history to explore – all for free. I remember looking at a map of the city on a wall at Spandau U-bahn (underground) station & wondering where do I go first. I studied the indexed list of stations, like a gambler would study a race list, in the hope a name would suddenly leap out at me. One station always did – Schlesisches Tor. This was mainly for the fact that the more I tried to pronounce it, the more I sounded like a very drunk Sean Connery. Before long, I soon discovered that the Zoologischer Garten was always a good place to aim for as the Kurfürstendamm, was just around the corner. The Ku-damm, as it was known to Berliners, was full of trendy designer shops, hotels, bars & restaurants, which was always worth a bimble, day or night. As my knowledge expanded, I started to use the S-bahn (overground train) to skirmish into East Berlin. Although the wall had only been down a few years, the huge act of modernising the city was well underway & it was sobering to see that so many buildings still had visible scars from the Second World War.
Eventually my army career drew to a close & although I left Germany behind, my enthusiasm for bimbling did not diminish. To this day I still get seduced by departure boards in railway stations. And I still cherish sitting on a train, with my headphones on, just staring at the scenery out of rain-splattered windows. In a world that is so obsessed with connectivity & living life at warp-speed, the need to shut down the laptop, leave the phone behind & just go for a bimble, has never been more important. I would urge anyone to try it – dawdler or not.