A welcome break

Duncan Reekie and his family were en route for the Balkans when their van broke down. But the discovery of a lido in a remote German village proved to be the highlight of the holiday
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The Independent Travel

Suddenly the motor began to falter and Dad swerved desperately off the autobahn and up an off-ramp. Then the engine sputtered and died - but the road gave out to a steep incline, and so the Reekie family rolled down into the town of Günzberg, Bavaria, in 1968.

Suddenly the motor began to falter and Dad swerved desperately off the autobahn and up an off-ramp. Then the engine sputtered and died - but the road gave out to a steep incline, and so the Reekie family rolled down into the town of Günzberg, Bavaria, in 1968.

We were holiday-bound for the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia in a scruffy Renault camper van borrowed from my Aunt Pamela. We had no seat belts, no travel insurance and precious little money. "I knew this would happen, John," Mum cursed, but Dad reassured us in his eternally optimistic tone, and we believed him because he was our dad. My parents were - and still are - white middle-class socialists who, from a combination of utopian idealism and astute social service targeting, had adopted two black kids. My brother Stephen was mixed-race Caribbean/white aged 10, and my sister Ella was mixed-race Asian/white aged seven. I was also seven and my sister, Katherine, was only four, but we were not adopted; we were the "born" children, as Ella called us.

Things in the back of the van were not good. It was both boring and hazardous. We had to sit on treacherous vinyl cushions and, if we hit a bumpy patch, the overhead cupboard doors would swing open and hit us on the head. Katherine was crying and Ella and I were at the back window making V-signs at the cars behind. We greeted the death of the van with enthusiasm and we especially loved freewheeling down the hill.

It was dusk when we finally came to rest in a wooded lane on the outskirts of town. Dad managed to coast the van off the road and pitch our tents and Mum prepared our tea. She had brought along a vast supply of cash-and-carry dried meals; beef stroganoff or chicken supreme. You just added hot water to produce a beige magma that tasted of burned soap. What made this wonder-food all the more futuristic was that we ate it off plastic plates whose surface was so oily that it repelled food as if it were mercury.

Later, I lay under the stars in my green vinyl sleeping bag watching bats flutter over the van. Dad was in the front seat listening to the World Service news by the light of a torch; the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia. I stared into the night and thought about which would be the most lasting and useful super-power: invisibility, teleportation or flight. Also, I thought about the Action Man I had mutilated and buried in the garden. In the morning we awoke to the sound of laughing children and splashing water for, by chance, we had camped almost opposite the Günzberg municipal lido. We grabbed our towels and costumes and Mum led us off to the pool, leaving Dad to repair the van. Mum bought tickets at the foyer and we passed through steel turnstiles into the shining light of the lido. Set in landscaped woodland of knolls and poplars was an immaculate modern glass and concrete complex built around a vast curved pool, which shimmered in the heat haze. There were diving boards, slides and foaming waterspouts. The beautiful youth of Günzberg flipped and flashed in the pool, while across the lawns the adults sunbathed, picnicked and read their paperbacks.

It was heaven. We spent the next week as amphibious nymphs coursing through the elements. Every day, my Mum would set up camp among the trees and we would scurry down to the pool. Stephen was fearless, diving from the top board, his brown skin refracted in the deep end. Ella and I loved the slides, and we developed a series of elaborate styles of descending. Our favourite was the "bombooshie". Katherine kept her water-wings on and followed us with grim determination into the froth. When we were hungry there was a kiosk where we could buy lemonade and chips in plastic trays with a little wooden fork and a sachet of tomato sauce. They were expensive, but we were saving money on admission to the pool since, when the management heard about our breakdown, they decided to let us in free.

Strangely, we seemed to fascinate the Bavarian bathers; the kids were just curious but the adults gazed at us with unrestrained delight or gave us incomprehensible words of friendly encouragement. In return we sniggered at their unfashionable costumes, their body hair and, most of all, the elaborate rubber swimming caps sported by the Günzberg ladies. These came in musty shades of lilac, salmon, jade and sky-blue, patterned with swirls and dots, but the most fabulous had rubber flowers or tendrils, like the inside of an alien gland. Ella and I thought they were hysterical and we would follow their wearers about the pool giggling, the bemused reactions of our victims only made us more helpless with laughter.

Meanwhile, Dad spent his time walking into town, phoning the bank and waiting for a new head gasket to arrive at the nearest Renault garage. He also made several new friends, deploying his technique of speaking loudly and amiably to foreigners in English. Hand extended, he would approach the hapless subject with a broad grin and announce, "Hello, John Reekie..." This actually worked. Towards the end of the week a young couple turned up at the van. They were reporters for the local paper and had come to investigate sightings of the first gypsies to visit Günzberg since the war. Instead they found a new pen pal, John Reekie.

Later that evening, as we ate our beige stroganoff, Dad told us what he had learned about the town from his travels and encounters. Günzberg was the home of the Mengele family who owned the agricultural engineering company that dominated the town. Moreover, it had been the home of Dr Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi scientist who had experimented on children in Auschwitz. At the end of the war Mengele had fled back to Günzberg and hid there for a year before escaping to South America. I asked my father what kind of things Mengele did to children and he said something about changing the colour of their eyes, which I didn't think sounded that bad.

The next day we became involved in a new and exciting activity at the pool. We discovered that the kiosk sold elasticated necklaces made of sweets, which you could wear and slowly nibble until only the string remained. We pestered Mum to buy us one each and wore them constantly. However, repeated immersion in the pool combined with the heat of the sun turned the necklace into sugary goo around our necks, which then attracted roving wasps. The only way to escape was to jump into the water - and so perpetuate the vicious circle. It never occurred to us to take them off.

Inevitably the new head gasket arrived and Dad fixed the van. Our last day at the pool seemed all the more perfect since we knew we would never return. The sun shone brightly, high in the perfect blue sky. We hurled ourselves down the slides and somersaulted off the boards. We sat in the shallows and scowled. Why couldn't we stay longer? Why did everything always have to be so boring?

I queued up for the top diving board one last time. A week in the sun had turned my skin gold and my hair blond. A hand gripped my shoulder and I turned around. An old man with grey hair was staring down at me. His face was lined with deep, dark creases and he was smiling, but there was something urgent about his eyes, about his grip. "Deutsche?" he asked me. "Deutsche?" "What?" I replied. "No speaken dee Deutsche." He smiled and drifted away, and I felt that somehow I had let him down, and that something had been lost.

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