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This is something that happened to me a long time time ago, when I was very small. We lived in Germany at the time - the late-1960s. My father was a soldier in the British army. At that time, Germany was divided into 4 sectors: the British, French, US and Russian sectors. The British, French and US sectors were quite open. You could travel between them easily. But the Russian sector was closed to everyone else. They did have a barracks in our town, though. It was surrounded by high walls, and the big iron gates were always closed, and guarded by armed soldiers.
What I'm going to tell you about happened in the middle of winter, just before Christmas. We - my father, other officers and their children - were going carol-singing. It was a freezing cold night, minus 20 degrees. It was so cold that my fingers felt as though they were almost dropping off. Anyway, we went around to several houses, sang our carols, and some of the people invited us in for a quick biscuit and a drink. It was a magical atmosphere. The carols we all knew by heart. Silent Night, Away in a Manger, We Three Kings rang out loud and clear in the crisp night air; our breath froze in front of our mouths in little clouds of mist, lit up eerily in the torchlight; the snow crunched beneath our feet satisfyingly. But for me, I saw it all as if it were a dream, though the pain of that dreadful cold, right down to my bones.
Eventually - I don't know how long we'd been out - we came to the Russian compound. We children had barely a thought of the Russians, and all we knew was that they were scary, locked away in that walled, gated castle. Now, though, the gates were wide open, there were bright lights shining out on to the road. I don't remember singing, but I suppose we must have done. What I remember is the Russians, big men in long trench coats with strange, deep voices, and bottles of vodka and the tiny glasses they were passing round to all the adults. All of a sudden, one of them was coming straight towards me. Unreasonably, I was scared. I think I thought he was going to hit me, or perhaps pick me up and throw me in the air, as men often do to small children. Before I knew what was happening, he took my hands in his. He pulled off my gloves and took both my small hands inside his big ones, rubbing them vigorously.
Slowly my hands started to warm up, and then he thrust a cup of hot chocolate into them. He was laughing, and saying something to me, but either he was speaking in Russian, or I was too confused to take in what he was saying, because I have no idea what it was. I suppose he might have been saying, 'Cheer up', 'Hold this, it'll warm you up' or something similar. What I did realise, though, was that he was no longer scary. I realised at that moment, though I probably couldn't have put it into words at the time, that people and things that are not familiar to us may seem scary at first, but really they may be not as we imagine them at all: the soldier I'd been afraid of had turned out to be friendly - just a man like my father doing a kindness to a small child.
Donated by Michael Carroll