The first time I heard about “the Berlins” and the Wall (and actually understood a bit of it) was probably in German class in high school. This was only about 15 years after the Airlift and long before the declared end of the Cold War. My teacher told us then that, in her opinion, the two Germany’s (Germanies?) would never reunite. The Wall in Berlin would never come down. Based on her own experience, she simply couldn’t imagine it.
Five or six years later I was in college and doing an exchange year in Germany. Hitchhiking was a thing then and it was common knowledge that the easiest place to get a ride was at the border between East and West Germany. People were scared of the long straight stretch of highway connecting West Germany to West Berlin – with no exits and nothing to see but watchtowers the entire way. The drivers wanted as many people (or should I say “witnesses”?) as possible in the car. So, young people lined up at the border as if at a taxi stand, with every other car stopping to take a few of them along for the ride through communism.
(Now, Mom, please close your eyes for the next paragraph.)
On hearing this, two friends of mine decided to take the trip and asked me to come along. They were quite upfront about the fact that two young men were not likely to get picked up, but with a woman along, they would have a much better chance. In return, I could use them for a free stay in their friend’s apartment. I hesitated about the hitchhiking part, but finally couldn’t resist the chance. First I was low on funds, this being the only year of my post age 15 life during which I was not allowed to work. This was travel of the cheapest kind. Also I figured “What’s the worst that could happen? We stand for hours and don’t get a ride? (That happened) We get caught in the rain? (That happened too.) It takes us more than a day to get there and we end up having to find a place to sleep? Maybe at some stranger’s house? (Yep. That too.) We give up and buy a train ticket, like I wanted to anyway? “ (And yes, that’s what we did for the trip home). The only truly easy part of the journey was getting a ride through East Germany – it was exactly the taxi stand scenario we had heard about.
Once in Berlin, we hit all the obligatory sites:
- the Gedächtniskirche – a bombed cathedral left in ruined condition as a reminder of the devastation of war
- the Kurfürstendamm – the main drag and shopping street
- the Kaufhaus des Westens – “the store of the West” with all the American junk food goodies we had been missing
- the infamous Bahnhof Zoo as in “We Children of . . .”. It’s is a book about heroin addiction and a girl named Christiane F. – Germany’s version of “Go Ask Alice” (but with fewer lies).
- the Brandenburg Gate – forlornly grand and just on the other side of the Wall
- some club in Kreuzberg where David Bowie had supposedly played a lot (He didn’t show up.)
- and, of course, Checkpoint Charlie where my more adventurous friends crossed into East Berlin just for the heck of it. As I remember it, western visitors had to exchange a certain amount of money into East German Marks – an amount that was practically impossible to spend in one afternoon and which could not be exchanged back. With my limited funds, I preferred to use them for the train ticket home. Little did I know that this country would cease to exist 8 short years later. It’s my only regret from the trip.
It would be another 15 years before I got back to Berlin. Once Lyart moved there I had a compelling reason to return – and have done so many times since. I am so glad now that I was able to see the city before, during, and after it’s re . . . –union / -creation / -vival / -sistance / -sillience / -furbishment / -conciliation / -discovery . . . . .
. . . . . its re-imagination.