Berlin 19891218

(Last semester I participated in the BU Modern British Studies program at Oxford University. After the term ended, I took a journey to the continent, to visit friends in Germany and Italy. I spent one week in Berlin, and had a remarkable experience. I would like to tell it here with my firsthand observations I made at the time.)

I took an overnight train from Aachen to Berlin. The journey itself was interesting. I was awed with the grandness of the Cologne cathedral. Later, I fell asleep, to be awaken at 3:00 AM by an East German soldier who issued me a transit visa. We arrived at the Zoological Garden (“the Zoo”) train station at 7:00 AM.

After I settled in with an American I had just met, we left for The Wall (Die Mauer). It was a very long walk, but certainly not unenjoyable. At the Wall we took the usual photographs, and observed everyone taking pieces of the Wall with their hammers and chisels.

Near Brandenberg Gate I met some East Germans, one who spoke very good English. His name was Nico. I learned the reason he spoke English so well was because although he was born in East Germany, he had spent most of his life in England. He did hold two passports, which actually got him into more difficulties than rewards. There were three other East Germans, all in West Berlin for the very first time. One girl, Solveig, was showing her emotions. I could only imagine how incredible all of it was for her.

All of us went to Checkpoint Charlie. While the East Germans simply walked through by displaying their passports, I had to go through the timely process of having a day visa issued and converting 25 DM to 25 East German marks ($15). A guard instructed me to a separate room, where my bag was thoroughly inspected. I must have been the fate of a random number as I found it rare for persons to be searched.

Once through, I met up with everyone, who had patiently waited for me. Solveig and her friends had to catch the train to return to Leipzig. They went to a large protest for those against German reunification. Nico and I went sightseeing in East Berlin. First we saw Brandenberg Gate from the east side. It is a rather different perspective. You could only get about 100 meters from it. There was only empty space between you and the Gate. Of course the Wall was whitewashed. From there we went to Alexanderplatz, the center of East Berlin life. We bought some knockwurst, and the man who sold it to us helped himself to a tip. They usually expect one, and do help themselves to one if you do not offer.

We went up the “Television Tower” (proper name I do not know), where we had a spectacular view of all Berlin. What impressed me most was looking at the whole of FriedrichStrasse. The separation of it by the Wall exemplified the artificial division of a once united capital city. Afterwards we went the People’s History Museum, a never-ending myriad of rooms and displays. What amazed me were all of the Nazi-Socialist-Communist artifacts of collaboration. As East Berlin describes the Wall as the “anti-fascist” Wall, I was genuinely surprised to so many of those artifacts displayed.

We left and went to where Nico was staying in East Berlin. In a short while I met his Russian friends. The conversations did not go far as I knew no Russian, let alone German, and likewise they knew no English. Fortunately, a Russian woman who understood and spoke a good amount of English entered the room. Her name was Rimma, and with her we had an enlightening conversation for well over an hour. Some of us agreed to go to Brandenberg Gate. On the trip to the Gate, one Russian, named Oleg, was curious of how I could afford to travel. Oleg was intrigued the American system of economics, and Rimma told me he now wants to study it. Oleg appeared to be too optimistic, and I felt compelled to tell him that economics is one of those not perfect sciences. (I’ve recently written to Rimma, and asked her if Oleg has gone off to be a good Capitalist!)

Although the other Russians were apprehensive of speaking with me, I did not encounter a lack of humor with those I did speak with. One moment was when Oleg asked me why I was not married, since I was young, smart, and handsome. I laughed pretty heartily, explaining to him that it just hasn’t happened. Then he offered to match me up with anyone in Russia! At least I know I have that option.
At Brandenberg Gate I felt somewhat melancholy as I realized this was as far as the Russians could get to West Berlin. Remember, the infamous November 9th affected only Germans directly: only East Germans can enter West Berlin without a visa. I learned as well that for all the idealism of gates and barbed wire coming down throughout eastern Europe, the reality is that at least for Russians, travel is still quite controlled. Arrangements must be made far in advance and approved by the central authorities. Then all travel must be in groups, never individually, and with some sort of liaison chaperon accompanying.

At the street corner where I had to go to Checkpoint Charlie (as it was nearing midnight and my visa would expire), I gave them some single photos of myself, and we exchanged addresses. It was a nice, warm goodbye, and an experience I will certainly never forget.

On the subway ride home I meet a fellow American. He told me he was leaving the next day, and I informed him of a protest demonstration that was to take place in East Berlin that night. Well, he told me this was a good enough reason to change his plans since he had an 8mm camera and could put a story together for CNN.

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