When I was 18 years old I took a trip around Europe with my boyfriend and his family which is sure to be fodder for many a blog entry in the future, but today I will focus on the one city that made the biggest impression upon me: Berlin.
When we went there, the Berlin wall was still up and would be for another 6 years. The Cold War was still going on, although it was beginning to seem more and more ridiculous and pathetic with each passing day. As we drove into the city we had to go for miles through East Germany along an autobahn lined with gun turrets. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s the only time in my life when I’ve been in “enemy territory”, and it felt exceedingly strange. I don’t know how people live from day to day in war zones. The stress factor must be off the charts. How lucky I’ve been in my life. I’ve never had to feel as if I’m surrounded by people who want me dead. Yet another blessing to count when I’m in a counting mood.
Since my boyfriend was in the Air Force, we were treated to a few extra mandatory checkpoints. He had been provided with a list of instructions as to how we should conduct ourselves in these checkpoints. I can only remember one of the instructions, and it was, “Do not smile at the soldiers.” Heaven forbid. We wouldn’t want to show any evidence of a thaw in this lovely cold war of ours. At one of these checkpoints we pulled up right beside a Russian soldier, and I couldn’t help but stare. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to make eye contact, but I shouldn’t have worried. This boy was not going to look directly at me. And he was a boy. My age. He looked like he had a splitting headache. I wanted to give him an aspirin and a hug. I’ll never forget his face. I wonder what became of him? When my boyfriend came out of the building, he said they had tried to sell him all sorts of contraband. As we drove away, I couldn’t help thinking about the thin and fragile veil between “Us” and “Them”.
In Berlin we did many things. We of course visited the wall, which was covered with the most amazing graffiti. It struck me that there was no graffiti allowed on the other side, and from their observation points they couldn’t see our graffiti because the wall curved toward them. What a metaphor for the suppression of creativity!
We climbed up to some observation decks to see what it looked like on the other side. These decks were, of course, directly opposite to East Berlin gun turrets. As we looked through binoculars, what we saw were soldiers looking through binoculars at us. I waved. They didn’t wave back.
We also visited the Berlin Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, which still exists. I was impressed by the many ways people have tried and sometimes succeeded to get out of East Berlin. One really creative attempt was via homemade hot air balloon. Freedom is a powerful incentive.
We also rode the subway, or U-Bahn. Since it had been built before the wall, a few of the stops were actually on the other side of the wall. Well, calling them “stops” is a little deceptive, because the subway didn’t actually stop there. What you saw as we sped through were some very dimly lit, shabby old stations blocked off by chain link fence, with soldiers carrying machine guns walking around in the semi-darkness. What a creepy, dreary existence. Rodents in uniforms.
My boyfriend’s family actually took a highly restrictive but I’m sure quite interesting trip into East Berlin. My boyfriend, being in the military, wasn’t allowed to go, and out of a misplaced sense of loyalty I stayed with him. I’ll always regret that. But hey, I was madly, passionately and deeply in love, to the point where it took me about 25 years to get over him, so I was going to stand by my man. Stupid.
One day we were walking along, and all of a sudden a very loud and intimidating procession of western tanks came along the wide street, tearing up pavement as they went. It made my blood turn to ice water. I imagined what it would have been like to have my town invaded during World War II. For some crazy reason I didn’t have my 5 pounds of camera equipment with me that day, but my boyfriend got pictures and assured me he’d give me copies. This was something he never got around to doing. (Hint.)
Upon leaving Berlin, I was struck by the number of hitchhikers who were standing in a crowd (I’d guess there were about 100) hoping for a ride into West Berlin. The reason for this bottleneck was that obviously you couldn’t hitchhike along the autobahn itself. That really brought home to me how it must feel to be trapped inside this city. While I had enjoyed my visit, suddenly I really wanted to go home.