Twenty five years ago, aged seventeen, I travelled to Germany (well, West Germany as it was then), with a group of school-mates and our teacher. I was in Year 12 and I’d been learning German for a number of years. Sometime a couple of years early, one of us had the idea of fund-raising for a trip to Germany, and so that’s just what we did. As well as the fund-raising, I also had a part-time job, and after two or three years, we had enough money to actually do it in May 1983. The memories of that trip remain incredibly vivid for most of my adult life. But particularly today, as I’ve walked around Berlin, many of those memories have come flooding back.
I remember the incredibly long overnight train trip from Frankfurt, being woken in the middle of the night for passport check (I couldn’t find mine for a moment), and then arriving in Berlin itself. I remember our day trip to East Berlin, and in particular, I remember going through one of the border points in Berlin (I remember it WASN’T Checkpoint Charlie), and going on a brief tour of East Berlin with an emphasis on galleries, museums and things like that. The East German tour guide was very proper, as I recall.
Later during our time in Berlin, I have an incredibly vivid memory of standing in the Tiergarten near Brandenberg Gate, where there were two guards goose-stepping their way around. Along with my two school-mates, Louise and Amanda, we waved at them, hoping for some response. Nothing. Nothing. And then finally, a very brief raised hand in response.
Travelling back to West Germany in the daylight hours, I also have a very vivid memory of seeing a school outside the train window, which declared with a huge sign that “The sun always shines in East Germany”.
A lot has changed in twenty five years, obviously. For a start, I’m staying in what was East Berlin. And so far, I’ve yet to wander over the border into what was West Berlin. From my perspective, it’s like visiting a whole new city, because in some ways it is. However, there are a few buildings I’ve recognised from that brief day-trip to East Germany. There’s been a wonderful sense of dejavu.
For a while the memories were a little overwhelming and I found myself a little overcome. “This is a total mindfuck”, I thought to myself at one point, reflecting on how different was the experience now. Not only because Berlin has changed dramatically, but also because I’m now seeing it through the eyes of a forty-two year old.
It was funny in a way: while travelling on the train yesterday through areas of what was East and West Germany, I struggled to remember where the former border was. I thought maybe there would still be some evidence in the style of architecture. There were maybe a few buildings here and there that looked quite run-down, though I couldn’t be sure if that’s just because they were in rural towns, or if it was because they were part of what was East Germany, still in need of some EU refurbishment. It’s much more evident in Berlin itself.
To get a sense of those places I couldn’t visit in 1983, I went on a tour today, promoted as “The New Europe Free Tour”. Although ostensibly a free tour (on a philosophical basis, the tours are run by people who believe everyone should be able to access such tours) they ask you to tip to tour guide, which I was more than happy to do, since he was excellent. His name was Paolo, by the way, and he was an English bloke with an interest in archaeology and architecture.
The tour lasted about four hours and visited most of the really important historical sites around the inner part of East Berlin, with an emphasis on Nazi and Soviet history. Paolo had the gift of the gab and told the stories really well. In particular, he seemed to have an interest in the stories of the more controversies surrounding some of the buildings and monuments.
A lot of the history I already knew, but there were many things I didn’t know. For example, I had no idea where Hitler’s bunker was (it’s underneath what is now a carpark), I didn’t really understand the story of the press conference stuff-up which led to the opening of the East German borders in 1989, and I didn’t know a lot of the more recent re-building of older buildings. There’s a square, for example, which features a number of buildings destroyed during WW2 which has been completely re-built. There’s also a bit of revisionism going on with a once-popular spot in East Berlin (The People’s Palace) which is now being torn. Ostensibly the reason given is asbestos, though it’s always been a symbol of the East which those in the West have long despised.
It’s been a pretty intense 24 hours in Berlin, and in some ways I’m a little disappointed I’m only here for a short time. Still, the experience has given me a lot of good reasons to come back at some point in the future.
In other news, I’m continuing to meet some very nice locals. I went out for a drink last night at a bar called The Sharon Stonewall, which curiously enough I was told, is owned by an Australian woman. While there I met a couple of blokes sitting at the bar who I chatted to for quite a while. I’m sure they were both quite mad, but they were kind and friendly and invited me into their conversation.
They also invited me to another nearby bar which I’m struggling to remember the name of, but which was an absolute hoot. In the underground disco the DJ played an eclectic mix of hit songs from the last thirty years. I was in absolute heaven. I might head back there later on tonight. It won’t be a late one, though, as I have a flight to London to catch later tomorrow morning.