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So everyone is talking about the wall going down in October of 1989. I was a junior in high school, 16 years old, and I understood, sort of, what it meant, but I didn't really.

Two years later, though, I gained a lot more insight. When I graduated from high school in 1991, my parents gave me a Eurail pass and a plane ticket to Paris. Of course, they didn't want me to go by myself, so they sent my 16 year old brother along with me. In early June 1991, we spent a few days in Paris, and then we took a night train to Berlin. My godfather was attending the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Berlin, and he offered to let me and Jose stay in a room in his hotel suite for almost a week.

The first night we got there, we had a wonderful dinner with a bunch of the other scientists and physicians from the conference at a busy restaurant on the West side. The food was delicious, and the company was great. At the end of the night, the bill was presented, and we discovered that the restaurant only took Diner's Club. No one, it turns out, had Diner's Club, so everyone dug into their pockets and somehow or another, in at least six different currencies, we came up with the tab.

Layne was in conferences most of the day, but his then-partner was free, as was a Swedish friend who was attending the conference with her father. So Jose, Sandy, Katerina and I spent our days wandering around Berlin. Berlin was totally confused at that point. The West was full of shops and beautiful parks and the zoo, and transportation was easy. The East, though, was still pretty regimented. The taxi drivers didn't know anything about the other side, so they'd drop us off at the Brandenburg gates and make us find a native taxi driver for the rest of the journey if we were planning on crossing the city from one side to the other.

To our surprise, a pretty good hunk of the Wall was still up, though tourists could chip off pieces. I think I still have an earring somewhere made out of a piece of the wall, and we got a much larger piece for Layne that's still on a bookshelf at his house on Lake Conroe. A museum was right on the West side of the wall, near the Gates, dedicated to the daring escape attempts of various East Germans over the previous 40 years. Vendors were selling all sorts of East German and Soviet artifacts on the street: Jose bought a Soviet military cap.

The East side seemed very grey. There didn't seem to be many plants or flowers, and the streets seemed narrower and straighter than they did on the West side. And it seemed stark. There didn't seem to be as many people on the streets as there were on the other side. Probably a lot of that had to do with the fact that there weren't that many businesses there yet, no real place to go or congregate. We didn't really go deep into the East Side of the Berlin, but I get the impression that was because there wasn't really much to see there. We stopped somewhere for a sandwich and a beer, and the people were very friendly, if cautious. Later, we got terribly lost going to an official dinner on the East side, because the taxi driver had no clue how to get there. The building was very nice, and there was an interior garden. I suspect it had previously been a government run building.

On the weekend, after the conference was over, a bigger group of us decided to take a ferry ride on Jungfernsee lake and then walk from the lake to Cecilienhof in Potsdam, where the the Potsdam conference was held after WWII. This was, I think, the most interesting part of the trip, because none of this part of Germany had been open to Westerners. The city, I felt, was quasi-Western, but the countryside had been very clearly East German. The lake ride was beautiful; we kept looking at the magnificient houses on the shore that probably had few western eyes on them in the last 50 years and whose ownership was probably in dispute at the time. And the walk to Potsdam was long, down a picturesque tree-lined road but interesting. At some point, we passed a truck load of soldiers, and we noticed that they were Russian. Children of the cold-war, we tensed when we saw them, thinking that they'd react badly to people walking freely on communist soil. But I think they were just as confused about the situation as we were, and they passed us by without paying much attention. Later, we passed a post or garrison or some other sort of military spot with more soldiers. And again, they didn't seem too concerned with us.

I think the next day, Jose and I went off to Munich, then Rome, Florence, Barcelona, Madrid and back to Paris.

Berlin in 1991 was probably less confused and strange than it was in 1989, but it very much felt like a city trying to figure out how to put itself back together again. I think the most striking part for me was running into those Russian soldiers in the countryside. I'd been indoctrinated my movies and news and history lessons on communism into thinking of Russian soldiers as my most feared enemy, the people most likely of any in the world to do me harm. By 1991, that indoctrination had worn a little, but when I saw them I still thought about the fact that I was on what had been their turf until very, very recently. Would they be hostile? Were they still trying to hang on? Did they cede the city, as it'd been partially Western, but want to hang on to the country? But they just passed me and my group by, and went on their way.

I haven't been back to Berlin since 1991, and I suspect that it's more integrated now: a complete city instead of two halves. I think, though, that I like my memories of it; I feel like I got to see history as it was happening.


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Nov. 10th, 2009 09:24 pm (UTC)
I was in Berlin in the summer of 1991 as well. I spent my 24th birthday there. I agree that the two halves of the city were starkly different. I also have a piece of the Wall.
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