European Tour – East Germany (July 1990)

Border Crossings Made Anti-Climatic Easy

Just as we were more relaxed going into our second homestay, everyone looked similarly at ease after it. My travel group met in the morning, where we said goodbye to our hosts and boarded the bus for Leipzig. I was anxious and excited for the experience of crossing the Inner German Border – eagerly anticipating a stark wall with grim and stoic soldiers in machine gun nests and foreboding tanks. Now remember, PTPI’s trip plans were delayed two weeks thanks to the slow process of clearing visas for our passage into East Germany. As we approached the border, one of my travel mates reminded us as the bucket of ice water dumped on our heads voice of reason, that despite any paranoia- and Hollywood-fueled fantasies, crossing the border would most likely involve sitting for hours on end as bureaucratic guards slowly scrutinized and argued over our papers.

However, since this was way before mobile phone news alerts, we weren’t totally caught up on then current events. By this time, much of the border was already open, but it wasn’t until July 1990 that the German government completely abandoned the entire border. The moment we approached “enemy territory” spotted the tops of the watchtowers and fence line on the horizon, our cameras were ready. As the barrbillboardier stretched further across the landscape and fortifications grew taller, it was apparent that all was very quiet on the eastern front. The now defunct Cold War borderline stood silent and unattended, and the bus whizzed through without so much as a dirty look. In fact, there wasn’t a soul in sight, weapon at the ready or stray piece of equipment. Our transit across the border was as exciting as passing a quirky highway billboard.

Border 02     Border 01
Move along now…nothing to see here…

A Quiet Place and Missing a Concert

Leipzig 03
The view from my hotel.

Like Strasbourg, Leipzig was a stopover. The quiet city was a stark contrast to its state of affairs not even a year earlier when it was boiling over with demonstrations and marches, and protestors consequently beaten as the East German government destabilized. Like our border crossing, now it was absent of any real activity, and the people we met were polite, but somehow distant or subdued. Even Market Square was eerily dormant and in repose. Leipzig seemed as if it had just ended a long and tumultuous relationship, slowly waking up with an epic post-break-up hangover and needed a little “hair of the dog.”

Leipzig 01     Leipzig 02
Market Square in downtown Leipzig.

We spent the afternoon hiking around the rather imposing Monument to the Battle of the Nations, and then visiting St. Nicholas Church, St. Thomas Church and the Russian Memorial Church (I recall having more pictures of these churches and the monument, but may have lost them).

Leipzig Battle of Nations     Leipzig St Nicholas Church 01     Leipzig Russian Mem Church 01

Leipzig St Nicholas Church 02     Leipzig St Thomas 01
TOP ROW: Monument to the Battle of the Nations, St. Nicholas Church and the Russian Memorial Church.
BOTTOM ROW: Inside St. Nicholas and St. Thomas.

Pink Floyd 01Somewhere on the road, one of my travel group mentioned that Pink Floyd was gearing up for a huge live performance of The Wall in Berlin. In an example of frustratingly inopportune timing, we discovered the concert was that very evening, a mere day before our arrival. After a bit of melodramatic teenage expostulation and foot stomping, we reluctantly surrendered to the inevitable. Fate’s diabolical plan (as it typically has for moody teenagers) aimed at preventing us from what should be our destiny – seeing the show in-person. So instead, we congregated in the hotel lobby and watched it on TV. Some of us spent the event explaining the rock opera’s story to others (with varying degrees of success), along with a lot of laughter at times, especially during Sinéad O’Connor’s rendition of Mother and her singing “Mother do you think they’ll try to break my balls?”

Where It All Began

Having enjoyed our brief stay, we put the grey pallor of Leipzig behind us. With a sunny and bright sky, we traveled north and walked around the Sanssouci, the former palace of Frederick the Great.

Sanssouci 01     Sanssouci 02

Then we visited Cecilienhof, and again, touched a bit of Cold War history – in this case, the Potsdam Conference – where the then powers that be set in motion the forces responsible for shaping the second half of the 20th century. I felt a certain and strange sense of irrevocability on these grounds. This place became history barely before my parents (Baby Boomers) were born, when my grandparents (G.I./Greatest Generation) were celebrating the end of World War II. Now it was a matter of historical record, as was the vanishing superpower whose prominent red star adorns the front garden. We represented the newest generation who witnessed the end of the era that symbolically (if not literally) began at this palace.

Cecilienhof 01

Reminders of the Past

The last leg of our bus ride was into the heart of the city, including seeing the reBerlin Pink Floydmains of the previous night’s concert. Our hotel was billed as the nicest in the city, emphasized by the expensive sports cars sitting in the front parking lot.(1) Where Leipzig was subdued and quiet, Berlin was abuzz with activity. The city seemed almost bubbling with an undefinable potential and energy, like an ADHD kid rushing into FAO Schwarz and frozen in his tracks by sensory overload.

As late afternoon became evening, the teacher leaders reviewed the last few days’ itinerary, but this day wasn’t quite done with us. We went on a night time tour inside the Fernsehturm Berlin. Once the symbol of Communist power for East Germany, it awkwardly stood in a formerly divided urban landscape now redefining itself in a new world (i.e., “Uh yeah, that’s my ex’s name back there…the tattoo artist is covering it up tomorrow…”). A short walk away, another ostentatious representation of East Berlin’s former status was the World Clock, another site of anti-Communism protests months earlier. Fortunately, time has benefited both, transforming them into much happier and trendier tourist attractions and national symbols of a united Germany.

Berlin Tower     World Clock

Dust in the Wind as the Wall Comes Crumblin’ Down(2)

Our final full day in Berlin began with a bus tour of the city proper, including passing by the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin Cathedral.

Berlin Cathedral 01     Berlin Cathedral 02
The Berlin Cathedral.

Mauerfall, 1989This was mere prologue for the main event, and probably the most anticipated part of our East Germany visit – the Berlin Wall. In Autumn 1989, the world watched live as hordes of protestors and celebrants climbed on top of the wall, celebrating the collapse of the East German government. This watershed moment quickly solidified as the symbolic end of the Cold War and already waning influence of the former Soviet Union. Little did I realize then that only months later I’d be standing at that wall, touching one of the most notorious structures in modern history. We arrived at this now defunct piece of infrastructure that was quite literally falling apart from the efforts of tourists and construction equipment alike. Standing near Checkpoint Charlie, we coughed our way through dust-filled air, stumbling over concrete boulders strewn all over (I don’t like dwelling on what that dust did to my lungs). This solid palisade once held an entire city in check and embodied the state of the world at large. Extrinsic and irrelevant, it was acquiescing to the winds of change – worn down and bereft of strength. It stood as little more than a honeycombed historical footnote, a modern-day ruin, a disintegrating and haphazard patchwork of jagged chunks of concrete and corroding webs of sagging rebar.

They say “Necessity is the mother of invention” and a more modern spin on this might be “Never let a crisis go to waste,” and there was no shortage of former-communists-turned-capitalists answering as opportunity knocked on their doors. Beaten up card tables and makeshift “shops” built out of reclaimed plywood and cardboard boxes lined the area, displaying all sorts of presumed but possibly not obtained legally NATO and East German military surplus goods – hats, uniforms, belts, and holsters – even an officer’s dress knife with sheath. The vendors were mobbed by locals and tourists alike, grabbing up any piece of history for coveting or reselling on the collectors’ market (I bought some East German military hat pins that I think my parents still display in a typesetter tray).

My personal favorite was the vendors renting out hammers and chisels, tempting some with doing their part in helping tear down the wall. Several of my travel group eagerly coughed up the overpriced rental fee in Deutsche Marks, and began picking off nickel- and dime-size bits of Communist Bloc-grade concrete and collecting them in small plastic bags. By comparison, many of us improvised with plastic Ziploc or shopping bags, picking up more substantial clumps of concrete spread out on the ground. By the time we finished, I was lugging five pounds of communist-grade concrete rubble as keepsakes (I still have one piece in my possession, but I don’t know if anyone I gave them to still have theirs).

Berlin Wall 01     Berlin Wall 02Berlin Wall 03     Berlin Wall 04Berlin Wall 05     Berlin Wall 06

The Last Supper and Berlin’s Night Life

At the hotel, several of us hopped in the shower and washed away the dust and grime, then packed – it was our last night in Europe. We ate a restaurant down the street from the hotel, and I remember the place being disturbingly dark and a little foreboding with a greenish glow. I’ve mentioned in my Iceland posts that the nastiest thing I ever ate was the local “delicacy” Hákarl (i.e., fermented shark meat). Prior to that, the then award winner was this restaurant’s choice dessert – I think it was plain gelatin with some sort of sour cherries suspended in it, but whatever it was, one gag-inducing spoonful was more than enough to refuse finishing it. My best guess is it may have been a barely-passes-for-version of Junket, but the low lighting and bland taste left far too much to the imagination. I’m not fond of gelatin, tofu and/or flan food textures, and that probably influenced my distaste for this particular bonne bouche.

As I mentioned before, our orientation sessions touched on the delicate topic of “travel romances.” However, several couples formed on this trip, including one in my clique. After dinner, most of us wandered out for some nightlife/exploring before we bid Auf Wiedersehen to Berlin. Most shops and restaurants were closed, and whatever bars we passed gave us the stink eye (i.e., were we too young? American? Both?). We bounced around, posing in front of stoic statues and monuments, and at times held races carrying each other on our backs. As most of us whooped and hollered away, the neophyte couples from the past month held back a bit, enjoying what was probably their last night before parting ways tomorrow. As the evening and exhaustion caught up, we heard techno music coming from an open-air nightclub. Several of us were excited at the prospect of dancing, until we paid closer attention and decided it wasn’t a good idea. It turns out that Berlin hosted a gay community and we stumbled upon one of its more unambiguous meat markets watering holes.

Homeward Bound

Ours was an early flight, and we were up, dressed and waiting in the hotel lobby at sunrise. Airport security is a bane of my existence, not the least of which because I’m frequently “invited” as a “randomly chosen subject” to step aside for additional screening. However, East German airport security was an exercise in not only going through metal detectors, but unpacking our bags and “enjoying” mandatory pat downs. I can’t speak for the others, but I was nearly searched down to the body cavity level by a stout and humorless woman who I doubt ever smiled. By the time she was done, I was as comfortable as a “fresh fish” convict on his first night in prison.MP HG Rejoicing

Unlike our direct flight to Ireland, the trip home involved layovers, including a few hours in Zürich where we snuck in cat naps, and another stop in New York City. I spent my time over the Atlantic reviewing notes, reading and unsuccessfully attempting to sleep. Our connector flight to Dulles International Airport (IAD) was right on the heels of our arrival, and the shuttle flight was barely half full, including most of my travel group. It was also the first time I ever heard passengers applaud as the plane landed at Dulles.

Once through customs, we said our goodbyes and I remember an odd mix of feelings during this time. It felt strange to let go of this group I bonded with throughout our month-long experience. While I deeply missed my family, friends and the trappings of home, I was going to miss my fellow travelers. We had more than a few laughs and stories to share, but it was also the breaking of sentimental ties that I know I enjoyed and relied on while abroad. Now I had to process through the emotional vacuum inherent with any journey’s end. Not that these young men and women were soulmates or lifelong friends, but after a month of near constant exposure and proximity to each other (for better or worse), I found myself already missing the familiar and tenuous attachment between us. In retrospect, I have experienced similar feelings from other (shorter and smaller) trips, but this was by far this most profound sense of post-travel depression I can recall (probably due to its long duration and large group).

All Good Things…

In the remaining hot and muggy dog days of Summer, I worked my job in the movie theater and spent as much free time as possible with friends before we disbanded. The trip monopolized a sizeable piece my last adolescent Summer, and demands of impending adulthood meant coming to grips with the end of a lot of taken-for-granted memories. Friday nights of rolling dice and arguing over D&D rules, weekends running around in the woods playing Laser Tag, goofing off at high school, and reluctantly helping Mom and Dad around the house. It was time to put away childish things and begin the path of becoming a contributing member of society. Before now, my experiences were mainly of the average, socially-awkward American kid’s life. But a month away in a handful of foreign countries provided new insights on how things are very much the same, and very much different. This sentiment would prevail as the end-of-the-Cold-War honeymoon faded, and people and governments went right back to doing what they usually do to muck things up. On the plus side, I was armed with new stories to boast about share and over analyze reflect on.

That following Autumn, the teacher leaders reached out and organized a reunion party over the holidays. Only a few months had passed, but it felt as if it were years since last seeing one another (well, most of us). We compared notes on our shared adventure, what happened since, and where we were headed. I was happy to see that at least one or two of the couples that formed in Europe were still very much together, as well. That was the last time I saw any of my former travel companions…well, that I know of. In truth, I could pass by one of them tomorrow and not realize it. On the other hand, I swear I spotted one of the girls from my group back in college – either that or nearly a twin version of her (I never found out for sure). I sometimes wonder where my travel companions are and what became of them, and if they had equally profound memories and experiences from this adventure. I really hope they did.

(1) While my London pictures provided clues for zeroing in on where we stayed, none from Berlin were of any help.
(2) The heading is little play on the obvious Kansas and John Mellencamp songs, and “winds of change” a reference to the Scorpions’ ballad/ode to the end of the Cold War.