Reparlez-moi des roses de Gottingen
dans l’autre Allemagne
? l’heure o? colombes et vautours s’?loignent.
De quel c?t? du mur, la fronti?re vous rassure…
Tell me again about the roses in Gottingen
that come with me
into the other Germany
when the doves and vultures part ways.
From whichever side of the wall, the border comforts you…
– Patricia Kaas, D’Allemagne
Today is the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as Tobias notes, political unification has not created the single, new Germany its authors so fervently hoped for.
Fifteen years ago today, I watched the news from my dorm in Strasbourg, having, only the day before, decided to cancel my planned trip to Berlin that weekend. Otherwise, I would have had a valid train ticket to the street party of the century. By the time the wall came down, it was impossible to get train fare or a room anywhere in the city, and going was simply out of the question.
On Sunday morning, I saw my first Trabant, parked in a motorcycle space in front of the McDonald’s on Place Kleber in the centre of Strasbourg. The driver and his girlfriend were on their way to Paris in a Trabi.
I visited Berlin a few weeks later, going out of my way to cross at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. By then, the Wall was already a joke. Torn down left and right, the West German government had put up a weak fence, not so much to restore the partition but to force people to use monitored crossing points. When I paid my five marks to enter East Berlin, I saw the East German customs official awkwardly pocket the cash. I exchanged Westmarks for Ostmarks at four to one with a Russian army sergeant on the steps of the Staatsbank off Unter den Linden. He wanted to sell me some Soviet military paraphanalia as part of the exchange.
The contrast between the two cities was enormous. West Berlin in the old days was the San Francisco of Europe. It was a city of punk hairdos, sex shops, Turks and open advocacy of alternative lifestyles. The first boutique condom shop I ever saw was across the street from my hotel. The East, however, wasn’t nearly as bland as I had expected. On that day at least, it was a very active city.
There was an enormous bookstore downtown, selling Landau & Lipshitz’ famous physics texts – in English translation – for something like 30 Ostmarks for the whole set. Now, the lot goes for $300 on Amazon if you can find it at all. I stocked up on items that I expected I could would never find again, and in hindsight I wish I had taken more advantage of it rather than less.
The tension and codependence of the two Berlins created something strange. Even in the few days I was there, I could see that. Berlin was the archtype edge city, caught in a sort of twilight between two very different conceptions of the world. This was highlighted by the first person I met in Berlin. After getting off the train at Zoo Garten (the main train station in the West) and entering the arrivals hall, I was buttonholed by a young Japanese man, asking if I could speak English. He explained that he had just spent a week in transit by train from Hong Kong and was on his way to Paris, and that after suffering through the Chinese and Soviet train systems, he was desperate for something normal to eat, and everything at the station was closed. I took him by the shoulders and pointed him to the nearest exit. Through the glass doors, you could see a Burger King.
I will never forget the look of joy on his face.
There was something odd about the Aeroflot offices in West Berlin, with their giant hammer-and-sickle logo, being on the Ku’damm, across the street from a Burger King and a McDonald’s. It was the image of the conflict that had divided the city for all those years. The bombed out ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Ged?chnis Kirche formed a sort of symbol of the joint, tarnished past of the two Germanies, the well-worn common trunk of a nation that had split into two different and highly unequal branches. That image, in that time and place, symbolised Berlin and its place in the world.
Leaving Berlin also highlighted the border and its unusual social properties. I left Berlin by train, bound for Copenhagen. This meant recrossing East German customs at Freidrichsstrasse Bahnhof. The last odd experience I had in Berlin was after boarding the train at Zoo Garten. My travelling companion and I had settled into an empty compartment when, five minutes before departure, a large blackman threw open the door to the compartment, looked around, crossed to the window, threw it open, and yelled something incomprehensible down the track. A minute later, another guy – black and bespectacled and even larger in size – pulled up to the window with a baggage cart stacked full of cardboard boxes and began tossing them into the compartment. It took them just over a minute to move all the boxes into the train, where they were stacked floor to ceiling on one side of this coach class space. The boxes were for TVs, VCRs, stereos, blank video and audio tapes. After the other man had settled in, I realised that they were speaking French. So asked them what they were up to.
They were students from Africa – one from Gabon the other from Senegal – studying engineering in Kiev. They had gone to Paris for spring break, and were planning to earn some spending money by selling cheap western electronics in Kiev for exorbitant ruble markups. They took the train through the inspection at Friedrichstrasse and got off at the old East Berlin Hauptbahnhof to catch the long distance train to Kiev.
I haven’t been back to Berlin since. I’d like to go, and one of these days I will. I’m terrified that the German government’s move there has torn out the counterculture. West Berlin was where the Germans who didn’t fit in the Bundesrepublik could carve out a niche for themselves. Somehow, I doubt that the tolerance that came with its ambiguous status fits the shiny new German capital or the shiny new Germany Helmut Kohl wanted to build. Certainly, that same sense of being at the contact point between two very different realms must be gone. As I understand it, Checkpoint Charlie is now an ugly Silicon Valley-style office building that houses Oracle’s offices.
Little east-west romance 15 years after Berlin Wall
Only two percent of the marriages each year in Berlin are between easterners and those across town in the west. It is a rate that reflects the lingering dislike that east and west Germans still have for each other. The euphoria which accompanied the breach of the wall on November 9, 1989 soon dissipated.
“I’ve had girlfriends from countries around the world but never west Berlin,” said east Berlin student Stefan Rosche, 23. “West Berlin women are too difficult. They’re demanding, pushy and materialistic. Everything about them is so commercial.”
While streets, bridges and train lines severed for three decades by the Berlin Wall were re-connected shortly after its spectacular collapse exactly 15 years ago, there was no emotional rapprochement after the joy wore off. The Cold War has been replaced by the cold shoulder. For amore read animosity. Little passion, lots of prejudice — and separate beds. […]
Sociologists who have studied the unique polarisation in Berlin say that under normal circumstances a third to a half of the couples in a city of its size and infrastructure would be east-west pairings. Yet according to the state statistics office, Berliners are 12 times more likely to marry foreigners than settle down with a partner from the other side of town.
Borders are strange things. They create barriers but they also become gateways between worlds, where difference fosters diversity, and diversity fosters creativity. It seems very unfortunate to me that the vibrancy of the border might be replaced by a dull, stupifying segregation. I have to wonder if unification hasn’t given Berliners the worst of both worlds rather than the construction of something new.