My Adventures Touring Europe in 1982 (6) Berlin
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Tuesday, June 29
Getting to Berlin took the rest of the day.
Once the ferry boat arrived at 1:30pm, we got back on the bus and made the short sail from Denmark to East Germany. Then our hassles began!
First, a kind local man stepped on the bus. “Welcome to East Germany,” he told us. “I hope you enjoy your stay here. I need to remind you that this is a Communist country, and they tend to be suspicious of Westerners, so please be careful. Don’t bring drugs with you, avoid discussing politics, and keep your passports with you at all times. If you’re found walking around without a passport, you will be arrested, taken to Siberia, and shot at sunrise.” We all laughed.
Then we went through customs – which turned out to be no laughing matter. It consisted of us sitting in alphabetical order. Johannes collected our passports and took them to the officer (would we get them back, or would they get stolen, and we get trapped here behind the Iron Curtain?). After a seeming eternity he returned them to us, then an officer got on the bus and checked our passports again. Then several officers checked our luggage, picking three people at random to open their suitcases. Then we all had to get off the bus and walk through this stuff. Some said it was damp wood chips, others were sure it was horse manure. It didn’t smell though, so I think it was the former.
The whole process took nearly 45 minutes. After finally being given clearance, we rode through a shabby town, where the apartments looked like projects and the people wore cheap clothing. It looked really depressing.
The countryside was gorgeous, though! The weather had turned sunny, and lush trees, and the same intense green grass, and white flowers scattered everywhere. I knew this was supposed to be the Black Forest, though it didn’t even begin to compare to the giant Redwoods of Northern California. However, the green was much more intense than California ever got.
When we arrived at West Berlin, we had to go through the same customs process again, except they didn’t check our luggage or make us get out. Once we had passed through there, I overheard Danny casually comment, “We’ve just made a trip through hell.” At first, I was startled, still thinking about the beautiful countryside – then I remembered the shabby town we’d passed through earlier, and the hassle-filled customs we’d had to endure. The residents of that town would never have to go through that, because they were not free to leave!
Our motel was pretty nice – old, but comfortable with an elevator. As soon as we reached there, a message was delivered to one of the women that a relative had died. She was taken by taxi to the airport to fly back to the US. I didn’t know her, but I felt awful that her trip had been interrupted when she’d only been on it a week.
The brochure had said we would have a steak dinner, “the envy of the East”, the next night, but we had it tonight instead. Afterwards, we settled into our rooms. Mine was an enormous room with a high ceiling; though it had 3 beds, I was in it by myself. Every sound I made sounded a hollow echo. I felt intimidated, being in such a weird city, and all by myself in a huge room, but eventually I went to sleep.
Wednesday, June 30
We had a tour of Berlin. Yesterday I referred to it as a weird city. This is why; it is actually a political island of freedom in the middle of Communist-ruled East Germany. The Western sectors are owned by Britain, France, and the US. The Eastern sector is owned by Russia. Everywhere you look, you see The Wall. In pictures, it looks intimidating, but in real life, it’s only 8 feet high and easily scalable in some places. That’s what makes it especially cruel. The woman who gave the tour of the city told us the most recent escape attempt was made the previous week, when a young girl was shot dead in the attempt.
Berlin has a little brick, but it’s mostly modern stones. It’s the most modern looking city I’ve seen here so far. It’s a real party town, too. I guess that’s not too surprising; if I lived in such under such tenuous circumstances, I’d want to stay drunk all the time, too! Smack dab in the middle of Communist East Germany – what if they decide to overrun the Western sectors? I asked this, and our Berlin tour guide said that would be an act of war, and it would be three against one. I thought to myself, what if they don’t care?
Our Berlin tour guide had stories of her own. She is Greek, but moved to Berlin as a child. She remembered World War II; a crowd had gathered in the street, looking for God. She kept gazing up at the sky for Him to appear, and some adults asked her why she was doing so. She explained she expected God to descend from the sky, and they told her, “No he won’t; he walking down the street right now.” She looked, and lo and behold, it was Adolph Hitler.
Later, when the Holocaust was in full force, she was suspected of being Jewish. The Nazis measured her nose and ears, then decided she wasn’t. So she had a narrow escape there!
She continually pointed out the Fernsehturm Tower, which could be seen nearly everywhere we went. It has a silver ball near the top, and she pointed out the sun reflected on the ball in the shape of a cross. “God is angry because of The Wall. It was put up in 1961; it happened so suddenly, families were separated because some were on the other side of town at that time. To this day, families are still separated because of The Wall.”
When we returned to our hotel, she pointed out the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which is near there. “This church was bombed during World War II. It will never be rebuilt, to serve as a reminder of the awfulness of war.”
Next, we went to a nearby museum to be shown a film on Hitler. As we stood in line to enter the theater, an elderly woman approached me. “Excuse me,” she said, in an American accent. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes I do,” I answered, surprised she would ask.
“I was just wondering – why don’t you see many blacks in Germany? You’d think there would be a lot, considering the military presence in this country.”
“I – I have no idea,” I stammered. “I just got here. I’m on a tour.”
She walked away. I was surprised she didn’t ask to take my picture, then I remembered she was American and most likely used to seeing blacks.
The film showed Hitler impressing and charming people by making the right promises to them, including kissing babies and patting little children on the cheek. While I’m aware most politicians gain power by doing that, having met quite a few Germans already on this tour, it’s hard to imagine how they could have gone along with someone like that. Didn’t they feel uncomfortable about his anti-Semitism, with all the discrepancies of what he taught - especially considering the fact that he was part Jewish himself?! Personally, he gave me the creeps. He looked evil; even when he was younger, and didn’t have that evil look ingrained in him, he wore an evil expression.
I happened to be sitting next to Danny. After the film was over, he asked me what I thought of the film, and I told him. He asked me how this tour has been for me so far, being the only black, and not meeting many blacks in Europe. I said I’d had absolutely no problems, and was having the time of my life. I told him about the nice German guys I’d met in Amsterdam. “I can’t imagine how the Germans could have taken part in the Holocaust. The ones I’ve met so far seem so nice; it makes no sense to me. Jennifer hasn’t had any problems, either.”
“It’s brainwashing,” Danny told me. “I ran into some Nazis once, back home. They go to these rallies and get emotionally hyped up, to the point where they can be led to do anything.”
“Wow – did they do anything to you?” I asked.
“Well – because I’m blond, they overlooked me. But they hate just about everybody. I ran into some Klansman once too; they’re not quite as bad. Have you ever come across any?”
“I haven’t. I’m from California. I understand there’s supposed to be a chapter near Riverside, but they keep themselves hidden. Where I’m from, they’re considered a joke.”
Johannes perked up. “Be careful, there!” he warned me.
“Be careful about what?” I asked.
“At one time, the Nazis were considered a joke, too. That’s why they gained so much power; by the time the Germans realized what was happening, it was too late to squelch them. You saw the film; Hitler gained followers by promising them everything they wanted to hear, then he named his price after gaining power.”
“Well – I understand Germany’s economy was really bad…”
“And what do you suppose is happening now?” Johannes asked.
“Uh – I know this is the worst recession since the 1930s…”
“...when the Holocaust got its start.”
I felt nervous. “Um – you don’t think something like that could happen in the US, do you?”
“You never know,” Johannes warned. “So don’t laugh at hate groups. Pay close attention to them instead.”
I admit I’m a total idiot when it comes to politics. I didn’t even vote in 1980, though I was finally old enough to do so. Just how I was supposed to monitor secret hate groups was beyond me. Even if I managed to, what could I do about them?
I put the terrifying thought behind me, and that afternoon committed one of the most outrageous acts of my life.
During the tour of the city, we were shown various entry points into East Berlin. The only one we Westerners could go through was Checkpoint Charlie. We were told, “When you go there, they will be real glad to see you. That is because you are required to exchange 25 West German marks for 25 East German marks, which are worth one tenth the value. You also have to spend all those marks before re-entry.”
That afternoon, we had free time. I wanted to go to East Berlin, but no one else wanted to. So I went – alone!!! Why would I do something so crazy? Because I hadn’t travelled halfway around the world to pass up an opportunity such as this.
I walked to Checkpoint Charlie; it was easy to find from the hotel. There I exchanged the required 25 marks, and laughed when I received the Eastern ones; the bills looked exactly like the Western, except they were half their size! I had to go through a series of checks. The guards acted really sweet; this made me suspicious, and at one point, I lost my nerve and turned and ran the other way. But they pointed me towards East Berlin and encouraged me to go ahead.
I walked down a desolate boulevard. There were hardly any cars on the road, or people in the streets. The buildings were decrepit-looking, like the village we’d seen when we first entered East Germany. One grand old building, which apparently had been bombed during World War II and never rebuilt, had trees growing up out of it.
I met a couple of young tall blond German guys, and we talked awhile. They were drunk, and acted totally despondent. I told them I was American, and about my European tour so far. They acted a little envious, but were too drunk to care very much. I was careful not to ask them too many personal questions, and I noticed they didn’t try to buy the jeans I was wearing. Before leaving for Europe, I’d read jeans were a type of currency behind the Iron Curtain – yet, no one here said anything!
The guys moved on, and I found a restaurant that was open. I ordered a huge fish meal for lunch, along with local white wine. The waitress could not speak English, but was as friendly as she could manage. When she served it, she said, “Bon appetit!”
“Oh, vous parlez Francais?” I asked her, and she gave me a blank smile.
The meal cost most of the 25 marks I’d exchanged. West German marks run about 2.5 per US dollar, so 25 of them add up to $10. This means I had $1 worth of money to spend in East Berlin – so the fancy meal I ate cost just under that!
While eating, I wrote 8 postcards, including one to a former roommate named Sydney (a black woman), who had criticized me big time for contemplating a European tour (that’s because her father, who was in the military, was accosted in England when a white woman had come on to him). I had bought all those postcards when I’d first entered the restaurant, so it was clear where they came from. I mailed them off at the restaurant register when I finally left.
Overall, I spent 2½ hours in East Berlin. Since I had lots of refills of wine, I was probably as drunk as those 2 German guys. Would I be trapped behind the Iron Curtain, like they were? I was about to find out.
As it turns out, the guards were just as sweet as I passed my way back through Checkpoint Charlie to freedom. They didn’t even check to see if I’d spent all 25 East German marks. I had a few coins left over; they were like the Western ones. I wondered if that would get me into trouble, but like I said, they didn’t even check.
My troubles began after returning to West Berlin. I could not find the hotel, no matter which corner I turned. Fortunately, I had an itinerary on me, with the hotel name and address on it. I walked into a bar and tried to ask for help, but no one spoke English there. The itinerary said the 29 bus went by the hotel, so I used my limited German; I said, “Noynenzwanzig autobus.” The bartender said a bunch of stuff in German, and pointed in a direction. “Danke,” I told him, and went in that direction – but could not find a bus stop.
Eventually I found a Metro line, and went into a station. I found a man who could speak English. “You’re very close,” he told me. “Just get on the train and go two stops; you’ll be there.”
I only had traveler’s cheques on me. I went to the ticket booth and tried to buy a ticket, but they didn’t take traveler’s cheques. I tried to get one exchanged, but they told me I had to go to a bank for that, and all the banks were closed. So I decided to walk under the elevated tracks. The guy saw me leave, and stopped me. “Where are you going?” he asked.
I explained about not having any German marks, and being unable to exchange my traveler’s cheques.
“Just get on the train,” he told me. “They don’t check.”
I got on, and rode the two stops to the station near the hotel. Along the way, a woman was playing guitar on the subway. She started a song, then stopped midway. “Why is no one paying me? I won’t be able to eat, and this will be on your conscience!” she said. I thought that was weird. I’d seen street musicians in Berkeley, and they didn’t act like that.
Once I got to the right station, finding the hotel was easy. I met my group just as they were going to the Ku’dorf club. Having spent an additional 2 hours finding my way back to the hotel, I’d missed dinner. I told them about my adventures behind the Iron Curtain, and they all thought I was crazy.
Johannes explained about my free Metro ride. “They operate on the honor system,” he told me. “They check randomly for tickets. If they’d checked you and you didn’t have one, you would have been fined $200.”
That was nearly half my European tour spending money. I wonder if they would have taken traveler’s cheques?
At the Ku’dorf, we all drank and danced until past 1am. I flirted with a bunch of local guys, and forgot my big scare.
Thursday, July 1
Amazing – all that drinking yesterday didn’t even give me a hangover.
This morning, we loaded up the bus and set off for Munich. I’d never been so glad to leave a place!
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© 2013 Yoleen Lucas