The second letter home from my sister in her latest travels.
Today got off to a bad start. I forgot to turn the towel warmer on before my shower, so when I stepped out I had to dry myself with a ROOM TEMPERATURE TOWEL!!! A rookie mistake . To make up for it, I just had a shower so I could use the relaxing bath products rather than the invigorating ones and not only did I heat my towel I turned on the steam.
So, I went to work this morning, and despite an initial hiccup by being at the wrong door and no German person willing to let me in, it eventually all went smoothly. I did ask why half of our counterpart’s distribution department was in Berlin, and the other half was in Munich, since it flies in the face of German efficiency. It seems the politics of reunification trumps that efficiency. The rest of the work part isn’t particularly interesting, so it’s lucky that I finished early enough to see some sights.
The first stop was the DDR museum, a fantastic interactive museum dedicated to explaining life in East Germany. Imagine this: there is now an entire generation of adult Berliners (of adult earthlings, for that matter) who have grown up since the wall came down, an entire generation to whom the wall is theoretical, historical, and somewhat incomprehensible. Imagine how hard it must be to really comprehend what it would have been like to have gone to bed one Sunday night in 1961 and got up the next morning finding a wall running through your city, and you’re on the wrong side.
While we are imagining, I have been thinking about Micah (a friend of Lulu’s) wondering what he would have been like if his mother had gone to University in Berlin, rather than coming to Canada. Micah and I were born months apart, shortly before the wall went up. Let’s assume we would have been caught on the wrong side in 1961. We would have been indoctrinated into collectivism in nursery school, when we would have all had bathroom breaks together….a row of twenty or thirty potties, and not one five year old could move until the last five year old declared him or herself finished with the proceedings.
At 14, no confirmation or bar mitzvah, rather a commitment ceremony to the state. Given that both Micah and I could not assume to have had parents that would have been vocal and loyal party members, we could probably forget about going to university. Our interest in popular music smuggled from the west would have had us on the radar of the Stasi (the secret police). The state attempted to create socialistically acceptable pop music for teens, even finding people to choreograph dances they hoped would be popular (Learn to dance the Lipsi! Dance like a Socialist!) These efforts weren’t successful. Micah would not have been able to become a musician, since his parents would have been out of favour with the state, and no university for him, so given his size and strength he probably would have ended up working construction, building some of the thousands of modern, if substandard apartments. I meanwhile, with my equally unacceptable parents, would have ended up as a clerk in a store with nothing on the shelves. We both would have married by 20, in hopes of getting a new flat, and had two children quickly. The stats show we would have been divorced by 25. And probably still living with our parents, having never gotten the flat.
We would have never owned a car. The average wait time was 16 years for a Trabant, and people were thrilled when one finally arrived…despite being built under the philosophy, “what we don’t have cannot break”, therefore, no cooling system, and no gas gauge. They were made out of a substance called Duroplast, a material for the panels that combined cotton fleece with granulated phenol resin, which was cut to size, heated and pressurized, and turned into Trabants.
But back to Micah and me, citizens of the DDR. At the age of 29, the wall came down, as suddenly as it went up, and initially our west German relatives were delighted to see us.. Soon the delight turned to resentment, however, as they saw us as an economic drag on the state…and we were, with our limited education, our narrow world view, our single parent status, and our cultural programming that however much we tried to resist had us convinced that it was the state’s job to look after us.
In 1990, I was staying in a guest house in Zurich, and one of the other breakfasters was an older man (about the age I am now). We decided to keep each other company at the zoo one day, and I learned he was East German, and has been a ship’s engineer in the East German merchant marine. He had travelled all over the world, and had always come home, despite countless opportunities to defect. Returning on one trip, he brought his nephew some roller skates. The nephew promptly turned him into the Stasi, and he spent 6 months in prison. At the end of the sentence, all concerned agreed that he had been sufficiently smartened up to not do that again, and off he went to sea. With reunification, the East German merchant marine had been declared irrelevant, he had been given a small settlement and was sent on his way. He asked me what freedom was worth to him if there was no way for him to earn a living. I didn’t have an answer to that.
Just as I don’t have the imagination to picture the lives of Micah and me, the German versions, at our current ages. Our kids would have adapted, but I have no idea what it would be like to be a fifty-something ex-east German in today’s Germany. But thanks to the museum, I got to tour a life size replica of what could have been our apartment (with a note on the door reminding us that everything we said was probably being monitored), and I got to see a life size prison cell, probably like the one my friend stayed in for six months thinking about roller skates. I got to open a closet of typical East German fashions, made mostly out of synthetics because the cotton was going into Trabants, and I got to pretend I was the director of a Trabant factory and had to make production choices to make my quota. Even with making some ethically dubious decisions (sourcing steel on the grey market! Sending out cars without upholstery on the seats!) I still failed the test, once again proving I would have made a lousy East German.
Heather (another friend) has never been to Berlin, and is thinking of adding it to her bucket list. I heartily support that decision, and was thinking about it as I took a guided tour in a boat down the Spree, marveling at the beautiful architecture. Not only did Berlin have to reconstruct after the war, it had to reclaim its status as a capital after reunification, and did so in magnificent form, restoring some old buildings so well they look like they never faced a bomb, and creating new architecture that is not only environmentally friendly and suitably grand for a capital but manages to articulate a vision of a new, unified Germany. The Reichstag area, and its new buildings are particularly snazzy, and one can see the mark of the old wall up the steps to the Reichstag, as the border went over the river. The new city hall is being built on the site of the East German Peoples Palace, an imposing building that replaced an 19th century palace that was demolished to make way for the new building, insulated from top to bottom with asbestos….long after science has proved the danger. The Tiergarten, Berlin’s main city park, is a huge, lush and rather wild looking park that after the war didn’t have one tree….they had all been burned for firewood. Reforestation started in earnest, and now there are over 4,000 mature trees. Each one has a number and is catalogued.
And since it was another gorgeous day, the red faced Germans were out in full force, many with large brown bottles of beer as they stretched out along the banks of the river. And I realized that unlike every other European city I’ve been in over the past few years, I have not seen one cop or soldier, even at the airport, since I got here. Either there is no fear of terrorist attacks, or there is complete confidence in the security services to thwart them at the germination stage.
I wandered back to my trendy digs (turns out George Clooney stays here!) and ate dinner in the upstairs restaurant, listening to a Brit, a German and two Americans talk about real estate. At one point the Brit said, “So, there’s nothing really between Minnesota and the north pole, right?” . Obviously, I was incredulous and was about to interject when the waiter came with cake. Ooh cake! It was probably just as well.
Which, with the aforementioned second shower, brings me to this moment. It’s time to sleep, since I have to catch an early morning flight to Amsterdam.