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Sunday, November 8, 2009


"Five minutes of heaven." "Let me purchase your ticket," Sabine begged me. "It will be the only ticket to the West I will ever get to buy." Who knew, ten years later, she would buy her own. My first views of Berlin, East Berlin, were not at all what I expected. I arrived on a Friday afternoon train in October, 1980, from Weimar, another East German city. It was an uncomfortable trip, standing for an interminable time in the crowded vestibule of a train car with my jumbo hard-shell yellow Samsonite suitcase and a desperate desire to get out of drab and depressing Eastern Europe, if only for a few days. I, and especially my out-of-place suitcase attracted the attention of every passenger who got on and the unfriendly stares of those jostling for better footing in the small space we uneasily shared. The train was packed with workers returning home to the big city, going to visit the big city, seeing relatives in the big city. And me. No one ever got off, people just kept getting on. And on. And on. I was nose to nose with strangers for the last 40 kilometers. I was completely surprised to rattle through the outskirts of Berlin and discover neighborhoods, or districts, of single family homes with big gardens, lawn chairs, and detached garages. Even in late Fall, the grass was green, a few faded blooms were stubbornly still on the vines. Clothes hanging on the line, blue, green, red, yellow, blue jeans and overalls. Dogs chasing after children. Children playing tag and digging in the dirt. Where was I, Wilmington, Delaware, or was it really Berlin? Sabine and Dietrich met me at the bahnhof and whisked me away in their newer green Volvo. We made a brief -- and entirely forgettable -- tour of the city, avoiding the places I longed to see, The Wall, Unter den Linden, the Brandenburg Gate. We had a scrumptious dinner of chicken with herbs, freshly steamed vegetables saved from the garden, big slices of juicy red tomato, and a nice light wine. Their children, Ulrike and Krystof were teenagers, proud to show me their rooms filled with posters of the current East German rock stars and early punk design. Krystof had longish hair and was himself a proto-punk type kid. He had a pierced ear and a henna tattoo and played a primitive Jimi Hendrix tune on his guitar for me. Ulrike was his opposite. Prim, carefully composed, she worked in a private boutique for spending money and had a boyfriend with whom she left for the movies. The family's home was one of the single family homes with a large garden like I'd seen on the way in. It had come to them by inheritance. They had a huge, productive garden and a few grape vines for making their own sweet wines. A bonfire pit was surrounded by several benches and garden chairs, with large bushes offering privacy. We sat outside for a few minutes, looking over at the tall television tower that had become a matter of great pride for Berliners. Would I like to make a trip to to the top? A lovely family. She was an oncologist. He was a nuclear engineer. How they got clearance to host an American in transit I have no idea. Or maybe they didn't. I never officially registered as a guest in their home (a formality generally required) so perhaps the entire thing was below the radar. One learned not to ask a lot of questions, primarily out of consideration for one's hosts. The issue was embarrassment, humiliation due to the degrading conditions under which they lived. They were members of the small Methodist church, the organization that hosted my visit. Their home was filled with books and record albums (that would be vinyl, for you who haven't heard of them). During the daytime we toured war ruins. A large landfill nearby was still filled with rubble from World War II, some of it yet uncovered. We went to a nearby market. And mostly we sat and talked. And talked. And talked. Of life here. And there. Of essential human values. The dangers of materialism -- whether dialectical or consumerist. Family, hopes, future. Freedom. What was it? Did it depend more upon internal or external conditions? Could one be free in a perversely restricted environment? Could one be free in a persistently distracted environment? We also went to the train station in the center of the city so that I could purchase the ferryboat ticket that would take me next day to Sweden. A train from Berlin north to the coast, and then a Swedish ferry to carry me across the Baltic to my own ancestral home. "Please, let me buy it," Sabine begged. She did not have the money to purchase my ticket outright but she asked if she could be the one to approach the ticket windown first and request the oneway passage to Helsingborg, the oneway ticket out. Of course, it was my passport that the agent required in order to make issue but she conducted the transaction and said, "I pretended, I pretended it was for me." "It was five minutes of heaven," she said, "followed by the plunge into depression: it was not really for me." The mood of our visit turned on that hinge moment. I could leave. They could not. I was going. They had no such choices to make. From then on, they wanted to know more and more about the West. It was not so much that they ached to live there, but were dying to know more about this unknown world just across The Wall. The Wall. We went to see The Wall after dark that last evening of my stay. "Do you want to see Checkpoint Charlie?" First of all, it made me giggle to hear this cliched American term built into the flow of a German language sentence. It didn't belong. I told them I'd go wherever they felt like taking me, wherever it was comfortable or safe for them. Sabine and Dietrich decided the children must not come. If there was trouble, they didn't want Ulrike and Krystof involved. More intense discussion followed. I said, "we really don't have to do this." "No," they insisted. This is something you must see, must experience." It turned out, they rarely went anywhere near The Wall. It was a dominant reality of their daily life but they saw it only a few times a year. Sabine chattered nervously the entire way into the center of the city. Dietrich was unusally silent. He drove. Then, pulled over to the side of a street in front of a block of apartment buildings. "We are very close. I can't go all the way up to the Checkpoint. That would be dangerous for us. They check license plates. We don't want to be seen as having an interest," he explained. "It will be out the left windows. Look quickly." "Can I take a photo without flash?" "Yes, and show it to everyone. This is how we live." And with that he sped off and we drove the few blocks, then turned a corner, down a block, and there, through the intersection, I saw it. The Checkpoint. Another block, The Wall. This is what I remember: a tall cement wall, brilliantly lit up, like a set scene in a movie, the curved over lamp poles, emptiness. There were no cars parked or driving on this street approaching The Wall. It was as eerie as you might imagine. Eerier. I was too stunned to take any photos -- for once in my entire life. Dietrich squealed around the corner on two wheels and drove away like a bat out of hell. Literally. Back to the safety of normal life in East Berlin. The next morning the saw me off at the train station, all of us weeping. In 1989, on a crisp November day, Sabine and Dietrich and their children and grandchildren strolled through the Brandenburg Gate, and into the heart of West Berlin. A new world. Ten minutes from their home.

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