The year we left, my best friend, Dianne Hentschel, and I decided that before our two oldest teens went back to Canada to University they must see Berlin. This was before the wall came down, before it was even conceivable to think that the wall would ever come down. Accordingly, we found ourselves at midnight one night in the Cologne railway station with Christopher and Kate, Kate’s young sister Sarah, and her best friend, Pam. We crowded ourselves into a sleeping compartment on a train with six minuscule bunks and waved goodbye to two very dubious-looking husbands on the platform.
Late though it was, nobody in that room had any thought of sleeping. The kids distributed themselves on the upper bunks and broke out pop and junk food. Dianne and I sat rather more decorously on the bottom bunks and shared a bottle of wine. This was an adventure and we were all delirious with the delight of it.
When we finally decided that we had to get some sleep, I carefully set my alarm clock for 5:00 a.m. The train got into Berlin at 6:00a.m., stopped there for exactly three minutes, (and when German train timetables say exactly three minutes that is exactly what they mean), and then went on to Moscow. I am a worrier by nature and I didn’t even want to think of what would happen if we didn’t get ourselves all off in Berlin.
I needn’t have bothered. When we crossed the border into East Germany the entire crew of the train changed. Our door was slammed open with a crash, the light unceremoniously blazed on, and a voice demanded “Pässe” in no uncertain terms. I’m not certain which of the six of us leaped the highest, but the two in the top bunks must have hit the ceiling. Literally.
I shall always be thankful that my son was able to see Berlin before the wall came down. On the day that unbelievable news reached the world, I knew he would understand the enormity of what had happened better than anyone who had not been there ever could. We had walked along the western side of the wall. We had added our names and drawings to all the rest of the garish graffiti there, had climbed up on wooden platforms and looked over it to the no-man’s land beyond, and stared into the eyes of heavily armed East German guards who had stared impassively back. We visited Checkpoint Charlie and spent hours looking at the pictures and memorabilia of all those who had escaped–and read the tragic stories of those who hadn’t. Finally, we took the S-Bahn–the streetcar–over to East Berlin and passed through into that other world.
Most of the truly beautiful buildings of Berlin were on that side and they were painstakingly and expensively restored after the war. We toured the museums, marvelled over the architecture of the opera house, watched the Russian soldiers goosestep in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then we walked down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate.
We had been on the other side of that gate the day before. We had taken pictures of ourselves in front of the gate, close enough to the wall to touch it and add yet more exuberant graffiti to it–six tourists amongst a throng of noisy, happy people and raucous traffic jams. On this side: Unter den Linden, a broad, once-proud avenue, lined with the linden trees that gave it its name, was barren and sterile. A few shops with deceiving, pathetic displays in their windows, nothing on the shelves within, no one with money to buy anything in there anyway. There were almost no cars. A few people, quiet, some pushing strollers with babies in them. When you got to the gate you were stopped by a barrier about 30 metres away from it, and barbed wire. From this side the wall was grey and featureless. Forbidding. Armed guards patrolled between it and us. There were benches there, fixed so that you could sit and look through the gate to the loud, colourful turmoil on the western side of it. Strange that they would do that. We sat and watched a young couple with their baby stand near us without speaking, just staring towards the obelisk on the other side with its shining, golden peak gleaming in the sun.
I wonder where that couple is now? I wonder what kind of a life that baby has had? A very different one than what her parents had envisioned for her, I’m sure.
The old, courtly doctor finally moved to the kindlier climate of the south, to Bavaria, for the sake of his health. We worried, Frau Piccu and I, as to how the other doctor would make out without him, but he fell and died of complications within three days, before we even knew it had happened. Herr Engleskirchen gave me a picture before I left that he had painted of Königswinter and the Drachensfel high above it, as it had looked when he was young. Frau Piccu, Doris, we finally got onto first names, still writes to me.
I see, smell, and hear an early morning on the banks of the Rhine. The fog is thick, but as I approach the Mehlem ferry, the curtain begins to rise. The barges chug along. The Königswinter church steeple emerges in a stray ray of sunlight just as its bells begin to peal. This is a scene from a dream. This is a scene from my memories.