Sunday, November 09, 2014

a quarter-century ago

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Not everything about East Germany collapsed on that day: I was studying at the Université de Fribourg in Switzerland at the time; I visited the Wall a week after its fall, and there was still a Checkpoint Charlie that I and my friends had to pass through, changing our D-Marks to the ridiculous-looking Ostmarks. But the Wall itself was finished—kaput—at that point: people with sledgehammers stood beside it or atop it, swinging passionately away at the structure, smashing sections of the Wall to bits.

I collected eight chunks of the Wall, but gave them all away to friends (including one girl for whom I had the warm-fuzzies). Mom was furious, as was my great Aunt Gertrude, upon discovering that I'd given away such important souvenirs. I'm not sure that keeping those chunks would have meant much, though: in the age of eBay, how do you prove that your chunk of concrete actually came from the Berlin Wall? It's a bit like the "splinter of the True Cross" problem: there are probably enough supposed splinters of Jesus' cross out there that, if they were all put together, you'd be able to reconstruct Noah's Ark.

I'd love to go back to Berlin. I'm sure that its present reality no longer matches my memories of the place. The East Berlin of my memory was bleak, blank, bland, and blighted—a fitting metaphor for the dead-end nature of socialist ideology. The streets were clean but empty; the spare meal that I and my college friends ate screamed poverty and depression; the field of muscular sculptures in one part of the city was a show put on for no one; the bookstores seemed to have little on offer aside from some stereotypically red books.

For me, a unified Germany incarnates the great question: "Where Are They Now?" Has the former East Germany finally been brought up to speed? Has the robust economy of unified Germany evened itself out, so that the eastern parts thrum with as much vitality as the western parts? Are there still easterners who migrate west in hopes of finding better work opportunities? Has the former East Berlin, and by extension the former East Germany, become a happier, livelier (and very likely dirtier) place? How has the infrastructure changed? How much has the east modernized? I'm dying to know. I'm dying to walk those streets and see the people and hit the bookstores and eat the food and drink in the atmosphere. If I ever find myself with enough cash to do so, I need to get my big self back to Germany. Those Germans from 1989—Wo sind sie jetzt?



Charles said...

Wow. Hard to believe it's been 25 years.

I was at the Wall in the summer of 1990. I collected some pieces as well, and I think there's one still lying around at my parents' house.

I've got some Ostmarks still, too. I remember thinking they felt like Monopoly money.

Kevin Kim said...

re: Ostmarks

Yup. My feeling exactly. The printed paper was hard to take seriously, and the coins felt as if they were featherweight aluminum tokens. No heft or seriousness to any of it. As flimsy and fake as the regime itself.