Imagine a place with lakes and woods, parks and hills – some made by nature, others by debris and war-time memories. Imagine a place full of legends, quirks and people from all over the world, larger than most cities, bigger than any other in its vicinity. Enclosed by fences and walls, divided in half, soldiers safe-guarding the frontier every day. Flight alert training, tanks on suburban roads. Nothing harmful, a cage wide open. An island in the middle of foreign soil secluded from the rest of the world.
That's where I grew up, in a place called West-Berlin. The soldiers in the streets were our friends: British, French, American. Our allies. I thought I'd marry one of them at 21.
I was born in the British sector, picked French as my first foreign language and wanted to be Jennifer from Hart to Hart when I was eight. I sometimes stood by the fence of the RAF airport, waiting for Queen Elizabeth II to arrive for her annual birthday parade. Living in the British sector was magical like that, the Royal Family arriving only meters away from my home. The RAF one street away, planes taking off and landing right above our houses, heads and barbecues, making their endless rounds - the airport too small to allow the planes to just take off. A group of British soldiers running by us kids on our way to school, one chubby Briton always falling behind. Flame-headed children on leashes, wearing shorts in winter and red faces in summer. Cars with steering wheels on the right side, drive sticks on the left. It all seemed strange to me.
Swim training then with my classmates on a military base in 5th grade. I didn't get a word they said, all those soldiers who smiled at us when we passed the pike. British kids on the other side of the pool, separated from us and somewhat special. Different and yet so alike. Rudolph Hess in a British prison. It always scared me to pass that place. Gun shots from the artillery range or the death strip across the fence in nowhere land. The lake where we spent our summers divided by buoys. The perfect game of truth or dare for us at ten: who would cross the line and swim around the buoys that separated the East from the West? When would they shoot from the other side, the border patrol with their German shepherds? East Germany a place run by Russians in my mind. A gray spot on my map in school. A country holding itself captive behind a wall of stone. Broken streets and grumpy border patrols at the few exits. Harassment by butch women with Saxon accents, a greasy soldier who felt up my doll because he thought I was hiding a baby in the backseat of my parents' car. We always stood in the wrong line, the one that took longest to pass. I still remember that today when I pick the wrong line at Aldi or KaDeWe.
Every trip through the GDR a nuisance, limited access for Berliners with a W. Transit roads only and home before midnight. We had a special status as islanders surrounded by Eastern bars. When we came home and passed the border, the Funkturm and a Berliner Bär in stone greeted us. A sign for us that we were safe. The East smelled like Mitropa rest stops - cheap coffee, bathroom cleaner and industrial food. It always turned my stomach and made me train my bladder to hold it till we reached the West. More than once I had tears in my eyes from suppressing my urgency till we were home.
Tegel Airport was our get-away: British Airways, PanAm and Air France. Sender Freies Berlin and RundfunkImAmerikanischenSektor – all those names, their origin, feel like a myth now, like the W in my Berlin. The world I grew up in is long gone, ground with the wall in '89. A myth to most who claim to have made a home in my hometown. Who like everything about it I now often loathe.
I feel misplaced these days, often miss what I then lost. I cried when our allies left, step by step. Feel most at home when I'm abroad. A friend of mine just said she pitied Berlin back in the days. That made me cross. We always held our heads up high. Living in Berlin was special, our history, our pride. Willi Brandt, von Weizsäcker, Marlene, Kennedy – all those names familiar to me early on. My parents told me stories about our past and how they witnessed the Wall being built. My uncle had fled the East as a soldier, last minute, and left his parents behind. I knew my mom's best friend had almost not made it back to her family back in those days in August 1961. Emotional stories all around town from everywhere. My grandparents who had fled Gdansk, political refugees from the East and conchies from western Germany seeking shelter in West Berlin. A monthly bonus for every employee, so many things were different back in those days.
When the wall came down in November 1989, my family was asleep, unusual for them before 9pm. The next morning I found my parents still at home at 7. The world had changed. The iron curtain had fallen. I saw my father crying for the first time in my life. Berlin was in turmoil, for days and weeks. My dad barely made it home from work, 35 km from the West to the South in Berlin and back to my school to pick me up. Hundreds of Trabbis were in the streets. Masses of people were dancing on Ku'Damm and even the big boulevard in Mitte hardly gave us room to breathe. My first trip to Unter den Linden was scary. The shops and windows scarcely decorated, everything boring, bleak and gray. I said to my father that I would also have fled this dread.
None of us had thought I'd live to see it all change. Berliners had feared another Blockade. While my parents still worried about our safety, I felt cushioned by our allies, protected and safe.
One day then in 1990, the new beginning still fresh and unsteady, I was sitting in my parents' Volkswagen, squealing along to Madonna's “Cherish” on my walkman. It was our first trip to Potsdam, the old GDR. A group of Russian kids surrounded our car. I felt trapped, for the first time in my life. My parents had taken a stroll and laughed at the panicked expression on my face as they returned. My dad allowed the kids to look at his new car. Outside and in. I just wanted to run away. Felt so for years, still do at times.
I miss the West in my Berlin, but wouldn't want to have it like it was before, encased by a barrier, a wall. Berliners know that freedom comes with a price tag and a sacrifice. Deep in my heart the W lives on. But my best friend is from the East.
published 26 March 2011