This was my first real travel blog. Here it is: I was talking last week to my physician about my trip to the old East Berlin during the Cold War days. He thought it would be a good idea to chronicle that event, as it is unique in our history and experience.
The year was 1971, a little over a year after I graduated from Pharmacy School. I put together a long European travel itinerary that included wandering around on Eurail, then working in a hospital in London for a few months, then travelling again the following year. The plans did not work out completely, but it was a memorable trip anyway.
My friend and fraternity brother, Russ, had introduced me to new experiences, like fine wine, classical music, gourmet food, and foreign travel. As we talked, and planned, we decided to go to Europe, travel together for a few months; then he would return home, and I would go to work in London. It certainly turned out otherwise, for various reasons.
We left in September, 1971 on a charter flight from Oakland International Airport. It seemed like such a big deal at the time, as my Mom, and Russ’ parents showed up to send us off in style. It was a cheap charter, actually $99 one way to London’s Gatwick Airport. We had a stop in Bangor, Maine for a refuel. stretch our legs, and eat something decent. What a desolate place.
On to London overnight, landing in the early morning, then waking up our hotel manager to get into our room at about 5am. He was not happy. Moving on through several days in London, then Amsterdam, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, we made our way to Munich. The Oktoberfest was in full swing, and we probably spent a week there, enjoying the Oktoberfest beer, food, people, and spirit.
Somehow, a local German kid who I befriended suggested going to Berlin. He said the train was the cheapest, but the airplane was faster and less hassle. What he meant was this: the train from Munich to West Berlin travels through what was East Germany. At every stop in East Germany, the East German Army would board the train, and check passports, especially U. S. passports. That meant being wakened every hour or two, getting a flashlight shined in your face, and told to stand up while being addressed by the soldier.
Finally, getting to West Berlin in mid day, we found a nice pensione, with our own shower. After this gruelling train and plane trip, we needed a good, hot shower. By this time, after WW2, West Berlin became a modern, well developed, and fun city. We experienced good food, nice people, stylish shops, wide boulevards, and a vibrant nightlife. Since I missed rice a lot, we went to a Chinese restaurant in West Berlin. It was staffed completely by Germans, so I began to worry about the quality of the food. Needless to say, once he took our order to the back and opened the kitchen door, we knew it was an authentic Chinese place. Lots of Chinese chefs, yelling at each other at the top of their lungs in Cantonese, anxious to cook our order.
Much like we do in most new cities we visit, we decided to take the safe route, and take a guided bus tour of both East and West Berlin. It took the better part of a day. It contrasted the East and West in many ways that you will read about shortly. It was night and day for the most part.
The bus tour was rather sterile, so I decided to look for some other American travelers who would go over with me on foot. Americans could get a 24 hour visa to cross into East Berlin. Our embassy was advised of any Americans not returning within the designated time frame. At that point, they would somehow join the East German police and come looking for us.
I was having my daily pea soup in a well known student hangout in West Berlin. I helped provide first aid to a German national who was having a seizure. I quickly made friends with a young, American couple about my age, who looked like hippies. They said they had a van, and would drive the three of us to Checkpoint Charlie, so we could cross over on foot. My prayers were answered, a free ride, and some company. Russ did not any part of this, as I left him in the room that day.
We drove to Checkpoint Charlie with some trepidation, parked their hippie van, and proceeded to walk the remaining block or so to Checkpoint Charlie. If you have not seen photos of Checkpoint Charlie, it is a well fortified gate, about 50 yards wide, staffed by about 20-30 (that I could see) East German soldiers, fully armed, and well equipped with tanks, bazookas, machine guns, and jeeps.
Were we rather naive about this whole thing or what? We were led into the actual Checkpoint room, and filled out the day visa, and handed over our passports. I had no trouble getting through, although they made comments that I was of Japanese origin, and should not be an American. Now the other couple was another story. I forgot their names, but let’s call them Bill, and Mary. Bill had extremely long hair, rather unkept appearance, sandals, and alot of facial hair. The soldiers got their laughs calling him all kinds of names, poking at his hair, and frisking him from head to toe. Now, I remember, his last name was Kelly. So naturally, they asked if we was related to the infamous William Calley.
Mary was another story, as she was a fairly attractice, young American hippie with long hair. She had a tie dyed blouse, which they had to comment on several times. They then called over a female soldier and told her that she was going to be strip searched in another room. Now, my guess is they probably had hidden cameras in there, but we were all so scared, we just did what we were told. They really did not even want me waiting around for them to get through the formalities.
Finally, we are ready to go. No way. We now had to buy 50 East German marks, and were told it must be spent while we were in East Berlin. They warned us that it could not be carried out, and that we were not to spend our West German marks in East Germany. And that some East Germans would approach us wanting to trade marks, since the West German marks were more powerful.
Taking off now on foot, we decided to walk to the main square, which we were told, was built to resemble Red Square in Moscow. It was a very cold, and sterile area, with dark windowed buildings, guards everywhere, and nobody smiling. We decided to have a coffee near the Square, and see if we could find some young East Berliners to talk to or even hang out with for the day.
No such luck, as there were NO young people on the streets, or in the shops. The only East Berliners walking around were usually older, hunched over ladies, usually in pairs, going about their daily errands. It was hard to find anyone that spoke English. So, we set out again on our own, trying to find something to do. There were no movie houses, shopping areas, or parks. We had seen them the day before on our bus trip, but it must have been mostly propaganda.
In frustration, we finally found a cafeteria to have lunch, and try to spend our East German marks. We did not find many stores that carried anything that we might want to take home. A lot of small stores carried canned goods with no labels. They had no fresh food of any kind. We could not even buy a beer or soda. We finally found a store and bought postcards, and some more snacks. It would have been impossible to buy an East Belrin T shirt or trinket.
We must have walked for miles and miles after lunch. It was the same thing, over and over. Old, war torn buildings, or newer sterile, gray, stark office buildings and tenements. And no young people walking around at all. We could also not get within about 100 yards of the Berlin wall itself.
We were just about ready to give up and go back even though we had several hours of day light. Out of nowhere, a guy comes up to us and wants to buy some West German marks. We swear he looked like a “plant”, as he just as quickly disappeared down an dark alley. But, it turns out we were standing right in front of a bar, or ratskeller, with a small, dimly lit beer sign outside. We decided this was as social as the day would get. So we went inside.
We started drinking beer, and buying beer for anyone who walked in. We quickly became the toast of the town. People started, literally, pouring in, having heard of free beer from the crazy Americans. We saw it as a fun way to get rid of the East German marks. It was fun until the money ran out, and we were relegated to ugly Americans again.
We decided, after many beers, that it would be best to go back to West Berlin, so we hoofed it back to the Checkpoint. As we crossed back over, we could see the soldier in the machine gun nest, pointing his machine gun at us as we crossed back over. It turns out that just the month before, a clever East German escaped via the Checkpoint in his car. We actually found photos and other paraphenalia at a small museum on the West Belrin side of the Checkpoint. We also saw the welcome sight of American GI’s on the West Berlin side.
We still wanted to see the wall up close, so we asked the American soldiers where we could go. He drew a quick map and told us that a small scaffold had been erected at a point, so that you could see into East Berlin from there. We quickly drove over, climb a small scaffold, and got to see it all. Dozens of motorcycles patrolling the interior of the wall. Mine fields between the tenements and the wall. Barbed wire and broken glass all over the top of the wall. Danger signs posted everywhere. At that moment, it sure felt good to be free, and an American.
This is a trip I will never forget. The contrast between East and West was so vast, yet here we are trying to live together now that the enemy has changed. We never thought it would end. Will this war on terror ever end as well?
Note: Now that the Wall is gone, you can still see remnants at the Newseum in Washington, DC. They have the largest remaining section of the Wall, the lookout for Checkpoint Charlie, and an original and rather ominous sign that warns people about the wall and the East German sector. A small piece of the wall is also in the men’s room at the Main Street Station casino and hotel in downtown Las Vegas.