Monday, 6 February 2012

The way we were: East Germany (Όπως ήμασταν παλιά: Ανατολική Γερμανία)

Europe, Europe, Europe - I feel quite fortunate to have met her in happier times, when she had a very youthful and more appealing appearance than she does now.

At high school, I studied French, Latin and German, the latter being my favorite subject, due mainly to my teacher, Mrs Kooznetzoff, a New Zealander married to a German-speaking Russian, who taught with great zeal and passion, passing on her fervour and knowledge of the German language and culture to her students in a memorable way; even if some of my classmates detested the subject and being in the class, there is no doubt that they will remember Mrs K. Her depictions of everyday life in insular (at the time) Berlin and the differences between East and West were what fascinated me most. The perils and secrets of "Die Mauer" (The Wall) now sound so outdated and impossible in the liberated world we live in, but at the time, those stories captivated my imagination. I still remember where I was and what I was doing when the wall finally fell. I visited Berlin less than two years later, at a time when the city was in the throes of unification, nowhere near completion of the task, so I was very lucky to have been given the chance to catch a glimpse of life in what is now Berlin's (and Germany's) past, just before it was irrevocably shaped into modernity.

Monday 29/7/91 - 10.00am On train to Leipzig. The East Germany scenery is quite a change from Nurnberg. Countryside houses seem old, built in a traditional style, similar to Frankisch houses in Nurnberg. Passed a few castles and churches. It's all less hyped than the Western part, less bright colours. Strange not to see many hotels near the train stations.

... 5.00pm The city seemed a ghastly sight at first. There are signs of its communist connections in the derelict buildings, but most of it has been modernised. It's got an under-construction look to it. People here have been very friendly - they look happy in an old-fashioned way, content with what they've got. Staying in a room in a new apartment block - the owners are a really quiet old couple. They told me that before they moved into this apartment, they lived in the now uninhabited block across the road! The tourist offices offer lots of information, the people working at the fast food outlets smile a lot, people seem quite satisfied with their lot here - maybe this is because they are in the beginning stages of a tourist industry. Few tourists here at any rate. The locals really like it when you speak to them in German.

While in Leipzig, I stayed in this room in a new apartment block, opposite from the derelict one.

Also found a number of Greeks here. A local shop owner near the room is Greek, has GR number plates on his car. Found a travel agent offering tickets for 585DM return Leipzig to Athens - I wonder if that includes accommodation. Good cheap food: chips 1.20DM, fish and salad 3.50DM, Coke 0.85DM, big snow-freeze cone 1DM.

Took a walk around the city. Karl-Marx Platz is now Augustus Platz - my guidebook is already outdated! Old and new buildings side-by-side. Church of St Nikolai has an interesting history, quaintly different interior compared to other churches I've seen in Germany so far. Altstadt seems just that: an 'old city', full of the old buildings that actually remained standing after the WW2 bombings. No sign of restoration work after the war - a lot definitely in progress now. It's probably the first European city I've visited so far that's rather dirty and smelly - reminds me of the pollution in Bangkok. Phone problems - making an international phone call is definitely impossible!

Tuesday, 30/7/91 - 8.30am Very filling breakfast with landlady. We spoke at length about the times before and after the fusion of the two Germanies. Hope I can continue with these discussions in Berlin - have to get up early for the train tomorrow morning.

... 11.20am Had a very educational morning. Chanced on the Russian Orthodox church - not open unfortunately, although timetable on the noticeboard says it's open most days for liturgy. Watched an aged-looking ambulance and police car 'racing' to the scene of an accident - in slow motion! Trams look ancient. It's mainly the shops that have a modernised look. There seem to be some stores that sell ONLY snow-freeze cones - and heaps of queues for it! Had one myself - quite good stuff. Went into an 'ex-commy' shop - little variety, horrible display, low-quality products, all cheaply priced. Most people are probably still used to shopping at places like these, but it was difficult to work out if this place was in the early stages of closing down. Certainly doesn't look as though it has a future! Huge phone-box queues - international calls can't be made through them.

... 4pm Browsed through some more of those old-fashioned shops, then stopped off for something to eat. Joined a city tour - Leipzig is famous by way of the arts and its annual trade fairs. Must have been a glorious city before it was bombed, but a lot of it now stands in ruins or is under construction. Really glad to have taken part in this. Russian Orthodox church was included in the tour, so I got a chance to see it indoors. Spoke to one of the caretakers of the church - many Greeks attend the liturgy too. Were then taken through a neighbourhood full of beautiful looking old buildings, very badly maintained, scheduled for demolition. Hard to believe people once lived in these places. Passed by a shopping centre where a South American band was playing, selling cassettes and CDs. St Thomas church, Bach memorial and grave - largest congregation of tourists was here. Lots of old couples walking hand-in-hand around the grounds here. They have the mid-war period, WW2, communism and unification written on their faces. Had lunch at a cafe here: "salat mit schafskase" - looked like Greek salad with feta cheese to me! Very slow service ,as if they aren't used to tourists.

My bit of the Berlin Wall - I hope it really is (in those days, I'd believe anything someone told me).

Apparently there's a lot of unemployment in the city, but the shops certainly looked busy. People are walking out of clothes shops holding full bags, food stores are very busy. Consumer society - not much different in NZ. Good business also possibly due to summer holidays. Many sales signs on store windows.

berlin august 1991Wednesday, 31/7/91- 9.30pm Berlin's neat. Got here nice and early, was one of the first at the accomodation office, which is how I got one of the cheapest rooms. That Let's Go: Europe guide was one of the best investments I made. Found a lovely cosy room in an old apartment block in the east side. Staying with an old woman (I call her 'Frau') and her son in what looks like an old apartment block. He looks a little shady, but I've been given a key to the room. It's even got an enormous old-fashioned TV set in it! Taking S-Bahn all over the place - horrible but does its job. Speaking heaps of German. People are very friendly - not so in the past, according to the Frau. Food really cheap too - 0.65DM for a bottle of water.

berlin august 1991
Visited Brandenburg Gate - no remnants of the Wall, just souvenirs of it available for purchase! I bought a piece (complete with a certificate of authenticity!) from a young shy soft-spoken girl who was selling them close by. She told me she was born in East Berlin. I asked her a lot of questions about how life was like in the past - I suppose she gets asked this sort of thing a lot by tourists.

berlin august 1991Took ages to book my tickets for Sweden. The reservation system was slow, but the station staff kept me constantly informed about what was happening - queues are long, people are patient. First time I've been offered an all-female overnight sleeper cabin!

Walked about a little, took photos of what looked like pre-1989 Berlin, came across Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial church near Europa Centre. What a gem! Will visit tomorrow. Love the way they left it standing just like it was after the bombing. Poignant reminder of the zilch value of war. Germans are very environment-conscious - recycling facilities all over the place for paper, aluminium and glass. Not so frequently sighted in the former commy areas. Matter of time, I suppose.

berlin august 1991
Saw a lot of both Berlins this evening as I was going back to the room on the S-Bahn. The differences are still quite stark where the wall once stood - one side looks modern, the other is under construction or just plain shabby. Asked people on the S-Bahn whether the trains used to stop and check passengers going in and out of the West, but didn't understand the answer. The trains still ran through both sides. Someone told me that the S-Bahn passes a spot where in the past people climbed up to see what was going on over the other side of the wall, facing West to East, not vice-versa.

berlin august 1991Thursday, 1/8/91- 10.00am Frühstück with the Frau - her son wasn't there (couldn't figure out if he was still sleeping or gone to work). She's very chatty once she gets going. Good for my German skills. She told me that the apartment block is scheduled for demolition, and she'll have to move into a more expensive one. She worries a lot about this. She was very curious to know about my situation in Leipzig. It sounds like this is what will happen to her too. The general set-up goes something like this: old commy-style apartment blocks get demolished, new ones come up and the tenants pay much more money to live in them than they did for the older ones. Their pensions/salaries did go up a little, but they aren't used to paying so much on living expenses.

... 3pm Came out onto Nikolaiviertel and Dom area. Then to Friedrichstrasse. Took me a while to get to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Spent 5 hours there, really interesting. Saw a couple of films too.

... 5.30pm Went to Kaiser-Wilhelm church where I saw the exhibition of photos showing the building of the church, its destruction and its restoration. Another interesting building right next to it - like a church in the shape of a sky-scraper covered in blue glass. Beautiful mosaics in the old part. Then went to Europa Centre dome area. Let's Go tells me to check out the 22-storey shopping mall in it - what on earth do backpackers want to do in there?! Would rather see KaDeWe instead. Am now having a late lunch in Europa Centre - luxurious surroundings. It's next to a plaza, so lots happening around the area. South American band playing here - they could be the same ones I saw in Leipzig!

berlin august 1991...9pm Watched a news program. One of the biggest news items of the day was the rise in the prices of the Berlin transportation system. They've probably amalgamated all the services now, like London transport, as well as between East and West. Now watching Beverly Hills Cop dubbed in German - really gross.

Friday, 2/8/91- 3pm Brekkie with the Frau - she can sometimes be a bit cranky, but she's more interesting than the folks staying at the youth hostels. Out to Waldemarstrasse to find anything remaining of the wall - alas, I am out of luck. It's going down rather more quickly than Let's Go suggests!

berlin august 1991Took U-Bahn to former SS-Gestapo headquarters. Turned out to be staging an exhibition about the 1941-1945 years, showing German and Russian war period. Title: "The war against the Soviet Union" (there's still an 'us' vs 'them' feeling). Photographic exhibition similar to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, but this one was even better. Excellent depictions of futility of war. It was only in German - no English captions, but the photos spoke for themselves. Part of the exhibition was staged outside the museum - I think it was the first exhibition to be held here in the old prison cells used by the Gestapo. It was made all the more vivid by being staged so close to a remnant of the wall - finally got to see a good chunk of it! The differences between East and West are very visible at this point.

berlin august 1991
Passed what looked like an enormous S-Bahn station before it was destroyed - now, only a part of the front entrace remains on the West side. It was maintained in its ruined state, just like the Kaiser-Wilhelm church. Had some revolting chocolate cake but very good cappuccino at a nice Kneipe-restaurant, in the 'über'-trendy Kreuzberg

...5pm Passed Potsdamer Platz in U-Bahn. Pity there's no signage explaining the area. Maybe it will be renovated now with unification??? Savignyplatz - revolting. Drunks and prostitutes all over the place, no inhibitions here. KaDeWe - just another Harrods. Off to K'damm now. Can't wait to get back to the room and have a shower. The weather really sucks here. Yesterday was a steamy muggy 35C, today it's cloudy, raining and 27C! Wonder what it will be like tomorrow.
Saturday, 3/8/91- 2.30pm Left quickly after breakfast to get to the station with all my luggage. Had problems with my reservation for Sweden - noticed at the eleventh hour that my tickets were for 3/9, not 3/8!!! Talk about a stuff-up. Had to go all the way back to Berlin-Zoo station, then to Berlin-Lichtenberg to leave my luggage until I return there in the evening to catch the train.

berlin august 1991 berlin august 1991 berlin august 1991
To take these photos, I stood on the space where the wall that divided the city was erected, snapping photos of different views between East and West. The wall was no longer standing, but the differences between the two Berlins were quite evident; the part of the road where the wall stood had not yet been tarmacked.

Got back to Alexanderplatz for another delicious doner kebab. Then to Tiergarten where I walked through some West Berlin suburbs full of non-Germans, to Plotzensee memorial. Plain simple site marks place where opposer of Hitler's regime were sentenced and buried. Earth taken from German concentration camps placed in urns. Also passed on the way an ex-Jewish area, with a Jewish memorial of a train full of people, made of marble, on the tracks going to Auschwitz. Another poignant reminder of the futility of war.

...5.30pm Did a lot of walking around, and got really tired, all due to the weather: hot, sticky, muggy, humid - horrible! Ended up getting very sweaty, constantly hungry and thirsty. Wasps all over the place, hovering above my drinks. Nothing gets served cold here, only tepid. Returned to the station with a non-valid ticket because I had no more DM and since I'm leaving for Sweden tomorrow, I couldn't be bothered changing more money. There should be one currency here - the cambios de change all over Europe do a roaring trade making money just by exchanging one note for another. Heaps of creeps on the S-Bahn today. Don't know if they were there before - I simply didn't notice them.

...10pm Had a shower at the train station. Feel a lot better now. Train compartments are really nifty!

Sunday, 4/8/91 - 12 noon, Malmö/Sweden What a journey - did not sleep well at all. Got woken up at various points throughout the night by a guard. Had my passport checked each time. Even got a stamp in it - first time since Bangkok! Horribly expensive place - most expensive youth hostel so far. Not much to do around here, maybe because it's Sunday. The weather's really gloomy. Walked around the flea market, now in a botanical garden. Bored already. Should have stayed in Berlin.

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All the above excerpts have been based on my diary entries. The photos are all my own from that 1991 visit.

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