Berlin: Remembering the wall

By Nuala McCann
BBC News

image source, EPA
image captionGoing Up: a file picture of workers building the Berlin Wall in 1961

East Berlin was on every student's checklist back then.

You cannot beat a high wall to spark a little mystery.

We had seen old black and white footage of a wall that sprang up overnight in the middle of a city.

We had heard of families split up; of east Berliners who suddenly lost their livelihoods because their jobs were in the west of the city and they could not get to them; the heartbreak, the utter disbelief.

We had seen dramatic escapes - small figures tumbling through the air from high buildings in the east or zip wiring over the wall into the west; people digging secret tunnels; a man unfolding himself from the tiny cramped boot of a little bubble car - his mission impossible made possible.

We had heard stories of the dead and the dying - gunshots cracking out; a boy left to bleed to death on barbed wire in no man's land.

There was another world behind the wall - like the world beyond the back of the wardrobe - it appeared strange and exotic.

In the early 1980s, I was a student with a mop of red curly hair, a dodgy set of love beads and a large orange rucksack beneath which I scuttled like a small beetle.

image source, AP
image captionComing down: A man takes a hammer to the Berlin Wall in 1989

I liked to hang out the half windows of European trains, puffing cigarettes with the rest of the cool hippies.

We were a group of about 14 Irish students working summer jobs and our mission was Berlin. We planned a weekend there, we set out on a Friday to a particular roundabout outside Hamburg and hitched a lift.

Our driver was a hippy. He liked to ride with no shoes or socks on - barefoot on the accelerator and a twinkle in his eye. We held our breath as the soldiers checked his boot at the checkpoint, there was something about our man that whispered: "wacky baccy", but we were all right, he cruised through and he got us there.

image captionEast German soldiers on the Berlin Wall in 1989

Once you were on that route there was no turning back - no stopping, no turning back - whipped through a grey corridor of east Germany to the little slice of west Berlin. It seemed a long straight road with grey fences and wiring.

And Berlin?

We slept in a small stretch of grass beside Zoopark in our sleeping bags, lulled to sleep by the screech of an elephant and the whooping of chimpanzees. (our mothers would have murdered us).

We were woken at 03:00 BST by police with torches.

"Kriminali mit messer," they warned, "Criminals with knives":

image captionThe Berlin wall close to Checkpoint Charlie after the wall came down on 10 November 1989

"Wir sind Irisch," we said with a laugh, as if our nationality proved a guarantee of immunity.

The next day we queued up at the gate near Checkpoint Charlie for entrance to the east. The East German soldiers looked us up and down and decided that we posed no threat.

One had a look at my passport photo which, rather unfortunately, made me appear topless. He laughed and called over his friend and they laughed too and they waved us through.

It was like stepping back in time.

There was a grandeur and a greyness about it all, as if someone had thrown a large veil over the high buildings and left it to rest, let the dust settle. It was a scene from an old black and white film.

The little Trabi cars seemed dinky and old fashioned. They puttered up the grand boulevard of Unter den Linden.

After the flashy hues of the west of the city, we had moved into a sepia world; less bold and brash and in your face - the colours had seeped out.

image source, AP
image captionGerman soldiers dismantle the Berlin wall

It was a hot summer's day - the rules back then were that you exchanged a certain amount of money into east German currency and you could not take it back out - you had to spend it.

Our pockets were full. But where were the shops? When we eventually found them, there was little to buy.

We sat around Alexanderplatz and watched the world go by. We thought about John F Kennedy and his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech - only isn't a berliner a big fat doughnut.

All of a sudden, an ice cream van rolled up.

So we joined the queue. Yes, there was ice cream - but one flavour, one type; strawberry or nothing, take it or leave it. We took it.

The God of infinite variety and commercialism had left the east behind.

In the end, our East German cash went on Apfelkorn - apple liqueur - and as night fell, the tower in Alexanderplatz appeared to wobble and we wound our way under the Linden trees and on through the checkpoint where the soldiers rolled their eyes and let us through.

I still treasure my old passport and my Checkpoint Charlie stamp.

Fast forward another ten years and I was back as a journalist in Berlin working for a magazine based in Paris, called Europ.

The world had watched people laughing and crying and hugging when the wall came down.

image source, AP
image captionBeyond the wall: the Brandenburg Gate

My mission was to write about how life had changed for women living in former East Germany after reunification.

The city was starting to change. It was a slow gradual shift, marked by the big shops opening their doors on erstwhile communist boulevards.

You could get your ice cream in various flavours, you could buy stone chips from the old Berlin wall - at a price - and you could go on tours; admire the bright graffiti stretching across what was left of the wall.

Alexanderplatz still felt the same - but there were rumours in the air of big hotel chains and trendy clubs.

When I was there, it felt alternative - a place of little nightclubs down steps in cellars and old gas lamps pooled yellow light on dark pavements - so that you almost expected Marlene Dietrich to appear.

image source, JOHN MACDOUGALL
image captionA walk along the modern remains of the wall

But when it came to interviewing women from former East Germany, it was not all sweetness and light.

They told me they were weary and sick of feeling second class to their West German neighbours.

"On the night that the wall came down, I went out to see," one woman told me.

"Someone reached across from the west and handed me their old shoes. What was that about? What would I need with their old shoes?" she said with disgust.

Another told me that, at least, under the communist regime, she had a guaranteed right to state childcare and she had a job.

They felt they were being patronised by their neighbours in the west. They were dismissive of a culture that they felt was ultra conservative - where women were still shackled to traditional values of "kinder, kirche, kuchen" - children, church and kitchen.

They might not have much but, as women, they felt they had been treated more fairly - their horizons were wider, they argued.

In Berlin itself, you could chart the shift from the west to the east of the city by the U-bahn stations - on the west, they were bright and glossy and fresh with paint - on the east, they seemed slightly seedier, clinical, tiled in sterile white, faded to yellow - like an old man's teeth.

And move out of the city into the east, and you walked huge crude communist boulevards: grey brick loaded on grey brick - bleak and glum.

But the people? Perhaps tough times breed warm spirits.

In the industrial town of Cottbus - grey and smoky - I met a social worker called Wolfgang who was happy to offer his thoughts about reunification.

He also offered a weary traveller a room for the night - gratis, no strings. He was from another time, another world - where kindness was not greeted with suspicion.

And then there was the east German army. They hosted a reception for us journalists at their headquarters.

It was a dinner and there was hot veal and potatoes for all.

We three vegetarians posed a small problem. They had not thought of that - but they served us cornflakes, milk, sugar and a side of peas - with a smile.

Some things take time to sink in. At least they left out the gherkins.

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