Hearing and reading about the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has me feeling old and grateful. Like many American college students, I traveled Europe that following summer, in 1990 - the wonderment and celebrations still fresh. Unfortunately, all my photos from that summer are stashed away in my mother's house - I'll have to reclaim them over Thanksgiving.
The only evidence I have on hand is this worn-out t-shirt that I bought at Checkpoint Charlie. It depicts the form that residents of West Berlin had to fill out to visit GDR or East Germany. (GDR stands for 'German Democratic Republic' - oddly named for a Communist state.)
Though there are numerous stains and the armpits are yellowed, I can't bring myself to let go of this shirt. I remember exploring East Berlin and feeling depressed by the overwhelming amount of grey cement, mostly in the form of staid square buildings. I never appreciated how much color billboards and advertising bring to an urban landscape until then. Picture the opposite of Times Square and you've got a clear idea.
Later that same afternoon, I paid somebody five deutsche marks for a hammer and chisel (love the commie symbolism) to hack away at the Berlin Wall, which had been brought down only seven months prior. The now-famous East-facing graffiti had barely begun and it was still mostly colorless. I scored me a few chunks of that horrible wall but it wasn't a souvenir I was after. I just loved the idea of doing my own little part to tear down that evil boundary.
Somewhere else on that trip, I met two cute German boys on a train. One, a West German named Matthew, was traveling with his cousin (I forget his name) who had grown up in East Berlin. Many families were divided by the Wall so reunions were happening all over the place.
Matthew and I were talking and he, in turn, translated for his cousin, who sat and stared at me, wide-eyed. I was telling the boys about my life in Southern California, my school, my friends, my country ... when I suddenly noticed that the silent boy had tears in his eyes.
"Oh, no!" I said to his cousin, "I made him cry!"
Matthew put his arm around his cousin and explained. "Oh, don't worry. He is doing that so much. Every time we meet somebody new from another country. I think it is overwhelming for him. The freedom is still new."
Then, the teary boy said something in German to Matthew, who laughed and then translated for me. "You are his first California girl to meet, so he cannot believe it." Hey, at least I was blonde at the time.
I'd give anything to know what became of that young, emotional East German. I'm sure he's raising his glass tonight, celebrating his freedom still.