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Remembering the Wall

by Bob Bestor

It will be 17 years this November 9th: Wherever you happen to be, perhaps you will remember to quietly raise a glass to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Capitalism ain't perfect, but it seems to work better for more people than what went on behind that ugly barricade.

It was only at my wife's insistence that we first visited Berlin in 1980. My mental picture of it in those days, formed by war-time newsreels, was a bombed out pile of rocks picked at by old women wearing bandannas. I was more into rolling green hills and craggy Alps. But, as Liz pointed out, every third German we met on our frequent visits to country asked the same question, "Have you seen Berlin?"

Thus it was that we found ourselves one warm summer day at the Rupholdstein checkpoint in our rented Opel Kadette.

If you will recall, in 1980 West Berlin was an enclave of freedom completely surrounded by communist East Germany. Driving there from West Germany involved about a four-hour drive through hostile territory. We approached our entry as a visit to an enemy camp, from which we might never return. There were a long list of don'ts and a much shorter list of dos: Don't exceed the posted speed limit, no matter how slow it is; don't leave the main highway; don't stop. Do take food and water and start with a full tank of gas. With these cautions and tales of border harassment firmly in minds, our attitude was smile, keep a low profile, smile, be pleasant, smile, get through it.

We discovered smiles don't work for every occasion.

After surrendering our passports through the car window at the first border station, we rolled ever so slowly to the next shack, where we would wait for them to be returned and where a young soldier sat behind an open window, his head only a couple of feet from mine at eye level as we sat in the car. This, we hoped, was the person who would return our passports with a friendly wave and send us on our way. Not quite. We nodded a "Guten tag" and smiled. He did neither. In fact, he fixed me with a stare so unblinking and malevolently aggressive that it was as if he'd called me a capitalist pig. His 19-year-old, third-world eyes bore into my 42-year-old head attached to a body softened and pampered by life in the West.

At first I thought something was wrong. Perhaps I had begun to sprout a second nose, or maybe I was being mistaken for an escaped ax murderer. The stare went on for several minutes, the soldier never moved or blinked. Unnerving is what it was.

A calculated tactic like this creates a dilemma for its target: after the first nervous smiles and nods fail, what does one do? I did what I suspect most poor, flustered non-German-speaking tourists do, I turned my back on the stare-down and said something brilliant like, "So Liz, do you think we'll be able to find soccer shirts for the kids at KaDeWe?" Her calm response was something on the order of, "I haven't the faintest idea but if you'll turn around the nice young man will give us back our passports and we can get the he'll out of here."

(This story first appeared in Gemütlichkeit, The Travel Letter for Germany, Austria, & Switzerland. Click here to find out how to subscribe to the only English language publication devoted entirely to travel in these three countries.)

In retrospect, I have thought of 40 or 50 better ways to have handled what we now know was a form of amusement performed at the expense of fat-cat American tourists. The responses I most favor now all involve being fluent enough in German to break the ice with something like, "Lighten up man, I'm bringing steroids for the swim team." Gemütlichkeit would have then become the first travel newsletter published from a Gulag. (Subscribe today to read some of our more recent accounts of travel throughout Germany.)

But soon we crept away from the checkpoint. The road was rutted and bumpy. Cars kept their spacing and stayed precisely at the posted speed limit. The Mercedes that two miles back on the West German side had blown by us at 120 MPH, was now timid as a kitten and dared not pass the two-cylinder East German popcorn popper ahead.

The law was everywhere. Still in the border control area, maintaining a low speed - and as low a profile as we knew how - we passed a policeman who eyed us with interest, then ambled over to his car, reached inside, pulled out a walkie-talkie and spoke into it; all while keeping his eyes fixed on our car. Yikes! Is it my imagination or is he talking about us? No way, we're minding our own business, we're friendly, we're low profile, we smile. But there was no mistaking it; he had looked directly us - at me really - then walked to his car and immediately communicated information to someone else - about us.

Our answer was over the next hill. Lolling against the fender of yet another police car was a potbellied East German cop. He carefully watched the slow-moving line of cars, all scrupulously crawling at less than the 30 km (19 mph) speed limit. As we came closer, the cop heaved away from the fender and positioned himself in the center of the road. This can't be happening!

But it was. With the slightest movement of one finger of one hand held at his side, he motioned us to pull over. As he approached, I rolled down the window and nervously flashed my best what-seems-to-be-the-trouble-officer smile.

The cop spoke several sentences in German. I understood not one word.

Liz said, "He wants to see the passports."

Trying to control my shaking hand, I gave them up along with the just-obtained transit visas. He examined all while walking a slow half-circle around the car.

The needle on my imagination meter was well into the red zone. Will they let us make a phone call? Do they immediately separate husbands and wives. Back on my side of the car, the cop resumed in German; long sentences, whole paragraphs. I turned again to Liz who this time was no help. "Spreche nicht Deutsch," I tried to say, but who knows how it came out.

We could only shrug and shake our heads. I figured if he spoke any English he would have used it by then.

Finally, exasperated and angry, he reached through the window toward my head. But the hand bypassed my left ear and grasped the shoulder harness hanging by the door post. He gave the strap two hard jerks and the dawn came up like thunder out of Magdeburg. I had forgotten to refasten my seat belt leaving the checkpoint.

The rest was easy. The cop wanted 10 West German marks, and he wanted them immediately. He was careful to give us a receipt, I buckled up, and we were on our way.

Between 1980 and 1989, we made that drive numerous times, and since then have visited Berlin frequently, but the city has never looked better than it did it at the end of that first drive.