Monday, November 9, 2009

And The Wall Came Down

I saw the Wall some twenty-four years ago, riding on the train between Frankfurt and Goettingen, en route to a Summer spent soaking up German culture and language. Off in the distance, I saw the pale gray line, peeking in and out of the hills. I didn't have to ask anybody; I knew it had to be the Wall. I wondered what it was like, living near the Wall. And how the forest felt with the Wall wending through it.

I saw the Wall at a little village near Wolfsburg, the pavement cut in two, even a house walled off at the back. The Wall cut through people's lives. And the village looked just as sweet and quaint as any with brick and cobblestone streets, neat houses with white and red and dark green cutely arranged, flowers in the petite shoebox gardens, as if it didn't have a scar marking across its face. We drove to where the road ended and sat on a bench in front of the Wall to take pictures. My friend mugged for the camera; he wasn't about to take this seriously in front of a foreigner. I could see the glint of guards moving inside the tower directly across. I wonder if they tired of tourists gawking at them, if they thought their job was a worthy one.

I saw the Wall in Berlin extending past the Reichstag to either side, covered in graffiti and paint. The paint ended at the ground. The green grass and neat pavement came right up to the wall on the West side. The base of the wall on the East side was a barren no-mans land of raked earth and barbed wire. The wall seemed like a piece of modern art, bending and angling seemingly at random. Who decided it would bend *there* and angle *there*? On that lovely Summer's day, we walked under the shady trees and out onto the plaza, into the museum that occupied the Reichstag building. My friends treated me to some ice cream in the cafe. No laws or debate in those halls those days, just velvet ropes and lump-sugar packets. They had seen it all before.

I saw the border where the lines of cars met the checkpoint booth, where lines of barriers threaded pedestrians through a convoluted path across stark concrete, which lead us through a prefab building where we presented our passports and told our story. I was going to visit as a tourist, yes, just for today, a few hours. Then I could go, and I wondered at the lack of ceremony. I was going behind the Wall, das Mauer. My West Berlin friends would pick me up in a couple of hours. They couldn't understand why I couldn't just take a tour bus.

I saw the divide when I went into East Berlin shops to look for books, children's toys, postcards, candy. The pages were slick and the ink was muddy and dark, the illustrations forbidding, the humor, dark. I casually said goodbye to the woman in a shop, and she stared at me oddly as if to wonder why I was so friendly and cheerful. I walked down sidewalks trying to find an art museum that was, of course, closed the exact day of the week I was there. Trying to find another bookshop, I strolled past a university and concrete bridges over a coffee au lait-colored river, and stumbled on a burnt-out synagogue with a plaque afixed to an ironwork fence: Vergiss es nie! I found the bookshop but they were inexplicably closed with an official paperwork fluttering on the door. I took a wrong turn trying to find my way back to the Centrum plaza and found myself on the greyest street, buildings crumbling and pocked with mortar wounds and time. I felt lost in this grey and dismal place. I glimpsed a small courtyard with laundry and bicycles parked inside, but there were few people about about to wonder who I was or what I was doing. Off in the distance, the radio tower "Alex" gleamed gold and silver. I stumbled back across the neighborhood into the comparative glitz of the central plaza and passed a man in military uniform, shyly averting my eyes hoping he wouldn't wonder too much about this young tourist wearing jeans and sneakers. I never did find the avenue of Linden trees before I ran out of time.

And then I asked where I could exchange the remains of my East German money. The lady at the bland border bank was a little stunned at the question, and tried to explain to me that I was not allowed to exchange money back to West German Marks.

I don't remember when the Wall came down. I'm sure I watched it on television back home from my own isolation of a remote corner of the state. I'm sure I rejoiced and cried tears to see people jubilant and emotional, hefting sledgehammers and shouting and crying. I'm sure I felt an oppressive cloud lift as the earth under the Wall groaned from the release. I'm sure I did not know how challenging the long divide would continue to be.

I see a footprint of the former wall cutting across cobblestones, delineated with brick and brass. The Wall says: I was here. I remain here a ghost. I am gone, but you cannot erase me.

On the twenty-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

No comments: