One of the advantages of being a lifelong traveler is the ability to witness change. I experienced South Africa during and after apartheid, China before and after Tiananmen Square, and Alexandria, Virginia before and after urban renewal. Today I am on my way to Berlin to see what it's like since the crumbling Wall ended the 44 year separation of East and West Germany.
When I lived in Germany in the mid 1980's, the Berlin Wall was like the dividing line between heaven and hell. West Berlin was vibrant and green. East Berlin was grim with gray bullet-ridden buildings, gray people, gray air. Communism had sucked the energy from everyone's spirit.
Sometimes on the weekend we would muster the courage to cross into the East via the US Military's Checkpoint Charlie. Continuously monitored by armed guards, both in towers and on the ground, my husband and I with babies in tow traipsed the long corridor of no man's land. We'd been told that the area between the two walls was mined. We did not step out of line. The guards detained us for harassment; there was no other point. But sometimes whining kids expedited the process--young ones used to a life of adventure get bored fast.
By the time we reached the other side, the two walls had erased the lively bustle of West Berlin. The only action was the occasional passing of a Trabant, the East German car modeled after the shoe box. Sometimes it, too, was gray; other times is was polka dotted or paisley. Not an expression of the owner, mind you, but the whim of the government. When your name came up for a car, you took what you got. Other than the wheezing of cars, East Berlin was as still as a ghost town. Few shops were open. Open shops had few products. We bought stacking matroschka dolls from Russia.
We strolled the desolate streets and tried to imagine what once was, to visualize Unter den Linden, the boulevard setting for "Caberet," or Alexanderplatz with smiling children romping near the fountain, or even a cleaned-up Brandenburg Gate minus the rubble and barbed wire. We walked all day mostly ignoring the gray-suited man following us.
My son, who now lives in the East, tells us that the Stasi Musuem will turn over records that the communist Secret Police kept on people back in the day. So now we have multiple purposes for our trip: see our son, witness democracy's transformation of Berlin, and find out if that guy in gray thought we were spies. Stay tuned.