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Volksmarch

November 9, 2009

When I was ten, I went to Berlin with my Girl Scout troop to participate in a “Volksmarch” (a communal hike with other Girl Scout troops from around Europe) near a West German military base. We were living in London at the time, so the trip was not quite as glamorous as it sounds, but it was the first time I’d ever gone to another country without my family.

We stayed in West Berlin. I remember being able to see the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, from my hotel window. I was stunned at how parts of the city looked as if they could have been bombed the week before. It was sobering. Berlin was busy and noisy and somber and damaged. But it was beautiful too. I saw Nefertiti’s head up close. I walked around one side of the Brandenburg Gate and snapped pictures of its capital. I bought a tiny bottle of a too-sweet jasmine perfume from a vendor in the park with a cart full of scents. I still have the bottle. It still smells like Berlin to me.

East Berlin was a different story. Our bus stopped at Checkpoint Charlie. And two soldiers got on to collect our passports and inspect the bus. It took over an hour while our guide spoke with the soldiers. While we waited, I sketched in my notebook the many layers of security around the Berlin wall: ditches and barbed wire and watchtowers with machine guns pointing out. And then there was the high wall itself. Finally, they let us go, but we did not get our passports back. This alarmed me, maybe because I’d been rereading The Diary of Anne Frank. But the bus was allowed to pass and we were assured that our passports would be returned on the way back. East Berlin was pristine and empty. It was all right angles and hospital corners and silence. I was surprised at how the cleanliness and order appealed to me but it also chilled me. I was relieved when we drove back through the checkpoint. I held my passport in my hand all the way back to the hotel and inside, I slipped a folded sheet of East German stamps that I’d bought with spare change from a vendor at the checkpoint. They all looked the same.

A little more than a decade later, I was in my Boston apartment watching the wall come down with my roommates. I could hardly believe it. We had received such dire warnings about how to behave when passing through the wall, about how anyone who wasn’t where she was supposed to be could be shot on sight. And now they were tearing it down. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who cried over the footage, staring at the coverage, half in disbelief, half in ecstasy. The two Berlins had been such stark contrasts to one another. Could they really be one city?

And here we are 20 years later. My students don’t remember a time when there were two Germanies. But I’m glad I remember that remarkable moment of a hand extending over the remains of the wall and pulling someone over. Ten years before it happened, it seemed an uncrossable line. The chasm between West and East was vast. It was amazing to me. I haven’t been back since that first trip, but I really want to go and see it with my own eyes. That trip to Berlin taught me more about the world than had ever expected. The wall coming down changed everything.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. crankygirl permalink
    November 9, 2009 6:55 pm

    You say “Volksmarch” and I think of the Hitler Youth getting their Lebensraum. But Hey, I’m the one who thought the diagonal hand-raising at out graduation looked like a Nazi salute–I just can’t get my mind away from it.

  2. November 9, 2009 7:00 pm

    It does sound kind of like that. But it’s more of a German health and fitness kind of thing. I don’t remember the diagonal hand-raising. But graduations always make me feel like a Nazi.

  3. freshhell permalink
    November 9, 2009 7:17 pm

    I remember when the wall fell. There was a feeling of hopefulness until the next year when the US started that ridiculous war. I hadn’t realized 20 years had passed until I heard a story on NPR about it this morning. How time passes. And while we seem to make small leaps of progress, we can’t seem to get other things right. Like, why is it so hard for people to realize why for-profit companies control our healthcare. How is that right?

  4. November 9, 2009 7:31 pm

    My experience with Berlin was in 1987 on a field trip from Luxembourg to Vienna. A group of six of us decided to continue on to Budapest and Prague and then Berlin. Only, when you start from Prague, you don’t end in West Berlin. You end in East Berlin. With no documents and no money and no permission to be there.
    It had been dreary and rainy for most of our trip, and we’d been arguing more and more as the week had continued. The day in the East was awful. We’d jumped a metro entrance (couldn’t pay) to sneak into West Berlin so we could officially enter East Berlin with money and permission. When we returned to spend time in the West, suddenly the sky was full of sun and neon signs flashed bright colors at us. Our moods changed too and we realized how the atmosphere had caused so much infighting and all the bad moods of the past week.
    Wow. What memories!

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