East Berlin

Just before the reunification of the two Germanies in June 1990, I was in East Berlin playing in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Orchestra. We stayed at a hotel on Unter-den Linden Straße about three blocks from the Brandenburg Gate. Because the theatre we were performing in was in East Berlin, we had working visas for East Germany. We were paid in East Marks. Several places in East Berlin refused to take our East Marks, insisting that we pay in West Marks or American dollars. There were black market money changers everywhere. Many of us exchanged what was left of our wages through the black market because we had been unable to get merchants to accept it. We were not permitted to take East Marks out of the country. The money was no longer used as of July 1990.

Chaos reigned at the border as rules changed hourly. I gather that previously to our stay, if one wanted to go to West Berlin, a visa was to be purchased at the hotel. We tried to do that and were told that visas were to be purchased at the border. We tried to do that and were told that visas were to be purchased on our return to East Berlin.

I crossed the border 3 times. The first time was in an East German taxi with friends who lived in West Berlin. (East German taxis, which were generally in terrible repair and had horrible exhaust problems, were quite inexpensive. They would reluctantly cross over into West Berlin, only to be loudly verbally abused by West German drivers, especially West German taxi drivers who resented the competition. I only once tried to take a West taxi into East and was refused point blank. He drove to within a block of Checkpoint Charlie and would go no further. Other people said thay had to heavily tip -- the amount previously agreed upon -- to get the taxi to go into the East.) The East border guard argued for at least a minute saying I was not allowed to cross without a visa purchased from my hotel. Finally, after much chastisement from my West German friend about how foreign guests should be treated, he reluctantly let us pass. On my return that night, the East border guard laughed and waved me through.

The second time, I walked across to the West without anyone stopping me and on my return to the East, showed the FRONT of my passport and was waved through.

The third time, I was detained on trying to return to East Berlin. My passport was examined and re-examined and the guard kept asking me something about the work visa I had for East Berlin. My German was sketchy at best but I just kept saying in English that I didn't understand and that I thought I was supposed to pay 5 West Marks to cross. Then a dancer from the ballet came up and put her passport open-faced to her work visa. As soon as he saw it, he looked at us furiously and said disgustedly, "Go!" and waved us away. So I never purchased a visa.

We were told we were only to go through Checkpoint Charlie, but lots of my colleagues who were out late (West Berlin night life is very active) didn't feel like going out of their way and crossed over at the Brandenburg gate with no problems at all. Yet some of the dancers who crossed over during the day had great difficulties and paid from 5 to 10 D.M to cross. I suppose that the money was pocketed half the time. It seemed to us that the border officials were just biding their time until they were pronounced superfluous.

One of the times I crossed over in mid morning with MM and CS. M wanted to take home a piece of the wall. We rented a spike and hammer from a fellow at 10 DM for 15 minutes. We three women were pretty feeble.... We were the only North Americans that we could see at the Wall. There were huge gaping holes everywhere so we could see into East Berlin. The wall was completely covered in graffiti on both sides. The East side had been done in the previous six months, the West, I guess, over the years that the Wall stood. On one side of us were three German soldiers and on the other, a group of Polish(?) men who had brought their own sledge hammer. The wall shook visibly as a great hulk of a man bashed rhythmically at it, his companions chanting enthusiastically with him. And as far as we could see around us were Europeans, mostly men.

When we first discussed participating in this symbolic tearing down of the wall, I thought it was dumb. But suddenly with all that euphoria, it seemed like we were part of something very moving and exciting. We were constantly hearing loud cheers each time any piece of the wall was chipped off; everyone seemed aware of their immediate neighbours and there were even cheers from all around us when we managed to chip off little bits. People were taking photos constantly and either C or M has one of me earnestly bashing away. The soldiers to my left also have a photo of the three of us with me hammering furiously (I didn't know they were taking our picture.) I was the lucky one of the three of us and got the largest chunk (3 inches x 1&1/2 inches by 1 inch). It doesn't look like much but it really was attached to the wall within view of Checkpoint Charlie. There was no way we were strong enough to to get any of the wall that still had graffiti. We had to be content with going at areas that had already been softened up. M was particularly feeble and was most upset that she couldn't get anything larger than a quarter inch chunk. When our fifteen minutes were up, she reluctantly gave up the hammer. The fellow who had rented it to us took pity on her and took the same crummy nail and same crummy hammer that we had used and in four or five strokes sheared off a foot long clump and handed it to her.

When we passed by the same section of wall later that day, it was filled with laughing English-speaking westerners. We were glad we had been with only Europeans and had been able to shed a part of our North American smugness to feel how noble and daring the breaking down of the wall was - even the miniscule chipping we did.

Three weeks after we left Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie was dismantled and the wall was officially open.




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