Sunday, 11 November 2007

Pieces not accepted by Sunday Miscellany #3

Another piece not taken by Sunday Miscellany. Checkpoint Charlie.

Before The Wall came down, I travelled to Berlin with my father. We wanted a European adventure together to get to know each other as adults. We drove from Holland where I lived at the time and spent the night in Hannover near the East-West border crossing. We were directed to stay on the autobahn, no stopping, no turning off until we got to West Berlin. My dad had, how shall I put it, an unreliable bladder in the mornings. He was petrified he would be caught short on the 2 hour journey and be shot by the roadside in an embarrassing position. He must have gone 17 times between getting up and leaving our guesthouse and once more at the border crossing.

The conversation as we buzzed down the concrete autobahn was a little stilted, exploring our newly modified relationship. This was the longest we’d been together without my mother or someone else to dilute the company but we got to West Berlin without incident. The next day, after a hearty Bundesrepublik breakfast, we walked down to The Wall. It was covered from top to bottom with paintings, heartfelt but sometimes banal verses and general ‘Gerhard wos ‘ere’ type graffiti.

Checkpoint Charlie was a collection of dour and unwelcoming reinforced prefabs. The route through the compound was zigzagged, designed so you couldn’t see what was round each corner. There were mysterious rooms off to the side and unsmiling soldiers in fur hats watching us. They made us wait a long time while they wrote in laborious longhand every last detail from our passports in a huge ledger. They checked each page for visas and other indications of our despicable western bourgeoisie. Eventually we were satisfactorily processed and after changing our 25 Bundesrepublik Deutchmarks to 25 Deutsche Demokratische Marks, we were let out into the cold spring day. In the West, the trees were starting to green and bulbs to poke shoots above the soil but in East Berlin, all was still in hibernation as if somehow the seasons were affected by the political border.

We went first to the Pergamon museum and gorged ourselves on the fabulous blue-tiled gateways and enormous statues liberated from Babylon in the twenties. Then we went for lunch in a municipal canteen. There was no gorging here. The only thing on offer was a stodgy stew and dumplings with unidentifiable grey meat and no flavour. It was served by scary, scowling ladies of the same girth from shoulder to knee. It was very cheap. We were left with about twenty-two marks each to squander.

We wandered down the wide Unten dem Linden avenue and stared at the Brandenburg Gate. The chariot atop faced East and flew the East German flag. The Wall from this side was an unapproachable double barrier of unblemished concrete, in contrast to the colourful Western side.

We tried to spend some more of our money in a department store. The pickings were slim. My dad pointed out the contrast to the store we had visited on the Western side. Kaufhaus or KaDeWe as it was known was opulent beyond anything we knew. They had American jeans, a rainbow of tropical fruit and an oyster and champagne bar. In the East the offerings were drab and utilitarian. I bought nutcrackers and some paper flags of Eastern block countries. I hung them in my living room until long after every flag had become obsolete, every flag but Cuba. My dad bought a leaden loaf of bread and a bar of communist chocolate that tasted like brown Shredded Wheat.
We still had 20 DMarks left after this shopping spree. A grey man in a grey raincoat approached us and offered to change some more. So this was what the black market looked like. We declined.

That left beer. This was good and strong but, alas, also very cheap. If we were to spend our remaining dosh on drink we would be swimming back to the West. We made a good effort however and staggered arm in arm through the tank barriers of Checkpoint Charlie before it closed for the night, father and daughter, East meets West, our own wall tumbling between us like a portent for the future.

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