which was near the center of the city and, as the name implied, right next to the zoo. Really, everywhere seemed like the center of the city, since the whole thing had to be crammed within the confines of the Berlin Wall. Places that in other big cities might be out in the suburbs, like the airport or the zoo, were all right in town. On the TV or on posters, you’d see a shape that I soon figured out was the outline of the map of West Berlin. Some cities don’t really have a strict boundary — in Los Angeles where I grew up, there’s the City of Los Angeles, the larger Los Angeles County, and the even larger Greater Los Angeles Area, so it’s hard to say where L.A. ends. But West Berlin was only what was inside the Wall, like an island. I made my way to the youth hostel, and after checking in, I went over to Kurfürstendamm, which according to my copy of the then- popular “Let’s Go Europe” travel guide, was West Berlin’s main street, though it seemed pretty quiet to me. Overall, the people appeared to be friendly, laid back, and Bohemian. I had been told before visiting that artsy young people liked Berlin because if you lived there, you were given an exemption from military service. I also noticed the city seemed to have a lot of U.S. military, and a lot of Turkish immigrants. I was curious to see East Berlin, and the guide book said there were two ways for tourists to go over: either using the subway (S-Bahn) to go to Friedrichstrasse Station, or above ground via Checkpoint Charlie. I went with the S-Bahn, since when the train went under the Wall, it passed through two “dead stations” — Potsdamer Platz and Unten den Linden — which were supposedly untouched since the war. In fact before the war, the two stations had been the busiest, representing the very heart of Berlin. I don’t know, I guess I expected seeing them would be some kind of time-machine trip, but they turned out to look just like dimly lit, empty subway stations.
EAST BERLIN, 1989
copy of the International Herald Tribune, probably a day or two old when I got it, on the train out of Copenhagen to Berlin, and it had spoken of the East Germans holding large-scale protests. I don’t remember it being very shocking — the Communists were getting kicked out of power in Poland, and now Hungary and Czechoslovakia seemed to be headed that way too, so why not East Germany? To get to Berlin you had to travel through East Germany, and the train arrived at the East-West German frontier about an hour or so after sunrise. We stopped, and East German soldiers came on board to check passports and look for drugs or stowaways or whatever. I was blown away to see that the military uniforms were pretty much unchanged from the ones used by Germany in World War II. Sure, the swastikas had all been replaced with the East German seal (which instead of the hammer and sickle used in Russia, had the hammer and drafting compass), but otherwise it was the same outfit I had seen in the many war movies that used to show on late-night TV in the U.S. They had the same epaulettes, the same “sideways Roman numeral II” on the collars, and so on, though I don’t remember seeing any of those brimmed-kettle steel helmets associated with Nazis and biker gangs. Yes, it was pretty surreal when a young guy dressed as Colonel Klink from “Hogan’s Heroes” — though with round John Lennon glasses instead of a monocle — came in and asked for the passport of me and the only other person in the train compartment, some vaguely hippy-looking British guy. I don’t remember the German officer speaking any English, but he indicated for me to leave the compartment while he searched British guy’s duffel bag. The British guy said something like “Ah, they always pick me” as I went out into the corridor. As I waited outside, again surreal, there were a couple East German soldiers walking a dachshund wiener dog down the passageway, probably to sniff for drugs or stowaways. After a few moments, the officer had me and the Englishman change places, so he could search my bag as well. Despite his job, the German actually came off as friendly and mellow, and he couldn’t have been too much older than me. Afterwards, he stamped the passports of me and the British traveler, inserted a paper transit visa into each, and then left. Within a few minutes, the train was moving again. I struck up a conversation with the Briton — it turned out he had a girlfriend in Berlin and was on his way to see her. At one point, he asked me if I had noticed the dachshunds and then told me that they used them instead of German shepherds or some larger dog because they were cheaper to feed.
I HAD read a
A detail from a map of the Berlin subway (known as the Schnellbahn or S-Bahn) from 1989. The grey zigzag line is the Berlin Wall, and stations with little empty boxes (instead of circles or colored boxes), such as Potsdamer Platz on the green line, are the “dead stations” lying under the wall. The black lines are East German.               (Mouse over photos for detailed view)
(From June to December 1989, I traveled around Europe, parts of the Mideast, North Africa and North America, spending half the time working and the other half backpacking and bumming around.)
The back of my East German transit visa
And (why not?) the front of the same visa, though with my passport number redacted. They didn’t bother filling out the rest of the form.
ONCE WE  got to West Berlin, the train let us off at Bahnhof Zoo,
THE TRAIN reemerged on the East side, and everyone got off and
headed down a flight of steps from the platform to the immigration checkpoint. When I got down there, I was surprised to find a large hall packed with people and divided in two by a row of East German guards. They were letting people through to line up on the East Berlin side to get their passports stamped and enter the city, but there was also a crowd on each side just there to wave at each other, and I saw one person on the West side holding up a framed photo and another waving a bouquet of flowers at someone they knew standing over on the corresponding East side. I don’t know whether the people realized East Germany’s days were numbered, but there was a big jolly party mood to the crowd. Still, the place was so packed, and the visa line looked pretty long, so I decided to take the train back to West Berlin and go through Checkpoint Charlie instead. In contrast to the S-Bahn, Checkpoint Charlie seemed almost deserted. I walked along the western side of the Wall with its famous graffiti murals and over to the crossing, which had concrete medians dividing the lanes for cars, and a little compound for those entering on foot. I got my passport stamped and was let across. From the window of the train into the city, East Berlin had looked dull and spartan and communist, just as in the movies, but walking down the street it seemed more like a really quiet suburb of West Berlin, though maybe this was just because I was in the touristy area. My map said I was near the “Grand Hotel,” so I headed over there. I was under the impression it was an old Berlin landmark and the subject of the 1930s movie “Grand Hotel,” but it turned out to be some place recently built by the state tourism bureau, sporting a small-ish lobby with a lot of brass and red carpeting. I went next door to a restaurant and ate an early dinner (beef goulash) and wrote in a journal I was keeping, and then returned to West Berlin. There’s actually a little more to this story, and maybe I can add to this post another time. But anyway, I left Berlin the next day — I still had a little over a week left on my Eurail pass and wanted to get my money’s worth of train travel. It was too bad I didn’t stay longer, since six days later, on the night of November 9th, East Germany announced its citizens could freely enter West Berlin, and people climbed the Wall and partied, and the Cold War ended for Germany.
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