Yesterday, I had the pleasure of listening to one of my close friends narrating her experience of her first visit to East Berlin from the West of Germany. As she recounted fascinating little details of her experience, I could not help but be transported back in time, seeing East Berlin through her teenage eyes. I knew right then, that I needed to share her story. This is how our conversation went:
Friend: I was travelling with my school class. We left Stuttgart in the West and entered East Germany at Hof. The high speed conducive A9 that we use today was at that time a really bad pot-holed road that didn’t allow the bus to go at more than 60 kms per hour. The road had a barbed wire fence on both sides with watch towers at regular intervals and huge lights that were shone on the road. We weren’t allowed to leave the road and we saw only uninhabited land as far as the eyes could see on both sides.
Me: Did this scare you? Driving down a single road being observed like that?
Friend: Not really! We didn’t feel unsafe. To us, it was an adventure. We were going into what we had been taught was the “disadvantaged” and “poor” communist part of the country. We had been taught that life was very different in the East and how great it was for us to be in the West. We had been told that the citizens in the East were trapped in their situation and couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. However, “to know” and “to see” are very different things. We were impressed by a lot of things that we saw on this trip but we always felt safe in our group with our teachers to take care of us.
Me: What was the border crossing like?
Friend: At Hof, there was a proper country border crossing where our documents were checked before we were allowed to access the highway leading to West Berlin. We had to wait at that border crossing for a very long time. From West Berlin, we crossed to East Berlin on the underground. Our documents were checked again thoroughly. We had permission to visit East Berlin just for the day. We were forced to convert a certain minimum amount of D-Marks to Ostmarks for the day. That minimum could not be exchanged on the return journey if it wasn’t spent by the end of the day. We knew from other tourists to East Berlin that we weren’t going to be able to spend all that money in a single day because things were really cheap in the East and there wasn’t much that we could shop for anyway.
Me: So what did people usually do with that money then?
Friend: We had been told that classical music could be purchased for very cheap in East Berlin. So we had addresses of music stores and everyone bought sheet music and other music supplies. We still had a lot of money left over, of course. We had been told that some people just gave away whatever they had left at the end to locals. However, we decided to go to one of the fancier restaurants in East Berlin (recommended by other tourists from the West who had done the same thing) and treat ourselves to a five course meal, something that we would never have been able to afford in the West. So we had a lovely dinner in the East before heading back to West Berlin. We felt like kings and queens that whole day in the East!
Me: What do you remember about shopping in East Berlin?
Friend: We had come from a little village near Stuttgart and had been very curious to see the KaDeWe, the biggest departmental store of the West. We had been rather impressed by the large variety of goods availabe at the KaDeWe. On the other hand, we had been told that there was little to no choice in consumer goods in the East of Germany. So, we were also curious to see the HO-Centrum-Warenhaus which was the largest departmental store of the East. The Centrum was nowhere as impressive as the KaDeWe had been. As I recall it, most of us just bought some chocolates there and left the store.
Me: What else d0 you remember seeing in East Berlin?
Friend: We went to the Müggelsee (“See” in German means “lake”) area to see the recreational opportunites for citizens of the East. We wanted to compare it to the famous Wannsee recreational area that the citizens of the West went to. Both were unlike anything we had in our village but the contrast between the East and the West was very clear here as well.
The conversation then turned to other socio-politico-economic differences between the East and West. It was also a riveting conversation but that is another blog post.