I suppose I should be starting the new year thinking about the new year. God knows I’ve been looking forward to turning the page on the annus horribilis that was 2014.
But as one year ends and another begins, and you start looking back…
Well, especially if you have more reasons than usual to look back, and keep looking back…
So I thought I’d write about where I spent New Year’s Day in 1990, on what was one of the best trips of my life.
In November 1989, while we watched the Berlin Wall fall, my husband decided that it might be fun to ring in the new year in Berlin, a city where neither of us had been.
Even back then, Jim was a frequent flyer maven, so he used our FF miles to cobble together a trip (first class) that took us from Boston to Newark to Heathrow to Gatick – or was it Luten? – to Hanover to Berlin. And back.
Berlin was fascinating.
We stayed on the West Berlin side, but the borders were pretty fluid by then. You had to go through Checkpoint Charlie, but once you queued and showed your passport, you were automatically passed through.
West Berlin was prosperous-feeling, lovely, and thronged with Ostis, East Berliners come over to ogle the differences between capitalism and communism, which were writ large in every store window in the West – even shops like Woolworth’s. (Yes, there was a Woolworth’s there.) It was easy to spot the Ostis, in their drab, shoddy clothing. You saw them with noses pressed, like the poor little match girl, up against shop windows. And in the food halls of the KaDeWe – Berlin’s answer to Harrod’s – their eyes and tongues were nearly popping out of the skulls.
While the Ostis were gaping at what the west had to offer, we were making our way around East Berlin, shocked by just how rundown everything was. And this was the showcase of communism?
We went into a grocery store, where the apples were mottled and rotting. At home, they would have been destined for the cider mill, not on display in the produce section. The fish counter was appalling. (I’ll have the least decayed fish carcass, bitte.) A bottle of beer, as I recall, cost the equivalent of a nickel, which explained how the good citizens of the east had been able to put up with everything.
We went to a couple of markets. In a toy stall, there were actually dolls with missing limbs for sale. We fingered some “fine” lingerie. It felt like it was made out of sandpaper.
We ate a couple of times in East Berlin, always mindful to leave an over-tip in US dollars or Deutschemarks. No one wanted the local currency, which was rapidly approaching worthless. Worthless though it might be, visitors were required to purchase a certain amount to gain entry to the city, and you had to spend it there. One our final day there, we stopped at a pub, The Volga, near the Russian embassy. There Jim had a rum coke (undrinkable) and I ordered a grog, not knowing what it was. I was thinking that it would be the liquor equivalent of a Butter Rum Lifesaver. Instead, it was something so foul that I felt my liver wither just by smelling it. Grog may be terrible everywhere – I never ordered it again – but it was absolutely horrific at the Volga.
At one point, Jim started to laugh and said, “Not only are the drinks awful, but up until last month, the people at the next table were spying on you.”
Food and drink were far better in West Berlin, although you had to get to a restaurant early and do a gulp and go before the smokers showed up and started puffing away.
We spent our first few Berlin nights at the Hotel Intercontinental, a modern-ish place near the Tiergarten and the Zoo.
The first morning, when we woke up, our room had a marked sulfur-ish smell. I (politely) asked Jim if he had had a gas attack during the night, but the smell turned out to be from the dirty coal that was used for fuel in East Berlin, and throughout Eastern Europe. When we got on the streets, you could see it in the air – a brown miasma. I imagine that the air quality in Beijing is similar. Yuck!
After a couple of nights at the Intercontinental, we up-scaled to the Hotel Kempinksi Adlon, which was closer to the action, right near the Brandenburg Gate.
On New Year’s Eve, we wandered around the area, ducking – literally – from the fireworks that folks were setting off in the streets. (The hotel clerk had given us an odd look when we asked where the fireworks display was going to happen. New Year’s Eve was one of the only nights when fireworks were legal in Germany – and ubiquitous. Wherever you were, folks were shooting off Roman candles and bottle rockets, hollering “achtung” to passersby. I swear that one bottle rocket nearly passed between my legs. It was actually quite scary.
We made our way to the Brandenburg Gate, and got quite near to the front, not far from the American TV crews. Unlike Americans, Berliners don’t arrive early to mass events, so we were really going to be close to the action. But when we turned around after a while, we saw that enormous crowds had built up behind us. Crowds that just by dint of their size were actually quite scary.
We decided to make our way out of the crowd to see if we could find a place to have a late dinner.
On New Year’s Eve? Without a reservation?
We went back to our hotel and ordered room service. (Ham sandwiches.)
We then went down to the lobby bar for a glass of champagne (or two), where we celebrated the arrival of 1990.
Back in our room, we sat in the window and watched the crowds – wired, noisy, energized – make their way back from the Brandenburg Gate.
Throughout our trip, we were never that far from The Wall, and as you got near to it, you could hear a steady plink-plink-plink as people - twenty-somethings, families with kids, old folks who must have seen (and survived) everything - chipped away at it.
We chipped, too.
All I had was a nail file.
At one point, I learned by head and torso through a hole so that I could get a better chipping angle.
An East German soldier – equipped with a machine gun – made his way over to me.
‘Swell,’ I thought, ‘I’m going to get shot, the final casualty of the Berlin Wall.’
Instead, the soldier – just a kid – smiled and gestured to my nail file. “Zu klein,” he said. Too small.
What a thrill to be there, to watch the people armed with chisels, small axes, nail files, bare fingers tear down The Wall.
On our travels, Jim and I never took pictures, something that I now regret.
Not that I need them to remember, but I wish I had a shot of us standing in front of The Wall where someone had graffiti’d the words ‘Hey Moe!’ I wish I had a picture of us at the Volga. Of someone setting off a bottle rocket while he hollered ‘achtung.’
We’re not much for souvenirs, either.
A couple of days after New Year’s, we bought this poster from a street artist. It has held a place of honor in our home in the many years since.
We went back to Berlin one more time, enjoying it. We had squishy plans to get back there again. Maybe I will, someday.
Nothing’s the same anymore.
But what a great trip…
Anyway, Berlin’s where I spent my New Year’s Day twenty-five years back.
What a lot of wonderful memories…
Meanwhile, I’m planning on a happy and healthy new year. How about you?