Last weekend I watched a lovely film Goodby Lenin on DVD. The film is set in the late 80's in East Berlin, and much of the action covers the period just prior to, and just after, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
It took me back to 1988, when I visited Berlin as part of a backpacking trip I did around Europe with my friend Darren. Travelling to Berlin was magical, bizarre and a little scary for this boy from suburban Adelaide. If my geography was better I would have understood that West Berlin was actually an island of 'west' inside East Germany. For some reason I hadn't considered that the train ride would mean travelling through East Germany to get to West Berlin.
It was a surreal experience, gun toting and (to my eyes) mean looking East German guards travelled the length of the train closing all the blinds and barking at the tourists not to take pictures of the East German towns we passed through. Why? Because it looked like time had stood still, and not in a quaint way but in a 'too poor to repair the buildings' sort of way. The street were empty looking and what cars we could see were ancient looking, and notoriously unreliable, Trabants. Not quite the best advertisement for socialism.
Darren of course tried to take a picture and almost gave me a coronary when he was caught and yelled at by a guard. Fortunately I speak German (although not so well anymore) and was able to apologise in my schoolboy-German-with-heavy-Aussie-accent.
We did the tourist things of Berlin; visited the Wall, visited the museum at Checkpoint Charlie, rode the Berlin subway and stared wide-eyed as it travelled without stopping through deserted East Berlin stations where time stood still at the day the Wall went up, and even went into East Berlin for the day. East Berlin was interesting, strange and depressing all at the same time. West Berlin was lively, artistic and exciting.
In little more than a year after our visit the Wall came down. So I'm glad to have had the opportunity, in at least a small way, to have experienced what must be one of the sadder and strangest episodes in modern history.