Standing alone on the edge of Alexanderplatz, I watch Berlin pass by. A young man with dreadlocks whirls his bike around an elderly couple walking arm in arm, oblivious to the commotion around them, while across the street, a man selling balloons counts out change in the cool fall air.
It’s 5 p.m., and streams of people flow toward the subway station next to me, its bright yellow walls covered with graffiti. My friend, TJ, emerges from the masses and greets me with a grin. He is the perfect picture of a successful Prussian businessman: tall, middle-aged good looks, perfectly polished shoes and a dark power suit. Yet, no matter how many times I have seen him like this, it still gives me a start.
Berlin has changed a great deal in the past decade. For that matter, so has TJ. There was a time when this man was considered my “enemy.”
Our families have stood on opposite sides of the fence over much of the last 80 years. First, our great-grandfathers waged war in World War I, and later, our grandfathers fought in opposing armies in WWII.
And then, just when TJ’s parents thought all was looking better in their world, the Russians put a wall up through the middle of Berlin, leaving young TJ to look back at America from the other side.
The fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that. In fact, it changed everything for TJ.
The Cold War was in its last dying breaths when I met TJ in the winter of 1987. I was an exchange student in East Berlin, and he was a student at the same university, a rising star being pushed to the forefront. TJ was a member of the FDJ, the communist youth organization that everyone who wanted to go to university had to join. He believed in the ideals of communism and was working for a better East Germany.
I, on the other hand, was a kid from the American West who barely knew what communism was. We obviously had our differences.
While many of the other East German students looked at me with distrust, TJ viewed me with curiosity. Because we couldn’t talk openly, where disapproving communist party members would see, we started meeting at night. (Later I learned that my dorm room was bugged.) At first, we debated politics and economics, often disagreeing. But eventually that gave way to the normal topics of youth: music, the future and life. And in those topics, we saw eye to eye.
We were like any other close college friends – except that we were not supposed to be friends. The party leaders kept their eyes on us, making sure we didn’t get too close.
Alexanderplatz doesn’t look anything like the town square that I remember from those communist days. Today, there is a loud demonstration going on as TJ and I walk through the crowded plaza. Armed policemen stand stiff at guard, protecting three politicians who are trying to speak.
The policeman watches over a bored crowd at a local political demonstration in Alexanderplatz. The crowd, however, seems unimpressed. They walk on by, ignoring the politicians, the guards, their dogs. These days, such sights are common. It’s just another demonstration in a city that loves to demonstrate.
When I first walked this gray cobblestone 20 years ago, such demonstrations would have been crushed with guns and soldiers. The square had been clean and quiet then, filled with Russian and East German soldiers in pressed uniforms, their fresh faces full of youth. I had watched schoolchildren hurrying quietly across the square for school, and young men wearing Russian fur hats jaunting off to their state-guaranteed places of employment.
My pockets were full of Ost-marks back then, but there was nothing to buy. Now, neon signs and huge billboards splash with color and promises of a good life, if I’d only buy this or that.
Today Alexanderplatz looks like most big city squares. There is trash in the streets, the taggings of bored young men, dropped fast-food wrappers and abandoned newspapers. Free men, it seems, can say and do whatever they want. Yet in truth, free men can be messy.
TJ and I leave the crowds behind as we hop into his Mercedes and head into Berlin rush-hour traffic. We drive past the Brandenburg Gate, which is lit up proudly for all to see.
The famous Gate once sat in the middle of no-man’s land, like an abandoned island between two warring worlds. I had stood at the fence on the east side, which was patrolled by East German soldiers, and hated that Grenze for the pain it caused. Now the Gate Site is a thing of beauty.
The traffic is bumper to bumper as we move on past Checkpoint Charlie, now a tourist attraction. The Checkpoint’s museum is fascinating, offering stories of people who risked their lives trying to flee East Germany via secret car compartments and even hot air balloons.
Soviet and American tanks stood face to face at Check Point Charlie. Now the former gate is a museum. It is a stark reminder of the East Germany of the past, and it makes me ever more thankful for the Germany of today.
As the traffic inches forward, we pass another familiar building, the Stars and Stripes waving out front.
“You remember when…?” I ask.
“Yup,” TJ smirks.
During my last weeks as a student in communist East Germany, several other American students and I were invited to a “Mexican dinner” at the U.S. Embassy. I hadn’t had Mexican food for over a year, and my mouth had watered at the sound of it. The thought of being around other Americans also offered a strange relief, so I immediately agreed to go.
Eagerly, the other students and I made our way down the embassy buffet line, piling food onto our plates and opening can after can of tasty American soda.
“What have they been teaching you at the university?” an American embassy official casually asked. “Not much,” we answered. “Just stuff about the communist economic system.”
“Who did you speak to?” another asked. “What have you seen?”
With sinking dread, I realized that we were being “interrogated.” This time, it was my own paranoid government that was fishing for information. I didn’t say a thing.
Instead, I slipped out and into the other room where the buffet line was still spread out. I grabbed several cans of soda for TJ and stuffed them into my coat. Later that night, I pulled them out of my pocket for TJ, who laughed as he fumbled to open the unfamiliar can lids. He liked several of the drinks, but thought root beer was terrible.
“Look, this is where the Wall once stood,” TJ exclaims, drawing my attention back to the present. He points out a narrow, brick-lined path along the road, still in view of the Brandenburg Gate. It is a small, yet vibrant reminder of the not-so-distant past. The Wall was so frightening then; now it is simply part of the street.
Time never stands still, and eventually my studies in East Berlin ended. The day came when I had to leave the gray-filled city behind. In a misting rain that mirrored my mood, I lugged my suitcase out to the waiting bus, wondering how you say goodbye to someone forever.
TJ hugged me and then slipped a little piece of paper with an address into my hand, while I tried to hide the tears that kept flooding into my eyes. “Be careful what you write,” he said. “But we will keep in touch.”
I tried to read the emotions on my friend’s face as the bus pulled out, but saw only stone. Later, he told me how difficult that goodbye had been, knowing that we were headed to a place he could never visit.
But that was then; this is now. TJ is now the CEO of a large local paper. Today he is at the office, working on marketing plans and budget costs, hoping to make an even bigger profit. The former communist is a capitalist leader. Life has opened new doors, and my friend has gone through them with gusto.
With TJ at work, I decide to spend the morning sightseeing. Eastern Berlin is in a constant state of construction these days, and I walk around cones and work crews. Cranes rise up behind buildings like preying mantises, eating and devouring to restore the city’s once grand past.
The streets of Berlin seem brighter than I remember. Perhaps it is the glare of the tall, mirrored buildings that surround me, their grand entrances gathering in and then spewing out streams of harried businessmen. It could be the metallic sheen of all the Mercedes and BMWs that fill the roads, their shiny wealth a reminder of how this city has reinvented itself as the vibrant, new capital of a reunited Germany.
For some reason I am happiest on the eastern side of the city, where it is not uncommon to find deserted buildings with broken windows next to high-class office buildings that have been restored to the tune of millions of Euros. I like the constant effort here; the moving forward while confronting the past.
Most visitors to Berlin choose to shop at the Kaufhaus des Westens (or the KaDeWe, as locals call it) in the Kurfürstendamm. It has the latest in chic apparel in the most modern shopping environment in the city, a true symbol of capitalism’s success.
But I head for Friedrichstrasse in the eastern side to shop. As I expected, the street now looks like every other huge shopping district in Europe with dozens of hip Euro clothing shops, McDonald’s, wurst stands and crowds of shoppers. It’s the people that surprise me because they are of all ethnic groups and colors. It’s just one more change in a thousand.
Those changes began back in 1989. East Germany was growing weary of repression and restless for reform. Thousands of people began to meet at local churches, marching for change and holding peaceful prayer services. A force began to grow that could not be stopped.
During this time, TJ’s letters stopped filling my mailbox. Like thousands around him, he was growing impatient for change. The system wasn’t working; something had to be altered. But my friend couldn’t write the truth: that he had climbed over the German Embassy fence in Prague in order to defect, but then reconsidered, and thought of all he would leave behind. In the end, he had climbed back over the fence and went home to work for transformation in East Germany.
So did thousands of others. The protests kept coming, the pressure built up and East German leaders began to weaken.
Then in November, the miracle happened. I sat on the living room floor in Denver as live images were broadcast from East Berlin. Thousands of East Germans poured through the open Wall and into West Berlin. Young men danced on the concrete barrier that had once been forbidden; a flower was presented to a border guard. Hope, excitement and thankfulness filled the faces that had once seemed so distant.
Once feared, the remaining Wall is now an open air art gallery.
A few weeks later, I got a small package in the mail. It was a piece of the Wall that I had once hated. And I knew exactly who it was from.
Two months later, TJ was standing in the kitchen of my American home. I was cutting lettuce to make tacos when I stopped and stared at my friend: Sometimes the world changes faster than our ability to comprehend it.
I want to see a good view of Berlin – all of it – so TJ heads the car to the Reichstag later that week. Home to Germany’s Parliament, it is a beautiful, stately building that immediately commands respect.
We wait in line and go inside. “Here are signatures and sayings that the Russian soldiers put on the walls when they “liberated” Berlin,” my friend says, pointing to Russian graffiti on the walls inside the Reichstag. The markings had been painted over for many years, but after the reunion, the Cyrillic signings were uncovered once again.
I run my fingers over a foreign name, and wonder about the young Russian man who left it behind.
We board an elevator which takes us to the very top of the building. It’s dark and all of Berlin is lit up like a Christmas tree. “This is the western part of the city,” TJ says, pointing to the left, “and that is the east.”
I struggle to see the differences, to locate something familiar, but I can’t. At night, from atop this symbol of a united Germany, it looks like one big beautiful city – which is what it is.
As I pack to head home to America, TJ and I make plans to meet up again. In the airport drop-off lane, TJ hugs me goodbye and then rushes off to work. I smile and drag my luggage into the airport, wondering if my friend knows how proud of him I am.
As the plane rises over Berlin, I press my face against the window, watching the buildings and people grow tiny. It’s so green below, lush with trees and gardens – a beautiful city on any account.
Then sitting back in my seat, I notice the man beside me open up his newspaper. There, on the front cover, is a scene that I have viewed all too often in the last years. Young Arab men stare at the camera, their eyes full of hate, their voices raised against America.
Once again, I have an enemy.
A familiar worried ache fills my stomach, and I wonder about the young men in the picture. Do they like deep blue skies, or the laughter of small children? Do they know that I do?
Will we ever see eye to eye?
Then I think of Berlin and TJ. It is a present reality that I never would have dreamed. Yes indeed, people can change. Even countries can change.
Berlin gives me hope for the future.