I first visited West Berlin in 1982, after spending too, too many days (7) in the Dutch capital. I loved all the bikes, hikes and dikes and some of the sin but you know it's hard to understand this was the first major European city that rebuked me. Perhaps a cosmic intervention that Amsterdam and I just might not be aligned together. There were more than your average let's just say, weird vibes. No worry, I overstayed my welcome. On to West Berlin.
To travel east, the talk on the street (among fellow travelers in the capital of Holland) was to take the Magic Bus. This bus took us across northern Europe through West and East Germany before arriving in West Berlin. For a time, I was wrapping myself around the experience of having to travel through a communist state on my way to a democratic city inside this communist state. This was dipping my toes into the Iron Curtain, and for those who were familiar with this type of government, they played for keeps.
I had contemplated heading north to Denmark and then onto Sweden and Norway, knowing this is a special time of year -- those 3 countries receive the most sunlight of the year. I looked at West Berlin on a map and knew one thing for certain, it was not going to be dull. This was going to be a trip, perhaps an experience of a lifetime to travel from a democratic country through a communist country, and then to a Democratic city surrounded by the big brother East Germany. Of course, I targeted certain physical monuments and sites around the city but I also wanted to get an actual sense of what it felt like to live there during the early 80s, knowing your living space is limited and a wall or border prevents you from the rest of the West.
Scandinavia will have to wait a week. This former capital of Germany before WWII was considered “A Can't-Miss” destination in the 70s and 80s -- with a collection of draft dodgers, peace activists, vegetarians, and anarchists. Fortunately, I was privileged enough to see the juxtaposition of life within a now divided city -- some encouraging and some quite sad within the same city (my visit was some 7 years before the wall crumbled).
Back to the transportation, I had no expectations of riding this legendary bus, perhaps at the very least, meeting interesting people who were after the same adventure I was after. About 2 hours short of the East German border, about 10 of us were having a very relaxing trip with no complaint.
A few minutes later, some of us chatted about what were the last few things we did in Amsterdam before boarding the bus -- and out of the blue, a fellow from Canada, I'll refer to as Brad, began to mumble to himself. We sensed potential danger but we knew Brad could only help us better understand our potential role here. He whispered to a few of us that he had a poor lapse in judgment this morning, admitting he had about 28 grams of Cannabis Sativa taped to his chest. I least Brad didn't lie about his "lapse in judgment." Great move dude. We're thinking, "dude, you better think fast unless you want to put on what hell of a show in a few hours!" And I added, "our cameras will be ready."
I didn't know what to think? Did he just decide to go to W. Berlin? If not, then did he just decide to bring weed across the East German border? He may have just "spaced out" at the time of purchase. I'll never know but indirectly he was potentially going to inconvenience 45 passengers on his careless actions. I'm all for a little deviancy that may harm a little state-owned property but absolutely no one is harmed when a little deviancy comes their way.
Once he realized what lies ahead, he had two choices, he could toss it out the bus window or he could share among his compadres and burn that weed as quickly as possible? He chose the latter. A very wise decision and a wise decision to open all available windows during this time.
Without a doubt, he finally made the right decision of eliminating all evidence after his wrong decision was to bring evidence in the first place. There have been articles and reports that state East German border security could be persuaded and then bought. Of course, you had to price things right within the supposed agreed-upon terms. If I'm a guard and I hate the Yankees (and also the baseball team), I'm into wheeling and dealing without getting caught.
At the border, their first demand is travel logs of bus drivers, the length of trip, origin, destination (of course West Berlin but it was still asked). This occurs even before individual passports are reviewed. When they briefly review the paperwork, it would not be considered unusual for guards to suspect illegal activity considering the buses' origin. At the time, Amsterdam permitted limited illegal drug activity. Of course, their suspicions were raised due to what this bus represented in the west.
Our arrival time was 18:00, and considering at the time of year that Berlin, with the 52 degrees north latitude, I planned to have about 4 hours to find inexpensive lodging but plans were disrupted at the East German border. Perhaps the Magic Bus didn’t see this trick coming? At the initial review, most of the passengers figured ten to fifteen minutes. 10 went to 20, which went to an hour, and finally 100 minutes! Finally, please, maybe? I suffered enough during those 100 minutes (1 hour 40 minutes) but it went on between 3 and 4 hours. Incredible! From what we gathered, several passengers from Asia appeared to provide questionable documentation at the time. Did their passport appear to be not legitimate? From the US, this was foreign to me. Look, I’ve been to Canada a number of times before this trek to Europe and at the time, a valid US driver’s license would be sufficient. While in Europe for this year, my password was never closely scrutinized. At the time, I was grateful for being an American citizen.
Legend had it that if you stopped your car driving through East Germany on your way to West Berlin, a well-armed guard would appear close enough to ensure you were not engaged in illicit activity. Just to clarify, for the most part, public urination was not encouraged but was generally more accepted than in the US. Not sure if that was fact or fiction but you get the picture, the guards were everywhere, spying on anyone in the hopes of somehow finding a competitive edge.
While on the bus, I befriended Mark who was from Northern California and appeared to have a much shorter plan a much more generous budget. I hoped I didn’t like him too much, not because of his personality, but rather, his budget was 5-10 times what I intended to spend. My daily budget was $10, a little more inexpensive places; his budget could sometimes reach $100. Even with different financial situations, we decided to hunt for lodging success in West Berlin upon arrival.
We began to make calls in our limited German, for those who answered, many then spoke back to us in English. Regardless, we pursued finding reasonable lodging for the night. Our calls started at half-past ten, as dusk was descending on the divided city. After about 2 hours of no vacancy and mostly vacant streets, we felt stuck and unsure what the rest of the night would bring.
In the midst of making calls, we also walked around the center of West Berlin and inquired at several hotels and pensions. After no success, one of us had the bright idea of sleeping in the West Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station), what could go wrong? That worked for about 15 minutes until all of the weary travelers, as we used the walls as a pillow, were abruptly smacked in the shins with a police stick and reminded us that what we were doing was verboten. Wow, not exactly expecting that on the first night but you shamefully move on.
As we left the railway station, a five-minute walk brought us to the West Berlin Tiergarten (animal garden or zoo) as we passed several unoccupied park benches. Those benches were hard, old, and appeared to need a new coat of paint since the mid-70s. But still, our focus was to get some zzzs as we tried to get comfortable on those vacant park benches. I used my sleeping bag as a pillow, it worked out fine until we began to hear and see those city rodents with long tails scurrying about. Didn't know the genus or species but at this stage of the game, with our current emotional state, this alternative sleeping arrangement was not going to work.
At this point, it was a bit before 3:00, and desperate to find a place to stay, the only other potential sleeping arrangement was a downtown male gay sauna bath -- our intentions were contrary to many other visitors, we merely entered to engage in as much shuteye as possible, but that wasn't the case. Perhaps I got an hour of sleep on a very large bed (apparently not for sleeping) before we were booted out at 7 am. I just felt so funny in some ways telling willing partners "No thanks" in English. It occurred to me that if I had said "Nein, Danke," that might have been strange as I was outside of my domain and any of my German spoken would immediately scream “Americaner.”
I wasn’t going to play the card, “This isn’t something we normally see in America,” I was in a foreign land among many citizens with very liberal social behavior. This meant I needed to adjust and make the best of whatever situation I ended up in.
Mark and I found a cheap hotel around Noon the following day and after a restful nap, we hung out one more day together and then wished each other safe and eventful travels. Being the only one on a limited budget, I camped the next 5 nights while I explored West Berlin during the day. My camping plot was no more than 50 feet from the wall and at night, you could peer through a small hole in the wall to see guard towers with unfriendly-looking German Shepherd's making their presence known.
In retrospect, I don't know what was worse, the gay sauna bath, park benches, or the West Berlin Hauptbahnhof? It didn't matter -- we did what we had to do under those challenging conditions. I will also say I regret not traveling to the camping area some 7 miles outside of the center city. Having a tent, sleeping bag, and mattress pad, I could have avoided the challenges of my first night in West Berlin. However, my traveling buddy for the day and night was not equipped to camp so our lodging situation provided some memorable challenges I will never forget.
Even with this city divided, there were many sights to see during my stay. The Kaiser Wilhelm Church, which was significantly destroyed during the war which happened to be at the end of the Kurfürstendamm Strasse. The Kurfürstendamm Strasse is one of the most famous avenues of Berlin during pre and post-WWII. The broad and long boulevard at one point was compared to the Champs-Élysées of Berlin and is lined with shops, houses, hotels, and restaurants.
In 1982, Checkpoint Charlie was not yet a major tourist destination – it was a major checkpoint between traveling between West and East Berlin. Even though Checkpoint Charlie wasn’t touristy, you still had people just milling about snapping photographs. Another fascinating aspect of this divided city in ’82 pertained to underground rail travel. On some subway trips, some actual subway lines traveled through East Berlin although those stops were unavailable. The East German government prevented these stops to be used by the west. It’s was quite eerie to see a vacant subway station where the only ones who have been seen were armed guards ensuring this station remained vacant to visitors.
I spent one day touring East Berlin, being so close meant to me that I had to get a little exposure to how the other side lived. The fee was 15 Deutsch marks which were converted to another currency. The good news, that amount of money meant we had a lot of purchasing power. The bad news, there wasn't anything I was attracted to buy. Even most souvenirs were dull and unattractive. As I walked around for the day, I sensed on more than one occasion, people followed me around. It didn't appear that they were from the Stasi (country's police), but rather, regular citizens were looking for a freebie. As I
approached the border when leaving, I realized their money had zero purchasing power to those in the West, I decided to give it away before leaving. You could see how some citizens made a living, getting excess money from those traveling from the west just to see the city for a day. I handed my money to a little boy and a desperate mom (at least that's how she appeared to me).
I learned a valuable lesson by forgetting to plan for my travels to West Berlin. Not being cognizant of the fact we could be delayed traveling through East Germany to West Berlin. For some auspicious reason, this border was super wary of strangers, and red tape could be involved too. Now I know having issues on the border could send an otherwise pleasant day down the toilet. My lack of plans included no map of Berlin, nor any possible sleeping spots (outside of town). In larger cities, during my trip, and especially in West Germany, I’d often spend the first night in town in a youth hostel or very inexpensive pension, especially if my arrival was later in the day. The first full day in a new city helped get my sense of direction back on track, and if available, I could camp outside of town and still get around with their excellent urban transit system.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make it back to Berlin until 2019, anxious to see how it had changed. As I said in my last post, I only recognized several spots, almost 40 years later. This includes the Brandenburg Gate (the wall that prevented West Berliners from enjoying), Gedachtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Church), Siegessaule (Victory Column), and the Tiergarten (zoo). I’m still surprised how much the city had changed during my two only visits. Some of it may be age and memory-related although removing such a larger divider of a once large and vibrant city may have had a significant effect too. Even with some of the former Berlin wall still standing for a historical and memorial context, Berlin had evolved to the point that some who visited pre and post-Berlin Wall may be challenged to remember what it looked like before. It wasn't what I had expected as I had traveled through Europe for that year, but learned a valuable lesson that regardless of what was in front of me, I needed to sometimes adapt in order to make the best out of the current situation.