Memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall

13-11-2004

The 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this week has brought back many memories for me. I had lived in Berlin in 1986 and 1987, and in that extraordinary year of 1989 was missing it hugely. I was in London, in debt and in love with my fleeting memories of a girl who had lived in a grey flat in that deeply atmospheric and rather crumbling West Berlin inner suburb of Kreuzberg.

Fall of the Berlin Wall, photo: CTKFall of the Berlin Wall, photo: CTK I was visiting my parents when the wall fell, somewhere deep in the airing cupboard trying to help my parents' friend Bernard put in a new water-heater.

My father shouted the unbelievable news up the stairs, and I ran down to watch the scenes on television. Within 24 hours I was on a train from the depths of provincial England, heading for Dover, across the Channel and to Berlin.

A veil had lifted - the East German guards in the train smiled as we neared Berlin through the famous "transit corridor" that linked it to West Germany and the passengers cheekily laughed with them. Berlin had changed for ever overnight, in one of the most deliciously liberating ways imaginable. In the coming days all my Berlin friends began to dream about the wall in weird and wonderful ways. I too would suddenly wake up in the night shouting "Mauer" - the German for wall - and then go quietly back to sleep.

Amid all this euphoric upheaval, I realised something that made me ashamed. I had lived in West Berlin, those two years before, and like so many people there, I had not only accepted the wall, but had also found it exciting, part of the city's charm, caring amazing little about what it would be like to live on the other side. Beyond the occasional day trips - I had felt a peculiar lack of curiosity about the real lives of the millions living under communism. How was it possible, that I'd been living on the island that was West Berlin surrounded on all sides by the East - but had not really cared?

This struck home even more when, a year later, I moved to Prague, and gradually came to know and love Czechoslovakia. This country too had previously been just a grey, slightly exotic blur on the other side of the wall. Like most people in Western Europe, I'd just quietly accepted the stereotypes about the unappealing and slightly menacing world behind the Iron Curtain.

Berlin WallBerlin Wall At the time of November 1989, I kept a diary, and needless to say, most of it makes me cringe with embarrassment today. But there is one thing I wrote at the time that I still think was right. While East Germans were flocking to West Berlin, for me the opening of the wall was the dawning of an awareness of the east. I wrote in my diary, perhaps rather pompously - but I don't think I completely missed the mark - that the fall of the wall didn't mean the reunification of the free with the unfree, but that real freedom lay in that wonderful and fleeting excitement of going across - in either direction - of being able, quite literally, to "transgress" the borders of your world, to break the rules and meet the unknown. So, paradoxically enough, my own Pilgrim's Progress was from West to East, and that is where I've stayed to this day.

I should add at the end that Bernard and I made a rather bad job of the water-heater. When I next saw my parents a couple of months later, they told me that we'd mixed up the pipes and it had been weeks before they'd managed to stop scalding water coming out from all the cold taps. Obviously my mind had been on other things. But I must say that thanks to that day in November 1989, I still feel a deep attachment to that particular water-heater.

13-11-2004