Say cheese! This cheery Checkpoint Charlie family portrait was the crowning glory of my entry—a slideshow on the Berlin Wall—in the 1982 Lee County Media Show. Despite the unfair advantage of my on-location shots of the Wall, some kid who was actually talented and had created a claymation Super 8 film won.
The Checkpoint Charlie snap comes courtesy of a disk of images my dad just mailed me. They are all from our Berlin trip in the summer of ’82, and there are some interesting comparisons with how things look now. The Wall is of course gone—in fact it’s pretty hard to find any sign of it except for a few pieces still on display at Potsdamer Platz and the double-row of cobblestones that traces its route in some parts of the city (Berliners, understandably, wanted it this way).
The Reichstag looks shockingly drab pre-Norman Foster’s glass dome.
And the Wall and watchtower-lined Spree gives new meaning to Berliners’ current fondness for pop-up riverside beach clubs. Then…
But if I’m honest, my favorite part of looking at these pictures is admiring the fashions my family was wearing at the time. My mom is rocking a pair of oversized transluscent-framed sunglasses, my dad has a whiff of Burt Reynolds about him, and my sister and I are perpetually dressed in Izod shirts with high-waisted jeans. My sister also favors a lavender satin bomber jacket with ice cream cone pin that I remember coveting. It was much cooler than the stupid cardigans my mother bought for me. Here are the best of those pics.
When I moved to Berlin in February it was not my first extended stay in the city. That was back in the summer of 1981. I was nine years old and visiting my father, who at the time was flying shuttles back and forth to Frankfurt for Pan Am. He had an apartment in West Berlin that I remember well, mostly because I spent a lot of time stretched out on the living room floor watching Bjorn Borg play in Wimbledon (and thankfully not because, as my mother recently told me, the previous tenant had committed suicide, which is why my father had gotten such a big apartment so cheap).
Actually, I remember a lot of things really well from that trip. It’s not that it was my first big trip—by then I was a seasoned traveller, with regular trips to California to visit my grandparents and a previous European vacation under my belt. Maybe it was my age or Berlin or the combination of the two, but I think I remember a lot of things from that trip because it was the first time I realized there were a lot of people out there in the world living a life a whole lot different than mine. I learned from the squat down the street that not everyone lived in a suburban subdivision with a name, Whiskey Creek, that was much more interesting sounding than the tract houses in it. (I also learned what a squat was and that the residents were called punk rockers, at least by my father.) I learned that there were more ice cream flavors than the 31 Baskin Robbins would have you believe, and subsequently ate a kirsch eis every day I was there. And of course I learned about the Wall, developing a mild obsession with the Checkpoint Charlie Museum along the way, and that just behind it there were people willing to risk death for their freedom while I watched Wimbledon and ate cherry ice cream. I’m not sure what good any of that experience did me, but I like to think it made me a more open or tolerant or at least curious person than I otherwise would have been.
Twenty-nine years later I moved back for another stint in Berlin. Husband is still baffled about why I wanted to do it, and I have undoubtedly made our lives an order of magnitude more complex in logistics alone. But I think there are some answers lurking in my very first visit to the city. Husband has been pushing to move back to California for a few years now, and I promised him I would go quietly if he would give me this, a last hurrah in Europe. Sooner than we know it we will be back in Los Angeles, a lovely, lovely place to live, but one where you might easily forget there are places in the world where the sun doesn’t perpetually shine and the waiters aren’t actors. I guess I figured we needed to stock up on a dose of the-world-is-bigger-than-you-think perspective before we head back, hopefully more open or tolerant or at least curious people than we were when we left.
In July I celebrated my twentieth high school reunion with about eighty other classmates in a non-descript hotel ballroom on Fort Myers Beach. Twenty years earlier my friends and I had celebrated our high school graduation with a “beach week” at the Pink Porpoise a mile or so up the road. We were there when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred, and I remember watching the events unfold on the poky television in the sand encrusted, pine-paneled lounge of our rented cottage. The news was in stark contrast to the vodka and Kool Aid (aka Pink Ladies) soaked days that had preceded it and would follow it; Tiananmen Square was disturbing but failed to dampen the festivities of the remainder of our week. It was perhaps a timely lesson about the degree of apathy and detachment required to be an adult in this world, where any genuine absorption of the constant stream of global atrocities is likely to render one mortally depressed. (Whether that depression is over the atrocities or the apathy in the face of them, I still haven’t figured out.)
Five months later the world was marked by happier news: the Berlin Wall had fallen. Today’s papers are celebrating the 20th anniversary with headlines about the Class of ’89, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, who walked from East Berlin into West that first night. The fall of the Berlin Wall has a personal resonance for me. I spent several weeks in Berlin the summer after seventh grade, visiting my father who was then a Pan Am pilot based there. During that summer I became mildly obsessed with the wall, particularly the Checkpoint Charlie museum with its displays chronicling escape stories — both failed and successful — in hidden compartments of cars, across the river, and over the wall on a James Bond-esque high wire. I remember the day we took a US military bus tour of East Berlin, mostly that we were barely allowed out of the bus and the predominance of grey, as if crossing the city border was crossing degrees of latitude into a drabber, colder place. I visited Berlin again two years after the wall fell, during a semester abroad. I have a framed snapshot of myself from that trip, standing astride two graffiti covered remnants of the wall in an ill-advised pea soup green mock-turtleneck sweater and faded black jeans, looking like I’ve just walked out of the East Berlin of the 1980s.
Two years after I visited a reunited Berlin, I first stepped foot into Tiananmen Square to visit Mao’s mausoleum. I had read about the atrocities Mao committed against his own people, but somehow the mausoleum seemed like a circus attraction and therefore devoid of any reverence. (I had even brought along my copy of Wild Swans, which chronicles life under Mao, to Beijing to see if the hotel would confiscate it. They did.) While I was waiting in the long line to get into the mausoleum I bought a souvenir from a street vendor, a plastic, battery-operated Buddha, about six inches high and spray painted gold. When you rocked Buddha like an overgrown Weeble on his round base, he laughed. I gave the Buddha to my friend Suzanna, who subsequently reported his cackle had provided a disturbing soundtrack to the Northridge earthquake that rocked her house the following January.