Note: I began this piece immediately after the weekend in question, when I was a young writer and had never published a piece professionally; and continued to come back to it and revise it over the next few years. It has never officially been published; I put it up on my Washington Post blog briefly in November, 2009, but no trace of it remains online.
I have a headache after a few hours on the train. I’ve been too excited about going to see It, and I’ve gotten up too early, and now the sun out the train window is shining on a normal German weekend; and straining to see It, whatever this is that’s supposed to have happened, is proving hard on my eyes. Rich sun falls on the cold fall day, and cars drive along the road by the train tracks, and some of the cars are Trabbis: that’s all. The first train from Berlin to Munich passes us, going the other way, silhouetted against the sun.
When our train stops in Fulda, I see my first free East Germans. They have shopping bags from the cheapest grocery stores, and new shoes of seamless vinyl: the children avidly scan new comic books. A man takes out a banana, and peels it. Everyone on the train watches him. We know the East Germans are buying up all the bananas in the West; we watch him as we might watch a peacock, waiting for it to spread its tail. He eats rapidly, with large bites, as if he ate bananas every day. I would like him to enjoy it more. I want to see what a taste of freedom looks like. Maybe all that we Westerners want is to be able to be generous with our great opulence, because we are sure they are in awe of it. These are not awed enough for me; it’s the romance that’s driven me here, after all.
Bebra. I go into town to watch the East Germans buy. Stores display clothes which look as though they came from someone’s attic, plastered with red signs screaming SPECIAL OFFER, SPECIAL PRICE. Boys along the street hand out flyers with hand-drawn maps showing the way to So-and-so’s Electronics, where everything costs 99 marks —coincidentally enough, as the Easterners all have 100 marks of “welcome money.” Unaccustomed to comparison shopping, they obediently follow the maps, and fill the stores. Bebra’s main street has turned into a movie set. People who don’t seem to belong there stand in long lines in front of Aldi, waiting to buy anything. A Western entrepreneur stands behind a table, selling paper cups of cheap wine for 1 mark apiece. In the clear, low-lying sun, everything is too sharply focussed, and my headache is intensifying: I don’t want to watch them buy crap any more. I pass a family on my way back to the train station: the father screams at his child, hits her in the face, screams, hits her again. She retreats, staring into a shop window, crying silently. This is what she’ll remember of her first day in the West.
Arriving in Eschwege, I find the mood again, because the friends who meet me share it. Here is the romance: once upon a time there was a dead-end road which led to a border you could not cross, toward a country you could not enter. Now the dead end has been transformed into a thoroughfare, The Place to Be; and Eschwege is Carnival and Christkindlmarkt and Bastille Day rolled into one; throngs of merry people puff white breath into the cold, and all the rules are turned upside down. The houses, their fleshy plaster walls crisscrossed with dark timbers, totter down the narrow streets, while crowds from East and West mill in the pedestrian zone, exuding good cheer.
Later, it is time to cross the border, and we pile into the car, warmed with coffee, ready to go into East Germany and to embrace it and all of its people. We want them to be joyful, too. They seem reserved. Is it the mistrust of people who have been too long oppressed; or only incredulity at the naiveté of these rich strangers talking to any and everyone as we set off down the road, leaving our car parked where the police have told us? Isn’t it wonderful, we say to them; a great happiness. We don’t say: wasn’t it great over here in our country? but we mean it. They know. They won’t ask us, either, when we get over there: they know we’re there to experience it so we can go back shaking our heads at the dilapidated houses and empty shops. Nor will they say to us, But these are our homes, these places; we keep the houses as clean and comfortable as we can. They are quiet, and watch us watching them, and are perhaps less excited about it than we want them to be. And go home to the villages where they live, after experiencing liberation in our great free country.
But this is the Iron Curtain. I hadn’t realized that it was really made of iron, or some irony black metal, and that it looked like a curtain as it rippled opaquely across the hills, pinned into place by the posts of relentless streetlights. I had thought the term “Iron Curtain” was a metaphor, a way to speak a conceptual division into a kind of poetry. The East Germans knew better: it was real. Was: now, we are going through. There’s a strip of no-man’s-land, a second fence, and then we’re over.
The smell of smoke assails us. It is not a smoke I know. It is an acrid, penetrating smell, the smell of burning coal, a dull, steady presence over the land. Near us, a young mother complains that her little girl didn’t want to go to school this morning, with the excitement: But there’s no school on Saturday, one of us objects. There is here, the young mother answers, bei uns, at our place, on our side. In a way they are as eager to show off their country to us as we are ours to them. We are to hear bei uns again and again, in a tone of mild, eye-rolling complaint; but the tone contains, as well, a touch of pride, a survivors’ pride, because they are proud of having held their own. We cannot, after all, know what they’ve had to live with. We say goodnight.
The sacristan in the trim, white Protestant church of Grosstopfer is happy to talk. “Two weeks ago,” he says, “there was a special service for everyone in the area, and it took me months to collect all the forms and information to apply for the permits so that everyone could come.” This is the Sperrgebiet, a strip of land five kilometers wide running the length of the border, into which no one was allowed without a permit; nor could you leave it without a permit, or travel between villages. “Now,” the sacristan says, looking at us, “two weeks later I’ve got an American and an Englishman in my church.” We glow with pleasure at having brought him ourselves; but he’s more taken with the hugeness of this thing that’s happened, to which we fall far short of giving adequate expression. What are we, after all, but two young people with cameras who happen to speak English; while the opening of the borders means driving wherever you want, or calling a special service any day of the week: a bigger, realer, more immediate thing than we are. But we flatter ourselves. “Here,” Steve says, taking a coin from his pocket, “tell him he can start his foreign coin collection with this English pound.” We are pleased at the appropriateness of the gesture.
We stop in at the crowded pub; then, warmed by poisonous Schnapps, we walk out of the night village. There are no streetlights here – this road never needed streetlights before – and we walk quietly. The light of a tiny pocket flashlight throws before us a jelly of wavering, jogging shadows. Other lights, before us, mark the border: a cluster of bright, spotlight white at the control post; and, more severe, the empty threat of the orange streetlights which cast pools of light at regular intervals at the foot of the black curtain. Although the borders are open, the lights, marching over the rise of land, are still on. All the way, Frau B says grimly, through wood and valley, every inch patrolled; think of the cost! And we cross into a more brightly-lit country.
Supper in West Germany: platters of cold cuts and cheese, a basket of bread. The table is long and lit with candles, so it looks like Christmas, and the platters, too, look like Christmas, made pretty for the sake of looking pretty. Later we go out looking for something to do, like people in any small town on Saturday night. Eventually, we come to the border again; knowing we can’t go through, because Westerners still need visas at any crossing after the first two days it’s been open, we park the car and stand by the curtain. Trabbis and Wartburgs pass us, on the way home. A car pulls up by us, the window down; a bottle comes out. Here, they tell us, drink. This is all we have; we don’t have anything else to offer you. Oh, we say, smiling, laughing, and pass the bottle around: Cheers, Prost, here’s to German-German friendship; and fire trails clear and warm down our throats. There are not many words to say; it’s easier to make loud noises of pleasure than to start a conversation, although we say Where do you come from? a couple of times, and maybe they do, too. They’ve got their bottle back, and are driving off. Goodbye, see you later; you will come again, won’t you, Helke implores, her hand stretching out as the car, waving, moves beyond her reach. Alone in the dark, we grin at one another. That’s friendship, contentedly says Steve, who has come to Germany for five days to see some history.
Next day. Clear, cold. A cloudless day, etching the grasses with frost. Parked cars glitter in the sun like a trail of ice along the road; we park, too, and join the crowd. The landscape is a ruler-straight flatness edged with blue and clumsy hills. A single figure moves along a path through a field, and, silhouetted against the whitish air of the distance, in the sun, he, or she, looks like a jewel, something magic and exact and many-faceted that needs to be discovered. It’s a jewel day, all its edges sharp, and with this light. Here’s where the train tracks were, and that was the railway station, Herr B remembers: goods came through from Eschwege and Wanfried, going East. The railway station? A hollow in the grass. It’s like being at Ephesus, a ruined ancient city, trying to reconstruct what life was like then from the subtlest of indications.
Passport control: no passports needed. The curtain runs black up the hill of raw earth, into the sky, cutting into the landscape like the blade of a razor. The next curtain, on the eastern side, is the one with the electricity, and the lights. Patrollers stand by it, with their dog, looking lost. And before us, a valley: East Germany runs down from the rise we’re on to a mercury river: white melts into gray, hill into silver, and the strongest contrasts are the curtains cutting across the land and the black finger of a factory smokestack across the sky. To my right is silver white haze, and to my left is gold sun on an old gold castle and the gold cliffs of a mountain, high above the town. After the war, no one was allowed up there: Party property, off limits. When the borders were lifted, most of the townspeople ran up there first, even before they went into the West.
The town of Treffurt is bigger than Grosstopfer, and looks more Western: the new houses have that typical German design, flat blank concrete facades set with anonymous squares of windows. The town hall is beautiful and infinitely decrepit, 15something its date, built of carved and painted stone; but they have had to take the tiles off the tower, because they kept falling down. We look at the selection in the window of the grocery store; it’s not as bad as we expected. They have, for instance, many flavors of jam. But, someone says, they have only one kind of blueberry, one kind of strawberry, and we have all different kinds of strawberry. We muse upon whether or not it is a clear advantage to have many kinds of strawberry.
As we leave the square, we pass three boys of thirteen or fourteen, hanging out by a rusting playground, staring at one of those 99-mark cassette players as it pumps out sound. Its new owner touches it lightly, finding its dials and controls, feeling it with the kind of quiet intensity you only have when you’re thirteen and a single thing can mean that much to you. This makes it seem less bad about the electronics shops ripping off people in Bebra; and it’s the kind of thing that shows us Westerners, with our many strawberry jams, what our democracy is worth: democracy is the right of everyone to own a 99-mark tape player.
We know the street leads to the castle because its name is “castle climb”; no joke as we pant uphill over the uneven cobblestones, then the path through the forest that was off limits a few days ago. The castle is a fairy-tale ruin, part a-tumble and part not only standing but, they say, a restaurant now; a Party youth club which opened to the public yesterday: shall we eat lunch there? Oh yes, we say, let’s wait.
And we stand under the wall of Normannstein and look out over the valley. Between the round chunky hills to the right the valley dies away into a swath of mist; before us, silver and gold have melted into a sun-diamonded river. And the houses of Treffurt below us are silhouetted into a novel-world: Dickensian London is mentioned, with the hanging smell of coal, and the chimneys pouring forth smoke or the day’s white mist, which brings out the sharp lines of the houses’ roofs. The smokestack rears up from the plain, incongruous, but blended in by the haze.
Steve thinks he’s found Natural Man. He wants to protect the coalburning village from shopwindows, progress, and asphalt streets. He is reacting against the rush of buying in the West; but Sentimental Man is speaking through him, too, longing for a mythical past no one ever had, wanting the East Germans to live it for him so he can content his sense of the picturesque while protecting them with his superior knowledge. I, too, love the breathing town below me, and do not want it to tar its streets or provide its every teenage boy with an expensive stereo system he never uses, as our brothers have. But I also think that I believe in the right of every man to be able to take advantage of the things theoretically available to him. Who are we to force these people to keep the innocence we have lost?
Still, I’m not convinced that Western “progress” should be brought over here lock, stock, and barrel. This is another country, not our country; and yet the prevailing attitude is, Well, they’ll catch up soon enough; at least they’ve got us to learn from. No chance that we, the well-fed West, might have anything to learn from them, or that they might have anything of their own worth keeping; since West, and Progress, and Technology, are always right. That’s another problem with that wall: it draws such a simplistic line between Good and Bad, Right and Wrong--draws it, at least, for those of us on the Western side of it.
And the question remains: do they want to be just like us, and will we, the West, be able to stand it if they don’t? The postwar Germans, stopped in their tracks, are faced with the spectre of a mirror, which threatens the questions: Who, or where, are we; and is our way really better than other ways? These other Germans must see that it is better, and try to catch up to us; otherwise we might have to admit that we did not do it the best way, and all our work will have been for nothing. Otherwise they might laugh at us and our strawberry jams, and we have not worked this hard and come this far only to be laughed at, to see that the mirror reflects a surfeit of goods, the god Consumer, and an easy contentment, so prevalent that we no longer try to understand what lies beneath the trappings of our culture. No, they must see that we are better; and the Emperor in his new clothes makes the motion of pulling his cape more tightly around him, lest a child begin to laugh.
The restaurant is packed. We sit at a long table in the Hunters’ Room, hung with fur and antlers. The waiter looks like a figure from a painting by Hals: red cheeks and a fierce curling black beard, a leather apron tied around his broad waist. His wife’s the only cook, for all these people. The East Germans sitting at our table are friendly, but not open, and we would like them to talk more about themselves. We tell them where we are from. Ah, you’re from Wanfried, the East German woman says to Frau B; is old Arthur still alive? Certainly, Frau B answers delightedly. To me, it seems incredible that a shared acquaintanceship has survived into the Now from that apocryphal past, a relic of the time when it was only natural to know an eccentric in the next village, before the curtain was drawn across the land to veil relations.
Outside again, we have to hurry; there are things to do in the West before the evening train to Munich. We cast long shadows as we walk downhill. The crowds in town are worse; the Westerners are seizing their last chance to enter before midnight, after which visas will again be needed; the Easterners are returning home. The curtain is harsher than ever in this light. In the West, the shining trails of parked cars have spread further, silver veins in the golden land.
Children leaving a party, we are reluctant to go. Frau B wants to look at Grossburschla; Kleinburschla, the Western town where we park, is packed with the same Sunday crowd. The curtain here runs along the train tracks. There used to be big slabs of concrete, first to keep out the tanks and then to keep in the people; now they have laid them end to end to make a path across the border, and we stand on them, looking in. A little ways off, the East German town is warm in the late sun, windows winking; at one corner, there is a stately old house with a cupola. A pretty town. It is tucked in hills which block the Eastward view, so its only view is of the West and the black curtain. When we turn to look back at the Western side, we see a row of houses standing a few yards from the curtain. In the late sun with their flat, stoic facades, and because they stand at a kind of land’s end, they look to me like houses on a seacoast, built sturdily to withstand gale. Their curtains are drawn against the sunset behind the barricade which is their only view. To live next to the problem and yet be unwilling, or unable, to face it: maybe it’s what everyone’s doing in Germany these days. Imagine, Frau B says, they live right up against it, that’s all they see. I guess you get used to it, she says, shaking her head as she turns away.