Friday, January 8, 2010

Berlin Pt. 1: A Precarious Perch

Flying into Berlin at sunrise.

NOTE: The preceding posts are from November of 2009. They are re-posted from a blog created for a semester project at the University of Utah for a New Media writing class. Until it was graded I had to keep it private. I have kept the posts almost exactly how they were presented for the project. To see the project in it's original form click HERE.)

The light from a movie that is filmed in French, dubbed in German and playing on a slightly bouncing screen, falls on a head of soft brown hair resting in my lap. Folded once, her body ends and I have to keep making sure her legs don’t fall into the aisle where a large steel case on rollers occasionally passes. I wish I could sleep because we arrive with the sunrise, but nerves keep me awake. A distant screen shows a giant white plane connected to a bright red line. It tells me that we are almost over Bristol, England – an hour and a half from our destination; Berlin.

With the setting of returning to Germany for a funeral only days after the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, this blog is a combination of two things. First, personal reflections on nationality, family and how politics truly shape and direct our lives. Second, a background into Communist East Germany; it’s history and dissolution.

Like any good story, the history preceding what appears to be the beginning, transcends the present moment where you’ve entered the story.

Yours truly in the hometown of Heidelberg, West Germany. 1989 Photo by Bill Terry

November 9, 1989
I had just turned 7 and I remember the night. I remember watching television, AFN (American Forces Network) didn’t cut away. It was ZDF or some other German channel. I knew something was going on. Germany was in two pieces and truthfully I only lived hours from Berlin yet East Germany was like Moscow to me. When we traveled, we went South; Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France. At least when I was a kid we didn't go East or North. I had about as much knowledge on East Germany as I did on Narnia at the time, I didn’t know anyone from there and didn’t think I ever would. I grew up in the Middle-Rhein area of Germany because my father worked for the US Army Europe and Department of Defense in the intelligence and counter intelligence sector.

The TV showed packed streets and checkpoint crossings. White lights of Trabants rolling through crowds of people through Checkpoint Charlie. The pictures and videos I have seen since mix with my shallow memories of that night. I do remember knowing what was happening was important. The rest of the week we watched the news as the wall was ripped apart across Berlin.

A friend of my father, who worked for NATO gave me a small piece of the wall weeks later. It had blue spray paint on it. It lives in a small jewelry case with tie tacs and cub scout pins. I wondered what side it was from. I would learn later how naieve such a question was. There is an old East German joke. How do you know which side of the wall you are on? Put a banana on the wall and wait for one side to have a bite mark. I would learn later that bananas and spray paint were probably among the least important items on the list of things that didn’t exist in the GDR.

Djamila "Mila" Grossman and her cousin Sven in East Berlin, East Germany. 1989 Photo courtesy of Djamila Grossman

November 9th, 2009
I kissed my girlfriend goodbye and drove to class. She 27, and only months older than I when the Wall came down has a similar memory of that day, only from the other side. She moved to the US less than 10 years ago from East Berlin where the majority of her family remains.

I listened on the drive, NPR had gathered archived reports and interviews from people who were there 20 years earlier and dedicated their morning programs to the anniversary of the Wall falling. My phone rang and Mila’s sobbing voice asked, “Where are you?” A thousand awful scenarios raced through my mind, I asked what was the matter nervously. Her grandmother had an anuerysm and passed that morning.

Elena Dietrich, photo provided by the Dietrich family.

Helena Dietrich. Photo provided by Dietrich family.

I turned around and went back home, the radio still playing reports from Berlin where current German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbechev were attending commemorative services. I listened and like many others my thoughts drifted to Berlin and those who were a part of the DDR. People like Helena Dietrich, Mila’s grandmother, and former DDR citizen. While the eyes of many were on Berlin and it’s history, Elena was surrounded by her family in small apartment while her granddaughter cried thousands of miles away.

It was no secret that my family was in Germany because of the Cold War, and more specifically Communist East Germany. Past that the details of what my father did were murky and not going to become clearer anytime soon. I drove home to her and thought about politics and nationality and how they shape our lives and destiny. If you would have told my father back then, that his youngest son would be with the grand daughter of Communists from East Berlin he might have laughed himself silly or possibly put me under some sort of surveillance.

So at at 9,000 feet I’m in love, and as least as far as I can tell it’s been that way for awhile. I feel it now on this dark plane hovering over the English Channel and I felt it when I told her I would come with her to Berlin for the funeral. This blog is a record of a Schicksal spun between two families, three countries and a pair perched precariously in between a common past and collective future.