Dreams of the West. Dreams of the East.
Noise, dirt, smells, shouts in German, shouts in Turkish, Mercedes, BMWs, the rattle and thud of the S-Bahn. I was at Bahnhof Zoo, the crude and colourful heart of West Berlin.
I had come from the East by rail that Saturday morning, avoiding Checkpoint Charlie and any possible meeting with old friends. This time, the border guards had shown only perfunctory interest in me and my passport and I had endured little more than tense boredom in waiting to be let through to the platform bound for West Berlin. At the first stop across the border, the East German driver got out, said a quick ‘Guten Tag, Hans’ to his West German colleague, before stepping across the platform to guide the next eastbound train back.
A few minutes later I was in the middle of the late-season Interrailers, the kebab shops, the left luggage facilities and the bike racks of Bahnhof Zoo. I went to a counter and changed a 20-Deutschmark note into coins. Then it was just a matter of finding a booth, and dialling home.
I had composed a script in my head on the journey over of what I would say. How my university place in Vienna was surely still open; how I didn’t think the setup here was quite suitable for me and my future studies; how easy it would be to make all the rearrangements.
I heard the familiar British ring tone. Someone picked up.
‘Helo, mam?’ I said.
‘Dafydd!’ I could hear the relief in my mother’s voice. ‘Dafydd, ’nghariad bach i.’
I gripped the handset tight to keep my composure. I hadn’t spoken to my parents since leaving London nearly a week before, and my mother’s Welsh words flooded me with homesickness.
‘Where are you? Are you safe?’
‘I’m fine, don’t worry. I’m in West Berlin.’
‘In West Berlin? Why?’
‘Just to phone,’ I paused. ‘And to breathe a little.’
‘Are they treating you well? Are they nice to you?’
‘Oh, everyone’s been great. They really have. It’s just that…’
‘And you have a decent place to live? And you’re eating properly?’
‘Yes, mam, it’s fine. It’s just.. Well, it’s just very odd.’
‘Odd? How do you mean? You’re not in any trouble, are you?’
‘No, of course not. It’s all fine. It really is. It’s just not… It’s just not like it is at home.’
‘But that’s good, isn’t it? Isn’t that just what you wanted? Remember what you told us. How you were looking forward to it being odd and bizarre and unforgettable.’
Hearing the words I had used to reassure my sceptical parents the previous spring – words I wasn’t sure I had ever quite believed myself – sucked the moisture from my mouth. I felt the courage I needed to confess to my cowardice ebb away.
‘It certainly is all that,’ I said with a weak laugh.
‘Just give it time. I know you’ll do so well.’
Walking away from the phone booth a few minutes later, I felt alone and chastened. I knew my parents were right, even if I hadn’t been up to telling them exactly how I felt. It was ridiculous to think I could just slink away from my commitments here and waltz into a Viennese lecture hall as if nothing had happened. I wasn’t playing some pretend game of international musical chairs. I had made a decision as an adult, albeit I hardly qualified for the term, and I would have to stick to it as an adult.
I passed the day wandering numbly the streets of West Berlin, spending my precious Deutschmarks on chocolate and two-day-old copies of the Guardian and the Times, before getting back on the train. My heart sank a little as the inevitable announcement came:
‘Achtung! Achtung! Letzte Station in West-Berlin! Letzte Station in West-Berlin!’
‘It’s not easy, settling in, is it?’
A couple of weeks had passed and Klaus had come to join me at the table in the little office canteen where I was having a coffee. I wasn’t really sure how to reply.
‘We do realise, you know, how strange it must be for you. How our ways of doing things and our attitudes are quite different to what you’re used to.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’
‘How have you been spending your first few weeks? Monday to Friday in the office before escaping to West Berlin every weekend?’
I blushed at Klaus’ accurate description of my life. I had decided to grin and bear it. Keep my head down for the year and take my hopefully improved language skills as the bonus. But it wasn’t much of a life, and I was beginning to chafe at how alienated I felt from my own existence. I sensed I was cheating myself of something, but I couldn’t yet see what. East Berlin remained a mysterious grey expanse for me that I was unwilling or too frightened to explore. I sought refuge across the Wall each Saturday and Sunday, wandering without aim before returning to my little room at dusk.
‘Not having any fun wading through the newspaper?’ Klaus glanced with a wry smile at the copy of the ruling-party daily, Neues Deutchland, folded up on the table.
‘To be honest,’ I said, ‘I find it really hard to understand.’
‘Really? I thought your German would be good enough.’
‘It’s not just that. It’s more that,’ I tried to choose my words carefully, ‘that I don’t understand why it says the things it says. All the articles seem to be exactly the same. I see everyone with their copies on the U-Bahn in the morning, and I just don’t understand what they get from it.’
‘Really? How so?’ I could tell Klaus was trying to test me and, as always with him, I could never be entirely sure how serious he was being.
‘Well,’ I said slowly, ‘all the articles about the GDR are always just lists of this country’s achievements, and all the articles about the West are about how dreadful everything is. It’s hard to see the point of it all.’
I wasn’t sure if I’d gone too far. Klaus stared at me coolly for a minute, before his face spread into a generous smile and he laughed.
‘Oh, mein lieber junger Freund, what you say is true, but you are missing the point. You are missing the fun that can be had reading the newspaper!’
‘Fun? I don’t understand.’
‘Look at this article here,’ said Klaus, pointing to a description of a factory closure near Hamburg that had resulted in the loss of several hundred jobs. ‘Why do you think this is included?’
‘Well,’ I said slowly, ‘I imagine it’s to draw a contrast with the lack of unemployment here.’
‘Exactly,’ said Klaus. ‘Now, what story do you not see here?’
I shook my head.
‘What was the main story on West German radio this morning?’
I stared again. Was Klaus really supposed to be admitting to me that he listened to West German radio?
‘The main story,’ he continued patiently, ‘was the strikes sweeping the West German retail sector. Strikes demanding the shortening of the working week. Usually, our media loves that kind of thing. Decay of capitalism and all that. But why not this time?’
Again, I had no answer.
‘Quite simply, because it looks like the strikers might win. And that would not be good news for the government here. Because it would mean West Germans gaining better conditions than we have here in our workers’ paradise.
‘Of course, the government knows we are all fully aware of the strikes, but by not reporting in it in our media it is sending a clear message: don’t get any ideas that the working week here is going to be shortened.
‘Once you understand that this is how our media works, reading the newspaper becomes much more interesting. Do you see?’
‘I think I do,’ I said.
‘People in the West think our media, our society, is so bland, so boring, so monochrome. But you, my friend, you have the opportunity to see it from the inside. To see the richness that lurks beneath our apparently drab surface. I’ve a feeling you might enjoy that.
‘West Berlin is all very fine, I’m sure. But don’t you want something different for yourself? Something more real? You know how rare it is for a Westerner to experience what you can get to experience? Don’t you want to seize it? Truly experience a different kind of society? This is such an opportunity for you. Don’t let it go to waste.’
His words did beguile me. They scratched at the itch of my growing alienation, at my increasing desire to belong somewhere. Eager to please, I scanned the paper looking for a way to show him I understood.
‘So, what this story here about strengthening the border between Mexico and California is really saying…’ My voice trailed away. I began to see the attraction of being an insider.
‘Exactly, comrade,’ said Klaus with his characteristic combination of firmness and mockery. ‘You understand very well. I really feel that in a very short space of time you’ll become just like one of us.’
I realised I was enjoying letting his words sink in. I felt an unsettling sensation of pleasure that made me feel more grown up, more alive.
The next morning on the way to work, I bought a copy of Neues Deutschland to take with me on the train. I took my place alongside all the other commuters and spent the entire journey engrossed.
I often walked back from lunch with a colleague or two. Lunch was almost always at a huge communal workers’ restaurant a few streets away from the office, where I got acquainted with enormous stews, goulash, mounds of mash potatoes and absolutely delicious pigs’ trotters, a few stray hairs still sticking out of the skin. Replete with these delicacies, we would meander back to the office, sometimes stopping off at a bookshop to see whether any of the books I was supposed to be studying for my future degree were in stock.
This time, I was walking back with Hanna. Hanna was always fun to be with. She was the only person in the entire office younger than me – she had just left school, having turned 18 that summer. I knew she was already a member of the ruling communist party and that her father was someone very important in the city council – but I still felt a reticence about asking for details.
We wandered down some of the narrower side streets perpendicular to Friedrichstrasse. All of a sudden, she nudged my elbow and nodded in the direction of a coach that had turned into the street a hundred metres or so further up.
‘Look,’ she said, her voice thick with derision, ‘West German tourists come to gawk at our “suffering”.’
‘How can you tell?’ I asked.
‘Isn’t it obvious? Just look.’
As the coach came nearer, I saw she was right. ‘Urlaubsreisen München’ was painted jauntily on the front and sides, and the comfortably ensconced burghers exuded the particular kind of satiated complacency I was learning to recognise as uniquely Western.
We could hear the muffled voice of the tour guide through the glass as he described the scene about us.
‘Quick,’ said Hanna, as if a sudden thought had struck her. ‘Do as I do. When they pass, look as sad and dejected as you possibly can. It works every time.’
Before I could ask her what she meant, I saw that she had quite changed her demeanour. Her shoulders were slumped, and her face took on an expression of desperate misery. She turned her eyes sadly towards the advancing coach. Without thinking I did the same, and soon, like two abandoned waifs, we were staring up at the rows of tourists with melancholy and pleading expressions.
A large-bosomed matron was the first to notice us. She looked at us intently as if trying to process what she was seeing, then her hand went to her chest in shock as she shook her neighbour’s arm to rouse him. She said something and all those about her looked our way. Heads were shaken, a few seemed close to tears. ‘Entsetzlich,’ I saw one of them mouth. ‘Can we not help them? What can be done? The poor things. What a horrible life shut up in this prison.’ They shouted at the guide. He, probably wise to our shenanigans, said something soothing to calm everyone down. The coach passed on.
As soon as the tourists could no longer see us, Hanna and I creased up with laughter. ‘Did you see them?’ I said, gasping through my giggles. ‘Did you see their faces? They really thought we were that miserable. Can you believe it?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Hanna, as our laughter began to subside. ‘I can well believe it. That really is what they think of us. They think we’re the ones taken in by propaganda. But in reality it’s them. Totally them. Ignorant Westerners.’
‘Yes,’ I repeated to myself as I watched the coach swagger back onto Freidrichstrasse and head towards the border. ‘Ignorant bloody Westerners.’
That Saturday morning I woke up early as usual, gathered my things, and headed to the door for another weekend in West Berlin.
On the threshold I paused. What was I doing? I had absolutely no desire to go. What was there for me over the Wall? Gaudy shops, noise and vulgarity. I felt real contempt at myself for ever having wanted to leave. I turned around, and put my passport at the bottom of the drawer. I would no longer straddle two worlds. I would make a life for myself here. And I would throw myself at it without reserve.
I understood now. This is where I belonged.