In 1989 I left apartheid South Africa and spent much of the next year travelling Europe. In October I found myself in the outback of Turkey, and the word on the street was that the Berlin Wall was about to fall. With it’s fascinating history, cold war angst and strong David Bowie connection, Berlin had always been on my "must visit" list and I accelerated my plans to get there. Unfortunately the wall began crumbling on the evening of November 9, 1989 and continued over the following days and weeks. Nevertheless, I skipped through the Greek islands and caught the ferry from the port of Piraeus in Athens to Brindisi in Italy. I decided to bypass Naples and caught a fast train north to Rome. I think it was either on the ferry or on the train that I met fellow traveller, Serge Bowers from Pennsylvania in the USA. He and I made good companions and has a Chianti-fuelled blast through Rome, Florence, Pisa and Venice (but that’s another story).
On November 25, Serge and I went our own ways – he headed for Amsterdam, while I spent a couple of days in Milan, visiting the magnificent Il Museo Storico dell’Alfa Romeo in Arese. I then skipped through Switzerland (Lausanne, Bern, Luzern and Lurich) beofre finally making it to Stuttgart in Germany, taking in the Mercedes-Benz Museum and the Porsche Museum. By this time (December 4) I was running low on cash and so resorted to hitch-hiking from Stuttgart to Mannheim, heading for Bonn where I was going to be staying with Prof. Dr. Marcella Rietschel (a Research Fellow at the Institute of Human Genetics, University of Bonn) who I had met in Istanbul in October. It was freezing cold and snowing out on the road, and by the time I reached Mannheim, I had had enough and headed to the Hauptbahnhof. After a cup of steaming coffee, I bought a ticket to Bonn, boarded the milk-train and continued the journey north. As fate would have it, I ended up in Zeppelinheim, close to Frankfurt, and that extraordinary interlude is detailed here.
Being on the bones of my financial arse, and with a severe cold snap making hitch-hiking a really bad idea, I now resorted to using the Mitfahrzentrale – an organised hitch-hiking (or "cap pooling") service where a driver can register how many spare seats they have in their car and where they are travelling from, to, and on what date. Potential passengers are provided with contact details and descriptions of the journey including any proposed stops along the way. As all travellers share costs, the savings can be extensive and it also serves as a good way to meet interesting people and to practice your German!
Our route to the east The so-called "inner German border" (a.k.a. "Zonengrenze") was the frontier between the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) from 1949 to 1990. The border was a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet and Western blocs during the Cold War. The border could be crossed legally only through a limited number of routes and foreigners were able to traverse East German territory to or from West Berlin via a limited number of road corridors, the most used of which was at Helmstedt-Marienborn on the Hanover–Berlin A2 autobahn. Codenamed Checkpoint Alpha, this was the first of three Allied checkpoints on the road to Berlin. The others were Checkpoint Bravo, where the autobahn crossed from East Germany into West Berlin, and most famous of all, Checkpoint Charlie, the only place where non-Germans could cross from West to East Berlin. Lengthy inspections caused long delays to traffic at the crossing points, and for some the whole experience was very disturbing: "Travelling from west to east through [the inner German border] was like entering a drab and disturbing dream, peopled by all the ogres of totalitarianism, a half-lit world of shabby resentments, where anything could be done to you, I used to feel, without anybody ever hearing of it, and your every step was dogged by watchful eyes and mechanisms." (Jan Morris) Personally, having spent almost three decades of my life under the oppression of the apartheid regime, it felt all too familiar.
So, after an uncomfortable 6-8 hour road trip, I was finally there – Berlin! One of my German friends from South Africa (P.A.) had been a regular visitor to Berlin during our high school and university years, before relocating to the city in the mid-80’s. In those days it made a lot of sense – getting out of South Africa after studying meant escaping two years military service with the south African Defence Force and moving to Berlin meant avoiding conscription into the German military as well. That is, in order to encourage young people to move to West Berlin, they were lured in with exemptions from national service and good study benefits. It was December 8, 1989 and P.A. was unfortunately not in town. But a mutual friend was – L.M. had left Africa at about the same time as Pierre and was an aspirant artist in Berlin. He offered me a place to stay and we spent a brilliant week together, partying, clubbing and taking in all the delights that this city in change had to offer! I don’t remember too much, but have some photos that I am sharing for the first time, a quarter of a century later, to the day.
20831-05a-ew – the caption on the back of the photo reads:
"Eager souvenir hunters started knocking holes in the "Berlin Wall". M.P. in West Berlin, Germany. Saturday, December 9, 1989."
Tagged: , Brandenburg Gate , Brandenburger Tor , Leipziger Straße , Leipziger Strasse , Potsdamer Platz , Selfie , Me , Myself , Graffiti , Wall Woodpeckers , Mauerspechte , Souvenir , Souvenir Hunter , Hammer , Chisel , Freedom , Berlin , Germany , West Germany , Travel , The Wall , Berlin Wall , Fall of the Wall , Pentax , Pentax ME Super , ME Super , Film , 35mm , 35mm Film , Silver Oxide , 1989
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