I have almost no pictures from our trip to East Germany. I know what I have some from Saxische Sweitzer – Saxon Switzerland, but I could not find them. Maybe they will emerge later, and then I will add them to this post. For now, I will continue without pictures.
When we arrived in Berlin, our hosts told us they would try to exchange our return train tickets, and they managed to get us an extra three days! We were overjoyed, and I will tell you in a little bit, what did I do with this additional time.
We liked East Germany. Now, when I read memoirs about the time the country was divided, people comment about the striking contrast between the East and West Germany, about East Berlin and West Berlin. We didn’t know anything about what’s going on behind the wall. We loved Berlin, and we loved Leipzig. We also loved all the other cities and towns our hosts would take us. We visited Weimar, Erfurt, and Eisenach. We had a three-day trip to Dresden, and one of these three days we visited Maison, and it’s famous factory. We roamed Saxische Sweitzer. We had an excursion to Potsdam.
We loved everything. The fact that the trams had schedules, which they were obeying to the minute. That the streets were clean and the university dorms were tidy. We loved the school cafeterias.
You might find it hard to believe, but none of us could use the silverware properly. The school cafeterias, canteens, and small cafes in the Soviet Union were notorious for never having knives available, so everybody learned to manage. Besides, how needs a knife?! Can’t you do just fine without all these bourgeoise excess?! We knew how you should use a knife, but mostly theoretically. We didn’t have a habit of having both a fork and a knife handy at every meal, so applying our theoretical knowledge to practice was a struggle. Shortly after we arrived at Leipzig, all “exchange” students were invited for lunch with the Dean. I can’t recall whether I did it intentionally or accidentally, but I ended up being one Russian student at the table with seven Polish girls. It was the top of my “not knowing how to use the knife” embarrassment because of the rest of the table had no problem with that.
We enjoyed the street food, which was almost non-existent in the Soviet Union, and the whole idea that the street food or the cafeteria food can be tasty was entirely novel. Our host didn’t know what to say when we would buy grilled bratwurst and beer on the street and say that we do not need lunch, and let’s go and see more exciting stuff!
When we would return to our dorms in the evening, we would get together with other international students: Romanian, Ukranian, but mostly Polished. It was 1984, and Poland just got out of “stan wojenny” – martial law. We heard lots of stories about the shortage of food, about surveillance, and lots of political jokes. The Poles had a guitar, and they asked one of our group members who could play guitar and sing, to sing the underground Russian Rock. Their fave was “Aluminium cucumbers” by
Boris Grebenschikov Viktor Tsoi, and they asked for this song again and again.
We spent the last four days in Berlin, and that was an extra treat. I should repeat that although we were always supposed to walk in a group, our group leader had enough common sense to give us some freedom. Two girls were going out with some Belgium students all the time in Leipzig, but they were very diligent in letting the group leaders know of their whereabouts. For me, freedom meant that I was in the Berlin museums all day long. None of the group was as passionate about art as me, and I would go to the Museum Island in the morning, buy a whole-day ticket, visit the museums which were opened in the morning, get out for a quick bite and come back in the afternoon.
It does not mean, the nothing else interested me :). I enjoyed Berliner Weisser, the kind of beer I never tasted anywhere else, even to these days. I was shopping for corduroy jeans, which was the most desired piece of clothing back then, and for cute clothes for 2-year old, my friend’s son. I also had a romantic story, which I will share in a little bit. But the museums of Berlin were mind-blowing. I can’t tell why the fact of the division of the city never bothered me, and why I had only slight regrets about the fact that all behind the Brandenburg Gates was out of reach. There were enough treasures to explore in the Eastern part. The Pergamon museum made me think for the first time about the exploitive nature of the 19th century archeology when I saw the Ishtar Gates from my history textbook been there, not in Babylon:).
Although East Germany was a socialist country, there were many things there which were set up and functioning with the people’s convenience and common sense in mind. The bus and train stops. The railway stations. The observation points in the mountains guarded by railings. The fact that each church we would come across would be functioning both as a church and a museum, and you could come in without having to cover your head and observe the beautiful paintings. And the priest would sell you postcards with the views of the church. And the fact that all these paintings were not concentrated in the museums, but as I put it back then, “each Kirche has its’ Cranach.”
We would buy lots of postcards; only one or two people in our group had cameras, and the pictures would be black and white anyway. The idea of selfi was yet to come :).
Now about my romantic story. During our first week in Leipzig, we were invited toa disco event with other international students. I noticed this boy during the group dance, and he notices me, and we were trying to move closer to each other on the dance floor until we could form a dancing pair. And then we sat down and tried to talk. He was French and eighteen. His English was not super good, and between our two accents, we’ve realized soon, that it would be easier to write than to talk. I fetched my tiny notebook and a pencil, and we started to write to each other. That’s why I still remember his name and the town in the Northen France he was from. We felt a tremendous attraction to each other, although I was three years older, and at this age, it felt like an impossible gap. We walked outside the dancing hall and started kissing fiercely, and then at some point, we paused and looked around and laughed – three other couples were leaning at the railing surrounding the entrance, precisely in the same position as we were.
We went inside and found a quiet corner. He was a great kisser and started to reach for more; I stopped his hand, and he didn’t take it as an offense. That meant a lot to me.
Meanwhile, the dancing was over; both our groups headed toward the bus stop and boarded the same bus. We had several stops to stay together and were frantically trying to come up with some ways to meet more in the eare before the internet and cell phones. Our group leads told us that we will have one more event together, which we believed, but in reality, it didn’t happen. I tried to find him on the campus where his group was hosted and even made my way there. But without any notion of each other’s schedule and accommodation details, it was hopeless.
I had his address in my notebook, and I sent him a letter on my last day in Berlin. That was a smart decision on my side because in the USSR the mail to the foreign countries most of the time had no chance to get out.
He replied to my address in Leningrad, saying that was sad and lonely since I was gone and still is. I replied back but as expected didn’t get any response. Most likely, my second letter didn’t make it out of the country.
Years later, in the internet age, but before Facebook, I tried to find him. I knew a little bit about his hobbies, and his name was not very common. So I am pretty sure I found the right person. When I saw a picture, for a second I thought that it has to be his son, because it looked like nothing had changed. I thought about sending a message. And decided against it:).
I came back home a different person, on many accounts. I got some fashionable clothes, and at that time it did make a difference in how a person felt. I saw a different country, a different lifestyle. And with it still being a socialist one, it was much more normal, than what I saw around me. I became more confident in myself. It was not a huge change, but just enough for people to notice 🙂