For me the year 1989 was a time when those pesky dialectics came smashing together all at once, and gratifyingly so — except when the results were utterly appalling.
A roller coaster analogy doesn’t do it justice.
Those twelve months just might have been my crowning achievement in life apart from the overriding sense of having experienced an undiagnosed nervous breakdown. My best and worst qualities competed for equal billing, and I looked more than one gift horse squarely in the eye, leaving a smoldering bridge or two in my wake. 1989 was a profound turning point, and I’m still sorting through the aftermath.
Maybe it’s because at the time I simply wasn’t cut out to be a well-adjusted human being and didn’t know how to be happy. 30 years ago at this precise moment I had two steady jobs, one of them full-time at the best pay scale I’d ever known up to that point, and the other part-time for cash. For more than a year I’d been existing off the nighttime cash and bankrolling the daytime wages.
This was possible because living was ridiculously cheap and expenditures few. I shared a house in Floyds Knobs with my pals TR and George. Working a lot and living a little translated into an imposing war chest for future budget travels, preferably sooner rather than later.
I also had a girlfriend, a shocking banner headline that hadn’t been applicable in a long while, but this is a whole other story, a saga of subsequent highlights that included travel, marriage, business ownership, divorce first from the one, then the other, as well as a variety of highs and lows associated with the ride.
Simply stated, it is my inability (read: unwillingness) to write the story of this relationship that continues to impede my promise to produce a travelogue of Europe in 1989. I’ve hemmed, hawed, delayed and prevaricated, but the calendar pages keep turning.
So it’s time to start writing this narrative as straightforwardly as I can and see where it leads. Excuses, be gone. There’ll be the scanning of slide photos not viewed for decades, and rummaging through boxes, with further clawing through the attic of my cluttered cranium, in search of what I’m willing and unwilling to divulge about my state of consciousness during the pivotal year’s travels.
I want to take responsibility for being truthful, and yet some wounds remain open. Did I learn anything about myself from these experiences 30 years ago? As Chinese Premier Chou En Lai may or may not have said when asked about the lessons of the French Revolution, “It’s too early to tell.”
At some point near the end of May, 1989 I was on my way to Berlin with the stated intention of remaining in Europe for at least seven months.
Berlin was not the capital of a unified Germany in 1989 because the country was not together. There remained two Germanys … and two Berlins. Bonn was the capital of the Federal Republic, known to us as West Germany. West Berlin was a municipality entirely surrounded by the territory of the German Democratic Republic, or communist East Germany, of which East Berlin was the capital.
Berlin remained divided into zones of occupation, as administered by the triumphant Allies of World War II, which had concluded 44 years before. The western side included American, British and French zones, and representatives of the three countries still met at regular intervals to discuss their stewardship of the city. An empty seat was maintained for the Soviet emissary, who ceased attending some years before.
Both Berlins were maintained by their nations as showplaces of their respective ideologies, with East Berlin enjoying perhaps the highest standard of living in the entire Soviet zone, which began at the Brandenburg Gate and extended eastward all the way to Vladivostok.
The Berlin Wall was the line of demarcation between the Allied zones and the sovereign territory of the GDR. It had artsy graffiti on one side and gray machine guns on the other. David Bowie was looking right at the wall while recording the album “Heroes” at Hansa studio, and the title song came to mind often that summer.
In short, it was the Cold War in everyday life, although those first few days in May were intended only as a teaser. A return was planned for August, when I’d arranged a month-long “working” stay in East Berlin.
I’ve written previously about my experiences toiling for the greater good of Herr Honecker, and of course these and numerous other vignettes will be reprised (with photos) as the current 30th anniversary year progresses.
For now, I’ll merely sketch the 1989 trip’s overall parameters.
Quite early in the morning of June 2, 1989, I tiptoed out of my West Berlin hostel dorm and took to the street, where I caught the first bus of the day into the center of the city. At Zoo Station (later immortalized by the U2 song on Achtung Baby), there was a suburban rail (S-Bahn) train to catch a few stops east, then above the wall and into the Friedrichstrasse station in East Berlin.
Clambering off the train, I found myself standing on a sealed platform. It was possible to transfer to other commuter trains (and subways) headed to destinations in West Berlin, but not to walk out onto the street outside without passing through passport control and customs. Such was the bizarre transport arrangement reflecting the city’s division.
I had a time-sensitive transit visa for East Germany, allowing me to pass through the country without stopping. My ultimate destination was Prague, in the nation then known as Czechoslovakia.
After a brief orientation stroll and gut check (the streetscape in East Berlin was so different from what I’d experienced less than a mile westward that it might have been another planet), it was back onto an “Ossie” S-Bahn to a different train station, and my rail connection via Dresden.
For the next month Czechoslovakia was my home, courtesy of the family of my dear friend George Hrabcak, who at the time was a criminal defector. He’d have been arrested and incarcerated for so much as setting foot in his homeland. There is no telling how many miles I walked during two weeks in amazing Prague, followed by the same amount of time exploring Ostrava, then the Pittsburgh of Czechoslovakia.
Pork, dumplings and delicious Pilsner beer were consumed in abundance. It was an intensely educational time, culminating with the wedding of George’s cousin, the daughter of his uncle the communist party official, who was a charming and witty host throughout.
In early July came the long-awaited 36-hour “express” train from Prague to Moscow. “Back in the USSR,” indeed. In theory, my time in the Soviet metropolis was to be spent learning conversational Russian as part of a program at Moscow State University. It was an experimental teaching method, and it didn’t much appeal to me, especially considering the lessons (and foment) waiting to be learned outside the classroom during the high point of Gorbachev’s glasnost.
When the program concluded and it was time to leave Moscow, several of us were headed the same westerly direction, and our sponsoring organization helped to arrange train tickets back to East Berlin. First we had to obtain a Polish transit visa on our own. Three of us arrived at the Polish embassy, only to find a block-long line composed primarily of Soviet citizens and foreign students from socialist countries (i.e., Cuba, Ethiopia and Vietnam) seeking visas.
After standing stationary for a very long time, some English-speaking Russians nearby politely introduced themselves and advised us to walk to the front of the line and ask (in English) to be allowed to skip the long queue and enter. We shrugged it off … for about another hour, and then we took their advice.
The communist Polish military guards were delighted to see capitalist Americans, and we were ushered inside to be processed within minutes. It was a valuable metaphor about imperialism, and how in those days it ran in both directions.
After another week in West Berlin with my cousin Don (where we celebrated my 29th birthday) it was August, and time to cross into East Berlin for my work assignment. By early September, I was in Copenhagen visiting my Danish friends. Amy met me there. We activated rail passes and headed for Oktoberfest in Munich, where my friend and erstwhile East Berlin workmate Jeff Price joined us.
The path led to Vienna, Prague and Budapest. While in Prague the three of us walked past a square filled with Trabants parked two and three deep. It was puzzling, and only later did we realize the cars were abandoned by occupants scaling the walls of the West German embassy nearby, seeking asylum.
Jeff left for home and the two of us traveled through Italy, France and Ireland. She flew back stateside from Dublin, and I made an insane two-day ride by boat and train to Madrid. Having already lost my credit card (imagine coordinating a replacement with no fixed address) and been pick-pocketed, now I was drugged and robbed during an afternoon drinking bout the day before my scheduled departure for Lisbon.
The monetary loss proved negligible and the traveler’s checks were swiftly refunded, although the thieves made off with all my belongings including the trip diary. It was November, with at least six weeks yet to go. Once the pounding headache ceased, I realized just how exhausted I’d become.
An itinerary reformat was in order, so new clothes and a gym bag were purchased at a Madrid department store. I called Mary Pat Bliss, who changed my plane ticket for the flight home. Now I had two weeks to work my way back to Copenhagen for a finale with my Danish friends, and enough money to splurge.
Unrest in East Germany escalated during these final weeks abroad. One night the four of us gathered snacks and beers at Allan’s to watch on television as the Berlin Wall started being pulled down by triumphant Berliners from both sides.
Briefly our quartet debated the idea of boarding a ferry and taking a train to go to Berlin and join the celebration. It was only seven hours away, and visas were easily obtainable in Copenhagen. In the end, we decided against going. Three Danes and an American rightly concluded that while it may have been a fine party, it wasn’t ours. It belonged to the Germans.
Back home again in Indiana, December arrived, and with it the chance to watch the other Communist dominoes fall, especially in Czechoslovakia with the Velvet Revolution. It was as peaceful as the revolt against Ceausescu in Romania was violent. In January of 1990, Europe suddenly was a very different place.
There’d been a lot more to the trip than what I’ve sketched here, but as the New Year dawned, it was clear that for me in my own life, certain realities had come to an end and others were just beginning.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ll always question returning home, given the many opportunities for English-speaking expatriates amid the transition. There are no answers, just nagging doubts. Maybe it’s time to send these ghosts packing even if I’ve grown quite fond of them over three decades’ time.
I’ve made 36 European excursions since the one in 1989. None of them have been quite like it. Perhaps in the months to come I’ll finally be able to explain why, and I hope it’s an entertaining and educational experience for blog readers.