Crossing the line
Friday, 8 December 1989, 6.30pm—Departure
I was an inexperienced traveller; I had only been to Moscow so far. These blasted cramps. One more trip to the bathroom before we would leave for the station. My German-Australian boyfriend hurried me along because we had to catch tonight’s inter-zone service to Frankfurt. I was excited but nervous about stepping into this new world I was now free to enter.
On the evening of 9 November 1989, after weeks of mass demonstrations against the oppressive government of Erich Honecker & Co., the boom gates at the border to West Germany had opened for all of us. It was difficult to believe they would let us cross the line that had kept us in the dark and separated families for almost thirty years. Many people felt apprehensive.
I had never left my little girl for more than a few hours, but that day I had placed her into the care of my parents. She knew we would come back for her on Monday. Many people took their young children, even babies, with them for the first crossing—to make them part of history they said, but also to collect the extra 50-Deutschmark welcome gift every East German visitor received. Since that historic Thursday night my countrymen had flooded the western border and passed their children through carriages above the heads of hundreds of passengers standing and sitting in the aisles of the overcrowded trains. Many children wet or soiled themselves on the long and arduous way to the dirty and blocked toilets.
So the ocean had calmed; the aisles of tonight’s train were clear. Our fellow travellers, all first-timers as we were soon to find out, greeted us with nods and long supportive blinks as we entered the compartment.
Soon the train started to move. I was hoping for sleep to overcome me and for dreams to carry me away to a calm island after the tumultuous weeks leading up to and following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cramps again. I stepped across a pair the outstretched legs, careful not to disturb the man who seemed to meditate. Today the toilet was not blocked; I could see the tracks flicker below. Just outside our compartment I was thrown against the window when the train suddenly stopped. The others inside sat upright at once, looking at each other with uncertainty written all over their faces, but soon the train began to move again. We drew the curtains to protect ourselves from the eyes of the inter-zone train personnel. These people had been hand-picked for this line, allowed to come into contact with Westerners—we would not trust them. Sleep did not come but I drifted in and out of a doze.
Saturday, 9 December 1989, 4.10 am—The crossing
The train had stopped some time ago. This was it. I wondered if they would still use dogs—anyone leaving our country in this direction was a suspect. I startled when the uniformed officer ripped the compartment door open and flicked on the light.
When my turn came I handed him my ID, and the poker-faced officer scrutinised my motionless pale face—for a whole minute it seemed. My grandmother had told me how frightening the border crossing was. She had been allowed to travel on this train several times over the years to see her other sons and daughters.
‘Thank you. Have a pleasant trip.’
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The officer had left but the lights were still on. Soon the train started moving again. I felt like a child who had escaped her parents temporarily, but I was sure I would gladly return home from my excursion.
All heads were turning to the window now. We wanted to see what the death strip looked like, and, more importantly, what came beyond. We glanced at each other, then back at the neon signs that began to appear.
Now everyone was wide awake. The young woman opposite us was wearing a fashionable red scarf with silver metallic stripes, a gift from the West I’m sure. I was wearing my turquoise one. She was sharing her great expectations with us when a lady who had just boarded the train entered our compartment. The scent of her exotic perfume permeated the air. She greeted us travellers with a smile. She seemed to understand.
Saturday, 9 December 1989, 6.00am—Arrival
‘Welcome to Frankfurt. Passengers travelling to Munich …’ A warm and clear voice greeted us as we stepped onto western ground. To hear the names of these cities from a speaker and to be free to board any train I liked—
I choked back my tears. The lady at the speaker sounded smartly dressed, well groomed and enthusiastic, unlike the one in Dresden who robotically donned her shapeless uniform every morning to go to work at the dirty station that smells of urine and spew. My boyfriend stood back and allowed me to immerse myself in this new world, a world he had always been able to enter at will.
The day had just begun at Frankfurt Station: kiosks opened to make life pleasant for the early morning commuters, homeless people woke up in their sleeping bags at the bottom of the stairs, cleaners packed up their equipment after a night’s work. Bright posters and advertising signs adorned every available spot, as I had seen in the forbidden magazines. These magazines, which some brave grandmothers had smuggled into our country on their return, were considered anti-socialist contraband.
I had stepped from a black-and-white world into a coloured one and was dazzled now. I saw a bright blue dress in a shop window, which reminded me of the copper sulphate we had produced ten years ago in the chemistry lab at school. We had named it West salt, whispering the words to each other, because it looked so bright and beautiful. Now I was strolling through clouds of West smell—a combination of perfumed soap, fabric softener, cleanness, quality and sophistication—the scent of the big wide world. It was the smell that had filled our lounge room every year when we were opening Christmas parcels from our western relatives.
I came from the valley of the clueless. Here, the newsagency sported an impressive display of newspapers from around the globe, colourful magazines and forbidden books, like Orwell’s Animal farm and Nineteen eighty-four. We had heard of and secretly spoken about them, but only with the most trusted of our friends. Citizens suspected of possessing this kind of literature, the revolutionary spirits, were placed under surveillance until the opportunity arose to close the trap and take them to a Stasi interrogation cell, and possibly to jail, for thinking against the government.
Suddenly the smell of fresh pastries and coffee wafted across from the bakery. I walked around the feet of a drunk sitting up against the wall, to read Cr…oissants… How would I say that? I remembered reading Tolstoi and how I had tried to sound out the French words. I decided to be brave. After all, nobody knew me here.
It was delicious, and the hot cup of Jakobs coffee put some life back into our tired and shivering bodies. We walked out of the station with no set plan in mind to ring Aunt Lieselotte and Uncle Konrad who were expecting us. Was that a syringe next to the garbage bin? Hm, my boyfriend shrugged. I had heard of drugs. Not good. Well, let the good life begin.
Monday, 11 December 1989, 9.00 am—Return
I should have been asleep after the bumpy train ride back home through the night, but I was confused and paced through my apartment. I had walked out of the station in my home town many times before. But for the first time this morning, on re-entry after a brief stay in a more colourful world, I noticed how decrepit and grey the houses and how lifeless our streets were.
During the last two days I had imagined how quickly my own world would now become more open, colourful and fragrant. But in no time we would also step over the homeless sleeping at the bottom of some stairs. In a big circle we would walk around the syringe next to a park bench and check the sandpit before letting our children play.
I was excited and frightened at the same time. I now knew. It was a package deal.