Thursday, September 22, 2011

Behind the iron curtain!

A recent business trip to Berlin gave me a feeling of nostalgia as I remembered a visit I made 22 years earlier ... when the wall was still in place and Germany was still divided during the time of the cold war.

It was September 1989. I was a 19 year old student at the time doing a business degree on a 6 month work placement assignment. I had chosen to take my work experience placement in our family business and this involved a trip to Berlin for the bi-annual Funkausstellung electronics trade fair.

Always a fun event displaying the latest gadgets and technologies, this was a lot of glamour and a great experience for a naive and inexperienced 19 year old boy.

After enjoying the week working at the fair, there was a chance for a break on the weekend to see Berlin.

My cousin, Dino, was with me on this trip, so we decided to have some adventure together and see "The East". All we knew of the other side was what we had seen in spy and war movies. It was going to be grey and dangerous ... very exciting ... very "James Bond", and a chance not to be missed.

So off we went, asking our hotel doorman which way to go. For ease and convenience, he recommended to take the train to Friedrichstrasse and also gave us some pointers of what to do and see on "the other side".

Back in those days, there was still the Deutsch Mark in West Germany and the Ostmark was used in East Germany. They carried an official exchange rate of 1:1, but on the black market you could get a rate of 10:1. For a couple of teenagers, that was an interesting prospect, so we consulted our doorman for advice on how to avail of this arbitrage opportunity.

As if straight from a movie, he dipped his voice and told us in his thick German accent ...

"First go to Alexanderplatz. Under the TV Tower there are some stairs. Go there and wait. You will see some Vietnamese people. They will look at you, but don't worry! Go with them and they will change your money.".

So off we went, with 100DM each, excited for the adventure that lay ahead.

The train journey was fast and uneventful, and when we reached Friedrichstrasse, we crossed immigration and then reached a desk where we were asked to exchange 10DM. This was compulsory for all visitors as a tool for East Germany to collect hard currency. We dutifully did this and got 10 Ostmarks in return. So be it. We still had 90DM more for the Vietnamese people!

So we exited the station and immediately found a designer clothes shop. We went inside and browsed. We hadn't imagined to see the latest Boss and Armani collections in East Berlin. Fantastic. We were about to make our money go 10 times further ... we shall be back.

With a purpose, we headed on foot to Alexanderplatz. Easy to find from anywhere in Berlin as it houses the famous TV tower.

Seeing Berlin now and remembering back to those days, it is unrecognisable. Today, Alexanderplatz has numerous tourists wandering around. Sipping Lattes on the grass and shuttling up and down the tower to take on the views of one of Europe's most modern cities, but back in 1989, Alexanderplatz was a grey and emotionless place.

We headed straight to the stairs under the TV tower and it didn't take long for the Vietnamese people to find us. Indeed, as our doorman had told us, they were looking at us. To any observer, this had to look phenomenally suspicious, but to us, it was exciting...

Up some stairs, we went into a dark corridor away from the prying eyes of the authorities. In broken English, they asked us if we wanted to change some money. After verifying the rate, we gladly agreed and handed over whatever Deutsch Marks we had, and in return received 10 times as many Ostmarks. Happy as Larry, we left that dingey corridor, left Alexanderplatz and headed back to the clothes store. With hindsight, I suppose we should be glad we came out of there at all ... Being older and wiser now, I'm not sure you could get me back in that situation were it today.

It didn't take long to find the shop. Rummaging around, we grabbed suits, shirts, jeans and all other sorts of things that we were going to get for 90% discount. The shop was relatively empty, so there was no line at the cash desk. We laid down the clothes, received the bill and tried to pay. What was the problem? The cashier wasn't taking our money. She looked at us and seemed to be waiting for something. Figuring that we didn't know what her concern was, she told us. "We don't accept Ostmarks! Only Deutsch Mark". She went on to explain to us the concept of the "Dollar shops" in East Europe. Everything was available in the East (contrary to popular belief), but it was only available through the so called "Dollar shops" which were only open to foreigners and hard currency payments.

So what do we do now with our worthless riches? We now had pocketfuls of undervalued cash, and worse still, we couldn't change it back!

We kept our spirits up. It was a lovely sunny day and we had a chance to explore this city now. It was still early in the day and we had plenty of time. Our only rush to get back was for the massage we had booked back in our hotel at 6pm.

Walking aimlessly, we found a department store. It didn't look too bad. Well stocked with all sorts of regular items (albeit unbranded), we asked the first and most important question... did they accept Ostmarks? Of course they did. This was a regular store. So we went crazy. T-shirts, shirts, jeans and I even got a Lomo camera along with other things. We just grabbed whatever we could that was half decent to try and utilise this cash we had.

That was a relief. With our arms full of shopping, we now felt a little more justified in our earlier financial transaction, but we still had hundreds of Ostmark left.

Continuing our unguided wandering foot tour of the city, we came across a grand hotel. It was near enough lunchtime, and upon confirming that Ostmarks were acceptable, we settled down to a sumptuous meal. It was superb! Caviar and Champagne and, frankly, whatever else was expensive on the menu. Well fed and well rested, we asked for the bill and fought over who would pay. I don't think either of us had ever been so keen to pay for the other.

Coming up to 3pm, we wandered outside and had a plan to go to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border crossing. We could walk across it like we had seen in so many movies and proudly show our British passports and be allowed back to "freedom".

In front of the hotel, we were the only ones to stand in the taxi line, and we patiently waited ... and waited ... and waited, but no taxi's. What was going on? Eventually a local man approached us and asked if we were waiting for a taxi. Hearing our positive reply he announced to us "I am a taxi". His car was allegedly parked outside the hotel, so for the second time that day, we naively followed a total stranger.

We squeezed into his ageing Trabant and told him our destination. During our journey he explained that he was a private person who "moonlights" as a taxi driver, as there aren't many taxis (or cars for that matter) in the city.

Checkpoint Charlie wasn't far. Our taxi dropped us off and we were right by the wall. We could see parts of West Germany on the other side and a picture was necessary. I approached the wall as Dino stood with the camera ready... and out of seemingly nowhere, 2 guards appeared, armed, and abruptly warned me to step away from the wall. WOW! suddenly the impact of being in the East came home. This wasn't about Hollywood glamour and everything having a happy ending. This was serious. Millions of repressed people lived here behind this wall, many against their will. We suddenly felt a greater sense of urgency to leave. We approached the counter on the Eastern side of the checkpoint and handed over our passports.

"You came in from Friedrichstrasse" said the guard.

"Yes", I replied, not realising it wasn't a question.

"You came in from Friedrichstrasse, you have to leave from Friedrichstrasse!".

What? What were we going to do? How do we get back to Friedrichstrasse? It was miles away and we didn't have a car or taxi (and now we knew how hard it was going to be to get one) and maybe we were going to miss our massages!

We had no choice. We knew the train station was near Alexanderplatz, so we followed the roads leading to the TV tower to get us there.

An hour or so later, getting on to 5pm, we reached the point from which we entered East Berlin. With a great sigh of relief, sore feet and tired arms (from carrying our shopping) we entered the station.

The first point of contact in the station to exit the city is customs! An aggressive mannered officer addressed us in German. Obviously we couldn't understand him, but as we tried to explain this, he only became more irate! Luckily one of his nearby colleagues could speak English and took over the questioning.

We handed over our passports and he asked what we had in the bags.

"Shopping" was our joint reply.

"From where?" the officer asked.

We didn't know the name of the shop, but found a receipt in one of the bags and showed it to him.

He looked us up and down and then asked Dino to go with him to another desk and he left him there with another officer. The original officer came back to me and I could see they wanted to question us individually.

"How did you buy these goods?" I was asked, or perhaps interrogated.

"With money" came my rather stupid reply. My nerves were already starting to get the better of me. I could see where this was heading.

"Where did you get the money from?"

What was I supposed to say? Dino was within sight but out of earshot. We had no way to communicate or consult, and I could see that he was being asked the same questions.

"At a bank" I replied, knowing that any other answer was going to lead to trouble.

"Where is the receipt?" the officer asked back instantly.

"I didn't get one" I said, trying not to reveal any signs of fear.

"Which bank?"

"In Alexanderplatz". I had to hope there was a bank there.

"So where is the receipt" I was asked again.

"They didn't give me one" I was forced to repeat.

"Which bank?" the officer asked me again, and I knew I couldn't keep going in this circle... so I had to gamble.

"There were some people in Alexanderplatz and they told me they were a bank" came my very lame reply.

"That is illegal!"

That didn't bode well. Trying to be an innocent ignorant "child" was not going to work, and we were in East Berlin. This wasn't exactly a place known for leniency. This officer was looking at me with total disdain and I knew I was in trouble. I looked up to see how Dino was doing, but he wasn't there! Where had he gone?

"Come with me" I was ordered by the guard.

I followed him down a corridor, and this time I felt trepidation. We walked into a "room". It was about 3m x 3m, no windows and a solid door which closed behind me as I went in. This wasn't a "room". This was a cell!

What the hell was I going to do and where was Dino? Was the guard going to be back soon and was there still a chance to get back in time for my massage?

Time passed. Probably an hour or so, and the possibilities were starting to play havoc with my nerves. I finally realised that the massage was not only missed, but that I probably had a more serious issue to worry about. I was in a cell in East Berlin. We hadn't told anyone we were coming here and there were no mobile phones in those days. Back to the Hollywood stereotypical view of the place ... was I ever going to get out of here? I could easily "disappear" in this situation.

More time passed, no one came to see me, and as I grew increasingly worried,I was starting to get desperate for the toilet. I banged on the door to get someone's attention. The door unlocked with a frightening clank and then opened. A guard looked in.

"What?" I assume he said in German.

"Toilet" I said and made actions, hoping he would understand.

He pondered and then took me. I walked in front and he walked behind, with his AK47 in hand.

We reached a metal, bolted and chained door, which the guard unlocked and opened. It was a tiny, dirty, smelly toilet. He motioned me to go in... and he stood there. There was no chance for me to close the door, and worse, the guard had his gun pointing at me the whole time.

The human body is a curious thing. 2 minutes ago I wasn't going to be able to stop my bladder from bursting. Now, standing over a toilet with a loaded Kalashnikov in my back, I just couldn't go.

"Schnell" the guard shouted impatiently. What could I do? I just had to make myself go, and fast. Somehow I did, and with great physical and mental relief and I was directed back to my cell. It must have been close to 8pm now. Was I going to be here all night?

On the way back to my cell, I saw the officer who had imprisoned me, and I called to him.

"Sir, sir", hoping he would hear me and look, and hoping the guard in my back would not react too negatively.

I was in luck. The officer looked up and came to me. He took me to his office and I noticed all our shopping bags in his room in the corner. He asked me what money I had, and I pulled out a few small notes. He took them and wrote me a receipt, in German, of what I assume were the shopping items he had confiscated. The money, meanwhile, he took that and put it in his pocket!

He then handed me a train ticket and escorted me to the platform in time to catch the last train that day back to West Berlin. That was it. My ordeal over... But what about Dino?

"Thank you," I said to the officer (I was still on his turf) "but where is my friend?".

"you have no friend" was the last thing he said to me as he put me on the train.

What the hell did that mean?

Upon arriving to West Berlin, I made a beeline to the hotel and found Dino already there. He was on the train before mine. Thank god!

I look back on this now and understand that the officers saw 2 kids that they wanted to frighten and teach a lesson to, and I can say it worked. I don't think they had a sinister plan to kill us and bury us behind the iron curtain...

Safely back at home in London, It was just a few weeks later, on the evening of 9th November, that I got a phone call from Dino.

"Turn on the news" he said.

The wall was falling and I remember a bitter sweet feeling. The collapse has to be a good thing for the world, but I value my experience at the point in history. It was a shaping moment in my life... and has given me memorable story to recount.

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