Where were you the night the Berlin Wall fell?

10 Nov

Gretchen O'Donnell:

Ok, so I got a huge surprise yesterday night when I discovered that my Berlin post had been freshly pressed! Horray! I’ll write more about that tomorrow but for now I wanted to reblog this other freshly pressed post that is also about Berlin. Enjoy!

Originally posted on British Museum blog:

Sabrina Ben Aouicha, project curator, Germany: memories of a nation, British Museum

Wach auf, Sabrina! Du musst dir ansehen, wie Geschichte geschrieben wird!

‘Wake up, Sabrina! You have to witness this; history is being written!’ These were the words my father woke me with, on a cold November night 25 years ago today. Although I was 8 years old (nearly 9) at the time, I still remember them today.

I think there are just a few events in recent history that are shared by people all over the world and become part of the human memory. I even dare to say there is one memory shared by every German over the age of 30. This can be summarised in one question: ‘where were you the night of 9 November 1989, when the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) fell?

So, where was I? I would love to say I was on…

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Chiseling Down the Wall – My Berlin Wall Memories

4 Nov

The first time I saw the Berlin Wall was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. We had just moved to West Berlin because my Dad, who had been laid off from Pan American World Airways for 14 years, had unexpectedly been recalled…and sent to Berlin.

I remember when we got the news that we’d be moving. We’d known the assignment was to come through that day, so I’d made Mom promise to leave a message for me at school telling me where we’d be moving to. To my surprise, in the middle of algebra class, my teacher handed me a note. It read simply, “Berlin”.

Suddenly the world opened up for me. Visions of bratwurst, dirndls and Cold War spy movies filled my mind.

Clearly, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

By the time we’d moved into our apartment in the Dahlem district of Berlin, registered me for school in the US Department of Defense-run Berlin American High School, and learned to avert my eyes when walking through city parks where there were clothing-optional volleyball games in progress, I felt like I’d aged about a million years from that day in algebra class. West Berlin was not what I had expected.

It was better.

With the exception, of course, that every aspect of life was controlled by The Wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

Living in the city, going about my daily life, I didn’t give the wall much thought. But whenever a sports team or, in my case, the Drama Fest team, had to go to another West German city for a competition, we had to climb aboard the Duty Train (the nightly military train that took soldiers and their families across East Germany in the dark) with the window shades pulled, so that no Westerners could see the glory that was the DDR, the Deutsches Democratic Republic of Germany.

It was impossible for civilians to ride this train, except in the case of students like myself, so I’d come with an armload of special papers while my military-dependent friends could pretty much just hop onboard. The Duty Train was really the only way out of the city apart from flying. There were day passes available to military dependents to enter East Berlin, and as civilians we could enter the East through Checkpoint Charlie, but there were many rules and curfews required if you did so.

One of the rules was that you weren’t allowed to take any paper money – East Marks – back into West Germany. My uncle (when he and my aunt visited us one Christmas and we all went into the East) chose to be stubborn rather than spending his leftover marks. He opened an East German bank account with his ten marks…the equivalent of less than five dollars. I suppose the account still exists, though it’s more likely that the bank itself dissolved with the fall of the wall.

The gate that December.  Note the Soviet flag still flying.

The gate that December. Note the Soviet flag still flying.

Another rule about crossing into East Berlin was that civilians couldn’t drive their cars. This meant that whenever we wanted to go there – which was only twice for me – we were required to walk through Checkpoint Charlie and be scrutinized by the East German guards.

This wasn’t too big of a deal, but it took awhile, depending on whether the guards felt like opening the window or not, and on how long the lines were. Both times I visited they glanced at my passport and waved me through. Both times my mother, however, was scrutinized. She must have looked like she’d be easily intimidated. She would stand there, trying to look cross and aloof, but probably the shaking of her hand as she handed over her passport gave her away. I actually wanted to be scrutinized. I thought it would be fun. But no, they picked on Mom instead.

I disliked visiting the East. Oh, it was interesting seeing Alexander Platz and visiting the Russian-run department store, but it was a gloomy place, a gray place. The above-ground subway, the S-Bahn, gave a shrill whistle at every stop which always gave me a headache, and seeing the windows of the houses that faced the wall literally boarded up and seeing the guards with their guns patrolling no-man’s land and their guard towers and their utter disdain for us westerners was a little off-putting.

Of course, never far from one’s mind when visiting East Berlin, was the fact that you could leave…and every single person you saw around you could not. Well, they could go into the rest of East Germany, but they certainly couldn’t go into the west.

(By the way, if you ever get to Berlin today, the Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum (Mauermuseum) is a must-see. It tells the story – and often preserves the means – of the many escapes and escape attempts that were made in the 27-year existence of the wall. There is little more humbling in life than to realize how you’ve taken your freedom for granted.)

I remember one time going to a fair and riding a Ferris Wheel that was set up right alongside the wall. Every time we reached the apex of the wheel ride we could see over the wall and into the streets and lives of the East Germans on the other side. I felt like a bird must feel. Only birds have the right to fly anywhere they choose. Even they had more freedom than the East Germans.

A hole in the wall...with the "Pope's Revenge" in the background.

A hole in the wall…with the “Pope’s Revenge” in the background.

I visited the wall several times while in my two years in Berlin. Usually we’d take the U-Bahn, the underground, to the Reichstag (now the Bundestag) and get out there, walking the short way to the Brandenburg Gate. My mother and I did that when President Reagan came to speak at the wall, in the spring of 1987. We had signed up for tickets, which we clutched, along with our passports and civilian ID cards, as we joined the line which snaked back and forth for row upon row.

There were three checkpoints along the way, all manned by West German guards. I handed my pile of documents to the first. He glanced down, prepared to wave me forward, then gave a snort. A snort which could only be called a laugh.

He looked up at me. “Gretchen?” He asked.

I nodded, confused.

Then, with another laugh, he handed me my papers and waved me on.

I shuffled forward, uncertain and a little perplexed.

At the next checkpoint, it happened again.

Papers handed over, name read, guard guffawed. Only this time he called over his friends to add a little humor to their day as well. “Gretchen!” he said, lending his German pronunciation to my name. “Ya, ha ha!” his friends agreed.

As I approached the third and final checkpoint, Mom and I prepared ourselves for the laugh fest.

I handed my documents over and, sure enough, the guard smiled and chuckled.

“It’s my name, right?” I asked. “Mein namen?”

“Ya,” the guard replied. “Das ist ein kinder namen.”*

A name for children.

Fine. Whatever. Give me my passport, please.

And then, after taking our place in the standing crowd and seeing East German guards staring down at us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate with rifles slung over their shoulders, the president appeared. When I looked back up, the soldiers were gone.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” President Reagan said. And I laughed a little, inside, at the absurdity of the thought.

Turns out I was the who was absurd. And I’m so glad.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

I was in college back in the States on November 9, 1989 – 25 years ago this month – so I wasn’t there when the wall actually opened up, but I went back several weeks later for Christmas. My parents and my cousin Eleanor (who was visiting for Christmas) and I took the U-Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate, bringing a hammer and chisel with us to claim our small piece of history. The crowds had thinned greatly from the initial days after the opening of the wall, but there were several people there, chiseling and hammering and swigging from bottles of wine.

We approached a large hole in the wall and gazed through into the former No-Man’s Land, the place of such loathing and horror in the past. An East German guard, still patrolling but unarmed, walked up on his side of the wall and smiled at us. He was still wearing his uniform, complete with Russian-style fur hat with the ear flaps folded up.

In broken German, Eleanor struck up a conversation with him and he replied amiably, smiling all the while. We were making friends with a man who, only weeks ago, would have had orders to shoot us.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

I went back to Berlin a few years ago, walked through the Brandenburg Gate, saw the renamed Reichstag and the US Embassy abutting the Gate itself, stayed in a Hilton hotel in the former East Berlin. Such decadence in the city that had been so dreary!

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012.  The US Embassy is the building to the left.

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012. The US Embassy is the building to the left.

Every moment of my time there was surreal. It was beyond fantastic to see the city I had come to love as it was meant to be. A unified whole.

PS – I know that reunification wasn’t all easy, what with broken Trabants on the autobahn and sales of pornography skyrocketing (blue jeans and bananas rounded out the top three most-bought items by the East Germans). But still, reunification brought about the ultimate end of World War II (the end of the Allied Occupation in the city) and the end of Germany’s split personality, so to speak. And while it might not have been easy, it was, in the end, Sehr Gut.

*My apologies if my German is incorrect!

I Miss You Already, Robin Williams

12 Aug

When I was ten years old, my greatest ambition was to have a pair of rainbow-striped suspenders, a la Mork, the alien who hailed from the planet Ork on my favorite TV show, Mork and Mindy. Yes, I’m serious. I remember going to the fabric store with my mother and she, bless her heart, inquired as to the availability of rainbow-striped elastic. I can’t remember why we didn’t buy any but I think it may have been because it was out of stock. So apparently there were several other kids running around town who, like me, wanted to be compared to the incomparable Robin Williams.

I have not seen all of his movies over the years, nor did I love every one that I did see, but every time that I happened to catch him being interviewed, I had to stop and watch because he never failed to make me laugh. He always amazed me with his quick wit and his hilarious comparisons. How his mind could fly from one thing to another and make it all uproariously funny! I envied his ability to think on his feet. I can think on my feet to a degree – I actually enjoyed extemporaneous speaking in speech class – but I’m not funny. I don’t have one iota of his ability to make people laugh.

Not many people do.

The truth is, Robin Williams could also make people cry. His movie What Dreams May Come is one of my favorite movies of all time. Perhaps “favorite” is not the right word. It’s too depressing to be a “favorite”. Maybe “most heart-wrenching” would be better. Or “most unforgettable”. Never has a movie made me think more about life, about death, about heaven and hell. About theology.

Is it trite to say that the world is diminished because of his loss? It is, trite or not. My heart hurts, thinking that even as he cracked us all up, he was hurting so desperately inside. I pray that I’ll give grace to the next person who irritates me – to the next and the next and the next ad infinitum – because I have no idea what is going on inside of them. Because, even if a person is smiling on the outside, on the inside they may be breaking apart.

Na-Nu, Na-Nu, Robin. I miss you.

I Keep Forgetting!

30 Apr

Okay, so I keep forgetting to post the link to my London story! I can’t post the actual story on here as it is owned by the Daily Globe.

So here you go: http://www.dglobe.com/content/london-calling-couple-spend-whirlwind-five-days-touring-city.

I hope you enjoy the read!

– Gretchen
white tower

I’m Alive!

1 Apr
The houses of parliament and Big Ben from across the Thames as we ate dinner.

The houses of parliament and Big Ben from across the Thames as we ate dinner.

Atop the London Eye - a sort of Ferris Wheel - looking down on the Thames.

Atop the London Eye – a sort of Ferris Wheel – looking down on the Thames.

I may be alive but I am not entirely awake, alert or enthusiastic. That’s what a whirlwind 5 days in London will do to you.

But, while I may not be terribly alert yet, I am definitely basking in the remembered glory of our trip. We had a marvelous time. Spent five hours in the Tower of London, a couple hours in Westminster Abbey, several hours in the British Museum and the National Gallery, one hour in a pod of the London Eye, and countless hours on the underground.

But that’s not all! We attended an Evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral (amazing) and visited Paddington Station because Paddington Bear is a favorite in our family. We watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and ate at pubs and did a little shopping. We saw Wicked, survived crossing London Bridge, and I even got to relax and read a book for a little while in St. James’s Park with the pelicans.

The many birds of St. James's Park.

The many birds of St. James’s Park.

I will be writing about the whole trip for the newspaper so I will leave the main storytelling until then but I wanted to let you know I’m still around and that more will be forthcoming in a couple of weeks!

For now, a photo or two – albeit not fabulous ones – and an assurance that I am, indeed, alive.

PS – please read this entire post with a British accent. It will make things so much more interesting.

Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge.

Fish and Chips - of course!  Along with mushy peas.  My husband had Chicken Masala.

Fish and Chips – of course! Along with mushy peas. My husband had Chicken Masala.

Time Out

18 Feb

It’s a Tuesday. That means I need to post.

See the verb I used there? Need.

That’s because I’ve said from the start of this blog – 2.75 years ago – that I’d post every Tuesday. And I have.

Every single Tuesday for almost 3 years.

And suddenly I’m tired. Suddenly I’m irritated. Suddenly it’s an obligation. Suddenly I stopped feeling guilty about my terrible track record for visiting other people’s blogs and started feeling cross and resentful about it all.

I have needed the discipline of knowing that I had to post every week. But now the discipline feels less like self discipline and more like parental discipline…i.e.: punishment.

I am not quitting. I have tons of ideas and topics for future epiphanies! (Hmmm…planned epiphanies…no comment.)

But I need a break.

Mondays come along and I find myself thinking, “Shoot. What am I going to blog about tomorrow? What do I feel like posting? Bother.”

I don’t want this blog to be a bother.

I feel like this is controlling me.

I have less time to write my book because I need to write a post.

And the whole point of beginning the blog was to support the book. Not the other way around.

I am beyond thankful for what this blog has brought me. I have made virtual friends who have become real friends. I have been introduced to worlds and to people I knew nothing of and I have benefitted from that tremendously. I am so thankful for all of you – bloggers and non-bloggers alike.

Because of A Fine Day For an Epiphany I was asked to begin The View From My Window – my second blog over on a network supported by my local newspaper – and because of that blog I am now a for-real free-lance writer for my local newspaper and even have a monthly column with them.

In other words, I’m getting paid.

I LOVE THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED.

But that job, in turn, takes its own share of time – time that I do NOT resent because it’s paying off – but there, too, it means I have less time to write my book. Or books. The one that I can’t find an agent for because, in part, I have no time to look for one. And the other one that I’ve begun which will be more like this blog in tone/feel/topic.

In short, I need more time. And taking a break from this blog is going to help with that.

No, I am not quitting. And part of me feels like I’m copping out by posting less than once a week. But see, I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my writing. And I don’t want to post less-than-perfect posts…which I’ve been doing lately. I did this in part to improve my writing…not just to throw stuff out there.

Also, I need to define my focus for this blog. And I think that getting this new book idea into shape will help with this.

I hate good byes. Or, even though this isn’t really good bye, I still hate to say, “See you later.”

But I just have to.

I am planning on taking the rest of February, all of March and possibly even April off.

Who knows, maybe in a couple of weeks I’ll say, I WAS CRAZY! I MUST BLOG! I don’t know.

I do know that in March I’ll be traveling to London for a week and that I will blog about that when I return.

So I won’t be gone entirely…just taking a break.

I am not sure how I’ll feel when I hit “publish” today. Relief? Regret? Sadness?

I don’t know.

I think I’ll just hit it now and see…

BANG! THUMP! TWEEK!

11 Feb

It’s ten o’clock in the morning on a frigid Monday and I’m being lulled by the dulcet tones of my piano tuner man, hard at work in the living room. Such a lovely melody.

BANG! THUMP! TWEEK! BANG! Any little boy would be reprimanded for playing so badly.

I remember the tuning our piano got when we lived in West Berlin. We had some family friends come for Christmas, and we asked him to bring his piano-tuning kit. They lived in Saudi Arabia so it wasn’t a terribly long trip or a big deal to bring his tools – at least I don’t think it was!

He began tuning on a Sunday afternoon. BANG! THUMP! TWEEK! BANG!

The telephone rang.

It was our downstairs neighbor. We lived in an apartment building that had four two-story apartments in it so we only had three neighbors…and the one below us was MAD.

Ding-a-ling-a-ling! (Actually it sounded more like “buzz”…German phones sounded different than American phones!)

“Hello?” said my mother.

“Do you have a child visiting?” the down-stairs neighbor asked in English.

“Yes,” Mom replied, puzzled.

“Well, could you please ask him to cease banging on the piano? It is rest time in Germany. Sunday afternoons are rest time. Please stop him from banging.”*

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mom replied, amused but controlling her laughter. “The boy is not banging on the piano. It is being tuned by his father.”

There was a silence on the other end while our neighbor – an artistically-minded individual – recovered her embarrassment and said, “Entschuldigung. I am so sorry.”

“And I,” said my mother, “apologize for interrupting your rest time. We should have realized.”

“Yes,” said the woman. “You should have. But it is okay.”

She might not have actually said those exact words. But she implied them.

I can’t help but smile at the memory.

When I was a kid, back on Orcas Island, our piano tuner was blind. This amazed and impressed me. My tuner down in the living room tells me that is becoming more and more common.

Six or seven years ago I began praying for a free piano. I’ve always labored under the impression that God cares about every part of my life, so why not? I didn’t ask for a new piano. I didn’t ask for a good piano. I just wanted something that my daughter could take piano lessons with. Something that would get her through a few years and that I, too, could play on from time to time if I could remember anything of my seven years of servitude torture lessons.

Not too long after I began praying, I got a piano. Free. From a friend, who had gotten it from a friend, who had gotten it who-knows-where. It’s an old upright. About 100 years old. Has a few keys that stick, and the bottom few bass notes ring in a strange way from an imperfect “fix” at some point in its life.

I put it on an inside wall, ‘cause I remembered that I’d heard at some point that that’s where pianos ought to go. For 3 ½ years my daughter took lessons on that old piano. I played it a couple times. Should do so more. Every so often over the years my daughter would say, “Can you get the piano tuned, Mom?”

And I’d say, “Yeah, sure. I can arrange that.”

And then I’d promptly forget all about it.

Well, about a month ago she came up to me – a nice smile on her face – and she said, “Mom? I know what I want for my birthday.”

“Oh?” I asked her, not wanting to admit to the fact that her birthday was approaching and I had no clue what to get her. “What?”

“I want the piano to be tuned.”

HOW COULD I SAY NO TO THAT?!!!

So I texted her piano teacher and asked for the name of her tuner. I called him…and he came a few days later. HORRAY!

When my daughter got home from school that day her little sister, Boo, (who had been home sick so she knew it had been tuned) suggested that Meep sit down and practice piano right away. (In her mind she wasn’t giving away the secret, just nudging her sister toward discovery.)

Meep sat down to play. She played through her favorite piece. There were no fireworks, no bright-eyed epiphanies (I love that word) but she did seem to play a little more carefully…and, just maybe, a small smile played about her lips. Then Boo said, “It got tuned!”

And Meep’s face lit up like Santa Claus had come and she jumped up and said, “Thank you, Mom!” And then she practiced longer than she ever had before in her life.

Our tuner, a friendly and talkative gray-haired gentleman, told me that he doubted it had been tuned more than once or twice in its life. He said something like, “Normally each key has to be moved about 10 degrees [I don’t know if the term he used was “degrees”, but it was something like that] but this one had to be moved 50!” Obviously, even to a piano-term-dense novice like me, even if I don’t remember his terms, I do recognize that 50 is a lot more than 10!

So now Meep is happy and she’s playing the piano even more beautifully than before and, $75 dollars later, I’m feeling good about it, too.

*There was one other time that she called us on a Sunday afternoon during rest time. I was hanging a picture and pounding a nail into the wall. “Hello?” “Hello. Do you hear a banging?” “No,” I replied honestly, looking at the hammer in my hand. “I do not hear a banging right now.” She was a martinet. An extremely nice martinet…except during rest time.

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