Photo credit: Thanks to Wikipedia for the included Travel photos.
After our marriage in December of 1979, my wife and I had a short list of things we wanted to do before enlarging our new family. We both had to finish our undergraduate work. We wanted to be somewhat settled in some kind of careers. As very recent students and newlyweds, we really wanted to put some distance between us and poverty. Finally, we wanted to get some traveling done before another wave of poverty gravity known as new parenthood caught us.
Our first trip together was a group trip with one of my instructors back at college. It was the trip we could not afford as students and it took us to Israel, Egypt and Greece. It proved to be a spectacular trip, full of life changing memories and images that will stay with us until death or dementia do us part.
We had to wait for the second trip, a much bigger affair that took some planning and saving for. My wife had always wanted to mimic the idea of the Grand Tour of Europe as part of any reasonable education. Yes, even after being out of college for not quite 10 years, we were, and still are, students at heart.
We were married in December, so of course, we were going to see Europe in the days before and after our December anniversary. She also thought it would be unforgettable fun to spend our anniversary in a real castle.
Our list of stops turned out to be: London, Paris, Zurich, Liechtenstein (Wait! Was that it? No- the sign says Liechtenstein Cheese and Gift Shop, Petro Station, Post Office and last chance for fresh vegetables for 2330 km. Humm, maybe that was all of Liechtenstein) Salzburg (do you year music? I swear I can hear the sound of music) Vienna (which was where the music was actually coming from) then back northwest into West Germany (this was in 1989 when there were two Germanys to keep track of) Neuschwanstein Castle (and sadly no, this is not where we spent our anniversary night) then north to our castle for the night; the dark and damp; “billiges Motelzimmer der kalten Felsen”, which roughly translates to; “cheap motel room of cold rocks”.
Okay, we should have checked this one out better, but we continued north the next morning – early as possible due to the lack of hot water for, well, anything… Our next step was West Berlin with a real hotel right across the street fromTiergarten Park, in sight of both and The Wall and the Brandenburg Gate. After a few days here, we were off again for something further west and that would be Amsterdam-> back to London for a night and then a big jet back home. “Whew! We made it – what a great trip! Can you carry me to bed now please…?”
Our pattern at each stop became, travel at night to arrive at a new city and get checked in our hotel in the evening. Rise early enough for breakfast then catch a tour bus for the general city tour, enjoy any food along that way that looked interesting and then a nice dinner each night. This was the trip where we learned why some travelers avoid London during meal time and are willing to swim to France for a decent piece of bread and cheese. Paris happily served us all the pastries and snails and cheese and wine that we wanted. Zurich had the world’s best Wendy’s, yes, Wendy’s. Zurich Frosty’s tasted like frozen Ghirardelli syrup – heavenly. And that stuff above about Liechtenstein being the last chance for fresh veggies – I wasn’t kidding. Beyond that point, vegetables are all burned for heat or something, because all menu pages from there on were schnitzel and sausage as far as the eye could see.
My most memorable dinner on this trip was in Salzburg, where we were already about 3 time zones east of all vegetable entrees. We were kind of road weary, but were very satisfied that we were having a great trip, but I was already tired of greasy breakfast meats for dinner and when the waiter came around to take our order, I struggled because nothing looked good and asked him, “Do you perhaps have something like a side of dinner vege…?”
And he cut me off quickly to ask, “Are you from California?” I was stunned, because; “umm, yes, I am but…)
And he cut me off again to tell me, “Okay, I know what you want. And you madam?” He thanked us for our orders and left. I asked my wife, “What just happened?” Through her laughing at me, I heard something that might have been her opinion, but who knows.
He returned shortly thereafter with what looked like another well done collection of greasy animal parts breaded or pushed into small sausage skins for her and for me – – he proudly placed before me, what looked like your grandmother’s turkey plate covered with lightly buttered, lightly herbed, recognizable fresh vegetables that still crunched and filled the air with lightly baked goodness. I was in food heaven and could have spent the rest of the time right there putting up with that same dismissive waiter who delivered the best meal I’d had in Europe.
He gave me strength to put up with that German castle where we were supposed to have a romantic and memorable night celebrating our anniversary, but instead, got a room of old cold stones and a double bed with a huge board running down the middle from head to toe – seriously!? Perhaps this wasn’t a castle after all but a monastery. “Did you see any papers nailed to any of the doors?”
By the time we made Berlin, we were pretty tired and wanted to sleep the whole day after a long trip from Cold Rock pseudo Castle, but that didn’t happen. The best memory from this trip had yet to be made.
It was a cool December, 1989 morning when I woke up and took my shower. By the time I was done, my wife was coming around and looking like we may be able to get out and see Belin in the daytime after all. By the time she came out of the shower, I was looking out the window at The Berlin Wall to our far right and in the distance, I could see the top of the Brandenburg Gate which was all fine, but it was troubling to see all the people running around. Something was going on!
I was looking for some clue as to what I was seeing, because what I was seeing suggested something just shy of a riot was forming. There were some armed military guys walking about but they seemed only on alert rather than interested in suppressing whatever this was.
We switched on the TV and oddly enough could not get any English stations. Everything was in German. Shocking I tell you, just shocking. But even from the live German TV news, we could tell that something big was going on over by the wall. I watched from the window for bit longer and we recalled some English news before we left for our trip reminding us of Ronald Reagan’s speech challenging Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” and how the German people might actually do it themselves.
“Hon,” I turned and told her, “I think we should get out there. I think we have a choice to either be part of history or miss it by a few blocks.”
I don’t recall how I talked her into doing this with me, because I rarely get away with that, but soon we were walking very carefully along the famous wall, through the park toward the Brandenburg Gate. There was lots of subdued activity. We watched as several young Germans hammered and chiseled at the wall, then run back into the trees on the west side whenever the armed East German guards strolled by. We found someone who spoke enough English to explain that the guards were not interested in arresting or shooting anyone, but “if they catch you with tools, they would seize them and toss them over the wall into no-man’s-land. And sometimes, your tools will land on a mine and a large explosion happens.”
This all amazed me. Right here in front of us, people are taking the Berlin wall apart – piece by piece. I desperately wanted some of this action, but was this safe? Then I realized that I forgot to pack a heavy hammer and chisel. “Nuts, maybe I can borrow some. I decided to approach one of the young Germans chopping away at the wall with my request.
In my very broken tourist German along with his broken English (which was much better than my German thankfully) he was able to explain to me that he was from East Berlin and was trying to make souvenir wall chips to sell so he could travel to see his western family he had not seen for many years.
“Ah,” I said, unfazed by this speed bump. “Can I give you a quick lesson in capitalism?” He made a confused face, but when I pulled out my wallet and withdrew a 5 mark bill – a WESTERN five mark bill and asked if I could rent his tools, his eyes lit up with understanding and immediately handed them over. I’m not sure but think I had just offered him something close to $20 in 1989 money to rent his tools for what turned out to be all of 30 minutes. He even kept a watch for us for any return of the East German guards, which they did once, but I think it was just to entertain the tourists because we didn’t even run far into the park as they strolled by. Both my wife and I took turns with that hammer and chisel but that was one tough wall. We wanted (and produced) several pieces with authentic graffiti because this was somehow much better than raw concrete chunks.
We learned a lot that day about how tough this wall was. The owner of those tools didn’t understand me when I tried to joke about renting his explosives – which in retrospect, was likely just as well. I should not have attempted to test my grasp of West v East German relations with my American sarcasm, but it was my anniversary after all and I should be granted some grace.
The rest of the trip was fairly forgettable after Berlin and we returned home as family heroes. Her uncles knew much about the history behind the wall. One had been stationed there during his military service and knew well what it meant for it to be taken down. Everyone had to see our souvenir chips and has envied our having played a small part in taking down the hated Wall.
Do you have a big anniversary coming up? Guys; this is how you show your lady a really, really great time she will never forget! Wouldn’t be cool if you too could help unify two large groups of people who have been separated by tyrants for many, many, years? We were fortunate enough to leave our fingerprints on the event of the tearing down of the Berlin wall, but there are still several countries that need unification. I don’t think Korea is spoken for yet. What do you say?
The quote that made this story possible:
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
US President, Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate: June 12, 1987
The date the wall came down: November 9, 1989
The date of our visit: December 18, 1989