The Spirit of a Divided Berlin

guard tower

East Germany, April 1989

When East German border guards tromped through the tight train corridor, stopped my study abroad program director and pantomimed the click of a camera, I knew I had messed up. Big time. Standing enough feet away, I pressed close to the passageway window, and inched my camera down into my coat pocket.

Moments earlier, as the train slowly rolled across the border from West Germany into East Germany and communism, I had snapped a picture of a patrol tower. Really bad move. It was 1989, during the Cold War, and I had left the flash on.

After watching the corridor confrontation, I panicked. Clearly, someone in the tower had seen the flash. Would the guards figure out I took the photo? Would they take my camera? Worse, would they take me? Did East Germans send people to Siberia? Could my parents wire a “border crossing fee” to a checkpoint behind the iron curtain?

Ultimately, nothing resulted from my major lapse in judgment. Since it was just seven months before the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, I’m guessing the East German government had more pressing matters than throwing me in a gulag.

East German flag

Realization in East Germany: The photo faux pas confirmed that it didn’t matter that I was an American and guaranteed unalienable rights in the US. I was an American in a communist country, and border guards in East Germany didn’t have to acknowledge my freedom of expression or any other US First Amendment rights.

However, that moment, along with the idea of traveling to a region that was constantly presented to Americans as threatening, dangerous, and essentially evil, enticed me, and I couldn’t wait to see more.

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Travel Oops: Halted by “The Hoff” at Les Halles in Paris

From: lille5kutt on YouTube

From: lille5kutt on YouTube

What is it with Europe fawning over David Hasselhoff? He was HUGE there in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Seriously. The guy actually sang as the headliner at the Berlin Wall on New Year’s Eve in 1989. Perhaps Germany brought “The Hoff” in to provide some comic relief after all the turmoil, tragedy and strife the wall had brought since 1961.

But no. The Germans were serious. Stationed on a crane overlooking the wall, Hasselhoff performed the song, “Looking for Freedom,” which had dominated the pop charts in Germany earlier that year. The Hoff wore a piano keyboard scarf and a jacket blinking with lights. Yep. He did. The Light Bright jacket actually took attention away from the sledgehammered, chipped, chiseled up and nearly demolished wall.

From: lille5kutt on YouTube

From: lille5kutt on YouTube

Frankly, this news event should not have been that surprising to me since the Hasselhoff had captivated Paris two years before in July 1987, and I was a witness to the phenomenon. If an American can create a French Frenzy well, then what’s to stop him from playing in a prelude to the unification of Germany. It’s almost like Hell freezing over, right?

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Two years earlier…

I celebrate with Deb as we land on French soil.

I celebrate with Deb as we land on French soil.

After saving money for a year, my friend Debbie and I traveled through Europe on our own. France was definitely a big part of the itinerary. We couldn’t wait to experience Paris, The City of Lights.

Debbie was fluent in French and while I didn’t know the language, I would ask her to tell me how to say various phrases, and I would blunder my way through them. Trying to blend in, despite the language barrier, I wanted to be French while I was in Paris that summer.

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