This essay was awarded a Gold by the Society of American Travel Writers.
Reprinted with permission from Chance Encounters: Travel Tales from Around the World
Standing at the edge of Alexanderplatz, I watch Berlin pass by. A young man with dreadlocks whirls his bike around an elderly couple walking arm in arm, while across the street, a man selling balloons counts out change in the warm summer air.
It’s 3 p.m., and we have been on a quest. My friend TJ has promised us curry wurst. Not just any curry wurst, but some of the city’s best. The sausages served with spicy tomato sauce are a favorite here in Berlin, so my boyfriend, Ben, and I have followed our friend’s eager pace to the heart of the city.
But the sight of the crowd-filled square, filled with white tent vendors and brightly-covered advertising, stops me in my tracks. Can this really be the Alexanderplatz that I remember? I see the iconic TV tower that looms over the square and the same circular time clock, but everything else looks different.
Up ahead, I glimpse Ben and TJ round a corner. Not wanting to lose them, I jog to catch up. TJ’s tall frame helps keep him in my sight. He is the perfect picture of a successful Prussian businessman: tall, middle-aged good looks, perfectly polished ways. Yet, no matter how many times I have seen him like this, it still gives me a start.
Berlin has changed a great deal in the past 28 years. For that matter, so has TJ. There was a time when this man was considered my “enemy.”
The Cold War was in its last dying breaths when I met TJ in the winter of 1987. I had been studying in Vienna, and decided to do some traveling during winter break. While most of my friends traveled south to Italy or Greece, I signed up for a short-term “exchange” to a university in East Berlin. We would attend lectures and experience life in East Germany.
During one boring lecture on “surplus value” from the communist viewpoint, I began to doodle in my notebook. A young East German student who was sitting nearby leaned over and asked what I was drawing.
It was an exchange that would affect us both.
The young man had a German name that I was unfamiliar with, so he just laughed and said, “Call me TJ.” He was a rising star being pushed to the forefront at the university. Like many of the students there, he was a member of the FDJ, the communist youth party. He believed in the ideals of communism and was working for a better East Germany.
I, on the other hand, was a 20-year-old kid from the American West who barely knew what communism was. We obviously had our differences.
While many of the other East German students looked at me with distrust, TJ viewed me with curiosity. Because we couldn’t talk openly, where disapproving communist party members would see, TJ asked if we could meet outside one night. In the freezing cold of a German winter, we began to talk.
At first, we debated politics and economics, often disagreeing. But as our nightly meetings continued, the conversation gave way to the normal topics of youth: music, the future and life. And in those topics, we saw eye to eye.
We were like any other good college friends — except that we were not supposed to be friends. The party leaders kept their eyes on us, making sure we didn’t get too close.
Alexanderplatz doesn’t look anything like the town square that I remember from those communist days. Today, there are throngs of tourists and locals rushing to work. Parents push strollers, while laughing children run up ahead.
I soak it all in while eating my curry wurst, trying to reconcile the changes.
When I first walked this cobblestone, it had been gray and drab. The square had been clean and quiet then, filled with Russian and East German soldiers in pressed uniforms, their fresh faces full of youth. I had watched schoolchildren hurrying quietly across the square for school, and young men wearing Russian fur hats jaunting off to their state-guaranteed places of employment.
My pockets were full of Ost-Marks back then, but there was nothing to buy. Now, neon signs and huge billboards splash with color and promises of a good life, if I’d only buy this or that.
Today Alexanderplatz looks like most big city squares. There is trash in the streets, the taggings of bored young men, dropped fast-food wrappers and abandoned newspapers. Free men, it seems, can say and do whatever they want. Yet in truth, free men can be messy.
Filled with curry wurst, we leave the crowds behind and hop into TJ’s Mercedes. We drive past the Brandenburg Gate, and I can’t stop the lump that fills my throat.
“Sometimes, I go out of my way just to drive by the Brandenburg Gate,” TJ admits. “It makes me feel good just to know that I can walk through it whenever I want.”
I understand completely.
The famous Gate once sat in the middle of a forbidden no-man’s land, like an abandoned island between two warring worlds. I had stood at the fence looking at the Gate from the east side, which was patrolled by East German soldiers, and hated that border for the pain it caused. Now the Brandenburg Gate is once again a thing of beauty.
The traffic is bumper to bumper as we drive on to Checkpoint Charlie, now a tourist attraction. Back then, I wasn’t allowed to cross into West Berlin. It was part of my visa agreement with the East German school. But I had seen Checkpoint Charlie from the eastern side, a lonely gate between two very different worlds. I belonged in one word; TJ belonged to the other.
Today, we are at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. It is a hot July day, and the museum’s tiny rooms are packed with tourists. I follow TJ and Ben as they move through the exhibits.
In one room, I read about the Wall, when and how it went up, and how it changed life in Berlin. Then we move on to exhibits about those who tried to escape the east using secret car compartments, underground tunnels, and even an air balloon. My breathing gets faster as I realize this is not just an exhibit, but a time that TJ and even I lived through. How strange to see your personal history on the walls of a museum.
Suddenly, I am very crabby. “It’s too hot in here!” I complain to TJ. And indeed the room temperature must be in 80s. I am sweating in my summer dress.
“If the Germans can figure out how to make great cars, why can’t they figure out how to cool a room?” I mumble angrily.
Then I realize. It is much more that is making me angry. How I hated that damn Wall.
From Checkpoint Charlie, we move on to see more of the city. The streets of Berlin seem brighter than I remember. Perhaps it is the glare of the tall, mirrored buildings that surround me, their grand entrances gathering in and then spewing out streams of harried businessmen. It could be the metallic sheen of all the Mercedes and BMWs that fill the roads, their shiny wealth a reminder of how this city has reinvented itself as the vibrant capital of a reunited Germany.
As the traffic inches forward, we pass another building, the Stars and Stripes waving out front.
“You remember when…?” I ask.
“Yup,” TJ smirks.
During my last weeks as a student in communist East Germany, several other American students and I were invited to a “Mexican dinner” at the U.S. Embassy. I hadn’t had Mexican food for more than a year, and my mouth had watered at the sound of it. The thought of being around other Americans also offered a strange relief, so I immediately agreed to go.
Eagerly, the other students and I made our way down the embassy buffet line, piling food onto our plates and opening can after can of tasty American soda.
“What have they been teaching you at the university?” an American Embassy official casually asked. “Not much,” we answered. “Just stuff about the communist economic system.”
“Who did you speak to?” another asked. “What have you seen?”
With sinking dread, I realized that we were being “questioned.” This time, it was my own paranoid government that was fishing for information. I didn’t say a thing.
Instead, I slipped out and into the other room where the buffet line was still spread out. I grabbed several cans of soda for TJ and stuffed them into my coat. Later that night, I pulled them out of my pocket for TJ, who laughed as he fumbled to open the unfamiliar can lids. He liked several of the drinks, but thought root beer was terrible.
“Look, this is where the Wall once stood,” TJ exclaims, drawing my attention back to the present. He points out a narrow, brick-lined path along the road. It is a small, yet vibrant reminder of the not-so-distant past. The Wall was so frightening then; now it is simply part of the street.
Time never stands still, and eventually my studies in East Berlin ended. The day came when I had to leave the gray-filled city behind. In a misting rain that mirrored my mood, I lugged my suitcase out to the waiting bus, wondering how you say goodbye to someone forever.
TJ hugged me and then slipped a little piece of paper with the address of his grandmother into my hand, while I tried to hide the tears that kept flooding into my eyes. “You can’t write to me, but you can write to my grandmother. I don’t think they will check her mail. Be careful what you write,” he said. “But we will keep in touch.”
I tried to read the emotions on my friend’s face as the bus pulled out, but saw only stone. Later, he told me how difficult that goodbye had been, knowing that I was headed to a place he could never visit.
But that was then; this is now. TJ is now the CEO of a huge international company. Life has opened new doors, and my friend has gone through them with gusto.
It’s just one more change in a thousand.
Those changes began back in 1989. East Germany was growing weary of repression and restless for reform. Thousands of people began to meet at local churches, marching for change and holding peaceful prayer services. A force began to grow that could not be stopped.
During this time, TJ’s letters stopped filling my mailbox. Like thousands around him, he was growing impatient for change. The system wasn’t working; something had to be altered. But my friend couldn’t write the truth: that he had climbed over the German Embassy fence in Prague to defect, but then reconsidered, thinking of all he would leave behind. In the end, he had climbed back over the fence and went home to work for transformation in East Germany.
So did thousands of others. The protests kept coming, the pressure built up and East German leaders began to weaken.
Then in November, the miracle happened. I sat on the living room floor in Denver as live images were broadcast from East Berlin. Thousands of East Germans poured through the open Wall and into West Berlin. Young men danced on the concrete barrier that had once been forbidden; a flower was presented to a border guard. Hope, excitement and thankfulness filled the faces that had once seemed so distant.
A few weeks later, I got a small package in the mail. It was a piece of the Wall that I had once hated. And I knew exactly who it was from.
Two months later, TJ was standing in the kitchen of my American home. I was cutting lettuce to make tacos when I stopped and stared at my friend: Sometimes the world changes faster than our ability to comprehend it.
As the years went by, TJ remained a close friend. One of my closest, in fact. He celebrated from afar when I got married, and then swung me around in person on the day I told him I was pregnant with my first child.
He carried that child on his shoulders while I waddled around pregnant with my second when he visited us another summer. When my third child was little, he helped him carve pumpkins on a visit during Halloween.
I visited Germany as often as I could as well, meeting the series of girlfriends he went through in search of the love of his life. (During this current trip, I have finally met that love of his life – the woman who will soon become his wife.)
The years passed quickly for both of us, as my children grew and TJ moved up through the corporate world.
When my personal world fell apart, it was TJ who called to make sure I was all right during the awful divorce. His soothing voice came often via phone from across the ocean. “You’re going to be OK,” he reassured me one night when I could not even pull myself from my bed.
I think of those times now as we drive through Berlin. “You were my lifeline,” I say to TJ, interrupting his conversation with Ben.
“What’s a lifeline?” he asks.
“Someone who saves a person from drowning,” I reply. TJ nods and understands.
We have two more stops in our whirlwind Berlin adventure. The first is to visit TJ’s parents. I have gotten to know them over the years, and I’m eager to see them again.
They live in a beautiful new home in the suburbs of East Berlin, and they’ve invited us for coffee. TJ’s mom serves us a strawberry pie in her flower-filled garden. I dust off my German and we laugh and reminisce. I ask her to tell me about “those times.”
She said she and her husband where just 21 and 26 in 1961 when the Wall went up. Both teachers, they had been at a summer camp when someone came and told them a Wall had gone up. No one could believe it. They worried about their parents and hurried back home to make sure they were OK. It had been only 16 years since end of WWII and their parents were afraid that war was starting again.
“Life certainly changed when the Wall went up,” says TJ’s mom. “But not all was bad in the DDR (East Germany). We lived, we went to school, and we had families.”
She talks then of when the Wall came down. How everyone was rejoicing and happy, drinking Sekt and dancing. The champagne bottles littered the ground. She and TJ’s dad went out, but the crowds were so crazy that they went right back home.
But all wasn’t rosy. Her brother lost his job soon after. She had taught elementary school for more than 25 years, but still had to retest to become a teacher again. Still, things eventually got better.
Better indeed. I look around at the beautiful home and their smiling faces. Yes, life is good now in eastern Berlin.
I want to see a good view of Berlin — all of it — so TJ heads the car to the Reichstag. Home to Germany’s Parliament, it is a beautiful, stately building that immediately commands respect.
TJ treats us to dinner at Käfer, the award-winning restaurant at the top of the Reichstag. As we savor German beer and cuisine, we watch it grow dark across the city. “This is the western part of the city,” TJ says, pointing to the left, “and that is the east.”
I struggle to see the differences, to locate something familiar, but I can’t. At night, from atop this symbol of a united Germany, it looks like one big beautiful city — which is what it is.
We are some of the last people in the restaurant, and the Reichstag’s magnificent dome area is almost empty. The guards are getting ready to shut down for the night, but TJ convinces them to let us go up the circular ramp that leads to the top.
At the top, we lay back on the seats in the center and look up at the night sky through the glass dome. Everything is silent, and it is surreal to be here in this beautiful land where so much has happened.
We joke as we wind our way down the ramps again. There’s an exhibit on Berlin at the bottom. TJ finds a photo of a Michael Jackson concert in West Berlin. The concert promoters had set up the speakers so the walled-off eastern side of the city could hear. TJ and his dad had gone to a car dealership near the border so TJ could listen to the concert.
I laugh when I realize that I had never got to attend a Michael Jackson concert, but the kid from East Berlin did.
As we pack to head home to America, we make plans to meet again with TJ soon. At the airport, he hugs us goodbye and then rushes off to work. I smile and follow Ben toward our gate, wondering if TJ knows how proud of him I am.
As the plane rises over Berlin, I press my face against the window, watching the buildings and people grow tiny. It’s so green below, lush with trees and gardens — a beautiful city on any account.
Then sitting back in my seat, I notice the man beside me open up his newspaper. There, on the front cover, is a scene that I have viewed all too often in the last years. Young Arab men stare at the camera, their eyes full of hate, their voices raised against America.
Once again, I have an enemy.
A familiar worried ache fills my stomach, and I wonder about the young men in the picture. Do they like deep blue skies, or the laughter of small children? Do they know that I do?
Will we ever see eye to eye?
Then I think of Berlin and TJ. It is a present reality that I never would have dreamed. Yes indeed, people can change. Even countries can change.
Berlin gives me hope for the future.
Author Bio: Janna Graber is a writer, editor and producer who has covered stories in more than 20 countries. She has written for Parade, Reader’s Digest, Outside, The Chicago Tribune and many more. Read more of her work at www.jannagraber.com or follow her on Instagram @jannatravels or on Twitter @AColoradoGirl.