Thursday, 17 January 2008
Berlin, Alexanderplatz, and all that.
Walking across Alexanderplatz, we agreed it had been an odd day.
We were two Western eighteen year old student teachers who found themselves separated from the party of other eighteen year olds who were looking for a pub after their bizarre trip up the Fersehturm (TV tower) of East Berlin in May 1989.
"You don't go to East Berlin to go to the pub."
We went our separate ways from the pub bound faction. Cultural differences.
From the top of the tower you could see the whole of Berlin; the whole of it: the American sector, the British Sector, the French sector all merged into one sprawling West Berlin. And then the big old wall that stretched as far as you could see and closed off the Russian Sector that we all now stood in.
As we wandered round the windowed observation point at the top of the tower we eavesdropped in on a primary school party of East German kids obviously on a little day trip of their own.
I’ll never forget this. The teacher asked her class, who couldn’t have been older than six,
“And who is that in the statue down below on Alexanderplatz?"
A little boy waited to be chosen amongst a sea of little raised hands. A quick gesture from the teacher to respond and he said like rote the most bizarre sentence I have ever heard a little kid say ,
“That is Karl and Marx and Friedrich Engels, the fathers of our nation, the German Democratic Republic.”
“That’s right.” said the teacher and moved on with her tour, unaware of me staring at them open mouthed.
So back down on the ground, Fiona and I were on Alexanderplatz talking about the group of kids. And wondering what to do next with our only day in East Berlin. Alexanderplatz is huge, so we decided to walk away from the wall direction and keep going.
“Let’s just keep walking and see what we find.”
On the edge of the square we waited at the pedestrian crossing, well trained to wait for the green man after countless months in West Germany where pretty much all of us had been done for “jaywalking” across an empty road on a red man.
"Christ, if they’d fine you 30 marks for crossing the road wrongly in Cologne, you’d probably be dragged off to a detention centre and have your family tortured in front of you over here."
East Berlin was bugging us, to be honest. We’d been told off for countless petty things. This is a peculiar German pastime; giving foreigners into trouble for the most inane reasons. We were used to the tut-tutting of West German old ladies on trams if we moved the wrong way. But over here in East Germany the petty rule keeping was up several gears.
Earlier we had moved a chair over from an empty table to accommodate a fifth member round the table at lunch. As you do.
“This is a four person table” the waitress said.
“But there are five of us”
“This is a four person table”
"Do you have a five person table?"
"No. This is a four person table only."
“But…oh never mind…”
We waited for the green man to appear at the pedestrian crossing. Then behind us, we heard a little voice.
“Zwanzig, dreizig, vierzig, funfzig. Ein Mark….”
We turned round to see a little boy sat on a kerb counting pocketfuls of coins.
“Hello. What are you up to?” I asked.
I was just making conversation. It’s refreshing for students of German to have a chance to talk to kids; they don’t automatically want to try their English out on you and you can have a right good old chat without anyone correcting your grammar. If you’ve ever tried your German out in Germany, you’ll know what I mean…
“Look” he stretched out his hand. He was maybe seven or eight with dirty blond hair and glasses, clearly very chuffed with himself and not at all shy about speaking to two strange women. He was a smiley wee bloke.
We went over to him.
“I’ve got this much East money,” he said holding a handful of the almost weightless, little, fake looking East German coins.
“But look how much West money I’ve got!” he said digging a smaller haul out of his pocket.
“Wow! Where did you get all that?”, said Fiona, in the over-the-top astonished manner you do with kids.
“From the tourists. They just give it to me.”
“Cool. What are you going to spend it on then?”
“Nothing, I’m going to give it to my mum.”
That was it. Fiona and I start rummaging in our bags for our purses.
To this day, I tell you that little boy got me. I don’t know if he was the biggest player in East Berlin and I don’t care. He got to us.
Can we, at this point, just stop and view a misty vaseline edged flashback of our tour leader, Frau Lohse from the meeting the day before? Let’s have a look at her…there she is…
“Never give East Germans any West money. You’ll get them into serious trouble.”
Yeah you can see her, can’t you? Maybe she’s even wagging a finger? Maybe there’s a crowd of us nodding blithely in response?
Well, at that moment we didn’t see her, we didn’t remember what she said. Or we didn't care. We dug into our purses for handfuls of whatever money we could find and then….
We looked up and to the side of our new friend. Our faces flushed as we realised what was happening. A tall East German policeman in a dark green uniform. There. In front of us. He’d been watching us for goodness knows how long, about to hand over Westgeld to a little boy. Which we aren’t allowed to do and he isn’t allowed to have.
It is like he has appeared OUT OF NOWHERE.
“What are you doing?” he asks us.
The little boy stops the counting but does not put the money back in his pockets. He just looks up. He knows what is coming.
“Then on your way, ” he motions back towards Alexanderplatz. It is clear we are not going to be allowed to go any further out of the square.
We walk away, cold sweating, hearts pounding, back across Alexanderplatz in the direction of the wall. The vastness of the square means we can see the police officer as he stands with the little boy, motionless as he watches us go. We walk further, we look back. He’s still watching us.
After five minutes, we’re nearly at the other side of the square. We check; in the distance, he’s still standing there with the boy, who is now standing up. They both then cross the road together, now tiny figures, walking away from us.
The little boy is about to have all his Westgeld confiscated because two stupid girls thought they could solve a little problem that didn’t even exist. Two girls that thought they were cleverer than everyone else. Two girls that didn’t listen when they were told that giving money to East German citizens could get them into real trouble.
We felt sick. We couldn’t talk. We got on the train, and went home and went to bed at 7 o’clock exhausted, guilty, sad and bewildered about the German Democratic Republic.
When the Wall came down six months later Fiona was the first person I called as I watched the news.
“I can’t help thinking about that wee boy”, I said.
To read Part One of this story click Here