The Wall had been down for three years when I first talked to somebody from the former GDR, not in Germany but in the community room of a hostel in Truckee, where I was waiting for a phone call from the police. My rental car had been stolen – and with it, my money, passport, airline ticket, and clothes. “The door wasn’t locked,” I’d said to the officer in the morning, “but I was back after two minutes. There’s practically nobody out there. The fucking place is empty. I am the only guest.”
I was sitting on a rundown sofa in front of the hostel’s fireplace to catch some warmth in my T-shirt – I’d taken it for granted that California would be warm and sunny and not as cold and gray as my hometown – when a guy came in. He was tanned and had shoulder-long, sun-bleached hair, like the surfers I’d seen in L.A., but was dressed appropriately (sweater, coat) apart from his feet which looked tiny and vulnerable in fake Birkenstocks. “How you doing?” he said with the most horrible German accent. That’s when I knew for sure. They didn’t learn English at school, only Russian.
“Fine,” I answered in English. I was still hoping to be gone shortly and the last I wanted to do was chat in my mother tongue with a compatriot, not to mention a fake one.
He looked me up and down, then he said, “First time in America?”
“No,” I lied, reaching for one of the books on the coffee table, which turned out to be by Hermann Hesse.
“Steppenwolf,” the guy said. “Big thing in my home country.” He extended his hand, smiled, and said, “Michael.”
“All right,” he said.
A little later I heard him shuffle behind me, then he laughed and said in German, “Seems that we can’t escape each other.”
I turned around. He was standing behind the makeshift reception counter in the corner. I just wanted to say something when the guy who registered me the day before came in from the back door. “Hey, Michael, did you enjoy it?”
“Ja,” he said, holding his hands wide apart. “Catch fish big wie Delfin.” (If he didn’t know – or didn’t like – a word in English, he just switched to German.) He turned back to me. “Are you hungry? I’m cooking fish tonight!”
“It’s okay,” the other guy said. “You can pay when you get your stuff back.”
“He can help out,” Michael said. “Earn bed and food, all right?” He looked at the other guy who shrugged and retreated to the back. “What about wood?” Michael called after him in English. “Is it genug?”
“Could use some extra hands.”
“Morgen. Today is… “ He paused and looked at me, then he said, “Celebration.” He smiled and switched back to German. “Don’t worry. I won’t let down a compatriot.”
I grew up right next to the former border. When in November 1989 all these pale, pathetically clothed people with their horrible haircuts and wounded eyes invaded our town all of a sudden, my friends and I were shocked. The older generations may have cheered; we looked at them with a mixture of disgust and pity. “Let’s check it out,” my then-girlfriend said the following spring, but I didn’t want to mess up my new car on the bad roads over there.
“What kind of car was it again, Robert?”
The way he pronounced my name made me regret that I ever told him. “A red Honda. Nothing special. You don’t get far with a rented car anyway.”
“Well,” Michael said, “depends what you’re planning to do with it. Don’t get your hopes too high, Robert.”
“Maybe I should take a bus to San Francisco and go straight to the embassy.” I smiled and said, “Could you lend me some money for the ticket and maybe a coffee? There’s nothing I can leave as a deposit though. You’d have to trust me.”
“Im Westen nichts Neues,“ he said.
I didn’t get it. I hadn’t seen the movie. Nor read the book.
“What about your boots?” Michael laughed. “Listen, Robert, I wouldn’t do that. If the police stop you, they’ll put you in jail. I heard of foreigners who rotted in jail for years.” He slapped me on the back. “As I said, I won’t let down a compatriot. You can help James with the wood. He’s having problems with his back lately. Aren’t you cold, Robert?”
“No,” I said, stepping back so that he wouldn’t notice the goose-bumps covering my naked arms.
While Michael was cooking I sat on the sofa, holding the book, pretending to read. Despite the fire I was freezing. Finally Michael stuck his head through the door and said, “Let’s eat.”
It was only the two of us; the other guy hadn’t returned. “Smells fantastic,” I said as I sat down.
“My father often took me fishing on the weekends, to Rügen, ever been?” He piled up potatoes on my plate. “Did you ever visit the East, Robert?”
I took a sip from the American beer, which was weak compared to the one in Germany but at least not the horrible GDR swill a friend of mine once brought to a party as a joke. “I was too busy studying.”
“Pity,” he said.
I nodded even though it was the last place I wanted to go. The photographs in our history books had given me the creeps: old men in gray suits, housewives queuing in front of empty shop windows, treeless ghost towns, and parades with lines and lines of soldiers marching in lockstep.
“We always came back with an overfilled trunk.” Michael carefully balanced a huge trout on the potato hill. “Our whole neighborhood lived from it for weeks.” He sat down and reached for knife and fork. “We had plenty to eat in the GDR.”
I picked into a potato. My appetite had suddenly gone. “Thank you for cooking,” I said.
“You gotta finish your plate if you don’t want any rain tomorrow.” Michael got up, turned the radio on, switched stations, and eventually sang along to Let’s get together and feel alright in his horrible accent. When the next song began, he turned the radio off. “My old man was in the same hospital in capitalist Germany for treatment,” he said. “He lay in the lounger on that terrace overlooking the lake, what was it called again?”
I shrugged. The whole thing was news to me.
“Anyway, he was there, right next to Bob Marley, and had no idea who that guy was.”
“They let him out?”
“They let him out and back in again when he was cured. My old man used to say that the devil was sitting in between them and they had to draw lots. When it fell on him, Bob swapped loungers, that’s what my old man says. Never knew his music but liked him anyway. Said that they were both fighting for the right cause. My old man wanted to flee after the operation, but how could he with that guy believing in him?”
“I was never much of a reggae fan,” I said.
“Coffee?” he said.
“If it’s not the stuff you had in the GDR?”
He laughed. “You’re right. It was awful.” He passed me a cup, still laughing. “Once or twice a year my mother’s uncle from Frankfurt came by. Sat in the middle of the sofa, placed his fake leather suitcase on the table, and took out one parcel after the other, packed in layers of old TV-papers. West TV, of course. Our kitchen smelled of cakes or bread coming fresh from the oven, but we had to cheer at cheap store-bought stuff.” He leaned back and was silent as if trying to get back to these moments. “But the coffee,” he said after a while, “well, I guess it was the coffee that made my parents play along.”
“Can I have a refill?”
“Sure.” He passed me the pot which was cold by now and so was the coffee. “What about you? Did you send care packages too?”
“My grandmother did for Christmas.”
“Good girl!” Michael opened a drawer, took out a pack of cigarettes, Karo, the most popular brand in the former GDR, and sat down again. He offered me one, I shook my head. “I am not much of a smoker.”
“Take it,” he said, holding the lighter next to my head.
I took one out, put it into my mouth, and leaned forward to reach the flame.
Michael grinned. “Say thank you, Robert.”
My mother was born in Thuringia shortly after the war broke out. How her parents came to live in the West had never been a topic and neither had my grandmother’s brother, who still lived in the East. Even the packing and the sending of the said packages were only discussed between my mother and my grandmother. Once I came into the kitchen while they were filling a huge cardboard box with presents for cousins I only knew from blurry photographs. When there was no new camera waiting for me under our Christmas tree a few weeks later, just a used one, I blamed them.
Michael shoved the cigarettes back to me as soon as I’d finished smoking. “Take another one.”
“They are a bit too strong for me.”
He smiled and said, “The cancer rate is twice as high in the former East, did you know?”
I smiled back. “Your cars weren’t helping, I guess.”
People in my hometown had thrown coins and food from their windows as the endless line of tiny cardboard vehicles slowly passed along every street, turning our clear blue sky into a smog dome. When we were drunk one night, we passed a snot-green Trabi covered with bananas and money. We checked that nobody was watching and each of us grabbed two marks for a beer.
Michael pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and passed it to me. “Take it, Robert.”
I tried to inhale as little as possible, hoping he wouldn’t realize, and held the cigarette in my hand until there was only the filter left. “Can I have the same bed?” I cleared my throat and added, “I’ll talk to my parents first thing in the morning. They’ll wire some money.”
“I’m so sorry,” Michael said, “Didn’t I tell you that the rooms are being renovated? But I’ve got a cot upstairs. I’ll bring it down for you.” He opened the cabinet and produced a bottle of green liquid. “First a toast.” He filled two glasses to the brim, passed me one, and held up his. “A toast to the homeland.” And, closing his eyes, he began to sing his old national anthem: From the ruins risen newly, To the future turned, we stand. Let us serve your good weal truly, Germany, our fatherland. He opened his eyes again and smiled, “Sorry, I forgot.” He turned around and opened the drawer to take out a sharpie with which he wrote the lyrics on the fridge. “Robert, do you know the melody? No? Let me teach you.”
We drank a glass of the sweet peppermint liquor after each verse and eventually replaced the empty bottle with a red one. It was long past midnight when he finally brought down the cot, and yet he woke me up when it was still pitch dark outside. “Robert,” he said, blinding me with a torch, “we need wood.”
I was naked. My body was so stiff from the cold that I could hardly move. “Where are my clothes?”
“In the washing machine. God, you made a mess.” He pointed at a pile of clothes on the sofa. “They should fit.”
I got up and wrapped the thin sheet around me like a toga. “I’d like to have a shower first.”
“Later, Robert, go get us some wood first, will you? It’s fucking cold in here.”
I waited for him to leave but he didn’t move so I let go of the sheet and quickly slipped into shabby underwear and socks. I put on a pair of jeans, the kind we laughed at in ‘89, and pulled a pullover over my head, which left my hair static for at least a minute. As I reached for my cowboy boots, which I’d bought in San Francisco the day of my arrival, he said, “Let’s swap.”
“Come on,” I said, “your feet are much smaller than mine.”
He grabbed an old TV magazine, tore a page out, balled it up, and said, “When you guys sent us your old sneakers, they never came in the right size. But necessity is the mother of invention.”
Not only were his feet smaller than mine, I also was nearly a head taller and my shoulders were much wider. I could easily beat him up, I thought, and yet, I passed him my boots, watched as he filled them with newspaper clippings, and slipped into his fake Birkenstocks even though my toes and heels went over the edge. “Where’s the wood?”
“Hold on. I don’t want you to freeze to death, Robert.” He handed me an oversized fake leather jacket with huge patches that looked as if cut from an Indian rug; all men from the GDR, no matter what age, seemed to be wearing them when they invaded the West. “Take this,” he said.
“I’m fine,” I said.
He smiled. “If you say so.”
I followed him to the back door and out of the house. It was raining heavily. I was soaking wet when we arrived at a shed. He loosened the latch, opened the door, and said, “I totally forgot. There’s none left. Would you mind chopping some?” He stepped inside, took a hatchet from a hook at the wall, and pressed it into my hands. “You know how to do it, right?”
I didn’t, but nonetheless I said, “Where do you have your supplies?”
“There.” He turned around and pointed at the small wood down the hill. “Take as much as you want.”
“Your fault, Robert. You didn’t finish your plate.” He patted my shoulder and said, “Sure about the jacket?”
The trees were too big and too wet. After an hour or so I gave up and returned to the house. A huge fire was burning, a stack of logs was piled up against the wall. “The thing is, everybody has to contribute one’s share. Luckily, a neighbor helped out,” Michael said. “He lives down the road. Good guy. Very interested in our country. Took the first flight to Berlin when the Wall came down, fancy that! He was crying, he said, he walked through the Brandenburg Gate and along Unter den Linden, and he couldn’t stop crying.” Michael put a mug of coffee on the table. “Careful, Robert, it’s hot.”
“Can I use your phone?”
“Sure. But sit down first. Get yourself some rest.” He gently pushed me onto the chair, saying, “God, you’re wet. You’ll catch a cold.” He grabbed the horrible jacket and wrapped it around my shoulders. “Much better.”
I reached for the mug, burnt my already callused and blistered hands, and let it drop onto the table, spilling half of the coffee.
Michael sighed. “Didn’t I warn you?”
I stood up. “Please let me call my parents now.”
I reached behind the counter to pick up the phone, quickly punched in the number, got lost twice, made it really slow the third time. There was no tone. I put down the receiver, picked it up again. Still no tone. “It’s dead.”
“Happens sometimes. Probably the rain.” He smiled. “We didn’t have a phone, Robert. Most of us didn’t. We paid a visit when we wanted to talk to somebody.”
I only now noticed that the stairway to the upper floor with the only bathroom was blocked. In the morning I’d urinated sheltered by the trees, but I would have to go soon again, and not for a pee only. I walked to the fireplace and sat down next to it to give my clothes a chance to get dry.
He patted me on the shoulder. “Time for a schnapps, I’d say.”
“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?”
He laughed. “It gets lonely sometimes. The price of freedom. Can’t have the cake and eat it too.” He got up, returned with the green bottle and two glasses, and his strong cigarettes. “This place is busy in summer, but the rest of the year not many people show up.”
He offered me a cigarette, I accepted. After the third I couldn’t hold back anymore. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Well, Robert, it’s also under construction. Just make a few steps away from the house so that it doesn’t start to reek like a public pissoir here.”
“Can I have some toilet paper? Or these wipes from the kitchen?”
“We ran out of both, sorry.” Michael passed me the TV magazine. “Back to the roots.”
In San Francisco, a man had been distributing large posters. There was a red square on it, surrounded by a white frame. In the middle the words: I don’t remember. I asked him what he meant by it and he said, “It’s what most Germans answered when I asked them about the Fall of the Berlin Wall.”
I laughed. “That’s why I’m here. To get away from all that shit.”
He was an artist from NYC. Like so many Americans he had German ancestors but didn’t speak the language. “Where are you from?” he wanted to know before we separated. “East or West?”
“You shouldn’t ask that,” I said. “It’s humiliating.”
“Because…” I began, but then I just said, “From the West.”
Michael was still sitting in front of the fireplace when I came back. I sat down next to him and held my wet feet into the warmth. He turned his head and said, “Take another cigarette.”
“Thank you,” I said, and this time I meant it.
We sat in silence for a while, smoking and drinking. Then I said, “I really need to go to the embassy. Can you take me to San Francisco? I’ll pay you five hundred dollars.”
He laughed. “You really think you can buy me with a hundred deutschmarks?”
That’s what they got as a welcome present. There were endless queues in front of every bank. They were not only distributing money but pens, sweets, toys, and all kinds of giveaways. I didn’t have the feeling that they really controlled passports, there was no time. “What if I pretend to have lost my ID?” a friend of mine said. I looked at his brand new Levi’s, the Fred Perry jacket we both had – his black, mine blue – and his Doc Martens he’d taken great pains to clean in the morning. “They’d never notice,” I said, laughing.
With a wide grin Michael added, “Or bananas.”
The rain still hadn’t stopped. Even with that ugly jacket, I’d be soaking wet if I walked to the police. “You can keep my boots,” I said.
He put two cigarettes into his mouth, lit them, and carefully placed one between my lips. My best friend used to do it. We started smoking at the age of thirteen. I quit a couple of years later when I changed schools but never forgot the tenderness of that gesture, especially after I’d read somewhere that the first drag is the most harmful.
“The problem with you guys,” Michael said, “has always been that you think money gets you everywhere. You want to get rich to have a fancy car, a bigger house, a younger woman. If you’re unhappy, it’s because of money. But what if for once money doesn’t help? What if nobody cares how much money you have?”
I jumped up and flipped the cigarette into the fire. “Weren’t you happy? Weren’t you fucking happy to be free? To go wherever you wanted for the first time? To say whatever you wanted? To meet whom you wanted? To trust people because there was no Stasi anymore? To finally have shops with overfilling shelves? To buy all these things yourself instead of waiting for packages once a year?”
“Robert,” he said. “You still don’t get it.”
That year, I was soon fed up with the documentaries about people walking through supermarkets crying, about their complaining how hard it had been for them to know what we all had, these masses of people blocking our streets and shops and restaurants. Fortunately, I’d just graduated and could go away from that chaos. I was living in France when I heard about the reunification in the news. I listened to it with the same disinterest I would have shown for a famine in some unpronounceable African country.
I took a seat as far away from him as possible. “What if we hadn’t let you in? You all would have had to turn around and go back home. You’d have been shot or put into prison for the rest of your lives. Don’t you remember what happened in Prague?”
Michael looked at me in silence. “Robert,” he finally said, holding up his glass, “would you mind doing the dishes?”
I got up and carried our glasses to the kitchen. The pile had grown overnight, as if the whole street had been dumping their dishes into our sink. I rolled up my sleeves and turned the water on. Then I turned it off again and opened the door to the community room.
“You guys left your kids in the apartment. You didn’t care if they died in their own shit. It’s you who are cheap. The whole lot of you sold your souls to go shopping. Freedom of speech? Freedom to study what you wanted? Freedom to travel? My ass!”
It was dinner time when I was done but I wouldn’t ask for anything to eat. The cot had vanished so I lay down on the sofa and covered myself with the ugly jacket. Despite the cold – the fire had burnt down hours ago – I fell asleep at once. But Michael woke me up, “You must be hungry, Robert,” he said, and since I was, I sat up again and accepted the plate with potatoes, sauerkraut, and a very dark indefinable mash. I greedily shoved it into my mouth.
Michael watched me with a big smile. “Good?”
“What is it?”
I stopped chewing.
“Just blood sausage,” Michael said laughing. “That’s how we call it. Tote Oma. But yours is still alive, no worries.” He nodded toward the window behind which the rain was pouring down as strong as before. “Eat up this time.”
I finished my plate and carried it to the kitchen to rinse it. Sinking back onto the sofa I said, “Why are you keeping me here?”
Michael stood up, walked to the front door, and opened it. “Is it locked?”
I leaned back and closed my eyes. I needed to sleep. If I didn’t answer, he would leave me alone, I hoped. And really, I heard him walking out of the room after a while. But he returned, carrying a metal box. “I want to show you something, Robert.” He sat down next to me, opened the box, and took out a photograph of a young woman leaning against a tree. “That’s Ingrid,” he said. “Great tits. Sat behind me in school. She always wanted to become an actress. Went to Berlin at the age of fifteen, an aunt of hers was living there. Every night she was standing in front of Berliner Ensemble until they hired her for all kinds of odd jobs. As she was cleaning the stage, Tenschert watched her. You wouldn’t have heard of him, of course. He was a famous director in the GDR.” He smiled and passed me the photograph. “A week later she performed in Brecht’s Mother.”
I looked at the girl in the tight black dress, who’d obviously wanted to copy Kim Wilde.
“Langhoff fired her. He brought his people over from the West.” Michael gave me another photograph of three guys dressed in black, leather jackets, hair punk style. He pointed at the tall guy in the middle. “This is Alex, biggest Who fan ever. Somebody smuggled their songbook over which he translated with the help of a dictionary that only had half of the pages left. Most of the songs were totally unknown to him, but they played them anyway, in German.” He laughed. “We were disappointed when we heard the original for the first time.”
The next photograph showed two men wearing old-fashioned suits and a woman in an evening dress. One of the men reminded me of Jean-Paul Belmondo in his early, serious films, the black-and-white ones. The other man had his arm around the woman’s shoulder and was leaning into her as if he wanted to smell her perfume, eyes closed, smiling.
“That’s Tina. She’s a poet,” Michael said. “Behind her, her husband Marco, translator and literary theorist. He used to write the epilog to French classics for Rütten und Löning. You don’t know them, right? It was a prestigious publisher, gone of course.” He pointed at young Belmondo’s doppelganger. “Franz, activist, performance artist, musician, painter, and my best friend.”
He gave me another photograph, of a family this time, the child maybe two years old. Father and mother were around my age, and they were all lying in bed, their heads bent over a huge picture-book. “My brother, my sister-in-law, and the cutest nephew you can imagine. She’s a doctor, he’s an electrician, and baby Kevin is in fourth grade now. He likes airplanes and the Beatles.”
Another photograph, of a woman in her forties, wearing a work coat, hammering away on some piece of stone. “My aunt Tatiana. She was trained by Inge Hunzinger. You wouldn’t have heard of her either. She’s a famous sculptor.”
I felt like back in school and decided that the wisest thing to do was to keep my mouth shut and listen.
Michael put the next one on the pile, saying, “Her boyfriend Richy, he works at a morgue. Tatiana’s favorite workplace. She helps them to resurrect, she says.”
This went on until the box was empty. Then he left the room and came back with the cot and a sleeping bag. “You see us and there’s only one story in your head: totalitarian state, shortage, uniformity, subordinate mentality. We’re all the same to you, aren’t we? One look at us and you feel that you know everything.” He unfolded the cot, opened the zip of the sleeping bag, pressed a pillow into a freshly washed case (I could smell the softener), and said, “Yes, you opened your borders. But you expected us to be ever so thankful, to condemn our fatherland. We had to denounce our past. Happiness, love, music, even sex wasn’t something you imagined us having. A life of misery, but thank God it was over on November 9th, when the Good People from the West saved us.”
The next morning I was woken up by quiet footsteps, definitely not Michael’s, unless he’d gotten out of my boots. It was the guy who’d checked me in. He told me that there was coffee in the kitchen and fresh bagels too. I got up, went outside to pee, and only fully realized when I was walking toward the house again that it had stopped raining.
A little later I sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, gazing out the window when I saw the red Honda. At two o’clock in the afternoon I reached the airport, in the evening I boarded a plane to Frankfurt. Next to me sat a seventy-six-year-old woman from Chicago, born in Weimar and married to a translator from Minneapolis, who took her to the States when the Nuremberg trials were over. She showed me a black-and-white photograph of two young women, both faces beaming with beauty and hope. “That’s my cousin. I haven’t seen her since I left Germany,” she said. “We went to a nightclub in Berlin, it was somewhere on Pariser Strasse, do you know it?”
“I’ve never been to Berlin.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “You weren’t allowed of course.”
I didn’t correct her, and neither did I tell her that we’d been calling it Prison Berlin.
She put the photograph back into her purse. She couldn’t believe it when she was watching the news that night, she said. She would always remember Peter Jennings in his khaki trench coat, standing in front of all these beautiful, colorful, courageous people climbing or jumping down the wall, and how small it suddenly looked, how harmless, like a toy. It took her two years to find her cousin, but here she was now, on her way to be reunified with her.
“That’s nice,” I said.
She smiled, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse, then she touched my underarm and said, “I am so happy for you guys, so happy.”