Growing up in East Berlin

Long-distance relationships are a tricky thing to master. Not having to argue over banal things such as “toothpaste cap on or off?” isn’t really a solace for the unbearable challenge of missing your loved one. I have been in a long-distance relationship for ten years. We try to have regular contact, face to face as often as we can; we tell each other how we see the world and we have learned ways to communicate without words. Yet every time we meet, it seems we have to get to know each other anew, it takes time to recognise a strand of hair, their smell, the sound of their voice, to feel a sense of security. You watch your partner change over the years and you continue to love them, even if at times you don’t understand them.
All of this is very much part of my life. Except, in this instance, my loved one isn’t a person.
It’s a place.

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A young couple kissing at Alexanderplatz, 1978
© akg-images / ddrbildarchiv.de

I was born in Berlin in 1982. When I moved abroad 21 years later, I embarked on an odyssey trying to stay close to my home, yet accepting how much it would be changing over time. I had no idea just how much Berlin would change in the ten years that followed.
To this day, the first question people ask me when I tell them where I’m from is “East or West?”

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Children in East Berlin, 1982
©akg-images / ddrbildarchiv.de

My grandfather, a historian and walking talking Berlin encyclopaedia, tells me stories of how he returned to his family home in Berlin as a young boy in 1945 and all he found was rubble. Miles and miles of sad rubble and not a street sign in sight. He didn’t even know if he had found the right street. My grandparents rebuilt their lives after the War and went on to have three children in Berlin, the youngest being my mother who was born in 1962, eight months into the construction of a rather famous Wall.

Under the paranoid, ever-present and watchful eye of the Stasi in the GDR, she became a young mother herself in 1982. I have vivid memories of those grey Stasi gentlemen parked outside our house in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, in what they perceived to be inconspicuous vehicles, taking notes of what we’d buy for dinner or who my mother would write her love letters to.

I remember the queues at food stores, the constant smell of coal in the air and the visits of members of the Nationale Volksarmee to my kindergarten, spreading their propaganda and preparing the children for the FDJ. I was spared a further education in the GDR, as we moved to West Berlin a year before the Wall finally came down. But whenever we wanted to see friends or family members who had remained in East Berlin, we would have to go through one of the many checkpoints and endure excruciating questioning and searches. I can still smell the linoleum in those interview rooms and sense my mother’s tight hand around mine. Thankfully this side of Berlin is now firmly in the past.

To this day, one of my favourite places to visit in Berlin is my grandmother’s small flat on Fischerinsel in Mitte. With the radical changes that Berlin has undergone in the last ten years, her small apartment is one of the last places that still feel like home to me. The view from her living room is comforting and allows an excellent perspective of my favourite building, the “Berliner Fernsehturm”, or TV Tower.

5-B1-B1-2005-3View across Berlin from Fischerinsel, 2005©akg-images / ullstein bild
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View across Berlin as seen from Fischerinsel, 2005
©akg-images / ullstein bild

Apart from the fully automated ticket machines in the foyer, this truly is a place where time has stood still and maybe that’s why it bears such a deep significance for me. It will forever be my compass through the city, the one building that will not change, yet always stand out, not just because of its height but also because of the wonderful skylines it creates, depending on where you are.

It is the sight that to this day still gives me and my childhood a sense of place. It is the first thing I look for when the plane comes in to land and I always feel assured and never tire of watching the sunlight paint on its bronze and silver sphere.

When we live in a long-distance relationship and we do get to meet our loved one, we automatically look for a sense of reassurance: are you still the same? Are you still the one I love? Does your humour still make me laugh? In terms of my love for Berlin, the answer will have to be Yes and No. I can’t help but feel a stranger in my own home whenever I take the journey across the Channel to see my Berlin. It has become so much bigger, louder, more colourful, busier, more expensive, more open and international.

I struggle to recognise its face at times and find myself continuously looking for familiar traces. This means two things:  I’m not just curious about new changes every time I visit, but I also have to make friends with all those new vistas. But what better place to have to reunite with, than a city in which reunification has been such a prominent scheme for the past 24 years.

Maybe it’s the sentimental Romanticist in me that isn’t too keen on extreme changes like this, but I’m both excited and terrified about what’s to come. The city is experiencing a boom of restoration work and some wonderful projects are being completed every year. The Neues Museum on the Museum Island is certainly one of the jewels in the capital’s crown, but as many further developments make the city more desirable, they also slowly begin to make it an unaffordable place for some.
Now is certainly an exciting time to get to know the many different aspects Berlin has to offer. Accommodations for visitors range from artist’s lofts to 5 star hotels and things to do are plentiful. Berlin may not be as obviously grand as London, as pretty as Paris or as sparkly as New York, but it has its own charm: it still seems young and a little bit nervous; eager to please, yet still a little rough around the edges. A little bit like me, when I left my hometown ten years ago.

With the CEPIC Conference taking place in Berlin next year, I hope many of you will get to visit Berlin and create your own memories there. Whatever you find to be your favourite thing –  an early bike ride through Tiergarten, an evening swim in the Wannsee, a boat trip down the Spree which will take you through all areas old and new, or a cool drink in one of the many beer gardens along the river – I hope you will have a wonderful time (and don’t let the famous Berliner Schnauze put you off)!
Maybe you’ll even understand why I will never fall out of love with Berlin, a place that seems to forever remain a diamond in the rough.

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