Berlin 1990 – A Tourist Walking Through World History

The most fascinating vacation I’ve ever taken, by far, was a visit to Berlin in 1990 – right after the Berlin Wall came down. History was changing right before my eyes. Even though the Wall was literally being sold off in pieces to tourists, the country had not yet been unified. So you could walk between East and West Germany with no passport control or checks. All that was left of Checkpoint Charlie was an abandoned guard shack and a photo of Gorbachev on the pavement, smeared with red paint.

The difference between East and West was glaring. In West Berlin, the taxis were all Mercedes, a shopping mall on the Ku’damm sold all the latest fashions and Mont Blanc pens. The KaDeWe department store had one floor devoted solely to food – every kind of food imaginable. One entire wall featured mustards of any variety you might want. The seafood department displayed a tank of live eels. People from the newly opened East wandered around this floor simply gaping in wonder at the over-the-top displays of food.

Walking towards the Berlin Wall, you heard drum beats, which turned out to be from orange-robed Buddhist monks, demonstrating for peace.  Off to the side, Russian soldiers kept guard over a war memorial. Tables set up by new entrepreneurs sold off graffiti-painted chunks of the Wall.  If you wanted, you could rent a chisel and cut your own.

Stepping through the Wall and into the East, you saw nothing but plain, grey buildings. No shops, no cafes, and no people out and about. But days later, on a bus tour of the few sights to see in East Berlin, hundreds of people suddenly converged on one plaza to demand higher wages and lower food prices. In the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, someone had just thrown a Molotov cocktail through the window of the room where post-World War II was carved up by the Allies. You could stroll through the palaces of former German kings, strolling among Soviet soldiers on leave. No one spoke English. But a lovely lunch was served at a “Friendship Island,” a display of so-called Soviet prosperity put on for foreigners.

Throughout the trip, I was humbled by the gratitude of the West Berliners for their post-war years of living in true prosperity and freedom. After speaking English in a taxi, the cab driver turned off the meter and refused to charge me for the ride. At the hotel, I found myself upgraded to the nicest suite in the place for free, because, “as an American, you are so kind.”

How we are treated when we travel is always set in the context of foreign relations and world history. In Berlin of 1990, I had the rare privilege of receiving the gratitude of those who saw a sparse, grey alternative to the prosperity and freedom of the West just across town.

Cynthia Coe’s novel Ginger’s Reckoningis set, in part, in Berlin of 1990. Ginger’s Reckoningis now only $2.99 on Kindle. Also available in paperback and included in Kindle Unlimited.

 

Having It All, Losing It All, and Finding Redemption

When the economy crashed in 2008, I watched the stock market tank, careers end, and fortunes lost with a sense of deja vu. I had been through it before and come out a different person.

My book, Ginger’s Reckoning, was written as self-therapy for dealing my own financial crash and destroyed career. My husband and I became millionaires in our early thirties. My husband was an investment banker, and I was a trial lawyer. We seemingly had it all – a charming house in the nicest neighborhood in town, European cars, designer clothes, vacations at exclusive resorts in the Caribbean. Then it all came crashing down. The company my husband worked for was shut down by the federal government and investigated by the FBI. I lost my job as a lawyer. Our income was zero.

I learned a lot during that time. Fortunately, a friend had wisely advised us to save our money when times were good, so we didn’t starve, lose our home, or go without the basic necessities of life. But our lifestyle had to change drastically. I quickly learned how to cut household expenses to the bone. I learned to do without. I learned what was really important to me – and it wasn’t necessarily the money I missed from my former life.

In my novel, Ginger Jordan walks away from her home right before it and all her other assets are seized by the government. She leaves in the middle of the night with only a backpack stuffed with a few clothes and personal mementoes. She goes back to her college haunts in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville, which was also where I spent many happy days as a poor but culturally fulfilled UT student.

Ginger’s journey continues to some of my favorite places in Europe, ending up in Moscow. At the time I wrote the book, I hadn’t been to Moscow. The scenes in the book were based on an old 1980’s era travel book I found in a used book store. Oddly enough, once I did visit Moscow in 2005, I was amazed that the hotel where we stayed was spookily similar to the hotel I had described in my novel years before. It was a world apart from my (and Ginger’s) capitalistic world in America – food was hard to come by, a restaurant refused us service (because we were Americans), the hotel wouldn’t let us change to a larger room with enough beds for our kids (because we didn’t have permission from…somebody), and we had to be vetted before entering any store (including the mall beside the US Embassy). When politics went south, we got out of Moscow only after I got in our facilitator’s face and yelled at him to take us to the Delta Airlines office. Fun times!

In the novel, Ginger comes to terms with her drastically changed circumstances while in Russia, backed into a corner but helped by family and close friends. In the real world, I too came to terms with my own dark night of the soul in Russia, stripped away from all that was familiar and comfortable.

I hope you enjoy my novel, Ginger’s Reckoning, featured as an Amazon Countdown Deal Friday, March 30 – Monday, April 2.

Blessings, Cindy