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.