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.

 

What is it about Paris?

What is it about Paris that makes you want to go there, even if it’s just through the vicarious experience of a book? Certainly, you could have “fun” many places. There are many locations with stunning views, adventures, or new cultures to explore. But there is something about Paris that surpasses all of the usual touristy pleasures and experiences.

Life in Paris is about elegance, quality, and excellence. The climate is just right – not too warm and not too cold. The city is the model of northern hemisphere livability – you can get there easily, there’s plenty of places to stay, and cabs and the metro allow you to move around easily. There’s public places – art museums, in particular – to visit and see, along with plenty of lovely green spaces to get fresh air and pause from the hustle-bustle of city life. And of course, there’s the food. You will eat well in Paris, with quality ingredients, thoughtful preparation, and lovely presentation. But you won’t eat too much – proportions are just right, with none of the overindulgence of many American restaurants.

Paris is culture at its peak – and not just the art, fashion, and architecture. Paris is everyday living at its best. You don’t just have a breakfast of cereal poured in a bowl. You have a scrumptious croissant or pastry, butter served at precisely the right temperature, a perfect cup of coffee, a hunk of baguette baked that morning, and strawberry jam. Simply walking around Paris is a pleasant adventure. Although the city is busy, you don’t suffer the rushed, over-crowded vibe of New York or Amsterdam. You may take your time, enjoying the parks you pass, stopping to browse, pausing to watch river traffic on the Seine. You don’t have to be “doing” something all the time; it’s perfectly acceptable (and highly recommended) to sit in a sidewalk café sipping wine and people watch for a spell.

The architecture of the city lends itself to both feeling part of a grand plan, plus the charm of discovering narrow, quiet streets where you can feel the peace of a small town. You can soak in the artistic masterpieces of the Louvre or the D’Orsay, but you can also take a few moments to eat a delicious but not too sweet cake at a perfectly set table on the roof of the Centre George Pompidou, a piece of everyday art in itself. Balance and harmony are evident everywhere.

Last summer, my family vacationed in Paris, and we loved every minute of it. (I say that now after recovering from the slightly terrifying experience of getting lost in a sketchy neighborhood near Gare du Nord; it’s now a fond vignette in family mythology. Sometimes the memories of a place are more pleasant than the reality.)  I won’t be going to Paris this summer – at least not in person. But I’ll be “visiting” Paris again through the pages of a book, with my toes in the sand and maybe a bottle of French wine in the cooler beside me.

Here are some of my favorite books about Paris. (All non-fiction; my next blog post will feature favorite novels about Paris):

Paris to the Moon– New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik moves to Paris with his family. A wonderful examination of Parisian culture

A Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World– a lovely book with illustrations and graphics

The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs– a journalist explores her own Parisian neighborhood

A Moveable Feast– Hemingway’s most accessible and joyful book

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris– This short book rambles along through Paris, a good quick read.

Cynthia Coe enjoys travelling and writing about her travels. Her novel Ginger’s Reckoning takes the reader from Houston to Moscow, with stops in KnoxVegas and a couple of interesting cities in Western Europe along the way. Ginger’s Reckoning is now available on Kindle for $2.99; also available in paperback, included in Kindle Unlimited.

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