For me it all started in the summer of 1988. I was eighteen years old, lived in Amersfoort and had already completed my propaedeutic certificate. It felt so free, I could do what I wanted and travel where I wanted to go. Of course I didn’t have a big budget, but if there was no money for a train ticket, I would hitchhike. Nothing could stop me!
That summer, the Netherlands had just won the European Football Championship, 2-1 against Germany in the semi-final. I had booked a group tour for young people to a campsite in Budapest. It was very nice and there was plenty to do. It was also cheap and there was still a bit of an exciting Eastern block atmosphere. At that time, there was only one McDonald’s and one Adidas store, where large crowds of people were waiting in to get their hands on something “Western”.
In the other Eastern block countries they had not yet reached that stage. There were also disco’s with laser shows, really modern for that time. One evening all the people from Holland were sitting together on our field at the campsite, when Germans passed by and asked us: “Wo ist das Fest?”. Of course we laughed, and said to each other “those Germans can’t organize a party themselves.” It got even funnier when a German walked up in shorts with the colors of the German flag. “Guck mal, eine zwei-zu-eins Hose!”. He introduced himself and said his name was Adrian and was from Berlin. We asked him: “Ost oder West?”. He was from East Berlin.
Then it got interesting. I had never seen an East German before. Of course you knew about the cold war, the iron curtain and the wall, but someone from behind the wall, was an oddity. We went to Lake Balaton together and did some nice things the rest of the week. I got invited to visit East Berlin during the autumn holidays. Marzahn to be exact. We wrote each other letters by express mail and we called each other. After returning home, of course I had to get started right away to apply for a visa at the embassy of the GDR in The Hague. You then got a whole placard stuck in your passport, you also had it for Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I bought a train ticket from Amersfoort to Berlin, Friedrichstraße station.
At the time it was still a journey of about ten hours, in an old train with dark green wagons with only compartments. The train went from Hook of Holland to Warsaw. You also sometimes saw wagons from Moscow. In addition to the conductor, the train also had a customs check of the kind that made you shudder. At Helmstedt the train entered the GDR, at Wannsee into West Berlin and at Friedrichstraße into East Berlin. I was very disappointed that no one was waiting for me on the platform. Friedrichstraße station was then hermetically divided in two areas, and of course I arrived at a platform that the ordinary East German could not reach.
Unsuspectingly, I walked to the exit and arrived at a row of border booths, in the station building (leaving was via the adjacent “Tränenhalle”). Brown doors, which let in the front row when a buzzer sounded (like an intercom in a flat). Above the various doors it said: GDR, FRG and “other foreign countries”. I thought “I have to go to the GDR, so I’ll get in that line.” When it was my turn, it turned out that your passport would determinate which row you should take, and I was able to join “other foreign countries” at the back. When I finally got through the check, I saw Adrian’s mother standing at the exit of the station on Friedrichstraße. I think that was where a small McDonald’s is now. She was waiting for me while her friend Peter drove around in his light gray Wartburg, because there was nowhere to park. Adrian did not have his driver’s license yet and certainly no car, because there were long waiting times.
I had a warm welcome on the ninth floor in Marzahn and Adrian had taken time off from work to show me all of East Berlin. The Palast der Republik, Französischer Dom, the Fernsehturm (we went up for 1.50 Mark), the Naturkunde Museum, the Brandenburg Gate in the distance with fences around it, we ate a currywurst at Konnopke and we went to the performance ‘Traumvisionen’ at the Friedrichstadtpalast. We even went by train to Dresden for a day, where I was an attraction with my walkman and headphones. After a few days, we learned that Adrian as host should have reported my visit to the police within 24 hours. We went to do this and he got a warning because he really should have done this earlier. I could have gone to West Berlin, but I only wanted to see that part of Berlin where Adrian was allowed to go.
Eventually I changed studies in the Netherlands and this gave me six months off. On February 1, 1989, I started working as an au pair for a Jewish family in West Berlin, near Adenauerplatz. I was picked up at the Zoologischer Garten station by the father of the house. I got a bvg subscription and if I had time off, I regularly took one of the buses that ran over the Kurfürstendamm, the 9, 19, 29 and 69. Bus 69 ran the route that now runs bus 100, up to the Reichstag, and turned around there.
On the weekends I had a day off and then I went to Checkpoint Charlie at midnight to be with Adrian for midnight. Sometimes the checks took a very long time. Besides all kinds of questions and stamps you also had a Mindestumtausch, you were obliged to exchange 25 Marks per day, in the rate 1: 1. There wasn’t that much to shop in East Berlin, and when you consider that a tram ticket there costed 20 Pfennig, you can imagine how hard it was to spend this money. And how unfortunate it was when you consider that the exchange rate at the exchange offices behind the Gedächtniskirche was 1:10. I brought everything Adrian was curious about. One time a Big Mac, the other time a döner kebab, then a few cans of pineapple. Those things all went through the x-ray, and of course I had to say that I just brought something to eat for myself. Once they arrived at the exit, on the corner of the Intershop, those sandwiches had of course been cold for a long time, but Adrian loved it.
In July I had to go back to the Netherlands to find a room in Rotterdam, but in August we would see each other again in Budapest, where I came with four friends and my own tents. We never found him there, as it turned out he was on the run at the border to Austria. Of course this was all secret because “Republikflucht” was a serious crime, and if he did not succeed, it would be better that no one would know about it. He had conveyed the message to me through other Dutch people who were on the camping site. They had met him again later at the metro station Deák Ferenc Tér, his first attempt to escape had failed. I couldn’t call his mother in Marzahn either, because she would be terribly worried. After a week I dared to call her and I did indeed get a crying mother on the phone. I asked “But he is still alive, right?” She said: “Yes, but he is not coming home…”
I managed to get the address of his great aunt in Munich and I arranged a lift with four West German boys who would drive home via Munich. I was allowed to sit in the back seat in the middle, and those guys got out after every stop to push because the starter motor of the Volkswagen Golf was broken.
Eventually, the Berlin Wall was due to open on November 9, 1989, just three months later, but we didn’t know that at the time. Adrian and his mother were inconsolable and as far as he was concerned the love affair between us was over.
After that I lived in Berlin twice more for a few years and also regularly visited the city in between. I still feel at home there and am glad that those scary border posts are gone. My heart still jumps when I ride a limebike between Kreuzberg and Ostbahnhof, over the row of cobblestones that indicate where the wall was.