Berlin … Remembrance of Things Past

When I saw Olen Steinhauer’s tweet with a pic from a Berlin café a couple of days ago, something in me snapped.

It’s been about 15 years now, since I’ve last visited “the capital” but there were times in the 30 years before, when I was there almost every month. As much as I love my “gingerbread” hometown of Nuremberg, in my heart “Ich bin ein Berliner”. So this blog today will be a little walk on “Memory Lane” and contain some memorable films and music related to Berlin …

Passing this iconic tower meant that you had only about one more hour to drive before reaching Berlin. My most memorable adventure on the “Transitstrecke” was, when the old car we were driving, broke with burning motor, while we were stuck in a traffic jam, still on the eastern side. A truck driver rushed to our aid with an extinguisher, but then we were stranded. This was in the 80s, so no cell-phones and wandering around on eastern territory was out of the question, if you wanted to stay alive and not be mistaken for a fugitive. But it seemed that all in all it was our lucky day, because after a while a diplomat’s car stopped and towed us across the border at Drewitz *phew*. This was the smoothest crossing ever 😉

For those not so familiar with Berlin’s situation back then, some historical information. West Berlin really was an island in the German Democratic Republic (= the soviet zone). You could fly there, drive there by car straight on the “Transitstrecke” or go by train. You got stamps in your passport when entering (and leaving) the GDR and you could only stop at assignated points, because you weren’t to contact locals while transiting. The trains would stop for hours in the middle of the night, at a non-public station near the border and then they were thoroughly searched inside and outside (with dogs) to prevent East Germans from fleeing.

David Bowie’s very emotional trip on “Memory Lane” through Berlin with lots of old footage.

I’ve travelled really a lot of times between Nuremberg and Berlin – and my passport was full to the brim with those ridiculous stamps:


So, my father is from Berlin and also my mother’s father. As a kid I went there regularly to visit my grandparents in West Berlin and delighted in driving around in the yellow double-deck busses. When I got older, I read the biography of “Christiane F.” a young heroin addict who had to prostitute herself. That made me see “Bahnhof Zoo” in a slightly different light …

These are my Berlin grandparents and my great-grandmother (the kid is one of my uncles) in the mid 50s, roughly 5 years before the wall was built. Now everyone would guess, that they gathered proudly around their “Volkswagen” to have that pic taken. LOL … very wrong! This is the so called Berlin humour: they actually never had a car, but I’ve inherited my granddad’s grin 😉

My mother’s sister (my godaunt) moved to Berlin in the beginning of the 80s and when we visited her in Berlin-Kreuzberg for a week in 1984 I really fell consciously in love with the city. When I got 16, I was allowed to visit my aunt together with my best friend(s) and we spent some interesting rather “nocturnal” weeks – as Berlin had no “closing time” like the rest of Germany. I particularly liked the “Bhagwan” disco “FarOut” on Kurfürstendamm next to “Schaubühne” – unlike other discos I knew, this one was not dark, sticky and labyrinth-ish, but just one really big room with a high ceiling, warm lighting and bars in every corner and they played great music too 😉

This is still my (inofficial) hymn to Berlin – from early 80s new german wave band “Ideal”. When this – their first – record came out, my father listened to it literally non-stop during a full 14-day-family-holiday in Bavaria – you’d think, we’d freaked, but I still love every song 😉

Other unforgettable experiences included driving through Berlin in the early morning hours, with someone we just met and who turned out to be a) obviously pretty wasted because he was b) ignoring EVERY red light he came by while going at c) about 70 km/h … yeah well … when you’re 17 it’s really all a bit YOLO 😉

Also when you’re 17 and in Berlin, sleep is clearly overrated … so once we went on a daytrip (trip as in TRIP … as this was still more surreal as just driving on the “Transitstrecke” and not only because we had a hangover!) to East Berlin. We crossed the border at Friedrichstraße and had to walk over a mirrored floor there – so if we had skirts on they could have checked, if we were smuggling whatever under them … please?!. Then we each had to change 50 german Mark (about 25 Euro now) in (ahem, worthless) GDR cash. We’d set up a date with east German relatives of my friend, who met us outside. They had a full sightseeing schedule prepared: visiting the Brandenburg Gate to finally see the Quadriga’s horses heads and not only their butts like from the western side, walked “Unter den Linden” past the Berlin Dome to “Palast der Republik” and then they invited us for lunch at the restaurant on top of the East Berlin TV tower. When we entered we were seated (although almost no seats were taken) and were told that we had one hour to order and eat. This would be the time that the restaurant (who was slowly spinning) would take to make a full turn, so you could watch over the roofs of Berlin in every direction. Yeah well, almost every … because when you were able to look in the direction of the western part of the city, the hour was almost up and exactly THEN your meal arrived. I realised that our “seating” hadn’t been random, but calculated – you really had to watch your plate, eat up and then leave during that last quarter hour – no looks at the “fiends in the West” allowed. In review, this was the most ridiculous experience I’ve had in my whole life so far.

When they walked us back, they motioned us to follow them behind the pillars of “Neue Wache” and gave us german Mark in exchange for the east cash we’d been forced to change earlier (wherever they’ve got the west cash, as this was obviously forbidden!). They were a bit panic-ish and constantly looking over their shoulders (but telling us not to). You really felt like in some sort of bad spy-movie…

“The lives of others” won an Oscar and is really worth seeing – it shows exactly why my friend’s relatives felt uneasy in their own country – just everyone could be an informant and working for the “Stasi” (state security, well more to secure that everyone was staying WITHIN this state).

This is an excerpt from Billy Wilder’s hilarious movie “One Two Three” shot in Berlin in 1961 just before the wall was built. The film was a total flop when it came out, because after the wall was built, obviously no one found it funny anymore. But it really is and you can see (as well as in Wilder’s “A foreign Affair’ with Marlene Dietrich) a lot of Berlin and how much was still destroyed and in ruins.

After the fall of the wall in 1989 I was mainly in Berlin for business reasons (setting up software-systems and training staff at arthouse-cinemas and indie-distributors) or to attend the Berlinale filmfestival. Northern parts of Germany are really not famous for their food, but Berlin was an exception: apart from “Currywurst” and the first “Döner Kebap” who was invented in 1972 not in Turkey, but in Berlin (in a small snackbar between “Zoo station” and famous cinema “Zoopalast”), you could get pretty amazing Falafel, all sorts of really good asian food and my favorite restaurant always was “Cafe Einstein” in Kurfürstenstraße – I’m sure that they still serve the best “Wiener Schnitzel” outside of Vienna.

So finally a last movie-tip:

“Lola rennt” (Run Lola Run) one of the first movies – and also a pretty amazing one – from a re-united “new” Berlin.

12 thoughts on “Berlin … Remembrance of Things Past

  1. Servetus

    Wow, kind of cool that they came up with all that cash!

    I was able to live in Berlin, and one of the things that always fascinated me about it was the way that it seems every historical remnant washes up there. I remember one particularly wild sabbath spent at the Jüdischer Kulturverein, which was a group of Jews whose parents had fled Germany in the 30s, then intentionally immigrated back into the East Zone, i.e., GDR true believers, who were then suddenly liberated in 1989 and didn’t really understand what had happened to them….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. frauvonelmdings

      I just looked it up: from 1964 to 1989 they gathered 4,5 billion West Mark through this. And I was wrong: it was 25 DM per person, so 50 for the two of us. And the exchange rate was 1:1 (instead of the more realistic 1:3 to 1:8 which you got when you’d change it back in West Berlin). 25 East Mark was a lot of money – I think the whole lunch for 4 persons only did cost half of it – so it was nearly impossible to spend it as you couldn’t buy anything… but you weren’t allowed to take it back, but to literally empty your pockets when leaving. So, it was really a sort of entrance fee for visiting “East Berlin fun park” ^^
      I remember being pretty impressed by the view of the Synagoge in East Berlin in the 90s. We were working in the cinema in the beautifully restored “Hackesche Höfe” nearby. And talking about “true believers” – I forgot to mention another movie – with a more funny approach – about a guy who’s “true believer” mum got ill and fell into a coma just before the fall of the wall and when she wakes up, he’s afraid that the truth might kill her, so he’s putting up one hell of a show for her: “Goodbye Lenin”.
      My mum’s father was from a small hamlet south of Berlin. Two of his sisters ended up in West Berlin but one chose to stay and lived in her family’s house near Königs-Wusterhausen until she died. She visited us in Nuremberg a few times after she got 65 (and thus were allowed to travel), but she always returned to the GDR. She was a gentle, quiet but impressive woman with pitch black hair (and a few silver streaks), she introduced us how to set up a Ouija board (!) and had quite a mysterious aura – so no wonder that I really liked her 😉
      When we went there with my mum (who had inherited the house after her death in 1991) two years after the fall of the wall it was still like a trip into a forgotten time: just about half an hour drive from Berlin centre there was no sewer system, pavement or street lights. A few steps from the house you reached a quiet lake or could walk for hours on sandy paths through the Mark Brandenburg heath without meeting anybody.
      My sister’s first boyfriend was a young guy from Zwickau, who was one of the lucky one’s to successfully flee on New Year’s eve 1983. It was a rather dramatic story … from one point on he said they (he went with a friend) were just running, running for their lives and when he at some point suddenly crashed into someone, he first thought it was over for him. When he realised that he had made it into the West, he broke down. He was separated from his friend during the flight, but learned later, that he also made it.
      So – as you can see – thinking of Berlin really stirs up a lot in my mind 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Esther

    This was a fascinating read, thank you! I haven’t been to Berlin often, just 3 times: twice in 1989 – in the summer before the wall fell and the winter after (with some eery experiences) and again not too long ago in 2012. The East was always a mystical, far away place with a dangerous element and I remember feeling very subdued and uncomfortable the few hours I was in East Berlin before the wall fell.How times have changed.
    It was really nice reading your memories and to see the picture of your family from that time. I want that VW Beetle, it’s my favorite car ever!
    “Das Leben der Anderen” and “Lola rennt” are both excellent films. My son had to watch “Lola rennt” in German class last year. 🙂
    Oh, and in my late teens I was in love with David Bowie, but I haven’t followed what he has been doing at all anymore, so thanks for that video!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. frauvonelmdings

      Oh the West in the 80s had it’s “aura” too. I remember sitting in a restaurant in Kreuzberg when a guy turned up, selling pirate editions of books – actually that’s where I got my copy of Michael Ende’s “Momo” 😉 … the whole city felt a bit like a legal black hole – like: what happens in Berlin, stays in Berlin. 😉


    2. frauvonelmdings

      Oh and the only member of my family who ever had such a VW Beetle, was my youngest uncle. Although his Beetle got run over (while parked in a forbidden spot) by one of those yellow double-deck busses mentioned. My dad once gave me a pic of it after that crash – but I can’t find it – just think of Mr Bean’s Mini who got run over by a tank in one episode to get a rough impression 😉


  3. Guylty

    Very interesting read, Frau von Elm-Dings, even as a fellow German. I never saw Berlin while the wall was still up, and was always suspicious of the place, felt it was overrated. When I finally made it there for the first time, in 2009, I fell in love with it straight away. I remember with goosepimples how we dumped our bags at our accommodation and jumped on the U-Bahn to get back into town. When we emerged from the underground, I found myself standing right in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I was so overwhelmed to be standing in a spot which to me had always been unreachable, “on the other side”, I had tears in my eyes… Since then I have been to Berlin a few times (once for the premiere of The Hobbit in 2013), and the city fascinates me. It’s a great, historic place, vibrant and multicultural. I can’t wait to go back.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. frauvonelmdings

          I. Feel. So. Old. X)
          … and I really want to go back sometime soon! But it wasn’t easy to convince the husband to babysit the dogs for my 5 day-stay at Hofer Filmtage this October, so … hm …


  4. Gratiana Lovelace

    Nice post! I have some old family history stuff that is some where still in a box after our move to our home here in 2002. Ha! But in that box, there is a snippet of info that says my great grandparents were from Bonn, Germany. And that was like the 1850’s. I have to find that history stuff again sometime, so that I can try to track down our German roots.

    Liked by 1 person

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