BIKING THE BERLIN WALL
In 1969 I spent three months wandering around Europe with two college friends. One afternoon we decided to go through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin as a lark, but got a disturbing look at post-war oppression. West Berlin was colorful and prosperous, but on the east side everything was gray–buildings, sky, people and clothing. Even the food. The only eye contact came from the armed guards near the wall.
On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Here in Davis, friends packed into our house for my 40th birthday. But I was glued to the TV watching people literally hammer the wall to bits, altering the political landscape in Europe in unimaginable ways. Look at the European Union today, with 10 former East Bloc states in the fold.
Last month, our daughter Emily and I visited friends in Berlin for a few days. The highlight was a long bicycle ride through the heart of the city. I never would have thought something we do every day here in Davis could carry so much meaning.
Karl and Maria are Berlin natives, born and educated there. When Karl’s parents were dating, his mother sometimes stayed with Karl’s father’s family in the American sector. She was there in 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up, and that midnight construction project sealed the rest of her family inside the Russian sector. Parents, siblings and cousins were separated, some for the rest of their lives.
So Karl never met his grandmother who lived in East Berlin. There were photographs and letters, but she never held the grandchild the Cold War kept from her. As his grandmother was dying, Karl’s own mother was unable to make a last visit for fear she would not be allowed back.
This Nov. 9 is the 21st anniversary of the dismantling of the wall, so our ride last month previewed the coming of age for reunification. We set out with Karl and Maria on their bikes, and Emily and me on rentals. We rode through parks and broad avenues on beautifully designed bike lanes and paths. Bold stripes and bright color mark the pavement where motorists, pedestrians and cyclists have their respective zones. Drivers, pedestrians and cyclists all operate within their own parallel universes, each respecting the space reserved for others, and tolerating occasional blunders. Riding a bike in the second largest city in Europe is as comfortable as cruising down Eighth Street in Davis.
We rode to the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, where Maria kept an eye on the bikes while Karl, Emily and I walked a circle around the church. Then we rode along a wide pathway arcing around the back of a long row of animal enclosures at the Berlin Zoo, a treat you can’t get in an automobile.
On to the restored Reichstag, we simply straddled our bikes on the plaza in front for a few minutes, and marveled at how the latest rehabilitation project had brought the building back to glory. Then we circled through the vast open spaces in nearby parks, walked through a redevelopment project mall, and locked the bikes to visit the breathtaking Holocaust Memorial.
Mounting our bikes in silence, we rode through the Brandenburg Gate and down the wide Unter den Linden boulevard, where we shared bike lane space with a 15-passenger beer bike with kegs and bar stools. Riding past the German Cathedral, we came to our final stop, Checkpoint Charlie, and parked our bikes. No part of this tour would have been as efficient or as much fun by any other means of transportation.
We had coffee at a cafe counter overlooking the exhibit where the original barriers stood on the American side of Checkpoint Charlie. Tourists in shorts and T-shirts posed for pictures in front of the sandbags with the smiling “guard.” I remembered in 1969 reaching up to surrender my passport while an East German soldier stood five feet behind me with his rifle in his hands across his chest. Nothing about our bike ride last month would have been possible 40 years ago: the route, the bikes, our stopping points, the people we saw, or taking photographs.
After our coffee break, we mounted up again, and on a warm Sunday in early fall I rode a fat-tired bicycle with a squeeze-toy clown head for a horn through Checkpoint Charlie, following my friend Karl weaving down a street crowded with happy, free people.