19 January 2020
Just a song to me, but the sound of freedom to an East Berliner
Sometimes it slips off my radar exactly where I live. I don’t forget that I’m living in Germany, but the kind of people I see on a daily basis are a lot like me. They’re Germans, sure, but they are well traveled and read pretty much the same newspapers and books that I do. We all get thunderously upset about Trump and the current state of the U.S. and the other demagogues emerging across Europe – all over the world, even! Where will it all lead? I get so accustomed to these conversations that they become a ritual, devoid of real meaning.
But then something happens that reminds me that my reality is not the only one. Other people come from different places and see the world with different eyes. Their past is nothing like mine; this informs and shapes their present life, too.
This happened when I got into a taxi with my daughter in Berlin the other day. The driver was in his late fifties and didn’t seem very talkative. For me, as is always the case – much to the chagrin of my daughters – his reticence was practically an invitation to a let’s chat competition. I can never resist trying to draw someone into a conversation, especially a stranger, and even more so when the stranger seems a bit rough around the edges. This one was just a bigger challenge. Noticing that the driver was listening to what seemed to be vintage country-western songs, I surmised he was a sort of connoisseur of the genre.
This would be my angle.
“What’s the name of that singer?” I asked.
“Huh?” he growled.
“The singer. What’s the name of that singer?” I pointed to his CD player.
Not everyone wants to chat. All you can do is try. If someone doesn’t want to talk, I haven’t lost anything. The worst that can happen is that I wind up in an awkward, one-way conversation.
But not this time.
“Count tree music!” he piped up. “It’s count tree music!”
Aha. So he wasn’t exactly a connoisseur, but no matter. The conversation was getting underway.
“You can get these cassettes for € 5.99 at Saturn!” he said, referring to a local retailer.
“Don’t go to Media Markt, they’re too expensive. Be sure to go to Saturn!”
“And at Christmastime, they have a huge selection! Really cheap!”
“Just € 5.99 for three cassettes. I mean CDs,” he corrected himself.
He went on.
“These used to be really expensive; we used to have to pay import tax on all the imported LPs. They were really hard to get.”
Now I understood. This man was a former East Berliner. He may not have been a country music connoisseur – he wasn’t even able to pronounce the word correctly – but he shared in the typical German longing for anything foreign. Except in East Germany, this was not a passion that was easily indulged. For him growing up, he had had to pay a high price for the dream of freedom promised by the foreign sounds of country-western singers.
And now he could get them for just € 5.99.
He was warmed up now.
“Take a look at these statues!” he said as we drove by one of the colossal buildings of former East Berlin.
“Can you see the writing? It used to be so covered in soot that you couldn’t even see it. I only noticed the other day what it says!”
The German government invested millions in renovating East Berlin. It went beyond politics. It fulfilled an emotional need to make the desecrated city whole again. Before WWII, the beautiful city of Berlin belonged in the leagues of Paris, New York and Madrid. It simply had to be restored to its former glory to erase the blot of history. First it was destroyed by the war, and then it became the front line of the Cold War, split into two warring halves. The only downside to this for the people of Berlin is that Bavarians get to gloat about having paid for most of the renovations, since after the war Bavaria became one of the financially strongest German states.
The renovation succeeded beyond what had seemed possible. Not only had the wall disappeared, in most places you can pass from one former sector to another without realizing that this would have not even been physically possible just 40 years earlier – not to mention that any such attempt would have gotten you shot. The restoration of the entity of Berlin included renovating whatever majestic buildings were left to their former glory, including this building which was graced by statues representing the four elements.
“It’s earth, wind, water and fire,” my daughter said casually, translating the Latin words on the building we had just passed. “It says right underneath.”
“Hey, you’re pretty smart!” said the East German taxi driver with no small admiration. “You should be on this quiz show!”
With one hand on the wheel, he pulled a copy of the Berliner Morgenpost off the dashboard.
“There’re some trivia about the German federation cup in here,” he said. “What year was it first played and since when has it been held regularly in Berlin? It’s all in here. If you know that kind of stuff you can be on that quiz show, too!”
“No, I’m clueless about sports,” said my daughter. She hates it when I chat with strangers, but I’ve noticed she’s getting pretty good at it herself. I smile smugly.
I wondered if this guy had noticed my American accent. I wondered what he would think if he knew I had grown up halfway across the world in the land that used to be enemy of what used to be his land. And now we were chatting about country music and quiz shows on TV.
We arrived. I said goodbye and gave him a good tip. He now lives in a free country and the wall through his city is now just a row of commemorative bricks or stripe of paint on the pavement. He can buy all the country CDs he wants – at bargain prices.
I got out of the taxi, closed the door and he drove off. Once again, I’m back in my own little world.