Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Timely Digression

We are travelers, not the same as tourists. We go. We stay. We seek. We take in a place, deciding each day where our journey will end. If we choose to linger, we linger. Unlike the locals, if we do not like a place...most of the time...we can leave.

So in January 1990 we flew to Amsterdam and under the loving care of our Dutch family, bought a Nissan van on credit cards and set off with the hope of driving to Samarkand. Why we did not get there is for another time. We lived in the van for almost a year traversing eastern Europe, Turkey, and some of the Middle East. We ended our year with over three months in what had been the “Eastern Block” on what we affectionately call the Magical Misery Tour, a trip through the aftermath and wreckage of World War Two.

We had just completed a tour of Nazi death camps and returned to Czechoslovakia for a few more days in Prague when we decided that it was time to begin heading home, home being Amsterdam and preparations for the return to America. It was fall, cold and the dwindling of tourists apparent. We were late leaving Prague that day for some unremembered reason, but we were headed west toward what had been East Germany.

How to describe the evening of the day that East became West? The communist part of Germany had always been closed to us, but here we were headed for the border and a night in Dresden. It was the evening of the day before Unification. The following day would be the first day the former East Germany would cease to exist.

We approached the border well after nightfall. The guard towers, like alien space ships whose tentacle-legs stretched down under bright lights, appeared to hover menacingly. Fences. Dogless cages. Everywhere, fences. Tall fences. The lights aimed so meticulously gave the feeling of being in a mobile interrogation center. Strangely, there were no people. There was only an eerie silence and no other cars. We drove the length of the passage in total isolation. We passed into what had been for us a closed entity as if we were driving from some rural community into any city. No one stopped us. No one cared that we were driving from one dimension of the twentieth century into another, from one time to the next.

We found a campground but we had no local currency. There had been no expected “checkpoint” or money exchange as was customary at border crossings, just the towers and the fences. The proprietors of the campground were as perplexed as we. They themselves did not know what to expect and could not even begin to tell us where we would be able to get the needed exchange. Money would be a problem not just for us but for everyone. They were in limbo, caught between a world they knew and one they could not imagine.

“No one knows how it will work,” they told us. The next day the sun came up. We left a passport as security, drove to the international airport and obtained Deutsche Marks. This year is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It took yet another year for those towers to empty, the fences to disappear. Unification is still a work in progress, at least the human part. I suspect the scar of the passage from one county to the next is physically gone. Other scars linger, though we did not.

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