Visiting Berlin – first impressions from a family holiday
I’ve had a fascination with visiting Berlin since my early teens, if not earlier. I did German at secondary school, and the class had a map of Berlin with the wall in 3d. The exchange student, Frauche, was a west Berliner. The city was firmly divided back then, I was at uni when the wall finally came down. Somehow it took me about thirty years to get round to visiting Berlin for the first time.
Visiting Berlin was a family holiday, so I had both children and my wife with me. The kids are 4 and 10. Berlin isn’t that child friendly, it was hard to find things for the little one. My elder was OK most of the time. I think we broke them both with walking about, even though we made an effort to use the busses, trams and s-bahn.
- Nowhere had a children’s menu
- You pay for the toilets, everywhere
- You can tell East from West by the pedestrian crossing lights
- Germans drink beer with breakfast
- Berlin’s history has been heavily airbrushed and almost nothing survives
While we were there we saw a lot of holocaust related things, and some cold war things. I’ll probably write more about those 0n other days. We also visited the Labyrinth Children’s Museum which was ace. Alexanderplatz was our main hangout on all four days. Overall we had an excellent family holiday, but it works best with older children (maybe 8+, they need to be happy walking and staying up late) or just grown-ups.
I like to tell the story about how I was one of the last people to be refused entry into East Berlin.
It was October 7, 1989, not quite a month before the Wall actually came down. October 7 is East Germany’s “Foundation Day”, the commemoration of the date of the founding of the country in 1949. National holiday, with big parades and so forth in Berlin.
My friends and I took the elevated train from West Berlin – you get on in the West and travel non-stop to Friedrichstrasse, a station about half a mile inside East Berlin, and go through the border there.
We got out and the station platform was full of border guards, many more than the time I had gone over the year before for a day trip – there were even police dogs.
A big beefy guard and two others came up to us – he shoved out his hand and demanded:
We handed them over. He looked at them.
“Ja, sie sind Amerikaner, ich bin Kanadisch.” (I, the Canadian, was the only one who spoke German.)
He snapped them shut and poked them back at me.
“Keine Einreise!” (No entry!)
No point in arguing, so we stuck around for 15 minutes until the train went back to the West.
We found out later that no one was being allowed in from the West on that day, because Gorbachev was in town for the holiday, and big anti-government demonstrations were expected.
This was reinforced by what had happened a few days before in Leipzig (but which we did not know about until later): the city police had refused to put down anti-government demonstrations, so factory militia had to be trucked in from outside the city to break them up.
Maybe they expected another 1953.
This was the first visible breakdown in the authority of the East German government.
As it turned out, the East Berliners had a nice holiday with no riots, I’m sure Gorbachev enjoyed himself, and we went to the open-air flea market.
A few days later, I left Berlin. And a few days after that, people began to travel through the Wall without hindrance. I had missed the Freight Train of History by a couple of weeks.
Thanks for sharing Brian. I had my first holiday without parents about a week before you were in Berlin. I went with a friend (now a diplomat) and we considered either Berlin or Dublin, but Dublin won because he hadn’t done German and the flights to Dublin were cheaper!
While in Dublin we bumped into an IRA rally outside the GPO. When you were being turned away by an East German border guard I was on a selection weekend for the University Officers Training Corps at Glasgow Uni.