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Farewell Checkpoint Charlie

Note: “Farewell Checkpoint Charlie” describes an adventure in world travel. I was visiting Berlin in the spring of 1990, a city where I had lived for several months in 1962. This story combines travel with an experience of historic political change. The story was written in the summer of 1990 for my departmental newsletter at the Metropolitan Transit Commission.

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Travelers to eastern Europe have found that even simple activities become enmeshed in red tape. I had that experience myself when I visited East Germany last February.

I had driven immediately to West Berlin in a rental car after arriving at Frankfurt on Saturday, February 24th - only 6 hours late. So it was 3 a.m. by the time I pulled into a west Berlin neighborhood close to where my friend from many years also lived. He, his wife, two daughters, a French friend and I spent Sunday tramping around east Berlin, buying chipped souvenirs of the Wall, having refreshments at a cafe on “Unter den Linden” street, etc. I, being an American, had to enter East Berlin through “Checkpoint Charlie” in the middle of the city. My friends, residents of west Berlin, entered at another place. Years ago, Americans could visit East Berlin, but not West Berlin residents. Now it is easier for them to pass through the border.

My friends had relatives in Leipzig, a city about a hundred miles south of Berlin in East Germany. They recommended that I visit that city on Monday and perhaps witness the famous Monday night rallies in central square where the protest demonstrations against the communist government had begun in the previous autumn. This was a period of breathtaking political change - three weeks before the East Germany national elections which would put that country on a firm course of reunification with West Germany.

Our Sunday afternoon expedition had stumbled upon a mass rally of the old communist party at Marx-Engels-Platz in East Berlin, fighting for its political life (but to no avail).

My friends made a telephone call to the Leipzig relatives from their West Berlin home. We knew that the East German authorities required that foreign visitors have a firm hotel reservation in order to obtain a visa to travel in that country. (by contrast, foreigners could obtain a one-day visa to sightsee in East Berlin without a hotel reservation for 5 deutschmarks.) There was nothing subtle about this; the East Germans wanted to earn hard currency from the foreign visits, and the hotels were typically expensive. The people in Leipzig thought they could satisfy the hotel requirement by making a reservation for me in a hotel on the outskirts of town which was considerably cheaper than those recommended for tourists.

I set out late Monday morning for East Berlin in my rented car, a Mazda, with those travel plans in mind. The first hitch occurred at the Checkpoint Charlie cross point where I learned it was not sufficient to cite the hotel reservation to receive the one-day travel visa. I had to obtain the necessary papers from the East German office for foreign visitors. I asked where that office might be. The border guard said it was on Charlottenstrasse.

Having a small street map of Berlin, I drove for several blocks, parked my car, and studied the map. Charlottenstrasse was not too far from Checkpoint Charlie. I drove around that area a bit, and asked several people where the foreign-visitors office was. No one knew anything about it. It seemed that I needed an exact address. So I walked back to Checkpoint Charlie and, at length, was able to find a guard who would help me. The address was Charlottenstrasse 45, as I recall.

Now the hard part began. I quickly located Charlottenstrasse in the area near Checkpoint Charlie. However, the street numbers ran from 1 to 30. Across a major thoroughfare I picked up the continuation of Charlottenstrasse. Unfortunately, the street numbers here began in the 60s. So where was number 45? Some construction workers thought it might be about ten blocks away. No one else seemed to know.

I had no alternative but to walk back to Checkpoint Charlie and demand an explanation. Now I was told to visit the East German travel office, which was located in Aleksanderplatz, about a mile and a half away. Fortunately, this office was much easier to find. It was in a 20-storey building with a large sign, “Reiseboro” (travel office), on top facing in my direction. However, to find a parking place was more difficult. When I arrived at the proper office on the second floor, it was, of course, lunch time and the counter was closed. I welcomed the opportunity to relax a bit and collect my thoughts.

The counter opened at 1 p.m. The counter where visas were issued would not do that until proper documentation was received concerning the hotel reservations. Another counter would handle that function. A woman at that counter told me, when I gave her the name of the hotel in Leipzig where reservations had been made for me, that they, the travel authorities, did not recognize that particular hotel. I asked what else was available. Apparently, almost everything was booked in Leipzig for Monday night, but there was a room or two left in the range of $100 to $150 per night (Compared with the $25 I had expected to pay).

Being the cheapskate I am and more than a little irritated, I told the woman that this was unacceptable. Eventually, she volunteered the information that I might obtain a visa without hotel reservation if arrangements had been made to stay in a private home. What a break! From what my last West Berlin friends had told me, their relatives would be happy to put me up for a night. Unfortunately, the documentation permitting this arrangement could not be obtained at the travel office but at another office - my old friend, the foreign-visitors’ office on Charlottenstrasse.

Luckily, I was dealing this time with people who knew where the office was located. They even gave me a small slip of paper typed with its name, address, and telephone number. Charlottenstrasse 45 was indeed where the construction workers had said it was, about ten blocks distant from Checkpoint Charlie, near Unter den Linden and the Grand Hotel. I had better hurry, though; the office closed at 3 p.m.

It was getting to be rush hour. The traffic was thick on Friederichstrasse, and I had to pull over occasionally to read the map. (Fortunately, in East Berlin the parking regulations are somewhat relaxed. If you need to park, you simply pull off the street on the sidewalk. I resorted to that device several times.) Then it started to rain. My windshield fogged up as I drove through heavy traffic. The rain turned to hail. Visibility was zero. I pulled up on the sidewalk and just sat there. It was quarter to three. Even if I found the office and a parking place, I might not arrive there before closing time and my clothes would be soaked. God did not intend for me to visit Leipzig that evening, it appeared.

At least the pressure was off. Here I was - while you people were busy working in Minnesota - stranded in East Berlin with some time on my hands.

After the rain subsided, I thought I would drive around the city for awhile. Friedrichstrasse looked interesting. I headed down that street away from Checkpoint Charlie for a mile or so until I reached something that looked like a neighborhood. I parked my car on the sidewalk, locked it, and took my camcorder with me for a short walking tour.

The area had a few interesting features. One of them was the house of Berthold Brecht, the famed playwright, and a nearby book store crawling with students. There was the office of a political party which had gone defunct. My only real business was to try to reach my West Berlin friends and the people in Leipzig to let them know what had happened to me. Easier said than done!

The East German telephone system is not state of the art. First, I had to find out from someone (a clerk at a nearby store) what area codes to use for the pay phone. Then I learned that it was necessary to use exactly the right coins to place a call, and I did not happen to have those coins. A woman who was also using the pay phone made change for me. The final hurdle was to make the call work. I tried the West Berlin number several times, but only received busy signals. I did reach someone at the Leipzig number, but apparently the wrong person - for he seemed to be quite angry when I reached him for the second time. Trying the same maneuvers from another pay phone did not produce better results.

To make a long story short, I bummed around East Berlin with my camcorder for several hours, had a light supper, and then returned to west Berlin where the telephones worked better. It was almost 9 p.m. My friends put me up for another night, and the following morning sent me on my way for another crack at traveling in East Germany.

This time, Tuesday, I decided simply to accept whatever hotel reservations the travel office offered. There was a greater selection - a room for $45 a night in a charming old hotel called the “Internationale” in the center of Leipzig. The weather had not improved much. I drove through a snow storm, first on the autobahn and then on Route #2 from Berlin to Leipzig, which happened to run through Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s home town. The church where he pounded the 95 theses in the door has been replaced by a magnificent structure. A “peace service” was held at 6 p.m., just at the time I arrived. I recorded part of it with the camcorder. Luther himself is buried inside the church, but I did not see the marker.

Continuing further through the snow storm at night in a desolate country, I finally reached the outskirts of Leipzig and was promptly pulled over by a police officer. To my relief, he was not interested in arresting me but in giving me directions to the hotel.

On Wednesday, I saw lots of Leipzig, including the Thomaskirsche where Bach was organ master and the “Volkerverschlagdenkmal” which celebrated the German victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. It is monumental in both scope and design. I did also manager to visit the Leipzig relatives, the Martins, in their apartment a mile from the central business district. They had expected me the previous day, of course, and had even contacted the police to see if anyone had been lost in the snow storm. No one had been reported.

All’s well that ends well. The only problem was that my extra day in East Berlin put me a day behind schedule, and I had less time to spend in Paris at the end of the trip. Since the French are somewhat resentful of the Germans, that decision of mine may not have sit too well with my French hosts in Paris, the Bosquets, who, while showing some anti-German feeling (Understandable for one who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp as prisoner of war) were staunchly pro-French and pro-American. But it was an historic moment in Germany, both East and west, and, thanks to a rented Mazda, I was able to see some of it.

(Post script, dated July 1990: Checkpoint Charlie was dismantled last week in a ceremony that featured the foreign ministers of the four allied powers walking arm in arm across the once fearsome border in downtown Berlin.)

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