Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cuban Relations & Other Communist Stuff

There was a cold war but it was a beautiful sunny November day in 1977 when I decided to go from West Berlin to East Berlin.

I start across, on foot, a huge graveled space. I come to a gigantic sign: WARNING - YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR. It is feeling like no-man's land. You feel very alone. You are aware that the uniformed man in the tower above the wall has a gun. The gun is pointed at you. There's still a ways to go. You eventually enter a maze of barricades. This way, that way. It's crazy. Finally, in small print, a sign says PASSPORT CONTROL.

I approach an iron gate. It is electronically buzzed open. I walk down short empty halls that run alongside each other -- another maze. I come to a grim looking young woman. Uniformed. She does not greet me. She does not smile. She takes my passport. She inspects it. She passes it through an opening to someone invisible in an adjacent room. Five minutes later my passport comes back through the opening. "Five Deutsch marks, 24-hour visa," she says. I hand her five Deutsch marks. She stamps my passport. Now I'm buzzed into another room where I'm required to empty my pockets and count my money. The amounts in the various currencies are recorded on a stamped slip which I must, I am instructed, turn in when I exit the eastern sector. Then more halls. In another room I am required to buy a minimum of 6.50 Deutsch Republic marks. More buzzed doors. Another inspection of my passport by yet another guard. Finally I'm walking freely in East Berlin.

I go to the TV Tower. It's 207 meters high. I wait wait wait to go up one level where, for 5 DR marks, I buy a ticket which allows me to wait wait wait to get on an elevator. The elevator takes me to the restaurant at the tower's top. The restaurant rotates 360-degrees in one hour. I wait wait wait until I'm seated. I order tea and a bowl of Ukranian Solyanka; it's sort of a highly spiced borscht. The views of the city and its rivers are fabulous.

While waiting to descend I notice three men. They are obviously foreign, their suits are cut differently from what a typical German man would wear, and they are speaking what I take to be Spanish. I ask, in German, if they are speaking Spanish. "Si! Si!" one exclaims. They smile and smile and smile. I ask where they are from. "Ku-bahn-o," one says. Smiles smiles smiles.

I make a couple of small-talk remarks in German about the tower. They can use a few words of German, perhaps just a few less than I can use. One asks my name. I don't want to say the Jorge of Spanish because I know that I can't add the appropriate exhalation that accompanies the "J" so I just say my name is Jurgen. And what is my last name? "Feetz-gay-rald," I say. Oh, it must sound so perfectly German to them, and it is not the first time in my life that a foreigner has thought my last name to be of German origin. One of the Cubans tells me that my country is very beautiful. He asks what city I am from. I'm sure he is wondering what German city I live in.

"Nuevo Yorka," I say. Obviously, I don't know how to say York in fractured Spanish. Maybe there is no way, except to throw some vowel on at the end.

They look puzzled. "Americano?" one asks.


At this they look at one another. Immediately, without another word, all three turn and walk away as if I am a disease.

I'm glad President Obama is fixing this so Cubans won't feel it necessary to snub me again.
I spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening walking walking walking. I walk up one side and down the other of the beautiful Unter den Linden. There's few people out and about which makes the gorgeous wide street seem drab. It's amazing ... there are beautiful buildings to look at but it seems too weird for there to be so few people looking at them on a weekday afternoon. But I am happy enough because I love the Christopher Isherwood novels that he set in in this city; thanks to him I can imagine that I am living in Berlin and it is the early thirties. I can be, in my imagination, headed for a cabaret.
Dusk arrives. I decide to head back to West Berlin. I have gotten a little lost. I wander in dark alley-like lanes that lead only to other dark places. There is a pitifully small amount of street-lighting. It begins to get eerie. I'm getting nowhere. Finally I can see the famous wall a few blocks to my right. I figure I can just walk along it, keeping just a block or two east of it -- aware that along parts of it there are probably land mines so I don't want to get too close. I keep meeting buildings and am forced to detour, until it seems like I'm coming upon one dead end after another. It is hopeless in a way that even Kafka doesn't apply.

Finally I see a few people across a way; they seem like factory workers out on a break. I can't make a single one of the five or six of them understand me, but one of them directs me to a soldier who has appeared nearby.

I'm afraid to ask where "Checkpoint Charlie" is -- the term the GIs used when I was stationed in Germany in the early sixties -- I'm afraid it might be considered disrespectful by an East Berliner. I ask in really clumsy slow German, "What is the street for the American to cross frontier to West Berlin?"

The soldier, his rifle strapped at his shoulder, doesn't quite get me. I ask again, slowly again. Finally he puts his hand on my shoulder and laughs and says, "Oh! Shakepoint Sharley!"

He kindly leads me through three blocks of construction area. I pass through Checkpoint Charlie carrying a manuscript book I'd bought as a souvenir. It's beautiful. The cover is made of inlaid bamboo reed. It is a Communist manuscript book; it was made in China.
*Photo top right of TV Tower courtesy Google Images.


  1. Great essay. Your remark about Isherwood made me realize how jumbled up my reading of his/Auden's and Spender's bios are in my head.
    And the unsmiling atmosphere reminded me of that movie: The Lives of Others set in East Berlin. Great movie, but uber creepy too with the Big Brother reality of those times.

  2. George, I remember that as the time we went to England,Ireland and Holland and you toured Europe after I left for Home. You also changed your travel plans after encountering gypsies in another country, am I right. G

  3. oh, a very beautiful piece. all those buzzed door-stop-barricades...