Originally published on the College Voice‘s Abroad Blog, Fall 2009.
Last weekend marked the twenty-year anniversary of the Mauerfall in Berlin, which on November 9th, 1989 allowed for free passage between East and West Berlin—that is, out of the former and into the latter.
In September, I bought a bicycle from a woman who grew up in East Germany. “This was my bike when I was a child,” she said. “It’s one of the few models from the former DDR.” I nodded, and bent at the waist to take a look at the tires. People seem to do this when considering buying any sort of vehicle; in this case it seemed especially important. The rear tire was the flattest I’d ever squeezed, but my perception of East Germany kept my surprise to a minimum. At the same time, I kept picturing a miniature version of this woman, pedaling this bike in circles around gray cement buildings topped with coils of barbed wire. Never mind that East Germany comprised the entire Northeast quadrant of the country, and not just that one view of East Berlin from over the Wall, but I’m no historian.
But even this knowledge is strange, in a different way. It’s hard to imagine thousands of people finding themselves on one side of a line that never existed before, and yet serves to divide two ways of life. The line that separated East and West Germany, as well as the wall that separated East and West Berlin, is an enormous piece of German history, and any German older than I am has lived with it in some way. Children grew up as either East German or West German, singing the anthem of one fraction or the other.
I’m twenty years old this year, a child of Gen-Y America born to New England yuppies. I’ve grown up in a world in which Germany exists independently and unquestionably within the realm of The West (you know, us and the European countries we can spell). For my generation, “East Germany” is like “black-and-white television”—a distinction of another era.
I half-wheeled, half-pushed my new old bike about a mile across town to my building, and leaned it against a planter in the courtyard. I was showing it off when a German friend of mine asked, “If this bike is from the DDR, doesn’t that make it everyone’s bike?”
Well, not quite.
Happy birthday, Deutschland.