Beyond the World news headlines
Not many people, least of all Germans, will have shared my sentiment; but when the Berlin Wall fell and Checkpoint Charlie, that fortress of barriers, steel gates and watchtowers, was swept away with it, I felt almost as if I was losing old friends.
As a young Reuters correspondent based in East Berlin in the 1980s, I passed almost daily through that conduit between two mutually hostile worlds. Those green-uniformed guardians of world communism may have unnerved Western tourists with their stony mien and intrusive searches. Over three years, though, I got to know them with the superficial familiarity that develops almost inevitably between people whose lives brush so routinely against each other, however lightly. I even gave them secret names; those I liked and those I didn’t.
I remember the middle-aged, rather matronly woman I dubbed “Oma” (Gran), who would inquire with a friendly, indulgent smile after my girlfriend in West Berlin. I might tell her about my mother’s visit to the “DDR”. Did she have a nice time, Herr Boulton? Was the Baltic coast beautiful? When my girl friend’s visits became less frequent and then stopped altogether, she was gently solicitous. “Haven’t seen Fraeulein K here for a while, Herr Boulton. Doesn’t she like us any more?” Doesn’t she like you any more was of course the true question; and I answered it, of course. There was something about those 50 second confessionals.
Reading my stasi file a few years later, I saw my comments cooly committed to official paper. Well, I don’t hold it against her. It was all very charming; and anyway, I found they had had their own secret name for me. I was “Lupus”. As for my mysterious 72-year-old mother, she basked in the code name “Bluete” (“Blossom”).
It was the rituals that forged bonds. Driving through the slalom of concrete barriers, surrendering my border pass, waiting to get it back, I would chat with the guards about some football match, the weather, the loud screeching noise emanating from my car. They would raise the barrier, salute crisply and I would be swallowed up into the other world.
The Wall was of course a tragedy. It split families and destroyed lives. Over 130 people were shot dead trying to flee across the Berlin Wall. Would these, my occasional acquaintances, shoot if it came to that? It was a question I asked myself more than once and which I could never really answer. Nor, I suppose, did I want to.
There was the less sympathetic blond haired youth who never smiled, never showed a glimmer of human warmth. I named him, with unashamed malice, “Hitler-Youth”. I fancied he would draw his sidearm without hesitation, but maybe I misjudged him. My favourite, though, was always the dark-haired young woman with the comely gap between her front teeth and a flirtatious manner that must surely have violated some regulation or another.
“Gap-tooth” and I had a game. Leaving of an evening, I would slap my passport into her outheld hand and we might spend 10 seconds or so discussing where i was going; to the theatre, to a bar, to a restaurant in a half of the city she would never in her life see; or so we both believed. I might ask her if she wanted to come along, show her two tickets folded in my pass. She would smile and say she would love to but she had to work through the night. Maybe another time. I wonder sometimes what became of her. She presumably had a life beyond Charlie, though I could never imagine it.
What became of some of the others, I found out, to my surprise, a few years later.
I was flying into Berlin from Moscow, where I was working, and arrived at Schoenefeld Airport — once the main airport of Communist East Germany and now an entry point to the newly-united Germany.
The set-up there was much as I remembered it from the ‘Olden Days’. Passengers were channelled towards a narrow, brightly lit passageway where they stood before a cabin with a glass window; behind it a faceless uniformed official. I slipped my passport into the cabin through the gap and waited, looking straight ahead, for the guard to scan my face for a resemblance.
I sensed him look up at me, then back at the passport; then back to me and then to the passport. Why this hesitation? He coughed and leaned towards me.
As I looked, he tipped the peak of his cap up to reveal his face. I remember the words exactly.
“Herr Boulton, Ich glaube wir kennen uns schon…” I think we’ve met before.
Dressed now splendidly in the uniform of the West German Federal Border Guard, sat someone I had last seen in the green uniform and winter shapka fur hat of the East German border guard. I think my astonished reply must have been something like “what are you doing here?”
He smiled mysteriously and signalled me to pass on into the baggage hall. As I waited for my bags, he emerged with two other familiar faces; both, like him, alumni of Charlie, both wearing the uniform of what had not so long ago been the enemy.
It was a brief encounter and one of the strangest of my life. The circumstances in which we had known each other were so peculiar and those of our reunion so utterly unexpected. We shook hands warmly, laughing at the absurdity of it all. Like old frontline soldiers in a phoney war, we had discovered we were old friends