Once upon a time there was city in Germany called Berlin, and it had been divided into two sections, East Berlin and West Berlin, thanks to the Soviets not wanting the East Germans to escape into a free and prosperous Western society. A 12’ tall concrete wall had been erected around West Berlin, effectively closing it off to the world. However, a handful of entry/exit points along The Wall allowed people, including backpackers like me, to come and go from the city.
As a college kid studying in Switzerland and traveling around Europe for the summer, I had been using the economical and practical Eurrail Train Pass to traverse back and forth across the continent with my friends. We tried to spend one night a week sleeping on a train in order to save spending our precious dollars on youth hostel accommodations.
On one such warm summer night, our train left Copenhagen, Denmark and headed towards our destination: East Berlin, the “scary Communist” city that we had heard so much about. During the night, our train conductor drove the train into the belly of a ferry. Apparently this was how trains were normally transported across water. It sounded like the sky was falling in; the noise was terrifyingly loud. With all the screeching, scraping, clanking and banging, I was at a loss as to how I had slept through this process the previous week. This time I was fully awake and seeing other trains, buses and vehicles in the ship’s belly was surreal.
Somewhere along the journey we had heard that we were supposed to get off the train and get our Visas for East Berlin, but we had not done so. When a guard asked us for our passports and visas, we explained we did not have visas, and he issued them on the spot. We deciphered the German stamp and learned we had been issued a 12 hour visa. A whole twelve hours. With so much to do and see, what were we to do with permission to stay for only 12 hours?
Signs were not evident for entry into East Berlin, yet after asking other travelers we finally figured out how/where to enter. We passed through the famous Checkpoint Charlie, and immediately we felt deflated. None of the immigration officials smiled. Scowling, they had stamped our passports and brusquely waved us away. We were in. We had 11 hours and 45 minutes left.
We were required to exchange our currency into East Deutsche marks, which was the equivalent of about $10 US dollars. That didn’t seem too unreasonable, but the caveat was that if we didn’t spend all our East Deutsche marks during our 12 hour visit, we had to give – not exchange – them back, when we left East Germany. Surely, we thought, we could spend $10 during the day.
The local streets were mostly deserted. The few cars we saw were smaller older models, and they seemed to be made of thin metal, like that of a tin cup. People were dressed in dated clothes, and we deduced that all the ugly shoes that had not been sold in the United States must have ended up in East Germany, because their shoes were the clunkiest and ugliest we had ever seen. The East Germans stared at us; most did not smile. One young boy was friendly, and he spoke some English and German with my American friend Barbara, who had studied German for several years. He wanted her address so he could write her.
We wandered around and window shopped. It was a Sunday and most shops were closed, but we could see price tags and realize that anything we could have bought – T-shirts, shoes, purses, etc. – would have been inexpensive. The five of us finally came upon a restaurant that was open. Restaurant Moscow was the name, and we were treated to a chilly reception. The waiters were formally dressed in their jet black uniforms, complete with waist length jackets and long white aprons. We wore well-worn jeans and dirty white tennis shoes. We had not showered for a day or so, and I suspect they knew; the maître d escorted us to a table in the very back of the empty restaurant. We took our time over lunch, eating a whole chicken while trying to politely discard its oily and flavorless skin. The cola we drank was simply terrible and of course tasted nothing like Coke, the real thing. We tried our best to run up our bill, and were delighted that we had managed to spend nearly $8 each!
A vanilla ice cream that I later bought in a small bakery tasted like plastic, and cost about a dime. We wandered some more and finally found a museum that was open. The entrance fee was an affordable 25 cents, and its exhibits failed to capture my attention or give me any inkling of wonderment. (The museum at Checkpoint Charlie later turned out to be captivating.)
By this point we had only spent about 6 hours in East Berlin and we had seen enough. Perhaps our 12 hour visas had been a blessing! As we made our way back towards Checkpoint Charlie, we were very startled when three uniformed and armed border guards stopped us cold. Yelling at us in German, I gently offered up Barbara to be our translator. Later she told me her heart was pounding and she was really nervous answering their questions. Who wouldn’t be, surrounded by scary Communist uniformed men holding semi-automatic weapons?! It turned out we had jaywalked, and it was time to pay a fine or be arrested.
I had already decided that I would not return my few remaining East German marks upon exiting the country. I wanted a few coins as souvenirs, which I had carefully hidden, prohibited as that was. The guards took us to an office, wrote out our tickets and demanded another $10 from each of us. Well, I wasn’t going to stand for that (I was 20 years old and mostly fearless), so I started counting out my $10 in Swedish kroner, Swiss francs, French francs, British pounds and Danish kroner. The guards were none too pleased, and I made sure they got their $10 one way or another, but I was not about to give up any more US dollars. I won, and they let me leave. (That “ticket” they gave me is still secure in a 30 year old scrapbook.)
We boarded our train for the West, and I shortly found myself in trouble again. A heavyset grey-hair-pulled-back-in-a-too-tight-bun type of lady barked at me and slapped my camera when she saw me taking a photo out the window. Apparently we were still in the scary Communist side were photography of some buildings was verboten.
So while I was originally surprised and disappointed with a measly 12 hour visa, I ended up being thankful that we would not have been in East Berlin long enough to even spend the night. No doubt that suited our budget as well.