The Berlin Wall

Photo copyright Madsen

In Berlin, Eager to Knock Down More Walls

Bananas, the tropical fruit in such huge demand by Ossis or East Germans those first few weeks of undivided Germany in November 1989 are now the subject of dozens of East-West jokes. ("How can you use a banana as a compass? Place a banana on the Berlin Wall. East is where a bite has been taken out of it.") Some even credit the fruit for bringing the Wall down.

But after nearly four years living in Berlin, my favorite Wall antidote is about pineapples: Yes, the ananas comosus, native to the southern part of Brazil, and Paraguay and unavailable in fresh form in the DDR due to trade restrictions.

As the story goes (told with dry humor by my British friend Wyndham Wallace), a newly liberated Ossi rushes to the supermarket to purchase a fresh pineapple. The man was passionate for pineapple--but previously had only seen it in cans, each holding perfectly symmetrical rings of the sticky-sweet ambrosia fruit.

In other words, to an East German unfamiliar with the inedible, starchy core: Clearly, the Westerners had kept the best part for themselves...just imagine what the center would taste like.

Knocking Down the Old Wall to Build Anew

On November 9, 2009, 20 years after the boarder mix-up that changed history, I was standing near the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining stretch of the Wall with the rain pouring down on my head (every so often Berlin reminds you why its name means "Swamp").

In a horrifically misguided example of "conservation," this segment was recently "renovated," something I observed with more than a little shock while pedaling by a few months ago. One of the most globally prominent images, Brotherhood Kiss--the passionate lip-locking depiction of Communist leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker--was simply jack-hammered away without a word. The artist himself didn't hear the news until a check and an invitation to paint a new one came in the mail.

In this spot of the former Wall, at the corner of Stralauer Allee and Waschauer Strasse, in front Universal Music's German headquarters, I would participate in the city-wide commemoration event Mauer Mob, organized by British performance artist and curator Martin Butler. I reserved a location online, and at exactly 8:15pm, we were to link hands across the city and recreate the Wall--letting go at the precise moment it came down in 1989.

Mauer Mob was one of many commemorative activities occurring that night--the largest at Brandenburg Gate consisted of speeches, an open air concert, exhibits, fireworks, life-sized dominoes, and, ironically, unrest. According to The Christian Science Monitor, revelers tried to break through police barricades, and several were tumbled into police cars and carted away.

At 8:05pm, our Wall, while exuberant, was more than a little shabby as far as the eye could see. About 30 people clustered on the corner. Smaller groups of five or 10 loitered every few feet. It didn't seem like we would have enough people. At 8:10pm, more friends arrived: An eclectic mix of expatriates representing America, Australia, Sweden, the U.K., with about half of us German, three formerly from the East. Next to us, a young group of Japanese happily snapped pictures. One girl set up a video camera, shooting several people with headlamps strapped to their foreheads.

We felt like were part of history, but there was also an underlining uncertainty in terms of how to behave. There were, after all, 239 recorded Wall-related deaths. But then again, it was 20 years later. Should we be happy, sad, start orating sobering speeches? At 8:15pm, there was no hand-holding and we were still waiting for direction. At around 8:20pm, people started doing the wave. We did this about five times--and dispersed.

The night would have ended like that--a little disappointing, a little anticlimactic--if we hadn't stumbled into a small bar in the West called Sophia after Italian actress Sophia Loren. There, staff had erected a three-foot-long Styrofoam version of the Wall. With the introduction to a crème de menthe-like East German liquor, Pfeffi, and a few magic markers, this 'Wall' was soon just as graffiti-scarred as the original, with a series of one-liners. (My favorite: "Make Love Not Wall.")

At approximately 12am, a boisterous drinker ran through our new 'Wall.' No one could say for sure if it was planned, but shortly after, the Styrofoam flew through the air and the "Wall" came down for the second time that night--with aplomb much more worthy of that day in 1989.

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