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My Brush with Political Change, 27 Years Ago as the Berlin Wall Fell and Hope Grew. What Will This November Bring?

I am socked down with a cold that is like a very unwelcome houseguest. It needs to go! When I am sick, I realize how mindful I can really be. Sad that I don’t do this more when I am feeling tip-top but, it makes sense that I am acutely aware of the goings on within my body as they are abnormal; breathing is different, labored and stuffy. My thinking is foggy, less efficient and I am losing my train of thought. It wavers more than a sleepy driver on a long stretch of highway.

So, I am loaded up with medications that help drain my sinuses yet, provide a plastic like feeling of awareness in my brain. It feels clearer but, fake. Yet, in these times I do find that my mind drifts to other times. My daydreaming comes back in waves. I get a mind hook on a thought and suddenly, I am plunged down into a wormhole of memories that I haven’t accessed in a while. I kinda like it at times as it brings up thoughts and memories I haven’t visited in a while.

This is where I have been this week, being ill and watching autumn in full splendor I am tripped back to my memories of living in the Netherlands in the late 80s and early 90s. In particular, the date of November 9th comes into focus.fullsizeoutput_828b The day the Berlin Wall fell. That fall of 1989, I was on an exchange program living in Northern Netherlands attending University of Groningen or more formally, Rijks Universiteit of Groningen.

I was a 20-year-old with a backpack and new awareness of what it meant to be studying  in a European college atmosphere. There are no campuses for 300 year old colleges. The academic building are spread throughout the ancient city. Our housing was too. Due to some concerns the study abroad advisor moved several of us international students to a former academic building that was ‘transformed’ into house. Transform is a loose definition of what was set up.

We had portable showers set up in closets and our bedrooms were the former offices of academics, cozy and of varying shapes. Our kitchen was made out of the former library supplied with two hot plates and two mini fridges and a host of boxes individually marked to store our groceries we bought at the market a couple of times a week.


Sporting my serious look in front of the Berlin Wall four days before it fell. 

I learned the skill of buying on the day of when you were cooking and that most things don’t need refrigeration (I still adhere to many of these lessons today although, our American culture doesn’t. That is a story for another time).

There were nearly 30 of us living in this building. We had doorbell and one phone that echoed in a large, looming portico that was empty but for the table on which the phone sat. We might receive messages from people who called but, mostly they would be surprise discoveries on scraps of paper, “Oh, my mom called on Thursday! I wonder what she had to say. Who’s writing is this?’ Looking back, I am sure my mom was taking her Valium every time during the stretches she didn’t hear from me. This was before email, smartphones and even, the internet. Phone calls, the occasional fax and old-fashioned pen to paper were the means of communication.

My ‘housemates’ came from Belgium, England, France, Serbia, Canada, Germany, Italy and America among other places. We would marvel in the evenings dinners being prepared an aromatic lesson on culinary differences. The Belgian boys would spend no less than 1-2 hours a night preparing their dinners of spiced mussels and broth or country stews that simmering invitingly.fullsizeoutput_8288 My North American friends and I did alright, making a stir fry or a variety of breakfast for dinner. I learned to love my coffee, several time a day. The absolutely civility of having a coffee break in the middle of class made me feel like a grown up as our lecturers would mingle with us next to the automat Koffie machines offering us a cigarette as we continued the talk of the lecture. This was not an American experience.

I remember that fall of learning about olie bollen (fried dough balls) from a street vendor and still warm and stroopwafels fresh from the press while we talked about Germany. Two American friends and I had gone to Berlin the weekend before. We marveled in this very cold, industrial, exciting city. We went through checkpoint Charlie to the East and found we didn’t have the right German Marks to buy food or cigarettes and wound up sitting on an empty street offering Western cigarettes for Eastern marks so we could buy dinner.

I spent one afternoon walking from Checkpoint Charlie to the Reichstag and in fascination of the existence of the Berlin Wall, I wrote down all the English quotes I found on the wall in my journal. I added my own. U2 lyrics from I Will Follow from the album Boy

I was on the inside
When they pulled the four walls down
I was looking through the window
I was lost – I am found

Walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away – I will follow
If you walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away – I will follow

We saw a demonstration of reportedly 500,000 people in West Berlin asking for better travel rights. The next day, travel rights granted, our train ride back to the Netherlands we were faced with the fact that every seat had been sold four times so, we sat in shifts. fullsizeoutput_828dPeople were not upset or phased by this. Instead, we talked with people who had never been in Western Germany and had their entire families packed in to go visit a long unseen aunt or other relative somewhere. I spoke with a young, idealist Eastern German man who told me he thought it was the age of Aquarius. As the train bustled along and we shared cigarettes I felt a jolt of excitement and hope surge through me.

Days later, in the Netherlands, we heard the news that the wall had fallen. “What?!?!” We bought all the newspapers we could find to read about the dramatic changes and trying to understand through our very poor Dutch, French and German what was happening. We gave money to our Canadian flatmate to go back the following weekend to take pictures and bring us a piece of the wall. Four days and a world changed. I was there in the margins. fullsizeoutput_829b

And then I am back from my daydream…to our current reality. I am aware of my phone buzzing with the latest evaluation of the most recent polls and political dissection of this election. Thinking if I refresh the screen I just might know a bit more information. I can google parts of Berlin, webcams showing realtime video. I can send a message to any number of people in various places around the earth in a minute or even a second. At times I yearn for the simpler, less complicated times. We were left with our own thoughts.

I am struggling with the political mood our country is currently in. I felt so much hope then and now, merely tension. So, I am enjoying the cold-influenced daydream to a time when we rooted for change and the rhetoric was more polite, if impassioned. When we believed things would get better. Here’s hoping this November we can take a page from history and root for peaceful political change.


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1 Comment

  • Reply
    November 6, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    I am enjoying your writing and looking forward to following along on this journey for you and the family!

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