Wall Fragments

While we celebrate the events leading up the dismantling of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, let us not forget the many other smaller stories.

The only way to write about a momentous event is to look back to the personal; to circumnavigate the unmentionable by describing the very small. At the end of 1989, only weeks after the wall came down, I travelled to Berlin. Echoing through Tiergarten was a sound that I could not identify; upon approaching I realised that it was the plings, scrapes and scratches of hundreds of people lining the graffitied concrete, dislodging ‘wall fragments' with pocket knives, hammers and chisels. Over this choir of percussive sounds I heard wisps and remnants of Bach, for didn't Rostropovich sit outside on a borrowed chair to play the Cello Suites that day?

The days and years that followed this were indeed an adventure in sound and proportion. My first trips from Hamburg to Berlin were with the Mitfahrzentrale -- by phone you arranged to meet somewhere central then during the trip you discussed a drop off spot in the destination city, chipping in with Spritgeld (petrol money). The conversation was always good, and these schemes were the forerunners to what the internet now handles so beautifully -- getting people in touch with one another without the middle-person and always assuming a degree of trust. The cars were a draughty VW Golf II or Opel Astra in metallic green or storm grey, and one of them had a broken compass on the dashboard. She explained:

The car belonged to my father. He was a Marxist and left my mother for another man, and I got the car. Ever since it points permanently eastward.

Later more impulsive trips departed from Horner Kreisel and involved better cars but longer waits with alternating thumbs also pointing eastward.

May I put my trombone in the boot?
Sure. Be careful of the yoghurt.

It turns out he’s never met an Australian or a musician before. I ask politely why he is bringing two slabs of flavoured yoghurt home to Berlin.

Well, we still don’t have a great selection of many products in the East.

Some years later playing Die Zauberflöte on tour, I became good friends with a violinist who grew up in the former east. She explained that her upbringing was a little unusual in that her father was the Ethiopian Ambassador in East Berlin.

Is it fair to say then that you had a privileged upbringing?

Yes, it is. It was privileged because we did not have telephones at home. If I wanted to visit one of my friends and they were out, I left a message with the pencil and notepad on a hook and string by the door of the apartment. Or I waited for her in the park and read.

These two cities so close to me also became closer to one another over the following decade. The bumpy and dark roads were gradually upgraded. The early jobs by car took over 4 hours, though I was always reluctant to come home too quickly because I didn’t want to pass that spot where the BBC World Service on FM radio cutout and I had to revert to Kurzwelle. This was still the early 1990s.

I wonder too how the towns along the Baltic in the former east have fared now that their dust has been swept away by progress. I have never had a more beautiful beach holiday than visiting the string of places from Wismar all the way up to Sassnitz on the island of Rügen. Faded and forgotten Weimar Republic guest houses included spacious wooden dining areas behind handmade glass panes. I forgave the lack of vegetarian menu options while being glad not to have to swallow the overpriced and over-chilled white wine of Sylt and Timmendorfer Strand. The greyness and failure of the DDR was counterbalanced by a people who felt somewhere that there was a core of intent to look after them; while being deprived the luxuries of the West there was nonetheless employment and a well staffed and extensive crèche, kindergarten and school system. The people I met were unselfconscious and their stories flowed with ease as they admitted to being embarrassed that last weekend’s acquisition of a VCR hadn’t actually changed things that much.

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I’ve just now listened again to a radio interview from 2001 with author W. G. Sebald. He’s talking to Michael Silverblatt about the release of his book Austerlitz:

I've always felt it was necessary above all to write about the history of persecution, of vilification of minorities. The attempt, well nigh achieved, to eradicate a whole people [...] This is why the main scenes of horror are never directly addressed [...] The only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by direct confrontation.

We are living again in awful times with Australia treating asylum seekers deplorably in the name of security and border protection. This is a country that has also turned its back on the scientific community by practicing climate change denialism in a way that will have far reaching consequences for future generations. To cap that off, the same leaders pledge drastic cuts to education, social services, health and the arts.

I would like to think that we have learnt from the horrific consequences of division and segregation. While we celebrate the events leading up the dismantling of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, let us not forget the many other smaller stories. The mawkish remembrances and medal ceremonies must never mask the significance and reverberations of the fragments of real life that help us to navigate uncertainties in the face of selfishness.

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