Greetings from the Berlin Wall. The “Fascists Protection Barrier” (as the German Democratic Republic auspiciously called it) has been torn down. It will be 20 years ago this November when the Cold War got a tad warmer. When East and West Germany were finally united after more than a quarter of a century, divided by one of the most politically charged symbols of the 20th Century—the Wall. When this section of Berlin, surrounded by the Iron Curtain, was amalgamated once more with its fellow Berliners to become one of the most artistic, thriving cities in Europe. When people broke through the Wall, pecking at it, pushing it down by force of will, they flooded into the streets in a mass celebration to end all celebrations.
Now Lance Armstrong puts in this kind of mileage before breakfast. But for me, who has never come to terms with the idea of tight cycling shorts, 160K seems rather a long way. And as I found out, it is.
With my command of German language being what it isn’t, asking for directions, should I get lost, would prove to be a hopeless task. That, and my second-hand, rather classic bicycle with its flat tires is almost a California cruiser if not for the fenders and utilitarian basket on the back for groceries. For most Berliners bicycling is not a sport. It is a way to get to the grocery store, the brothel, the club, the doctor’s office. That said, my good ride is best suited for short rides through the maze of Berlin’s excellent bike paths and failing that, public transportation network of subways and trains, not some long-ass tour through the city, through the vast hinterlands of Berlin—a city as flat and spread out as Los Angeles.
Beginning at the Brandenburg Gate, where scene after scene of throngs climbing over the wall or enthusiastically tearing it apart by the same tool (hammer) of communism happened, seemed like the proper place to start. Joined by my 71-year-old German mother-in-law, who has lived all those years in Berlin, we headed through the middle of the city, guided by bricks laid in the street where the Wall once stood.
After Unification, the city took rapid steps to put its past behind it. The city is, of course, well-practiced in this. The former “Death Strip” with its barbed wire, double walls, guard towers and shoot-to-kill orders for anyone trying to escape to the West, suddenly became appealing land for developers. Soon enough we rode into the midst of Potsdamer Platz, with high-rise buildings, shopping centers and posh apartments built atop Hitler’s bunker—exactly the kind of thing the communists had always warned their people about.
Then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used to describe Berlin as “the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze Berlin.”
Even though it’s been only 20 years, it’s hard to imagine a wall, much less a fence, dividing Berlin. It all seems the figment of someone’s absurd imagination. The once austere Eastern sections of the city are now more desirable and vibrant places to live than the former West. Artists were the first to take advantage of the cheap (or non-existent) rents and, predictably, they gentrified it.
By the time we reach the Eastside Gallery, the longest section of the Wall still standing, I’ve dubbed my cycling companion, Mauer (wall) Mama. Part of this comes from her ability to navigate the complicated streets. The other part is she was a judge who presided over many court cases to decide who owned the land, homes or buildings after the Wall fell.
This section of the Wall is a mile-long art gallery. On the other side, next to the river, are a beach, reggae and techno music spilling out of beer gardens atop the former no man’s land. Unthinkable paradise back then, but Mauer Mama tells me nobody in Berlin thought it possible a wall could ever be put up. How could anyone divide a city of four million with its complicated infrastructure trains, roads, streets?
Yet that is exactly what happened on “Barbed Wire Sunday,” Aug. 13, 1961. While Berlin slept, the Wall went up nearly overnight. Suddenly people were cut off from work, school, their family. Stories abound of lovers, one living in the East, the other in the West, not seeing each other again for 30 years.
The next day I set off alone, riding 60 kilometers along the Wall’s former path through farmlands, nature preserves, and finally ending up in an industrial section far to the north of the city. Only about 12 feet of the Wall is left along this section and aside from the wide “death strip” slowly being overtaken by trees and brush, it’s difficult to decipher the historical border. Called the Mauerweg (Wall Way), the trail mostly follows the old patrol roads. When the imagination works overtime against the monotony of pedaling through this overgrown history, I often think I hear the bark of guard dogs, the sound of tanks, or, arriving at a lone guard tower swallowed by trees, the command to halt.
But it is only the song of birds now, the rustling of grass, the hum of tires, the clank of a loose fender. This is simple clean recreation with nary a threat of being mowed down by machine guns, though that would make for a slightly improved form of extreme cycling. Instead, I have been allowed plenty of time to dangerously ruminate on borders, fences and the like, whether they keep us in or keep us out or whether they establish limitations or dictate the paths we take.
On this tour of the Wall I can’t help but be grateful I can freely go in all the directions this ratty bicycle can take me, coupled with the hope that other dividing walls—Palestine and Israel, North and South Korea for example—will one day be mere bicycle paths. Berliners, both former Easterners and Westerners I’ve managed to talk to along the way, say they thought the Wall would never come down. Now they have a hard time remembering where it was.
So tomorrow, I’ll head out with Mauer Mama for the final leg. From the map it looks like more farmland on the left, suburbs on the right. Some things never change.
photos by bruce willey