The Berlin Bargain
Kevin H. Posey
An Englishman, a Dane, and an American walk into a bar in Berlin. Sounds like the start to a joke with dark undertones, doesn’t it? But it was actually a night train to Berlin from the Netherlands and an open-air flea market next to the Brandenburg Gate that we walked into.
First, there’s the night train to Berlin. I nearly entitled this story thusly, but then you’d be disappointed at the end when I didn’t tangle with any spies—at least, that I know about. This was November of 1991; the Soviet Union had collapsed a just a few months earlier. Berlin, though unified along with Germany, still bore the scars of its split. As a child of the Cold War, I had to see it before redevelopment sanitized all traces of the Berlin I’d read about.
In late 1991, I was doing political science research (pub-crawling) in Groningen, the northernmost city in the Netherlands. Er gaat niets boven Groningen (there’s nothing above Groningen) is both a local brag and a literal statement of truth, unless you fancy a dip in the frigid North Sea. This meant that I was not all that far from Berlin—at least in terms of miles, if not time.
On this trip I didn’t anticipate any snipers or airstrikes in my vicinity—see my previous story, How to Travel in the Event of a Civil War. That meant that two of my friends—the aforementioned Englishman and Dane—were along for the ride. The Englishman, Steve (not his real name) was roughly six feet in height with curly red hair and a perfect sense of comedic timing that was like candy to Dutch women. This effect was much to his bafflement and everybody else’s bemusement.
The Dane, Henry (see obligatory name disclosure above), was about the same height with blond hair and a friendly temperament. That is, unless he had his hammer, had been drinking tequila, and you happened to be a bike whose lock appeared flimsy. That incident was my fault; I introduced him to the tequila.
Henry had planned to go with me when I went to Croatia, as recounted in my previous story. If you’ve read it, try to imagine how it would’ve gone with the hammer-wielding Henry in tow. Instead, he went to Paris, where the local police stopped and questioned him. I’m not sure why—unsolved hammering incidents? But I suggested to Henry that it may have been due to French recollections as to what happened on previous Danish incursions (see Vikings for more info).
The combined cubic displacement of three six-foot-tall males meant the overnight train ride was exceptionally uncomfortable. Our six-person compartment, along with the entire train, was fully occupied. Despite it being November, the compartment was hot. Really, really hot. Three big guys plus another three big strangers in a French fry warmer trying to sleep on a slow, rocking, night train. Yep, that’s my version of hell. Steve and Henry’s, too, as they told me at length for the rest of the trip.
This was long before high-speed rail links were built from West Germany into the former East Germany. The tracks were whatever had been cobbled together immediately after World War 2. Whenever we reached a bridge over a river, the train would slow to a crawl as it crossed a temporary bridge that was probably a half-century old. The old, proper bridge was usually forming a “V”, with the center section now submerged thanks to either an exceptional hit by an allied pilot or sabotage by retreating Nazis. The Russians hadn’t bothered to fix things up much. After all, this was the way to the West.
If you know your history, you know that the Russians, who ran things in the old Soviet Union’s empire, weren’t keen on their subjects traveling. That was because they seldom planned to make roundtrip journeys. Job opportunities, food, and TV game shows were all better in the West, so migrants flooded into West Germany from East Germany and other parts of the Russian-dominated Soviet empire.
To stem this flood, a wall was built along the entire length of the border, as well as around West Berlin. This latter section would become known as the Berlin Wall. It eventually featured solid concrete and steel construction, guard towers manned by gun-toting thugs, and landmines. However, unlike the proposed barrier on the US-Mexico border, this wall wasn’t built by West Germany to keep people out. It was built by the Russians and the East German government to keep people in.
The former border between the two Germanys wasn’t visible in the darkness of our night crossing. The train just slowed to a crawl. I wouldn’t see this border in the daylight until the trip out. I felt a weird sense of dread. Perhaps it was because I knew that I was getting closer to the heart of where evil was once at its strongest.
For you kids, it was like getting close to Mount Doom. Orcs, Hobbits, Wizards, Sauron, etc. You with me now?
We arrived in the early morning at Zoo Station. This was about when the U2 song, Zoo Station, came out. I’m a big U2 fan, so I thought it was cool, even if nobody else cared.
Henry- “Ja, I like U2, too!”
Okay, so Henry thought it was cool, too. Steve thought we were both idiots. He was into jazz. And yet he was still pursued by blonde Dutch women. I still don’t understand it.
Arriving at Zoo Station was like disembarking into a hurricane of people and traffic. That’s probably because:
- It was originally a suburban station. The central one, Lehrter Stadtbahnhof, was out of service due to someone building a big wall right by it. So, it wasn’t really set up to be the main arrival point.
- We were train-lagged. To the point of being Walking Dead characters.
- We didn’t have Google Maps. We had a folding paper map. Ask your parents what those were like. It doesn’t automatically orient you and tell you in a chipper voice, “Proceed straight ahead.” You have to use your brain, and we didn’t have one between us.
I could give you an exhaustive account of our entire itinerary, but do you care that the best food in Berlin is Chinese? Let’s get straight to the Brandenburg Gate and its adjacent flea market.
The Brandenburg Gate was a monumental arch to Germany’s military accomplishments in the 18th century. During the Russian occupation of East Germany, the Berlin Wall that encircled the NATO-protected enclave of West Berlin ran right in front of the gate. This wall had no opening at this spot, but it provided a great backdrop for speeches by US Presidents, most memorably:
- JFK’s declaration that he was a type of local pastry in 1963.
- Reagan’s demand for an open floorplan in 1987.
The wall was mostly gone from around the gate by the time I got there, but heavy equipment was busily demolishing sections nearby. Where it once had stood were now just the ghostly outlines of streets. The buildings along these streets were demolished to create the Death Strip in front of the Wall. If you were trying to escape Russian-occupied territory, you had to get across this strip. Your odds weren’t good.
On the Pariser Platz behind the gate was an open-air market run mostly by ethnic Turks. Germany allowed a great many Turks to settle there to ameliorate a labor shortage that existed before the Wall fell. Soviet troops were also in the city, but they were confined to their barracks. They couldn’t return home, as their country no longer existed and nobody was coughing up the cash to bring them home. So, they were selling everything they had. The Turks in the market acted as their middlemen.
I was confronted by an astonishing array of Soviet Army paraphernalia displayed on these tables: hats, helmets, a complete colonel’s uniform. The latter was tempting, but Russians were apparently rather tiny then. Nutrition in the Soviet Union wasn’t particularly good, if the frequent bread lines were any indicator. If I had asked the right questions, I might’ve come home with my own tank. I’ve thought about that in every rush hour jam since then.
What ultimately caught my eye was a pocket watch. Upon examination, I realized it was a Soviet Army pocket watch presented as a service honor. It commemorated the army’s actions in the Great Patriotic War, which is how World War 2 was referred to by Russian officials.
Here’s where it gets complicated. I don’t speak either German or Turkic. Steve was similarly hapless. The Turkish merchant, who sensed a fish on the hook, spoke no English but was fluent in German. Luckily, Henry was fluent in both German and English, plus Dutch, French, Swedish, Norwegian, and (obviously) Danish. I think all Danes must know 20 languages, mainly to make the rest of us look stupid.
So, we have an American bargaining with a Turk via a Dane speaking in German while an Englishmen stands by, trying not to laugh. My Let’s Go: Europe guide claimed that Turkish merchants like to haggle and respect those who can do it, so I gave my best shot. With all the translations though, the back-and-forth lasted longer than the Ottoman Empire. The Englishman got bored, the Dane confused (“Wait, what price did you want? Deutsche Marks or dollars?”), and the Turk vendor annoyed. Finally, the vendor threw up his hands and agreed to a counter-counter-counter-counteroffer. I don’t remember what the price was, but I think it was less than $40. That was probably still too much, but it’s not like I could run out to Wal-Mart and find a Soviet Army Pocket Watch that still worked.
For some time after that, I tried to come up with excuses to wear it. But as my wardrobe didn’t date to the early 20th century, those opportunities were rather fleeting. And so today, it sits in a glass display on a shelf in my office.
As I look at it, I think back to the train trip back out of Berlin (daylight, this time…per demands from Steve and Henry). I remember looking out the window as we re-crossed the border between East and West Germany. In a distant meadow, a bulldozer with a jackhammer attachment was busily at work. It was demolishing a stretch of the wall. As I clutched my pocketwatch, a relic of collapsed Russian imperial might, I thought about how potent a threat Russia had been when I was growing up. Now that threat was in tatters, never to return.
Obviously, I was wrong about that.