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It wasn’t all bad

A glimpse of the better side of life on the other side of the Wall, 50 years on.

I wasn’t ever going to work as a welder but in 1986 my future East German mother-in-law secured me a one year residence permit by filling in forms at EAW Treptow, a local factory, and then taking them to the police for authorisation. I guess I had become the only British resident of East Berlin working as a freelance English teacher-trainer, in the guise of a welder.

This week sees the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Wall that divided Germany in general, and Berlin in particular, for 28 years. But life went on behind it in much the same way as it does anywhere in the world.  Die Mauer was something that was there in the background, most people never saw it on a daily basis, nobody liked it but it wasn’t going to stop people enjoying their lives, spending time with loved ones, celebrating family occasions and going on holiday. I was lucky enough to have been there and shared some of those experiences.

At the time my aforementioned future mother-in-law, Ute, ran a building company, a private one, and she was doing all she could to prolong my stay in the country with her daughter, who worked as a cabinet maker.  Ute’s company wasn’t the only private business in our neighbourhood in Prenzlauer Berg; Konnopke, an Imbiss near where we lived was where the legendary Currywurst was born, for better or Wurst!

Currywurst has survived, but other traditions, and delicacies, are less widespread. Sanddornsaft (sea buckthorn juice) was a popular East Berlin drink.  I used to pick the berries on Hiddensee on the Baltic coast, a magical little island. It was rich in vitamin C and was usually available in the local supermarket. Every week I took back the empties to the supermarket counter next to the all-important coffee grinder, for grinding one’s freshly purchased coffee beans was another very East Berlin habit.

Saturday mornings were sauna time, there was a modern sauna nearby, mixed, naked and well-frequented.  In summer Müggelsee lake was a popular place for other FKK activities (Free Body Culture). I know of no other people on earth who were more comfortable with public nudity than East Berliners.

Maintaining relationships and making time for each other was always a priority back then. Hardly anyone had a private phone in 1986 and my friends had a pencil and notebook attached to their front doors in case somebody came round to leave a message if they happened not to be in.

And not everyone was spying on everyone else and reporting them to the police, as some accounts have suggested since. If anyone was concerned about why I never took up that job as a welder in Treptow, I never got to hear of it…

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