Back in the GDR

6272From a small kitchen off the lobby, Christopher emerged carrying a glass of white wine for Donna and a very large bottle of beer for me. I’d heard all those horrible stories about the “iron curtain” all my life and pictured people getting shot as they tried to scramble over the wall. Now they served up happy hour. As we sipped, our host enlightened us about the Pankow District in which the hotel was located. It was a working class neighborhood during GDR years that was now an evolving artistic center. Christopher explained that since the district was spared from bombing, its pre-Soviet history was preserved.

I thought it was cool to be staying in the east, yet I was nervous at the same time. Several years had passed since the wall came down, but I’d heard the East German people were struggling financially and not happy with the free market system. Crime was becoming a problem. “It used to be quite a wealthy area.” Christopher said. I moved my beer to the side and he spread a map across our table and pointed to a horseshoe-shaped street located a few blocks away. “Walk over there and take a look – you’ll find the nicest little mansions you’ve ever seen.”


“They are vacant now, but for several years, party leaders stayed in them when visiting East Berlin.”

I simply had to see this. Donna suggested we walk over there after dinner.

With map in hand, we carefully followed our instructions to a restaurant which Christopher insisted was the best local food around. We found ourselves off the main road and walking through a residential area. I was certain we’d gotten lost. Chris piped up: “What was the name of this place?”

“Under bin Linden . . or something like that” was my reply. “Did we pass it?”

He pointed to a brick building that looked like a hospital. In the courtyard he’d spotted a sign.


For some reason I’d pictured a small café with counter service and a handful of tables. We opened the wood-paned door and found tidy curtains, crown molding, and linen tablecloths. The place had the atmosphere of a rest home dining hall. It was deserted except for a young couple watching soccer on a TV hanging behind a small bar. One of them looked up as we walked in – a pretty girl who was dressed like Leisel Von Trapp. She got up and approached us.

“Hello.” I offered. “I only speak English.”

She pivoted on her heels and called to the young man at the bar. He knew a few words of English and helped her seat us.

Moments later, the girl returned with our menus. I looked at her and made a motion like I was drinking a glass. She burst into laughter. I waited for her to calm down, but she was laughing really hard. Her friend returned.

“Beer?” I asked. He smiled and nodded his head.

The girl returned with Donna’s wine and sodas for the kids. She placed my pilsner glass in front of me then burst into laughter again. Now it was weird and I looked around the room for Alan Funt, certain I was on German Candid Camera. She wiped the tears from her eyes and pulled out a small notepad. We pointed to the menu items we’d manage to translate. She managed to take our order, all the while fighting laughter.

With the help of her friend, our young waitress managed to get our order right – indeed it was excellent food – schnitzel, spaetzel, and bratwurst. It might have been the best German food I’d ever eaten. In spite of this, we didn’t order dessert for fear our waitress might suffer a nervous breakdown. Instead we walked over to see the mansions.

It was indeed a weird site – it could have been any old-money neighborhood back home. These stately homes had been sadly neglected. I’d never seen anything like it. The front yards had no lawns and looked as though nothing had been planted for years. A couple of houses had banners draped across the upper levels and I immediately thought of a college fraternity street, but instead of promoting keggers, these looked like advertisements from construction companies. It was nice to know some sort of remodeling was going on.

* * *

After dinner had settled, Jill and I went searching for a soccer field. A few block from our hotel we found a series of square apartment buildings that looked to be made of solid concrete. Each featured a small park with freshly mowed lawns and neatly appointed shrubbery. Unlike the pleasing brick and crafted finish work of surrounding buildings, these had the charm of a tilt-up warehouse and were clearly the design of the Soviet era. Oddly, we saw no people outside enjoying the beautiful summer evening – the benches and playgrounds were empty. We picked a building and Jill dribbled her ball to the middle of the lawn. The gentle popping of the ball against her foot was practically the only sound. Somebody quietly passed on the sidewalk behind my bench and actually startled me. Where was everybody? On the corner, an abandoned building got my attention. I assumed it was the post office then realized it was probably the food distribution center Christopher told us about, where people stood in line upon getting word that something special was available. There was no parking lot, just a worn out sidewalk out front. A loading dock out back was covered in overgrown brush.

The sun finally set and dusk started turning into darkness. Golden light tried to escape past the window shades. The building reminded me of a college dorm – but without students, laughter, or music. Jill’s ball propelled toward the building, almost hitting a window. “Ooops!” she yelled then raced over to retrieve it. A window slammed shut.

NEXT: Berlin Beach Party


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