January 1990. I drove the red Sierra 2.0GL back to the Maidenhead office for the last time. After I had spent six months of coaxing ICI France to equip their sales force with our software; many nights of my translating and compiling proposals in French, we won the business. None of the sales team could do this, including my boss. It was also the only sale they made in 1989, the company results were not looking good, in spite of ICI. This was less than the parent company were hoping for. My disagreeable boss unfortunately suffered from type I diabetes, he often took breaks to inject himself. We just did not get on, this was made worse by his eccentric hypoglycaemic mood swings. I was out of a job – with a generous payoff to see me into the new year.
The evening news showed images of ecstatic young Germans straddling the concrete wall dividing the city. The Berlin wall was down.
Still in January 1990. I packed my little Harley 883 and fitted it with a screen to block the cold wind. Fuelled the bike and took the ferry to Holland, destination Berlin.
Memories of the journey? Leisurely, unhurried. Getting to the West German border, the motorway to West Berlin, lined with barbed wire, taking approximately 90 miles to get across, no service stations and my petrol tank barely had enough capacity. Tiny Trabant cars line abandoned on the side of the motorway, broken down, heading west… seeing this made me all the more determined to get there. I anxiously look down at the odometer, counting the kilometres.
Arrived. I wander round the dense buildings in West Berlin. The hostel I stayed in still having the old-style lift with bronze folding gates. The silent tidy streets are filled with expensive cars.
The following day I make my way to Checkpoint Charlie – the East Berlin portal was still in operation back then. On the East Berlin side, the GDR soldiers wearily ask me if I have any goods to declare and I am asked to open my wallet and declare the cash I had, it was noted down. I was asked to change a small amount into east German marks as I was not officially allowed to spend any Western money on the East side. Money seemed to be the last consideration in spite of the fact of the downfall of the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
Alexanderplatz: continually money exchangers offering East German marks for dollars. I shrug my shoulders, sadly, not many things were worth buying. One E. German mark about 5p for a coffee. The flower stall, a bucket of daffodils. The greengrocer with a mountain of enormous potatoes with a can of Coca Cola on top… the tractors with huge trailer to substitute for lorries… the family day out, sharing one hot dog… the rows of identical brass alarm clocks with brown labels after being repaired… the department store with painted hens’ eggs, no chocolate… the baby chicken shop with the cheerful woman in her nylon overalls.
Outside Checkpoint Charlie, in an abandoned piece of wasteland, Polish families on the muddy ground selling their children’s toys. 7- series BMWs and Mercedes swoop in and out to pick up the remaining scant bargains from this refugee street market.
Last year I returned to the gentrified unified Berlin, no bullet holes in the buildings or sandy no-man’s land with watch towers. It’s all slick and brisk and efficient, scars less visible now, perhaps only a few with memories of the past still able to recall their lives.
I am about to return to participate again in Transmediale 2019. The format has changed, and I look forward to bringing back some impressions of my forthcoming trip, 29 years to the day of my first visit.