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Scene in Berlin

Berliners have fond, if somewhat foggy memories of reunification

As Germany celebrates a very historic anniversary, lots of people are engaging in personal recollections - although, as is the case after all good parties, those memories can be a bit blurry.

Scene in Berlin

This weekend, Germany - that is to say, the politicians - is and are commemorating the 20th anniversary of reunification. But a lot of people in Berlin, and not just foreigners, have reason to look back. I should know. I'm one of them.

In late October 1989, a flatmate and I decided to briefly escape the doldrums of a southern German town where I was doing a year abroad and hitchhiked to West Berlin. We had arranged to stay with the cousin of the friend of somebody's acquaintance, and when we showed up at the address at 7:00 pm, the woman who opened the door obviously had no idea who we were and seemed to have just gotten out of bed. After five minutes of uncomfortable silence, she asked, "You guys drink beer, right?" - which was basically her way of saying it was all right to crash there.

Much of the ensuing 72 hours remains a blur of intoxicants, legal and otherwise. What I remember best is cruising around in our host's beat-up Citroen C2V through West Berlin, that absurd mix of funhouse and cage, with a two-song soundtrack of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" and "Passenger" playing in my head. She was the only person I've ever met who filled up her car with gas while smoking a cigarette.

Before my flatmate and I left, we made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Brandenburg Gate to look at the Wall and ask ourselves the obvious question: What do you think the border guards would do if we just climbed up on top of it? Little did we suspect that, in three weeks time, people would be doing exactly that.

Peace through alcohol

The following May, in 1990, the foreign students' office at my university organized a trip through what was still East Germany, including East Berlin. Owing to the scarcity of consumer goods, the only sensible way to spend the money you were forced to exchange upon entering the socialist state was to buy drinks for yourself and everyone near you, and that was, of course, an excellent way to meet people.

East Berliners get helping hands from West Berliners as they climb the Berlin Wall which has divided the city since the end of World War II, near the Brandenburg Gate, early morning, November 10, 1989

When people did climb up a few weeks later, the guards didn't do a thing

In East Berlin, we stayed at a former training academy for the secret police, which had been hastily converted into a motel. The only other guests were a pack of Russians and, using sign language, we decided that we should pool our beer with their vodka and get to work destroying our lodgings. Somewhere, in the midst of all this, I realized the Cold War was truly over. People who had shared the joy of trashing a motel were never going annihilate one another with nuclear weapons.

I left Berlin and returned to the US shortly thereafter, but Berlin - and the revolution I had however hazily witnessed - didn't leave me. So four years later, after finishing graduate school, I engineered a research grant in the city and came back.

I spent my first night as an official temporary Berlin resident dancing, drinking beer and talking until dawn in a burnt-out bus that had been rammed into the ground in the back yard of a squatted house. On the second night, I met the woman who has been my partner ever since. My fate was sealed.

A home for nonconformists

When people ask me why I choose to settle in Berlin, I often quote the title of a song by Waylon Jennings, "Too Dumb for New York City, Too Ugly for LA." Forty years of political division made Berlin into a place where the virtues (ambition, talent, responsibility) that other major cities require of their inhabitants are uniquely unimportant.

Other cities punish you for your character flaws. Berlin tolerates, encourages, even celebrates them.

The act of state on October 3, 1990 that erased that division of West and East Germany did little to alter Berlin's basic hedonistic slacker existentialism. In fact, it further opened the city to misfits with a lust for life, intoxicated passengers who never want the ride to stop.

I should know. I was one of them. And still proudly am to this day.

Author: Jefferson Chase

Editor: Kate Bowen

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