My own little #Mauerfall30 story

In October 1989 I lost my heart to an East German music journalist who told me Bryan Adams had predicted the fall of Communism. There’d been ripples of protests in the East bloc countries around us, but they hadn’t really reached us in Bucharest at the time. We were in the firm grip of Communist mania and the cult of one single reigning couple. Radio Free Europe had appalling reception in Bucharest and the walls in our block of flats were thin. No one knew which neighbours might be likely to report on you.

9th October, 1989 in Berlin. Credit: picture alliance/akg-images.

Yet on a magical night in late October, Thomas and I chatted freely until four in the morning, having been careful to turn the radio onto white noise to cover any subversive comments. He told me: ‘All you need is more choice.’ Bryan Adams had said that to him just six weeks before the demonstrations started in East Germany, the borders began leaking via Hungary and Erich Honecker resigned. Six weeks after he quoted Bryan Adams to me, the regime in my country, which had seemed so absurdly invincible, began to crumble too.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was very strange timing to be hosting a foreign journalist in Romania, even one from a ‘friendly’ country such as East Germany. The situation in his own country was highly volatile, was Romania not afraid of becoming contaminated by the spirit of unrest? Did Ceausescu feel so secure on his throne surrounded by bodyguards and sycophants, that he believed no one would want to topple him?

Odd though it was, there I was, acting as the interpreter for Thomas on his exchange trip to Romania. His actual host, who spoke no foreign languages at all (or so he claimed) was Chris of the Youth Spark newspaper of the Young Communists. Chris was the typical party faithful, an automaton who spouted all the nonsensical party lines without blinking. I was embarrassed to be translating that, and I caught Thomas rolling his eyes. Used though he was to these clichés from his own society, Romania in the late 1980s had taken these verbal acrobatics to unparalleled heights.

We took the train to Iasi. Moldova in autumn is a symphony of colour, mellow sunshine and honeyed wine. We visited factories and party headquarters, enthnographic museums and vineyards. We were bombarded with puff pieces about the soaring Romanian economy, when all he was interested in was talking to real people. But we also sneaked out of the hotel in the evening after we had got Chris drunk to visit the beautiful Trei Ierarhi Monastery. We didn’t get to admire much of its intricate outside sculpture work but we heard a choir of young priests in training.

It may not sound like much, but it was extremely subversive for the time. Back in Bucharest, we wandered around the ruins of the old part of town that had been destroyed to make way for Ceausescu’s new civic centre. We had spitting and stamping contests on the banks of the river Dâmbovița. We compared notes on the recent histories of our countries, on censorship and education. We managed to sneak into the Students’ Cultural Institute and played four-handed piano in an empty auditorium. Above all, we talked and talked and talked, a mix of music and politics which was utterly exhilarating. He had interviewed Bruce Springsteen, he knew the song ‘Heut Nacht’ by Spliff that no one else in Romania knew, he dedicated the song ‘Ohne Dich’ by Münchner Freiheit to me in a room full of party officials (Freiheit = Freedom, get it?).

He was 34, happily married with two children. I was 20 and in love with my boyfriend. He never tried to proposition me (unlike Chris, who then sulked like a teenager when I turned him down) but we could feel an undercurrent of danger, the euphoria and sadness of meeting a soulmate from whom we have to part very soon. It was like alighting for a moment on the brink of the clearest, most beautiful blue pool, but peering within we could see muddy depths.

All you need is more choice? To both of us, the choice was never about being selfish. This was about a lot more than a fleeting passion between two young people.

It was that breath of freedom spreading across Europe that caught us up in its magic. It was the thrill of cross-cultural understanding, of future possibilities, of finally being able to live the lives we wanted. To me, he represented my German-speaking childhood home. To him, I was the generation for whom freedom would arrive at the right time and who could go on to change the world. We dismantled the walls in each other’s mind before the destruction of the physical wall in his home town.

We only kissed once, when we parted. He got on the train to Berlin and, within a few days, was one of the thousands who thronged at the border crossing and danced on the Wall. I returned to the news blackout of Bucharest, but within a few weeks, was one of the thousands who chanted: ‘The Army’s on our side!’ in University Square. I like to think that we channeled the passion we felt for each other at a personal level into political passion.

Where have thirty years gone? And how can people want to go back to building walls in our minds and hearts?

22 thoughts on “My own little #Mauerfall30 story”

  1. What a moving post, Marina Sofia. And how heartbreaking that the UK is now set on rebuilding barriers with our neighbours. I was in Spain in 89, watching the events in Berlin and Bucharest on a coffee bar TV, exhilarated

    1. Thank you. I suppose it took 30 years from the First World War to embark upon another disastrous one, so it’s par for the course that 30 years after dismantling walls we are intent on erecting barriers. The memory only lasts a generation – and it hurts me to see the political turnout and posturing on Remembrance Sunday when they don’t actually remember its real message.

  2. What a lovely post, Marina Sofia! Such an evocative story of that moment in time when everything seemed possible. I’m very glad you two touched souls, even for a short time. And what a magical time that must have been. Your last sentence also has me thinking. People are still building walls, and it makes so little sense to me…

    1. I like to call such fleeting moments that nevertheless become deeply etched into our very being ‘éclats’. I hope that when that reel of ‘seeing your life race in front of your eyes’ happens, it will consist only of these éclats.

  3. Moments such as these are etched into our minds and hearts for life Marina. It is rare to meet a person one considers a soulmate, who mirrors and shares your heartfelt convictions and dreams. You related this story with a clear nostalgic emotion as if it had happened recently. It moved me deeply as it conjured memories of the rich but fleeting contacts with soulmates I have had in my life. Thank you.

    1. This encounter stood out in my mind all the more because from December 1989 onwards in Romania I did a lot of interpreting and had so many middle-aged male journalists ‘falling in love’ with me. It was quite the fashion – and made me feel uncomfortably like the ‘exotic native’ they wanted to briefly tame.

  4. Such a moving post – you have such evocative and historical memories. I remember sitting in the TV lounge in the nurses home when I was a student, toasting the fall with a glass of milk – all I had in as a poor student! I had viewed this event as the world moving towards a more harmonious and inclusive one – what’s happening to it now saddens me deeply.

  5. What a wonderful post, Marina. You really were witness to some memorable times, and I can understand why they would be etched in the brain. Thank you for sharing with us. You obviously need to write your life story!

  6. I met a woman from Berlin who grew up in the GDR until age 9, when it changed. She said her grandparents and all of their friends were terrified of losing free health care, low rents and pensions. And working women who would lose two years of paid maternity leave and other benefits. I wonder what has happened to them and these benefits. I read an account by a journalist in the NY Times who said he broke a leg skiing in the GDR and that the medical care was superb, high-tech and free then.
    So what has happened with all of this? Also, what about the rise of the far-right in several Eastern European countries and in some Western European countries, those who want strict walls and no immigrants or refugees and spew xenophobia. This is not a good development. I live in a country where the far-right is emboldened by the president and has committed unspeakable acts against people of many religions and nationalities and where autocratic orders are given undermining food programs and environmental protections, voting, labor union, women’s and LGBTQ rights.

    1. Yes, there were a lot of things that we lost as well as things we gained. There was a period in the mid to late 1990s when I think many, many people almost regretted the change, because it was Wild West capitalism, ruthless survival of the fittest (who were often those who had been in power before and now had the means to buy up things) and loss of any social security nets. Things have stabilised a little bit since then, but in Germany in particular they threw out the baby with the bath water regarding East German achievements – they reduced things to the lowest common denominator in many cases. Women in particular had a lot to lose, because West Germany had far fewer family-friendly policies and was not geared towards working women.

  7. Glad that you validated it, but sorry that women, the elderly and others lost benefits. Now, also, unfortunately, a lot of Eastern European people have had to go to Britain and other Western European countries to find employment, and many are exploited in awful conditions and getting low wages. And many find bigotry against them in England and elsewhere, when that’s where they can get jobs. After the Brexit vote, the anti-immigrant and racist sentiment was at a fever pitch. Hate crimes have increased. And anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry, too.
    Someone I know who had two older retired friends in the GDR who benefited from low rents and very inexpensive tickets to operas and concerts, pensions, were also Jewish. After the wall fell and GDR was no more, their building was hit with anti-Semitic graffiti. So that was another problem, which it sounds like had been controlled.
    In the U.S., there is no paid maternity leave enacted into law. Women and men can take three months of unpaid leave to take care of a baby or ill relative. So many women go back to work soon after giving birth, even two weeks after a C-section, to keep their jobs and earn wages.

  8. Marina, thank you for sharing this! This post gave me strength and clarity at so many levels! It’s a gorgeous and an insightful piece into the many emotions deep in our hearts. Politically speaking, it does seem like a world gone mad; we seem to be going back to 1940s and 50s with an us versus them; just 30 years ago, we were promising a more peaceful world and now, we are going out of our way to drown those voices. It’s just….I really have no words!

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