It’s 31 years since the Berlin Wall came down, and I still vividly remember hearing the news. I was in the car, on my way to class, when the news came on the radio. I couldn’t believe it. When I arrived at the university, I punted my classes and instead made a beeline for one of the packed student lounges, to join others watching the broadcasts of this incredible event.
I’d never been very politically minded or had much awareness of what was going on in world, but growing up during the cold war, it was hard even for me to ignore the existence or significance of the wall. When I first learned of it as a young child, I reacted with a child’s simplicity and decreed it ‘mean.’ As I got older and learned more context, my understanding of the underlying complexities of its existence grew, but that sense of meanness always lay at the base of my opinions about it.
And opinions I did have – a huge oddity at that time in my life. I may not have said much about them, but they did exist, and I began to rather desperately wish for the wall to come down.
And then it did.
The images from that day still stick with me. So when I had the opportunity to visit Berlin, of course I planned to visit the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km long open air art gallery on the longest continuous section of the wall still standing.
It was freezing-ass cold that day, easily -20°C, and we’d spent hours outside already, visiting the Olympic Stadium. Now, I’m not a winter person. I don’t like the cold, or snow, or ice, or grey skies, or any combination thereof. So while I was enjoying the sights immensely, I was also pretty miserable physically. My feet and fingers were freezing, and I couldn’t feel my nose.
But once I saw the Gallery, all thoughts of discomfort left my head. At one point, I even took my gloves off so I could touch the wall with my bare hands. I wanted to create a sense of physical connection, to partner with the mental one I’d been feeling for as long as I could remember. When I mentioned to Ron that my feet weren’t cold anymore he said he wasn’t surprised, and that I was clearly so excited my blood must be pumping like crazy.
It was one of the most incredible 1.3km I’ve ever walked, filled with art …
… and inspiration …
… and even a little bit of home.
It’s quite incredible, really. The existence of the Berlin Wall never had any direct affect on my life. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Canada, and while we certainly have our problems, closed borders and circumscribed movements aren’t among them. So the wall was never more than an intellectual concept from a long way away.
Except it was more than that. As a child, it was one of the first examples I learned of how cruel people can be to one another. As I grew older, it taught me about abuse of power. And when it came down, it was the first time I really understood how every person can make a little difference, and all those little differences can add up to make a huge one.
So after the impact it had on me over the years, when I finally saw the wall in real life, I couldn’t resist. While I hadn’t been there when the wall was built, or when it fell, or any of the time in between, I simply had to insert myself into the narrative, if only for just a moment.