International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Travel
John M. Edwards in Berlin
from his tour group in East Berlin, a young college student from
New York gets seriously lost and says, "Ich bin ein Berliner!"
(I am a doughnut!), but, er, for exactly how long? Its a race
against time to find "Chuck" and bust through the border
crossing before the infamous "Iron Curtain" closes.
For numerology fans,
both the first Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock and the dramatic fall
of the Berlin Wall fell on my birthday: November 9:
The first, a demarcation for a finish line of freedom; the second, an
articial dividing line separating a people. Both stone symbols purportedly
could be seen from space, perhaps by passing chariots of the gods and
more recently through the evil eyes of satellites, before they were
chipped down for souvenirs and sold off in boxes.
A long time ago, I was on a student tour group going through Europe
and at last had a chance to see the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall, famous
for an inconvenient airlift and a presidential misspeak. In a famous
speech, JFK said, "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a doughnut),
when in fact he meant, "Ich bin Berliner" ( I am from Berlin).
When I breezed through "Checkpoint Charlie" into East Berlin,
after presenting a clever bribe of a capitalist can of Coke to speed
the way past the passport and visa check, I somehow got separated from
my friends who wandered off in nervous cliques, leaving me utterly alone
on a wide showpiece boulevard with crumbling bombed-out buildings somewhere
near the brooding Brandenberg Gate.
Since I was a Mayflower descendant directly related to William Bradford,
with some "Kraut" ancestry in me, including several famous
German Methodist preachers, I felt both a curious thrill and drop of
dread to be in one of my home countries--and a little alienated to be
sightseeing alone, nervous as a potential defector, in a Cold War communist
demesne straight out of a Ludlum suspense novel.
Most of the nonplussed people with pleasant faces I passed on the street
seemed to naturally assume I was German, too, since I had dressed down
for the excursion. I could tell they were clueless about the fact that
I might really be a "capitaliist" from New York City, who
instead of poring over the pages of Pravda and Soviet Worla, wasted
his time reading Harpers and The New Yorker, looking for
so-called classified information.
Only my expensive Rockport walking shoes gave up a ghost of a clue pegging
me as a Western tourist, which East Berliners might possibly assume
was a gift from relatives in West Berlin, or evidence I was a member
of the communist elite: needless to say, the rubber soles of my moon
shoes flapped on the cobbles like cold snaps.
I entered an enormous department store filled with rows upon rows of
exactly identical goods, ready to be "sold" to men and women
looking like Goodwill victims in drab threadbare suits and joyless frumpy
dresses by the unfathomably complex socialist distribution system, usually
involving legendarily long lines.
Despite our misconceptions about communism, with its unrealistic quotas
to fill and its five-year plans, the goods certainly were not free,
and with the artificial exchange rate for foreigners they were still
prohibitively expensive even for rich Americans.
Nevertheless, when I entered a space-age cafeteria and ordered "chicken
soup," it came in a large bowl of broth withbelieve it or
not--a whole damn entire chicken in it!
I felt lost in a Gothic ghost story and like crying.
But then I stopped at a Bierstube (beer bank) with "al fresco"
amenities (thats fancy talk for "open air") and started
talking to two other travelers from Holland who wore bright colors and
smiled a lot: in the back of my mind I wondered if they might just be
pretending to be travelers from Holland who wore bright colors and smiled
These cool-ass-hipster Netherlanders could at least steer me in the
right direction towards Checkpoint Charlie so I could burst through
the border before last call, and they were clearly impressed and even
clapped politely when I proved I knew the correct pronunciation of "Gouda"
Instead, I found myself drinking endless shots of Heffe-Weissen (wheat
beer) and growing mighty gloomy, as a burly German commie waiter with
a starched white apron talked volubly to us, emphasizing with some romanticism,
according to my Dutch Masters, how much he liked Dutch people, that
they were just like Germans.
But then out of the warped Weltanschaung of Die Welt, the German mentioned
apropos of soemthing that he did not like Americans much and that the
United States was the most dangerous country on earth, speaking with
what looked like conviction, and, in an exceedingly loud voice.
I pretended to be Dutch and kept my mouth shut.
Hence, it was high time to leave: otherwise, if I didnt make it
back through the checkpoint in time, I imagined I might not ever leave.
After that, all I remembered was wandering in a drunken somnambulant
daze, like the sleepwalker Conrad Veight from the silent scream of German
Expressionism in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, in the matrix-like
underground subway system, where my eye landed like a holy superhero
upon a clever propaganda poster: "Superman" in his usual red,
white, and blue leotards and cape, with a missile for a head and a dollar-sign
$ emblazoned on his chest.
I took it as a strange underhanded compliment:, kinda: here was Nietzsches
"Ubermensch" (Overman) dressed up in camp polyester duds,
working undercover for the United States of America, not the so-called
Deutsche Democratic Republic.
Perhaps there is a secret Stasi file hidden in a shoebox somewhere about
how a German-American gentleman and scholar from Tulane University finally
made it back on his own steam by some circuitous route that night to
his West Berlin boutique hotel on the other side of "The Wall"--without
going back through "Chuck"!
I dunno, what do you reckon?
© John M. Edwards June 2009
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus),
with misadventures ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand
to being caught in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in
such magazines as Amazon.com, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com,
Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Literal Latté,
Coffee Journal, Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Richmond Review, North Dakota
Quarterly, ForeWord, Go Nomad, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North
American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists
Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest)
Award, a Literal Latté Travel Writing Award, a Road Junky Hell
Trips Awaqrd, and a Solas Award (sponsored by Travelers Tales).
He lives in New York Citys "Hells Kitchen."His
indie zine, "Unpleasant Vacations: The Magazine of Misadventure,"
went belly up. His future bestsellers, Move and Fluid Borders remain
unpublished. His new work-in-progress, Dubya Dubya Deux, is about a
John M Edwards
decided to enter the forbidden zone. Whence I was immediately greeted
by a stunning woman with long black hair and wide friendly eyes who
acted like a member of an evangelical church welcoming a walk-in with
a rhubarb pie
to make sense in the Caribbean
John M. Edwards
next day I spotted the General wearing only shorts running down the
beach like an Olympic athlete on steroids, closely pursued by two policemen,
who tackled the General and handcuffed him. As they hauled him away,
he bawled out, "Im innocent!"
of Flying - Bucket Shop Blues
John M. Edwards
John M. Edwards tries a risky bucket shop for cheapo
airfare to Amsterdam, ending up on a white-knuckles charter flight from
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