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East Berlin: From Grim Guards to Happy Hackies

December 17, 1989|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer

EAST BERLIN — Gus the cab driver was practicing some street-smart capitalism. He scoffed at the Southern Californians' offer of $10 to drive five of them around East Berlin for two hours last weekend. The burly man with a round, gentle face noted that his counterparts on the other side of the wall demand 30 West German marks an hour per person. Seeming to argue that the winds of democracy already had brought East and West together, he said, "We are worth the same now."

Not quite. More than holes in the Berlin Wall will be required to do that. Gus and fellow driver Henry finally settled on their two cabs for two hours at roughly $10 a person. That is less than a bus tour. At the same time, Gus and Henry would pocket $25 each in hard currency in two hours' time. Not a bad day's work, considering that amount will buy nearly a month's apartment rent or gasoline in the heavily subsidized East Berlin economy.

These are good times for Gus and his fellows.

To visit Berlin, East Germany and other East Bloc countries has become the thing Europeans want to do this winter--the destinations of choice as a whole region emerges from four decades of repression and economic stagnation. Airline flights are jammed. Trains are booked far in advance. Hotel rooms are hard to get. Pan Am reports that traffic to Eastern Europe has increased by 25% over last year.

Berlin is the strongest magnet of all.

"Everybody wants to go to Berlin," Danish travel agent Marianne Lohse told members of the California group attending a week-long series of environmental conferences in Copenhagen. Now the contingent was exploring a chance to extend their travel by one day to squeeze in a quick trip to the city.

The going grew more complicated when an official of the Polish embassy in Copenhagen urged the party to visit Warsaw, too. He offered to provide visas quickly. The incredibly patient Lohse of the Danish travel agency explored at least a dozen combinations of routes and times into Berlin and/or Warsaw. One leg of each potential route was already booked to capacity.

On Thursday night, Dec. 7, we learned that Lohse had achieved what had seemed to be the impossible only a day before: a flight out of Copenhagen Saturday morning to Warsaw, Warsaw to West Berlin via Frankfurt Saturday evening, and returning Sunday night to Copenhagen by way of Frankfurt.

For all the change, visiting Eastern Europe for the first time can be daunting. Arriving at Warsaw's airport was like stepping into a 1950s black-and-white movie. Armed soldiers stood at the foot of the airline ramp. Passport guards stared grimly from passport photo to visitor time and again before stamping approval. Passengers, including many Polish-Americans coming for the holidays, jammed customs lines with bulging suitcases and cardboard boxes.

Those were minor anxieties and inconveniences, though. Graced with a five-inch blanket of fresh snow, Warsaw was much less bleak than expected. After lunch for five at the Victoria Hotel for 92,000 zlotys (about $23), driver Leszek Drzazgowski took us through historic sections of the city, including stops at the site of the ghetto, the church where Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski's crypt was covered with fresh flowers and the Old Town market square.

Even with the wall breached, getting into East Berlin at the Friedrichstrasse S-bahn station still has a Cold War atmosphere. When our group tried to return to West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, we were told we must exit along the same route we had entered, a bone-chilling 20-minute walk back to the station. There, the guards seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to clear us.

East Berlin is home for most of the great buildings that survived World War II. It has taken more than 40 years, but the majority of gutted structures have been restored handsomely. The tour included Hitler's unmarked bunker and the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden to Alexanderplatz and Marx-Engels Platz, the cathedral, the state opera house, Old Town and the museums alongside the River Spree.

There was a stop for beer and coffee at a comfortable tavern in Old Town, where students at the adjacent table laughed and joked as Henry and Gus debated in German how to answer our questions about the changes in East Germany.

Both in Warsaw and East Berlin, guides remarked that they are no longer harassed by police over petty infractions or perceived violations. "I don't have to do that any more," Henry said, referring to his unbuckled seat belt. In Warsaw, Drzazgowski commented, "You don't have to worry about tickets. The police don't have anything to do. And they don't want to do anything."

Back on the west side of the Bradenburg Gate, thousands of tourists bundled against the cold wind walked half a mile to the Berlin Wall on Sunday afternoon. There was no hammering here, and not much celebration. Many walked up and touched the graffiti-covered barrier silently, in awe, much like people seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington for the first time. They were not mourning the fact that it was coming down, of course, but perhaps reflecting on what it had meant for so many years, and what the future might hold.

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