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Germans Reunite in Traffic Jams, Enjoy Unusual Fruits of Prosperity

November 11, 1990|SHIRLEY SLATER | Slater lived in West Germany for two years during the height of the Cold War. She and her husband, Harry Basch, write a twice-monthly column for The Times' Travel Section. They drove throughout much of the former nation of East Germany during the first week of October, 1990.

EISENACH, Germany — It was not yet 9 o'clock in the morning on this first Monday after the reunification of the two Germanys and the chill, damp air was heavy with acrid smoke from the brown lignite coal that pollutes the air as it burns.

In the town square of this former East German city, beside the half-timbered house where Martin Luther lived with the Colte family when he was a choirboy at the end of the 15th Century, a market had been set up with shiny aluminum pots and pans, nylon Windbreakers in Day-Glo colors, cheap purses and belts and jogging shoes, potatoes and onions and carrots and grapes.

And bananas.

Heaps of bananas being weighed on old-fashioned scales at fruit stalls, being sold from the backs of vans, being greedily stuffed into shopping bags. There were stacks of empty boxes marked "Dole" where bananas had been, and truckloads of more bananas arriving. They were selling on this morning for 2.30 deutsche marks per kilo (2.2 pounds), or about 75 cents a pound.

Like Hansel and Gretel, we had followed a trail of bananas into the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik, where, until the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, bananas were a rare and exotic luxury. Now, yellow peels were tossed on the ground everywhere in the parking turnouts along the autobahn heading east as though drivers, overcome with desire, had pulled off and, engines idling, gobbled down three or more in a fit of passion. Already the smart-aleck young West Berliners have nicknamed the Easterners Bananen .

On the other side of the square, the gray clock tower on the freshly painted red medieval town hall lurched drunkenly to one side. Nearby was an old brick building with faded lettering on one side: Jugend Klub Sonne (Sunshine Youth Club).

An old woman glared at the bumper-to-bumper traffic, most of it with West German license plates, as she tried to cross the cobblestone street to the market. You could read her thoughts on her creased face--there didn't used to be so much traffic and so many strangers here.

Eisenach, birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, hide-out for the adult Martin Luther, is also the home of the Wartburg automobile, as a banner extolling "10,800 new Wartburgs" informed us. The car is named for hulking, gloomy Wartburg Castle on a hilltop above the city, where Martin Luther lived alone in disguise for nearly a year after he was condemned by the Diet of Worms in 1521 for challenging the teachings of the Catholic Church and setting in motion the Protestant Reformation.

On the outskirts of town, brand-new supermarkets with fully stocked shelves and rows of chrome carts outside--looking almost like mirages--have been dropped full-blown into any empty space. Here and there, the red-black-and-gold flag of the former West Germany fluttered from upper-story windows. Chalked graffiti in English on one building said, "Nazi Nest," on another, "Kill the Nazi pigs."

Amid tidy homes with lace curtains and gardens of blooming dahlias, impromptu used-car lots for Volkswagens, Opels and BMWs have been set up in muddy vacant lots, tinsel flags bravely flying.

Just as bananas are a symbol, however frivolous, for the newly emerging consumers from the east, the Wartburg and its equally low-powered cousin, the Trabant, seem to have become the metaphors for all that was wrong with the former East Germany. (Before the Wall came down, they were the only vehicles that most East Germans had any hope of obtaining.)

Along Autobahn A4 leading to the former border at Herleshausen, the carcasses of burned, trashed and cannibalized Wartburgs had been shoved into the picnic areas, sometimes turned upside-down. And on Unter den Linden in what was East Berlin, only a block from the posh, Japanese-built Grand Hotel, we saw a small band of youths at twilight kicking and smashing a Wartburg parked on the sidewalk.

The traffic heading east to Berlin was choked with heavily laden trucks carrying everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to new ladders for sale. One battered eastern-made pickup truck was hauling a shiny new Volkswagen home. And a Wartburg boasted a new label painted across its back in old-fashioned German script--Volkswagen Baby.

We were constantly stuck in the fast lane behind chugging Ladas, Skodas, Trabants and Wartburgs, until we found ourselves agreeing with the West German transportation commission chairman who remarked that all East German drivers needed to go back to driving school.

There were no foreign entrepreneurs in evidence (at least not yet), only West Germans, and the beginning of an age of advertising. Along the autobahn , VW-Audi ads declared "We are there for you," and on a side road, a Marlboro billboard not far from a barn with its wall painted in vivid pink and green for a cafe promising Echte (real) Hamburger .

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