Travel to Germany

I was strolling along Bernauer Strasse during a foggy night typical of Berlin. The low-lying mist shrouded the streetlamps, casting sepia shadows on the neighborhood. The hues were reminiscent of old newsreels from August, 1963, when this street became a last gasp escape route for those seeking to flee over the Berlin Wall, a structure which in its initial crude form of cinderblocks and barbed wire was erected overnight. It encircled West Berlin to keep East Germans from escaping to the lone outpost of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.

Within years, the Berlin Wall (or “anti-Fascist protection barrier” as it was named in Orwellian fashion by the East German government) grew more sophisticated in its ability to trap those living on the wrong side of it, but in the long-run living on the right side of history. Although the Berlin Wall is long gone, there are still remnants of the Cold War in Berlin.

berlin wall bernauer strasse

This area where tourists now snap photos of one of the last remaining sections of the wall was a sophisticated death zone; a no-man’s land of roaming German shepherds, car barriers, mines and machine guns triggered by the slightest movement. At night spotlights fought back the dark and eliminated the shadows that were an escapee’s ally.

But such a system, weighted down by years of oppression, would not last forever. On November 9, 2014 the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; a man-made scar that represented the cruelty of a totalitarian regime that nurtured the Cold War.

A gray cobblestone line, interspersed with bronze plaques stating Berliner Mauer 1961-1989, snakes through the city marking the spot where the partition once stood. Its twisting path across avenues, parks and cemeteries—in some cases splitting neighbors and families—marks the randomness with which the city was divided. It clumsily bisects the street in front of the Brandenburg Gate where President Ronald Reagan made his “tear down this wall!” speech only two years before the wall was torn down.

Berlin Wall street marker shoes (800x530)

Most of the nearly 100-mile-long barrier is gone now, in some cases carted off as souvenirs to be displayed in museums around the globe, but there are still places in this now united city where the specter of the Cold War era can be found.

Eleven days after the barricade was raised, a 24-year-old tailor named Gunter Litfin attempted to swim across a small canal to the West. He was fatally shot by police while he was still in the water, becoming the first person to be killed trying to escape East Berlin.

A small brick and granite memorial was dedicated on Invalidenstrasse near the Sandkrug Bridge, that’s the point in the canal where he would have made it to safety. Located in a heavily-trafficked area only one block east of the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s glistening new train station, it’s easy to overlook this significant turning point in wall’s history. After Litfin’s killing, potential escapees knew they were risking their lives to seek freedom.

Berlin Wall first victim memorial (750x626)

Once the city’s division became entrenched, visitors coming over from West Berlin via the train disembarked at Friedrichstrasse Station. Since this point was the merging of two societies, one free and the other not, no means of escape could be allowed. Travelers were herded through an Escheresque maze of overhead tunnels, walkways and checkpoints to move from one sector to the other.

Across the street from the station an East German Passport Control and Customs post was housed in a blue glass pavilion called the Palace of Tears; so named because it was where East Germans bade farewell to their visitors from the West. Or for those rare East Germans granted an exit visa, farewell to their family forever.

Berlin Palace of Tears woman walking (800x600)

The Palace of Tears is now a museum that recreates the feeling of crossing from one zone to another. Exhibits reveal the clever devices that people used to smuggle forbidden items such as Bibles and copies of Playboy into the East; although not so hidden that they weren’t confiscated and ended up here on display.

When Communism collapsed the world watched as statues of Lenin were torn down all over the Soviet Bloc. Some of the monuments were too, well, monumental, and couldn’t be budged by a crowd armed with a few ropes, no matter how boisterous they were. One survivor was the house-sized memorial to Ernst Thälmann, the leader of Germany’s Communist Party during the Weimar Republic between the World Wars.

East Berlin icons Thalmann hammer and sickle (750x613)

With his tightly clenched fist thrust upward, Thälmann’s memorial on Greifswalder Strasse was designed in the larger-than-life heroic Soviet style (it is often mistaken for one of Lenin) and then plunked down in the middle of its own barren concrete plaza. Since Communism is now out of favor in Germany there are more weeds than visitors, other than the occasional teenage skateboarder and budding graffiti artist. Ernst Thälmann Park was dedicated in 1986 so it offers visitors the opportunity to view one of the last gasps of Communism’s artistic flourishes in East Berlin.

Closer to the center of town in the Mitte district, the Marx-Engels forum posed a similar quandary. Two much larger than life statues of socialism founders Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were too big to move but no longer reflected Germany’s capitalist zeitgeist. They remain in place but mostly as a tourist photo op for people to pose on Karl Marx’s lap. With his bushy beard he rather resembles a department store Santa Claus so perhaps that use is appropriate.

Berlin Marx Engels Statue (750x702)

Later, poking my way among the weeds and toppled headstones of St. Hedwig’s cemetery, I stumbled upon unmarked sections of the Berlin Wall that don’t appear in the tourist guidebooks including a section of the secondary wall that was set 30 yards behind the main wall to prevent East Berliners from seeing it. Through a crack stood a statue of Jesus looking down in grief upon a grave, the remnant of his outstretched arm only a few yards from grazing the barrier to freedom.

Berlin Wall Jesus statue St Hedwigs cemetery (750x606)

I was about to give up my search for the main wall when I saw a family strolling nearby. Their six-year-old son, clutching a teddy bear in one arm, stopped and pointed at a vine-encrusted, graffiti-covered slab of concrete and shouted “Der ist Mauer,” or “there is the Wall.” What looked like an ordinary concrete wall hiding in the overgrown vegetation revealed itself as an original remnant due to the large sewer pipe wedged on top, placed there so people couldn’t attain a grip to scramble over the wall.

Berlin Wall boy pointing (640x500)

Born years after the wall came down, the boy was obviously well schooled about its existence. While the wall once hid one half of the city from the other, Berlin is not hiding from its past. Like people in no other city in the world, Berliners know that to ignore history is to risk repeating it.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 9th, 2014, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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Berlin’s transit system is easy to navigate with the Berlin WelcomeCard. Because it is valid on all forms of transportation, the Berlin WelcomeCard is very convenient. Use it on the U-Bahn (underground trains), S-Bahn (surface trains), Bus and Tram. No worrying about the correct change or the right type of ticket, Read more

We were waiting at the Berlin railroad station for our train to Frankfurt. With only about 20 minutes before departure I decided to make use of a land-based toilet. I’ve been a bit wary of train toilets ever since I was “toilet trained” in Malaysia several months ago, where I had an “I Love Lucy” episode involving a mysterious foot pedal and a gusher of water. I found out toilet humor is funny when it’s happening to someone else.

The Hauptbanhof in Berlin is huge and fairly new, it oozes a Space Age vibe with lots of shiny glass and state-of-the-art escalators.  The bathrooms were no exception.  Signs pointed me toward the “W-C Center,” sort of implying a type of toilet shopping mall or amusement park.  There were gleaming stainless steel tiles with icons indicating showers, baby changing areas and lockers in addition to the more mundane toilets.

Hauptbanhof Berlin WC center

These guys look as confused as I was. 

This pristine porcelain did not come without a price. In order to answer nature’s call I had to fork over 1 euro at the main entrance. It seemed a bit much for a 20-second squat, but my train was due to leave soon and I was in no position to argue.

Typical of these leading-edge technology spots, the entrance operation was automated, with ticket machines attached to high-tech “turnstiles” made of thick glass that opened briefly to allow the patron into the coveted inner sanctum. I watched a few people plonk a coin into the machine, retrieve a paper ticket along with some change, and pass through the security barrier unscathed.

When my turn came, I dropped in my €1 coin ready to meet a 21st-century latrine. The barrier opened as I retrieved my ticket, which I noticed read “€0.50.” Thinking perhaps I had misunderstood, and the fee was only 50 cents, I turned back to the machine to the coin return slot, only to find it empty. By this time the thick glass barrier at the turnstile had closed again, and did not seem inclined to reopen.  A line began to form behind me, people with the same sort of painful “I really need to get in there, so could you just get a move on” kind of look that I must have had myself.

I didn’t have any more change and there was no attendant to plead my case. The train was getting ready to leave so I had no choice but to race back to the platform. I followed the LCD monitors to the smooth and sleek escalators back down to the gleaming platform. It was all very quiet, modern and efficient.

But as the train slid silently out of the station, I still had to pee. 🙁

Read about Larissa’s unfortunate toilet experience on a train in Malaysia.


Vladimir Yarets is a native of Belarus who’s ridden his motorcycle through over 120 countries and 300,000 miles. To make his achievement all the more remarkable he is deaf and mute. Did we mention that he’s also 71 years old and looking for new lands to conquer? We met Vladimir in Berlin, where he makes our journey look like a stroll in the park.

Vladimir Yarets motorcycle ride world map of tour

This map shows where Vladimir has been so far along with clippings from newspapers in Brazil and Taiwan.

We ran into Vladimir near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin where he was raising funds for the next leg of his travel. When he shook my hand I felt like I was in a gravel crusher. His strong grip no doubt a result of all those hours holding on tight to the motorcycle handlebars.

Communication was difficult at first so we chatted by writing notes. He lit up when we were able to convey that part of Larissa’s family also comes from Vladimir’s hometown of Minsk. He pulled out several binders that showed pictures of him at landmarks all over the world along with an impressive display of press clippings, including a few from Japan.

Vladimir Yarets motorcycle around the world Larissa Milne

Two Belorussians meet up in Berlin.

Vladimir started touring around the Soviet Union in 1967, when that type of independent travel was frowned upon by the authorities. Having conquered his own country he set out for new lands and hasn’t stopped since. (Except for a one year stay in Peoria, Illinois while he recuperated from a run-in with a truck.)

Vladimir Yarets motorcycle around the world

Vladimir points out where he’s been to a curious onlooker. 

The easiest way to show what we’ve been up to was to share pictures from our camera as we explained our own year-long global odyssey. While ours paled in comparison, meeting Vladimir was encouraging as he showed that you are really never too old to grab life and pursue your dreams. We hope his fundraising in Berlin was successful as he pushes off for further frontiers.

Vladimir yarets motorcycle tour Taiwan

In 2007, Vladimir was greeted like a rock star in Taiwan.

Vladimir’s enthusiasm and zest for life are quite contagious. At age 71 he’s not slowing down but accelerating.

What do you see yourself doing when you’re 71?

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