Friends – I generally use this blog to talk about the unreal, but today I want to talk about something real.
I want to talk about a country that used to exist. It’s gone now. It’s been gone for almost 30 years. And most of us don’t remember its existence. That’s how successfully it has been wiped from our consciousness.
And in a way this country never fully existed for us in the United States in the first place. And since the internet had not yet come into being, we didn’t generally see much about it.
Real things that don’t fit into our usual ways of thinking about right and wrong, or into our received notions of what is good and what is bad tend to enter our minds without solidity. Real things that we don’t want to understand operate as specters. They are things that aren’t quite real to us. They hover. They threaten, without ever quite materializing. My friend Robert wondered recently if the movie A Quiet Place wasn’t maybe both a film about immigration AND a film about surveillance. Aliens and monsters serve a purpose in that they can be a lot of things at once. Things, people, and ideas that we can’t deal with.
And so it makes sense to talk about this forgotten country here, after all. Our sense of the real as unreal emerges in part from our expectations and the truths that have been given to us from the outside.
So let me try to tell you a tale.
Once upon a time there were two Germanies. Good Germany and bad Germany. There was the Federal Republic of Germany, which was where Frankfurt was and where Munich was and where part of Berlin was. It was the good Germany, where they made watches and cars, and where you could go see Goethe’s desk and where you could go and celebrate Oktoberfest and see the original of the Disneyland castle. I want to say they made cuckoo clocks, but of course that’s Switzerland. Anyway, that was good Germany. Beer, Lederhosen, and Mercedes Benz.
Then there was bad Germany. Bad Germany had been conquered by the Soviet Union and was part of what was called the Soviet Bloc. Bad Germany was communist. Bad Germany were the people who had built the Berlin Wall — a dividing barrier that ran, not just in Berlin, but up and down the border of the eastern part of good Germany. Bad Germany was a place run by people who reminded most Americans of the Gestapo – the secret police of the Nazis (that’s World War 2). The Bad Germany secret police was called the Stasi, but in the minds of most Americans, the two got hopelessly confused. The Val Kilmer film TOP SECRET makes that conflation manifest.
Friends, I went to bad Germany 3 times. I lived there twice.
I’ve been thinking about bad Germany a lot as I’ve been watching the final episodes of the tv series The Americans. Granted, these spies are Russian, and not German. Still, the writing is so good that when the characters Philip, Elizabeth, and Claudia talk, I recognize something familiar in their worldview.
I’d like you to come with me in your imaginations to bad Germany.
Here’s visit #1.
The first time I went to bad Germany, I went with my American boyfriend during my first visit ever to good Germany. We had taken the train to good Berlin. The next day we took the subway to a checkpoint not usually used by tourists, and this fact played a large role in making my first experience with bad Germany rather bad. We got off the subway and had to present our passports to a soldier who sat behind a glass window, like a bank teller. Someone in an office we couldn’t see reviewed our paperwork, and then called people’s passport numbers individually. When their number was called each person went into a little office, and then presumably got out of the subway and could visit the city.
I have written about this experience elsewhere, but I’ll repeat the story here. My boyfriend spoke fluent German, and as luck would have it, his number got called before mine. He stood up, and disappeared through a door. I sat and sat in the waiting room, struggling to hear my number called. I had studied German for one semester, and numbers are not my strong point in English. I sat there a long time. Everyone else in the waiting room had gone through. Finally, a soldier opened the door to the office, and pointed at me. I seem to remember him yelling, but this may not be correct. As it happened, I had not understood my number, because they had used the slang version for the German word for number 2. I got through finally, I think, because the officer spoke a combination of German and English at me.
I was embarrassed and scared. My boyfriend was annoyed, because we were only allowed to stay in bad Berlin for a day. We had to go back that night, so we didn’t have much time to see all the sights.
I think we saw some monuments. We may have gone to a museum. I don’t remember. We went to a fish restaurant and the food was good. And we went to a bookstore. I remember seeing only books with red covers. Can that be right? I remember seeing Jack London translated into German. But most of what was there in the bookstore was Karl Marx and Engels. My boyfriend bought me a copy of Das Kapital translated into English.
The streets were grey. People stared at us. We looked different to them, because we were wearing blue jeans, and our glasses and hairstyles looked strange.
I don’t remember what else we did. We went back through the border after dinner, and my boyfriend triumphantly showed the bad German customs officer the books he had bought. He had become a communist and so he was very excited to show the officer all those red books. The good German customs official didn’t want to look in our bags. He just waved us through.
I remember using the bathroom at the fish restaurant, and the toilet paper…. It was like sandpaper. I found out subsequently that bad Germany was famous for this.
This visit to bad Germany happened in early 1974.
I returned to bad Germany 11 years later. This time I had a very different boyfriend, a husband in fact, whose father WAS German, and I went to bad Germany for a very different reason.
I will tell you that story next time.