Welcome to Sunny East Berlin | Alistair Noon

East Berlin and me got off to a bad start. I had arrived with my mates on an S-Bahn with hard wooden seats, queued up for half-an-hour at the Friedrichstraße railway station-cum-border crossing, changed my mandatory 25 Deutschmarks into non-convertible Ostmarks, and got my entry stamp off the glum, spotty, pale-skinned border guard in the booth, his table lamp lighting him up from below like a floodlit monument.

I had long brown hair and a black biker’s jacket, and as I moved through customs, I was invited to reveal the contents of my red and yellow ethno bag from Camden Market. Out came a copy of the West Berlin entertainments magazine Zitty (the name a mispronounced “city” of course, rather than a reference to the skin of the guy at passport control).

Kommen Sie bitte mit? I was escorted off behind a curtain into a room with grey walls, a small desk, and bright lighting. I was now invited to turn out my pockets. These contained a cigarette lighter, odds and ends I can’t now remember, and to my surprise and mild alarm, folded up small, a sheet of paper I had picked up in a Kreuzberg bar a few nights before. The typewritten and photocopied text was a call-out to a demo. Above the text, much like an emblem on a piece of headed notepaper, was a hammer smashing in the head of an eagle, wings aspread. The eagle was holding – and this is why I was concerned – a swastika.

Would the People’s Police take the trouble to read the text properly and look at the picture closely? Both Zitty and swastika-text were removed for further study out of eyeshot, while I stood where I was and said nothing, as did the remaining border guard. About 20 minutes passed.

Another border guard returned. I could take my folded-up demo call, but not the Zitty. Not even, as I enquired, the middle bit with the event listings (in those days a kind of easy-to-pull-out supplement on crappy paper). Nein, leider nicht. I think they wished me a bemused Auf Wiedersehen, and even smiled when I quipped “Hopefully not”.

April is the cruellest month, T.S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land begins, but in Berlin, then as now, April is in fact the nicest month, after the cold from October to March, and before it gets all wet again in May. I remember it being very bright as I came out of the subdued lighting of the passport hall and saw my relieved and slightly impatient mates waiting for me.

We spent the day looking at sights and trying to blow our Ostmarks, on a meal in the Rotes Rathaus, Berliner Pilsner, or East German flags in the department store on Alexanderplatz which in the not too distant future would become Galeria Kaufhof. It really did feel like not just a different city but a different country: the bricks, the cars, the traffic lights, the shops, the adverts, the clothes, the uniforms, the buildings. The waiters – far more fearsome than the border guards at Friedrichstraße – would resolutely prevent you, verbally and if needs be physically, from adding a fourth chair to your table of three.

But one thing, in itself very trivial, was a reminder that this was West Berlin’s lost sibling. In both Berlins – and nowhere else in West Germany that I’d been to – a small extra sign attached beneath the street signs would gave the house numbers of the block that street sign was on. It was a genetic inheritance from the two Berlins’ time in the womb together.

I pass through Friedrichstraße now most days on my way to work, a dingy passport hall turned into a bright shopping mall. Roughly where you came out of the passport cabins is where I sometimes pig out on something like fish and chips, before stepping out into the daylight.

Alistair Noon

This is the text of a podcast for NPR Radio on 22 June 2011 (‘Alistair Noon on the East German Police’). Listen to the podcast here. To listen to a selection of Alistair Noon’s poems (set and recorded in Berlin) click here. His Longbarrow Press pamphlet Swamp Area (comprising several long poems and sequences about Berlin) is available to buy here.

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