Case in point: my sure-footed travels through Europe. No missteps there.
Before I begin, you need to know I studied Spanish in school. To my delight I became quite fluent, allowing me to travel to Mexico several times without fear of accidentally ordering flaming donkey poo with my chicken enchiladas. What it didn’t prepare me for was a three-year stint in Germany with my husband, Rick, who’d decided to join the Army.
We moved there during the summer of 1993, not long after The Wall came down. What’s ‘The Wall,’ you ask? Thus begins the gratuitously educational section of this post. (We’ll get to my wisdom later.)
When World War II ended in 1945, Europe was divided into two separate groups: the NATO countries and the Warsaw Pact countries. Here’s a map:
Anyway, the NATO countries all had democratic governments, whereas the Warsaw Pact countries were tied to the Soviet Union, which was run by communists. Dirty, filthy communists! World War II had just ended, and already the Cold War had begun. Sigh.
What was the Cold War? Well, it wasn’t really a war, just a lot of tension, worry, and name-calling between the two sets of countries. This not only produced some totally awesome thriller spy movies, but the Berlin Wall -- a tall, cement wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin -- and the ‘Iron Curtain’ -- a long, heavily guarded steel (not iron!) fence that separated the Eastern/Warsaw Pact countries from the Western/NATO ones. If the countries couldn’t play nice, they wouldn't play at all! Built by the Soviets, its main purpose was to keep Easterners in and Westerners out.
Now I won’t get into all of the politics, but I will tell you that people COULD NOT CROSS THAT FENCE. Military, diplomats, tourists from afar? Only through special checkpoints and if they had the right paperwork. Everyday citizens? No way. If they tried -- and some from the oppressive East side did – the Soviet guards were under orders to shoot them on sight. That’s the way things remained until 1989 when Soviet leadership crumbled and both the Wall and Iron Curtain were torn down.
Okay, history lesson over. Back to my infinite wisdom.
We’d just been stationed about 20 miles from the old East German/West German border in a town called Schweinfurt (translation: Pig Crossing. No joke.) We decided it’d be cool to drive up to the old border patrol checkpoints and see what was left. The short answer: not much.
Outside of an old tank trail and some heavy metal fencing, little of the area remained. Here’s a photo (and yes, that’s my husband looking all serious):
Oh! I forgot to mention something else we saw. Posted sporadically in the field were small white signs in German. They looked like this:
Flash forward three years. Our tour in Germany was wrapping up. We decided it’d be fun to go back to the border and see how much it’d changed. The short answer: not much.
But I had changed. I was not only pregnant, but fairly fluent in German. Hey, what do you know! I could read the signs!
Now my German is not what it used to be, so I’ll have to paraphrase, but they said a little something like this:
Entering and walking the field is forbidden!
It took us half an hour to walk the forty foot stretch back to our car.
Anyway, like I said, I’ve been wise all my life. Any other questions?
Map from the files of W.W. Norton & Co. Thanks!