November 07, 2009

When the Wall Came Down

It's been twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was seventeen at the time, and not particularly interested in world politics. Most of what I knew about East Berlin and the Iron Curtain came to me from the Sunday School comic book God's Smuggler. I may not have even paid it much attention except that my dad was flipping channels one night and came across the story as it was breaking live on the CBC. And the only reason he called us all into the room is because about a month earlier I had brought home a hitchhiker from East Berlin who had taken up residence in the drafty spare bedroom across the hall from mine. He spent the rest of the night sitting speechless, two feet from the television screen, watching as his world was breaking apart.

From Berlin, 20 Years After
"It was a completely unexpected event, a dizzying moment shared by millions across the world. The Berlin Wall, which, for close to thirty years, had divided a nation and seemed as permanent as the concrete out of which it was built, had fallen. What had once been a powerful symbol of Communist repression and the Cold War had suddenly become the site of a jubilant and seemingly never-ending street party. A country had been freed, a people reunited. Communism was dead. All without a single shot."

His name was Alexander - although he preferred to be called Xandie (Sandy). He had travelled to our little rural enclave on the tip from a friend that work could be found with a certain farmer at harvest time. That farmer happened to be my neighbour, so I gave him a ride only to find out that said neighbour was in Calgary visiting relatives. The sun was setting, and there was no where else to take him but home.

It was an event without precedent in our family, me coming home from work long after dark with a tall, lanky, somewhat bedraggled East-German hitchhiker. Xandie spent most of the next year with us, using our home as a jumping-off point for exploring much of the rest of Canada, always returning to regroup and earn a little pocket money.

My only regret is that we didn't talk more than we did. I knew a little German and he knew a little English, but we more often than not seemed to miss each other. Life experience had taught him a good deal more than it had me at that point, even though he was only (maybe) a year older. We kept in touch, loosely over the next several years. We had become good enough friends that there was talk of going to visit him. Some of his most interesting letters were of his disillusionment with the westernization of his environment and the loss of the security blanket that was communism, even as he extolled the virtues of being out from under from its bootheel. He sent me a little graffiti-smudged piece of the wall in the mail. I think it's still in my parent's China cabinet.

Naturally, I googled him this week, and found him. He seems to be living the life I imagined he would be, and I wish him well on this momentous anniversary.

The CBC has a great site dedicated to marking the occasiton, which includes a 45 minnute documenatry, and even an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev.