My Father and Berlin / Yoani Sanchez

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

The rumble of a train comes through the window. In Berlin there is always the sound of a train somewhere. I look out and see a very different reality from what my father saw in 1984 when he first came to this city. A train engineer, he had won — based on volunteer hours and a great deal of work — a trip to the future. Yes, because in that era the GDR was the horizon many Cubans aspired to visit someday. So, this man of locomotives and greasy hands was also given a bonus to buy some clothes before he left for Europe. He chose a jacket and pants combo, along with an immense suitcase in which my sister and I played at hiding ourselves. He arrived in East Germany in the middle of winter and stayed only two weeks on a guided tour, whose main purpose was to demonstrate to the lucky travelers the advantages of that model. And my father came back convinced.

At the airport on his return he arrived smiling from ear to ear and with a bag in hand. Inside was a pair of shoes for each of his daughters, which turned out to be the greatest achievement of the trip. That and the memories. For decades he has been telling us about his stay in the GDR. Adding details each time, until it has become almost a family legend that we listen to when we gather for any commemoration. In the light of today the wonder of that engineer is captured in the fact that in Berlin he was able to sit in a café and ask for something to drink without having to stand in a long line, that he had bought some small gifts for his kids without showing a ration book, and that he had taken a shower in hot water at the hotel where he stayed. I was surprised at every little thing.

Now I am the one in Berlin. Thinking that my father would not recognize this city, that he would not be able to reconcile it with that other one that he visited in a year as Orwellian as its date indicated. Of the wall that divided it in two all that is left is a museum piece painted by various artists; the hotel where he stayed was probably demolished, and the name of the woman who translated for him, and watched him — so that he wouldn’t escape to the West — is not in the phone book. The suitcase also no longer exists, the shoes lasted us just a single school year and the reddish tinted photos that he took in Alexanderplatz have been handled so much you can’t see them. However, I’m sure that when I return my father will try to explain Berlin to me, to tell me how he entered a bakery and was able to eat a turnover without presenting a ration card. I will laugh and tell him he’s right, there are dreams that after so much time are not worth ruining.

8 May 2013