Elsewhere

Northerners commonly say of Austin that, “It’s like California, but nicer; it’s not as nasty.” Here, indeed, are the surviving vestiges of melioristic optimism, more characteristic of the American sixties, where strangers cordially greet each other and fundamentally antagonistic groups try to live at peace. It is precisely this quality of sweetness that persuades students to come here, and then college-educated workers, rest-hungry executives, and finally retired people, many of whom, having worked elsewhere around the world still warmly remember Austin from their university days. This attractive tone also explains why Austin should be, statistically, one of the fastest growing cities in America. Indeed, nearly everyone I know who has ever visited here, for any length of time, has fond memories of the place.

—“Austin, Texas” (1977)

Visiting East Berlin is comparable to visiting a prison. At the hole in the Wall, you can be searched, if not strip-searched, for East German currency. Your bags can be inspected for books inimical to the Communist state and for Western newspapers and magazines, all of which are wholly forbidden. Materials that the border guards dislike can be kept for your return, since another rule is that you are required to come back to the West by the same gate from whence you came and, furthermore, to do so before midnight (unless you obtain a special visa permitting a longer stay). The guards can also keep you waiting on line while they hold your passport or read your books or put you in a side room for interrogation or a strip search; and the lines of visiting Westerners can bulge simply from East German understaffing.

The procedure is Kafkaesque because the guardians are capricious. One never knows what might offend or how long the procedure will take or whether one will be inspected at all. At Friedrichstrasse, the sole checkpoint accessible by subway and train, I once waited for thirty minutes engulfed in a sweating, oddly docile crowd; I heard of others waiting here for as long as two hours. On the other side, the first question you are asked, by polite East Germans, is how long the border crossing took today.

From East Berlin on this summer Friday night I moved to West Berlin, where thousands of people flooded the Kurfürstendamm, sitting in the well-lit outdoor cafes or simply milling about on the street. I moved from a main drag devoid of people to one filled with them, from a city dimly lit to one filled with illuminated signs of all sorts, from a world with scarce advertisements (either for the government or its wholly owned industries) to one with so many signs they resemble trees, from a town with nothing to buy to a city with everything to sell. It would seem that the two Berlins have been designed to epitomize two kinds of modem decadence—Eastern on one side of the Wall and Western on the other. Perhaps if one side were not so decadent neither would the other need to be. If World War II is hidden here, the Cold War is not; indeed, it is visceral in Berlin as nowhere else, constantly reminding Westerners how fortunate they are now (and behind that how fortunate they were in 1961) to be residing on their side of the Wall.

Living here is inevitably an education, not just in international macropolitics but in other subtleties of contemporary culture; it impresses itself upon a visitor in ways that other cities cannot. Berliners are sophisticated simply because they are Berliners, much as New Yorkers are. Berlin today also lacks the large redneck element typical of other German cities for no reason more than the countryside is another country whose trash is kept out! With such a small indigenous hard-hat class, the city must import laborers from Turkey and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, giving it proportionately more foreigners than the West German cities.

—“Letter from Berlin”(1981)