Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Surreal

Certain moments of my life stand out beyond easy description. Moments of joy, sorrow, beauty, dispair. The day Peter & I decided to marry. The day I decided to get divorced. The view from the top of the Grand Tetons. The view from the central court yard at Dachau.

During our last visit to Germany, we spent some tourist-time in Berlin. It was a pleasant opportunity for our friends to see things they normally wouldn’t (Pergamon Museum) or or hadn’t (Hohenschönhausen).

This last location is a notorious Stasi prison. It was the one location where I didn’t feel as though I was imposing my tourist wishes, since none of our group had been there before. It had recently opened to the public. This is like Dick Chayney’s house: it was never put on any maps, and no one publically acknowledged it. Yet - if the Stasi took you away in the middle of the night ... this is where you’d arrive.

At the time, Michael was 3-1/2 and Gregor was 6 months old. About 10 minutes into the tour (conducted in German), Michael couldn’t keep still. This isn’t Neuschwannstein, where my tolerance for pediatric noise would have been much higher.

So, I was the obvious choice (not my country's heritage; heavy Berlin accent) to depart with the boys. I apologized to the tour guide, and left.

Surreal point #1: walking through an infamous Stasi prison alone. Hoping I wouldn’t get lost on the way back to the entrance. My 2 small children were the only sound. I even stopped and listened ... not a sound.

I took the boys out to the visitor’s center to wait for our friends & Peter.

It was a broiling 90-95 degrees, humid, and painfully bright sunshine. There was no water (Germany=no water fountains). Every single thing in the visitor center/shop was in German (no English=no distraction). Michael wanted water. Michael wanted food. Michael wanted Papa. Gregor wanted to eat; that at least I could accommodate.

The center of the prison was this sun-parched area with not a single living thing, other than my children & me. It was 15 minutes past when I expected our group. It was 20 minutes past.

What should I do? my mind wailed. I was bored out of my skull. There was nothing to do. I was physically miserable. I was sitting in the middle of some god-awful prison. I couldn't get out since I had no car keys. I was sitting in the middle of a gigantic memorial to human misery.

It really is difficult to keep in mind the suffering of others when you're miserable yourself. Afterall, my family knew where I was; no one was going to take me back into the cells and torture me; I wasn't worried about dying. It wasn't surreal, but it was an unpleasant personal epiphany that I couldn't put aside my own discomfort, comparing it to the suffering of others. I'd like to think I could have, if confronted with the reality of it in front of my face. I'd like to ...

All Michael wanted was to run around and play.

I’m not German. I’m a tourist. This can't possibly have the emotional impact for me that it might have for my husband and friends. God help me, I’m an American tourist; not a group generally renowned for its cultural sensitivity. How could I explain to a 3 year old that this was an important part of his history as a German? (This was the first time I ever sincerely considered the fact that my child is also not-American.)

I was so bored and trying to be respectful of this place that is really serious. I finally lost my mind & told Michael that he was welcome to run around all he wanted, as long as I could see him. It's not as if he could have hidden in that wasteland of broiling sunshine. I decided that if anyone complained about it, I would inform them in no uncertain terms that they would just have to put up with it until the tour was over. As part of this plan, I decided to keep open the option of breaking down into tears. It worked once with Lufthansa staff in Frankfurt.

Finally Michael was happy; hot, but happy. Gregor was asleep. I was sitting on the steps inside a prison and wishing it was under 80 degrees.

The small building sitting in the interior of the prison opened, and an older man stepped out. As he strode across the courtyard toward me, I braced myself. He looked at Michael and offered a very paternal smile. He asked if Michael was bored, offering his sympathy when I said we were waiting for my husband & the tour. He smiled again as he passed by.

Surreal point #2: Sitting inside a Stasi interrogation/detention prison watching my 3 year old son running around laughing in total enjoyment on a sunny Summer afternoon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can relate to this -- I remember you telling us about it at Stammtisch. It was surreal to walk past the Lubyanka in Moscow. It's just a building like all the other buildings around it, but unbelievably notorious. Even though it was 1987 and glasnost was in full swing, the Russians weren't offering tourists tours of it.

Another surreal moment in Moscow: I was returning to my hotel room which was down at the end of a hall. I came out of the elevator, turned left and noticed an open door two doors down on the left. As I passed, I looked in to see two or three men in Red Army uniforms standing around what looked like a radio on a table. There was little else in the room. Of course, I asked about it at dinner that evening. Our American tour guide was mystified and asked our Intourist guide. She showed up at my table at breakfast the next day and informed me that I had not seen Red Army soldiers in the hotel room and had seen nothing else either. But I had. Her insistent denial was surreal.