The DDR. Auf deutsch it stands for "Deutsche Demokratische Republik" - in English, The German Democratic Republic, until recently the Communist-controlled government to the east. As of Oct. 3 it will be no more, the latest casualty in the merger of East and West that was set in motion last fall.
Already it looks different.The first change we see is at the border. Four years ago it took nearly an hour to process through Checkpoint Charlie. Now the guard towers are empty, standing as lonely sentinels above the barbed wire that kept so many in--and out--for so long.
"We used to have to apply months in advance for a visa," a friend of ours from the West recalls. "You had to give the name and address of the person you would be staying with, even her age. How many of us know our friends' ages? And she had to notify the authorities that you would be coming."
Today we whiz right on through. No one asks to see passports or visas. No one is there to patrol the fence with dogs or check under the buses with mirrors to make sure people aren't trying to get out by clinging to the bottom. Some of the guard stations are even crumbling, as they join the Berlin Wall on the scrap heap of history.
The term "DDR" is already headed that way. A required sticker on that country's cars, in many cases it has already been replaced by the "D" sticker of the Bundesrepublik (are these the people who got out as soon as the wall fell, I wonder) or a sticker in which the first "D" is about three times the size of the next two letters.
Even the official subtitle for Berlin, "Hauptstadt der DDR," or "capital of the DDR," has been painted out on the Autobahn. As has, more tellingly, the designation "Karl-Marx-Stadt" for that city. Now, in gleaming white letters, the signs rread "Chemnit
," its name before the Soviets moved in 45 years ago.
It feels different, too.
There is still the gray-brown feeling to the towns, their dingy red-tile roofs standing in sharp contrast to the well-scrubbed air of the West. But the bigger cities are changing fast, the influx of commerce providing a much-needed, if nonetheless costly, shot in the arm.
East Berlin, for example, is almost unrecognizable. Streets that used to be empty are now full of cars, all seemingly in a hurry to get somewhere. Merchants openly hawk Western goods on the sidewalks and the people themselves seem abuzz with a newfound freedom, not just to come and go but to be.
It's evident on the walls, many of them splashed with newly painted "peace" graffiti. It's evident on the marquees of the movie theaters, the most prominent of them, the Kino International on the Karl-Marx-Allee, proudly playing "Rain Man." And it's evident in the bustle in the shops, most of them overflowing with customers and an abundance of Western-style goods.
One of the first places we visit is a grocery store just off the Schillingstrasse where we shopped four years ago. You still have to wait for a cart, we find, and bring your own bag. But now, in place of the spotty stock and dreary, uniform packaging, the shelves are crowded with everything from brightly colored cereal boxes and baby foods to an unprecedented array of magazines, hairsprays and fresh produce.
Especially bananas. I don't remember seeing one anywhere in the DDR four years ago, not even at the embassy receptions. Now, together with pineapples and coconuts, they are everywhere, and from Berlin to the Czech border we do not see a garbage can that doesn't have a banana peel sticking out of it somewhere.
Nothing has changed more, however, than Unter den Linden. Leading west from the East German Parliament across the Marx-Engels Bridge to the Brandenburg Gate, it is no longer the literal dead end it it was four years ago. Like the reopened subway tunnels below, it is once again a main artery, a heavy influx of auto and pedestrian traffic bearing witness to its standing as one of the most famous boulevards in the world.
Thus we take the chance to do something we could not have done on our last visit, namely walk its length down to and past the Brandenburg Gate. On our right stands the German History Museum, on our left the reopened Staatsoper and, at the head of the spacious canopy of trees in the center, the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great.
Further on lies the Grand Hotel of book and movie fame and, down a side street, the Komische Oper. Newly lettered signs proclaim the presence of Western banks, already busy. Similarly, people are queued up at a nearby ice cream stand, ready, at 70 pfennigs per scoop, to surrender their Deutschmarks --since July 1 the new national currency--as others look longingly at a 1983 Opel bearing a for-sale sign and a 9,000-mark price sticker.
Closer to the gate the carnival atmosphere becomes more pronounced. The new symbol of German unity, the gate itself is encased in scaffolding, like the rest of the country undergoing major reconstruction. To the south the de-construction that began last November proceeds as young Germans hammer away at what remains of the wall, holding tourists with their videocams, spellbound. Vendors on both sides display pieces of the same, available alone or set in key chains, alongside Red Army medals, grilled bratwurst and frosty cans of Coca-Cola.
Is this, one wonders, the spirit of the new Germany, selling off the old along with the new? The image is reinforced by the sight of a young girl scrambling frantically down the sidewalk after a five-mark bill a gust of wind has unexpectedly torn from her hand.
Accordingly the tables displaying other Red Army gear, including helmets and uniforms, resemble nothing as much as a going-out-of-business-sale. Certainly the Soviet soldiers so much in evidence four years ago are almost nowhere to be seen. And those that are, we hear, have taken to begging on the streets in the face of the banks' refusal to take their rubles. Even the signs in the pay toilets pointedly ask for change in D-marks although the old East German coins are supposedly good through August.
"Five years--that's how long it will take for things to become equal," estimates Freiderich Vogel of the West German Parliament as we chat over a late-night supper. In that he echoes the sentiments of his chancellor and political ally Helmut Kohl. People we talk with in the East seem less confident, however, of both the time frame and the outcome.
"I have the feeling we are now a colony of West Germany," says Brigitte Nedorost, a translator at the Franz Lizst Academy of Music. "They bring in their goods and such to sell. But they should also bring money and jobs."
That opinion is vouchsafed amid predictions that by the end of the year there will be as many as 2 million unemployed in the East. On the other end of that scale are people like the Nedorosts' son-in-law, an engineer, whose salary has jumped from 930 marks a month to 88 marks an hour since he went to work for Daimler-Benz, the auto company.
Other Western companies are attempting to take over existing Eastern auto plants -- no easy task in view of the obsolete equipment and little chance most East Germans have had to operate high-tech machinery. "If there's one thing you could communicate," pleads a man we talk to in Dresden, "I hope it would be that our people here are not unskilled, or unwilling to work."
He speaks from a city that, together with its neighbor, Meissen, has a centuries-old tradition of fine porcelain and exquisitely detailed baroque architecture. The image that sticks in most Western minds, however,--and Eastern minds as well--is of the Trabant, the East German car the last of which rolled off the assembly line earlier this summer.
"You had to wait 18 years to get one," recalls a Trabant owner with a wry smile, "and they wouldn't let you register for one until you were 18, so you couldn't put your child on the list as soon as he was born." What you could do was put your 70-year-old grandmother on the list and hope she would make it until you could collect the new family car, at a base price of 15,000 marks--around $10,000. This for a vehicle whose remains still dot the gullies and center strips of the Autobahn.
But those were East-marks, traditionally much easier to come by but harder to spend. Since the introduction of the Western D-mark, things have changed. and not always for the better.
"People were excited at first," recalls an American who was there at the time, "but the new prices brought them down to earth fast. For example, the Friday before the money changed you could buy a loaf of bread for 60 pfennigs. The following Monday it had gone up to three marks. At the same time a liter of milk went from .69 marks to 1.69 D-marks. Our landlady was up in arms."
Rolf Pierschel, a 55-year-old shoe-maker, knows what that feels like firsthand. "Three marks for bread wouldn't be so bad," he says in his heavy Saxon dialect, "except when you only make five marks an hour." And he isn't alone, as we see an East German housewife on television pick up a container of yogurt from the dairy case, stare glumly at the 2.69 DM price and put it back.
Still, Pierschel says, the change "had to come. Only it's happening too fast." Not only has he been retired on 70 percent disability, but his wife has been put on part-time status in her job. Along with the bananas and shiny new cars has also come what he describes as a fresh influx of drugs, alcohol and pornography, together with the worry they bring the older generation. Even so, the Pierschels say they would not go back to they way things were, and that is the spirit one finds virtually throughout the country: Better to grapple with the new problems than stay under the thumb of the old.
Certainly, Leipzig, site of last year's massive pro-democracy demonstrations, appears to have embraced the new order. Long the most cosmopolitan city in the East, its streets are now alive with a populace eager to rebuild and renew.
That means some of the quainter shops we remember are no longer in evidence, having fallen to a new construction. Similarly, prices at the Auerbachskeller, a restaurant whose traditions predate Goethe, have likewise trebled, both the menu and the ambiance now clearly aimed at a more upscale clientele. Sheet music that used to be available, hot off the presses, for around $5 is up to $30, about what it would be in the States.
The new prices don't appear to be hurting business, though, especially at the stores advertising summer clearance sales, the first ever in the DDR. Indeed, moving south from the Thomaskirche, where Bach served as music director, toward the Neues Gewandhaus (whose music director, Kurt Masur, has just been apointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic), the only empty store one sees along the street is, significantly, the Aeroflot office, obviously having a harder time enticing patrons, even at drastic reductions, to such exotic vacatiion spots as Moscow and Minsk.
Instead, where travel posters used to sing the praises of such other "people's republics" as Bulgaria and Czechslovakia, they now tempt potential clients with color shots of Madrid, Tunisia and the Greek islands, previously forbidden to all but the most priviledged of East Germans.
"Even some of the places you were supposed to be able to go you really couldn't," Brigitte Nedorost tells us. "Hungary, for instance, because they only let you change 40 marks a day and the hotel rooms were 200."
At present there are two ways to beat that in East Germany. One is to find cheaper hotels--not as easy as it used to be. The other is to keep one's eyes peeled for the ubiquitous sign "Zimmer frei" -- "Room available" -- hanging from even the humblest abode. Prices for the latter can range anywhere from 10 to 30 marks. Or, we find, even less if a kind-hearted family taked pity of you when your rented car blows a tire in front of their home. (That's how we met the Pierschels.)
At least it didn't happen on the Autobahn, still the world's foremost high-speed public thoroughfare. And it easily could have, given all the construction there. Again, a sign of the East retooling for the future, only here the result is lines of traffic that, particularly on weekends, seem to go on forever. (At one point we actually made better time -- and had a more picturesque trip -- on the back roads leading to and from Leipzig.)
In that, though, they simply mirror all the other lines in the East. Whether waiting for gas, groceries or cash, you'd better be prepared to do just that. And in the case of the first, make sure you're in the right line, and at the right station, if your car takes lead-free. Not every one has it.
The longest line we had to encounter, however, isn't at the gas pump, the market or the bank. It's at the Wartburg, the medieval fortress at Eisenach, which on the day we visit has drawn more people than Sans Souci, Frederick the Great's palace at Potsdam.
Home for more that a century to the landgraves of Thuringia, this is the setting for Act 2 or Wagner's "Tannhaeuser" with its unforgettable depiction of the legendary Saengerkrieg, or contest of the Minnesingers. Wagner himself did not actually set eyes of th Wartburg until 1849, just after he had seen the opera performed under Lizst's direction in Weimar. Even then his visit was incognito, as there was a warrant out for his arrest following his participation in the Dresden riots earlier that year.
Sitting atop a steep, 560-foot hill, it still surveys the surrounding countryside majestically. So majestically, in fact, that the trip needs to be made in installments. After parking at the bottom, one boards either one of the private shuttle vans that ply its slopes or the brightly painted and more official "Wartburg Express." (The first is cheaper, but the kids will probably vote for the second.)
After that is a steep climb, via footpaths or cobblestones, to the castle gate. (Again, the youngsters have the option of donkey rides.) Then, once having paid the general admission fee, there is the secondary option of a guided tour. Discovering that is the only way into the castle itself, we plump for the latter, only to find the line is an hour-and-a-half long.
Once inside, however, the tour itself is a dazzler. Light from the narrow window slits in one room illuminates an impressive display of medieval instruments and what is said to be the oldest tapestry in Germany. The knight's hall, we are amazed to find, is entirely inlaid in mosaics, a riot of color in which deep reds and golds predominate, each panel recalling a phase of the castle's history.
The white chapel upstairs leads by way of a painted hallway recounting the legend of St. Elizabeth to the Hall of Song itself, its hewn-beam ceiling overhanging murals of incredible splendor. But that is as nothing to the Festhalle upstairs, its ornately carved thrones stretching along th richly painted upper walls for almost the length of the castle. Then, coming down the stairs, we peer in at the more humble quarters Luther occupied in this same fortress at the time he began his translation of the New Testament.
The same regimentation that allows people to wait patiently in line is evident on the tour itself, where, one notices, no one asks questions. Nor do the guides seem pleased when another visitor accidentally brushes up against a piece of medieval woodwork. The word used is "bitte" -- "please" -- but the tone is one of command.
I mention this to a West German visitor with whom we strike up a conversation on the way down. "Yes," he comments philosophically, "it was a long line. But you have to remember all the years we weren't able to come here at all."
And I realize he has learned the lesson I am learning, however slowly, that some things are worth waiting for. But as we climb back in the car and I see those altered "DDR" stickers, in some cases surmounted by a banner proclaiming "Wir sind EIN Volk!" -- "We are ONE people" -- that, with that goal in sight, even Germans don't like to wait. At least not when it comes to getting their country back, whatever the price.