30 years ago, I spent Halloween hacking out my piece of the Berlin Wall

·5 min read
Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

Every year on the last day of October, I tell a story. A story that has nothing to do with Halloween.

It's about the day — Oct. 31, 1990 — that I hacked out my own chunks of the Berlin Wall.

Thirty years ago, international travel was not nearly as commonplace as it is today, at least among the slice of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that I knew. The pre-internet world was a much larger and more mysterious place.

I wanted to be out in it.

After I finished my degree at Memorial, my friend Patti and I saved up our summer job money. Armed with Eurail passes and a thick paperback copy of Let's Go Europe 1990, we set out on a three-month backpacking trip around Europe.

Change was happening

While we were trekking around the continent, the ground was shifting under our feet. Communism was collapsing. The tech revolution was just starting. Politicians were talking about the New World Order, which now sounds more like a 1990s band name.

Our minds, however, were focused on student backpacker delights. The taste of real Belgian chocolate — in Belgium! A standing-room spot at the Vienna State Opera. Youth hostel pints, and conversation with other international travellers.

But the most memorable day of that trip was that day in Berlin.

A few weeks before we reached West Germany, the country had reunified with East Germany to become, once more, Germany. The maps in Let's Go Europe 1990 were already out of date.

Gilles Leimdorfer/AFP via Getty Images
Gilles Leimdorfer/AFP via Getty Images

Along with Krista, another backpacker from Ontario, we set out on a train ride from Hanover to Berlin.

We rolled through what looked like Ontario or Quebec farmland, until, suddenly, the farm buildings looked shabbier. The farm machinery was older, broken down. It was like being in a film and going from colour to black and white.

We had crossed a line that, less than a month before, had been the border between East and West Germany.

We pulled into Bahnhof Zoo, the main train station in Berlin, and switched to a U-Bahn metro line to get us to the Brandenburg Gate.

We wound up getting out at a stop on the former East Berlin side. The Brandenburg Gate was visible in the distance, down Unter Dem Linden, a wide, tree-lined boulevard.

We walked up that stately street, past grey, imposing stone buildings. Small, boxy East German cars called Trabants trundled by.

Then we reached the Brandenburg Gate.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

Rent-a-chisel

The Berlin Wall may have figuratively "come down" the year before, but the imposing concrete wall still stretched for kilometres. It was covered in brightly coloured murals and graffiti, at least on the western side.

Scattered around it was an informal flea market, with vendors selling bits of former Communist memorabilia — East German army uniforms, fur hats and the like. There were also tables with arrays of small pickaxes and chisels.

For five Deutschmarks, you could rent a pick and chisel for 15 minutes, hack away at the Berlin Wall, and keep whatever you got loose as a souvenir.

We plunked down our Deutschmarks and set to work.

I managed to pry out a couple of small knobs of concrete with flecks of red paint.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

We spent the rest of the day wandering our way back to Bahnhof Zoo - gawking at the magnificent architecture, soaking in the sense of change in the air, and agreeing that we would be telling our future grandchildren about this day.

On the evening train back to Hanover, there was one more moment of pure magic.

Three jazz musicians emerged from the train compartment next to us. They started jamming in the train hallway, giving the rest of us a pop-up show.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

At that moment it felt like the world was a network of rail lines —all heading off to unknown and exciting destinations. Change was lifting and liberating all of us.

It wasn't until we got back to the Hanover International Youth Hostel that we realized we had seen no jack-o'-lanterns, no little ghosts and goblins. Halloween as we knew it didn't seem to be a thing in reunified Germany.

Whatever. We had trick-or-treated for pieces of the Berlin Wall.

LISTEN: Heather Barrett tells the tale of being in Berlin as the wall was being chiselled into pieces:

Where is my wall?

I'd love to dig out my bits of the Berlin Wall and show them to you. But for the life of me, I can't find them. I think they got misplaced in a house move.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, boarding a train — or an airplane — for an adventure into the unknown anytime soon is both unappealing and unlikely to happen.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

My own youngsters are about the same age I was when I was in Berlin. They're at home, experiencing the world through their smartphones. Their New World Order is the climate crisis and global citizen unrest.

Every Halloween, I tell them the story of my amazing non-Halloween Halloween, and every year, they roll their eyes.

The sense of possibility I felt that day in Berlin 30 years ago is missing, just like my painted chunks of German concrete.

Been there, done that, have the T-shirt

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

My copy of Let's Go Europe 1990 is beat up and faded. So is my Berlin '90 T-shirt.

But I still have them.

In a significant moment of world history, I was there.

In another significant moment of world history, I am here.

Where did the wall go?

This CBC photogallery prepared in 2014 shows how small sections of the massive Berlin Wall landed in countries around the world.

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