There were three of us, in various states of undress. I was the youngest. Hardly surprising, given that we were getting ready for qi gong, the slowest form of exercise imaginable.
“You’re not from here?” one of the women said.
“No,” I said, “I’m Irish.”
She wasn’t German either, though she sounded it, having moved here from Greece as a young child. Her name gave it away though: Althea*.
The other woman was from Bavaria. Her name was Heike*.
“Some friends of mine were moving to Berlin,” she said. “So I went with them on a whim, planning to stay for a few months. That was 50 years ago.”
“But oh, how West Berlin has changed,” said Althea, who came here long before the wall came down.
“Oh yes,” said Heike. “It used to be quite something.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“West Berlin used to sparkle,” she said. “It was a very special place.”
Althea nodded enthusiastically. “Yes,” she said. “It positively glowed.”
Everyone knew each other, they told me. Walled off and with a constant perceived threat of Russian invasion, it was an unconventional type of person who chose to come to West Berlin.
“It was full of pacifists,” Heike said, referring to the young men who came to West Berlin specifically to avoid conscription. A quirk of the city’s division was that the West was technically under the rule of the Allied occupiers, allowing residents to legally bypass the draft that applied elsewhere.
There was a schizophrenic aspect to the city too. It wasn’t just conscientious objectors smoking cigarettes while they mused about changing the world.
Wealth mattered. And flaunting it was a conscious choice.
No building typified it more than KaDeWe on Kudamm. These days, it looks like a regular fancy department store.
But back then, it was an icon of capitalism and the freedom many asso
ciated with it.
“There used to be a cafe nearby,” said Heike. “You couldn’t go there without meeting someone you knew. There was this one wealthy man who would pay for everyone … they were good times.”
The concept of Ostalgie – nostalgia for the former East Germany – is in common parlance in German.
It evokes the sense of a simpler time, far from the Ellenbogengesellschaft (literally ‘elbow society’) of today, characterized by citizens nudging each other in the race to get to the top.
(Before you get too warm and fuzzy, it’s worth remembering that it was also a time of totalitarianism, operated by a network of tyrannical officials and served by tens of thousands of informers masquerading as friends and lovers.)
But the idea of Westalgie – the yearning for the walled-off West – was new to me. Proof it existed could be found in the qi gong changing room in Schöneberg.
*names have been changed