Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unexpected third-hand result of Hungary tearing down its section of the iron curtain (and Mikhail Gorbachev's decision not to roll the tanks to stop any of it.) The sudden opening took everyone by surprise, including the East German leadership, who'd authorized its citizens to travel visa-free across the inter-German border, but hadn't properly communicated their intent to the people in the field before going to bed the night before.
As news spread that the wall had opened, hundreds of thousands of East Germans poured into Berlin to have their first glimpse of the west. I would join the exodus from the east, arriving from Budapest at East Berlin's Lichtenberg station on the morning of November 16th, where the platforms were so overwhelmed with people, the train couldn't pull all the way into the station. It would be one of the most exhilarating days of my life.
But while the rest of the world was celebrating the news from Berlin the night of November 9th, I was completely oblivious that anything had happened.
As an exchange student in Budapest, it seemed the epic events of 1989 had already transpired. Hungary had opened the iron curtain, declared itself a republic and a non-aligned nation, disbanded the party's militias, scheduled free elections for 1990, and effectively exited the Soviet camp. After witnessing history, three friends and I decided to get some fresh air and traveled to the Julian Alps in the far northwestern corner of Yugoslavia, now independent Slovenia. The foliage was still on the trees, the idyllic resort town of Lake Bled was deserted, the hiking trails in the foothills of the Alps were truly stunning. Snow-topped peaks glowed in the moonlight. We never saw a television or heard a radio we could understand. There was no internet or cell phones in those days. Nobody mentioned to us that history had changed.
In fact, we wouldn't learn that anything had happened in Berlin until we got back to our dormitory in Budapest the evening of the 12th.
Even in Budapest, it was hard to get a good sense of what was happening. "We don't have Dan Rather or CNN, we can't see it out our window," I wrote in my journal. "What we can do is board a train on Wednesday night and go see it first hand." We would skip classes (on centrally-planned economics and East European history), stand in long lines for transit visas at the Czechoslovak and East German embassies, and take off to join the exodus.
Travel fatigue had by now set in. Our class schedule allowed us to travel on three day weekends, but this often meant spending more time on long distance trains than at our destinations. At the time I boarded the train for the 17 hour overnight trip to East Berlin, I was already exhausted, having taken separate whirlwind tours of Poland (25 hours on trains), western Austria (16 hours), and Slovenia (24 hours) on each of the previous three weekends.
"Several times I have imagined dying and finding myself in a second class coach car traveling through gray scenery for eternity without arriving at a destination," I wrote. "What I need is one weekend to rest here in Budapest, but the East Germans have thwarted me!... there's some historical event happening every few minutes."
And it wasn't over yet.