I was living in Vienna. Vienna, Austria, that is. And the Berlin wall came down. We spent that night quietly at home, not listening to radio or TV, so knew nothing about the momentous happenings in Berlin late that day.
Of course, we were living in the midst of change, we knew that. Quite apart from what was in the news, there were the odd things that happened to us, personally. We were Hungary in October 1988, for instance, and there was a good-natured student demonstration taking place; I remember watching it from the Citadel in Buda – a steep hill that rises sheer from the banks of the Danube. The young folk held hands and wended their way across a bridge and along the riverside, and then back over the river by another bridge.
They were demonstrating against the building of a barrage on the Danube in Austria – but the reason was not the huge significance. It was that a demonstration was allowed at all. I remember a tourist ferry gave them three blasts on its horn, and there was a rousing cheer in response.
In Poland, earlier in 1989, Solidarity had already – impossibly and remarkably – won Communist-staged elections. I remember we picked up a Polish hitchhiker and he was full of hope for the future as he made his way (virtually penniless) to the West to take a look. He was full of confidence that the US would be pouring money and aid into his country. My husband and I were more dubious.
Anyway, back to the fall of the Wall. I woke up the next morning and turned on the radio to hear the news. The station I listened to always started with the news in German, then in English. As I listened to the German version, I couldn’t believe my years. I shook my husband awake. ‘I think they just said the Berlin Wall was down,’ I shouted.
He thought I had misinterpreted the German. “No, no,’ I said, and dashed downstairs. In those days (if I remember correctly) there was no morning TV in Vienna, but I switched it on anyway, knowing that this day there would be. And sure enough, they were broadcasting scenes from Berlin of the night before.
There is an image that has stayed with me ever since:
An elderly lady, surrounded by crowds of celebrating, happy people – and they are in West Berlin. She is dressed in an ugly dark coat, but she is being interviewed by the TV reporter. She is an East German, she says, and she lives near the checkpoint. A friend had telephoned to tell her the wall was down. ‘So I rushed out to see for myself, and here I am! I waited 30 years for this, and I couldn’t wait any longer! See?’ she asks, and opens up her coat. She is dressed in a nightgown, and on her feet are bedroom slippers. She had not spared the time to dress.
After 20 years, I may have misremembered the details, but the image stays with me.
I know how I felt then. I had grown up with the cold war, with the fear it engendered, and now it seemed – it was over.
And there, like that elderly woman, I stood dressed in my nightgown, and watched the wall come down as the tears of joy welled in my eyes.