Sunday, November 8, 2009


1989 may well have been the best year of my life, if for no other reason than that the world-- well, the northern hemisphere, at least-- was in major political upheaval. I was a college junior in the fall of 1989; the Tienanmen Square massacre had occurred in June, then the Berlin Wall fell in November, and finally, at Christmas, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was put against a wall alongside his wife and executed by firing squad. It's been said that Kim Jong Il took that day to heart, which may explain his white-knuckled grip on North Korea.

Twenty years on, in 2009, we pause and look back on those amazing events. I was studying in Fribourg, Switzerland when the Wall fell; a week after it happened, I took a train to Berlin with some of my classmates, and we got to see the collapse for ourselves. The Wall was still standing, but many of its panels were gone. People with sledgehammers pounded away at the Wall's remnants, and the upright panels were covered in gorgeous, joyful graffiti. One crack in the Wall had been filled with a rose; I've got a picture of that somewhere. Checkpoint Charlie, the military gateway between Ost und West Berlin, was still functioning, and we students had to exchange our Deutsche Marks for Ostmarks when we passed through. All Ostmarks had to be spent before returning to Checkpoint Charlie.

On the other side of the Wall, East Berlin was a completely different world, one that bore a resemblance to the photos I'd see, later on in life, of Pyeongyang. We beheld wide avenues with almost no cars, enormous buildings with little or no activity in them, and cold sculpture gardens peopled with muscular tributes to the working man. Concrete, steel, and so little green. The food that my classmates and I ate in East Berlin was terrible: limp fish in a runny white sauce, with barely boiled potatoes on the side. Not exactly inspiring.

In December of that year, I spent Christmas with my French host family, whom I'd known since before college. The news about Romania was broadcast on French TV, and that's how I learned that another oppressive regime had fallen. Kim Jong Il may have watched that event, per the rumors, but I doubt he learned the right lessons from it.

Now here we are, twenty years on. I'd love to know what East Berlin looks and feels like today. I'd love to visit Tienanmen Square and Targoviste, where Ceausescu was killed. What has the passage of time done for or to these places, these people? Twenty years is quite a span.

And 1989 was quite a year. I was in Europe from the late summer of 1989 to the early summer of 1990. Twenty years ago, I was a mere(!) 200 pounds and was able to blast out seven legitimate pullups-- not much by true athletic standards, but it was seven more pullups than I could have done before I'd arrived in la belle Suisse. I was also able to run-- not jog-- 1.5 miles. Some of my friends have heard all this before, and I'm sure they're sick of my bellyaching. But when I contrast my life twenty years ago with how things are going for me and my family now, I can't help but be a little wistful for those glory days. The world was wide and changing then; dawn seemed to be breaking everywhere, and mortality was far from my mind.


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