Saturday, June 2, 2012

East Berlin, Imagination in Overdrive

Allied Checkpoint Charlie, 1988

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, bringing much with it. Certainly not the most important, but still significant to readers was the virtual loss of Cold War spy thrillers, my favorite genre at the time. I was fortunate enough to travel to Germany the year before and spend a short time in East Berlin. We cried at the wall, marked in places by plain white crosses representing people killed trying to cross.
I went through Allied Checkpoint Charlie, which was a thrill for me, having read about it in so many books. The briefing and debriefing we went through there made it all the more interesting. No matter what happened, we were never to talk to or go anywhere with a German officer or policeman. We were told to say "I want to see a Russian officer," even if we were lying in the street with a broken leg. "Grit your teeth and wait for the Russians." This was something to do with the agreements between the four political powers that controlled Berlin--Russia, the United States, Britain, and France.
Ri Lamb, our lovely and patient hostess, also showed us the Glienicke Bridge, popularly known as the Bridge of Spies because of the prisoner exchanges that took place there. I read about it through John Le Carré (in Smiley's People) and Len Deighton (Funeral in Berlin). Funeral in Berlin was made into a movie with Michael Caine. It's a classic.  About 2 minutes in, there's a shot of the bridge.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
We were not allowed to take pictures of any government structures in East Berlin—not that I knew which ones they were—but I can't find a photo of the bridge among my own, so I included a link to a photo taken at the same time.
Much of the damage from WWII was still visible. The Kaiser Wilhelm Church with its bomb-damaged spire was left standing and became a memorial. We saw the Kempinski Hotel, another place supposedly used by spies. Helen MacInnes, another great writer and favorite, wrote The Salzburg Connection, also made into a movie. My imagination was in overdrive the entire trip. I always wanted to write a spy thriller, but I didn’t (and still don't) know enough to pull it off. 
Sniper fire was still evident. The picture of the apartment shows sniper damage around the window. Seeing the results everywhere, from cars with plywood fenders wired to the frame, armed soldiers everywhere (also verboten in photos), and beautiful buildings with missing walls and roofs, brought home the lessons of war and political distrust.
Apartment, sniper fire
Parts of Germany were quite different, peaceful and charming with no reminders of war, but that's another story. I have boxes of photos and a headful of memories from that trip. I still dream of it and revisit in old books. I even started a novel set there.
Do you have special places that fire your imagination and make you dream? Do you enjoy reading about them? Writing about them? What were some of your favorite places? Tell us about them and the books you've read or written.


Sandy Cody said...

This is fascinating, Ellis. I had no idea you lived such an exciting life. The inspiration for my latest book is much closer to home - the town where I live, in fact. Like you, I'd love to write a spy thriller, but realize I don't know enough to pull it off.

Ellis Vidler said...

Sandy, I've been lucky enough to travel a little, but my life is nothing like my characters'. They have the excitement, but I've had a lot of fun! Is this a new book or maybe Love and Not Destroy? The setting in that one was very vivid. I could see the town. I enjoyed being there with Peace.

Polly Iyer said...

I wish I wrote a diary during the 14 months I lived in Rome, Italy. My memory of the events, so life-altering at the time, are nothing more than a misty recollection. Funny, I thought I'd never forget every second of my time there. Upon returning to Rome about 10 years ago, nothing was as I remembered. So many more tourists clogging all the places we used to be able to walk through unattended and without waiting. I guess I'll just have to settle for remembering the feelings I had when I lived there even if I don't remember specific events.

Anonymous said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing..