Reunification and division

We’ve all seen the pictures.

1989: a remarkable year.

Muslims burn Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses as the Ayatollah Khomeini orders his execution for blaspheming Islam.

The last Soviet troops leave Afghan soil after a ten-year occupation.

The Exxon Valdez tanker spill ravages Alaska’s coast.

Bloody riots mark the 30th anniversary of Tibetan anti-Chinese uprising: dozens dead, thousands arrested.

The Hillsborough football stadium disaster claims 94 lives and 170 are injured.

An anoymous man stands alone in front of a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square after the Chinese military kills hundreds of protestors.

The Ayatollah of Iran dies and is buried and mourners tear at his shroud for commemorative souvenirs.

The Vietnamese leave Cambodia after 11 years occupation.

Hungary opens its borders to allow East Germans to flee Communism.

San Francisco is struck by a 6.9 on the Richter scale earthquake.

Hungary rejects Communism and becomes a new republic.

And the Berlin Wall, a 28-mile long scar cutting across Berlin, an ugly symbol of a divided world, instead becomes a gateway to the world.

No one thought to see it happen in their lifetimes.

The Berlin Wall rose in August 1961, after East Germany sealed off the border between East and West Berlin, to stem a growing tide of refugees.

The Wall was six feet tall, a concrete barrier topped with barbed wire, heavily guarded, and the East side of the Wall riddled with landmines.

At least 75 people met violent deaths trying to escape over the Wall since its construction.

But in 1989 thousands of Berliners dance and shout from the top of the parapets, hacking at the loathsome monument, loosening chunks of masonry and demolishing memories of repression.

Now wind the clock forward to today, 2015.

Rushdie still is guarded, fearing for his life.

Afghanistan remains a problem, a country occupied by Taliban and American allied troops, and where mercy remains a distant memory.

(Today’s headlines: a Doctors Without Borders hospital is bombed.)

The Alaskan coast is recovering, but it may take generations to restore it to its original pristine condition.

Sports violence still remains a problem, but focus is more on athletes’ domestic behaviour rather than crowd control.

Vietnam and Cambodia still struggle with balancing self-reliance with human rights.

Hungary builds fences and walls to keep Syrian refugees out.

China remains oppressive.

Tibet still cries.

California still waits for the Big One to strike any day now.

And, in Germany, it is possible at any souvenir shop in Berlin to buy yourself a piece of the old Berlin Wall.

(Though one wonders if the Wall was really only 28 miles long when considering how many pieces of it are for sale.)

Though movies have been made since 1989 showing just how repressive life in the former DDR (East Germany) was, victims of capitalism often wax nostalgic (“Ost-talgie”) about the “good ol’ days” of Communism, when everyone was equal, everyone had a job, and there was a chicken in every pot.

(I think North Koreans might disagree with this perception.)

Germans in the former West complain about the ongoing costs of reunification.

Germans in the former East complain about the difficulties of capitalism and the prejudice shown by the “Wessies” to the “Osties”.

Though speeches are made by German politicians and national radio SWR will play music “made in Germany”, Germans rarely react patriotically since the dark days of WW2.

Saturday, German Reunification Day, is a day off work for most Germans.

Shops and banks are closed, though cafes, restaurants and cinemas remain open.

A rare event last Saturday is seeing stores in Swiss Kreuzlingen filled with German shoppers, while normally German Konstanz sees flocks of Swiss shoppers.

Ute (my wife) and I went to Konstanz Saturday night.

No fireworks, no German flags flying, no posters, nothing to mark the day as anything more than a banking holiday.

We see the film Inside Out at the Lago  shopping mall cinema.

We have supper at a nice restaurant in the neighbourhood.

The mood is bittersweet.

We celebrate being reunited after a week of separation, whilst she was in Bern on a training course and I was in Geneva looking for work.

We, of course, discuss the events of the Wall, what it meant to Germans to see the Wall come crashing down.

I recall living in Ottawa, in a tiny one-room flat in a highrise block, when news reached Canada about these dramatic events.

Despite the geographical distance between us, we both knew that we were witness to remarkable historical events where life would no longer be the same.

Of course, as in many discussions between couples, there is an elephant in the room, a topic that must be discussed but instead is deflected, danced around, ignored, despite the immense presence of the topic.

Since yesterday, Ute and I, for at least three years, will now mostly live very separate lives in distant cities: she in Zürich getting Swiss qualifications in a chidren’s hospital there, I in Geneva getting teaching work that seems unobtainable in northeastern Switzerland.

She already has a flat there.

I search for a room in Geneva.

We still maintain our shared flat by the Lake of Constance as she will work Fridays and weekends back “home”, while I will study German in Konstanz and work at Starbucks in St. Gallen, as well on Fridays and weekends.

We try to reassure ourselves that 20 years together through thick and thin should enable us to survive the next three years mostly apart.

But whatever problems exist between a couple are never aided by distance and separation.

We know that we are witness and participant to personal events where our lives will no longer be the same.

There are no fireworks.

No flags fly.

No posters are displayed.

We were just another couple on a Saturday night out together.

Would someone please shoot the damn elephant?


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