Origins - Part III 

Chantilly, France

In 1989, Mikhail Gorbechev was in his fourth year as leader of the Soviet Union. George Bush Sr was beginning his first year as president of the U.S., taking the Republican baton from Ronald Reagan who in 1987 had stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and in a speech challenged Gorbechev to "tear down this wall". Of course, Reagan was referring to the wall which had separated the city of Berlin into two parts administered in the East by the Russian influenced German Democratic Replublic and in the West by the Western influence Federal Republic of Germany since the early 1960s when Berlin had become a major flash point in the Cold War between Russia and the West.

In 1989, I was living in my home town in Michigan, having recently graduated from College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and having been to Africa and back, I was working for a small computer consulting company but was restless to do something else. I had already many years before acquired an ambition which this modest midwestern town could not contain. It was then that my attention began to turn from the more exotic countries to European ones.

That summer, an airline was offering discounts for trips to Europe beginning after the summer tourist season. I convinced a buddy of mine to accompany me on a trip to Germany where a friend of mine from High School lived. I had taken German lessons in High School and in College and was curious to see what use I could make of my education. We planned our trip for late November.

As Summer turned into Fall, it became clear from reports out of Europe that a series of historic events had been set in motion that would change the course of history and the relations between the Soviet dominated countries behind the "Iron Curtain" and Western Europe and its ally, the United States.

In 1988, Gorbechev's restructuring of the Soviet System was well underway and he introduced the concept of Glasnost, which provided greater freedoms to the Soviet people. It provided the backdrop for what was to happen in the Soviet dominated countries of Eastern Europe as a Pandora's Box had been opened providing hope and momentem to the aspirations of these countrys' citizens to enjoy greater freedom.

In late August of 1989, Hungry, the most "Westernized" of the Eastern Block countries, removed border restrictions with Austria, allowing its citizens to travel freely across that border. As East Germans were able to travel relatively easily within the Eastern Bloc, 13,000 of them who were in Hungary took the opportunity to cross into the West.

Demonstrations of East Germans against the government of Erich Honecker broke out in September and lead to his resignation in mid October. Meanwhile, immigration from East Germany to the west continued through Hungary and Czeckoslovakia when on November 9, the East German govenment decided to allow refugees to exit directly across the border in Berlin.

From that date, people would come to the wall with picks and sledgehammers, encouraged by the lax attitude of the border guards, to begin taking away souvenir pieces of the wall.

A few weeks later, my buddy Steve and I arrived in Germany to begin the tour we had planned months before. We landed in Frankfurt am Main, and made our way to Cologne, making a stop in the Netherlands before heading to Berlin. We found Berlin to be still very much the divided city it had been for decades. As we found out by trial and error, Americans were allowed to cross into the East only at Checkpoint Charlie. All but one of the stations on the one metro line which crossed from the west into the east were still closed. It was still very much the Berlin of the cold war although it was clearly the beginning of the end. I would return to Berlin a decade later to witness the transformation of that city and find that the Berlin Wall had become but a memory.

In late November of 1989, we were able to chip off our souvenir piece of the wall, and observe the lines of East Germans getting their allowance of West German Deutschmarks and the many Trabants, that ubiquitous East German car, parked in the streets of West Berlin.

We continued our tour of Germany, travelling by train to Bavaria, and making our way back to Frankfurt for our return flight home. I had enjoyed my experience in Europe. It was the first of many experiences to come.

In early 1990 I quit my job and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan taking a job as a software developer with a local company. I spent my off hours studying French at the University of Michigan in order to build on the language experience I had gained in Africa. In the next few years I would travel twice to France on vacation, the first on a solo hike across Provence which ended prematurely from physical exhaustion, and a second, much more successful trip as part of a volunteer group restoring an old chapel in Southern France.

It was a time of confidence building as I discovered my ability to work and interact with a diverse group of people from European and North African countries.

(To be continued)
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