For this, my first “Random Post”, I’m going to write about my various visits to Berlin from 1977 to 1992. The next post will be about my most recent visit in 2019.
Ever since reading in Christopher Isherwood’s novel in 1976 where he said that, to him, “Berlin meant boys” and seeing the film “Cabaret”, I knew Berlin was a city I wanted to visit. I was 26 and living in London at the time.
I had also been a student of Germany’s dark Nazi history and its postwar divisions and I wanted to see and learn more.
The first opportunity to visit Berlin arrived unexpectedly. During that summer of 1976, I had travelled to Mykonos for a holiday where I hooked up with Eugen who just happened to be from Berlin. I had met him while we were both sunning nude on Mykonos’ infamous Super Paradise Beach.
Eugen and I spent a marvellous week together exploring the ins and outs of this island – an early European gay holiday destination – and nearby Delos. The excitement of meeting other gay men from around Europe in this hot environment was thrilling. Eugen, like me, also had a history with gay liberationist politics so we had lots to talk about.
Eugen invited me to stay with him in Berlin the next summer and that I did. He took me to all the tourist places by day and all the gay places by night. That became my pattern for my European tours after that: mingle with the tourists in the day and cruise the locals at night. I kept a diary and it’s full of names of men I met socially and/or sexually with sentences like “Got back to the hotel at 5 am”. Those were the days.
One of the first places Eugen took me to when I arrived was to Berlin’s nude gay beach at Grunewaldsee. I learned that nudism at beaches in Germany is certainly more common than in other Anglo Saxon countries. They’re called FKK beaches (Freikörper-Kultur) reflecting the belief that your body is freer when it’s nude. Sounds good to me.
The second experience he treated me to was an excursion into East Berlin. Below you can see Eugen behind an East German soldier at the Neue Wache, constructed as a Guardhouse by the Prussian army in the early 19th century. It has served as a war memorial by different regimes. The East German Communists called it a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. The current regime calls it the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship. You will notice the change in emphasis.
This trip gave me my first sight of the infamous Berlin Wall constructed in 1963 by the East German government to stop East Berliners from travelling to the West. Hundreds of East Berliners were injured or murdered as they tried to cross that Wall. As someone who has always been fascinated by borders this city provided lots of stimuli for me – both of horror and fascination.
There wasn’t one Wall – there were two. One usually right on or near the border and then the “hinter Wall” in the East. In between were land mines and other obstructions, including trip wires that could set off gunshots. The bottom photo shows a very wide gap between the two Walls at the former Potsdamer/Leipziger Platz. The West provided Viewing Stands which is how I managed to take a photo looking into the middle.
Crossing the border for a day visit for us westerners was a hassle but it was possible. The hassle part is that you were looked up and down by the guards as they attempted to intimidate you. As well, you had to compulsorily exchange a certain amount of Deutschmarks for East German marks at well below the market rate.
But the advantage to me is that I met the lovely Manfred with whom I started an immediate affair. Who wouldn’t?
When I first saw Manfred on main street – Unter den Linden – I was certainly attracted to his handsomeness. We started chatting (as one does). I had assumed, because of his clothing, that he was a Westerner (Wessie) because they tended to be able to dress more fashionably than the “Ossies” (the nickname for East Germans) . But I was wrong. Manfred had never been to the West because of the Wall. He told me that he was in Berlin studying to become a Pfarrer (minister) in the Protestant Church. One of the reasons for doing that, he said, was because there was a chance for those in the religious institutions to travel to the West. He never did get to the West until after the Wall came down in 1989.
For a minister, he was quite openly gay and, over the years, Manfred took me to the gay bars, clubs and restaurants in East Berlin – which certainly existed in this communist one party state.
My next visit to Berlin was 4 years later in 1981. At that time, I was teaching Sociology in a secondary school in the west of West Germany near Düsseldorf. My students were children of the British forces stationed in Germany. As I was living in the country, I had taken German lessons and had become manageably fluent. So that helped me to better experience the visit.
This visit was part of a Eastern European car trip with my Canadian friend, Peter. We started in Mönchengladbach, where I lived, and drove through Germany, Austria, Hungary, northern Yugoslavia and back home via Italy. Fantastic experience of various East European governments – the restrictions to tourists becoming less onerous the further south we headed.
As I did last time, I explored the Wall and made Peter pose in front of it.
Peter and I went together to East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie and met up with Manfred who was as gorgeous and kind as ever. He poses for a few photos and then takes us to two fun and lively gay bars. Sad goodbye again at the Wall.
A year later, I was back in the city again. This time I wanted to spend more time with Manfred and stay with him, but it wasn’t possible for people from the West to stay with locals. If you did stay overnight in the East, you had to book every night in advance. So I booked at the Palasthotel – a hotel in central East Berlin that locals couldn’t stay in because you needed to pay in hard currency. But my intention was to actually stay with Manfred in his country rectory in the small village of Prädikow.
On researching for this post, I discovered that the Palasthotel was torn down in 2000 because of asbestos concerns, but maybe because it was also known as the Stasi-hotel where guests would have their rooms bugged if they were suspect. Luckily they didn’t bug my room when I had Manfred and another friend of his stay overnight before we headed to Prädikow.
After wining and dining me at his home, Manfred generously drove me around to some local sights, including Potsdam, and introduced me to friends of his. I felt well cared for.
Manfred’s hospitality includes taking me to an East Berlin gay beach. Nude, of course. I’m getting used to these by now.
I want to include this photo I took at the train station of Soviet soldiers just before I was about to return home. Probably I shouldn’t have done it, but nothing went wrong even though the train conductor on the left seems to have caught wind of me.
I’m now back living and teaching in London and am having an affair with the smart and lovely George. The relationship is in its early stages so not firmed up but we do decide to go to Berlin for a long weekend and stay with an American friend of mine, Lopez. He works as a counsellor for the Americans in their sector of Berlin.
It all starts well as George and Lopez connect.
As it’s George’s first visit to the city, I act as tour guide and drag him around to all the sites I wanted to get to including the obligatory view of the Brandenburg Tor with the Wall still firmly in place.
As you know by now, a visit to Berlin for me wouldn’t be complete without travelling to the East to visit Manfred. Luckily he’s available and he meets George and I at the Nikolaiviertel area (below) of East Berlin which is the city’s attempt to create a new neighbourhood which resembles “old” Berlin. It’s a success.
I’m impressed because that “new” is very different from the stark Stalinist apartment blocks that popped up all over East Berlin in the 60s.
We had a unique experience as darkness descended. Manfred got us on a bus and took us to what was a large, almost deserted housing estate. But what’s taking place in its state-run dining room?
A large and full gay disco.
How did everyone find out about this? Word-of-mouth must have been the only way and it showed me again how plugged in Manfred was, even as a minister, to the local gay scene. We had a blast dancing but we had to leave in time to get to the border by midnight again leaving Manfred in the East.
My diary tells me that on our return George and I headed to Schwuz – a gay dance place that still exists – for more dancing. Hadn’t we had enough?
George dumped me two weeks after our return to London. I was sad but not surprised. He wasn’t interested in following me around.
This was a quick visit in the summer from London to see Lopez and, as always, visit the gay bars and the Wall which continued to obsess me. I searched out less visited parts of the Wall in quiet neighbourhoods where its presence was just as formidable. And by the Spree River where signs were in Turkish as well as German. Turks had been the major “Gastarbeiters” (immigrant guest workers) in Germany for the last few decades but were still guests and not citizens despite many of them having lived in Germany their whole lives.
What I didn’t do this time is visit Manfred. I can’t remember if he wasn’t available or whether I just didn’t call him given how short my stay was.
But I did get to Tom’s Bar – a longstanding leather/denim gay venue that still stands. “Got home at 4”, my diary says.
My final trip to Berlin (until 2019) happened about three years after the Wall came down and two years after Germany was reunited. I had just recently returned to living in Canada after 17 years working and living abroad.
I had fallen in love with Jean-Pierre from Montreal and I had moved there to live with him. Our relationship could take several other long posts! I’ll just say now that we’d been together just over a year when we took this trip to Europe together visiting spots and friends from my old life in Germany, ending up in Berlin at the end of the two week trip.
Lopez had kindly arranged for us to stay in an apartment of a friend of his while he was away so we had it to ourselves. And it had a satellite TV – with its dish – which we’d never experienced before.
It was so much fun to explore the city that I’d come to know quite well but now without the Wall.
Where once had been machine guns and watchtowers between the two Walls now stood exposed and empty. Prewar, this same area had been the heartbeat of the city – Potsdamer Platz – bustling with lights, people, cars and commerce.
Parts of the Wall were left up, including the murals that had emerged on the western side.
Did I see my Manfred? Yes. He extended a warm invitation to Jean-Pierre and we drove in our rental car to his quiet village home. We reminisced about our previous encounters and explorations.
At this point I would be showing you the photos I took that evening. But the next day, I accidentally left my camera under a park bench while taking a break. I remembered 30 minutes later but by the time Jean-Pierre and I ran back to retrieve it, the camera had gone. Never to be found again. If you’ve got to know me, you’ll know that I was devastated. Not only did I lose the camera, but days of photos. I was heartbroken.
What did Jean-Pierre make of this trip? He said he had a good time but he turned to me and asked – “Is your heart still in Europe?” I had returned to Canada but he could see I still had strong emotional links to my life experiences in my 20s and 30s on that continent. Smart guy. That thought of his hung over the next three years of our relationship which, just saying, ended in 1995.
It took another 27 years for me to get back to this fabulous city of Walls and queers. That’s for another post.