Navigating public transportation in Berlin takes some getting used to. Taking the ferry and trains to reach the city was a pleasant roll through the sea and countryside which is also the exact opposite experience of Berlin’s Central Station. I wandered aimlessly through this five-level monstrosity where train tracks, escalators, and shopping met in an architectural Frankenstein. Several floors up were the local trains I needed to get out and to my apartment for the week. I made it the necessary few stops further east, got turned around at the last station, and took the right bus in the wrong direction. Disoriented and exhausted I finally made it to Alt-Treptow where I was all too happy to offload.
It took a couple of days to get my bearings and figure out what my priorities were in this city. Wandering among various memorials and museums gave me an idea of what my research options were and where I could find clues about our short but critical passage through Berlin. The beautiful thing about Berlin is that there are numerous foundations whose express purpose is the preservation of their troubled, local and national history. This made it easier to make a plan for the week, but first I had an interview appointment at one of the local radio stations.
Starting off the week with an on air talk about this project is a great motivator. I leisurely strolled through Kreuzberg and found my way to the offices of FluxFM, situated by the Spree river across from the East Side Gallery's sections of the wall. Foregoing the old and temperamental elevator, I climbed five flights of stairs to the top. It’s a good thing people can’t see you sweat on the radio.
My contact at the station found The Landless when we were still deep in crowdfunding stages and invited me to come in when I made it to Berlin. Hard to believe that was several months prior and now I was shaking hands with the staff while they made me fresh coffee. We talked and toured the offices, stepped out on the rooftop deck, and went over the interview plan. Moments later I was in the studio having a great conversation with the exuberant Charlie Winston. Following an introduction in German we talked entirely in English. My German language skills are passable but after 22 years of not practicing I’m much too rusty for intelligent dialogue.
It warmed my heart to have these people show such interest in my journey. We snapped photos, took down contact details, and said our goodbyes. I promised to return at some point for an update and left in high spirits. It was one of those moments when the long road of getting this far felt a little easier, a bit more worth it, and more rewarding. With renewed determination I began preparing for my next interview. But this time I would be on the other side of the mic.
After some web sleuthing and asking around at the Berlin Wall Memorial, I was able to narrow down my search for the station that served as a border crossing between East and West Berlin. Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, I was told, was the only place that trains were routed to and served as a traumatizing checkpoint for all those trying to move between the city’s two sides. If we came on a train, this would have had to be the place. Thing is, the stamps in our old passport didn’t quite make sense to me. There were two stamps from the DDR, what we used to call East Germany, and I couldn’t make sense of the dates on them. I would need some professional advice.
Paying a visit to the Tränenpalast museum was the next logical step. The station at Friedrichstrasse was a harrowing experience for a multitude of souls that passed through its maze-like corridors. Exacting scrutiny on the side of guards, inspecting belongings and documents while carrying automatic weapons, and pushing through train cars with German Shepherds were only some of the intimidation tactics used at what became commonly known as “the palace of tears.” And those are just the parts I remember. Walking through the museum, seeing the photos there, and listening to recordings, I was overwhelmed with feelings that I could not quite name. It was just a lot to take in and maybe I was responding to the staggering amount of lives that were affected here. I needed to take a moment and approach this with a fresh perspective, and some phone calls, in the morning.
Calling around the press offices of these museums I was able to get in touch with Dr. Mike Lukasch, director of both the Tränenpalast and the Museum in the Kulturbrauerei—another worthwhile stop for exhibits of daily work and life in the old DDR. He was very kind to not only make time for an interview, but also explain the meaning of our passport stamps and their various components.
Dr. Lukasch was invaluable in helping me understand the circumstances of how we got across the border. You see, for years we never understood how it was that we were even allowed to stay on a train we weren’t supposed to be on. And the next thing we knew, we were in the West. I can’t overstate the importance of that moment. The West was the other side. It was where you were free. The side which people died trying to reach before 1989. So us just rolling on through on a train was always a mystery, but now I had dates and station names to clear up some of that mystery. What still didn’t make sense, according to Dr. Lukasch, was that we had two entry stamps but no exit stamp. Very odd seeing as how there was no way to leave East Germany without that stamp of approval. But leave we did, and so the question of how exactly that happened remains.
We both looked at each other unsure of what truly happened on that train back in March of 1988. What we do know is that we were in fact at Friedrichstrasse station, and that something out of the ordinary happened to make our crossing possible. The train moved on to the next station in West Berlin, which has now been replaced by that abominable Central Station I got lost in, and we just stepped off the train car. We walked forward, afraid to look back, and gave all the money we had to a taxi driver who took us to a refugee camp in Spandau.
I spent the remainder of my time in Berlin looking for information about where this camp could have been located. Wondering if it was still there, maybe still in use. I called more museums and foundations. We even put out a request on air during the interview at FluxFM, but no luck. Everyone told me they didn’t know about a camp in Spandau. That it must have been the main refugee center in Berlin, at Marienfelde. I looked at the maps and photos, and I’m sure this wasn’t it. I distinctly remember it being by a canal and mom confirms it was in Spandau. Through an old friend of our family, who now lives in Berlin and works in government, I reached out to local offices in Spandau. I pressed for information among my various contacts as my time in Berlin was running out.
It would make for a great story if I could say that I found the camp in the nick of time but that’s not what happened. The trail ran cold and the nature of bureaucratic separation between institutions in Berlin meant that I was out of options. Time was up and I had bags to pack. The camp would just have to remain in memory. For now.
With the dawn came a farewell to Copenhagen and an early trek to the station, laden with the weight of my pack and recording gear. It would be a long day on trains across much of Sweden. Beginning with my first transfer in Malmo towards Gothenburg. The hours moved slowly, like a landmark in the farthest distances goes by at an almost unbearable pace. Sometimes with patience, other times with less, I watched those distant horizons stretch across the Swedish farmlands. Another connection, another train, another station. By late afternoon I was in Oslo and went directly to my last train of the day. This leg brought me closer with each moment to another critical juncture. Another milestone on this road not travelled for three decades.
The evening sun was already out of sight behind an overcast sky when we pulled into Larvik station. End of the line. At least here I could take my time hoisting the pack onto my way worn back. I stepped out, the station directly in front, looking for clues, hints, and echoes of memories long faded. Coming around the corner I saw it, looming against the grey of northern clouds, the old hotel that housed us in the winter of ‘87. Now it stood empty and forgotten. A number to call for interested parties was written by hand on a sign hung in the window, sun-faded and betraying perhaps a lack of said interested parties. I snapped a photo, being interested and all.
The road into town stretched ahead and up. Steeling myself for the climb, I tightened my straps and marched on, up that same street I once ran down as a seven year old boy. I could hardly believe that I was here at last. How many times I must have walked this street in my mind, trying to remember some detail or recover just one more clue. I climbed up the hills that reminded me oddly of the San Francisco I left behind some months ago. My host’s house was on the edge of the wood, around the bend of another side street, another steep hill. It’s deep red siding greeted me as I rang the bell and a blond haired, stout Norwegian man opened the door, greeted me kindly, and introduced himself at Trygve. Some conversations later, generously fed and welcomed, I faded into a warm summer night’s sleep.
The alarm struggled to wake me the next day. I stumbled to my feet for a begrudgingly early start. My appointment at Østlands-Posten, the local newspaper, meant I would be getting to business right away. Coffee in hand I walked through a very quiet Larvik on a rainy morning.
An opaque door bore the newspaper's name in gothic blackletter. Inside, a well dressed, middle aged journalist named Bjorn greeted me at the offices with a friendly smile and we sat down to talk about my story. His pen busy as we talked, taking notes for an article that would be in the paper eventually. I was excited to see the project gather interest in this remote place and tried to get my facts straight. Not always easy when many facts are still missing.
That was the most important reason for my being at the paper. To get more facts, more clues, that I hoped were buried in the archives. With the dates in my mother’s old passport pointing to December 1987, Bjorn brought out two large volumes of bound papers from the last quarter of ‘87 and another from early ‘88. I began leafing through each paper, slowly at first, while Bjorn went to take care of other things.
I didn’t want to miss anything. Among old ads for state of the art, VHS players, boomboxes, and color TVs were periodically placed articles about refugees from countries further east. Jugoslavia, Poland, and certainly others that I didn’t see. Again I turned the page. When that page was the last in the 1987 volume I became a little nervous. What if I got the dates wrong? What if I don’t find the article? Better not think about it.
January 1988 is next. Just keep looking, one page at a time. My mind wandered with questions, answers, and questions without answers, still bewildered that I was even here at all. January 18th, nothing. January 19th, still nothing. Could I have missed it already? January 20th, I flipped past more ads for home appliances, more local news, and my face stared back at me suddenly in that unmistakeable photo that I had seen all my life. I stopped and stared at that page for a brief eternity. “Holy shit!” I laughed in disbelief. There it was, along with another photo of my little face in a dentist chair. I held my head in my hand as if to make sure I was actually there, that this was real, and I just kept staring at the page. I was a pretty cute kid, with that head of bright blond hair, those round cheeks and eyes that had already seen too much. Still those frightened eyes, at the mercy of everything and everyone around me.
The door opened and before Bjorn could walk in I almost shouted, “I found it!” We both stared at the page for a while as I contained my excitement. I had Bjorn translate the article for me and it turns out that I had a bad tooth ache at the time but we couldn't get dental care being not-entirely-legal immigrants. It was the journalist, who was working on another Polish refugee’s story that my mother translated for, that took an interested in me and arranged to get my cavity taken care of. The photo I already knew had me showing off my teeth and holding a giant bar of Firkløver chocolate. I would have thought a bad toothache would have stuck in my memory but I had not recollection of it at all. Bjorn took a photo of me with the newspaper for the article he would be writing and I photographed in detail the page itself.
I was told the original journalist did not work for the paper anymore but we could try calling him. I vaguely remember a friendly and exuberant kind of person that made me feel at ease as a kid. Bjorn dialed Stian’s number and someone picked up. Norwegian words followed and Bjorn passed the phone to me. I was thrilled to find him and made arrangements for an interview later. Stian was on vacation, in typical Northern European fashion, but we agreed to talk more by phone in the near future.
It was hard to believe my luck. I walked away from the building elated and moved. Everything had gone so smoothly. I don’t know what I had expected but this went better than I had hoped. The people of Larvik were helpful and curious about my journey. Even at cafes the baristas would ask me where I was from. Unlike in Copenhagen, with its busier folk and the many things on their minds, here I felt able to to connect individually like I had not for the last few weeks.
Encouraged by my immediate success, I dialed the number for the old hotel. It would mean so much to see the inside of the building, especially the room we stayed in. I tried asking in simple English, heard something back in Norwegian, and the line went dead. Some random English speaking person calling would understandably be strange so I asked my host to call for me. Trygve spoke with the man for a moment and got hung up on as well. Maybe it wasn’t just me after all? He called again, talked more and tried to explain the situation, about me being here after all this time and from so far away, but was simply told that they are not interested. No luck. We were both surprised and confused by this reaction. Strangle people. Maybe we could try again another time, maybe they would soften their stance.
As the sun came out the next morning and the clouds parted I took advantage of the beautiful weather and got to photographing all the parts of Larvik that I remembered. These were only fragments of the area, mostly comprised of the old hotel, the train station, the rocky shores, and the street leading up to the the square with a toy store on the way. I stood across the street from the hotel to get a better shot of the building when a second story window opened and an older man looked out. As he came out the front moments later I rushed across the street and called out. I told him I was in this hotel thirty years ago, that I had come a long way, and would it be possible at all to see the inside. By now he probably remember the phone calls. He waved, “no, no” and turned away towards his car. I stood there for a moment, watching him drive away, his silver Mercedes gleaming in the morning sun. Can’t be lucky at every turn. Through the glass door at the foot of the hotel I could see the old staircase I used to climb up and down as a child, carpeted in dark brown. At least this I could get a photo of.
Still somewhat surprised by that interaction, I continued down to the shores around Tollerodden, a peninsula with historical buildings and small beaches of sea-worn stones. I touched the washed gravel in my hands and held pieces of broken shells just like in 1988. I took in the scent of the bay and the sound of waves crashing on the smooth rocks, feeling the pebbles crunch underfoot as I wandered, and soon forget the strangeness of that unapproachable landlord.
Another place I had hoped to find, the toy store up the street from the hotel, was no longer there. I stepped into another, that is there now by the town square, but the owner told me the original toy store closed some time ago. Seems there would be no apology made to that old store’s owner. On the last day of our stay in Larvik, when we knew we would be deported, I went to stare longingly at the boxes of Lego one last time. Giving into temptation, I put a small box under my coat. "What’s the worst that could happen," I explained to myself, "deportation?"
At that moment the shopkeeper caught me. He made me sit in the back and said many things, of which I understood nothing. Hours went by and a fear of being left behind gripped me. I feared suddenly that my family would be deported without me. I begged him to let me go, saying something in English about my family leaving, of which I’m not sure he understood a word. He did finally let me go and I ran back down the street to the hotel, my heart pounding, stomach in knots. I don’t remember what I told my mother when asked why I was gone so long. It would be years later when I would tell her the truth of what happened that day.
In my mind I had a fantasy that I would find the store and apologize to the man who caught me stealing. Maybe telling him what actually happened that day. Some things it would seem, will just have to remain fantasies.
The Larvik of today is a much different place from the dark and cold one I had in my mind all these years. Like Sandholm before it, the town is brighter and more cheerful today. It helps that I’m here in the summer months, with sunny days dispersing the passing storm clouds and a refreshing breeze coming in from the sea. Being there again filled me with peace and something that I am just now coming to fully understand. Even if I expressed being grateful after Sandholm, I think it’s now really starting to sink in. Now that I have had the time to process my time in these places I am beginning to feel the extent of that gratitude. It is not the hashtag variety of lifestyle blogs and self-help books but one that I haven’t felt in a long time, deep and vast like the sea that surrounds these shores. A gratitude that comes to me when I stop trying to be grateful. It meets me like an old, forgotten friend that has been there all along, walking the same road just barely out of sight. I’m remembering how to stop long enough for it catch up.