Going off the farm; Or how did we get to halftime so fast?
It was time for a change.
And the change between host family number three, the Brudys, and host family number four, the Plutas, could not have been more extreme.
In a single six-hour train ride, I went from a town of a few hundred to a city of three million.
I went from rural Germany to one of the most metropolitan cities in the world.
I went from being a lone American to being back in a group.
The Plutas lived in the southwest part of Berlin, an iconic German city if there ever was one. And one packed with activity and history, all listed in any tourist guide.
The other big change was that I was no longer on a farm. This was, as with most things, good and bad. Good in that it gave me time to recuperate. You learn a lot about yourself when you travel and I learned that my body wasn’t up to hard farming.
It was bad in the sense that I was comfortable with a rural setting and not the city. It was similar to what I had grown up with in Ohio. No crowds. Light traffic. Peaceful.
We stepped off of the train at the Zoo Station and into crowds, traffic and all that comes with a large city. The station sits near the center of the city and had been the final stop in West Berlin for trains.
The Berlin Wall had been down for nearly three years and Berlin was in a near constant state of change. There was an identity crisis going on as it attempted to heal the wound that had been ripped open in 1961.
As I noted in my journal at the time, you could tell when you crossed from west into east, even without checkpoints or signs. The east was frumpy. Grey. Dingy. Unkempt. Some buildings still bore scars from WWII.
But it was trying to get in the game with the west. Neon was starting to pop up in the east. It was trying to spruce itself up as new businesses sprang up like flowers.
And my host family was on top of the need for flowers. They owned Pluta Garten Centers, with 14 stores around the city. They had already opened new stores in the east since the wall had come down.
For the first time with a family, I actually didn’t have to work. This was because my host dad, Hans-Jürgen, and host brother, Carsten, worked (and worked very hard) in running the business. Business on this scale was something that was out of my realm of expertise, not that farming had been that much closer.
Instead, I got to explore the city of Berlin with Chris and Melissa, as for the first time, all three of us were in the same city.
And explore we did. We could hop on the U-bahn (subway) and get to anywhere in this amazing city. Highlights included the Museum Island in downtown Berlin, which had the Pergamon Museumand its massive display of the Ishtar Gate from Babylon and the Pergamon Altar from Asia Minor; The Berliner Dom (Cathedral) that was still under reconstruction from damage done in WWII; the Reichstag (parliament building); and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that showed all the ways people used in attempts to escape to the west, both successful and unsuccessful.
There was also plenty of evidence of where the wall had once been. A few sections remained intact, used as outdoor art galleries or as memorials to the victims of the Berlin Wall.
In Berlin, there was always a massive amount of history around the corner, just waiting to jump you. You had to be careful, because a lot of that history was unpleasant.
Halfway through my time with the Plutas was also halfway through my time in Germany.
I realized I was becoming less of a tourist, as my favorite trips around the city weren’t the ones we found in the guides but rather the ones taken with Hans-Jürgen or Carsten on visits to their stores scattered throughout the city or to visit with friends.
We’d spend a day driving to a store or two, often stopping at a small, out of the way restaurant that only the locals knew about.
I can honestly say that, thanks to Hans-Jürgen, I had the best steak I have ever had in my life, and that includes the 20 years since. It was in a small restaurant tucked away in the lower level of a town hall somewhere around Berlin. I couldn’t begin to tell you where it was at. It was one of those places that don’t find their way into the tourist information books. You had to be a local to find it and know how good it was.
One Sunday morning Carsten and I spent some time having a relaxing breakfast and coffee at a sidewalk café along the Kurfürstendamm, or as us locals called it, the Ku'damm. It’s the Berlin equivalent of Michigan Ave. in Chicago. To all appearances, I was just one more Berliner doing what Berliners do on a lovely summer morning.
My German was also improving. I wasn’t conversational yet, but at least I could make myself understood on most issues. However, in Berlin, a center for businesses from around the world, English was always there, ready to pop up almost as fast as the history, but in a more friendly way.
The exception to that was in the east. And not everyone in the east was thrilled about the changes that were constantly happening. But change was coming, whether they wanted it or not.
And, whether I wanted it or not, it was time again for change for me. My time with the Plutas was up.
I immensely enjoyed their home, which was a quiet sanctuary in the suburbs of one of the world’s most dynamic cities. It was a place that the three of us, Hans-Jürgen, Carsten and my host mom Helga, could all meet up at in the evening after a long day of exploring the city or going to garden centers and just visit. It was a place to recuperate. Relax. Enjoy the quiet.
And as I rested there for the last time at the end of August 1992, I imagined that my next host family would be just as relaxing and quiet, as it was out amongst the peaceful farmlands of Niedersachsen.
Links for Berlin:
The Museum Island:
CheckpointCharlie Museum(also, The Wall Museum):