From August 1984 through the summer of 1985, I lived with my family in Saarland, in the southwestern corner of West Germany. A French protectorate in the years following the Second World War, Saarland was a strange place for a family’s sabbatical year. It felt more like a cul-de-sac on the edge of German-speaking Europe than it did the “heart of Europe,” the notion underlying its contemporary self-presentation. Back then, many of my classmates had never crossed the border into France, which was just two or three miles away. The border felt sealed, even though passport checks were perfunctory and even though French words enlivened local dialects.
Saarland was a good launching pad. The dollar was strong and my parents’ modest discretionary income went far. We jumped on trains, sometimes on consecutive weekends, to explore the surrounding regions and beyond.
In the summer of 1985, we made a particularly exciting journey to Karl-Marx-Stadt (earlier and now again Chemnitz) in East Germany to visit some cousins. My father had become strongly interested in genealogy over the previous decade, and his research had yielded friendships with a slew of West German relatives. We had gotten to know one distant cousin especially well, and he invited us to stay with his aunt and her family near Karl-Marx-Stadt.To visit them we first traveled across West Germany to the border with East Germany and then continued on through East Germany’s train corridor to West Berlin. There was a friction in West Berlin that I hadn’t seen in other European cities, a counterculture that seemed stable and permanent, rooted in its weirdness. We walked near the scary, modern Wall, and combed through the city’s sights.
After a few days in Berlin, we took the train south to Karl-Marx-Stadt. Shortly after we crossed into East Germany, four teenagers boarded the train. There was a flash of negativity about them, a subtle alienation. These teenagers were not like West German kids. They were quiet, first of all, and apparently shy, glancing uncomfortably at us. I couldn’t stop looking at them, drinking all their details in – their hair, their clothes, their attitudes. They were less in-your-face than their West German contemporaries but their defiance was unmistakable. One of them held a little transistor radio. He and I faced each other, our eyes meeting above the seats.
A few minutes in the radio began to play “Shake the disease” by Depeche Mode, which was a big hit that summer. We both started to mouth the words, still viewing each other tentatively. We sang the song silently, observing one another throughout. Along the way he lost his shyness. I was filled with a sense of wonder. Previously I’d considered how fractured we were from another, and now it seemed as if we understood each other very well. The bridge between our two adolescences was this song, bound up in Martin Gore’s strange pairings of words: “you know how hard it is for me to shake the disease / that takes hold of my tongue in situations like these.”
I recall many incidents from the rest of that visit. We met relatives. We witnessed a small wedding in a village church and my mother cried. We walked in the woods. We had difficulty changing money. We drove to a tourist restaurant in the forests near the border with Czechoslovakia. The one completely focused memory, however, was that experience on the train. For that song’s four minutes and 48 seconds, two 15-year-olds shared something. It was everything. It was nothing. It belonged to us.
[Image: Flickr | Hunter-Desportes]