Shaking The Disease

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]

Infiltrating North Korea Part 18: A Tale of Two Cities, Pyongyang vs. Seoul

Infiltrating North Korea is a 19-part series exploring the world’s most reclusive nation and its bizarre, anachronistic way of life. To start reading at the beginning of the series, be sure to click here.

When it came time to leave North Korea and check out how the other half lives, it wasn’t as easy as showing up at the border and crossing from the North into South Korea; the two countries are still technically at war and border crossings as well as direct flights simply don’t exist between them.

Instead, I had to fly to China and then onwards to Seoul. Although the travel time took less than a day, I felt as though I had journeyed 50 years into the future when I arrived in South Korea.

I had never been to South Korea before and it was very odd showing up for the first time having just come from the North. I can’t imagine that too many people are introduced to the Korean Peninsula in this same unorthodox order, but by doing so, my perspective shifted and I began comparing the South to my experience in the North, instead of the other way around (which is the way it’s normally done).

Although I was in the sedate North for only five days, I was nonetheless taken aback when I arrived in the chaos of Seoul and was briefly overwhelmed with the mass of people, the hordes of traffic, the loud noise pollution and the avalanche of consumerism screaming for my attention with neon lights and brightly lit storefronts. North Korean defectors who arrive here must explode from sensory overload.

Seoul was very alive and very, very different from anything I saw in North Korea. It’s simply amazing that a similar people divided by a political line drawn in the sand can grow so radically apart and change so fundamentally over the course of 60 years. We’ve seen this before in East and West Germany, but the differences in Korea are far more extreme.

Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this is a simple satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula at night which clearly shows a very dark North and a brightly lit South.

The differences are equally extreme when a tourist such as myself is able to zoom down to a more granular level and personally witness the impact of communism in the North, the explosion of capitalism in the South, and the shocking polarity which has occurred as a result.

The photos accompanying this post help illustrate this in a simple, visual manner. As you’ve no doubt figured out by now, the North Koreans are featured on the left (naturally) while their southern brothers are spotlighted on the right.

The differences, in my opinion, are so pronounced that I could mix up the photos and most people will still be able to guess which ones were taken in the North. One thing that doesn’t come across, however, is the pronounced height difference between the two countries. Prior to World War II, a variance didn’t exist. But after years of malnutrition, northerners are now four inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts. In fact, according to a fascinating LA Times article by Barbara Demick, the problem has become so extreme that the North Korean army has waived its 5’3″ height requirement.

Perhaps one day in the future, North and South will become one country; it will take countless more generations after that, however, before the Koreans return to being one people.

Yesterday: Video Tour of Pyongyang Highlights
Tomorrow: A Final Word

1 in 5 Germans Want The Berlin Wall Back

Here’s an interesting tidbit I heard on the radio today while driving to my favourite sushi place: 1 in 5 Germans want the Berlin Wall back. An iconic symbol of the Cold War and the divide between communism and capitalism, the Berlin Wall was broken down amidst much celebration in 1990.

And perhaps even more surprising? Those who want it back are mostly Eastern Germans. Apparently, breaking down the wall didn’t put an end to differences between the east and west in Germany; Despite the absence of a dividing line, Easterners in Germany still feel like second-class citizens compared to Westerners. And I don’t blame them — salaries in the east are 25% lower than those in the west, and unemployment rates in the west are half of that of the east. Yet despite all that, 73% of Western Germans don’t feel that Eastern Germans are at a disadvantage.

As a side note, if you want to see a movie that depicts the effects of the Berlin Wall falling, rent Goodbye Lenin — it’s excellent.