THE PLACE THAT CHANGED ME
Sunday 21 November 1999
I lived in the former West Germany until I was 20 years old. But the place that really changed me was the former East Germany, where I went first at the age of eight.
It was a family holiday - we were visiting my uncles and cousins who happened to live on that side of the border. I found the whole thing fascinating: going through the fortifications and minefields, shepherded by armed guards, having your tubes of toothpaste checked for illicit substances - just to visit your family.
For a child it wasn't sinister, it was an adventure. In the former GDR it was so easy to break the law. We knew that whatever we did, our rich government back in the West would help us. The single most fundamental thing that the GDR did to me was destroy any respect I might have had for people in uniform.
Our East German relatives always seemed happy to see us. We used to give them good coffee and chocolate. But it was so strange to think that these were members of our family. Of course they were German and spoke German. But to be honest I used to feel more at home on my visits to Britain or France.
Even as a young child, I felt the lack of freedom. At 12 years old I had gone off on a cycling and camping tour of north Germany with a friend. This would have been unimaginable in the GDR. And East Germany was so incredibly unglamorous. It looked like Germany in the 1950s, just after the war, full of war widows and broken glass.
It was seductive to travel round Germany after 10 years away, researching my book. It is amazing how little travel literature there is in Britain on Germany. I don't mind British people laughing at Germany but it's a shame if they think that Germany is completely boring, which it isn't.
On my return trip to research the book I found that all physical evidence of the separation was gone. Did you know that Berlin was not the only German town with a wall through it? At least 10 smaller towns located on the border had walls as well.
Do I miss the Wall? Nobody could really say that. But Germany today is a far better place than it was 10 years ago.
INTERVIEW BY JEREMY ATIYAH
Oliver August is the author of Along the Wall and Watchtowers - A Journey Down Germany's Divide, published by Harper Collins at pounds 17.99
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