Sax on the Streets
Chapter 18:
Berlin, Germany

BThe East-West Game

© Dan Gordon, 2003

Oh, to sleep in a stationary bed! Travels from the fjords of Norway to Germany required two days and three consecutive night trains. We never appreciated a bed that didn’t shake, rattle, and roll all night long as much as we did the night in a youth hostel in Hamburg on our way to Berlin. One night train is okay, two in a row is rough, three is devastating. Night trains can save you a buck on accommodations and time while you (try to) sleep, but too many of them is cruel and unusual punishment. Four night trains in a row would have been suicidal, so we stopped for a night in Hamburg. That left us in good position for hitchhiking to Berlin, where we couldn’t take the train since our railpasses didn’t cover the trip.

Hitchhiking is another good way to save a buck. Unfortunately, a lot of myths surround the activity. Everyone who’s never done it thinks it’s dangerous. Drivers are afraid of hitchhikers, hitchhikers are afraid of drivers. I’ve hitchhiked all over Europe and never had any problems. On the contrary, I usually meet friendly, helpful people who offer interesting conversation for the ride. Sometimes they even offer a meal or a place to stay for the night. But it’s always an adventure. There is nothing like the feeling of standing on the side of the road and having no idea where you’re going to end up.

There are, of course, a few tricks to facilitate getting where you want to go. A sign is a necessity. You must hold up a sign showing your destination, in bold enough letters so that drivers can see it from a distance. If your ultimate destination is too far away to be reasonable, hold up a sign for a closer destination. Place yourself on a stretch of road where you are easily visible to oncoming traffic, preferably in a location where a car has space to pull over. Entrance ramps to highways are good; better still are toll plazas, where the cars have to stop anyway and both of you get the chance to look each other over. By far the best place of all for hitching a ride is in the rest areas along the highway. Here you can study the license plates of the parked cars. When you find one with plates from the destination you want, wait there until the driver returns and ask him directly for a ride. Few people know how to refuse a personal request for a lift. And do try to look presentable. Both in standing on the side of the pavement as in performing on it, maintaining a reasonably well-groomed appearance is important. Not too many people are willing to help someone out if he’s a mess. As a fellow hitchhiker once told me, “Hitchhiking is a lot like prostitution. If you like what you see, you pick it up.”

Gary and I had just a short wait at the beginning of the Hamburg-Berlin highway (where a line of hitchhikers out to get to Berlin that morning was forming) before a cheery woman pulled over. She stepped out of her car and said she had room for three. Gary and I, along with the next guy in line, piled in.

“Danke schön,” Gary said as we settled in. The multilingual thank-yous came in handy even when we weren’t busking.

“You’re very welcome,” the woman said.

“Oh, I see you speak English. Sorry, but our German isn’t very good,” Gary said.

“That’s okay,” the woman said. “Now I can practice my English.”

“Do you pick up hitchhikers often?” the other fellow in the car asked.

“Oh, yes. I do it for my son. He hitchhikes all the time, and always gets to his destination. So in return for the rides people give him, I give rides, too,” she said in a charming German accent. “I live outside of Hamburg, and every time I drive into the city, I leave half an hour early so that I can pass by this spot, pick up some hitchhikers, and let them off at the border before I drive back into the city.”

We all chuckled. “Well then, we thank you and we thank your son,” I said. “You must meet a lot of interesting people this way.”

“All the time. From all over the world. And they’re all nice people. Every person I’ve ever picked up is nice.” She rolled up her window so she could hear better. “I ask you only one little favor in return for this ride,” she continued. “That each of you sends me a postcard from your hometown when you get home. I make a collection. I have postcards from hitchhikers around the world. Where are you from?”

“The United States,” the first fellow said. “Chicago.”

“New York City,” I added.

“And I’m from Buffalo, New York, near Niagara Falls,” Gary said.

“Oh, Niagara Falls!” the woman said. “I have no postcards from there. Please don’t forget to send me one.”

“Okay, I promise,” Gary laughed. “As soon as I get home.”

The merry chatter continued until we arrived at the East German border. We pulled into the rest area and all of us got out of the car. “Will you join me for a coffee?” the woman asked. “I always buy a coffee for my passengers when I let them off here. Please, I insist.”

We kindly obliged. Over the coffee she gave us her address and again reminded us to send her postcards. We then parted ways as she got back into her car and we stood by the road to Berlin. “Thanks again,” we said. “Auf wiedersehen!”

“My pleasure. Have a nice time in Berlin. And don’t forget the postcards!”

The rest of the ride to Berlin is unique to all of hitchhiking. The transit highway from the border goes through East Germany to West Berlin, the West German island-city in the middle of East Germany. It is illegal to exit or to drop off or pick up passengers along the way on any of the four such transit highways. The hitchhiker is therefore guaranteed a single ride for the entire 110-mile ride, straight into the city.

We were offered a lift for the second leg of the trip after less than a five-minute wait. At the border station when crossing into East Germany, we showed our passports and paid a 5DM transit visa fee. Once over the border, the military police that constantly flew overhead in helicopters made sure we didn’t do anything we weren’t supposed to. Stops were permitted at the rest areas in the East German territory, but all purchases had to be paid for in West German marks. Other than those stops, we stayed on the straight, flat highway going a maximum of 60mph—a mere crawl for West Germans, whose highways have no speed limits—until we got to Berlin.

After finding accommodations, Gary and I stalked the city for a spot to play. The logical place to look was the center of town, so we made our way to the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm church downtown. There we found a lot of traffic and a lot of noise as well as a lot of buskers. Among them was a rock band consisting of a tenor saxophone, a couple of guitars, and a drum set, all pumping out tumultuous sound through three gigantic amplifiers. Soon after we showed up, they stopped playing and began taking down their equipment. Gary and I took the opportunity to talk shop with some obvious insiders. The saxophonist in the band happened to be American, so we directed our conversation toward him. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, with long, uncombed blond hair and a droopy moustache. He wore a T-shirt, shredded jeans, and sandals.

“Heard you playing just now,” I said. “You really get around the horn. Sounds pretty sweet.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” the guy grunted, busy disconnecting wires and folding up microphone stands. His drummer was nearby, swearing under his breath about something having to do with the price of permits and the right to play.

“How’s the street-musicianing around Berlin?” I asked.

“It’s alright. We make a living.”

“You play a lot every day?”

“At least five hours. It takes that long to make enough money to pay the bills.” He threw a few pieces of equipment on a pile beside him. His drummer was still swearing.

“What’s wrong with your drummer?” Gary asked. “Do you guys have a problem with a permit?”

“No, we’re legal. I don’t know what the hell he’s whining about now. That sonofabitch is always complaining about something.”

“So you do have a permit. Are the police strict if you don’t have one? We’re planning on playing without one,” Gary said.

“We have one because we do this full-time, all year round. We paid a damn lot of money for it, too—90 marks. So the cops can’t give us trouble. But if you’re in town for only a while, you don’t need one. The cops don’t bother you unless you’re a regular.” He started to take apart his saxophone. “What kind of music you guys play, anyway?”

“Classical stuff. We play Baroque flute duets on two sopranos,” I said, a little embarrassed at how that must have sounded to a screeching rock musician. “It’s nothing compared to what you guys do, but it makes enough to pay the way while we travel.”

“Is this one of the better spots in town to play?” Gary asked.

“It’s all right. You can do okay if you really work the people over to get them to give you money.”

“Oh, we don’t do that,” I said. “We just leave the hat down there and let anybody throw in what they want.”

“Yeah, well that’s fine if you want to have a good time. But my band’s not in this for fun. This is our living. We shake the hat right in their faces. You gotta pull all the money you can out of ’em. We can’t afford to make our money only by drops.”

Drops. Never heard that one before. There’s lingo for everything. Well, if this guy needed all that money, let him shake the hat in everyone’s face. I’ll leave the hat down there and preserve my self-esteem.

“Look, I can’t talk any more,” the guy said as he slammed his case shut. “I gotta haul this crap across the street so we can play over there. See you later.” He dumped all his equipment into a box and pushed it away on a dolly. What difference anything was going to make on the other side of the street I had no idea, but I wasn’t going to question him. Talking to that guy, I felt ridiculous for thinking I knew something about busking. What did Gary and I know compared to this guy and his band who made a living at it year round? I’m not sure, actually, but one thing I did know: We were a lot more cheerful about it than he was.

We had a spot to play now, so we set up for our first pitch in Berlin. For the amount we earned, though, we might as well not even have bothered. All the traffic and noise around the plaza polluted the purity of Telemann and left us little noticed by anyone. We blew harder to try to make ourselves heard, but only ended up distorting the sound and getting blue in the face. Every five minutes or so, someone would come up and drop a coin or two, seemingly out of pity. At least that acknowledged our presence. After half an hour, with next to nothing in the hat and dark clouds gathering overhead, we bagged it before we got caught in the rain.

Meanwhile, the tenor saxophonist and his band had finally packed up their gear and set it all up again across the street. It had taken them all that time to move about fifty yards. With rain threatening, I thought they were doomed. But no, they ignored the dark clouds, the blackening sky, and the blustery wind and started to play again. Five minutes into their act, the blaring music had already attracted a crowd of several dozen people. Some scattered to avoid the coming rain.

We watched as the jaded professionals played on. One lady came up out of the crowd and started singing into the band’s microphone. The saxophone player yanked it from her grip and shoved her back into the crowd. Another person picked up the collection basket to do the collecting for them. One of the guitarists had to climb through the crowd to wrestle the basket free.

Gary turned to me with a disgusted look on his face. “If that’s what it takes to make a full time living as a street musician, no thanks.”

I grimaced and shook my head.

Then the rain came. We ran for cover. I do not know what ever happened to the rock band.

Other busking in Berlin proved more promising than our premiere. We found the city’s pedestrian zone on a Saturday and let loose with the duets. We sat on a waist-high cement flower pot as we pitched, and the casual posture seemed to strike pedestrians’ fancy. The hat chewed on the ever-increasing pile of coins and spit out about $50 worth for the afternoon’s work. The next day we opted for the city’s flea market, the only worthwhile pitch on a Sunday. Bargain-hunters waded through piles of mostly worthless bric-a-brac to a background of Telemann. Those who thought they had found a good deal tossed some of their savings at us. Others were content to just window shop. That was fine with us. We hadn’t come to Berlin to earn loads of money; we were there to figure out as much as we could about the socio-political status of the city.

Depending upon who you ask, both East and West Berlin do and do not belong to their respective countries. The city of Berlin was divided after the Second World War, the Eastern half under Soviet control, and the Western half under control of the Allied powers, with French, American, and British sectors. Technically, then, none of Berlin belongs to either East or West Germany. Yet East Berlin is the capital of East Germany and all of East Germany’s politicians live there. To even name East Berlin as the capital violated the four-power agreement over the division of the city. How can it be the capital of East Germany when the entire city is under Soviet control? As for West Berlin, the official currency is the West German mark, which ostensibly makes it part of West Germany, but West Berlin residents do not have the right to vote in West German general elections. West Berliners have West German passports, but all their countrymen have West German identity cards as well, while the Berliners have special Berlin identity cards. These West Berlin identity cards are not accepted in the Eastern sector, because neither half of the city officially recognizes the other. And for both halves of the city, an agreement among the four occupying powers declares residents exempt from military service. Young Germans therefore flock to Berlin and give the city a youthful air.

Adding to the confusing political scenario of the city is the cold reality of its physical status. A wall actually had to be built to separate people with differing political ideals, dividing a people that used to call each other countrymen. Are political beliefs, which have no physical substance, no tangible elements, no dimensions in space, really so powerful that a concrete barrier is needed to keep apart those who differ over them?

The infamous Berlin Wall looms larger in our imaginations than in actual physical stature. It is only about ten feet high and a foot thick at most points. Little of the border between East and West Berlin is even a wall at all; for most of its length it is a fence. But the idea that one can hop over the barrier and be in the other country is complete fallacy. Behind the divide lies a swath of neutral territory about 100 yards wide, swarming with armed soldiers in surveillance towers and on foot. One would have to climb over the first barrier, run across the mine-laden neutral zone, and hop another barrier on the other side. Only a fool would try. Several have attempted, few have succeeded.

What is it like to live in a city surrounded by a wall, unable to pass beyond those boundaries, isolated in the middle of another country? This is “The Berlin Question” constantly asked of West Berliners. To those who visit, it seems like a claustrophobic existence. To West Berliners, it is a fact of life that they are accustomed to. When we asked The Berlin Question, we usually got a grin and a shrug, with a response something like, “Everybody asks that because they think living here must be horrible. It’s not so bad. After all, the Western portion of the city is much larger and much more economically powerful than the Eastern part. It’s the East Berliners who must feel surrounded.”

The best way for us to find out about East Berlin was to go there ourselves. Obtaining information on travel there, however, was as confusing as the city’s political status. Gary and I planned to visit East Berlin for one day, and from there leave to Prague on a night train to continue our foray into the East. The consensus of opinions from various tourist offices was the following: One could obtain a day visa at the border crossing. It was issued on the spot and good until midnight of that day. The process cost 5DM (˜$3). An exchange of 25 West German marks for 25 East German marks was required for the day. But Gary and I wanted to leave for Prague from East Berlin, so our case was different. Since we wanted to take a train that traveled through the rest of East Germany, we needed a transit visa; the day visa was valid only in East Berlin.

Could we use a transit visa for the day in East Berlin, we asked in all the tourist offices.

No, the transit visa requires that you enter the country and get on a border-bound train within three hours.

Then how can we spend a day in East Berlin first?

For that you need a day visa.

But a day visa doesn’t allow us to travel to Prague.

That’s correct.


You must first get a day visa, use that to go to East Berlin for the day, return to West Berlin, then re-enter East Berlin on a transit visa and get on your train.

Okay, fine. Can we buy our train ticket to Prague in East Berlin? We had been told that everything in East Berlin would be so cheap that we would have difficulty getting rid of our 25 marks of required exchange. We figured we’d get rid of a lot of the money by buying the tickets in East Berlin.

Yes, you can buy the tickets there.

Will it be cheaper than buying them in West Berlin?

Of course. Everything in East Berlin is very cheap.

Can we use East German marks to pay for them?


Once we had all of that straightened out, we headed across the border. We didn’t pass through the famed pedestrian crossing at Checkpoint Charlie, but went instead by subway. I had always wondered how this crossing worked; I couldn’t imagine that a subway line actually passed from the Western to the Eastern world. I envisioned getting lost on the subway in Berlin, inadvertently crossing the border, and getting arrested for it. In fact, that wasn’t possible. The subway line did cross from West to East and passed over The Wall, the neutral zone, the barbed wire, and the surveillance police in an eerie display of living politics. But when the subway arrived at the first stop in East Berlin, we could not go wandering off anywhere we liked. The East Berlin stop was the end of the line. All passengers got off the train to proceed to the border check. Armed military police stood on guard. I moved slowly, careful not to do anything that might upset the border guards.

“Hey!” someone shouted at Gary and me. I jumped and turned quickly. My heart raced. “Aren’t you the two guys who played those little saxophones at that flea market yesterday?” an American on the train innocently asked. “You sounded great!”

When my heart rate returned to normal, I thanked the well-wishers for their compliment and was grateful for the human face of recognition in an otherwise faceless border crossing. I got funneled into a narrow guard booth. Overhead hung a mirror that reflected behind me so that my whole body was visible. The border guard sat at a counter behind a pane of glass. He took my passport. He looked back and forth between it and me. He asked for the 5DM fee. He stamped the entrance visa in my passport. He handed it back. He shuttled me along. At the next counter I handed over the required 25DM exchange and got 25 East marks in return. Just the sight of East German money made me realize the country had serious economic problems—the coins were made of aluminum and the bills looked like Monopoly money. Then came the baggage search, where the guards waved me through without stopping. I passed through one more set of doors and met Gary there. We were in East Berlin.

“What’d you think of that, Gary?” I asked, shaking myself of the spooks.

“Think of what?” he replied flatly. None of these procedures bothered Gary in the least.

Our first steps onto the street revealed immediate differences from the West. Tiny, square Russian-made cars spewing thick black exhaust scurried about the streets. People’s clothes, particularly their shoes, were drab and worn. Police patrolled everywhere. But the prices, which everyone back in West Berlin had told us would be dirt cheap, weren’t so low at all. So much for getting accurate information about the East.

The downtown area at Alexanderplatz was no different from any other European city center. In some respects, the East didn’t differ from the West as much as we expected it to. Churches from centuries past intermingled with modern structures while people milled about in droves. But no buskers. Gary and I didn’t know there wouldn’t be any street musicians in East Berlin, but we had already decided not to busk there. We had only half a day in the city, and didn’t want to spend a lot of that time playing. Accumulating money in East Berlin would have created problems anyway—taking East German currency out of the country is strictly verbotin.

So Gary and I were tourists for the day. After our preliminary wanderings around the city center, we went off to buy our train tickets for the evening’s train to Prague. The ticket line moved excruciatingly slowly. People arrived at the counter, asked for a ticket price, then ran off to the bank to get money. While they were gone the line stood still. By the time we got to the counter, over an hour had passed.

“Zwei, Prague,” we said to the cashier. That minimal message was enough to get our point across.

“Passport,” she said.

We handed them over, she inspected them, handed them back. She wrote the price on a slip of paper for us to see. We gave her our Monopoly money.

“No East mark,” she said, waving her finger. “West mark.”

“What? Uh, bitte?” Gary said. “East mark nein?”

“No East mark. West mark,” she repeated.

“Oh no, I was afraid of this,” I said. We couldn’t pay in anything but Western currency. The Eastern countries have a desperate need for Western or “hard” currency since their own currencies are so weak. Any opportunity to make a Westerner spend his hard currency is therefore used to its fullest advantage.

Fortunately, we had enough West marks on us to buy the tickets. But the thought of it was ridiculous: We purchased a train ticket from East Germany to Czechoslovakia, and we had to pay for it with West German money. Certainly the East Germans who wanted to travel to Prague could spend East German marks. More aggravating still, all those ticket clerks, travel agents, and tourist offices in West Berlin had specifically told us that we could purchase our tickets in East Berlin with East German marks. And the price of the ticket they had quoted to us was wrong also. The two halves of the city suffered from an astonishing lack of communication.

We paid for the tickets and the woman behind the counter handed us a stub of paper with the number 16 written on it. This is no ticket, I thought. What’s going on? The woman pointed to another counter. We had just paid at the cashier’s counter; now we had to wait on the other line for the actual ticket. The service number clicked to 8. Five minutes later it clicked to 9. Half an hour passed before it clicked to 16.

With our hard-earned tickets in hand, we used our remaining hours to explore East Berlin. We ventured outside the center for the face of the city that few tourists see. We found a lot half-empty food shops and crumbling old buildings that looked untouched since they were bombed in WWII. The Western side of the city managed to build itself up from the rubble of the war. The Eastern side never found the resources to do so.

Looking over the wreckage, I was profoundly stuck by the destructive power of war. As Americans, we talk often about war, but no American alive today has experienced a war on his own turf. Traveling through Europe, I could visit places that were once reduced to rubble by bombs. Yet they had all been built up again, thereby hiding the lurid history. Here in East Berlin, I came face to face with the destruction; it all stared me in the face and sent a chill down my spine. Perhaps all cities should preserve such a monument to remind us all of the spoils of war.

By early evening, most of our East German currency still remained, so we went to a restaurant to spend it. As we ate our meal, a group of uniformed soldiers entered the restaurant and sat down beside us at the counter.

“Oh boy!” I whispered to Gary. “We get to dine with a bunch of Soviet soldiers!”

To our surprise, they started speaking to each other in the queen’s English.

“Excuse me, you sound British,” I said to one in an attempt to strike up a conversation.

“Ah! An English speaker!” he said. “Can you help us out with this menu? We can’t make out a bloody thing on here.”

Somehow that was not the response I expected from a soldier. I always imagined them to be more serious. “Well, I don’t understand it too well myself, but this steak dinner we’re having is pretty tasty,” I said.

He turned to his comrades and announced, “This bloke here recommends the steak!” They all closed their menus in relief.

“Are you guys stationed in East Berlin?” Gary asked.

“West Berlin, actually. We’re in this half on a day’s leave.”

“Oh. So how does East Berlin look through a military man’s eyes?” I asked.

“A wee bit strange. But bloody cheap, I find it.”

What is this, I thought to myself. Is there some kind of price indoctrinating that goes on with Westerners visiting the East? “What do you mean?” I said out loud. “I don’t find this much cheaper than West Berlin at all.”

“You don’t do? Why, look at this dinner,” he said. “Fifteen marks—that’s not even half a quid.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Half a quid is worth about 75 American cents. How do you figure a 15-mark dinner costs that little? Do soldiers get a different exchange rate than civilians?”

“Dunno,” said the soldier. “The bank on the other side gave me fourteen East marks for every West mark. Isn’t that what you got?”

“What!?” we cried. “Fourteen to one! We got one to one!”

“One to one? Why, that’s not a very good rate.”

“I’ll say. And you exchanged your money on the Western side?” I asked. “I thought that was illegal. We were told that if the border guards caught you trying to bring East German currency in or out of the country they’d throw you in jail in Siberia.”

“Not with the military. The border guards aren’t allowed to touch us—they’re not even supposed to look at us. We’re under orders to pass right through the crossing station staring directly at the back of the neck of the next fellow without stopping for anything.”

“No passport check, no baggage search, no nothing?” Gary asked.

“Nothing. Just walk straight through.”

“And it’s the same way going back to the other side?” I asked.


I sat back in disbelief. Authorities scrutinized every move civilians made and let enemy soldiers pass right through untouched. That soldier could have smuggled anything he wanted into the country. “I don’t know where I’m going to get rid of all me Eastern marks,” the soldier said. “I’ve got hundreds of them. I’m thinking of buying a great big teddy bear for each of me nieces and nephews back in England, but I wouldn’t be able to carry them all. It’s quite a problem, really.”

“We should have such problems,” Gary chuckled. “Fourteen to one. That’s crazy.”

“So this meal is costing you pennies,” I said.

“Well, pence,” he smiled. “Like I told you, everything’s bloody cheap.”

This soldier lived it up on his 14-to-1 rate while Gary and I spent East German marks that we purchased at the artificially high rate of one to one. The East German government set the rate at that unreasonable level to bring more hard currency into the country. The actual value of the East German mark was what it sold for at the unofficial or “black market” rate, about 7 to 1. Those soldiers had somehow gotten their East marks at an even higher rate. In order for Gary and me to find the low prices we had heard about, we’d have to exchange our money on the black market. That was illegal. This convoluted monetary system, in which currency dramatically changed value depending on who you were and how you exchanged it, made absolutely no sense to me. All I understood was that if I obeyed the law, I got ripped off.

By the time we were ready to go back to the Western side, we had spent all but a few of our Eastern marks. In the booth at the border crossing, I openly displayed our leftover coins to demonstrate that we weren’t trying to hide anything. The guard laughed at me and waved me through with them.

Only trying to abide by the rules, I said to myself. Or aren’t there any rules around here?

Back on the Western side, Gary and I collected our belongings, then turned back across the border yet again, this time on a transit visa that allowed us to leave on the night train to Prague. Passing through the border check for the third time that day, I felt considerably more comfortable about it than the first couple of times. I never had anything to hide, so there really wasn’t any reason to feel uncomfortable. But those guards are intimidating when they stare you down. They’re trained to be that way. All those confusing rules and regulations—the visas, the currency exchanges, the baggage searches, the two halves of the city, The Wall itself—are enough to make anyone apprehensive. Maybe Big Brother really is watching.

But then, in November of 1989, all that changed. The people revolted, the government collapsed, and The Wall came tumbling down. East Germany would soon cease to exist.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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