Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

My Berlin Wall of Regret


I’ve been thinking a lot about the Berlin Wall lately — you know, as one does — because just as I finished reading a novel that dealt (among other things) with the creation and eventual destruction of that wall, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall rolled around. My newsfeed filled with those iconic images from November 1989, and my heart filled with envy.

Because I wasn’t there.


I did get to visit Berlin eventually; in 2011 we stayed at a hotel where a metal line ran down the street in front of the door, commemorating the spot where the Wall once stood. I got my picture taken, like thousands of tourists before and since, in front of a fragment of what was once the most infamous and sinister border in the world. And I wished then, as I did this past weekend, that I could have been there when the Wall began to come down.


I could have been there.

I mean, my level of “could have been there” falls somewhere in between people who literally could not have been there because they weren’t born in 1989, and people who are like, “Aw, geez, I was in Berlin on November 8 and I just missed it!!” I wasn’t anywhere nearby, but I still feel like if life had shaken out a little differently, I could conceivably have been part of that giant street party that started on November 9 when Berliners from East and West began taking apart the Wall.

See, what happened was … I went to Europe for two weeks in the summer of 1987 with a friend (an eventful trip I have written about elsewhere). Unlike many of the young people we met in crowded train compartments on that trip, I was not taking a “gap year” or just “bumming around.” I had the summer off from my teaching job and could afford a return plane ticket to France, a Eurail pass, and two weeks of cheap travel that would get me home just in time to start the new school year in September. I was as responsible and practical as you could possibly be while travelling in Europe at the age of 22.

The friend I travelled through Europe with was there in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. I can’t remember now whether she stayed in France when our trip was over or went back a few months later, but I know that she had previously studied in France and spent another year or two living there, learning the language. So she was there in November 1989 when she and some friends (as I recall the story) basically turned on the news, said, “Wow, something amazing is happening in Berlin!” hopped on a train, and went to Berlin to see it first-hand. She told me, later, about being among the crowd at the base of the Wall as people were climbing over it, sitting on it, chipping away at it. She described being hauled up onto the top of the Wall by a crew of somewhat drunk young East German men, all laughing and celebrating the thing they had spent their whole lives hoping for but never believed would happen literally overnight. She brought me home a few pieces of the Wall in a plastic baggie. I kept them for years, though I’m not sure where they are right now. It was my tangible connection, at one degree of separation, to one of the most momentous events of my lifetime.

It’s not like my friend asked me to move to France with her and I said no, or even like I seriously considered sticking around, or going back to Europe later. What strikes me, a this remove of 25 years, is how remote that possibility would have been from even my wildest dreams at the time. I knew lots of young people kicked around Europe, and other places, in their twenties, but that was never within the range of options I considered for myself. I graduated high school at sixteen, got a five-year degree in four years of college and was teaching just before my twenty-first birthday. It never occurred to me to take a year off between high school and college, or during college, or between college and starting work. I was hard-wired to do things the responsible way, to see Europe on a two-week vacation, to have a steady job with a reliable paycheque rather than go wandering aimlessly around the world.

If I had been wandering in Europe in the fall on 1989, or even if I’d come up with some legit excuse to live there like my friend did (“improving my French” in my case would have been improving on almost nothing) … I could have hopped on that train too, and joined her when the wall fell. I could have had memories of being pulled up on the wall by drunk German boys, rather than just having a baggie full of concrete Wall-chips that I can’t even find now.

I don’t know if I can actually look back from the vast pinnacle of mid-life and say I wish I’d been less responsible when I was younger. I mean, everything I have now — a wonderful husband and kids, a paid-off house, my dream job — might not have been possible if I hadn’t done those specific things in that specific order. But who knows? Life is weird and strange. You can’t plan that if you do a, b, and c at the correct time, you’ll end up with x, y, and z twenty years later. Sometimes you do a, b, and c and instead you end up with 3y to the power of 12, or something. I believe that when I was younger I thought life was more controllable, and that was why it was so important to me to do things the right way, which meant being responsible — going to school, doing well in school, getting a job, keeping the job … etc etc etc.

You know what else you can’t predict? The Berlin Wall coming down. Like nobody saw that coming. It wasn’t like in the summer of 1989 I could have said, “Well, I think I’ll quit my job now and move to Europe because things are shaking up in the Soviet bloc and I bet the Berlin Wall will come down sometime this fall, and it’d be cool to be within a short train ride’s distance when that happens.” You can’t tell when you’re going to be on the scene for history in the making. But I bet the people who aren’t so committed to a regular job and a steady paycheque get to see more of the interesting stuff. I’m sure there are downsides, like actually not having a steady paycheque and also having weird gaps in your resume because “those were the two years I spent meditating on a mountainside in Tibet” or whatever.

I can’t say I regret not having weird gaps in my resume. But I sure do regret not being there when the Berlin Wall came down, even though I’d have to take apart my whole life block-by-block to get back to the point where that might have been possible. I guess I’d have to be a whole different person.

This is all relevant to me again now as I have kids who are getting awkwardly close to the end of high school and thinking about what to do afterwards. And my high-expectations, high-achieving genes are kicking in right away, sure that I know the best paths for them to follow to get a safe, stable, reliable life.

My firstborn has already told that although he does want to go to university, he and some friends have been talking about taking a year after high school to go touring with their band. And my immediate response is to say That’s a terrible idea! You need to go to university RIGHT AWAY!! You can always go tour the country in a falling-apart van with a bunch of guys and guitars later!!!

Except, maybe you can’t. Those kind of things are harder to do once you’re committed to a job and a mortgage and a family. And maybe, just maybe, if one (or both!) of my kids goes off and does something unexpected and irresponsible, they might end up being on hand for one of the great, defining events of the early 2020s, and experience a moment they’ll never forget.

Who knows? You can’t plan these things. All I can do about my Berlin Wall regret is tell my children two things: First, I’m not nearly as certain as I pretend to be about what constitutes “good life choices.” I’m full of advice, but ultimately I know nothing, and you’re really on your own with this life stuff.

And second, once you’re out of the nest and I’m retired, don’t be surprised if I’m a little hard to get hold of. I plan to be a lot less responsible in my old age.


3 thoughts on “My Berlin Wall of Regret

  1. I was in Berlin in April of 1989, and I went to see the Wall, visited Checkpoint Charlie, spent a day in East Berlin wandering around with a friend of mine and a man we met who claimed that (a) he had tried – and failed – to climb over the wall, serving a short prison stint for his pains, and (b) that anyone we saw looking happy in Communist Germany was probably drunk. I was telling my students about that trip in a class I was teaching a couple of weeks ago on the novel 1984, and they all gaped at me (because of my advanced age, I think? – none of them were born yet in 1989). I feel really, really lucky that I got a chance to visit that city and see first-hand what you described in this post – how nobody had the faintest idea, even just a few months before the Wall came down, that anything was going to change.

    I’ve never felt the kind of regret you describe, probably because I was still in high school the following fall, and I had just spent all my money on a trip to Germany, so heading back was not even remotely an option. I watched the Wall come down on TV like everybody else, and mostly I just feel so glad and privileged to have had the chance to be there beforehand.

    • It would have been very interesting to have been there a little while before, also! On my 1987 trip we got to travel through Yugoslavia while it was still a Communist country, and still a united country, and even though we saw very little of it, I’ve always been grateful to have had that experience in light of everything that happened later.

      I think I have a lot of generalized regret about travel opportunities I’ve missed by being too prudent and responsible, and the Berlin Wall thing is just the most obvious symbol of this. I have plans to make up for all this responsibility in retirement years though!

  2. I remembered very badly wanting to be in China after Tianiman Square although there was not much the 21-year-old me could have done to help. I can see now that it would have been a Bad Idea. The Berlin Wall’s falling was one of those rare moments in history when nobody got hurt. I do regret missing out on that wonderful party at the foot of the wall that defined my generation’s world view.

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