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JOHN DeMONT: Walking with le Carré through the Berlin Wall

John DeMont sits in front of the World Peace Pavilion in Dartmouth on Monday, Oct. 4, 2019.
John DeMont sits in front of the World Peace Pavilion in Dartmouth on Monday, Oct. 4, 2019. - Ryan Taplin

When a colleague Monday morning mentioned that this Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall I didn’t suddenly sit up straight because I am in a perpetual state of high alert during our daily lineup meetings. 

But it did make me ponder something I hadn’t thought about in a while. 

When I worked for The Financial Post, back when it was a civilized weekly, it regularly dispensed writers to foreign lands to write “special reports.”

I wasn’t at the paper long, so I only got to write one: Germany, when it was divided into East and West. 

It was nearly one third of a century ago, just before Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall," which means that my memories are fragmentary: the gun-toting driver from Daimler-Benz who spent a day driving me around Stuttgart; a beer hall in Munich where I was reduced to scribbling notes on beer coasters when I ran out of room in my notebook. 

I recall being in the elevator at the Bundestag, their parliament, with a member of the newly ascendant Green Party, who stood there like an imp in shorts and goatee, amidst the frowning dark-suited members of Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union.

I also know I spent part of a day over in East Berlin, which I recall as Communist-era bleak. 

I had some sort of minder on that trip. 

When I went back at night, though, I was alone walking up to Checkpoint Charlie, which is where I choose to believe that I passed through the wall from West to East Berlin.

I remember no other civilians. The guards gave my modestly stamped passport a cursory look, then sent me on my way. 

Somewhere inside I stopped and turned around because big things had happened there, where the barbed wire-topped wall went from psychedelic on the Western side to monochrome on the East.

Like any reporter on his first foreign assignment, I had read lots of background before the trip. I had also devoured my fair share of le Carré. 

So I knew about the East Germans shot trying to cross the concrete and barbed wire. I knew about the prisoner swaps that took place there, and perhaps even about the standoff there back in 1961 when a U.S. diplomat named Allan Lightner tried to cross Checkpoint Charlie to attend the opera in East Berlin.

The last bit was relevant because I was also bound for a musical performance on the eastern side of the wall. 

I cannot, for the life of me, recall the musical work, and where it was being mounted, other than that the inside of the building was stunning, like a dream compared to the drabness outside. 

The audience was beautiful, everyone bedecked in finery as if they had stepped through a crack in time before Soviet sameness descended on that part of the city.

It was dark when I headed back, the streets slick with rain. Although the last bit might not be remotely true, because I was and am someone prone to an idealized view of reality, someone who would walk slowly through the all-but empty streets of East Berlin, images of le le Carré's George Smiley echoing around in my brain, as I approached the wall.

I would like to be able to say that I walked up to it and touched a hand to the concrete. But fear of a guard with an overactive trigger finger kept me moving.

Back in the West I hailed a cab back and returned to my hotel in a well-that-was-something daze I still feel to this day.

I felt it watching the wall come down along with the rest of the world nearly 30 years ago. 

I felt it even yesterday when colleague Ryan Taplin and I took a drive over to the World Peace Pavilion in Dartmouth, one of the three places in Nova Scotia where pieces of the Berlin Wall can be found.

It was locked. From a distance, outside the gate, we couldn’t really tell which was the German concrete. I suppose in a way it didn't really matter. All that mattered was that it had been dismantled, broken up into pieces and scattered far away like a bad memory.

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