BY Matthew Breen
November 01 2013 4:20 PM ET
The 30 meter-high Molecule Men sculpture on the Spree River
My first trip to berlin was as a teenager. I was 14, spending a summer with family friends who lived in Munich—though then it was still West Germany. That car trip was in 1988, during the last gasp of the Soviet era, though no one knew that at the time. The driving route to West Berlin, an island in the sea of the communist German Democratic Republic, was along a highway lined with fences and patrolled by East German police and border patrols.
I remember the interminable wait at several border stops, the guard huts, the soldiers in their drab green uniforms carrying the kind of rifles I’d only seen in movies set in the 1960s. If intimidation was the goal, then mission accomplished. Once inside the western pocket of the city, the landscape was of a piece with the rest of West Germany, with busy cafés and restaurants, bustling street activity on the Kurfürstendamm shopping boulevard, people in museums and monuments, and construction cranes littering the skyline. The Berlin Wall, in spots where people could get close enough, was a riot of brilliant graffiti. On either side of it, a desolate, city-block-wide no-man’s-land cut a long strip though the center of the city.