LA VALLEUR COMMUNICATES: Musings by Barbara La Valleur — Deutsche Einheit

Twenty-seven years ago this past week (Oct. 3, 1990) is a date I won’t soon forget. It was the “reunification” of Germany. East met West or rather East reunified with the West.

For the world, it was a huge celebration — The Wall Fell — it was a strike for freedom, it meant democracy for millions and yes, even the hope of world peace.

Closer to home, as someone who had been living in Europe for 17 years, an American married to an Englishman living most of that time in the former “West” Germany, it was a personal devastation.

It led to the end of my life, my job as an international photojournalist freelancing full-time for seven German newspapers and my family as I knew it. Not that day. Not that month. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but that was the end result.

We had a small scientific instrument manufacturing company employing 10 Germans with customers throughout Europe and beyond. Small companies like ours were left to fend for ourselves, competing with the lucrative “East” for business. The end result was that we lost our home, our business, our retirement and while we didn’t officially go bankrupt, we lost “everything.” Our marriage did not survive the strain.

I’ve always wondered why I’ve never read anything about the hundreds, if not thousands of small companies that went out of business as a result of the Wall falling. After all, the East became an instant investment gold mine.

By 1994, I was back in Minnesota after 20 years (nearly three in England and over 17 in Germany), starting my life over at the age of 50.

Fast-forward to today, I’m a happily married, “refired” —versus retired — photojournalist as busy as ever with a Cuba photo exhibit that opened Friday at the Evansville (Minn.) Art Center and another one scheduled for the Edina (Minn.) Art Center in January.

Last Monday, I spent several hours going through hundreds of letters I’d written to my family, mostly to my mother and two sisters, during those 20 years in Europe, in preparation for writing my memoir. I didn’t stop to read most of them, but in realizing that Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, I set aside a handful written during that time to read.

In one letter, dated Jan. 1, 1990, I was commenting to my mother about the political situation. “The financial drain on the West is enormous at the moment. It’s fabulous that the East is loosening it’s tethers, but it’s costing! There is resentment here and there. But basically, people are breathing easier.”

Only a few weeks later, in February 1990, I wrote of “changes in Germany and Europe.”

On June 23, 1990, my letter reads, “Checkpoint Charlie was dismantled on Friday, that’s really something.”

Then in a letter from my daughter, Andrea, 15 years old at the time, to her grandparents, she wrote, “East and West are joining tomorrow, people are already out tonight and celebrating. On AFN (American Forces Network, the American Army radio station we listened to), they said tons of people are at the Brandenburg (Gate in Berlin) tonight.”

The letter had a Deutsche Einheit (German Unity) stamp on it and was mailed the day after reunification.

CHRIS ALLEN: London Journal — Always An Adventure

I’m back in London after a two-year absence. This is my 15th time here, each time with a group of students. I have eight with me this time, the fewest since my first year in 2000. It’s expensive, and although the cost of coming here for two weeks for the class is quite reasonable, it’s still expensive for students.

I have unfairly compared London to New York. It does neither of them justice. Of course, there are many similarities: Both are centers of industry with global corporate headquarters; both are media and entertainment capitols; both are international banking hubs; both have about 8 million people.

London, of course, is much older. Just outside the Tower tube stop is a part of the London wall. It was built by the Romans when this island was an outpost of the Roman Empire and was called Londinium. It was built 2,000 years a ago — just about the time Jesus walked the Earth. You can walk right up and touch it, and there are other spots around town where the wall is still visible.

Along Fleet Street is a pub called the Cheshire Cheese. The sign above the door says “Rebuilt in 1667.” Let that sink in for a moment. “Rebuilt” in 1667. The original pub was destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666, the one that killed all the rats and ended the last great period of the plague. It was actually one of the first buildings rebuilt after the fire.

Why?

Simply because the workers of the day who were rapidly putting the crippled city back together again had to have a place for lunch and a pint of ale. First came the pub, then came the city, a somewhat vulgar version of “form follows function.”

Now, 390 years later — 390 years — the Cheshire Cheese still serves up fine ales and excellent food, like steak and ale pie.

The city is dotted with squares — Russell Square, Bloomsbury Square, Tavistock Square, Brunswick Square, Lincoln Inns Field — finely tended square block parks of grass, flowers, benches, fountains and statues to this historic person and that.

On warm days people flock to the squares. Families have a picnic or at least some ice cream. Kids run, shout, kick a ball and laugh with mom and dad. Young adults spread blankets or mats, kick their shoes off and sit back with friends, sharing a bottle of wine and some cheese with bread. The elders sit on the benches, often with a jacket even on warm days, and watch younger versions of themselves decades ago. Some smile, some doze, some sit with the wives of many years in contented silence and enjoy the activity around them.

The noise of the city seems to disappear in a square. And believe me, London is a noisy city. It is choked with traffic. Older double-decker buses roar when the traffic light turns green or when they pull away from a bus stop. But it is a very walkable city, and I find myself walking five or10 miles a day. If at all possible I avoid the city buses, the tube (subway) system and taxis.

The best thing to do when one walks down a London street is to look up. The storefronts at ground level are everyday storefronts, nothing special. But upward you see the great architecture of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.

The streets are lined with restaurants of all sorts. Indian restaurants abound. Indian food, after all, has become British food.

But London is a global city, and immigrants have come from around the world to live and work here. I met a Portuguese man and an Argentine man both serving from from their kiosks in an open-air mall.

Here in the Royal National Hotel, if you stand in the lobby for an hour, you will hear at least a dozen languages. The Royal National calls itself the largest hotel in Europe, and it may well be. There are 5,000 rooms here. And I’m not kidding about that. Pensioners on holiday to London and grade schoolers on class trips swarm the lobby and the courtyard.

The global nature means global menus. There are jokes made about British food, and indeed you can still find things like boiled beef and jellied eel. But every ethnic food has also found a home here.

Many of the restaurants are fairly small, long bowling-alleys of tables and chairs. Young immigrants are often your servers. And if you can’t find an ethnic food to your taste, pub grub is a fine alternative. Pubs are quite proud of the food they serve and especially take pride in their fish and chips. Believe me, there is no fish and chips like the fish and chips made from freshly caught, never-frozen cod.

“When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life,” Samuel Johnson once wrote some 400 years ago. It’s even more true today. Even after 15 years of bringing students, often on their first visit to a foreign country, I still love life, and I still love London.