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.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Without Reservations

Something happened to me today that has I’ve never done before while traveling. I made my reservation for the wrong day.

In a European calendar, the days begins with Monday not Sunday. When making reservations I have always caught this fact but must have been tired when booking the Pension Gina in Gorlitz, Germany, because I made it one day later than I’d meant.

I received an email from the proprietor yesterday asking me to call 30 minutes before we arrived as he did not live on the premises and this morning, I responded that I would and looked forward to seeing him today.

I called and when we arrived Frank, the proprietor, said there was a problem. The reservation was for tomorrow. And the pension was fully booked for tonight. I got the wifi password and checked it out, and he was correct, and the mistake was 100 percent my fault.

However, Frank did not leave me in the lurch. Instead, he made a call to a friend and when that was fruitless, he told me to get in the car with him as we headed out to find a place for us.

He told the boys to stay at the pension and watch TV, which I translated. Frank does not speak a word of English.

We drove to the city center to the information booth and to another hotel booking place. Both were closed.

We then drove to visit a friend of his who had a hotel, and there, too, there was no room at the inn. But the woman who owned it and all of the guests at the bar pitched in to help, suggesting places we could stay, to no avail. Who knew Gorlitz was so popular?

Even as they discussed where to stay, Frank was concerned about costs for me. He kept saying places were too expensive.

Finally, we returned to the pension, he took the phone book, and I logged on to Trivago to see what we could find. Finally, we found a place for three, although Frank was still concerned about the price.

Then he called — and negotiated down for me — getting me what he said was a more fair price.

We went outside, and he told me to follow him, as he led us to our new hotel in his car.

When I tried to pay him for the night I won’t be using tomorrow, Frank declined. Insistently. Then he hugged me and went on his way.

I was dumbstruck by the entire event.

I made a mistake. Frank would be losing money on my account. Yet he took time out of his schedule — well over an hour — drove me around, made many phone calls, showed concern for my well-0being and made sure I had a place to stay at a reasonable price.

This came from a complete stranger who showed to me what true hospitality really means.

One of the reasons I love to travel is that you get to see different cultures and peoples, and you get to show the best of who you are and what you represent.

Today, a man who grew up in Communist East Germany and spoke no English whatsoever, became the greatest ambassador for Germany I could ever have hoped to see.

And I struggled hard to not be the “ugly American.” I owned my mistake and offered to pay for it. I communicated with him in his own language. And I was effusive with my thankfulness and gratitude. I was in the wrong, and my new friend, Frank, made everything right.

At one point in the middle of all of our communication, I accidentally called Frank “du” rather than “Sie,” the more intimate use of the word “you” in German, is rude to use for anyone but a dear friend or family member.

As soon as I said it, I immediately backtracked and apologized, and Frank said “du is OK. We are friends now.

We all make mistakes when we travel, but I was lucky today. My mistake gave me the image of a humble innkeeper who truly went the extra mile when there was no room at the inn.

And I’m pretty sure there is a sermon somewhere in this story.

Oh, and should any of my readers ever visit Gorlitz please stay at the Pension Gina. Tell Frank Paula sent you. And make sure you make the reservation for the right day.