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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Don't Take Freedom for Granted

This article, which appeared in Julie van de Zande's A Broader Life last month, seems particularly appropriate to re-post on Independence Day. 

Life Learned Abroad Interview: Laura Powell

What is the most valuable life lesson you’ve 
learned traveling or living abroad?  
Laura: The most profound experience I have had while traveling took place 27 years ago. During winter break from my graduate school studies in England, a friend and I decided to head to West Germany. The itinerary included a visit to West Berlin, physically located in East Germany.
The train ride from West to East was a precursor of things to come. When we crossed the border, armed guards came through the train, overturning seats and diligently checking passports. Outside, the scenery changed from modern landscapes to barren land.
Upon arriving in West Berlin late on a misty, chilly night (a scene somewhat reminiscent of an old Cold War spy novel), my friend and I, as I remember it, walked over to look at the Berlin Wall. The site was a shock. The graffiti-splattered Wall on the West German side (designed, I learned later, to keep the West Germans in as opposed to keeping the East Germans out) served as a stark personification (if an object can be personified) of the proverbial Iron Curtain.
Between the sight of the Wall, images of American military vehicles rolling down the streets of West Berlin, and the “You are Leaving the American/French/British Sector” signs, I was creeped out, for lack of a better term.
But what really sealed my unease was an excursion over to East Berlin–my first journey into a Communist land.
Images: The eastern part of the Wall (there were actually two walls between the two cities–divided by a mined No Man’s Land) unmarked by graffiti, but topped with barbed wire and overseen by guard towers. The contrast in the Christmas Markets between East and West–the West’s rampant with consumerism; the East’s marked (so to speak) by long lines of shabbily-dressed locals waiting desperately to buy a pair of gloves, some socks, or other basic necessities. The difficulty of spending the 25 marks we were forced to exchange upon going into East Berlin. The long waits in the passport lines at the border.
From all of this, the life lesson–don’t take freedom for granted. Seeing a Wall separating people; keeping people from moving freely–for the first time, it struck me how lucky I was to be an American. And, to this day, that image informs my political view and perhaps my career, which is based on being able to travel freely anywhere in the world.
The side lesson: Even though the Christmas Markets in West Berlin were vibrant and colorful, while the ones in the East were grey and depressing, I was, nonetheless, somewhat disturbed by the crass consumerism in the West. Perhaps it was the stark contrast between two places just miles from each other in distance, but world’s apart in terms of philosophy and lifestyle. But it did strike me, at that time, that the Western focus on consumption was a bit vulgar and empty.

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