Mistaken Identity

February 2018

The political changes of Eastern Europe in 1989 enthralled me, and I was particularly interested in what was going on in Germany, for I would be making my first trip there the following summer. To me, Germany was the embodiment of European division, a division symbolized by the Berlin Wall.

Along with ten other students from Villanova University, I was to attend a language course in 1990 in Freiburg, West Germany. One weekend was set aside for a trip to Berlin, and all of us were excited about this because we would be there the day of the Roger Waters’s concert The Wall . We spent our first afternoon in the city sleeping off the fatigue of a fourteen-hour ride in a railroad baggage car (a lot of people wanted to see The Wall concert; the only “seats” we could find were the floor of the car). Later on that night we visited the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Wall, which had once barred the West’s access to the monument, was already dismantled in this area of the city, the only trace a scar on the ground where it once stood.

The next morning, walking from our hotel to the Alexanderplatz, where the concert would be, I kept an eye out for the remains of the wall so that we could come back later to chip off pieces for souvenirs. About ten minutes before we reached the Alexanderplatz, I saw a graffiti-covered wall crowned with barbed wire stretching out along the road. Here, I thought, was the infamous monument that had divided Berlin for the past twenty-nine years.

The next day I led the group back to it. Since we had no hammers, the large stones littering the ground had to serve as our tools. As we pummeled the wall to secure our tokens of Berlin, other students who were watching us photographed our attack. Then, a curious thing happened …

A German security guard on the far side of the adjoining fence connected to the wall strode over to us. I thought we were going to get into trouble for breaking off pieces of the wall without permission. But he grinned and said, “This is not the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall is over there.” And he pointed behind us, to where the real wall was embarrassingly visible. We thanked him shamefacedly and hurried away. As we approached our true target, I looked back and realized that we had been pounding away at a wall surrounding the small back yard of an office building.