The flights and hotels are booked: my wife and I are flying to Germany this spring for a vacation.

It will be my second time visiting. The last time was 39 years ago, when Germany was two countries and the Wall divided Berlin. I was on an exchange program with Indiana University that summer. The Wall would fall a little more than five years in the future, but none of us could see that coming.

I lived in Krefeld, a city in western Germany on the Rhine River near the border with the Netherlands. My exchange group spent a week in Berlin, where we experienced the Wall. We even spent a day in East Berlin. I wrote about my Berlin experience here, and about my everyday life experience here.

With several of my exchange friends at the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom), 1984

We will start our trip in Berlin, where we will spend a few days. Then we will take a train to Cologne (Köln) and make that our home base for the rest of the trip. I’m eager to see modern Berlin, no longer divided. We’ll see the sights in Köln, including the great cathedral. We’ll take day trips from there, including to Krefeld.

I’m excited to finally return. I’m eager to see whether my German language skills are still sufficient for me to make my way!

But I expect that some aspects of returning to Berlin will be emotionally difficult. I expect to cry openly as I walk through Brandenburg Gate, for this is what it looked like the last time I saw it.

Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, 1984

I was unprepared for the Wall’s impact on me. I was 16 and, typical of that age, was all about the adventure ahead. But the Wall seemed to be everywhere, and its imposing presence left me feeling subdued.

Somewhere along the Wall, 1984

We came upon a place where the Wall was interrupted where it intersected the Spree River. Here we found these crosses, remembering people who tried to swim from East to West and were killed, either by a sniper in a nearby watchtower, or by the barbed wire with which they lined this part of the river.

At the Spree River in Berlin, 1984

There is one other very difficult memory, so difficult I didn’t remember it until about ten years ago. We toured a prison called Plötzensee, where the Nazi regime executed people who were part of various resistance organizations. I have only a vague memory of a white room there with hooks sticking out of the wall. I think we were told that was where the corpses of the executed were hanged after they were shot. I could be making that up. Something about this tour was upsetting enough that I blocked my memory of it after it was over. I only remembered it ten years ago because someone with whom I’m acquainted mentioned their own visit to this place. Plötzensee…Plötzensee…why does that name ring a bell? I Googled the name. Upon seeing photos the memory came flooding back, and fought the strong urge to vomit.

We won’t be returning to Plötzensee on this trip.

Margaret and I will revisit a couple other sites from my 1984 trip. But we will also visit many places I’ve not seen before, and make many new memories, while we are there. We may also see Margaret’s nephew and his wife, who live in Prague and are figuring out a day trip to Berlin to meet us.

We’ll also spend about half of our time with Cologne as our home base, making a few day trips including one to Krefeld. I’m eager to see the city center again — I never photographed it in 1984, and my memories of it have faded. I also want to drink beer at the Gleumes brewery, which is in the city center. 39 years without Gleumes is a long time!

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38 responses to “Returning to Germany”

  1. brandib1977 Avatar

    This sounds amazing! I can’t wait to hear about this adventure and see your pictures!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m anxious about the trip! Will my German skills be good enough? Will I recapture the magic of my long-ago trip?

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        These are reasonable anxieties. Even if your german skills are a little rusty. I’m sure well behaved American tourists who try to communicate in German will be appreciated by most people.

        And you know something? Forget about the magic of that trip when you were a young man. It’s going to be even better because you are coming from a much different place with all your life experience and an incredible life partner at your side. This trip is going to be the best trip ever. Have FUN and document the journey! I will expect a full report. :)

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Thanks Brandi!!

          1. brandib1977 Avatar

            Always glad to help to with a pep talk!

  2. Cynthia Avatar

    Enjoy! Wave northwards at us from Krefeld!

    You will find the inner city changed; it has changed drastically even in the time since I moved there in 2005 and away in 2012.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You lived in Krefeld?

      I can’t call up any mental imagery of Krefeld’s city center. It’s simply been too long.

      1. Cynthia Avatar

        Yep! Just a few minutes away from the Hauptbahnhof – in the building next to a Turkish bakery. The smells every morning were heaven and we could get a giant flatbread for 50 cents.

        Here’s a fun coincidence: A couple weeks ago I was talking to a friend of a friend who is a Krefeld native, and he was telling me about the American exchange students he knew/hosted (not entirely sure, it was loud) back when he was in school… And I think he’s about your age, maybe a bit younger. Wouldn’t that be crazy if you’d met each other?

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Speaking of bakeries, I remember the fresh bread delivery every morning. It was wonderful!

          For many years Indiana University sent 30 high-school students to live with families in Krefeld every summer. 2013 was the last year, after probably 40 years. Krefelders all knew about us, and many families took in students. I lived with a family named Rütten who lived about halfway to Uerdingen. The parents had a daughter who was slightly older than me, and a son who was slightly younger. I’ve Googled them as recently as a few years ago and the parents at that time appear to have still lived in that house. I have been unable to find the kids.

  3. DougD Avatar

    How marvellous, my employer used to have an office in Koln and I spent a week there once. Beautiful downtown and great Kolsch beer. I hope your unhappy memories of Berlin are comforted by how improved it is now.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Looking very much forward to the beer. Especially the Altbier in the Duesseldorf region. I favored Altbier when I lived there all those years ago.

  4. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Jim, have a good time…a weird and wild time to travel…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! The worst part about traveling right now is the airports.

  5. David Avatar

    I would like to say in advance: Herzlich willkommen zurück!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Nach 39 Jahre!

  6. Juna Avatar

    As mentioned, forget the old, left memories. Berlin is a different down today, very very different, but you will recall some things and you will be able to make a new photo from this spot at Brandenburg Gate, also, you will find the crosses again, which are now directly at the river right next to the parliament. Just stroll around and enjoy. If you need any hits or advices drop me a line. Oh and about rusty German, this has changed too, you’ll notice you’ll probably hear more English in some districts than other languages.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember the condition of the East and its sharp contrast to the West. I am looking forward to seeing the new Berlin! I found the crosses on Google Street View by the way.

      When I was in Germany before I spoke nothing but German and was praised for how slight my accent was. But I looked American in the way I dressed, so it wasn’t like I passed as native!

  7. Reinhold Graf Avatar

    Too bad, no side trip to Bavaria. I would have loved to show you my little hometown 😁

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Aw! We discussed visiting the south or the north, but in the end with our limited time (and money) Berlin and Köln were what we settled on.

  8. -N- Avatar

    I think it is interesting to see how history affects us. I have mixed feelings about Germany – have known many wonderful Germans – because of the history. But today I have equally conflicted feelings about Russia, Iran, N. Korea, and China – and more to the point, my own country. I think I can understand how people under regimes might feel. Despite this, have a wonderful trip and enjoy every minute!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I have very mixed feelings about my own country these days.

      I’m sure we will enjoy the trip very much!

      1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

        Sad to say, you are not the only one with misgivings and fears as we slip further into political turmoil and violence in USA.

  9. M.B. Henry Avatar

    Wow!! We visited a lot of those places in 2018. I’d love to go back again someday! Have a wonderful trip!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! Not sure I’m going back to Germany again after this — so many other places I’d like to visit — so we need to make the most out of this trip!

  10. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    There is a lot of history, culture, art, and turmoil in Berlin’s past. It certainly suffered a troubled past. My mother and her parents fled from the Russians as they entered Berlin in 1945:

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What a harrowing story. Your family was well and truly trapped until the advancing Soviets generated enough chaos for them to escape.

  11. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    Hi Jim,

    So nice that you’re returning to Germany!

    I found your blog in 2014 and commented on the one you wrote about your visit to former West-Berlin.

    We went to former East-Germany ons a high school learning trip. An experience that made a lasting impression. The lack of freedom for the inhabitants and the tension that was everywhere… and of course: the Brandenburger Tor that was only visible from afar.

    It’s understandable that you blocked the memory of your visit to Plotzensee. We visited the site of the concentration camp Buchenwald. The crematorium was still on site. As were several items that were made of human skin… it was a visit that made a lasting impression on all of us.
    We found it best to keep that experience in the past.

    We returned to Berlin in spring 2014. It has become a city with such a positive vibe and so much energy! We loved it.

    We also walked under the Brandenburger Tor, from east to west. It moved us so much, we were crying.

    I’m sure returning to Berlin will be a positive experience for you.


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you Shirley – I’m looking forward to the new Berlin. I remember very well what the East was like, both in the tension among the people and the dilapidated condition of that side of the city. I’ll be very happy, I’m sure, to see all of that changed.

  12. Michael Avatar

    How awesome. Will this be before or after we see you at B&B?

    Both times I’ve gone were in Bavaria and I thoroughly loved it. I believe you’ll find the rust will break off your German pretty quickly once you’re there.

    Are any of your host family still in that region?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar


      We considered Bavaria; it’s a part of Germany I’ve not seen. But I badly want to reconnect with my 1984 trip and that will take the time available to us. Maybe if we go back, we’ll do Bavaria.

      I believe my host parents still live in the same house. I’ve not been able to find my host brother or sister online.

      1. Michael Avatar

        Perhaps you can snail mail a letter to their address and see if you get a response. That would be cool to reconnect.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’ve waffled on that. I wasn’t their favorite guest over the years they did it. We haven’t been in contact since probably 1990. On the other hand, it might not hurt to try.

  13. Dion Balisacan Avatar
    Dion Balisacan

    Bon Voyage and enjoy your time in Germany. Can’t wait to read your trip report and see your photos.
    I’m going to visit Frankfurt and Heidelberg, my trip’s home base, later this year. Looking forward to it because my wife and I will meet with our daughter, who’s studying in Dublin, and explore that corner of Germany.
    Safe travels!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds like you’re in for a great time!

  14. Joe from The Resurrected Camera Avatar

    I hope you enjoy yourselves! I’m just old enough to remember watching Gorbachev on TV and seeing the Wall come down, things like that. I had no idea what it was or meant at the time.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was 21 when it happened, so I did have a better grasp. And of course having experienced the Wall made it more personal.

  15. J P Avatar

    This sounds like an awesome trip!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It should definitely be!

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