Two windows of separation

Berlin sign

Life in the former “death strip” of the Berlin Wall

By Katerina Biliouri (2000)

“I see you see me. I’ve been tapping all day, working on my laptop on the dinner table behind our wall-to-wall living room windows. Daytime with a coffee by my side, now 4.30 pm -and already dark- replacing coffee with a mint tea and my light therapy box. I see you’ve been really busy these past two days. Working long hours in front of your computer, behind your own huge window corner with the slight curve. Working with your light on, even during the day, fighting the daytime winter greyness and the darkness that comes early this time of the year. When I raise my head, you’re always there.”

My distant “co-worker” lies two windows and a street away.

He and I both live in modern buildings with beautiful architecture right on what used to be the “death strip” of the Berlin Wall. Back in 1962, one year after the Wall went up, a second parallel fence, an “inner wall” was built further into East German territory. The ground between the two walls was a 100 meter wide stretch of land. The houses that were contained between these two walls were razed and the inhabitants were relocated. This piece of land known as the “death strip”, incorporated watchtowers, anti-tank defences, signal fencing, dogs and barbed wires. It was covered with sand, so that the footprints would be easily noticed and it was patrolled by guards day and night. And as all of the above were not enough, there were beds of nails under balconies hanging over the “death strip”. After the Wall was down, this empty area running along 140 km —87 miles— became home to modern buildings trying to peacefully connect and reunite, to create a new common future.

For 28 entire years this is what existed under your apartment, my dinner table, your computer, my laptop and our big windows my dear co-worker: the “death strip” of a Wall that once separated families, friends, hopes and dreams. A Wall that separated a city and a country, Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

A neighbourhood so strongly defined by the notion of separation, yet —here we are— my co-worker and I having only two windows of separation between us. Making the invisible, visible. And I find this fact totally fascinating.

Neighbours and their habits turn into silent friends, whose patterns blend in and subcontiously become a pattern of my own life. And as I work from home, always sitting at the same dinner table — changing chairs but always facing outside for more light within the day — these people become part of my daily life, my daily routine. It’s unavoidable, unless you want to live like a troll with absolutely no light this time of year. I’m thinking that it’s a kind of a panopticon, but working both ways. If I can see everyone, but I know that everyone can see me too.

Darker outside. I’ve been writing, deleting and rewriting this article for two hours now. Lights are on. I drew my side curtains, but the ones in front of me are still open. Therapy light lamp is off and decaf has replaced my tea. I raise my head. Kids playing in their room in one apartment, a big dinner party with all lights on in another—I’m sure they look at me and feel sorry for the geek still writing in front of a computer screen. My co-worker is there too. Silently keeping me company from a distance behind his computer screen, next to his lamp.

Once West Berliners only used to wave to their friends and relatives from a distance after the Berlin Wall was erected. Today, on the other hand, we are not forced to live with that restriction. Instead of waving through our windows, we can cross our little street, walk on what used to be the “death strip” and say hello.

That’s what I intend to do tomorrow.

First published on Medium