Opinion Extra

Bellinger: My own 1989

Three years ago, when we were preparing our wedding, we encountered an unusual problem. My birth certificate was issued from a country and district that doesn't exist anymore.

I was born when my country was called People's Republic of Bulgaria and the state emblem was decorated with a hammer and sickle. The hospital was in a district called "Lenin." My husband said the old socialist birth certificate looks cool and unique.

Since I couldn't marry with a birth certificate from a country or district that doesn't exist anymore, the Republic of Bulgaria issued me a new one. It is printed on pink paper with meticulous double spaces and clear letters so it can be easily translated in English, French or any other language if the owner needs to travel, live or marry one day in a foreign country.

My old birth certificate wasn't so friendly to the notion of free movement. The new one is trying very hard to be open-minded, Westernized and modern. Like the country itself, it's desperate to erase the past. For my husband, the new birth certificate isn't a really interesting artifact, just as the whole process of building a democratic society isn't so exciting for the former enemy.

We often reflect on the Berlin Wall and its fall 20 years ago.

The Communist Party had a well-organized system to scout talented children from the school bench, guide them through the various youth organizations until they ended up as its skilled members. I was one of these children - daughter of engineers, the middle class of the socialist Bulgaria, gifted in learning foreign languages and in public speaking, the perfect candidate for the attention of the local youth organization instructor.

The youth organizations taught the kids on discipline and the culture of the one-party state as early as fourth grade. The ones chosen to be leaders learned the shattered tactics of making a career in a totalitarian state. By their 30s, these new leaders were already skilled apparatchiks. You still can observe this behavior in some East European politicians who were connected to the old regime when they try to block reforms, playing the game of deception and manipulation. The system might be dead, but the outgrowths have to be confronted every day for a very long time.

The Berlin Wall and the whole socialism system were gone before I could really start my apparatchik career, but the whole experience left serious damage on my soul. I was only 11, but it made me forever distrustful of any organized political and social initiatives and probably too cynical for my own good.

Of course to be a leader in the communist youth organization had its perks: The teachers were nicer to you, there were free trips and summer camps. In 1989, I was chosen to go to two - one in the USSR and one in East Germany. I decided I'd rather go to the German Democratic Republic, as it was called back then. The GDR already was shaken by mass protests, but we, children from all socialist countries, were kept away from it on a cozy lake resort. We never went to the nearby Leipzig, where protesters were shouting "We are the people" at their sclerotic leadership. We did, however, have one day in East Berlin.

Since that summer day in 1989, the history of the divided city became something like an obsession for me. It reminded me of my own scars. I even moved to live there for five years to examine our joint past.

One day my husband and I walked down Unter der Linden, the street that 20 years ago ended on the East side of the Berlin Wall. He asked me how it looked on "our side" during the Cold War.

There was a fence that kept you from really getting close to the Brandenburg Gate. Soviet soldiers were standing with weapons. We were kids, and we were stretching our legs through the fence: "Hey, can you shoot us?" Our teachers were terrified and dragged us away. The soldiers were bored. I couldn't really see the West. It was so close, and yet it was still unattainable.

Now this all looks so far away, like some other life on a different planet. That day with my husband we were walking between tourists and students jogging East-West or West-East. We even changed the subject: Any plans for tonight? We also walked East-West, a Bulgarian holding the hand of an American soldier. The rest is history.