The Birdcage

by Martin Weinhold from Berlin, Germany
Jun 11, 11

I grew up in Berlin, East Germany. My parents, both stage designers by profession, spent most of my childhood talking about leaving East Germany - for West Germany.

This was a crucial decision, because there was no way back. Once you had left East Germany you couldn’t return home. We were subject to the most severe travel restrictions. We were not allowed to travel to western countries, which made it nearly impossible for most of the people to cross the borders.

In my childhood I witnessed my parents toil with this decision. They claimed, numerous times, that they had made the final decision to stay or go. And then they would withdraw it again for various reasons. I was able to tell, even as a
child, that it wasn't easy for them. I wasn't convinced that the predicted paradise truly existed on the other side of the wall. 

Already at an early age I began to replace my parent’s escape fantasy with one of my own. I too was focused on something in the west…but way further west than my mother and father were aiming. The first word I wrote, at the age of 5, was not my name. It was ''Canada".

My East German kindergarten teachers were not amused with my growing admiration for a land, which was considered part of the evil west. They confronted my parents and asked them why their son was writing "Canada" everywhere he could: in the sand, on the wall, on the table and even on the skin of my palm. My parents couldn't explain it either, they had no clue where it came from. They suspected that my aunt, who worked at the public library, may have given me a book with the alluring maple leaf on the cover.  

At school I was more familiar with the shape of the Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence River, than with the geography of my own home country. I begged my mother to stitch maple leaves on my clothes; all of my school things were covered with this icon, too.

My parents, however, were still thinking about how to escape our socialist country. In early 1989 my parents made their most serious attempt to flee from East Germany for the west. They used a fake invitation to an exhibition in West Berlin to apply for artists' visas. As soon as they had received the permit to cross the border, my parents immediately packed the car with exhibits. The documents they would need for the new start in West Germany - like birth certificates and proofs of their degrees - were hidden underneath the costumes of the fairy tale marionettes. The plan was that my father would "officially" escape; meaning he would announce to East German officials his will to stay in the west after he became a registered refugee there. Afterwards the rest of the family was to apply for permission to follow him.

This was one of the known procedures East German people performed in order to leave the country illegally.

My father ended up in a refugee camp in West Berlin. He was everything but happy. He had to live with four other men in a narrow container, he missed his family and his house severely.

He was never convinced totally, that leaving the east was the best idea. The situation he found himself in sustained his doubts. Because he implied this in several phone calls with my mother and admitted to her that he was close to returning, she made an attempt to rescue the plan. She decided to see if she could cross the border with her own visa, visit my father in the camp, and convince him to stay. 

With this intention she left my sister and me for a daytrip to the western side of the Berlin wall. Mysteriously my mother was allowed to pass the border between East and West Berlin, even though my father had already announced that he escaped. 

She did it not once, but three times.

She probably achieved the opposite of what she had conceived – after seeing his wife in person my father's yearning to be reunited with the family grew even stronger. It began to dawn on my mother, that this attempt to relocate the family to the west was going to fail. After the third visit. which she assumed was likely to be the final one, she walked through the streets of West Berlin in despair. 

In the future, after my father’s illegal act of escape, East German officials would not likely allow them to travel again. In her resigned mood my mother thought it would be the very last time that she would be in the west at all.

Lost in thought, she reached Kreuzberg, one of the Turkish neighborhoods in West Berlin. She stopped by accident in front of an antique silver store and discovered a silver birdcage in the
display of the shop window. It was tiny and made to be worn on a necklace. There was an even tinier bird in it, sitting on a bar. She bought it for me as a gift. When she gave it to me she told me that my father would soon return to East Germany. She said that they would never be able to leave the isolation of East Germany but that, one day, I would leave alone. If they were to stay here forever, at least I should go and see the world outside the
cage. I decided that little piece of jewelry would be my lucky charm, and that I would wear it as a symbol whenever I crossed the border.

In the fall of 1989 political change came. I was 18 years old when the boundaries of the Eastern Bloc were pried open. All of a sudden it was possible for us to travel the world. In the
following years I visited many countries. Out of an inexplicable hesitation I didn't go to Canada. Maybe I shied away because of my enormous expectations, which were, I figured, connected to fantasies of a difficult time, so many years ago.

I finally did make it to Canada. I am, like my parents, an artist, and a couple of years ago I was invited by another artist to an exhibit in Toronto. I remembered the lucky charm my mother had given me fifteen years earlier. I wore the birdcage on a silver ring in my ear when I passed the Canadian border control.

I only had 12 days to discover my "promised land" . But it was long enough for me to fall in love with a Canadian woman. She made me want to stay in your country forever. I did have to leave, on that twelfth day, but when I left, I left part of myself with her. As we said our good-byes at the airport, I handed her the birdcage. And hastily told her the story I have written here.

In the past two years I have come back often and my Canadian girlfriend has introduced me to many wonderful Canadians and shown me much of Canada's beauty. Modern Canada is very different from what I dreamt of as a child, but the Canada I love now is real. That's what I owe this woman from Quebec … and I wish with all my heart, that we stay deeply connected to each other for a long, long time.