In united Germany, love crosses old border freely

AP News
Posted: Nov 06, 2009 3:20 PM

In Katrin Roller's Berlin apartment, it's the toilet paper holder that stands out _ a homemade contraption of rope and a piece of a rolling pin.

That's the way her husband wants it. He grew up in the communist-imposed frugality of East Germany, and 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he still isn't quite used to the throwaway society. "He thinks you can always use something for something else," Roller says with a laugh.

Still, it's a minor point of difference, considering that when they first met 12 years ago, she felt as if they were from different countries. "It was still exotic to bring an eastern German into my circle of friends. I felt like a real pioneer," she says. "But today it isn't exotic anymore."

Marriages like hers are just one of many reasons for Germans to celebrate Monday as they mark the fall of the wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

After "Ossis" and "Wessis" met across the rubble of the barrier that had separated them for decades, their cultural differences gave rise to a German catchphrase: "A wall in the mind," meaning the vast differences in outlook and living standards between 63 million Germans (Wessis) raised in a free-market democracy and 17 million (Ossis) in a communist dictatorship.

Catrin Schmitt and Yvi Poducek are another couple that has crossed the divide by making small adjustments.

Catrin, the westerner, had to come to terms with knowing that her partner's uncle worked for the Stasi, the East German secret police. She had to wean her off cheap wine and introduce her to finer vintages. On foreign holidays, when English was required, she had to do the talking because Yvi's only foreign language was Russian.

Three years ago they entered a legal union and are raising Catrin's baby daughter and a 3-year-old son fathered by a friend. Yvi has taken Catrin's surname. This week the son's fridge magnets spelled "Catrin Loves Yvi."

"The East and West thing, it's just not an issue for us anymore," said Yvi, 37, a hairdresser who owns her own salon. And Catrin, a Web page designer, says: "Now you hardly even hear people referred to as 'Ossi' and 'Wessi.'"

There are no recent figures on east-west marriages. The last survey, from 1995, said they made up 4 percent of the total, but journalist Simone Schmollack reckons the number is much bigger and always rising.

"It's becoming always more normal, especially in Berlin, which is a melting pot," said Schmollack, who wrote a book on relationships across the former divide.

The change is seen not just in marriages. Officials from both sides work together running Europe's biggest economy and most populous country. Angela Merkel isn't just Germany's first woman chancellor _ she's also the first who grew up in the communist state.

In "love and relationships, even more has changed than on the larger political stage," said Schmollack.

In the early years, the "wall in the mind" was felt everywhere. The Wessis looked down on everything eastern, from the drab clothes and smoky Trabant cars to the communist mindset of leaving everything to the government. The Ossis were repelled by the westerners' condescension and conspicuous consumption and gap between haves and have-nots.

Today, mixed couples say there is much more that unites them, from ethics and family values to Goethe, Schiller and other German literary greats who were read on both sides of the heavily fenced and mined border.

For Roller and her husband, religion is another sticking point. Roller's father was a Lutheran pastor and although she isn't a believer herself, she values the church. Her husband, raised in state-encouraged atheism, "rejects the church so strongly that I start defending it, even though I never thought I would have to defend it," Roller said.

Florian Klampfer, a Berlin marriage therapist, said that differing east-west identity used to come up immediately.

"People then were still very much involved in the former worlds that they grew up in _ it was still very fresh," Klampfer said. "It has really changed a lot."

Schmollack, the journalist, said marriages in which the man is from the east are less common because in the early years, they were viewed as boring and unfashionable.

Nowadays the image is changing. Easterners' frugality is seen as a virtue, as is their ability to cope with hardships creatively. Many western women have come to appreciate the communist system's promotion of gender equality and day care.

"What is great for me about being married to an eastern German is that he was used to his mother working," said Valeska Foltin, 35, a business consultant from Marburg. She and her husband, Torsten Kurth, 36, live in Berlin with their three small sons.

She remembers boyfriends telling her that "if we want to have a family, you are a mother and I don't want my children to be with someone else when they are small."

But for her husband, also a business consultant, her being a working mother is "kind of normal."

Nowadays they laughingly bicker of the small things, like whose chocolate spread is better, the Nutella popular in west Germany or the east German version, Nudossi.

But both are acutely aware that just 500 meters (yards) from where they live, the Berlin Wall once snaked through the city, Each time Foltin passes by, "I get goose bumps, especially when I am with the children," she said. "They wouldn't be here if the wall was still up."

(This version CORRECTS that Merkel was not born in East Germany.)