I am just back from Berlin.
Tan Mei asked to me to go there and show someone round. I had to choose a hotel, meet him at Tegel Airport, and spend five days with him.
I asked for more information. She just wrote: “He write about Western history and politic. He very interested in fall of East Germany but never visit. Now he got visa.”
What about other parts of Germany?
“No time”, she said.
She said his name was Zhang Wei and his English name was John. But I never used the English name.
The man I met seemed to be in his late 30’s, with a slight stoop and a receding hairline. I had been waiting for him, holding up a sign with the drivers meeting business travellers. He was travelling in jeans and trainers with a document pouch on his belt.
He smiled and nodded a lot when I met him, and extended his hand in a way that was not entirely comfortable.
His English seemed OK but when I asked him questions I realised it was less good than I at first thought — as if he had memorised a lexicon of useful phrases but had little conversational experience.
I chose a bus tour of the main sites on the first day, researching one that offered Mandarin translation. This lasted about three hours and it took us to Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate and the Russian War Memorial and down Karl-Marx-Allee and to the Bundestag and along some remaining sections of the Wall and down the Kurfurstendamm and so on.
I learned a lot of interesting things like the raised coloured pipes around the city are pumping water away to lower the water table, enabling piles to be driven for more tall buildings.
I tried to find out how good the translation was but when I asked he just nodded.
On the second day I took him on a guided walk along the route of wall. In the afternoon we walked to Potsdamer Platz with its new hi-rise marble, glass and steel blocks housing international lawyers and consultancy firms.
I could see Potsdamer Platz did not excite him much.
I had received no instructions about eating and so on, so I always arranged to meet him after breakfast at a fixed time before setting off on whatever excursion had been chosen. At night we had early dinners and I left him. That gave him opportunities to speak to China which is nine hours ahead of Germany.
As far as I could see he did not pay for anything, leave the hotel or undertake any activity on his own.
On the third day he said: “See rest of Germany”. It took me a moment to understand. I had had no instructions in this.
I said I would speak to Tan Mei. While we waited for a reply, we should do something else. I asked if he would prefer the Stasi Museum or a trip to Potsdam.
I was wondering how I would explain “secret police” or “ministry of state security” to him, bur he knew about Stasi so we chose that.
On our return before lunch there was a reply.
“Zhang Wei think Berlin very small. He see enough. Please take him another city one night.”
I replied OK. I arranged travel by train to Hamburg that afternoon and had our hotel make a booking. I think it was good for him to see the German countryside. We spent the evening and the next day there and returned the following evening to Berlin.
On our return he said: “I want talk to you in morning. I have questions.”
The next morning he had notes on a paper. I think he had been getting help from Tan Mei.
Some of the questions were factual, maybe filling in gaps in his knowledge, like: “How strong Communist Party in DDR? Still get votes? What influence?”
Another question was: “Why DDR take so long catch up?”
I had to think about the that.
I guess he was thinking China advanced so quickly after the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Why was the DDR so slow?
I tried to answer but I was really just thinking out aloud — and he was having difficulty understanding. Pretty soon, he made a gesture that said: “Please write down for me”.
I said: “Shall I send to Tan Mei?” and he nodded.
I saw what he meant about Berlin. The great engines of Germany’s export economy were in the west — in Hamburg and Stuttgart and Dusseldorf.
Berlin had been marginalised for nearly 50 years.
To be honest where we stayed in the Mitte area reminded me of the apartment zone of a prosperous American city — smart low-rise blocks in pastel colours with trim frontages and interesting architectural flourishes. The differences were occasional lumps of Prussian masonry and the lethal bicycle lanes.
Later I found Zhang Wei is the most common name in China. It made we wonder if the name was a cover or something. I never saw his passport close up.