Cold War Shopping in West Berlin

When I arrived in West Berlin in August of 1983 life was much like life in most large western cities. Take your pick of big-city icons: efficient mass transit, crowded streets and sidewalks, ethnic neighborhoods, phenomenal night life, endless shops and restaurants, live music, parks, theaters, museums, a philharmonic, an opera house. You name it; West Berlin had it. In fact that was part of its charm; out of necessity it appeared self-contained. It even had a small ski slope on the back side of Teufelsberg. Of course the fact that it was well behind the Iron Curtain and surrounded by a concrete wall watched over by armed guards made it significantly different from other western cities. But, honestly, after a while, when we weren't on duty, it was easy enough to forget the Cold War was still going on.

One benign reminder of the city's geopolitical status was the fact that each occupying power had its own PX, and each PX offered a nice snapshot of its occupying power's culture. The American PX at Truman Plaza had all of the basics, but it also had a lot of big ticket electronic items. That's where I bought our first television, which we still have. The PX also had a fairly wide selection of stereo equipment, including those ubiquitous 1980s boom-boxes, to choose from. Big, noisy, flashy, and expensive was the general impression I took away from any visit to the American PX. The French PX, by contrast, had a quiet elegance about it. I remember it being well-stocked with high-end luxury items like fine wines, foods, and perfume, and overpriced furniture. I don't recall actually buying anything there, but I'm sure Kerry did. She found a trip to the French PX to be an amusing, enjoyable affair. Finally, the British PX was nicely understated and even a bit on the dreary side, all of which coincided nicely with our stereotypical impression of the British. I bought a squash racquet there, and Kerry bought a couple of heavy, wool sweaters. We still have the racquet and the sweaters which speaks to their durability and quality. We ate bangers and mash, and I began a lifelong addiction to salt and vinegar potato chips all courtesy of the Brits.

By 1983 it was certainly easy enough to forget where and what West Berlin was when shopping "on the economy." But ducking into one of the three PXs was a nice, gentle reminder of the continued presence and importance of West Berlin's occupying powers.