When I made a visit to East Berlin a few years before the wall came down, my teenage eyes wondered about shopping and customer service.

To visit a bookstore near Alexanderplatz I had to stand in line. There were only a handful of shopping baskets available, and they were mandatory, so you stood in line until someone left the shop and returned the basket. I stood there for a while, and then with a basket could browse the shelves. There were less than ten people in the shop. While many more stood outside waiting.

Visiting a cafe with two others, the tables were all the same size, only the number of chairs at each table differed. We were three. A table with two chairs was free. Next to it was a man on his own, I remember he wore a leather jacket sipping coffee and reading a paper, at a table with three chairs. We asked if we could have a chair, and pull it up to our table. “Na klar”, he said. We looked at the menu. No service came. We waited. No service came. I went up to the waitress and asked if she could take our order. No, she said, “you’re with three people on a table for two so you’re not getting served.” I was stunned. I tried logic, “look the tables are all the same size!”, but failed. In the end we returned a chair to the table with the guy in the leather jacket and asked him to trade tables. He picked up his coffee and newspaper (it was the 80’s remember), and sat at our original table, while we moved to his. Within seconds the waitress was with us to take our lunch orders.

For years I shared these anecdotes as examples of how odd it all was during that visit to East Germany.

Fast forward 33 years, to our pandemic times.

In our neighbhourhood most shops have introduced a system of mandatory baskets. They use it to cap the number of clients in the store to the maximum they can accomodate within the 1.5m distancing guidelines. Outside others wait their turn.

From next week cafes and restaurants can open again, and I see and read how those here in town are arranging same sized tables out on the market square, varying the number of chairs to make it all work, and setting tables inside for specific numbers of people to stay within max allowed capacity.

After 33 years I need to retire my anecdotes from 1980’s East Berlin it seems. It wasn’t odd, it was avant garde!

East Berlin 1987
Walking down Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin, in 1987

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