Aldona Grupas. Through the iron curtain.

THROUGH THE IRON CURTAIN

My Perestroika

 

In the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, Perestroika was going ahead at full steam. It wasn’t only the political system that was being rebuilt, but life itself. If capitalism ‒ the kind that was foisted upon us ‒ was decaying socially, then socialism had decayed capitally. The Soviet world, all that I had ever known, had crumbled like a shortbread. On the one hand this brought an outpouring of joy; but at the same time, it was a tragedy for many. Some people couldn’t believe what was happening; others lost their jobs and, desperate, scrambled for other ways to make ends meet. Some became millionaires, others took to drink, some fled… 

I didn’t cling on to the old times. The medical centre where I had worked as a massage therapist closed, and I was dismissed. But actually, this turned out for the best. I began to sign up for various medical courses, and learned the new Juna technique for touchless therapy  ‒ or Reiki, as it would later be known. This was the start of an era of change for me ‒ my personal Perestroika. 

1991 came. Lithuania regained her independence, and with it, I had the chance to see the mystical western world. The ‘Iron Curtain’ fell and the gates to this other world ‒ as the West had appeared to us ‒ were flung wide open. Through these gates appeared new perspectives, new hobbies, a new job, new friends… 

 When they told us about the “decaying capitalism” over there, we didn’t pay much heed. All that mattered was that it was abroad: an unknown land, alien, mysterious, and enticing.

 

THE INVITATION

Soon it was 1992. A couple of weeks into January, the telephone rang. I was called to the phone ‒ they said someone was ringing me from Germany. Me, really? Did they have the wrong number? I didn’t know anyone in Germany…

The nice female voice on the other end of the line introduced herself as Valya. She explained that I had once given two young boys and their grandmother some Juna therapy, as the children were struggling with a food allergy:

– You have a wonderful method, and a powerful bioenergy! Thanks to you my grandsons can eat eggs; now they scoff mayonnaise out of the jar!

I remembered them.

– Aldona, would you mind coming to Germany? Some friends of mine are very interested in your techniques; they want the same sessions as we had. I can start you with a few clients. If you can come, I’ll sort out an invitation for you.

As if I would mind coming to Germany! I was officially invited to that seemingly distant, magical land. My Perestroika was moving fast.

 

INTO THE UNKNOWN (North Rhine-Westphalia)

And so, I was on my way to a place where, until recently, only an elite few had been permitted to travel. I was ready to burst with pride and curiosity. Whenever they told us tales about “decaying capitalism”, we had never really believed them ‒ but then, neither had we believed that we would ever get our independence back. And now I had the chance to see for myself. As someone else once said: “It’s better to see once than to hear a hundred times”.

I sent off letters to apply for a German visa; at the time I already had a visa for Poland. Valya’s son-in-law Gennady, a man the same age as me, came to collect me in a Volkswagen minibus. We already knew each other, as it was his sons who I had helped to treat for their allergies.

Farewell, Klaipeda! Onwards to the West!

 

BREAKING AWAY

I was heading to the town of Gütersloh, on the outskirts of the bigger town of Bielefeld ‒ part of the Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany, which had started to adopt capitalism. Lithuania had been part of the USSR. And so, I was on my way to a place where, until recently, only an elite few had been permitted to go. I was ready to burst with pride and curiosity. I wanted to see everything with my own eyes.

 

THE ROAD TO GŰTERSLOH

We drove through the Kaliningrad region and reached the Russian-Polish border, at the Mamonovo – Gronowo checkpoint. I had already been to Poland a few times. With my Polish visa I went through with no issues. Hello, world!

Ahead was the Polish-German border at Słubice – Frankfurt an der Oder. But I didn’t have a German visa, only a letter from the German consulate. Frightened by stories that my friends had told me, I was scared of this place. Will it all be ok? Will they let me in or not? In the end, the moment passed without a ripple; I managed to vault over the old Iron Curtain with just a letter from the consulate, and no-one even gave my documents a proper check. And so, after making the final step, I was really abroad.

 

FIRES IN THE ROAD

And then we were in Germany. I could stop holding my breath. Ahead of me was Terra incognita ‒ the mystical, enticing West Germany. It was late evening, and I could feel the famous German Autobahn under the wheels of the Volkswagen. But what was this? The famous road felt pot-holed and rough. As it turned out, that’s exactly what it was. This was still Hitler’s concrete. Suddenly in the darkness ahead appeared hundreds of blinking lights, like little fires. I had never seen anything like this on a road before. The twinkling lights, it transpired, were to show that one of the lanes was being repaired; workmen were laying asphalt over the concrete. What a sight that was! Those little fires were my very first memory from Germany.

We arrived in Gütersloh ‒ the most typical of small German towns. Everywhere was manicured and spotlessly clean. The neatness shocked me. I learned that they wash the roads with shampoo. There was the famous Deutsche Ordnung! I hadn’t even heard about street-shampoo, and here I was seeing it with my own eyes. Valya and Stefan, the grandparents of the boys whose allergies I had helped with, met me with the warmth of family. These wonderful people are my friends to this day. They had a big and spacious apartment, in which they gave me two rooms: a bedroom and an office. I lived in one, and saw clients in the other. 

 

FATE

I practice Reiki ‒ I use alternative medicine to help people restore their health. Back then in Germany I was given an incredible opportunity for the first time in my life. It decided my fate, and revealed my hidden gifts that until then I didn’t know existed.

 

DEUTSCH

My work was as a touchless massage therapist. In the early 90s this was a very new therapy, and there was no shortage of people who wanted to try it.

But I struggled with German at first. I knew a little when I arrived, but in a new environment, with people I didn’t know, I felt like a fish out of water. I would open my mouth but the words I needed wouldn’t appear. Valya helped me, and sometimes translated for me. I began to write down and memorise all the words I didn’t understand, asking friends what they meant. I buried my head in textbooks and dictionaries, and watched German TV. Gradually, and not without difficulty, I started to speak German.

During my sessions the client would stand in front of me, and I would move my hand in front of them, without touching their body, feeling their biofield. I felt the person’s health problems in my own body. This could be pain in the part of my body where the client was feeling it, or my palms would feel cold, hot, or would tingle when I placed them over those places. There were different sensations, just as there were different patients. The most unexpected thing for me was that I really was able to help people free themselves from their allergies.

Once a woman came to me who had an allergy to fruit and vegetables. I agreed to give her a course of treatment, and gave all I could to help her, but still I wasn’t sure that it would work. After her treatment she went to the seaside for a holiday, promising to come and see me on her way back, to let me know how she was feeling. When she came a week later, she was literally beaming with happiness. She looked relaxed and full of energy. She gave me a hug and said:

– I didn’t eat fruits. I devoured them!

I was just as happy as her, to have seen what I was capable of.

 

GŰTERSLOH

Gütersloh is a district centre in North Rhine-Westphalia. It’s a small and pretty town of about 94,500 people.

I thought that its most interesting place was the Miele appliances factory. The expensive Miele brand is known worldwide, and the factory is where Valya and Stefan worked. They took me to its museum.

 

THE MIELE MUSEUM

Everything was new to me. I had never before been to a museum dedicated to a factory, and I liked the idea. Were they going to take me to look at the production floor?

But no, the museum was all about the goods manufactured there, and about the owners of the enterprise. There was a tour of a model kitchen, with the brand’s furniture and household appliances set up inside. It was the first time I had seen something like this. Of course we had furniture and appliances in Lithuania, but everything was separate, nothing matched. This is why I really liked the museum.

We also went to the town’s museum, where Gűtersloh’s world-class manufacturers had their designs on display. There were more items by Miele, and another, just as famous company, Bertelsmann — the international media holding that controlled almost all of Germany’s printing and publishing industry.

 

THE PARK AND BOTANICAL GARDENS

My introduction to the town also included a visit to its beautiful botanical gardens. I really enjoyed the pavilions and the flower gardens; it was there that I saw a Gingko biloba ‒ the Maidenhair tree ‒ for the first time. Until then I had only seen its name in food supplements.

The park was set up for strolling and outdoor events. It is still a popular place to come to have wedding photographs taken. Some parts of the gardens are truly unique.

 

THE STEAM TRAIN

I was just as surprised by a ride on the town’s steam-powered train, which chugged along a narrow-gauge railway. Amazed, even. There were plenty of steam trains in Lithuania, but they were old and covered with rust, most of them rotting away in their depots. Here they had been repaired, given fresh paint, and turned into a cute attraction for tourists. I liked this approach: it was rational, but at the same time very creative.

 

BIELEFELD

The other town that I spent time in during my trip to West Germany was Bielefeld. It’s a much bigger town, with a population of about 320,000, and several parks and museums.

But I had been to plenty of these in Gütersloh. Instead, Bielefeld’s shopping centres were like museums for me. So much for the “decaying West”! It was the first time I had been in beautiful and luxurious boutiques. I almost passed out from the sight of escalators, the lights shining up from the floor, the fashion advertisements in the windows, and how polite the sales assistants were. For me these malls weren’t just places to go shopping, but museums to modern Western culture!

All this left a deep impression. My eyes didn’t know where to look ‒ the wealth on show made my head spin. I had no idea what to buy, what I needed, what I wanted…

After the shopping centres I walked to the centre of the town. Everywhere around was pristine.

 

SAFARI

One day my friends told me they were taking me on a safari. I was confused; what, to Africa? They laughed and explained that it was something like a zoo ‒ only you sit in a car and drive across the parks, looking at the animals through the windows as they wander freely.

That’s what we did, although I couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t us looking at the animals, but the animals looking at us, in our big boxes on wheels.

I loved the safari. Some of the animals I had never seen before. And they were so close… My favourite was an albino lion: I had never seen a white lion before.

 

AN UNUSUAL GIFT

Soon I had not just a new wardrobe, but new friends ‒ my clients Ula and Dorothy. They were so happy with one of my Reiki courses that they took me to another of Bielefeld’s shopping malls, outside of the town, so that they could get me a present.

We arrived at an enormous car park. In the distance was what looked like an airport.

I genuinely thought that the building was a hangar for aeroplanes, and the shops were somewhere behind it. But no: the vacuous building was the mall ‒ a Verkauf selling goods at discounted prices.

I told myself to not look too surprised, so my friends wouldn’t think that I had just arrived from another planet.

But it was hard not to look gobsmacked. We were surrounded by so many clothes, shoes, appliances, crockery, bedding… I was intoxicated by the advertisements in the windows again, the luxury boutiques, the little kiosks and drawers with clothes and underwear. And the prices! I was stupefied that it was all so cheap ‒ my eyes almost popped out of my skull. With those kinds of prices you wanted to fill suitcases with clothes, and shoes, and cups and saucers, and appliances… My mind spinning from the affordable luxury, I didn’t know what to pick up.

The girls grabbed a giant basket and led me through the mall. Everything I liked went in the basket, then to the fitting rooms. I tried on dozens of different outfits and sets of underwear, and felt like a model. Lace underwear, silk dresses, designer jeans, multi-coloured trainers, hats and berets, earrings and bracelets, and dozens of other things. The shopping spree was exhausting, but worth it. As I threw away my old, Soviet clothes, I thought to myself: “What a hard job models have. They don’t just have to change clothes all the time, but also walk stylishly, while not forgetting to smile…”

Happy with my new outfits, I went back to Gütersloh. Everyone was happy for me too, seeing me with my purchases.

 

 A TRANSFORMATION

The next day Valya decided to help me match my appearance to my new outfits. I never liked letting my hair down, so I always used to keep it in a ponytail. Valya couldn’t stand it, and took me to a beauty salon. The young lady stylist, who Valya called Emma, sat me in a chair and whispered about something with Valya. Then she began her magic. I closed my eyes: que sera, sera. When I opened them again, I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror. There was a young and happy blonde in front of me, with beautiful and stylish hair.

– ‘Fraulein Emma has given you a bob’, said Valya. ‘You look much better… and younger, too’.

Stefan took one look at me and put two thumbs up.

– ‘Now that’s a look and a half!’

I had three weeks left. I didn’t have a visa, so there were no limits on my time in Germany. But at home I had a husband, friends and parents waiting for me. My clients, knowing that in Lithuania there was no work, and the shops were empty, gave me whatever they could. I was given all sorts of clothes, shoes and trinkets for my friends and relatives. In the end it all filled five bags. The things I had bought for myself with the Deutschmarks that I had earned squeezed into a massive suitcase.

 

THE POWER OF FASHION

When the time came to go home, Valya and Stefan took me to Bielefeld station, and helped me onto the Paris – Moscow train. The train didn’t go through my home town of Klaipeda, so my husband and I worked out that he would collect me in his car from the town of Brest in Belarus. The train was new and spotless, with comfortable four-person carriages ‒ a world away from the trains in Lithuania. I had a long journey ahead of me.

The only people who got off the train in Brest were me and another couple, before the train moved on towards Moscow with a long blast of its horn. This turned out to be a separate transit station for long-distance international trains. When there was no-one in the waiting room, I panicked: where was my husband?! I was carrying six bags of luggage, and I didn’t know if there was anywhere I could leave them ‒ there was no way I could run around the station looking for him. Mobile phones didn’t exist yet, so I couldn’t call him. I found the only person there in uniform, wandering around the empty station, and asked him to look after my bags. Now with my arms free, I ran like a greyhound to the car park.

 

A COLD WELCOME

I eventually found our car, a dark blue ‘Moskvich’. There was no-one inside, just some crumpled blankets in the back. I found some paper and a pen in my handbag, and left a note under the windscreen wipers, telling my husband where to find me when he got back to the car.

I went back into the station. After such a long journey, I was beside myself ‒ my blood was about to boil. A full half an hour later my husband finally appeared, with his brother in tow.

I was ready to tear him into pieces, burn him and his brother to dust, and throw their ashes over Brest. Until my anger turned to mercy. I saw a confused look on my husband’s face, and to my furious questions he answered sheepishly:

– ‘We were sleeping under the blankets in the back of the car. We heard a noise, and saw a gorgeous girl rudely looking through the windows and pulling at the windscreen wipers. Was that really you?’

My rage and exhaustion disappeared in an instant. I had changed so much that my own husband didn’t recognise me! I was happy, thanks to the power of fashion and Deutsche Qualität!

 

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