September 1987, a small town in northern Hesse: the summer was coming to an end, along with the annual folk festival. I was six years old, and for me the highlight of the festival was undoubtedly the balloon competition. I wrote a card, adding my address, and chose a balloon (pink). I then let go of the balloon and watched it drift up into the sky.
Several weeks later in October, when I had already forgotten about my pink balloon, I received a letter from East Germany. It was from a family who lived near Heiligenstadt. They had found my balloon and card, and told me how glad they were to correspond with me. The wind had carried my balloon from Hesse in the West, over the border to Thuringia in the East. It turned out that the family there was very similar to my own. There was a grandma, a grandpa, parents, and a daughter, named Maria. Like my family, they all shared a house. The family became my family’s regular pen pals: We sent letters through which we learned how much we had in common, and sent one another packages too. Maria got my old clothes and winter boots that were too small for me, while the grown-ups were kept well supplied with coffee, chocolate, and bananas. In return I received a doll from Maria.
After the astonishing events of November 9, 1989, we were finally able to meet in person. My family and I first visited Thuringia in December 1989. I can still remember the smell of coal briquettes in the air, and our ride in a green Wartburg car. The friendship between our two families lasted for many years after that. The last time we saw each other was probably summer 2011. I have retained memories of an exciting and enriching correspondence – and of Maria’s doll, which is still in my old bedroom back home.