Living and working behind the Iron Curtain…

I’m delighted that my first guest blogger of 2012 is Janet Bianchini, who lives in Abruzzo, Italy.

I’m learning German at the moment, as you will know if you read my last three posts here. This simple fact seems to have jogged a lot of people’s memories about their own learning experiences and their experiences of German and German-speaking countries. In Janet’s case, it made her think about the unique opportunity that was presented to her to live and work in the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany as we used to call it, back in 1981.

Apart from her words, as you will see, she still has a store of great images from the time before the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was re-united.

Living and working behind the Iron Curtain

My name is Janet Bianchini and I’m an EFL teacher originally from Oxford, England, but currently based in Abruzzo, central Italy.

I have been teaching for 33 years and I still enjoy the buzz I get from being in the classroom. I am committed to lifelong learning and also interested in the integration of technology within my lessons, both face-to-face and online. I enjoy presenting at international online conferences, where I am happy to share my teaching ideas and experiences.

The East German flag

In 1981, I was just completing a one-year full-time Post Graduate Certificate in Education at Leicester University, specialising in ESL. At the end of a seminar, my tutor Brian Harrison made the following announcement:

“An opportunity has come up to teach EFL to mature students at the Technical University of Dresden. Would anybody like to apply?”

Dresden was of course in the DDR/GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik/German Democratic Republic) or East Germany, as we called it in those days.

Silence filled the room. People glanced around to see if anyone had shown interest. 

“It would be a fantastic experience to see what life is really like behind the Iron Curtain,” said Brian. “And as a foreign guest teacher, you will be very well looked after by the people at TU Dresden.”

I sat up and paid keen attention. Why not?? These two words kept ringing in my ears. Why not give it a go??? What had I got to lose by at least getting further information?  So that is what I did. Out of the class of twelve trainee teachers, I was the only one who felt a true glimmer of excitement at the prospect.

I went for it. I applied and was accepted. There was a LOT of red tape, a lot of forms, a lot of questions, background checks, references, a few visits to the GDR Embassy in London for my visa, and so on.

Throughout this long and drawn-out process, I encountered some resistance from my family and friends who thought I had temporarily taken leave of my senses. 

Their words are still etched in my mind:

There’s no decent food in the shops!

Your salary will be ridiculously low!

You have to queue for everything!

There are police on every street corner!

They will try to brainwash you!

You won’t be able to say what you really think!

You will be kicked out of the country if you don’t follow the rules!

There are no discos there!!! This was one thing that really worried me.

People will only want to make friends with you to get access to the west!

You will be monitored, your every movement catalogued!

There will be a Stasi member in your classes watching for what you say!

The Stasi were the notorious East German secret police.

Everyone seemed to be saying the same thing: Don’t go, Janet!!!!

I was relatively young, care-free, full of enthusiasm, fresh from learning all the latest communicative techniques in how to teach EFL, and I wanted to do something different in my life.  What was I waiting for?  In my usual stubborn fashion, I decided to follow my instincts and not follow the fears and misconceptions of others. 

I knew they had my best interests at heart, but only I could make this decision. It was a once-in a-lifetime opportunity to go behind the so-called Iron Curtain as a teacher and to stay for a whole year, to live and connect with the people, the society, the regime. To find out for myself – was it all true?? Were all the fears based on the real truth, or founded on propaganda reeled out by the West against the Communist state??  Or a mixture of both??? 

I really wanted to find out.  So I did.

First Impressions

In September 1981, I set off by train from Oxford with a little bit of fear and trepidation mixed with excitement. I had been assured that I would be met at Dresden Hauptbahnhof (main station) and looked after by one of the senior members of Dresden Technical University team of professors. 

A flat had been organised for me, with a very low rent. My teaching schedule seemed very fair and quite light at only twenty contact periods a week. I would work Monday–Thursday and then have three whole days free every week to explore the GDR.

It sounded perfect.

The salary was approximately 1,083 DDR Marks per month, 885 after deductions. This equated to approximately £200 per month. No DDR money could be taken out of the country – nobody wanted it. I HAD to spend all my earnings! This sounded absolutely fine to me.

The German border, 1982

Crossing the Inner Border between the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic at Oebisfelde by train was quite nerve-racking the first time.

All the passengers had to get off the train and stand behind a long white line on the platform. Military border guards with guns stood to attention around the station. They were not at all friendly-looking. In fact, they looked really stern, rather imposing and tight-lipped. It was night time, I was on my own and yes, my heart did start sinking and I did begin to wonder what on earth I had let myself in for.

East German passport stamps

One of the guards stood right in front of me and looked at my passport closely. Then he asked me to show him my teeth! I squirmed with total embarrassment. Without explanation, he then took my passport and disappeared for what seemed like an eternity, leaving me to stand behind the white line in a slight panic.

“They are not going to let me enter! Maybe there’s something wrong with my visa!  Oh, no, I’ve had it!!!”

The border guard came back, gave me my passport and ordered me back onto the train. That was it. I was finally going to cross over into the East German territory. My adventure was about to begin. 

By the way, I have never worked out why my teeth were checked with my passport on my first border crossing.  Did the East German state already have sophisticated digital scanning equipment in 1981 to check dental records with official documents? I will never know.

Dresden postcard

Living in Dresden was to be a fantastic experience for me. Dresden was a beautiful city, dubbed the “Florence of the Elbe.” It had been heavily bombed at the close of World War Two and parts of the city and its ruined buildings had been left untouched from that period. This was to remind GDR citizens of the futility of war. 

It was also a vibrant, cultural city. The Dresden State Art Collections consisted of eleven museums. Raphael’s world famous masterpiece The Sistine Madonna is housed in the Old Masters Picture Gallery, along with other magnificent paintings. I used to spend a lot of my free time happily wandering around the galleries. I have a collection of books to remind me of them.

World-renowned Meissen china also heralds from just outside Dresden. The company produces the most exquisite fine bone china in the world. Alas, I was not able to afford to buy a little souvenir, even in those days.

However, I was fortunate enough to be presented by a group of students with a specially commissioned coin of the Dresden Zwinger Museum with the two famous Meissen swords stamped on it. I have no idea how much this would be worth nowadays.

Despite the fears of my friends back home, Dresden had a fantastic social scene and nightlife. East German people knew how to enjoy themselves, pubs, nightclubs and restaurants were always full, and the customers looked immensely happy, at least while they were out having fun.  Beer and the local “Sekt” (champagne) usually flowed. I believe it was a way to forget the strictness and harshness of the state regime.

Learning German in the GDR

During the first three months of my stay leading up to Christmas 1981, I lived a fairly calm and solitary life in between teaching at the TU and interacting with the professors and the students at the campus. 

In the evenings, I took to listening to the big DDR radio I was loaned by the university and yes, the only programmes on offer consisted of news items railing against western corruption and the wicked lifestyles in the west. It was pure propaganda aimed at making East German citizens feel proud that their country was not as debased as those Capitalist countries over the border. Every day I heard how wonderful DDR athletes were, and how many scientific & photographic products were exported overseas. I learned a LOT of German and set phrases!!

In addition, I attended German language classes every week for three-hour lessons together with other language students from other East European countries like Romania. There were also some students from Cuba. 

Our teacher Herr Doring was extremely strict. He used to get very upset whenever anyone made simple prepositional mistakes in the frequent drills he used to set. We did numerous grammar exercises, which I personally enjoyed. Gap fills, sentence transformations, stem sentences and so on. 

Herr Doring started off super strict, and then over the course of the weeks he showed us his gentler side. I knew he really cared about his students and just wanted them to achieve high accuracy. I respected him very much indeed. He was strict but fair. I used to write a comment in my diary after each session.  They usually say “Very good lesson!” or  “Excellent lesson!” so he was definitely doing something right.

Teaching EFL at The Technical University of Dresden

Teaching at TU

I taught small classes of maximum six students – all men and all eminent scientists, doctors, professors and experts in the fields of science, medicine and technology. My students were all “mature”, mostly Elementary level leading towards Intermediate Level. I was the youngest member of staff at the TU and my students were all much older than me. 

With the mature TU students

We had a lot of fun in the classes, which were aimed at conversational English. I used lots of homemade flashcards and I loved teaching the groups. I was so lucky to have only six students and the opportunities for maximising communication were excellent and results achieved in a short time were very good. I was often observed by the professors and luckily they seemed very happy with my teaching.

Later, I found out that I did actually have a secret “Stasi” member (East German secret police) in each class whose job it was to report whether my lessons contained any reference to three taboo subjects – religion, the Royal Family and politics. As you can imagine, it was difficult to avoid talking about these subjects, but somehow I managed it. 

Life is indeed a circle. The “hot” course book in 1981-1982 in the GDR was the Streamline series by Bernard Hartley and Peter Viney and I used “Streamline Departures” for the whole year with my Beginners/ Elementary students.

Streamline - nowhere was beyond its reach in the 1980s...

I still know the contents inside out.

My biggest achievement was to take part in a “Kolloquium” (Conference) at Dresden University entitled “Teaching English to Adults”. I spoke for twenty minutes on “The role of visual aids at the elementary stage”. The conference was attended by professors and teachers from the whole of the GDR. It was a huge honour. I remember feeling elated and so proud to stand in front of so many distinguished educators talking about my favourite subject.

Were all the fears expressed by family and friends true? 

Yes, apart from worries about my social life, they were indeed ALL true, including the fact that some people only wanted to make friends with me because I was from the West. I was wise enough to understand the difference between those that wanted to befriend me for ulterior motives, and those who were genuinely interested in me as a person.

My diary contains a few references to GDR citizens who followed me, citizens who struck up conversations on the tram, who asked me very leading questions indeed, aimed solely at trapping me and revealing my innermost feelings about the regime.

I had the very good fortune to meet some wonderful people from the GDR,  who became life-long friends. Thirty years of friendship that survived the Iron Curtain. Amongst them are my best friends Marion, Gitta and Uli, and Ehrhard, my former colleague and TU mentor.

My year in Dresden was brilliant, because of these friendships. Without their constant support and kindness, my stay might not have turned out to be such an enriching and worthwhile experience. I was indeed very happy in Dresden, and the decision to leave after one year was not taken lightly, but my next port of call to teach EFL was to be the volcanic island of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. 

What a truly incredible year THAT was going to be …..

Keeping Hold of History

I have kept everything from my 1981-82 GDR days. Books, my old passport full of DDR stamps, postcards, letters, pay slips, bank statements, social security book, night club entrance tickets, cinema tickets, stamps, restaurant receipts, tram passes, posters and general ephemera of everyday life. Plus two complete diaries with thoughtful and candid insights.

I also kept all the official DDR telegrams I received. In those days, telegrams were the quickest way to communicate and were very brief, I guess a bit like Twitter is nowadays! 

I knew then that I was living in a momentous period in European history.

Here’s a greetings card with the famous hammer and sickle, the symbol of the GDR and one of my boxes full of ephemera, and bits of everyday life from 1981-82.

Box of DDR memories…

And here’s a ticket for the “Gondel” Night Club.  It cost 2,60 DDR Marks. 

I am still waiting to hear whether a “file” was set up on my movements during the year I spent in Dresden. There are thousands of people in Berlin sifting through the old Stasi files. I have submitted all the paperwork, and time after time, the response has been to write again in two years’ time.  There is a huge backlog.  Writing this post has reminded me to write to the central office again.  I refuse to give up!!

My physical memories reside on my bookshelf and in two boxes marked simply “GDR”. My spiritual and innermost memories lie deep within my heart, never to be forgotten.

If you want to see what the GDR was like, watch The Lives of Others, an excellent Oscar-winning film which reflects what was going on at the time I was there. When I saw it for the first time, I felt as if I had been transported back in time.

Thanks very much to Ken for giving me the time and space to write a guest post on his wonderfully entertaining blog, which is one of my favourites.  It is a great honour to have this opportunity and I am very grateful to have the chance to revisit memories. 

You can visit my blog at: to find out what I am getting up to at the moment.

22 thoughts on “Living and working behind the Iron Curtain…

  1. Wonderful to hear of adventures such as these. The path less taken always proves to make great memories and friends along the way, given you have what it takes to not be dragged under by the negativism.

  2. Thank you Janet. I thought this was really interesting, and especially enjoyed your description of the friendships you made.

    I didn’t visit the GDR until after it was re-united with the rest of Germany but met many of its citizens when they were on summer schools in the UK, and made so many friends. One of them, Konrad, was a recently retired teacher, had taught English all his working life, and was so pleased to get the chance to come to the UK. ‘I think your food is wonderful! .. I think your countryside is wonderful! … I think everything is wonderful!’

    Then Konrad was mugged on a shopping trip in the city centre. We were so embarrassed, and we all lined up to say how sorry we were.

    Konrad replied ‘Oh, your police are so wonderful!’

  3. Hi Mark

    Thank you for your comment here. I agree it’s always interesting to take the road less travelled, as you never know what will happen on that unpredictable and unknown journey. I look back on my GDR days with great fondness and nostalgia, and I’m so glad I followed my instincts.

  4. Hi Simon

    That’s an interesting story about Konrad and I feel sorry he had that unfortunate experience. It’s a good thing he reacted in a positive way about English policemen!

    I met so many people like Konrad in the GDR who wanted to sample life in the west so keenly, but knew they would be shot at the border if they attempted to escape. That made me really sad for their sakes. It made me appreciate my “freedom”, however. I realised then that I had taken it for granted, and it made me more aware of how lucky I was to be free to say whatever I wanted, within reason, of course.

    I am always interested to find out more when people say they have visited the former GDR. I haven’t been back since 1983! I know I wouldn’t recognise it now, as so much has changed since those days. I’d love to know which cities you visited and your impression of them.

  5. Yesterday, at precisely 11 am in Rio de Janeiro Mr. Ken Wilson presented an unforgettable workshop: Drama and other classroom speaking opportunities. Kindly, read what I´ve posted in “Talks and visits 2012”. I intend to use some of his activities next week.

    However, I was also very curious to get to know more about his experiences with the German language and opened his blog. To my surprise, Mrs. Janet Bianchini, you transported me back in time. I am deeply thankful for the details you registered about your period in Dresden.

    Not only did I read your great description, but I could also picture in my mind every single happy scenes “ich habe erlebt” between 1986 and 1988 while I lived in Kiel. Waehrend ich an der Christian-Albrechts-Universität zur Kiel studiert hatte, hatte ich die Gelegenheit gehabt West- und Ost- Berlin mit auslaendischen Studenten zu besuchen.

    Damals hatte ich und eine franzoesiche Studentin (Harriet) ihrem Onkel besucht. Leider, koennte er Ost-Belin nicht verlassen, aber, als Studentin, hat sie ein Erlaubnis bekommen, und koennte sie endlich ihrem Onkel kennenlernen. Leider, habe ich Kontakt mit allen verloren. Ich erinnere mich an ihren Namen nicht mehr. Vielleinch “Hariet Valin … ich weiss es nicht mehr”.

    Frau Bianchini, Ihre Erinnerungen tief berührt mein Herz … und, natuerlich, jetzt erinnere ich mich an vielen anderen schoene Geschichte, die, wegen des Krieges, passieren haben. Uebrigens, falls sie “Good-bye, Lenin” noch nicht geschaut haben, guck

    Vielen Dank, nochmals. Sie sind herzlich WILLKOMMEN in Rio!
    Mit freundlichen Gruessen,
    Carlos Macieira

  6. What a wonderful entry, Janet! I loved the photos (the text, too!). I’m delighted to see you’re still very much alive and kicking – our paths crossed very briefly about 25 years ago (I worked at The Lake School, but only for about 6 months). However, reading your entry makes me realise how little we ever chatted, as I had no idea about your experiences in the GDR.

    And thanks, too, to Ken for inviting you. Excellent choice.

    1. Hola Mike!

      I’m still at the Lake School and remember well the mini-bus to Didcot episode!

      Where are you now?

      Best wishes
      Susan Barber

      1. Susan!!! I don’t believe this! Still in Mondragon (Basque Country, near Vitoria). I’m shedding a tear here, happy happy memories, Susan. Love to all x

  7. Dear Carlos

    Vielen Dank für ihre aufrichtige Antwort auf meine post. Ich bin sehr froh, dass es wieder einige schöne Erinnerungen für sie aus ihrer Zeit dort verbracht haben. Ich habe nicht den film gesehen, und ich habe die Absicht, damit sie es sehen sobald ich kann. Der trailer sieht wirklich sehr gut.

    Thank you so much for your heartfelt response to my Guest blog post. I’m really happy that it has brought back fond memories of your time spent in Kiel.

    Unbelievably, I haven’t seen the film “Goodbye Lenin”, but I would now like to see it as soon as I can. Thank you for adding the link to the trailer to your comment. Just viewing this short trailer brought back more memories of life in early 1980s Dresden. I remember there were no MacDonalds anywhere, or Coca Cola advertisements – just billboards everywhere with Erich Honecker’s face staring down at the citizens.

    I would love to visit Rio one day! Thank you for your kind invitation.

    Mit freundlichen Grüße


    1. Janet Bianchini,

      In Bezug auf “Project 366: An Image a Day for 2012” gucken Sie das folgende Bild …,r:4,s:0&biw=1360&bih=664

      (Ein Bär sitzt auf einer Bank.) Im Klassenzimmer gibt es ein e-board und ich zeige dieses Bild in der “Vocabulary Page”, wenn ich “false cognates” erklaere. Ich wende dieses “visual aid” an als Motivation fuer meine Schueler.

      Mit freundlichen Grüße,
      Carlos Macieira

  8. Dear Mike

    How could I ever forget you, even though almost 25 years have passed?? I believe you were at the Lake School, Oxford, in 1988. I’ve just located my 1980 – 1989 Lake School photo album, and guess what?? You are on the front cover, in a group photo, together with myself and all the then directors. How incredible is that?? What a small world we live in…..

    Many thanks for your kind words! I do hope life has treated you well in the past quarter of a century. I remember your mischievous sense of humour, and all the jokes you used to tell in the staffroom. One particular episode relating to a coach load of students “booked” to be driven by you to Didcot Power Station comes back to mind. Those were happy days indeed!

    I am delighted you have posted a response to my post here, as I have wanted to mention our connection before, but felt a bit too shy to do so. It is a pity we didn’t chat about the GDR back in those days, but I hope this post has given you a flavour of what life was like “over the wall”. It has certainly released a lot of memories for me, and I am grateful to Ken for hosting this post on his blog.

    Best of luck with all your projects, and no doubt our virtual paths will cross again via the comments box on this blog, or others:-)

    1. Janet, what a memory you have! I was *staggered* when I read your reply, right down to the Didcot minibus prank you b*******s played on me! Yes, Janet, very happy days. And an incredibly professional school, The Lake School.

      Your blog is extraordinary, Janet. Loads and loads of interesting ideas, links, further reading, etc. I’ll contact you via your blog in future as I don’t think Ken intended his blog to be used as a dating service.

      Take care x

      1. Absolutely no problem if the blog is used as an online dating service. No extra charge!

  9. enjoyed reading about your experiences Janet. I have very fond memories of my time in the GDR, teaching in Rostock between 82 and 84 and then in Berlin from 85-87. Used to run an English club every Monday night on the top floor of one of the student dorms and one of my favourite memories is of a male beauty contest we organised on international women’s day, March 8th. There must be some photos somewhere which I’d love to see again. I had a fantastic time both in Rostock and Berlin. Was always doing things which upset the authorities and got thrown out after two years but amazingly got back in for 85/86 before they caught up with me and terminated my contract at the Humboldt University but I found a way of working as a free lance teacher trainer from September 86 to June 87 with a residence permit I got from enrolling in a local factory as a welder…a job I never took up but it got me the papers to stay! I still go back from time to time.

  10. Dear Ken and all

    Sorry I haven’t replied sooner to all these lovely messages, but I’ve been snowbound and rather cut off from civilization the past week deep in the Abruzzo countryside. I am now back online in the UK and am catching up with things slowly but surely!

    Carlos – Thank you for the link to the image of the bear sitting at a table. Es ist wunderbar, vielen Dank!

  11. Hi Mike and Susan

    It’s lovely to have this online Lake School reunion after a quarter of a century has passed!!

    @Mike Thank you so much for your very kind words regarding my blog.

    Many congratulations are due to you for publishing your e-book! You’ve certainly been very busy since those golden days in Oxford….Yes, please do contact me via my blog whenever you have time. That would be great!

    Take care 🙂


    How lovely to “see” you here! I’m looking forward to catching up with you in person on Monday. I’m so glad I got back to the UK after quite a difficult week totally unplugged in the wilds of Abruzzo. xx

  12. Dear Ken

    Thanks for the very kind offer of your blog becoming a free online dating reception area!! Rest assured, we are simply long-lost work companions!! It is quite an amazing coincidence that we have re-connected here for some good old-fashioned reminiscing 🙂

    Once again, let me take this opportunity to say thank you for hosting my guest post. I’m thrilled it’s generated such a great response from your readers and that’s it’s bringing back so many memories.

  13. Hi Brad

    Thanks very much for popping by. I believe most if not all TEFL teachers have got some very interesting and exciting pasts, as it’s in the nature of our jobs to have travelled the world. I know you have certainly had a fair few adventures yourself, which could certainly fill a book!!

  14. Hi Mark

    How fascinating that you were in the GDR at the same time as I was. I love reading about your experiences as they sound very exciting compared to my rather “goodie two shoes” type experience. I remember I was most careful not to upset the GDR authorities as I wanted to see out my contract, so I had stock answers to any questions asked by people on the tram. The usual classic was ” So, you’re not from here. What do you think of the DDR???” What a giveaway that was.

    You should dig out your old photos – especially of the male beauty contest! What fun! That’s what surprised me the most about living in such a controlled society. The fact that the citizens had so much fun and really knew how to let their hair down. My students were always joking and full of beans.

    Please do tell more about your time there!! I am always very keen to learn about the experience that other teachers like you had in the former GDR. How has it changed since the 1980s?? I probably wouldn’t recognise it at all now, I bet…

  15. It is good time that I also address you in this blog. You know me already. I am Uli, Janets friend from Dresden. Indeed, I also had a splendid time there until I left the country in Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell) via exit visa. I have to state more precisely; the splendid part of it was reduced to the priceless contacts to the foreign English teachers, Janet, Michael, Mark (still in contact) and the others of the University of Dresden. One of them organized for me the participation at an exam, although I never took part at the classes! This smoothed my professional start in the West. Thanks, Shirley, wherever you may live now.
    The British Embassy in East Berlin, cultural attaché Graham Coe, provided me with literature that was on the index, like 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World… I had always one leg in prison, when I left the building.
    Why did I want to leave the country, you may wonder? Well, this is a long story. It started when I was 13 years old. Any class teacher had to give a rating about the loyalty of their pupils. Mine was: “Mangelhaft positive Einstellung zum deutschen Arbeiter- und Bauernstaat.” Lack of positive approach for the GDR. I was thirteen (!) and had my branding and it must in the end lead to exit. “All over now baby blue…
    I wish you all a good and free time.

  16. Dear Uli

    Thank you so much for writing here and for giving us your reason for wanting to leave the GDR. You and Gitta were so kind to me during my stay there, and it really helped make my experience such a positive one. The fact that we forged a friendship 30 years ago and have stayed in contact since then, means a lot to me.

    Take care


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