How to Get What's Hard to Get

WHEN Westerners visit East Berlin, many stay in a luxury hotel that has mahogany everything, heated towel racks, a pool, a sauna, and a racquetball court. It's called the Grand Hotel. But at the foot of its sweeping staircase, out on the street, things are not so grand.

For most East Germans, what counts is who you know and whether you have Western currency. Even then, it's a juggling act to lead any kind of normal life - the kind of life shown on West German TV, which everyone here watches.

It's true that East German basics are subsidized to such a degree that no one goes hungry. The price of bread hasn't been increased in 40 years. A bus fare is about 10 cents. An apartment - if you can find one - is dirt cheap.

But this doesn't satisfy East Germans. ``What's the point of having potatoes that are half the cost of those in West Germany if, after hauling them home, I have to peel most of them away because they are so bad?'' asks Brigitte, an East German mother.

Brigitte has been rethinking her shopping strategy lately. She has decided not to run all over town anymore, looking for what she wants. Instead, ``if I see ketchup in the store, I'll buy 10 of them.'' Her new philosophy is buy what's there and hoard anything that's hard to get.

When East Germans want to get beyond the basics, they find that connections help and money talks. Knowing someone who works in ceramic manufacturing means you can retile your bathroom - though likely not in the color you want. Slip an extra 80 marks (10 marks, if they're West German) to the mechanic, and suddenly that replacement part you needed is indeed in the shop.

Money is important because anything besides the basics is expensive. For example, an East German color TV with remote control costs about 5,300 marks ($2,800 at the official exchange rate). Though Western electronics goods are sold in Intershops (where only hard currency is allowed), the East Germans are wary. They'd rather stick with a mediocre product from their homeland, which offers some chance of repair if needed, than go with a better Western product for which repair is nearly impossible.

Cars are also expensive, but here the issue is also supply. The waiting list is 10 to 15 years for a new one. The Germans, however, cover all the bases. Not only do they buy and sell places in the waiting line, but in shrewdly run families, just about every relative who qualifies has an application in for a car. If the timing is right, someone in the family can get a car every four years.

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