“Every Thursday, I would go to the sauna with a friend,” Merkel, in power since 2005, recounted to Berlin schoolchildren a few years ago.
At the time Merkel was a 35-year-old physicist at the East Berlin Academy of Sciences.
Born in Hamburg but raised in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), she was
already divorced from the first husband whose name she still uses.
Merkel camping in Himmelpfort in Brandenburg, then part of the GDR, in 1973. Photo: DPA
She lived then in a two-room flat in Prenzlauer Berg, these days a favourite haunt of trendy young professionals.
Before her sauna session on November 9th, Merkel called her mother Herlind
Kasner, who lived around 80 kilometres north of the capital.
She had just heard that East German citizens were free to cross the border.
But in those confusing first hours as the barriers opened, no-one could quite believe it was really happening.
“I didn't really understand what I was hearing,” Merkel has said.
Oysters at Kempinski's
The family had “an in-joke” at the time that Merkel would take her mother “to eat oysters at Kempinski's”, a high-end hotel in the West.
“Watch out mum, there's something up today,” she warned her mother, before hanging up and heading to the sauna.
Hotel Kempinski in 2016. Photo: DPA
While she was enjoying the heat, history shifted up a gear.
The first border crossing opened not far from Merkel's flat, and champagne corks popped as people celebrated the end of the division that had scarred Germany and Europe since the Second World War.
One of the crowd
On her way home, she saw people on their way to the crossing.
“I'll never forget it, it was maybe 10:30 pm, or 11, or even a little later,” the chancellor recalled.
“I was alone but I followed the crowd… and suddenly we found ourselves on the western side of Berlin.”
Just another member of the crowd, Merkel drank her first can of Western beer in a flat rented by total strangers.
But the thought of her alarm sounding in the morning dogged the scientist even through that historic night, sending her home long before the festivities were over.
Soon after, Merkel left physics behind to begin a career in politics.
In 1990, she was elected an MP for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), then led by Helmut Kohl.
Photo: Merkel shaking hands with mentor Helmut Kohl on December 15th, 1991. Photo: DPA
The following year, Kohl named her a minister for the very first time.
But in all the years since, Merkel never got to fulfil her pre-1989 wish.
“I never went to Kempinski's to eat oysters with my mother,” Merkel has admitted. Her mother died earlier this year, aged 90.