“I Am A Berliner”: Meet Culture to Color’s Founder, Bibi LeBlanc
May 4, 2022
10 min read
I was born in West Berlin in 1963, three months after John F. Kennedy stood in my hometown and declared to the world: "I am a Berliner." That was two years after the Berlin Wall was built.
We’ve come a long way since then.
Culture to Color helps destinations and organizations tell their stories in a fresh, creative way. But in order to understand our mission, I need to tell you a story of my own.
Growing Up In A Divided City
My name is Bibi LeBlanc, and I create and publish themed coloring books for adults. As you may or may not know, I am not originally from this country. I am a native of Germany. I was born in the American Sector of West Berlin.
I'd like to start by giving the younger people in the room some background information: World War II had ended with Germany’s defeat in 1945. Germany was then divided up into four zones by the winning Allied forces: the United States, England, France and the Soviet Union.
Berlin, the capital of Germany, was located in the Soviet zone, and the city was further divided into sectors by the Allies. For more than 15 years, our people could move about the four sectors more or less freely.
But on the night of August 13, 1961, the Soviets began to build a wall through the heart of Berlin, because at that point thousands of people every day were escaping communist oppression in the Soviet sector. The wall was constructed to divide Germany both physically and ideologically.
The following morning, many residents of Berlin found themselves cut off from work, school, family and friends. From that day forward, people who had lived in East Berlin while working or attending university in West Berlin were no longer free to do so. Families spread across the city were broken up and left with no way to be with their spouses and kids.
Growing up, the wall running through the middle of my hometown was part of my everyday reality.
There were houses on the other side of a street we couldn't cross because the wall was there. We couldn't just drive out of the city to enjoy the countryside because we were enclosed by a wall that was guarded by sharpshooters in watchtowers and guard dogs patrolling the minefields that were known as the “death strip.”
Venturing To the Other Side
My dad's brother and his family lived in East Berlin. We could visit them—but they could never visit us. We had to apply for a pass, a lengthy process that would allow us to cross at one of the few checkpoints.
Venturing through a checkpoint was always very scary to me as a child. The East German border police would make us get out of the car, check under the backseat, probe the gas tank with a long flexible rod, and inspect the underside of our car with a mirror on little wheels to see if we were smuggling anything.
We were only allowed to bring certain things like food and clothes. Any printed material was considered “capitalist propaganda” and strictly forbidden. My dad was creative, though, and often smuggled things across the border—which, as you can imagine, made the crossing into East Berlin even scarier!
We knew the apartment my aunt, uncle and cousins lived in was bugged and suspected their neighbors were "informants" for the Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security. The Stasi has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever to have existed.
One of its main tasks was spying on the population, mainly through a vast network of citizens turned informants. As an example of the intensity of this oppression, a mere joke about the government would be grounds for Stasi officials to arrest, incarcerate and interrogate a German citizen, and force you to “work” with them as a secret informant spying on your neighbors and friends.
Our parents knew they could not talk freely in the apartment. So we went for long walks by the river when the grown-ups wanted to talk. But even the children had to be careful about what we discussed.
I did not enjoy growing up in a city surrounded by a wall, but now I find it interesting to look back on that time and know that I have lived and experienced a unique part of history. Other than those unusual circumstances, I had a typical upbringing.
I loved my friends, horses, sports, reading and photography. I also had a strong desire to travel—maybe because I so acutely felt my inability to do so, as it was quite challenging to leave Berlin.
I lived in Berlin until I was 18 and finished high school. Then I was out of there. My boyfriend at the time talked me into visiting California in the early 1980s even though I never wanted to come to the United States. I had preconceived ideas about Americans being superficial and materialistic.
But during that trip, I found they were different than what I had expected—much friendlier, easier to approach, and more talkative than Germans. I fell in love all over again, this time with California and the U.S., and I wished I could spend more time here.
Starting My Career
Upon my return to Germany, I started business administration training. In Germany, young people learn an occupation “on the job” while also attending school, resulting in more hands-on training from the beginning than a typical U.S. education. Students also get paid instead of going into debt for their education.
So, I went through business admin training in a pharmaceutical company for two years. I very much enjoyed this time and felt I received an excellent education because I worked in all of the company's departments, such as accounting, sales, shipping, marketing, etc.
Growing up, I was very shy, but here I first learned that I was curious about the world and interested in people and their stories.
After receiving my degree, I remained with the company for six months but my desire to travel kept tugging at me. In late 1985, I applied to become a flight attendant with Lufthansa. During my interview, I was told I needed to improve my English.
As luck would have it, around that same time, I was offered the opportunity to become an au-pair with a family outside San Francisco in what is now known as Silicon Valley. And so, in early 1986, I was able to return to California, where I spent an incredible eight months. This visit turned out to be an instrumental time in my life in many ways!
First, my English became more fluent. And I attended my first personal growth seminar. I also made my first skydive during that time—I just wanted to know if I had the guts to do it. (I did, and I loved it and wanted more.)
Seeing the World
To pursue my desire to travel the world and photography, and with my English much improved, I returned to Germany and became a flight attendant with Lufthansa. During my first vacation, I went back to California to learn to skydive. Then I spent four incredible years traveling the world, taking photos, making new friends, and skydiving all over Europe, the U.S., Asia, Australia, and South Africa.
One day, with a few days off, I flew to Hawaii for a "Party in Paradise," a skydiving boogie, as we call a get-together of skydivers worldwide. Here I met Tommy Piras, a world-champion skydiver from DeLand, Florida, who invited me on a jump with nine other skydivers. We climbed to an altitude of 13,000 feet, jumped out of a Cessna C-402 and formed a simple 10-way star—a circle.
I remember this awe-inspiring moment vividly! Here I was, this girl from West Berlin who, as a youngster, so longed to travel. In those 70 seconds of free-falling towards O’ahu at 120 miles per hour, I took in the breathtaking view of my surroundings from a bird's-eye perspective, looking around at my newfound friends, and flying free!
Later that day Tommy said to me, "If you are serious about skydiving, you have to come to Deland! It's the skydiving capital of the world!" A fateful comment, as it would turn out
So, during my next vacation in 1988, I decided to make my way to Florida for a skydiving vacation with a fellow flight attendant. We had come to visit Skydive DeLand and were going for a skydiving seminar in Zephyrhills. We also had tickets to continue to the Galapagos Islands—but we never made it. We stayed in an Airstream at the dropzone in Zephyrhills and made over 80 jumps during our time there.
A couple of days before returning home, I met John, my husband-to-be, and we soon started long-distance dating.
A New Day in Berlin
One day about a year later, in November 1989, my mom called me. I was still flying for Lufthansa and had just returned from a trip to Africa—and I will never forget her words: “The Wall just fell!”
At first, I could not comprehend what she was telling me. I did not think I would ever see that wall come down.
My roommates and I jumped in the car and started driving toward Berlin. On the Autobahn, we saw “Trabis,” the East German cars, which we had never seen on West German roads before.
To reach West Berlin, we had to drive through East Germany. When we reached the first border crossing checkpoint in Helmstedt, it was around 11 o’clock on a dark, cold night. There were cars parked on both sides of the Autobahn, which on any normal day is illegal.
But on this night, we found a party! West Germans laden with thermos cans of tea and hot chocolate welcomed East Germans as they streamed through the checkpoint. There was laughter, tears of joy, dancing, and hugging as we all experienced that historical moment together.
We kept driving to Berlin later that night, met up with family, and headed straight to the Brandenburg Gate, which had been the symbol of Berlin and Germany’s division for the past 28 years.
I had never walked through it. It had been no man's land. Neither West Berliners nor East Berliners could pass through that disputed gate.
On this night, however, we did! It's been 32 years since the Berlin Wall fell, and I will never forget those days and events I didn't think I would ever live to experience.
Back to the U.S.
The following year, I got married and moved from Germany to Florida. My childhood dream of living close to the ocean, in a place with palm trees, had come true. John and I settled in DeLand and worked together at Performance Designs, a local parachute manufacturer. We traveled to many skydiving events all across the globe.
We decided to homeschool our three sons, and traveling became part of their education. They are all grown now, and my sons and I continue to go on travel adventures together.
I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I had my first business idea when traveling to Israel at the age of 17, and since then, I have owned and operated a variety of businesses. Today, I am an active real estate investor and a publisher of destination-themed adult coloring books.
Culture to Color
So, how did I get into creating coloring books? In 2018, I was invited to exhibit some of my photography in a gallery in California, where I came across a coloring book a local artist had created from his pictures.
I thought it would be fun to do something like that for DeLand, my adopted hometown in the States, and so I just got started. A few months later, Explore the Sights of DeLand was published, and I had so much fun creating the book that I just kept going.
Soon after, I created books about New Smyrna, where my family had spent so much time, and Mount Dora, because it’s such a lovely little town.
The whole time, I kept thinking, “I'd like to do a book about Berlin.”
Now, there is enough history and sights in Berlin to fill a dozen books and more. But with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall approaching, I decided to make the book about Berlin during the Cold War and tell the story I just shared with you.
It became my fourth book, Berlin Divided—Berlin United, and also my first bilingual project.
And that is how Culture to Color was born.
Today, we work with organizations that are looking for a unique marketing tool. Culture to Color designs and publishes high-end, content-rich, custom coloring books that creatively highlight the unique characteristics, culture, and history of destinations and organizations, in images and text—which is a unique concept for coloring books.
We have published eight books. Three of them are bilingual.
They all have been or are currently Amazon Bestsellers.
Three of them have won book awards.
As you now know, traveling and adventure has been a big theme in my life. In my early years, I longed to escape a city surrounded by a wall, see the countryside and horses and cows in pastures, and have the freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted.
Later, it became the desire for new experiences, and connecting with people from different cultures. This desire has not diminished; on the contrary, the more I travel and learn, the more I realize I have barely scratched the surface.
So, if anything, my bucket list has gotten longer, not shorter!
Today, I am thankful for the many twists and turns that led me to this place. One of the many things I've learned along the way is that everyone has a story!
As you just heard my story and in light of recent events, I'd like to leave you with this:
Go visit your family—because you can.
Go travel the world—because you can.
Go live your dreams—because you can!
Watch Bibi present her story at Elevate Daytona Beach.