Happy New Year, everyone! (or “Sylvester,” as it is called here. Who knew?) I hope my belated greetings find everyone well. I promise, I have some Christmas presents and cards etc. on their way, but they’re just going to be terribly late, I’m afraid.
New Year’s eve was spent downtown in the “Times Square” of Berlin—actually not very Square-like at all, the festive location is a long street that runs between the Brandenburger Gate and a tall statue of a winged being, a monument that I don’t happen to know the name of. The boulevard goes through the center of a large forest-like park called “Tiergarten,” or “animal garden” in good old English. This is the exact same street that was completely full of people when our Presidential hopeful Barack Obama spoke in Berlin.
We started off via U-bahn (subway) at Potsdamer Platz and followed the old wall’s path toward the park. Everything had been cordoned off by police. It was already too crowded with people for any more to fit, so the police directed us further and further down the park so as to avoid a stampede. We wound our way through the park, around icy ponds and patches of thick trees, until we came out to the street itself. There were fireworks going off all around us at intervals, including most amusingly a couple of police shooting bottle rockets outside the door of their police van. I never thought I’d see the day…
The boulevard was lined in Christmas-market fashion with little booths selling beer, pretzels, hot spiced wine (nice on a cold evening. You have to pay for the mugs when you get the drink, sometimes a few Euros, and then you get the money back when you return the mug. “Pfand,” this is called, and it applies to most bottles of water, drinks, etc at the store as well. Germany is serious about recycling.)
Also in evidence were stands selling cheap champagne bottles, noisemakers, flashing LED lights to decorate yourself with, gummy candies in bulk, even gloves and fur hats for people who felt that they were not dressed properly to stand outside all evening.
It was really cold, but without a thermometer I can’t tell you how cold it was. Probably not that bad; I’ve become something of a wimp. We headed “downstream” toward the more crowded end of the street, untill we reached a ferris wheel that marked the end of free movement and the edge of an extremely dense crowd. Signs warned us not to go further. Achtung, achtung!
On the stage (a large TV screen showed us) a show was in full swing, offering the latest local pop talents. Some were better than others, but most I felt a bit sorry for. The back-up dancers in particular reminded me of childhood days in neon spandex at “Dance Dimensions,” and their attempts at pop-star sassiness were undermined because of their need to not freeze to death. All in all the songs were manufactured junky pop, probably thought up by some corporate director somewhere rather than by the poor singers themselves, and didn’t manage to capture the crowd’s enthusiasm.
The other unfortunate part of the story is that they were quite obviously lip-synching, which was made clear by mistakes. For example, someone might do a little dance move, wave their arms in the air, and forget that the voice keeps going even though they have taken the microphone far away from their mouth. Or, worst of all, they might keep singing along as their song fades out, allowing the crowd to hear the true tone of their voice, unrefined by high-tech sound equipment, and decidedly off-key. This happened with one girl, and the entire crowd erupted in laughter. She looked a bit embarrassed, but she covered nicely and went into her next song cheerfully, so all in all she did well considering how the odds were stacked against her. It made me quite glad I didn’t have to be up there.
There was something idiotic about the level that technology has brought us to. There we were, watching a TV broadcast of people a block away pretending to sing to pre-recorded songs that relied on vocoders to get the singers’ voices in tune. Whatever happened to live entertainment?
Our feet were slowly turning into foot-shaped ice lumps, so at about twenty till midnight we bolted and started going in the opposite direction: like trout migrating upstream, it was a fight most of the way, but eventually things started clearing out. We had just come to a nice clear spot with a view down the boulevard when we heard voices all around rise up in the countdown, and a few seconds later the sky erupted in fireworks.
Meanwhile, something was going on at that winged statue I mentioned earlier (I really ought to look up what it’s called) and it looked like warfare: fireworks were shooting off in every direction, emergency vehicles were parked haphazardly amidst the litter of thousands of burnt firecrackers, and the air was perfumed with a strong scent of sulphur. This seemed pretty out of control/awesome to us, what with people shooting rockets off the tops of ambulances and all, and I felt compelled to duck and run across the area to safety on the other side because the air was punctuated with so many loud and ominous explosions. We did take some pictures to try to capture the spirit. Remember, too, that there is an actual street running around the monument, where some traffic was flowing despite the flaming rockets that kept hitting cars.
Well, we were pretty much human popsicles by that point, and we made a dash for the nearby Bellevue train station, and as we walked we marveled at the echo of explosions going on all around us. Really, big fireworks were going on all over Berlin to such an extent that you couldn’t look in a direction and not see some flashes of sparks, and the sounds of the explosions merged into a single, steady rumble. The only place I had seen such a fireworks free-for-all was in Thailand on Loi Krathong (also known as Diwali ) and since Berlin is a bigger city than Chiang Mai, the scale was a lot bigger here.
This last photo is from the next morning, the first day of 2009 when you could see quite a mess on every street corner and square in the city: broken shells, burnt paper, plastic wrappers, and plenty of broken beer and Champagne bottles. All of Berlin became a house party that night. I am not sure who is responsible for cleaning up the mess, but a few days later it snowed so everything got buried in a layer of pristine white. Perhaps it’ll re-surface in spring.