Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Life During Wartime: Year-End in Berlin

New Year's Eve, or Sylvester in the local, comes but once a year, and as usual I really have no idea what I'm in for. Since I've come here, my most frequent observation has been of the traditions shared by Americans and Germans that differ not in scope but in tone. Buying groceries at a frosty open-aired hawk-market, getting a late Friday drink that eases lazily into Saturday morning—these things exist in America, but the essential character of the thing feels unmistakably, yet unvoiceably, foreign, as something I can nearly feel but can't hardly express. It's maddening that I've been here six months already and still can't put it quite into words, or never quite the right words.

Classes at the language school have been canceled more days than not this last week, as the year-end holidays approach, and my circadian rhythms have settled lazily into my new schedule of staying up for too much of the day to end and sleeping too far into the one to be begun. I excuse my own lateness for the few remaining lessons by telling myself that the shortened daylight hours must have a psychosomnological effect. This excuse is pretext in its entirety. But then the weather is cold, and a yule tree if we even had one would loom over no packages in shiny wrapping paper and cheerful ribbons, and the holiday spirit has seized me mostly in a fit of forgiving my own faults. I told the course instructor that I wouldn't be returning in January, using as an excuse possibility of work in Frankfurt, although I know by now that I'm not going to get it. I feel as though I'm being dishonest and even know enough by now that I could have begun, ich wünsche..., I wish I could come back next month, I wish I could be more certain about my plans at least, that I loved the class and never learned a language so quickly as I had here, but to pile on with sociable excuses and prayers would only compound the fraud. Ich wünsche für nichts.

Three months of these classes, and I still don't know whether that's the proper idiom. Like I said: Never quite in the right words.

The Roommate has plans to meet friends at a restaurant or club. I don't bother to pretend to be excited and ask lots of questions about it, and she doesn't bother to make up an excuse why she can't ask me along. She'd sent me an invitation to her Christmas party a few weeks earlier, which is I'm pretty sure her annual quota of Making An Effort. A few nights earlier I'd gotten told to drop by Marian's after midnight, once the fireworks have died down; the bartender was clear on coming by after midnight, and I got the impression that prior to that time the place was reserved for a private event. Everyone else whom I'd call a friend or even an acquaintance close enough for a party is out of town, many back in the States. Somehow this utter and entire lack of sociable options doesn't make me feel depressed or left out or even slightly constrained. I wonder if it's because I've always hated New Year's Eve, but there's really no way to tell.

It's been another sleep-late sort of day, and if my red wine hangover weren't enough to keep me indoors all day the wind outside is bitter enough to make up the difference. Fortunately, I have eggs and butter, rolls and mustard and cheese, and leftover stir fry and rice, so I don't need to go to the grocery before eating. Half a bottle of the dog that bit me is chilling on the balcony, too, so I don't need to leave even for that. I'm behind schedule all day, although since I don't really have anywhere to be or anything to do, I don't seem to notice it. Days like this it's easy to argue myself into rewatching Wire episodes and having a second microwaved cheese sandwich instead of going for a run and being prompt when stepping out to meet the night.

It's ten at night before I finally start running a shower, perhaps almost eleven when I've dressed in my first three layers. (Tshirt, collared shirt, turtleneck; the outer coat, scarf, and gloves would feel overdramatic before I actually leave the apartment. I've gotten a knit cap that comes down over my ears a bit, but from the cold I've taken to wearing the enormous DJ headphones, too, although I'm vaguely suspicious it's a bad idea when cycling through traffic.) The neck of the sweater gives off a comforting, unmistakable scent of winter, the subtle aroma that my mind tricks me into believing wool somehow gets when it's gotten wet from snowflakes instead of raindrops, faux-redolent with the imaginary whispers of cedar chips and coal smoke and pine needles; in my mind it smells the way the crunch of snow under boots sounds. I open the billfold before stuffing it into a pocket of thick-stitched black denim (ten euros), then look to the stashing place at the back of my sock drawer (nothing). I shall have to make it to the bank, it seems.

The Roommate's left long before I finally get around to it, so the apartment is impenetrably dark when I step out into the stairwell. If there's a moon, it's well hidden behind the clouds. Downstairs, the door to the back yard has blown shut, and I have to remove a glove to get my keys. I hoist myself onto the bike, which promptly slides under my weight and forces me into a halfways approximation of the splits. A week earlier a heavy snow had fallen on Berlin, the first of the year that managed more than a spare flurry, and for a weekend beneath freezing it seemed that there might be a white Christmas in the cards, but on Monday it warmed up again and the lovely drifts turned immediately to trickles of icy water and mounds of ugly slush. The snow fell even heavier the following weekend, though, and this time did not stop, nor did the temperature ever get back to zero. I looked at the weather report and thought I was looking at the wrong column of numbers, since the expected highs read minus four, minus seven, minus six. No, those were the highs; at night it fell to twelve or fifteen below many of the nights. And it kept snowing. By the fourth day it's piled up enough to cover every trace of green and gives the city a soft, pillowy feel everywhere except where regular foot or wheeled traffic has packed it down. When I turn onto the street, I'm nervous for the first time about traffic and manage to turn off my iPod without removing my heavy gloves.

I take the side streets, the smaller thoroughfares I expect to have fewer cars and pedestrians. It's a faulty strategy; there are no cars anywhere, or practically none, but Berliners have clustered on nearly every street in order to light off fireworks. For the first few blocks I imagine it's just a quirk of my own neighborhood, and not until the sixth huddle of pyromaniacs do I suspect that the entire city is like this tonight. There were fireworks perhaps most nights in the summertime, the final darkening of sundown in the west fought against by a defiant burst of fire on the eastern front, somewhere in Neukölln. At first I had probably thought them an officially sanctioned or organized display by the city itself, but by July it became apparent that they were mostly or all the work of wildcatters. Berlin is in this as in all social distractions a tolerant city. In America (I can't can't stop myself from making the comparison) such a display would require advance notice and a lengthy process of review, comment and appeal of an application to which no result was ever intended except to be bottled up bureaucratically until the elapse of the date of the requested permit. Here there wasn't even acknowledgment that it went on, no outward sign that a major municipal government might have some interest in making sure that its citizens are burned to death in a conflagration owing to negligent exuberance. Of course, Berlin's not been made of wood and paper for a century, so benign neglect is perfectly sensible. But so is New York City constructed of stone, concrete, and steel, yet anyone who's lived there knows the NYPD would drop you at Riker's even without a charge, simply because such a bare-faced offense necessarily strikes the orderly American mind as calling for--no: demanding an object lesson in the wages of stupidity.

That all, though, that nightly fireworks display over Neukölln, that was in the summertime. Then one saw fireworks explode only above the horizon of city buildings in the remote darkness. Now they're fired from all around. If not literally from every angle, they are erupting from street corners in so many directions that it makes as much as no difference. The first street past my grocery store—oh, charming neighborhood grocery store!—has become a free-fire zone, and immediately all my pleasant associations—fresh produce and warm dinner rolls being tallied by the women from the Kiez who never fail to respond "und auch Ihnen" to my mispronounced thanks—are rudely forced aside to make room for an imagined 'Nam flashback. I veer left to a smaller side street, hoping to find it comparatively emptier. Instead, I encounter a crowd of twenty-year-olds forming a battery of roman candles out of a snow bank. One of them drops a newly lit cannon—I'm convinced intentionally—and the first round whistles across the street and passes overhead, missing me by no more than a few yards. Grinning madly, he doesn't even wave or nod to signify that it was unintentional. I'm more unnerved than frightened, but I can't keep the image out of my head of a bottle rocket blazing in a perfect arc across the street and into my gaping mouth. I'm possessed by the sudden image of living out my days with tonsils scorched black and forever tasting of gunpowder, and I resolve to keep my mouth closed the rest of the way. This winds up being rather difficult when trying to pedal through five inches of slush, and I spend the rest of the trip breathing heavily through my nose to keep pumping my legs, carving narrow trails through street lanes covered with thick, wet, sticky snow.

I run out of narrow side streets and turn onto slightly broader thoroughfares, each lined on both sides with clusters of amateur arsonists. Groups of college students alternately handling roman candles and half-liter bottles of Tegernseer less-than-sternly face down Turkish families, the father instructing his pink-coated daughter how to aim a row of bottle rockets all at once while his wife barely tolerates his poor example. When I get to a neighborhood of taller buildings, say six stories or more of rough-hewn stone, with heavy imposing rooftops looming in the dim moonlight, the crowds have adopted a new game of aiming for an explosion over the tops of the buildings opposite. The fireworks do not explode above the buildings, but instead arc over and down behind them. I wonder what's behind those rooftops and how likely it is that none of them are made of wood or something else flammable.

Finally I reach Karl-Marxstrasse, the major road through Neukölln, and shit gets real. Crowds have assembled everywhere, and fire is leaping across the street in dozens of directions at any given time. Some arc their missiles over the opposing buildings, and some shoot theirs much lower. Still others seem to have no particular philosophy at all and simply point wherever it strikes them in the moment. The final hundred meters to the bank building is chaotic and senseless and bewildering and even though the air is cold enough that my glasses fog when I breathe out my nose the air itself is on fire.

I'm clumsy removing my scarf and gloves and retrieving my ATM card, and when I get out of the bank it's eleven fifty-eight. The street has grown so much more excited between five minutes before midnight and two minutes 'til that I expect some orgy of explosions when the clocks finally strike. But no clocks strike at all, or at least not here; instead the firefight merely continues. The crowd seems to have a sense of when midnight occurred and redouble their fireworks accordingly. I don't see anyone checking their cell phones or iPods, rather seemingly sensing the moment, perhaps from circadian rhythms or else from the unspoken wisdom of the herd. Either way, the night is crackling and bursting every other second; some of the larger groups have saved the best for last, or at least the biggest for last. I'm actually really impressed with some of them. Medium-rare terrified, too, of course, but impressed as well.

I wait on Karl-Marxstrasse perhaps twenty minutes after midnight before heading north again. The party shows no sign of slowing as I leave it. People see me peddling almost impotently as my tires slip in the snow, and they point and laugh, or else shout something I can't make out, or else shoot fireworks at me. Each time a missile cruises past my head I find I can't even tell if it was intentional or not. Neither answer would surprise me, I conclude, before catching myself and realizing that neither answer makes even the slightest bit of sense, or at least wouldn't in any context but this. Traffic has reappeared and it becomes slightly perilous to navigate in the narrower streets. I'm wearing my huge deejay headphones to serve as ear warmers, and before I make it out of Neukölln I have a minor catastrophe as the headphones slip down over my eyes; I try to return them to their place but start to lose control of the bicycle instead. Eventually I manage to get them back around my neck and suffer earlobes that quickly freeze red. With my ears finally uncovered, the city becomes a swirling river of sound; the cracks of exploding fireworks continue but now feel imminent, intense, almost sharp. There's something that could be singing off in the distance, or it could be shouting, or it could be the whistle of festive ballistics.

I approach Kotbusser Brücke certain the night can't get any more surreal. And perhaps it doesn't, not exactly, but I still have no idea what I'm in for. Along the Spree, more fireworks going off from both sides. The river is partly frozen, but not enough to stand on (as it will be in another week). The cannoneers on both sides ricochet their rockets along the frozen surface; skipping stones as painted by fire. When I get to the bridge, an enormous crowd has massed, clogging the sidewalks and eventually annexing one of the traffic lanes as well. Right as I arrive, a burning globe escapes into the air, going straight up. At first I can't make sense of what I'm seeing; a large paper lamp, or perhaps it's a kite of a wintry sort, has been released into the air, a fire burning on the inside heating the air enough to loft it farther and farther upwards, sending it listing breezily over the city skyline until I lose track of it, and it merely twinkles somewhere forever away, the most recent addition to a sky full of stars. Minutes later another kite swoops slowly over the river; this one is shaped like a goose and is even more beautiful than the last. I wonder whether this one is self-propelled somehow, like the paper lamp, or else merely gliding, when it flaps its wings and I realize that it's one of the real geese who live in the Spree. The crowd mostly abates their fireworks as the bird passes, terrified and uncomprehending, giving proper perspective to my own out-of-place nervousness.

A gaggle of Russians seem to have reserved Kirk Royale on the corner. From where I'm standing, I can't see much of their faces, but every glimpse suggests that they're all unbearably gorgeous. An earlobe like that couldn't possibly belong to an ordinary-looking woman. Such a minor arc of a chin in profile of course is attached to a face like a diamond. But she never turns and the fruits of my imagination is all I have. Over my shoulder I hear someone approaching, and as I turn to see a trim, muscular man in a well-tailored suit, I make out a few words in Russian. <<Mui khotim,>> he says into his phone, and as he passed farther I can't make out any more of what he's saying. It seems appropriate, his syntax amputated into barely articulated, intransitive desire. "We want." They want. Still talking on his cell phone, he crosses the street without looking for oncoming traffic and puts his other hand onto the small of a back of one of the gorgeous blondes. She smiles at him, and after they watch a little while later they return to the bar shivering. <<Ya khochu,>> I think. I want.

Kreuzberg used to be a working class neighborhood, or at least that's my understanding, but it became hip since the Wall came down and now is predominated by young people of means. It's also largely Turkish, as is Neukölln, and the Turkish Germans seem to regard the fireworks as a family event. This is not like Fourth of July in America, however, or not like any of them that I remember, with stern-faced patriarchs keeping a nervous eye on the preadolescents fumbling with sparklers. In the U.S., every family event retained its common, domestic theme, no matter what the event actually concerned. Among the Turkish families, however, the domesticity gets subsumed under a manic urge to blow shit up---an urge desperately shared by the members of the older generations who really ought to know better. The rest of the city addresses the holiday in typical, orderly German fashion; in Schöneberg, for instance, the law imposes no restrictions and the only limit one one's celebration is adult supervision. Here adult supervision is furiously egging the whole spectacle on. It's not the first time I've become sentimental about my neighborhood, but I have to say it out loud: I really, really love it here.

Both sides of Kotbusser Brücke have run out of fireworks and are becoming antsier. A snowball starts between those assembled on the two sides of the bridge. Taxis roll and slide slowly past and are spattered with snowballs. I don't know if they hit the car windows because they missed their targets, or because they hit them. Beyond the geese seem to have settled down as the fireworks have quieted, now swimming in the few unfrozen portions of the Spree. (The next week while running I will see one that seems to have lingered too long and became frozen-in.)

A Späti is open and I grab two more bottles of beer; on the way back down the block I see my friend the bartender. He gives me a hug and tells me to come inside, which I do. I spend the rest of the evening among friends, comfortably tipsy as befits New Year's Eve, and even get to chat with a pretty blonde friend of the bartender. (My embarrassingly bad German seems to pique her curiosity, like I'm a restoration project. It isn't until much later that this strikes me as an essentially German attitude to have.)

I don't really have a way of winding this up, so forgive me if I ramble. I've just read the Harry Potter books and have been thinking about children's fiction, fantasy stories like The Black Cauldron and The Hobbit and the like. I've never been entirely comfortable with that kind of children's book, as it's always seemed impossibly cruel to me in some way. You know a kid exposed to Hogwarts or Middle Earth or Prydain is going to compare his own stultifying reality to the fantastical alternative in his new best-friend-in-multiple-volumes. Real life isn't just going to be a letdown after that; it's going to be a minor-league existential crisis, and one at the age of nine or ten. When I was a teenager I thought this way, and then I grew up and I learned that becoming an adult means this impossible cruelty happens no matter what you read, that the beliefs of childhood are more or less all lovely dreams that, for your own good, are necessary to be punctured by the continued education of early adulthood. I can still remember what it is to believe in magic (this is of course a theme I've been thinking of recently), but such recollections come dressed in mournful tones, with the precedent knowledge that such belief is all childish delusion.

And yet tonight I saw a papier-mache flyer sent over the River Spree turn into a real living goose before my eyes, on a night when the skies above all the streets of the city sparkled with the light of one hundred-thousand shooting stars. All of this is perfectly predictable to my new neighbors, and also those people who live up north and shut in early and frankly consider this night something to be endured. And twice or more I had to remind myself to keep my mouth from falling open in wonderment. I had stopped gawking at open air markets and parties held in unattended city parks by the end of summer, but Berlin kept finding it in herself to amaze me in tiny new ways. Tonight was the newest, and by far least tiny of such ways. It was perhaps an exceptionally well-timed reminder, as funds draw low and job opportunities disappear and I wonder if this was all such a good idea after all, that what I've discovered to be the real reason for my coming here was one I didn't discover until after I'd come.

(Approximate route.)

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