European Holiday Update #2: German New Year's Eve or Silvester
January 14, 2019
And then, after Christmas was said and done and all the weird Danish rice pudding was gone, we got ready to celebrate New Year's Eve or Silvester back here in Berlin. I was surprised by warnings from many expats to be careful of the fireworks here on NYE and I didn’t completely understand what they meant until about 18:00 (6 pm) on December 31st when roughly every twenty minutes or so a rogue, neighborhood firecracker would explode nearby, not in a particularly controlled fashion. This phenomenon continued throughout the evening until around 23:00 (11 pm) when the ignition intervals became more frequent until finally, at the stroke of midnight, basically the entire city erupted into an uncontrolled, amateur fireworks display of more than slightly unnerving proportions. And not just for the few minutes following midnight, but for the following two hours. Please watch this incredibly poorly-shot video from the balcony of a friend's apartment to see what I'm talking about:
Groups of kids lit batteries in the street, we could see some people on their roofs setting off fountains, others had entire arsenals of illegal rockets from Poland in the park nearby. And then there were the Americans, safely celebrating in a cozy apartment with our adorable, tiny, basically harmless sparklers. Even if the real fireworks here are totally legal, we really just don’t know any better. I personally come from a particularly flammable state where everything catches on fire, all the time so I've always kept my distance. Apparently, they start an average of 18,500 fires per year in the US. And, in my 36 years of being alive, I am not embarrassed to admit I have developed a healthy fear of things that can explode. Call me crazy. But plenty of folks in 'Merica feel otherwise, as the eight deaths and 12,900 firework-related injuries from 2017 might suggest.
However, this wild disarray we witnessed was an incredible thing to see. No rules, no order, just the entire population of Berlin joyously shooting loud, glittery explosions into the sky. Or mostly into the sky — I saw a few little screamers veer off onto the tram tracks where, of course despite the mayhem, the tram was still regularly running because Germany. The next day, I saw this scene more than once:
During the free-for-all, I even noticed a father showing his two young kids how to light some fireworks in the street. After making a most-likely-super-judgemental comment about this, a German friend told me that the explosions, smoke, and general cacophony were nostalgic and brought back memories of her childhood where, once upon a time, her Dad did the same, taking her outside during the anarchy to show her how to partake. So basically, while my Dad was teaching me how to throw a baseball or memorize mnemonic devices for taxonomy (Kings Play Chess On Finely Ground Sand), this friend was a continent away learning from her father how to blow things up. On this evening it became abundantly clear that Berlin had a very different idea about fireworks than any Western city I had ever been to. I tried rationalizing this irrational behavior by telling myself it made sense because everything here is made out of stone or brick and it’s wet and cold during the winter so the fire danger is probably very low. Or Germans are probably just more responsible with the fireworks than Americans because they love following the rules and their stern and frosty dispositions must make them less flammable and practically fire-resistant. Or their affinity for sausages and pork products endows them with super-advanced, animal-like reflexes that help them sense danger before the rest of us. That must be why this insanity is allowed. Or at least that’s what I thought until I read this article describing last year’s celebrations where the fire department was called to 444 fires and at just one Berlin hospital 21 people required surgery for firework-related injuries, five of which were amputations. And this year, apparently two people in Germany died from "improper use of pyrotechnics" and at least one poor guy blew his hand off with an illegal Polish firecracker (Humble Brag: that last link is in German and I understand what it says). Germans, I was comforted to learn, are just as stupid when it comes to fireworks as Americans. And Danes too: the same friend that blew things up with her Dad as a child somehow didn't shoot her eyeball out and is now a doctor in Copenhagen. She mentioned that her hospital had six hand surgeons on call for doing surgery that night. So, it would appear that we are all in this together in our tendencies towards disfigurement in the name of fireworks freedom.
So that was my first Berlin Apocalyptic New Years Party Chaos War Zone Celebration and I’m happy to report that I now have a better understanding of this special German custom as well as both of my eyeballs, two hands, and ten fingers. Happy New Year or Frohes Neues Jahr!
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