Heading out the hotel door to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on New Years Eve, we met a couple of matrons swathed in fur coats on the same mission. It was a good night. We saw a brandished handgun, an arrest, an Elvis impersonator, a drunk, ebullient Russian in one of those fur hats with a red star, a dancing cop and, incidentally, rang in the new year at one of Europe’s biggest parties.
The wife and I had just spent a week with her parents in Nuremberg, normally a highly enjoyable experience. Due, however, to our weekend arrival, followed by the long German holiday accompanied by the heaviest snowfall in decades, we spent five days inside. My wife learned a new English phrase: cabin fever. By the time we lifted off for Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, we were ready for some adult entertainment and had our eye on a world-class New Year’s celebration.
The Brandenburg Tor, or Gate, a huge stone arch in the center of Berlin, is one of the great gathering places of Europe for New Years’ celebrations. This year, a motley crowd of 600,000 flooded downtown Berlin for the festivities. As usual in Germany, the service was impeccable. Fireworks were legal, entrepreneurs were selling a huge variety of alcohol out of shopping carts on the sidewalk, the crowd was in a great mood and there was free entertainment on two stages. It was a party gone out of bounds, but we’d had to do some broken-field running to get there.
New Year’s Eve day opened chilly and windy. We availed ourselves of the breakfast buffet, then loafed around the hotel room until one, when I decided I’d better start lining up our ducks for the evening’s festivities.
Having had a few abortive New Year’s Eves in the course of my days, I have refined my personal needs for a successful celebration to three: A good solid meal a few hours before celebrating, enough scotch for me and any poachers, and to not be en route to somewhere at midnight.
Thanks to Berlin’s public transportation service, we were on station at midnight, but the first two requirements took a lot more work than they should have. I never expected to struggle for food and drink in a European capital.
It started when we left the hotel room to get a jug. I was in search of any decent scotch. My wife usually prefers something less fierce, but for simplicity’s sake, decided to share my scotch. We went to the nearby grocery store—to find it had closed at one in the afternoon, on a Monday, before a holiday.
The liquor store at a nearby mall was closed, as was the notions and liquor store in the nearby U-bahn station. I was now in a serious funk. My most excellent spouse rose to the occasion and, ignoring my peevish whining, dragged me on a train to a larger U-Bahn station where all the shops, including a McDonalds, were open. There are rigorous laws regulating store hours in Germany, but stores in larger train and underground stations are exempt. My natural dignity rapidly reasserted itself; we acquired a bottle of Ballentines and three bottles of diet cola for a hangover cure. With a supply of alcohol provided, I was lulled into a sense of security soon to be shattered by another cultural phenomenon, the exclusionary hotel party.
Upon returning from buying up, we noticed the lobby and restaurant were festooned for the evening’s activities. My wife had mentioned the possibility of the hotel restaurant being closed to the non-ticket holding public, but the concept seemed so fantastic I had dismissed it without giving it full consideration. A brief conversation with the desk clerk confirmed our worst fears: there was no dinner to be had at the hotel. It seems it is normal for German hotel restaurants to close their doors in mid afternoon on New Year’s Eve and sell tickets to a party, throwing non-attending guests onto their own resources.
After a tense powwow in our room, we concluded our options for getting a meal elsewhere without reservations on New Year’s Eve were limited to fast food, absolute anathema to a careful drinker like myself, so I determined to make a single, polite assault on hotel policy. As I exited the room, my wife was watching me with an entirely unreadable expression. I found later she feared I would make an utter ass of myself, crossed by discomfort with a rather thoughtless native custom, overlaid by the hope I would succeed, as she was hungry and didn’t want to eat crappy food any more than I did.
I repaired to the front desk and disposed of the clerk. In bad English-German, with many grave smiles, I informed the manager I felt she was doing a disservice to her guests by restricting access to the restaurant on such an important evening. I based my argument on the need for real sustenance and the lack of nearby eateries, a dilemma I felt sure would elicit sympathy in this country of good livers. Guilt was the only card I had; I don’t know the system well enough yet to use fear.
The end result was better than I could have expected. We were given a nice little table and our own waiter, with the stipulation that we vacate by 8:30. We enjoyed a leisurely and delicious meal during which we not only got to watch the last flurry of activity before the party started, but I had an excellent view of a big-screen TV featuring a fashion show, which means more in Europe than it does here, as many of the outfits are see-through.
After a good dinner, we returned to the room to dress and, with temperatures hovering 10 degrees below freezing, we dressed warmly. I had red long johns; Alexandra had regular ski thermals. We pulled on thick socks, boots and sweaters: topped off with scarves, ski parkas, gloves, and hats. I sported a new black beret. As we dressed, I took a preliminary pull off the Ballentines. I filled a plastic soda bottle with scotch and slid it into a deep pocket. We made sure of cash, water and a disposable camera, and had a good-luck kiss in the quiet of the elevator. The doors opened and we passed through a lobby filling with solid citizens hung with fur and cashmere. We Guten Abend’ our way through the lobby and broke out into a clear cold Berlin night punctuated with the boom of M80s in the distance.
The train filled up quickly, and we ended up near two couples in their mid twenties: a couple of shaved young men in nylon military-style parkas accompanied by a pair of normal-looking young women. As we all watched, one of the chaps bent over, unzipped his small gym bag and pulled out a big black semi-automatic handgun. I wanted to believe it was a BB pistol, but a glimpse of the muzzle diameter disabused me of that hope. I met my wife’s eye; having assumed it was a BB pistol, she was unconcerned. My heart rate increased as I watched the guy release the clip, exposing a row of gleaming brass shells. I was relieved to note there were no projectiles on the shells, instead the loads were capped with green seals: the gun was loaded with blanks. This fellow was just bringing his fireworks in a convenient dispenser, and as I saw similar expended shells the next day, he was not alone.
When we disembarked at Brandenburg Station, the crowd all streamed the same direction. Fireworks were going off in alarming proximity. Side streets emptied in to Berlin’s great boulevard, Unter den Linden, and the crowd thickened as it streamed toward the Brandenburg Gate. As we were carried along on the happy hubbub, I noted a Vietnamese fellow along side us tossing cherry bombs as fast as he could unlimber, light and launch them. I watched jealously as he lay down a rolling barrage, clearing his path to the Tor.
We ran a gauntlet of booths hawking hot food and warm clothes, while noting that police were stationed every twenty yards, with command trucks at intersections. At one command truck, a dozen officers were standing around, but ignoring, a handcuffed young man face down on the frozen sidewalk. I reckoned he was the most uncomfortable person on that street at the moment. Next truck down, a uniformed cop, complete with ear-flapped hat and 9mm in a cutaway holster was full-on boogying to the music floating down from the stage two blocks away.
Reality reared its head for a moment as the torrent of people passed through gates in a barrier under the watchful eyes of a dozen or two officers. Everyone got a good looking-at and fireworks were verboten from here on. One block further and we hit the second perimeter, where every one got a pat-down; people were dumping liquor right and left. My searcher gave my plastic bottle a squeeze, congratulated me on my foresight and smiled us into the plaza. There we were in a roaring crowd, band blasting, a few rods from the spot-lit Brandenburg Tor on New Year’s Eve.
The plaza is normally a thoroughfare running under the Brandenburg, so the shining hulk of the 200-foot wide, 70-foot high monument dominated the scene. There was a hot stage on our left with a phalanx of entertainment lined up, while the stage to our right was being re-rigged for the crescendo, still over an hour away.
The mighty Brandenburg Gate, constructed in 1791 to commemorate Prussian militarism, is crowned by a huge statue of the god Victory driving a chariot. Victory looked down as Napoleon marched under in 1812 on his ill-fated expedition to Moscow and reflected the red glare of the Reichstag fire in 1933. The statue overlooked the Berlin Wall until 1989 and has watched Berlin rise, brick by brick, over the last 14 years. At the moment, the gate itself, undergoing restoration, was wrapped in a full-sized picture of itself, but Victory still watched the revel from the peak.
The plaza was a seething mass of swirling groups flanked on two sides by stages populated by highly credible imitators of American rock stars. The Tina Turner was uncanny and Elvis was Vegas-good. Hit after hit from the 70s and 80s rocked the crowd. Here I was at this huge party in Germany, and I knew all the words to every song—that was pretty weird. It was a typical party crowd: some folk stood around and did or didn’t drink, others danced in place, and a conga line formed. When a great song came on, the whole crowd roared out the words. My wife and I shared a private moment in the midst of the revelry, spilled a drop for luck in the new year and then proceeded to fortify ourselves against the increasing cold.
As we jockeyed to get a good view of the stage, we ran up against a happy Russian sporting a red enameled hammer and sickle badge in the middle his fur-lined cap. He was pretty lit up, obviously alone and looking for someone to talk to. I wondered what his story was, here in Berlin on New Year’s Eve, but just took his picture. We communicated with a series of disjointed toasts, smiles and eyebrow wagging. He took a liking to my wife and regaled her with some anecdote neither of us understood. We edged away with a half wave after a few minutes, but watched him reel happily around our vicinity for the rest of the evening.
We wandered about, moving to stay warm, watching the kaleidoscope of people, singing along with the crowd to popular songs. The performers were making visible efforts to stay warm. We edged our way to the entrance of the great Adlon Hotel, its little patch of plaza isolated from the herd by a 40-foot long ice sculpture, and thought about the hot tea inside. Suddenly, it began to snow. There was a long magical moment as the huge dome of light filled with swirling flakes, turning the plaza into a giant snowglobe.
The stages were both in full swing when midnight struck, and the crowd was peaking. Whole knots of people were jitterbugging, self-consciousness overcome by the need to stay warm. The countdown ended in a huge roar of happy celebrants—over my wife’s shoulder I saw the happy Russian hugging one person after another.
Encased in the mellow glow of a happy crowd, Alexandra and I sang and danced our way into 2002; before we knew it, it was 2:00 a.m. It didn’t seem very cold to me any more, though my wife’s cheeks were apple-red. The crowd began to thin out, and we joined the steady trickle of still-boisterous stragglers headed towards the U-Bahn station. It had been a hell of a party.