After three weeks at home in Leeds for the Christmas holidays, I flew back to Berlin on the 31st of December at 4.45pm. My lovely grandad gave me a lift to the airport, and thanks to 17 years in the military his punctuality is such that it goes way past being sensible and gets rather ridiculous. Four hours early, then, I checked in and sat drinking Guinness and reading until my flight – the last flight out of the airport that day, as everyone who wasn’t a moron had already got their flights out of the way, not saved them for last thing on New Year’s Eve.
Pre-boarding, I found myself smiling. You could easily tell which plane was headed to Berlin: the one with all the weird looking people dressed head to toe in black. The flight went quickly. We descended into Schönefeld around 7.40pm, and with my nose pressed against the porthole I saw fireworks blooming all over the city beneath our plane. I elbowed the stranger sitting next to me to show them the amazing sight, but they weren’t quite as impressed. I never understand people who aren’t amazed by the view from an aeroplane window; all the glittering cityscapes and towering clouds. Perhaps she thought me an eccentric or something. Perish the thought, what balderdash!
I still owe some fine money to a rather infamous rail company based in Berlin (which I will not name here for fear that, through the modern prison that is internet surveillance, they will somehow track me down) and at border control I was a little flustered when the guard took about 14 hours to scan my passport. Would I be hauled away? Did a draughty cell await? Would I be passing this New Year’s Eve and all after in the coal mines of some distant gulag? No, he wished me a nice evening and I was on my way.
I headed to the train platform with my heavy bags. The cash machine only gave out 20s, which was far less than ideal as the ticket machines accepted everything but. Some aspects of German society genuinely feel like they are specifically constructed to infuriate. I stalked the quarter-mile back into the airport to get change, only to find that a single 330ml drink was around 5 euros. Furious and exhausted from hauling my luggage left right and centre, I trudged back to the S Bahn station and angrily bought a ticket.
Fireworks were erupting everywhere, some visible, most unseen. Every 20 seconds some distant boom would rattle the platform and a chorus of rebel yells would echo across the freezing wind. I’d heard stories of the chaos of Berlin on New Year’s Eve, and as the minutes passed it seemed more and more real. Waiting for the train into the city was like waiting to be shipped out to the front of some raging battle. Apparently being scared of fireworks is just not a thing here. Back home, Bonfire Night is a strictly governed event with a minimum safety distance for every firework display of about eight thousand metres, a spool of barbed wire around the perimeter, and a man dressed head to toe in Kevlar with the duty of setting them off – plus several squads of paramedics ready to sprint off to tend to the imminent wounded of the Collingham Village Hall Yearly Fireworks Display (£15 entry). Here though, people just do not give one solitary shit, laughing merrily as they shove lighted rockets down each other’s pants.
I love Berlin so much that when it wrongs me, a la the fucking train fine or the fucking cash machine/ticket fiasco, it feels like being slapped by a lover. I feel betrayed. We can never stay enemies for long, however. There’s always some life-affirming new rave to attend or kebab to try that brings me back around. I forgive you for all the fury you cause me over the months, City.
I got fat over Christmas. Berlin sapped me of most of the muscle I acquired over a couple of years in the gym in Sheffield, but it didn’t look too bad because body fat went first. Coming home to the UK for Christmas I was lean, leaner than I’ve been since I was 15. After three weeks of festive indulgence, however, I have grown fat around the waist, and now there is no muscle on me to cover it up. Something will have to be done. Also, while we’re discussing Christmas (or rather, while I am discussing Christmas and you are sitting through it, grinding your teeth in frustration, you poor devil), I would like to take the time to promise you that from here on out my writing will get better. I read a few old diary entries the other day and nearly wept at my own incompetence as a writer.
I sat on the train and whizzed into Berlin. Almost immediately, as if the city could sense my return, my phone buzzed. On the other end Dave said some things in German which I did not understand, and wished me a merry Christmas. He had landed at Schönefeld an hour after me, but because I spent so long fannying about with the ticket machine and running around sweating and swearing under my breath, Dave was only on the train behind me. We made plans to meet at Victoria’s, as usual, and Dave told me he just wanted to drink and dance, two noble aspirations which were shared by yours truly.
As the train descended further into the city, (YES I KNOW THIS IS TAKING AGES AND I’M ALMOST A THOUSAND WORDS IN AND HAVEN’T EVEN REACHED BERLIN YET, I’M ENJOYING WRITING THIS SHIT OKAY, WE HAVE A LOT TO CATCH UP ON, CHILL YOUR MASSIVE BEAN WOULD YOU?) sparkling fire continued to erupt on all sides. As the train filled, the people on board became increasingly young and attractive. I swear the average age in Berlin is 25. It was nice to hear the angular, precise sounds of the German language again, and it was strangely comforting to see the amount of black everyone was wearing. The horizon was filled with explosions. Riding the train, it felt like we were outrunning some unknown nuclear fallout (I say unknown, but let’s be real: probably caused by Donald Trump’s fat orange finger accidentally finding the red button while searching for the switch for the lamp on his desk), the train tearing through the dark, sparks flying in the suburbs beyond the windows, smashing through empty stations and frosted platforms.
I changed trains at Ostkreuz, and squeezed onto a ram-packed (if Corbyn says it’s a phrase, it’s a phrase) train to Warschauer Strasse, whereupon the doors opening I became acquainted with Dante’s vision of Hell… except with more currywurst, so… an even worse version of hell. In a throng of scarf-strung Berliners, I swept up the icy stairs and onto the streets. The fireworks here were louder, and somewhat nearer. Hmm, perhaps that’s my English tendency towards understatement kicking in. I say somewhat nearer, but what I actually mean is right fucking next to my head.
As the crowd shoved along the pavement, gleeful kids on either side of the path were lobbing firecrackers in the air and cackling to see the crowd visibly flinch. I watched one hoodlum kid lob a small sparkler into the air, a metre away from me. It hung there, pretty, like a happy little firefly. Aw, I thought to myself, that’s sweet. Then it blew up with an ear-whipping SNAP and I jumped out of my skin and scurried away cursing.
Things outside Victoria’s flat were worse. Gone were the devilish little firecrackers. Here be monsters. The usual gangs of drugs dealers that hang around near Gorlitzer park were amped up, whooping and hollering with beer bottles smashing everywhere and red and green rockets whizzing across the street. The air was thick with smoke. It looked like the end of days.
How people don’t constantly die is a mystery. These people have no sense of danger whatsoever. Where is the survival instinct? Where is the sense of self-preservation? What compels people to light literally a massive fucking bomb and throw it in their best friend’s vacant face? A quick nip to a Späti for an armful of beers turned into a Black Hawk Down shot-by-shot reconstruction, with hooded men blasting full boxes of fireworks wildly around them. A terrified German woman ran up alongside me and asked me to escort her across the park. We power walked through the criss-crossing sparkly beautiful mayhem, heads ducked, and parted ways at the end. We wished each other good luck on the road ahead, for the night was young.
I got stuck outside Vic’s flat for 20 minutes because my phone had no credit and I forgot which buzzer was hers. I looked for rocks to throw at her window but they were all slightly too big, and I was loath for my arrival at Victoria’s flat to be heralded by a half-brick smashing through the kitchen window and skidding to her feet. A kindly stranger eventually let me into the building, and for the thousandth time Vic opened her flat door to find me grinning outside it with arms full of booze.
It was straight back to business as usual once I got sat down. Vic’s friend Reece was visiting for the week, and Dave turned up after an hour, shuddering to us that he was fairly sure he’d have post-traumatic stress after his bicycle ride over, what with all the fire spewing madmen running around. It was great to see them again. Reece had splurged on a big bottle of vodka and some lethal German spirit that is 20% and tastes like mouthwash with absolutely no kick, meaning you can do shot after shot until it eventually hits you all at once and you collapse, foaming at the mouth. We toasted the New Year, Dave cycled away to meet a girl, and the three of us remaining headed to a house party away across the city.
The train to the party was full of song and party poppers and hats and young drunk kids giggling and everything you’d expect. We bumped into a friend I’ve met at a few parties, Greg, in the street, and he guided us to the flat. It was the home of a guy called Dan, who Michelle introduced me to. Michelle and all of her lovely Berlin gang were already there, and I greeted all of them with, being totally honest, probably too much enthusiasm, which I will put down to the peppermint spirit. The night is a blur, and somehow before midnight we ended up on a packed bridge, all holding sparklers which someone had pulled from somewhere.
We tried to count down the minutes, but while my phone was stubbornly insisting that it was 11:58, everyone else started the ten second countdown. I tried to tell them they were early but the crowd did not listen, and I was overruled. The New Year rushed in, and the sky was an inferno. Every single direction held a dozen bursts of glittering light. Someone somewhere started singing Auld Lang Syne, but trailed off when they realised they knew absolutely no words of the song, and settled for loudly humming it. An old German couple wrapped in scarves and overcoats nudged me and pointed to a spot on the horizon which was going mental with explosions, and told me it was the Brandenburg Gate.
I didn’t get to spend this New Year’s Eve with the girl I love, which made me a little glum. She’s far away again. Always far away. I took solace in the sparkling sky and sought refuge in drink.
The rest of the evening is a blur. Someone had some laughing gas, there was loads of free booze and Club Mate, I got glitter on my face, and I met two lovely Canadians who I remember not one single thing I said to. Vic and Reece passed out in a heap in the corridor around 3am, and everyone left at 4ish to find another party nearby. The others piled in taxis, but I stayed to look after the gently snoozing pair, who had been relocated out of the flat and into the stairwell. I booted them awake and we slunk off home, via pizza.
It’s good to be back.
Oh, and in case you think I’ve been exaggerating…