So what am I doing for New Year's Eve, or Silvester, as it's known here?
Same thing I always do, but it's not what many of my neighbors will be doing.
There are three basic activities Germans engage in this evening, all usually accompanied by the obvious activity of drinking. But there are rites, like anywhere else, and some of them are a bit strange.
Take Bleigiessen, for instance. This is perhaps the weirdest Silvester ritual I've come across, and a clear link to Germany's pre-Christian past. You buy a little kit which consists of some small ingots of lead, a little steel pan, and a book, and gather around a candle flame and a bowl with water in it. Each person then melts a block of lead in the pan, and dumps the molten lead into the water. It sizzles as it hits, and solidifies. You then fish it out and try to determine what it looks like. Once you've decided, look it up in the book, and it'll tell you your fortune for the coming year. I remember doing this at a party one year and getting a peacock, which was quite positive, but I can't remember what it meant, nor whether or not the prophecy came true.
Then there's Fondue. This one really eludes me. It's set up like the kind of cheese fondue you may be familiar with, but instead of cheese, what you're melting in your pot is Biskin, a vegetable shortening not unlike Crisco. You have small cubes of pork and beef which you fix on your fondue fork, and you fry them in the hot fat until they're done, then dip them in any one of a number of mayonnaise-y sauces: curry, tzatziki, and so on. There's bread nearby to soak up the grease, and white wine, often sweet. I did this one year with a foodie crowd I hung with (who've all moved on) and I guess I was so mystified I guess I mostly stuck with the wine (which wasn't sweet, thank heavens), because I don't remember much about the part except being mystified as to why this was such a treat. I asked around the other day, and found that others use broth and vegetables, which sounds much better, or else do the Swiss cheese-and-kirsch thing, which also sounds better, but is, like, Swiss. Some prefer to do a raclette, which is French Swiss, and also good: you have a raclette setup which melts raclette cheese in a little heated container, and you dip stuff you cook on top of the raclette into the cheese.
And then there's fireworks. For a society which has by and large repudiated violence, this is pretty damn amazing. True, I used to buy fireworks in Texas for New Year's, and some of my neighbors and I had what we called the West 9 1/2 Street Pyrotechnics Society, but we stuck to display fireworks, some of which were pretty elaborate, like the pagoda which spun on an axis, spewing multicolored sparks until it burned to the center, at which point it would go pop! pop! pop! and two more stories would appear.
Here, though, it's rockets and bombs, mostly bombs. The bombs are divided into Böller (which means ceremonial cannons) and Knaller (which essentially means firecrackers), and they're serious: it's not at all unusual to see six-inch firecrackers, and there's one bomb which is basically a four-inch square package of gunpowder. This year, the local police tried an ad campaign with two posters. One shows a girl with a hearing aid, the other a guy showing his hand, with two bandaged stumps of fingers. "I used to think Knaller were fun," they say. But these kids look way too square to make the average Berlin kid look twice at them, and both pictures look vaguely fake. I can attest to what happens when one goes off next to your ear, though, because it happened to me one year -- the year I was going to the party where the Bleigiessen happened, in fact. Some kids had tossed it out a window, specifically at me, and I'm very, very lucky that it went off too far away to do any damage. Or maybe I just have leathery eardrums from years of going to rock shows. That was some party: the host's idiot cousin was up from Bavaria, and it was an unseasonably warm night. Nobody ever figured out why, but he went outside and shot off a teargas gun, the gas, naturally, coming in the open window into the crowd that was dancing inside. We all poured outside, coughing and sneezing and crying, and I noted wryly to the host that I'd lived through the Sixties without this happening, but had to go to a party to get my dose. Later that evening, we went out front at midnight and listened to the bombs going off. The host shrugged and said "You know, Sarajevo is only 300 km away," and walked back inside.
The bombing's already started, at 2:40 in the afternoon, and it's not even dark yet. It will get much, much worse later on. My first year here, I was watching a video I'd rented and at midnight it got so loud I couldn't hear the soundtrack for the bombing. It made me wonder how the little old ladies in my building felt, since some of them had undoubtedly been here in the last days of the War, when the house-to-house fighting of the Russians must have sounded like this. Given that this invasion was combined with an epidemic of rape which continued for some time, this must have brought back horrid memories for some. Tomorrow, the sidewalks will be an inch deep in fireworks tatters: I'll try to get out and photograph them, although, with the rain that's already started, they'll look a lot like dog-turds by then. (Although maybe it won't be so bad this year: someone told me yesterday that given the dire economic circumstances here sales seem to be way down.)
There'll also be evidence of advanced idiocy on the part of people who've finished a bottle of champagne (actually a pallid German imitation of it called Sekt, a name which originated at one of Berlin's oldest restaurants, Lutter & Wegner, which I have to admit is a pretty damn good place, although their Sekt is nothing to write home about) and then tossed in some fireworks. As oenophiles reading this know, champagne (and, yes, Sekt) matures in the bottle, and, since it fizzes, produces gas which produces pressure. Thus, the bottles are a good deal thicker than regular wine bottles, so the shards are a lot more dangerous. Torstr., a few yards from my house, is the major driveway to Charité Hospital, and all night long, the sounds of bombs will be mixed with the sirens of ambulances ferrying patients to Charité. I would think this is a once-a-year opportunity for microsurgeons to practice their finger-attaching skills.
So what will I be doing tonight if I won't be eating grease, melting lead, or blowing myself up?
I'll be continuing an old tradition my pal Bob Merlis came up with. Bob used to be VP in charge of publicity (okay, "Artist Relations") at Warner Bros. Records in L.A. (okay, Burbank), and his job was to throw press parties, show up at showcases for Warners artists, and so on. He was at a gig several times a week most weeks. Since he was one of the few people in the company who actually listened to music and saw shows (ie, he wasn't a lawyer or an accountant, like most of his co-workers), some of the others looked up to him as a hip savant (which, sure, he is, but much hipper than they were giving him credit for). New Year's would come along, and they'd ask him "Hey, Bob, what are you doing tonight?" expecting to be given the secret location of the hippest gig in L.A.
"I'm staying home and listening to music by dead people," he'd say. When they finished registering shock, he'd explain. "Dead people have more great musicians than living people, and no way I'm going to get to see them as part of my job. Dead people include Duke Ellington, and Bach, and Buddy Holly. They're not playing the Roxy or the Troubador anytime soon. I hope." As with much from the oracular Mr. Merlis, I took this to heart. I've had wonderful evenings with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Dolphy, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus and Bill Evans and other people of the non-living persuasion.
Tonight's, though, is going to be a bit different. This year saw the passing of one of the most influential music personalities who never picked up an instrument, John Peel of the BBC. Few Americans ever got to feel his full impact, but in Britain, and wherever the BBC World Service reached -- and here in Berlin, where he did a show especially for the divided city, knowing it would be heard across the Wall -- his espousal of unfamiliar, difficult, and obscure music, which often became more familiar, easier to listen to, and popular as a result, was unparallelled by any other disc jockey. He had a list of 50 songs called John Peel's Festive Fifty, which he broadcast each year, and he eventually made a master Festive Fifty compiled from each of the annual ones. Someone I know posted the recordings from the master list briefly as a tribute to Peel, and I downloaded them and burned them to three CDs, so tonight I will raise a glass of something to the great John Peel, and listen to them all in sequence from Joy Division's "Atmosphere" to Pavement's "Here."
I can't think of a better way to start a new year. Thanks, John. And Bob. And to all the readers out there, I wish you a gute Rutsch -- a "good slide," as they say here -- into the new year.
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