Due to a rather ill-judged decision to throw a New Year’s Eve Eve ‘get together’ I woke up sick on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t so much a hangover as a violent case of poisoning. I think perhaps we were too liberal with the Angostura Bitters in our sloppily made Champagne Cocktails. Chuck in a bit of sugar, dowse it in bitters, mix it all with cooking brandy and fill it up to the top with cheap Sekt. Repeat dozens of times… A metaphor for Silvester, I now think. By the early evening, I knew I would not be donning PVC and prancing at the Kitkat club that night. But I didn’t want to miss the party completely, as I have had a habit of having shitty New Year’s Eves all my life. I was in Berlin, where it’s so famous it’s got its own special name, and who knows where I would be next year?
New Year’s Eve is called Silvester in Germany after a 4th-century pope. Every year it is whiplash crazy. Surprisingly, extravagantly, incomprehensibly wild. You can’t believe that the mild-mannered, elegantly coiffured computer programmer with a man bag sitting next to you on the U-bahn the day before, could possibly lug home a 12 pack of enormous rockets and proceed to aim them at the computer programmers on the opposite roof, or lob firecrackers out the window at passersby. But that is what happens. Last year I got out of a taxi to exploding fireworks around my feet and a Turkish boy with a gun aiming just above my head. I didn’t intend to miss the mayhem.
I was gingerly escorted into a Drive Now car as the banging and explosions had already started by 8 p.m. – even in the quiet east German suburb where we live. I could tell that Scott was excited by the anarchy in the air, and that Susie and Stuart from the UK didn’t have a clue what to expect. One of Scott’s little-known, not so cool, and much appreciated Manc skills is carrying me on his back up multiple flights of stairs. Few apartment blocks in Berlin have elevators. He didn’t fail me at Zach’s 8th floor and I didn’t throw up on him. We arrived to a house of beautifully dressed friends and an elegant dinner party. Zach’s girlfriend Lindsey is one of those English women who seem totally together, and like they have read the manual of how-to-do-life and can translate it into German. She wafted into the bedroom where I lay clutching my stomach, wearing a clingy black velvet number, and gave me a choice of prescription medication and a glass of Redbull with powdered ginger. I thanked her, sipped it and wondered if Zach was punching above his weight…
More people arrived. More posh drinks were drunk by other people. I feebly tried the vegan feta and didn’t die. Things were looking up. At fifteen minutes to midnight, everyone started getting their coats on and then we all traipsed in a line carrying champagne flutes and bottles and fireworks up more stairs and into the attic space filled with that fluffy yellow sinking stuff. There was a small rectangular opening above our heads which lead onto the roof. It did not seem promising, but we all climbed the swinging ladder, held upright by Zach, and emerged out onto the flat roof. The night sky was already beginning to explode into a million green and pink flickerings of vibrant colour.
‘Mind the edge there’s no railing!’ laughed one of the Germans. There was indeed a drop to certain death this high up, and plenty of edges. There were brick chimneys, some with smoke, and as I looked around, I saw dark shapes of other groups spreading out across the rooftop landscape. There was a brisk wind but no rain, because we were not in the UK where every adventure is fucked up by rain. Always. We were all a bit giddy. I accepted a glass of champagne as I hadn’t been sick, so I could toast the new year. It had impressive pomegranate seeds floating in it – Lindsey had made it.
By the time we had all clambered onto the rooftop, it was nearly midnight. And as someone began the countdown the whole inky sky exploded into a riot of bursting, crashing fire. It felt like the whole of Berlin was one enormous, randomly timed pyrotechnic display in our honour, and it went on and on and on, filling the air with crackling outbursts in a paroxysm of primary colours . We turned 360 degrees and everywhere our faces were splashed with dying disney colour.
And then our party began to light their own fireworks. They had bags of rockets and sparklers and catherine wheels and squibs. They lit them with a match then aimed them vaguely at the sky. Then they did it again. Then they chased each other around the roof top-8-storeys-up-with-no-railing, throwing fireworks at each other, shrieking and shouting. The four of us English watched in impressed and rather horrified amazement. We had all grown up with very strict rules about certain things. Never shake a lightbulb. Carry eggs like they are made of glass. Never swim after a meal or you will immediately drown. And never never never operate a firework or even go near one unless you are a dad. We had only ever seen fireworks, one at a time, from the opposite end of the rainy garden, and always wearing wellies. Up to three fireworks would be lit and then the dads would run away from them quickly but sensibly, whilst we all gasped ‘Oooh’ and ‘Ahhh’. Then they would start the process again, approaching cautiously.
This was pyrotechnic mayhem and the sky sizzled with the end of dying fireworks fizzing dangerously near our heads and dropping their spent cardboard tubes in abandon . We were, in fact, sky height, and some kids in the street below seemed to be aiming them directly at where we were standing so that momentarily, our expressions of wonder-cum-terror were luridly lit as they whizzed past our ears. We huddled closer for a new year ‘group hug’, me wondering if the others were also secretly feeling a mixture of sensible and uncool, and glad of a minute of rugby scrum protection.
After nearly an hour it began to calm down. The display had been random and joyous and shocking. Like something nature made. The people dotted about the roofs were lit up garishly like ghoulish Berts in a Mad Max Mary Poppins, preparing to step in time. The sky was sputtering and popping as it calmed down and regained its moonlit dignity. Giddy and giggling we swung down into the attic space, changed.
They all got dressed up in black eyeliner and kinky outfits for Kitkat, and I went home and got into bed. I put on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny on my ipad, and watched it for the first time without feeling like I was missing a better New Year’s Eve somewhere else. It was the closest I have been to a war zone. But one with wicked pixies, powder paint, and no intent to kill.
I was too cold, too sick and too scared to attempt to take photos. But this video gives a taste, with thanks to Stuart Lotherington.