Archives for the month of: December, 2013

 

In the distance, what sounds like gunfire is actually young people unable to wait until midnight to light their fireworks.  This sound has been gathering pace over the last few days – the odd burst of fireworks lighting up the sky and the unmistakeable rat-tat-tat of firecrackers or the utterly terrifying boom of explosion surprised us at every turn.  If I were from Beirut or Belfast, I’d be well freaked out by now. We have had mixed reports of how New Years Eve feels in Berlin.  Our friend Derry, who was here last year, said it was totally comfortable, with no drunks, fighting or puking, just everyone having a good time (this was in comparison with Ireland).  Friends living in Berlin have booked in to a venue as they say it can be a bit threatening with everyone firing off fireworks.  Apparently, they are only allowed to sell fireworks between 28th and 31st December. Our local Turkish shop cleared a huge space to make up a display of different kinds of fireworks, and there were pop-up shops filled to capacity with fancy fireworks, just selling for today.  Most shops, restaurants and local bars are closed for New Years Eve night, and remain so until the 2nd.  One of the busiest pubs in the area closed from 23rd December until 3rd January, which seems very contradictory to an Irish mind – surely it’s premium drinking time? Well, since Berliners aren’t going to go wild on drink for New Years Eve, nor even for Christmas, perhaps they have enough money to go to the pub year round.

Christmas feels officially over here. There are still Christmas lights up, but there’s quite a few Christmas trees abandoned on the street. It used to be that nobody got a tree until Christmas Eve, when the mother of the house dressed the tree, complete with candles, and then let the children in for presents. However, I think these days people get their tree a bit earlier, and January 6th is the day the tree disappears for good.  For our own Christmas tree, I found a nice branch out near the University, and hauled it back on the U-bahn (quite a feat in itself!), painted it white and hung decorations on it.  Nic gave me a box of decorations that had belonged to his grandparents, to add to the tree, which meant a lot to me.  It seems like weeks ago that I dressed the tree, but it was just over a week.

As soon as Barry and Clare arrived, I railroaded them onto the S-bahn to head for a Christmas market, which was lovely, pretty and yes, Christmassy, with Church bells either side and the hokiest “pop” music on a large, almost empty stage, played by two middleaged men in anoraks (the Germans really are experts on this kind of cheesy crooning).  Christmas Eve, we invited some friends over for dinner and had great fun, this being the “real” Christmas event for most Germans. On Christmas Day, we walked over to Rixdorf, a little village just off Karl-Marx-Strasse, where we were booked in to eat.  And what did we have for our Christmas dinner? Really excellent Pizza! I really loved the fact that I broke the dinner tradition completely.  After dinner, we wandered up to Weserstrasse, where there is usually a selection of trendy bars, and found one open.  Since all the museums are open from Christmas Day onwards, we tried to fit in a few days of art tourism and murals, some strolling around cafes, and a day of Real Typical Tourist Stuff (tour of the Reichstag building cupola, Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburger Gate).  In between this, we did Christmas things – opening our stockings, watching videos, eating chocolate and tangerines.  The memory of this is now tinged bittersweet for me, as Clare returned home for New Years Eve, and we aren’t scheduled to meet until next May or so.  Leaving her to the airport was one of the hardest moments ever, and I even tried to catch a glimpse of the Ryanair plane on the runway, but couldn’t.  It simply points up how lucky I have been to have had so much time with her up to this.  Both of us headed back in to this week with a workload to face, her more than me, and both of us return to college next Monday (whereas Barry is off until Jan 20th).

During this last week, we had a bit of rain, but lots of dry days, some sun, and it wasn’t too cold.  Sunday, Monday and today, the temperature dropped, but it means crisp sunny days and frosty clear nights.  We walked each day, Sunday in the Tiergarten to the Café am Neuen See, too packed to have coffee unfortunately, Monday to the fantastic Russian War Memorial in Treptower Park and thence to coffee by Gorlitzer Park, today to Schillerpromenade to sit in Pappelreihe café and read.  Last night, the local bars, many of them closed for Christmas, were open for a night or two between holidays, and we did a bar-hop.  So amazing when my Cola (2.50 – but it’s organic or something!) is more expensive than Barry’s beer (2.00).  I lost my wonderful bag in the last café, a red cotton totebag that I got from a Psychology conference for students in Maynooth last year – fitted in so well here.  I went back today to try to find it, but the café (Laika, after the dog in space) was closed for New Year, so I’ll have to claim it next year.  Next year, which will be here in 6 hours or so, so funny to think of how we mark time.  Happy New Year everyone, here’s to fireworks, champagne, kisses and many more New Years to come.

 

Barry and Clare arrive tomorrow, Clare for a week, Barry for two. I hadn’t really missed them badly until this moment when we are almost there at the airport, hugging and holding.  And I can already feel the tug of the goodbyes that have to come at the end of their stay.  Everything about this year is an experiment.  We’ve tried out different ways of living before, but never with such long stretches apart.  At home, even when you’re deep in assignments and exams and are on another planet, you can take five and return to the family for physical support and care and love.  However, I know the patterns here – I’ve been through the academic year and have touched the hopelessness of November, the feeling of being out of your depth, of not having enough time, of almost giving up. But I also know how it is to be relieved and have such a sense of achievement after getting through exams, to see the Spring return, and to tackle a new hopeful term.

Here, our semester runs until the middle of February, and I will have a number of assignments, presentations and exams to get through before I take off my 6-7 weeks of Spring Break (mid Feb to end of March).  I have taken far more credit than I need for the first semester, in the hopes that I can take a bit less next semester, and enjoy a bit of sunshine come April/May/June.  I had blithely imagined that I would be reading and preparing over the Christmas break, but I now realise that it’s barely 2 weeks, during which time the family will be here.  In theory, I could work now, but I have a head full of cotton wool, and can only think of this coming week.

I went out last night to a great fun Improv Theatre night, in Café Tasso.  I was due to meet a friend, but she had a domestic crisis and had to bale out.  Most of my friends from college had already taken off for home all over Europe, and further afield.  I was due to meet up with some others, but another hitch ensued, and I ended up solo.  However, in Berlin it isn’t a problem, you just have to go to one of your favourite haunts.  Everywhere I went, and on the U-bahn too, there were less people than usual.  I was chatting to a nice woman from Friedrichshain about the lack of people, and she said Berliners love Christmas, because all those who belong somewhere else go back there for the season, and Berliners get to enjoy their city without crowds.  The level of smoke in the bars is just offensive in the winter – I guess people are less inclined to go outside to smoke, and there doesn’t seem to be any air conditioning.  I called in to see my friend Miriam, who works in a wonderful hole-in-the-wall sort of bar, and we chatted for a bit.  In the end, my eyes just couldn’t cope with the smoke and I had to leave – then once outside, I realised my clothes, my hair, everything smelled of smoke.  Did we all smell like this when we were young?  And how come my lovely roommates don’t smell like this – perhaps because they cycle everywhere – airing their clothes and hair en route?

I’m still debating about what to eat on the night of 24th December.  At home we usually graze on whatever is lying around, as the Big Day is 25th, but we hope to have some friends around on 24th. There are some people who can’t go home, who we’ve invited, if they’d like.  The University and all it’s buildings, including all the libraries, is completely closed for 2 weeks, and anyone living in student accommodation is surrounded by echoing rooms at this stage.  I haven’t decided what we’ll eat, and I don’t think it matters, it’s not really about food. We’ll have fun whatever happens.

 

Up until the end of last week, I was so buried in work that I couldn’t do anything as luxurious as write a blog.  Coming up for air, I was greeted by my great friend Julia, who came to stay.  All further work was put on hold while I tried to give her a flavour of my kind of Berlin ie. lots of cheap venues, a couple of Christmas markets and loads of time talking and getting lost on the U-bahn (and enjoying it!).  We managed to catch a couple of great moments – we arrived very early for the Christmas Market in Rixdorf – sort of little village in the middle of the city, right off Karl-Marx-Strasse.  Most Christmas Markets are plainly commercial, stand after stand of Gluhwein and German hot dogs, with some expensive hats and trinkets, but Rixdorf’s Market only happens on one weekend in December, and is a local fundraiser, so stalls are all manned by locals who have made the goods on sale for the schools/hospitals/clinics/kindergartens in the area.  It had a marvellous atmosphere, tremendous stuff for sale and a brass band playing German Christmas music, along with children playing musical instruments at various corners.  The place was full (perhaps a little too full) of German families doing Christmas shopping, enjoying meeting neighbours and having the odd glass of cheer.  For me, it was such an antidote to all the commercial markets I’ve been to, and I’m so glad we got there.

On the Sunday night, we dropped in to Clarechen’s Ballhaus, which is a dance venue that has different dances every night – Tango on a Tuesday, Swing on a Wednesday and ChaChaCha on a Thursday.  We caught the tailend of the Sunday afternoon Christmas Tea Dance/Ball.  Older women barely able to walk were fantastic at dancing the Tango with such elegance, all dressed in black.  After Julia had left, my dear friends Jo and Martin came to Berlin for a few days and I tried to repeat the experience in Clarechens Ballhaus, only to find that it was booked solid this week, with Christmas work parties.  However, we found both a Christmas market and a Swing Club/Restaurant in the Kulturbrauerei, a huge converted brewery that houses lots of different venues, including clubs, bars, restaurants, theatre and cinema.  They stayed right by Brandenburger Gate, a great position, but unfortunately, the whole of Unter Den Linden down almost as far as the river is a mass of road works which blocks the view of linden trees covered in fairy lights.  Between Julia leaving and Jo & Martin arriving, reality arrived and I had to catch up with the workload.  It meant that I saw less of Jo & Martin, since I had college until late each day, but Martin, being an old Communist, had visited East Berlin back in the day (and had performed in der Volksbuhne, no less, with an Irish ballad group!), so knew his way around.

Today I’m coming up for air again, and I can see the work clearly, but Christmas is really really just around the corner.  Barry and Clare fly over 23rd, and we have a lovely itinerary worked out.  The German Christmas is obviously on 24th, and everything closes from noon on 24th, people go home to their families, and have their Christmas dinner that night, light the candles on the Christmas tree, and give presents.  The 25th and 26th are what they call second Christmas day and third Christmas day, but they are only bank holidays:  all museums are open, most bars and some restaurants are open, though most big shops are closed.  I have found a lovely traditional German restaurant, nicely clattery and full, where we are booked to have dinner on 25th – our first Christmas dinner out! Since Clare is only here for a week, going home for New Years Eve, I think a few museums/art galleries are in order. I really can’t contain my excitement, but have to get the work out of the way so that I can really indulge myself and them.