Bonn · In a new column, the author looks at life in Germany, as a Brit who is living in Bonn for years. In the first edition, he is wondering what happens to the rule-obeying, health-obsessed people in this country on New Year’s Eve…
It’s a week since New Year or Silvester as they call it in Deutschland and my mouth is still gaping in astonishment.
Not exactly a smart way to configure a mouth on a night when World War III breaks out across communities in German with bangers and rockets crackling and flying uncontrolled through the air.
After four years in Germany it is still hard to reconcile the rules-based, perceived formality of this nation and the free-for-all firework fest that turns streets into a 21st century Somme-like battlefield and normally polite, restrained people into crazed gun-powder Commandoes.
I stand in Mitte, Berlin, awe-struck as grown men hold a glass of Sekt in one hand and light, from a woolly-gloved hand, yet another rocket, sending it screaming into the night sky or worse, fizzing past a by-stander’s ear.
In the centre of the street, groups of children pick over dud fireworks as fathers light a multiple firework battery pumping bazooka-like charges over a tiny kid’s head as couples chat about little Fritz’s upcoming school term, oblivious to the burns-in-a box mere centimeters away from their cherished offspring’s limbs.
Later, a few bold drivers nudge their autos through the debris of smoldering fireworks down Pfluge Strasse, little flames and sparks dancing around their wheel hubs.
And I pray there is no petrol leak as the next fire work might include BMW or Trabant hub caps scything through the ether like demon frisbees in a scary computer game.
Now don’t get me wrong. The British are up with the best when it comes to a laugh and a bit fun: Monty Python, Mrs Thatcher’s hand-bag diplomacy; Marmite sandwiches, Brexit — the list is long.
And when it comes to the pitfalls of a heady cocktail of testosterone and booze, just check out the results of binge drinking at midnight on any Saturday in any UK city as young people are transformed into hyenas.
But we were also raised religiously on something called the Firework Code that accompanies our Bonfire night on November 5.
Then we delight in a cultural ritual, perhaps as bizarre to a German as the firework fest is to me, where we burn an effigy of 17th century Catholic who plotted to blow up the House of Commons in 1605. (Yeah, who said we don’t have fun!)
But back to the Firework Code. It says “Young people should watch and enjoy fireworks at a safe distance and follow the safety rules for using sparklers. Only adults should deal with firework displays and the lighting of fireworks. They should also take care of the safe disposal of fireworks once they have been used.“
I know: boring, and the kind of advice that would ruin a good German New Year, and it gets even more nanny-like with specific points.
In Germany, the code — not imagining there is one — has been interpreted somewhat more liberally.
Oh, and a special one just for Germany — make sure you are fully tanked up, had a skin full, are well-oiled and super pissed before entering the fray!
Asking German friends about the craziness of New Year they furnish various answers. A classic is: „Oh, it’s our way of letting down our hair a bit like Karneval (an equally curious manifestation in the January-February period, famously in Nord Rhine Westphalia, but decidedly less dangerous).“
Let’s be honest, it’s not unrealistic that after been cooped up over Christmas with family and friends, one might want to go a little crazy.
One can only take so much of listening to Auntie Peta wax lyrical about the joys of potato digging expeditions in 1939 or thanking Uncle Martin for the tenth time — for his wonderful present of a soap carrot on a string for the shower.
But here is the rub — one thing about the Germans is they are generally pretty obsessed about health.
Pharmacies are full of herbal and alternative medicines; organic or bio food is popular; biking is a national pastime and medical insurance policies include treatments at spas and saunas.
Many Germans love nothing more than stripping off by the river and, full-on showing off to passers-by how fit they are.
Rodin-like, many stand statuesque giving everyone a good glimpse of their wobbly bits and other assorted personal appendages.
And yet on New Year’s they put their and their family’s health and lives on the line in an orgy of fireworks and fun-loving Blitz Krieg.
Der Taggespiegel newspaper on January 6 carried a story of a man in the local hospital’s burns unit, hand wrapped in bandages, and mentions his badly barbecued leg.
The hospital staff mention en passant that five people had to each have a hand amputated after a German-style welcoming-in of the New Year!
Yes, fireworks are fun but so are hands!! And for most people two would seem the minimum requirement to live life to the full without having to over concentrate.
(Apologizes to anyone here who has lost a limb in a tragic accident or was born without one—but I hope you will agree.)
I mean, with two hands you can toss the dog a Bockwurst while simultaneously lifting a pint of Pils or fiddling with the TV monitor….
Read the newspaper on the train with one hand while with the other, swatting someone raising funds for the AFD singing Schlager songs with an Indonesian-made ukulele.
Or caress your girlfriends neck while, with the other hand, reading the manual—translated badly from Chinese — on how to unhook her new Versace bra strap.
Maybe a few safety rules for German New Year’s fireworks might turn the celebrations into a decidedly less racy and exciting night—fair enough, I don’t want to sound like the anti-culture police.
So maybe a minimum solution might be to recommend everyone gets pissed after the fireworks are exhausted or light them when only mildly tipsy.
At least then one might be alert enough to pop on a tin hat as another unguided, hand-launched rocket, squeals past, or might even be aware enough to suggest to little Caspar that filling his pockets with dud fireworks is not the hottest tip for a long and burn-free life.
About the author:
The author is British. He has been living and working in Bonn for over 4 years. In this column he takes a personal view of the daily surprises and often astonishing peculiarities he sees between his adopted German home and his native lands.
The author's views are his own.