No Rest During the Holidays

A not-so-brief account of the last three weeks of my life, encompassing pre-Christmas festivities, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (which in German are lumped together under the moniker of Weihnachten or “holy nights”), my birthday, post-birthday pre- Silvester trip up to the country, Sylvester, New Year’s Day, and recovery week (ie: the first week in January). It’s a wonder I have strength left to write this. It’s a wonder I can fit into my clothes.

December 19 – I head out to a Weihnukka (like the German version of Christmakkah, for all you OC devotees) party at the new Hotel Amano on Rosenthaler Strasse. I’ve been invited by my Welsh friend Melanie who has been living in Berlin for years now, and can always be counted upon to make you feel great about yourself and confident about the future when you see her. I take Cora with me. We approach Hotel Amano and see through the windows both Christmas trees and a Menorah. We express shock. We go through the doors and encounter a long table filled with cakes and pies and punches, another with kids and their parents making gingerbread houses, and a third with kids making cookies. All is warm and festive. Children run around everywhere. Melanie is sitting with her friend Olga who has just had a baby, and together we eat apple pie as the baby smiles in her little snowsuit with animal ears like an extra Christmas gift on the table in front of us. We find out that the hotel is in fact owned by an Israeli man, and get excited about Berlin Revival, Cora’s (and somewhat my) initiative to bring Jews together in Berlin. I get the card of the woman who does PR for the elegant hotel and resolve to email her, both for myself and for my boyfriend, who is always looking for new gigs and locations. (Note: I still haven’t done it yet. I’m terrible on the follow-through.)

Dec 20 – I head out to a traditional German Christmas party called a Feuerzangenbowle at the home of my boyfriend’s friends. If you’ve never seen or heard of something like this before, it may seem utterly bizarre. That’s because it is. The absinthe-like Feuerzangenbowle is a bowl of punch, over which one lays a piece of metal resembling a cheese grater that holds a huge piece of sugar. This sugar can be found in cones or abstract chunks, and is apparently sold in shops all over the place for just this occasion. One slowly pours the contents of a bottle of rum on top of this sugar, along with some into a large spoon, and lights the spoon on fire. The flaming alcohol is then poured on top of the sugar, lighting it on fire as well. All watch in awe and pyromania as the entire bowl of punch goes up in flames. Then they drink it. Needless to say, I am surprised to find such a spectacle going on in the elegant home of respectable people, as it seemed when first described to me to be something more suited to a teenager’s rager while the parents are out of town. But we drink, we eat cookies and cakes, we sing hymns, we hear a Christmas story read aloud. Then we leave, treading lightly through a fresh layer of snow, and trip tipsily off to bed.

Dec 23 – After watching my boyfriend play at a traditional old German Markthalle in Moabit called Arminiushalle, I race back from the neighborhood’s main drag Turmstrasse, pumpkin in tow for anticipated pumpkin soup, to find my temporary roommate Dan (who lives in Leipzig but is staying at my house over Christmas) and partner-in-crime Cora ready to brave the anticipated Christmas shopping rush before all the stores close for four days. We make a mad dash to Rewe and stock up, me for anticipated Christmas Eve and Christmas day baking and cooking, as well as some baking for my birthday, and Dan and Cora for ingredients to make gingerbread. I don’t get everything I need and resolve to head out again on Christmas eve morning, when some shops will be open until at least lunchtime. Talking, drinking, and movie-watching commences, and we eventually take an unexpectedly long tram ride to the other side of Mitte in order to pick up burritos at Dolores, a mecca for expats who miss Chipotle, and bring them back to my house. Dan and Cora engage in an argument over the skill versus art of Gene Kelly’s dancing that lasts from when we leave to when we are safely back inside and removing our winter boots again. Dan and Cora go out for his birthday (which happens to be that day) but I stay home, determined to have energy to cook the following day.

Dec 24 – The first of the Weihnachten, and, as I learn, the most important, is in fact on Christmas Eve. I wake up to people wishing each other “_frohe Weihnachten_” and am confused as to why they are doing this one day early. Then I realize the word is plural: it is not one but several holy nights the Germans decide to celebrate. I head out to Karstadt (a big German department store with a phenomenal food market where you can basically find everything you don’t find anywhere else) on Leopoldplatz in Wedding in the morning. I go up to Wedding rarely, and there’s something about this day that seems kind of surreal. I can’t remember whether it snowed or not, but in my mind there was a light dusting of white on the streets and a lightly floating powder in the air. I expect Karstadt to be a madhouse, like it is at the West Side Market in New York during Thanksgiving week, but instead people are slow and sure-footed. They are keeping calm and carrying on. I don’t see one catfight or customer cutting in line in the half-hour or so I am there. And when I emerge, laden down with bags but light of money, I have found everything I need for the two meals and several days of cakes and cookies I will have to produce. Dan and Cora bake gingerbread while I sit there waiting for it to be done, thinking I will bring a piece to the boyfriend while he plays for the homeless at a special dinner at a hotel ten minutes from me by tram. By the time I finally arrive at the hotel I am greeted by an empty room and a few people telling me the event has ended and I’ve just missed him! Dan and Cora then call to inform that he has just dropped by and just missed me (!) but has left a gift. It reminds me of that O. Henry story…or something. Finally I kick Dan and Cora out and begin to prepare the Christmas Eve dinner I have been planning for days. I have already bought risotto rice at the Arminiushalle, so I ready myself to make mushroom risotto with Shiitakes and Chanterelles, which basically involves standing over the stove and adding chicken broth to rice gradually while stirring constantly for a full 40 minutes or so. I bake a pear upside-down cake and leave it to cool. I make green beans with red chili and toasted almonds, and I prepare the veal I bought at Karstadt to be sautéed in a lemon butter sauce. Only thing is, I am doing too much to remember to change into a nice Christmas outfit, and basically answer the door in a wifebeater and holey jeans (for someone as style-conscious as I normally am, this is my worst nightmare). Luckily my boyfriend shows up still dressed up from performing at the Intercontinental Hotel, and promptly gives me his bowtie to wear, adding a touch of flair to my otherwise lackluster outfit. The dinner is a great success (you can ask him!) and after we have lain around for a bit and relaxed, he proclaims that the thing to do on December 26th in Berlin is to go out dancing. We locate a club not far from us playing swing music, and set off, me still wearing little more than a tank top and bowtie, old shoes and white socks with the pant legs rolled up a la Michael Jackson. Unfortunately, my bike had gotten a flat that morning, so the only thing left to do is take his bike. I have never done this before, but have watched several attempts end in disaster, so I am skeptical. And with good reason. Sitting on a bike seat with nowhere to put your legs and clinging to someone midsection as the bike goes bouncing over cobblestones, up on sidewalks and down onto streets again, is no way to spend a winter evening. Luckily, the place is close enough that it only takes about ten minutes to get there, and we enter to find…literally five other people dancing (it’s only 1 AM after all, which is basically the Berlin equivalent of lunchtime). No matter, someone has to start, and that someone is we two. We run into a problem as we are dancing, though; namely, that another woman on the dancefloor, probably in her late-30’s at the kindest and clearly already drunk, has taken it upon herself to become the dance instructor for the entire club. She dances up to us and does a wavy movement with both arms, then tries to grab our arms and make us do it to. We laugh it off but she keeps on coming. Then suddenly, as I look around, I realize that the entire dance floor is filled with odd-looking and –acting types. He explains that everyone normal is probably at home with family now, or visiting their parents in Bavaria or whatever. Only the freaks are out tonight. They include too-old-to-be-drunk dance-instructor-lady, guy-with-long-hair-who-bears-a-striking-resemblence-to-Maharishi-Maheshyogi, and two-guys-who-are-touchy-feely-with-each-other-but-not-gay-because-they-are-also-trying-to-hit-on-me. Still, something goes right: by the time we leave a few hours later, the dance floor is packed, and our work is done.

Dec 25 – We wake up on Christmas day and I make a breakfast of spinach, sweet potatoes, and eggs. We spend pretty much the whole day doing nothing, and it’s wonderful. In the late afternoon he leaves for his gig at Interconti Hotel, and I prepare my dish for the Jewish Christmas Chinese Food Potluck Dinner: beef with snow peas. Modeled after the New York Jewish tradition of going out to a Chinese food restaurant and then to the movies on Christmas night, , this is really just an excuse for a lot of expats and some locals who decided to stay in Berlin for Christmas to get together and eat a lot of terrific food. I arrive and deliver my offering to the kitchen, and then promptly find a quiet spot to connect to the internet and have a Skype chat with my parents, sister, grandparents, and dog, all of whom have collected for their annual Christmas morning brunch of bagels and lox at home in New York. As the picture comes into focus I realize I’m looking out from my sister’s computer, which has been placed at a round table that my family is sitting at. It is a wonderful but slightly dizzying feeling, as one person and then another takes turns talking, spinning the computer after they have already begun saying something to me. I finish the conversation feeling a lot more connected to everyone, but also a bit sad that I couldn’t be there instead of here. I cheer up with the terrific food on offer: summer rolls, sushi, Chinese salad with mushrooms and shrimp, teriyaki duck, dumplings, and amazing Shiitake mushroom soup. The evening ends with practically everyone at the party sitting in one room playing the “put a name on your forehead and try to guess who you are” game that was popularized (for Americans at least) in the last year with the film “Inglourious Basterds”. The problem with this game is that once you have been led down one line of thinking it is hard to dig yourself out of the hole again. I am sure I am Tintin or the guy who wrote him, whereas I actually end up being Oliver Twist.

Dec 26 – We visit Hedi Gigler, an old woman who is an “entire world” unto herself. A violinist who recorded decades ago, she now lives in a flat off of Ku’damm that could easily be mistaken for the Collyer Brothers’ residence (New Yorkers will know what I’m talking about). So full of what can only be referred to as “stuff” that one can barely move, one can nevertheless tell that her flat is beautiful. We get the sensation of moving through time and bumping up against memory as we sit at her table for Turkish tea and cake. The conversation moves so quickly and with her Austrian accent I find myself struggling to understand for more than a few moments at the time, but when she asks me questions I answer them in German without too much trouble, and she says she likes me and gives us both a sort of blessing. He hasn’t seen her in over ten years, and wasn’t even sure she was still alive until he heard her voice on the radio: she had called in to some program to make a comment, and he had immediately known who it was. He phoned her and planned the visit. We walk over to Interconti together for his last gig there, and go to the top of the building where the restaurant windows have a fantastic view of the city, reminding me of the hotel breakfast room on the top floor in San Francisco where I stayed in the summer of 2008, just a few months before coming to Berlin. I go home to begin baking the orange butter cookies I had promised myself for weeks, and to await midnight and my birthday. My boyfriend arrives several hours later bearing gifts, as I putter around the kitchen making the frosting for the cookies and preparing a short Facebook invitation to get everyone in town to come over and eat them.

Dec 27 – My birthday. I make breakfast for boyfriend and houseguest, while boyfriend frantically rushes out to get birthday flowers. I whip up a batch of chocolate chip cookies (for those who have an irrational fear of citrus fruit) and clean the kitchen. A party of revelers shows up at 2 with sekt in hand, and proceeds to eat said cookies. We then head out, all seven of us (or so) in one car, to the Arkonaplatz and Mauerpark fleamarkets for a bit of scavenging, but as we don’t turn up much (beyond an old orange coffee bean grinder and a small treasure chest covered in pirate maps that, despite being the coolest thing I have ever seen, is still far too expensive for me to justify buying it) and as it is only getting colder, I head home for a few hours to await my birthday dinner at my boyfriend’s house and to warm up a bit.

Dec 28 – I wake up feeling not a day over 25 (haha). We drive up to the country house for three days of peace and quiet, during which I learn I am spectacular at chopping wood, we drive to Szeczin, the Polish university town right over the border, and a snow storm keeps four invited guests from making it to the house, leaving us to eat a whole chicken and a haunch of venison, as well as myriad breads, cheeses, and cookies, all on our own. Truly the best of all birthday gifts.

Dec 31 – Preparing to leave the country, I frantically call everyone I know and receive calls from them about New Year’s Eve plans. The calls continue in the car back down to Berlin, and I realize I kind of sort of—well actually, completely—hate New Year’s. Finally, after invitations to five different parties at points across town, and a suggestion to stay at home and cook with my roommate, I get a call that sounds appealing: two friends are meeting at an Asian restaurant within an easy distance from me to eat before going to a party. I meet Travis and Mark at a restaurant on Leipziger Strasse and quickly gobble down sushi. They inform me we are going to a house party in the Nikolai Viertel—basically an amped up, almost Disneyfied tourist version of a quaint German village that I find it hard to believe anyone actually lives in. After dinner, we walk along Leipziger Strasse which leads directly to the river and the Nikolai Viertel on the other side. The street is like a war zone: since it is made up of mostly grim socialist housing (kind of the Berlin equivalent of “the projects”), it stands to reason that all the rowdiest kids would be there, dropping firecrackers and all manner of exploding things off the balconies. We have to walk under an overhang just to avoid getting hit. I traipse along through heavy snow, extolling the virtues of my L.L.Bean boots until my companions threaten me with death and destruction. if I don’t shut up. Finally in the Nikolai Viertel, we have a hard time finding the party because everything looks like Disneyland, and then decide to go get sekt to bring first anyway. The closest place to buy drinks is all the way in the Alexanderplatz U-bahn station (how do people in the Nikolai Viertel shop for groceries anyway?) and when we head underground, it is an even bigger madhouse, with a crazed number of people pushing their way into a small drink shop that is obviously thrilled with the Sylvester business, trying to buy alcohol. We leave with approximately six bottles of sekt and walk back to the party, but the second we get upstairs we realize someone made a mistake: instead of walking into a raucous house party, we enter to see a long banquet table around which about twenty Germans are having dinner. They all look up at us when we walk in the room as if to say “and who the hell are yoooou?” The person who invited us isn’t even there yet. Terrifying. I immediately call Cora to find out where she and other friends are, and am told to meet them in Kottbusser Tor, which, from what I can hear over the phone, sounds like an even bigger warzone. On the way back to the U-bahn I receive a call from the boyfriend, who had been playing at a fancy dinner at a fancy villa on Wannsee for the evening. He was finished, and determined to drive to wherever I was so that he could kiss me at midnight. Wunderbar, but where was I going to be anyway? Telling him to drive in the direction of Kreuzberg and await further information, I get on the train, startled every minute or so by a firecracker going off in the underground station and make it safely to Kottbusser Tor. I find friends and we walk up the street to Oranienstrasse, the main drag at night, only to see about four police vans unloading police dressed in riot gear and parked at each corner of the intersection. Apparently they are waiting for something illegal to happen at midnight. We end up choosing Cake Club, a small place on Oranienstrasse I probably would have missed on my own, because it is cheap for New Year’s (only 5 Euro entry fee) and because it was there. We push our way to the back and find a table to ourselves, and I send a text message to the boy telling him where I am. Seemingly five seconds later, he shows up. I’ve never been so happy to see a person in my life (maybe my dog knows how I feel). Although his determination to kiss me at midnight hits a temporary snag when we find out the DJ has absolutely no plans to do anything special as the year turns. For three minutes or so we wait, thinking every time a song ends that some announcement will be made, and yet the music keeps on blaring and no one else seems to care. Finally we, a bunch of rowdy, somewhat annoying Americans, are forced to do the requisite countdown-and-cheer ourselves, at which point I get my midnight kiss at a moment that feels just exactly right.

Happy 2010!