Opening the New Year at the Brandenburg Gate

After spending four weeks in the scurrying cities of Manila and Singapore, the cold night and its stillness when I arrived in Hamburg was a sensory shock. It was two nights after Christmas, and people seemed to be still holed-up in their homes. My body must be confused from the 20-hour flight and drastic change in of temperature. But it was approaching midnight, and it dawned on me it was a typical winter night in Hamburg. As I struggled up the stairs of the U-Bahn station out to the square, snow has started to fall. It was devoid of people, except for those who also got off the train. The Christmas market stalls were already closed. I dragged my suitcase whose wheels have become useless; they stopped turning because of the ice that has accumulated.

Arriving in my flat was a little homelier. My flatmate left my room warm. I cooked and gobbled two packets of instant pancit canton I brought from home. Looking out of my window to the snow-laden roof and street, I asked myself what do I do in the city. Most of my friends were out and I cannot work in the office where they shut off the heating system over the holidays. I started to unpack the following day, only to pack again in the evening to catch a train to Berlin.

The train station was full of Hamburg holiday-makers. Some leaving the city, while others arriving perhaps to celebrate the New Year. I bought my train ticket, only to look at the electronic table showing the train schedules in horror. All trains are arriving late. I have 20 minutes before my supposed train for Berlin leaves, instead, the train sign says a different train is leaving, which should have left half an hour ago. Amid the confusion, I made a quick trip to a department store to buy some personal effects for my trip and to seek warmth. The (other) train was already there when I got to the platform. “You can take this train”, said the train conductor after asking him so. I hopped in and surprisingly found a vacant seat. In two hours I was in Berlin.

The first three days were a haze of snow, cold, and moving in and out of friends’ place for accommodation. My host-friends Omar and Billy who were hosting me apparently won’t arrive from their holiday in Colombia until the 30th. After several attempts to call them, they finally got in touch once they landed in Berlin. By this time, I have met Thea, a classmate back in my university days in the Philippines. She’s now doing her Master’s in Antwerp, and was to spend the New Year’s with me in Berlin, and a couple of days with me in Hamburg. Of all places, we met and had lunch at the main train station. Over bratwurst and fries, we  bridged the close to seven years we have not seen each other.

The following day, New Year’s Eve, we did a Bus 100 tour of Berlin to see the Victory Tower, the “Hollow Tooth”, and the Potsdamer Platz. We met our still-jetlagged hosts early in the afternoon. Where do spend the evening to celebrate the New Year? We had two choices. First, the obvious one, is to go to the Brandenburg Gate. The other is to find a more subdued place to hang out, avoid the big crowd and stay in their borough of Prenzlauer Berg. Over our dinner of lasagna we arrived at a consensus to go to the Brandenburg Gate.

From Prenzlauer Berg, we took a tram to Alexanderplatz. There we changed to a bus, and as I settled on my seat, an elderly woman walked past the isle smiling while holding a green bottle, already in an inebriated stupor. It’s less than three hours before the strike of midnight. Indeed, it’s going to be a happy new year. We got off  a curve of Unter den Linden, the Brandenburg Gate still out of sight. The road is now off limits to vehicles, forcing the bus to take a reroute.

We walked past restaurants and shops and with the throngs of people quickly but carefully to avoid slipping on the icy pavement. People have gathered behind the barricade manned by policemen. As a crowd control measure, they have stopped letting in people into the celebration vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate. Our group of four backtracked and reassessed our options. Again, the question of that evening, Brandenburg Gate or Prenzlauer Berg? I don’t mind greeting the new year at the hipster neighborhood of Prenzlauerg Berg. But New Year’s Eve at the Brandenburg Gate is one of those celebrations you want to be a part of at least once, to earn a sort of been-there-done-that bragging right, like a trip to the Mecca or making a bunjee-jump. Celebrating the turn of the year at the Brandenburg Gate is akin to being in other global cities, like at the Times Square in New York or at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This is what kept running through my mind, and perhaps my party of four and other Berlin revelers.

People were redirected to other streets where the crowd sentinels said they might let us in. Either that, or they just want to get rid of us. Without much any choice we tried our luck by taking a side street to circumvent the barricades. A parallel path to the Unter den Linden leading to the Brandenburg Gate shows another road block. The Reichstag is almost in sight, and we visually marked a spot nearby where we can have a good vantage point of the fireworks in case we don’t make it through.

We were now somewhere northwest of the Brandenburg Gate. We picked up our pace, almost half-running, zipping through the crowd who are also hoping to get past through security and celebrate the New Year in a site where the fall of the wall in 1989 changed the course of history. Another street, another chance to get closer to the Gate, and yet another barricade. The guy by the barricade seem to just receive orders from someone in the vicinity. Despite the heavy persuading, he won’t let us through.

It was freezing cold, and my feet have started to ache from the quick yet careful steps through slush and snow. Keeping up with a pack and my balance to avoid slipping at the same time is no easy task. On the other side of the fence, another layer of security that checks the crowd for bottles and other sharp and harmful objects soon let people through. On our end, people started trickling through the small gap opened by the guard. He made one final look to ensure the crowd flowed at the inner security before letting us loose. There was no pushing, but we scampered to get in before the gates close again. There were sighs of relief and filled with a sense of achievement, or victory even. With some luck and a lot of persistence, we finally made it through- the security wall and 2010. We are ready to party.

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