GERMANY WELCOMES THE NEW YEAR AND THE EURO
by Erika Lorentzsen
American Reporter Correspondent
PARIS -- Editor's Note: Erika Lorentzsen was a Russia-based writer for the Moscow Times who now is a freelancer based in Paris. She spent New Year's Eve in Berlin as it witnessed the advent of the new European currency, the Euro.
Here is her account of both:
People were already beginning to gather outside my New Year's residence in an apartment on Unter den Linden, the Champs Elysee of the new unified Berlin. The police stopped me outside and checked my bags as I walked towards the Brandenburg Gate, which was covered by a large cloth due to renovations. Stages were set up with DJ's playing popular European techno, and many small vendors selling cheap knick-knacks.
I asked a vendor if he had champagne. His response, "We don't sell cheap things here," in bungled English. What he meant was, "We don't sell expensive things." Of course, if I wanted I could purchase fake Italian champagne for a special price.
The vendors were showcasing different types of German Weiners, or hotdogs, and the famous Bratwurst. Women walked by in fur hats and fur coats, but most of the Berliners were dressed casually and fighting the chilling cold.
I contemplated buying an Uncle Sam-style felt hat brandishing the Stars and Stripes, but didn't really feel like being patriotic. John F. Kennedy's proud boast, "Ich bin ein Berliner" seemed apropos this evening. In his 1963 speech to West Germans he also said, "You live to defend the island of freedom, but your life is a part of the main."
Kennedy saw that someday Berlin and the European continent would be united after the fall of comminism, creating a more peaceful and hopeful world. At midnight, Europe will be united under one currency and a part of Kennedy's vision will be realized.
I shuffle with incredible speed in the intolerable cold to a house party with an international crowd in East Berlin. This area has become one the most fashionable places to live for both East and West Berliners. The rents are cheap and the Princelauer Berg, as the neighborhood is called, used to be the hot spot for artists for that very reason, but now it's too expensive for them.
They moved just South of Princelauer Berg, as the artists in New York's Greenwich Village moved south to Brooklyn. For the cheap living and cheaper rents, the plethora of artists, filmmakers, musicians, architects, and vibrant people working on cool and innovative projects, Berlin has become one of the most interesting cities to live in in Europe.
I am running to a small hill carrying a bottle of real champagne to see the fireworks, but the hill isn't tall enough, so all I get to see is the fireworks being ignited dangerously close to where I am. One guy seems to have purchased every dud in Berlin and they are all exploding on the ground.
Otherwise, it is a beautiful sight. All over the city people are lighting their own fireworks, and one can see bright flashes, of blue, yellow, green, sparkling and flaring in the night sky, with intermittent Bang!s.
The bottle is being passed and I am receiving well wishes and kisses from Berliners, from Danes, Iranians and Frenchmen. We are saying Happy New Year in Russian, Danish, German and French. And people are calling on their cell phones to tell others who are in London and New York, "Happy New Year from Berlin."
We are slightly drunk, sliding down the hill of ice and slipping onto our rears. But it's not bad, just a little bit hard. My boyfriend slides like he's surfing all the way down the hill until he falls. We are racing to make it to the cash machines.
It worked! We withdrew 100 Euros, but everyone became very excited, and we were robbed except for a 50, but didn't really care. Outside a line began to form. We were right in the center of a truly historical event.
For the Berliners, having more than any suffered from the division of Europe, the small notes were the visible proof that a unified Europe is more than just words in lofty speeches by high-flying politicians.
Along the streets a camaraderie, a kind of well-wishing amid wheeling and dealing was occurring. Shop owners were wary of counterfeit D-Marks, but for the most part people were exchanging them for Euros freely.
The Euro coins are in fact quite heavy. However, the font type is the same as the Russian ruble, which most aren't too pleased about; but the Euro coins weigh more, which is a sign of its worth.
Now at the DMV we are wandering through the various rooms and dancing occasionally. There is a grunge/gothic room filled with young folks either wearing black or who have their eyes painted black. We move into the Jungle Room. The fog machine makes it hard to breathe and the large video screens with bad graphics resemble the computer game Tetris. German clubs are indeed thriving and are like modern-day museums.
Heading back to our apartment now; the streets are filled bits of white and red paper floating in the air like snow, broken, green glass bottles, pieces of trash -- basically a post-war zone. Devastation is nothing new to Berlin. Hardly a single building was left standing after the bombardment by the Allies. Much of the rubble was pushed into mounds, which was where I stood at midnight.
The fact that so much needed to be rebuilt created incongruous areas, such as Potsdammer Platz, the main square in West Germany. Potsdammer Platz is an architectural disaster. Featuring company labels like Sony, these giants don't seem to fit in; the lack of planning among the architects made the overall designs incohesive.
Yet, the architecture in Berlin is impressive, especially the embassies. The Italian and the Japanese embassies and the German treasury were left over from Nazi times. Currently, the Jewish memorial is being built, and the Berliners jokingly say that the Jews felt it wasn't big enough. In fact, it's enormous. By the same token, the memorial for the Gypsies and the Russians has yet to be undertaken in earnest.
I tell my companions, "I am leaving Berlin tomorrow," taking the train to Paris, and trying my new money out there. As we reach the door, the ever-efficient Germans are out cleaning the streets, and I look forward to living in a new more unified Europe, where perhaps East Germans and West Germans alike will be inspired once more with renewed hope in their struggle with unity.
Erika Lorentzsen is a freelance writer based in Paris. She is a former Moscow-based writer for the Moscow Times.