Living in Berlin



Video from Canadian Berlin-based video artist Dan Hudson.

I flew into Berlin on New Year’s eve, at around 8pm. As the plane descended through the clear night, the city sparkled with thousands of tiny explosions. What a remarkable welcome back: it as if to be one of the lucky few to spot phosphorescence, bioluminescence, across a still nighttime ocean.

Berliners love their fireworks, for weeks beforehand the kids in my neighbourhood of Kreuzberg have been practising, sometimes on each other, aiming fireworks at their friends’ feet, throwing little bombs at passers-by. A pal visiting from Brazil kept thinking he was back home, and hearing gunshots.

The kids have bigger bombs to play with this year thanks to the conformity of German law with European standards: 500g of explosive compared to the 200g allowed before January 2011. Then there are the illegal crackers, like the hand-held Polenböller (‘Polish cannons’). Hundreds this New Year’s were injured, firetrucks were deployed more than a thousand times, 300 required medical attention and about a quarter of those were brought to hospital. One woman lost her hand.

At ground level, my taxi coasted through the explosions. I asked the driver if it was dangerous if a bomb lands under his carriage. He laughed at me and told me to go and have fun. I got home, dressed for a costume party, and went outside for midnight. Standing on a bridge in Kreuzberg, over the canal, there was the collective countdown, the exhiliration of the crowd, and then the sudden increase of explosions. It was like we need something visible in the air to tell us that the change has happened. Without it, or our watches, one moment would have seemed just like the next. I’m sure others felt the irrevocable change and onward march of time, as the sounds of sirens rose up through the spectacular air.


Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

2 thoughts on “Fireworks

  • Polenböller is the worst word I’ve heard in a long time. funny enough, in Poland there is no tradition of pyromania, unlike germany. if there are fireworks in poland, they are organized by the state and the explosions are taking place on a big field or square, with people watching. adults and kids only hold sparklers (wunderkerzen) and that is that… poland being germany’s nearest neighbour to the east probably serves perfectly as a scapegoat and is a synonym for the fear of the wild eastern-european man. I guess most of it comes from russia anyway… well, well, well

  • “polenböller” originiates in the commercial motherland: as there are strict regulations on fireworks in germany, some of my felllow mitbürger tend to buy more powerfull weaponary in poland. Since their law is quite liberal, german firework-producers thought of a way to sell their “good” stuff circumvating german laws….

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