Just when I think I’ve just about run out of German cultural experiences* and think it’s just a matter of getting snapped at by bureaucrats for the next 6 months (most recently for attempting to carry my laptop into the library IN ITS CASE), something new pops up.

(*I know I haven’t really run out. I still need to watch the kids go walking around with their lanterns on St. Martin’s Day, and, although I have no intention whatsoever of ever participating in Oktoberfest or Fasching (Cologne’s big Mardi Gras hoo-ha), I acknowledge their existence as German cultural phenomena.)

First of all, German asparagus. I do not understand the point of it, but there are Germans whose hearts have only ever fluttered at the thought of a plate full of the engorged, waxy stalks grown around here. I had been avoiding it on principle, as is my way with white vegetables, until I realized that my possibly-last-ever Spargelsaison is drawing to a close, and I still don’t know what all the ruckus is about.

So I went and I bought the fattest, most alien-looking asparaguses I could find. There was another woman there picking through the crate, checking the ends of each stalk before she made a selection. I didn’t have a clue what that was all about, but since she seemed to know what was up, I just imitated everything she did, dutifully examining each end and trying to look pensive. Nobody will ever know.

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Get a load of these things!

So that’s cultural experience number 1. I haven’t cooked it yet (because I have no eggs, and what’s the point of stupid white vegetables if you’re not going to drown them in Hollandaise?), but I’ll let you know if it turns out to be mind-blowingly delicious. It won’t.

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German asparagus and weird Polish Cheeto thing: separated at birth.

The second cultural experience is May Day, which isn’t a holiday so much as a day of local significance. You see, there have always been  May Day street fairs around the city, but these days it’s not just a celebration of spring. Early in the morning of May 1, 1987, in the West Berlin borough of Kreuzberg, there was a police raid on an office belonging to a far-left group. Tensions had been high between the leftist/anarchist/punk/squatter communities in Berlin and the police, and so that community saw the raid as the last straw in a long series of transgressions (or “transgressions,” depending on your perspective). So during the street festival, representatives of these groups started making a scene, flipping over a police car and pushing two construction-site pods on the street (Wikipedia is poetically vague about the mechanics of this). Somehow after this things got out of hand, and in the end, the police tried to break up the festival. The festival-goers responded by barricading the police out of the area, burning trash, throwing cobblestones, and crafting makeshift bombs to defend the territory. During all this chaos, someone burned up a supermarket and caught a nearby U-Bahn station on fire.

The cops had been unable to get through the barricades for several hours, but in the wee hours they finally managed it using water cannons and SWAT trucks to disperse the crowds. But a lot of people were injured, and one of the 50ish people arrested committed suicide while in a detention cell the next day.

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Just for clarification, this photo was taken yesterday, not 1987. Source: morgenpost.de

The May Day fairs were, as I understand it, always organized largely by leftist groups, but after 1987 they gained new meaning as a rallying force for these communities, and they tended to get ugly. A few times they were discontinued or banned entirely, but they always came back in subsequent years. These days May Day in Berlin is closely associated with AntiFa (the anti-fascists), an extreme leftist group that likes to throw rocks at cops. An article published this evening in the Berliner Morgenpost affirms that “For years Berlin on May 1st has been synonymous with violence.” Some of it’s AntiFa and friends attacking cops; some of it’s drunk people being drunk people. Anyway, May Day is usually not a holiday for those who want their skin to form a perfect barrier between their bodies and the outside world.

This year, AntiFa had their traditional demonstration, and other groups had their demonstrations, and simultaneously with (but far away from) that, a big street festival called MyFest was held in the area of the 1987 disastrophe. It has no political affiliations (except, according to their website, peace and tolerance, whatever that means), and the leftist groups are forbidden from demonstrating there in any way. I read this morning that after several years without incident, this would be the first time in a while that glass bottles would be allowed at MyFest. That seemed like a good sign. So I went down to check it out. (The pictures below are from morgenpost.de. Apparently I can’t caption them.) 

I was unprepared for the throngs of people. Once I got to Prinzenstraße, which was about 2 U-Bahn stops away from the action, cops blocked off the roads to motor vehicles, and I had to dismount, as it was way too crowded to bike.

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The entire area between these four U-Bahn stations was blocked off to traffic, extending northwards to Köpenickerstr. (parallel to the Spree River) and to Görlitzer Park in the east. It was a Big Honkin’ Festival.

I could try to pull a narrative out of this, but really, you know pretty much what goes down at a street festival, and this was just a really big one, with vendors setting up booths outside their brick-and-mortar locations, lots of beer bottles lying around, and cops in riot gear watching from the periphery. When the gauntlet opened up into a wide, grassy park full of people enjoying the first summery day, I bought a bad beer, found myself a nice spot of grass under a tree, and studied until a drum circle started up, and I had to move.

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10/10, would study here again, Pils notwithstanding.

Now, I’m not a big street festival person—you just walk around, consuming mediocre perishables you don’t particularly want while strangers with BO bump off of you—so it wasn’t too long after I packed up my laptop and book that I started heading home. Then Zander, who I’d texted 4 hours earlier to see if he wanted to meet at the event, announced that he was now awake and would I please meet him and his girlfriend so we could all go together. So much for leaving. Battling the jet stream of by-now-mostly-drunk expats, a trip that normally takes 5-7 minutes by bike took 45. When I finally arrived, Zander and Alice invited me to sit down and watch Jacques Pepin and Julia Child charm us with a tomato gratin, handmade truffle sausage, and improbable “candid” banter. 

When we went back out into the storm, the atmosphere had changed. This was probably partly because by that point the AntiFa demo had finished, and the folks from there had moseyed on over. But more than that, it was normal street fair stuff: people were drunker than they had been earlier in the day, and because the city hadn’t provided any extra trash disposal areas, every single municipal trash can had several feet of mixed garbage piled under it (some on now, Berlin Sanitätsdienst). The drum circle from earlier on was still going, and we circled around them, snacking on Bratwursts (see: consuming mediocre perishables you don’t particularly want) and trying to meet up with a friend. He was unresponsive, so after half an hour or so of wandering, I, having long exceeded my people quota for the day, left Zander and Alice to seek their own fortunes while I enjoyed a leisurely bike ride home.

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Some jerks decided that bike baskets make good makeshift trash cans. In fact, in the time between taking this picture and retrieving my bike key from my pocket, another butthole came by and dropped in another empty bottle.  I wanted to throw it at his stupid head, but I hear that’s illegal. (Also, for those of you who don’t know, this is my trusty steed, The Very Excellent Velociped. It has been my constant companion these two years.)

Before bed, I checked the news to see what had gone down today after I left. In spite of being forbidden from demonstrating at MyFest, some balaklava-ed AntiFa representatives came through chanting and threw stuff at cops.  And sometime during the night, a car got burned, but that may or may not have been related (there seems to be a lot of arson here…). A few people were hurt over the course of the day, but it sounds like the general consensus is that MyFest was a lot more peaceful than most folks thought.

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Source: Berliner Morgenpost

And, festival aside, the day served as a reminder that there is no better place on Earth than Berlin in the summer.

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This was not part of the festival. This kind of thing just happens in Kreuzberg.

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