Erste Mai

May 1st is a national holiday in Germany, roughly the equivalent of Labor Day back home. Adrian and I took advantage of the day off to take a trip to a huge carnival in Kreutzberg. We had a great time so I decided to put together a little blog post about the experience.

We had been out very late the night before at a friends house… in fact we didn’t make it home till after 4am! The Berliners think nothing of staying up that late, but for Adrian and I, that is about as late as it gets. Incidentally, when we finally made it home to Prenzlauer Berg and got off of the train, the streets were still packed with people so that will give you a bit of an idea of just how nocturnal the Berliners are. Unfortunately, we aren’t ‘true’ Berliners, so we didn’t wake up on May 1 till late in the day, probably about 12:00 noon.

Adrian wasn’t feeling very well, but we knew we would regret not going to Kreutzberg, as we had heard really good things about the festival. Kreutzberg is one of Berlin’s most popular neighborhoods and it is by the city’s most trendy spot. Trendy people can be a little insufferable at times, but they at least know how to throw a good party. Had a quick bite to eat and a cup of coffee and headed out.

The weather forecast was predicting rain, but when we left the apartment the sun was shining and it was nice and warm. I noticed that there were fewer people out and about than normal in our neighborhood and wondered if fear of rain was keeping people in for the today… I quickly found out this was not the case. It seemed everyone in Berlin was headed for Kreutzberg and the festival. The U-bahn train was absolutely packed with people. The closer we got to Kreutzberg also, the more people sardined there way on to the train. I could tell it was going to be a day of crowds (as most days in Berlin seem to be, if you come from Maine).

A quick word about the Erste Mai celebration: as I said, it is the German equivalent of labor day. Thus the left leaning portion of Berliners and Germans use the holiday as an opportunity to rally in support of pro-labor policies. Berlin has it’s fair share of activists, communists, anarchists, and other revolutionaries, but unfortunately, the holiday in recent years has been taken over by “demonstrators” who are looking to cause trouble, not promote social change. The last few years had been especially bad in Berlin with protestors burning cars, smashing windows and indiscriminately destroying private property. To make matters worst, Berlin’s far right groups use the holiday to demonstrate as well, so clashes between the two groups can quickly get violent.

The Berlin Police seemed determined this year to keep things under control, so once Adrian and I arrived, we were immediately struck by the massive police presence. It is fairly rare to see police officers in Berlin in general, so to see literally hundreds in one place was slightly surprising. The officers obviously had a plan for controlling things this year, as they funneled us orderly into the city blocks set aside for the festival.

The main artery of Kreutzberg is a busy street called Oranienstrasse which is crowded on normal days with outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants, but today the street was totally shut down to any automobile traffic and was packed with party goers. There were vendors selling street food every few feet on the side of the street and packed restaurants and bars selling beer and other drinks to anyone walking by with 2€. There was music everywhere, with a different stage literally on every street corner. There were people of all ages dancing, drinking and eating street food everywhere. It was quite a lively atmosphere to say the least!

Adrian and I spent the first hour at the festival just walking around, checking out the different stages and enjoying some of the live music. The festival is free of charge so there were no “big name” musicians playing, but it was cool to see some of the local Berlin groups, who ranged from abjectly awful to passably decent. The most popular type of music in Berlin by far is electronic techno music, with repetitive kick-snare drum beats and some synth layered over it, so that type of music was everywhere, but we saw ska, rock, reggae, punk, folk, rap and even traditional Turkish music. Our favorite was probably the reggae… there something about a sunny day and a little reggae that makes you think you’re on a tropical island.

After wondering around for a while, we stopped for a bite to eat and enjoyed a little people watching. As I said, the streets were packed so it was fun just to watch the different people walking by. Berliners make some interesting style choices to say the least… sometimes I wonder if this country ever made it out of the 1980s. The anarchists and other activist were easy to pick out of the crowd as they general have interesting and colorful hairstyles, as well as more than a couple facial piercing and at least one unfortunate tattoo.

We left the festival in the mid afternoon, hoping to avoid any potential riot and once we arrived at our apartment, it started pouring rain. I felt bad for everyone who got drenched, but felt like we made the right choice on leaving a little early. I heard from a co-worker that nothing happened later that night as the police made sure to keep all the demonstrators under control. Looks like their planning and effort paid off… I was glad to hear no one got hurt!

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