I landed in Berlin on New Year’s Eve. I hadn’t been in the city to see an old year out for the last five years, and didn’t have particularly fond memories of the one time I’d been here; the air had been heavy with smoke and grit, and shards of cracked bottles and spent confetti covered the sidewalks like a deadly shag carpet. Wanton firecrackers were constantly exploding underfoot. People threw them at cars, in trash cans, at other people, dropped them from buildings, lobbed them out of alleys. I remembered being afraid for my limbs, my eyes, any unprotected stretch of skin.
So I had avoided ever spending New Year’s in Berlin. It’s never been my favorite holiday anyway. There’s always so much expectation, and the party never does live up. The fireworks are too far away or hidden behind a building or a big tree and brittle in the cold. The ball is dropped to fanfare and applause, but when the party buzzers bleat their last, the new year feels just like the old and you haven’t magically morphed into a better version of yourself.
This year, I’d planned to go to a dinner party with a friend. Something quiet and inside and away from the chaos on the streets would be safe, I thought; no need for spectacle, and I could avoid the raucous revelers bombarding the streets with lights and loud bangs. I’d have just enough time after landing in the afternoon to unpack a little, to shower and change and catch the train north. But when I got to my apartment, the heater was out, which meant the floorboards were like planks of Arctic ice and the shower water glacial. But I set about unpacking anyway, dressed in heavy layers of wool and double-thick socks, at one point realizing it was warmer outside than in and heating up the room by opening the windows to let in brisk December.
The carousing hordes had already started to set off fireworks, filling the air with bangs since early afternoon. With the window open, the cracks seemed to explode inside my apartment, sending my heart lurching up my throat. There was no way to anticipate the next boom, except to know that it was coming. I found my shoulders inching up my ears in a permanent, tense shrug.
I had to walk up the block to my brother’s apartment to use his shower. Lucky, I thought, he lives so close. That afternoon, the walk seemed eternal. I felt so fragile, without even a wall to protect me from the noise and smoke. Fireworks seemed to crackle around my head, whistling past my ears, colorful drops of light rained from balconies above me and I watched the neighborhood children lighting rocket after rocket without a thought for where they’d fly.
I almost didn’t go to the dinner. By the time I made it back home, I felt I deeply understood those wispy dogs that cower in thunderstorms, eyes wide with the terror of the end times and trembling like a jigsaw. But my choices were to brave the streets one last time or spend New Year’s Eve alone, heaped under every blanket in my below-freezing apartment. I went.
This year, 2018, is the year of doing. I’ve never been one for making resolutions, but I’ve adopted the idea put to me by a friend last year, of giving each year a theme. It’s a more holistic approach to thinking about who you want to be – and how you grow to get there. Last year’s theme was balance, the core of which was my newly-instituted morning routine: waking up at 6:30 a.m., doing yoga, meditating, going to the gym or on a run, eating a leisurely breakfast, taking the time to look nice, journaling, checking emails, and being ready to start work by 10:00 a.m. And for the most part, the year was pretty even-keeled. Of course, it was also rather hermit-like. Getting up at 6:30 a.m. meant going to bed by 10:30 p.m. to get a full night’s sleep. I spent many of my evenings quiet and alone in my re-done living room reading books and drinking tea. But last year, that was exactly what I needed to rediscover a sense of well-being being by myself and being myself. Was the year of balance a success? I think so. But what it was missing was action; hence, the year of doing.
What does the year of doing mean? It means actually doing the things I’m afraid of instead of thinking about doing them. Making phone calls I’ve been putting off. Reaching out to contacts I’ve had lingering in my inbox for half a year. Submitting pitches to magazines, travelling alone, pushing myself to cook new things, reaching out to old friends and following up with new, answering emails in a timely manner, going out more and being more social. It’s a Ben-Franklinian “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today” smashed together with Devil-Wears-Prada boss lady verve and Pinterest-ready bullet journal efficiency.
I’m pretty sure that the person who can do all this and still hold on to what she achieved during the year of balance is an alien or an Instagram persona, but the year of doing whispers seductively in my ear that yes, yes, I can do it all. Less insane me counters rationally: maybe being truly balanced doesn’t require such a rigid approach to balance, that maybe lingering in the year of balance means I’ll really just be getting stuck.
It’s already February, and this is my first post of the year. So I’m not sure how much “doing” I’m getting done. But I feel its effects in subtle ways. I’ve been quicker about keeping the ball rolling on new projects (not yet so good about getting it rolling again on projects I’ve let stagnate), I finally made all those doctor’s appointments I’ve been putting off and bought the new glasses I’ve known I’ve needed since last February. I tried out a new cooking technique (see: tarte tatin) that made me feel surprisingly accomplished, despite it being easy to master. I wrote an email that felt out of my league. I went to a poetry workshop alone. But most of all, there’s this little voice in the back of my mind, reminding me that the monsters are most frightening when the closet door is closed, that when they’re shooed into the light, they’re often not very frightening at all.
Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, we all trooped up to a park at the top of a small hill overlooking the city. There were already a number of rowdy clusters scattered amongst the trees in the dark. Everyone’s arms were full of fireworks. Someone in our group unloaded a few boxes: Roman candles and sparklers, bottle rockets and cherry bombs, sticks that looked like dynamite, brightly colored tubes of dubious legality. All around, we were instructed to drink champagne, so the bottles could be repurposed as launchers.
It was nearing midnight still, but the sky was already full of brilliant flowering chrysanthemums and horsetail shells; some were small, corsages of neon showering the air just above our heads, others of a seemingly professional size, giant blooms glittering golden and green and red high above the treetops. As far as the eye could see, this tableaux was being repeated across the city, on sidewalk corners, from apartment balconies, in parks, on rooftops, in public squares, and in the middle of the street. The whole city was celebrating, the whole city had been celebrating and there was no midnight needed, no need to celebrate a single moment, when every single moment was worth celebrating. And then it was past midnight, and the fireworks were still shooting up, a seemingly never-ending show, and I was in the middle of it, unafraid and singeing my fingers on hot, flickering flame. It was nonstop bangs and bright lights and smoke and sizzling underfoot and people hugging and lighting fuses, running from the fast-burning ends of the rockets as they launched themselves into the sky.
In that moment, watching the clouds of color and light ignite across Berlin, I felt such an incredible sense of community with my adopted home. I felt like whatever the new year would hold, whatever the last year had held, we were all in it together, active participants in our city. And the fireworks really weren’t so frightening in the thick of that hazy, hotwhite blooming. They’d only seemed scary from far away. Because I was the one lighting them now.
A Tarte Tatin for Winter
You can use any combination of wintery vegetables for this dish (carrots, bell peppers, etc.) Just adjust the roasting time accordingly.
1 sweet potato
1 large potato
1 large beet
2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
Salt & pepper, to taste
1 tbsp. butter
2 small red onions
3 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 sheet (250 g) puff pastry, defrosted
Pre-heat the oven to 400 ºF (200 ºC).
Keeping them separated by kind, thinly slice root vegetables into rounds. Toss each vegetable separately with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast vegetables in a single layer on a baking sheet. (My oven is small, so I had to do two rounds of roasting on one baking sheet, but if your oven is larger, you can do one round of roasting using two baking sheets.) The veggies will take different lengths of time to roast. Parsnips and potatoes need about 15 minutes; sweet potato and beet need about 25. When done, they should be soft to the touch with a fork, and just starting to brown.
While the vegetables are roasting, heat butter in a saucepan. Thinly slice onions, and when the butter is bubbling, add onions plus a healthy pinch each of salt and sugar. Turn heat to medium-low and continue to cook until onions are very soft.
Turn the oven up to 425 ºF (220 ºC)
When vegetables and onions have finished cooking, you can start to assemble your tarte. Bring honey to a gentle simmer in a small saucepan along with a pinch of salt. Cook for about three minutes, then add vinegar and swirl to combine. Pour the honey into the bottom of a 9-inch pie dish and make sure the honey entirely coats the bottom of the dish. Scatter fresh rosemary and sage over the honey. Thinly layer root vegetables in any pattern you like, making sure that the entire bottom of the pie dish is covered. Scatter onions evenly over the root vegetables and dot with goat cheese.
Drape the puff pastry over the vegetables, trimming any excess. Gently tuck the edges of the puff pastry into the sides of the pie dish. Bake for 30 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown. Check halfway through cooking. If the puff pastry is browning too quickly, lower the rack.
Allow the tarte to cool for a few minutes. Using oven mitts, place a large plate over the pie dish, and holding both firmly between the mitts, quickly flip the pie dish, so the puff pastry is now on the bottom of the plate. Garnish with fresh rosemary and sage.
*Photo credit @ Max Behrens for the 2018 picture featured in this post.