No music, but a licence to howl at the moon all night long

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On the morning of her pre-nuptial party, Gabriele received presents from people she did not know, and a letter from her next-door neighbours: "We wish you happiness," they wrote, "but we must warn you. If there is any noise after 10 o'clock, we shall call the police." Signed: "The people from Number 34."

So here we were on her Polterabend, a night of merriment when the bride and groom are toasted by their friends amid the sound of shattering china, broken symbolically to ward off evil spirits. The custom is as ancient and German as the tradition of denouncing disorderly neighbours to the authorities.

Not wishing to get on the wrong side of the law, Gabriele had gone out of her way to seek licence for her one night of anti-social behaviour. Notices had gone up on the doors of every house in the street, advising residents that there would be a certain amount of noise emanating from Number 36 this Saturday night, on account of her forthcoming wedding.

It is so ordained that the whole of Germany must fall eerily silent by 9pm. Beyond that time, baths are no longer run, toilets go unflushed, washing machines are switched off and dogs muzzled. Even the wildlife in the forests around Bonn seems to respect the Germans' craving for Ruhe, a word whose literal translation - "quiet" - fails to convey the original's hidden menace and urgency.

Notifying neighbours several weeks in advance allows you to breach the peace for an extra hour, but a minute after 10 o'clock you are treading a legal minefield. Legend has it there are forms that can be filled out in triplicate at the local police station, which, when correctly stamped and annotated, entitle the bearer to an extension into the early hours. The procedure is designed to keep successful applications to a minimum. Gabriele, with nothing but a PhD by way of an education, was unable to grasp the intricacies, and so her request was refused.

The guests started arriving at eight o'clock, tossing old plates on the pile as they joined the melee in the back garden. Each crash was greeted with wild cheers, but the rubble was immediately swept onto the heap. Even at party time, order must reign.

The guests tucked into the Wurst sizzling on the grill and helped themselves to the soup bubbling over in a huge cauldron.

As we glanced nervously at the ghostly blue light flickering behind the curtains at Number 34, the conversation inevitably turned to the rigours of German life. Everybody had a hair-raising story to tell about their neighbours. There are so many bylaws regulating our daily existence, that virtually all of us had at one time perpetrated heinous crimes which had somehow found their way to our bulging police files.

Some of our transgressions had been minor ones, such as allowing our pets to leave dirty paw prints in the entrance hall of our apartment blocks. Those with children belong to the hard-core of offenders, repeatedly failing to meet the community's norms on two counts. Kids are notoriously filthy and noisy, and they do insist on playing in the streets between 1 and 3pm - hours set aside for Ruhe.

I have never been quite sure what Germans do behind their shutters when the lights go out at 9pm, but I suspect many of them are writing petitions about the people next door. Cultivating neighbours offers no immunity against a malevolent pen. A friend who saved a blazing house next door by calling the fire brigade thought he was safe. Imagine his surprise, when a few months later the landlord knocked on the door. Our hero had been reported for not sweeping leaves off his garage roof. The source of information? - his grateful neighbour.

None of us had ever dared to hold a real party, and were intrigued to discover whether Gabriele would get away with it. A Scottish folk band, consisting entirely of Rhinelanders, struck up just after 9pm. The beer flowed and the decibels rose, and still there was no sign of the people from Number 34.

They never came, but shortly after 10pm the police arrived. They understood the circumstances were special, but a complaint had been made and rules were rules: the music had to stop, though the party could continue. It was a classic German compromise. The band packed up, the lights at Number 34 dimmed. Luckily, we had a couple of constitutional lawyers in our midst, who had spotted a loophole in the ruling. "No music," the police had said, but they did not say "no singing".

Which is exactly what we did, howling heartily like dogs at the full moon. Fortified by the beer, we were invincible, and experienced a catharsis that only those who have lived under communism can appreciate: a sense of liberation stemming from the intoxicating knowledge that we had finally beaten the system.