In Cologne Karneval time is so important that it has been named as the fifth ‘season’, kicking off with a whirlwind day of costumed alcohol consumption on 11th November (‘Elfter Elfter’) and culminating in a six-day party extravaganza in February. This is no tourist event or youth rebellion; here the overwhelmingly native German crowd brings together the fresh-faced, newly legal drinker and the veteran Karneval-goer in a mass of crazy, ridiculous, and often entirely impractical outfits in order to celebrate… well I have no idea what actually, perhaps beer? Or the quashing of the German stiff ‘n’ sensible stereotype? Certainly watching my boyfriend flail his arms around gaily whilst dressed in a ghastly old blue wetsuit and entirely random mullet wig made me stop and think – we were wrong all along; the Germans DO have a sense of humour, we just don’t get it!*
So after a little research I have discovered that Karneval does in fact have a traceable history, dating back to the Romans apparently… click away to read about the history of Karneval. Of course one cannot help but notice the unfortunate timing of the event - on the very day, at the very hour (11.11am), that the UK observes a minute’s silence in memory of the fallen soldiers of WWI and WWII, Germany cracks open the beer keg in preparation for a day of inebriated frivolity… (NB Volkstrauertag, the German version of Remembrance Day, follows not long after.)
This year I experienced Karneval for the first time, but not in its full blown glory as I was on the other side of the bar serving plastic cup after plastic cup of the local beer (Kölsch) to the drunken revelers while jaunty, hard-to-take seriously Karneval music pumped through the sound system. It is rather like Christmas music, whereby certain bands and artists who are for the rest of the year tossed back into obscurity or, worse still, ridiculed for their terrible music, are granted a month-long revival period where parties depend upon their cheesy lyrics and festive jingles to remind everyone that this is not a mere party, it’s a Christmas party! In a similar vein the Kölner bands get their moment in the spotlight when Karneval season rolls around. Here is an example of one such song, 'Schön ist das Leben' (Life is beautiful) sung in the Cologne dialect (Kölsch):
At 10am (a fairly late start by Karneval standards) Manu and a friend dragged themselves to the breakfast table and rather reluctantly raised their first beers of the day – Pröst! At 12.30pm I left them to it and set off on my way to work. On our street a few tell-tale stripey socks and neon colours could be seen poking out from underneath winter coats as people hurried towards the U-Bahn, and the closer I got to town the more Karnaval fever I could feel in the air, until I found myself near the cathedral making a lame attempt at pushing my bike through swathes of pirates and cross-dressers and cartoon heroes. I pushed and pushed, ducking and diving through the crowd, until suddenly I came to a standstill, sandwiched neatly between the red and yellow M&M men, and saw that there was a police cordon blocking the street that I need to go down. I tried to appeal to the better nature of the attending Polizei, pointing at the pub where I work and making dramatic gestures towards my non-existent watch to denote the importance of my punctuality. After lots of head-shaking and exclamations of ‘Kein Eingang!’ I huffily retreated and began the arduous task of reaching the other entrance to the same street, which was of course also blocked off and put a good one and a half thousand more people between me and the pub. Back to the initial Police control, and after some more pleading and a few forlorn looks I was waved through to talk to the Big Boss, who finally allowed me to go to work. Bearing in mind this was 1 O’clock in the afternoon, and I had already had to side-step vomit, escape the clutches of a drunken man in a bunny costume, and get far too up-close and personal with far too many people in order to simply get from A to B, you can imagine how messy the rest of the day was…
Still, I am told that all of this is nothing compared to February when parties run from dusk ‘til dawn for six whole days. The term Ladies’ day to us Brits usually conjures up images of elegant women in elaborate headgear trotting off to a day at the races… but the Karneval equivalent, Tag der Frauen, is somewhat less civilized; women can snag a snog from any man they choose by cutting off his tie. This is in keeping with the general acceptance of über-flirtatiousness and heavy petting during Karneval, summed up in the common saying “What happens at Karneval stays at Karneval!” Rosenmontag sees processions trail through the town, with decorative floats transporting caricatures of famous people, and sweets and goodies being thrown into the crowds.
Karneval is certainly a rather mental affair, but next time I fully intend to partake in the madness, costume and all. After all, when in Rome…