Monday, March 31, 2008


Now that Karneval has been over for several months, I feel that the air has cleared enough to write about it.  Don't be misled, the level at which Katie and I celebrated the holiday was nearly puritanical by German standards.  But it was enough for me and my timid American liver.

Karneval is an obsession particular to the Rhine valley and generally not celebrated elsewhere in Germany.  The holiday officially begins at 11:11 am on November 11th and ends on Fat Tuesday.  I remember this year's November 11th very distinctly - not because I was cracking a beer with my friends - but because at that exact moment I was in front of a congregation delivering a sermon.  In the brief dead airspace between points, you could hear distant honking of car horns and people whooping and hollering.
Being that Karneval spanned November 11th to February 5th this year, I was a bit confused.  Four months is one major whopping holiday, even by European standards.  Everyone kept saying over and over: "It is gonna be awesome."  But whenever I asked them exactly when those awesome times would take place, everyone just looked at me and said "Karneval".  Perhaps I was being a Dummkopf for trying to contain a spontaneous thing like partying within time limits.

Here's the scoop.  After the kickoff on November 11th, the partying is fairly low-key until the Tolle Tage, or crazy days.  During this time there is Weiberfastnacht, where the women rule by "taking over" the city hall and perform acts with chilling symbolism, such as cutting the ties off of men.  The merrymaking continues into Rosenmontag, or raging Monday, with massive street parades.  The following day is Fastnacht, Fasting Night aka Shrove Tuesday, and at sundown the party grinds to a halt as Lent officially begins.  Time to repent!

Around 11:00 AM on Rosenmontag, Katie and I put on our costumes (she was a cheerleader and I was a self-made character I like to call Skillet, an 1840's style gold panner) and pedaled into Bonn to meet up with some friends to watch the Umzug, or parade.  I greeted a friend with the usual "Hello", who responded with a kind yet stern look.  "Hello" sounds too much like "helau", which is the way that they greet each other in Dusseldorf - the sworn enemy of Cologne/Bonn.  Furthermore, he explained, to avoid any more cultural mistakes, every self-respecting Bonner uses the Kolsch greeting "alaaf".  They also say "Karneval", never calling the holiday "Fasching", which is a Frankfurt thing.  (If this regional warfare sounds strange to you, try getting a Pennsylvanian and Ohioan to sort out the whole "pop" versus "soda" thing.)
After picking up a few more friends, we made our way into the old town part of Bonn, where the massive Umzug takes several hours to snake its way through.  We stood on the sidewalk as people riding in floats tossed out a remarkable variety of goodies: candy, flowers, ping pong paddles, cigarette lighters, condoms, soccer balls, plastic cutlery, napkins, tissues,  individually wrapped sausages, and mini bottles of alcohol.  All of these things were constantly raining down on the spectators, so as another ping pong paddle went whizzing past my forehead I decided to give up on defensive maneuvering.  Proactively screaming "Carmela" with the rest of the kids, I caught treats in my goldminer's hat.  

People around us were in a spectrum of costumes.  A large portion of those are dressed as French or Prussian soldiers, which is an throwback and intentionally ironic reference to the soldiers that occupied Cologne in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the celebration of Karneval was prohibited.  The rest of the costumes were specific to the age of the bedecked.  Older festival goers were dressed as your average run-of-the-mill clowns in baggy, checkered, colored clowny gear.  The college grads to retirees ran the whole gamut from oversized party hats to zombie makeup.  Perhaps making a social statement, the teenage group tackled the sexual tension of Karneval issue head on by going as cavemen and sexy cats.  Meeeow.  At one point, a girl who looked about thirteen years old walked past me with a plain white t-shirt, upon which was written in black marker a simple message: EASY AND AVAILABLE.  That sight basically reinforced all of my fears about becoming a parent.

After the parade we headed to the Music Box, a pub down the street, to continue the festivities.  Inside, hoards of costumed twentysomethings were drinking and participating in Katie's favorite activity... group singalongs!  The Karneval songs are all upbeat with simple lyrics that are either about Koln's football club or nothing at all.  The speakers blasted the same CD on repeat for the next three hours and gradually the pub filled to the capacity of about 15 people per square meter.  I made it as far as learning the motions to a couple songs and inserting the words "drink", "Koln", and "ayyyyy" to tricky choruses.  Katie was a shade better, but is a real pro now that she bought the songs on iTunes.

By six o clock the street sweepers had cleaned up the filthy gutters and the diehards were in the pubs, arms around each other and singing the same songs over and over again.  Katie and I rode our bikes back home, convinced that the period between Nov 11th and Fat Tuesday really is something to get excited about.