Monday, February 27, 2006


Today is Rosenmontag, and the huge hours-long Karneval parade has just concluded in the streets not far from here in the Innenstadt of Köln. The window is open in my room and I can still hear drums beating in the distance. His Holiness and I have been out in the streets these last few days of Karneval, since Thursday at 11:11AM when the climactic festivities began. Karneval officially commences on November 11th and from that day until Ash Wednesday the citizens of Cologne dress up. His Holiness was in his full frog regalia while I sported only the “rote nase”, or red nose, that appears on the Karneval clowns, which decorate almost every shop window in the city.

The costumes were amazing; I can’t begin to describe them because they were as many and varied as the millions of people who took to the streets to celebrate this ancient festival. Karneval in Köln is truly historic, dating back to Roman times. Originally a pagan festival to dispel the evils of Winter and welcome Spring, Karneval was integrated into the Catholic Church sometime in the 14th century and formalized into the event we know today, in proper Prussian tradition, in the early 19th century. This afternoon His Holiness and I outfitted ourselves in frog and nose respectively and set out for the big day. Along the way we encountered characters whose costumes harkened back to Karneval’s original pagan roots as well as others whose outfits spoke to events as current as the day’s news.

I was apprehensive about staying in the city during Karneval. I’m not a huge fan of crowds and I had heard all sorts of stories about how the neighborhood filled with drunken revelers who carried on long into the night. This apartment is only four blocks from the parade route, but aside from a fairly steady stream of costumed locals making their way to this or that event each day, we never witnessed anything that was unusually out of control. I am accustomed to “normal” out of control, being from Manhattan, and was pleasantly surprised to find Karneval in our neighborhood to be a pretty good time.

There is something in the air here in Köln during Karneval. The people acknowledge a sense of themselves as members of some place special. The Kölsche love being Kölsche, they are proud of their traditions, their history, their famous friendliness and openness. And even as a recent, and somewhat wary expat, you can’t help but being stirred with emotion when you are in the middle of a crowd of hundreds and thousands of elaborately decorated men and women as they cheer “Kölle Alaaf, Kölle Alaaf, Kölle Alaaf” which loosely translates as “Köln Hello!” or “Köln Hooray!” and is the official cheer of the Karneval parade and something of an anthem for the city itself.

I have written in these pages before about the phenomenon I’ve witnessed since moving here to Germany, about the fluidity with which the generations mix in cafes and nightspots. Karneval takes the concept of community another step. This week a great leveling occurred as faces, heads, clothes, limbs, status, wealth, occupation, and race – all were disguised in acknowledgment of a greater identity as members of an ancient community and as people who share a tradition.

It’s difficult for an American expat to appreciate an event like Karneval. We have our local events: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Chitlin Strut in Salley, South Carolina, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York and the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena. But Karneval is really something altogether different. Mardi Gras comes closest to it because it is based on the same Roman Catholic tradition of a pre-Lenten bash. The thing is, in New Orleans folks are only a drink or two away from a Mardi Gras state of mind all year long. Here in Germany, quite to the contrary, people are very buttoned up almost all the time. Karneval is the one time of year when everyone is allowed to go a little nuts – and they do. I couldn’t help but stare at people as we walked down the street this week, people who I knew would be dressed in plain gray wool next week, were sporting fright wigs or devil’s horns, faces painted bright red, fiery tails flying in the cold winter air.

Karneval, Mardi Gras, Carnival … they are all traditions that mean a great deal to the people in whose communities these events have grown up and old.
For an ex-pat like me in a new country, Karneval in Köln, no matter how ancient or authentic, is still foreign and novel and a bit of a circus sideshow attraction.

That said, there was one moment when it all made sense to me. His Holiness was riding on my shoulders, it was last Sunday afternoon and the city was just gearing up for Karneval, posters were going up in shop windows and more and more painted faces were to be spotted in the streets. We had been playing in the park that day and had stopped at the Stadtgarten Café for lunch. As we walked through the Belgian Quarter for home we passed a Kneipe, a small, local bar where people gather on Sunday afternoons to drink and talk and eat, and as we passed the widows we heard music; a guitar, an accordion, a small horn, and so we stopped. Mama was with us that day, she was raised here, amidst the Kölsche, she speaks the local Platt and knew the song that was emanating from the open window. We stopped, and His Holiness rocked back and forth on my shoulders to the joyful, rollicking tune, he clapped his hands and tried to sing along and I looked over to his mother and she was smiling and singing in her soft voice, a song she had known for as long as she could remember. And in that moment it all made sense to me, and I realized that my young son was hearing the music of the story of his life, a story he shared with his German mother, a story he would never fully share with me. It was here, in the music played in kneipen and living rooms and in the streets, that Karneval sings most deeply, in the hearts of those who have listened all their lives.


Blogger Cathy said...

How lovely; new experiences and old traditions. xo

2:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me, grown up and living in 'non-Karneval' areas, I never felt the air of celebrating Karneval in Germany - I get almost angry when I see (on TV) those strange people lurching through the streets...

12:09 PM  

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