Or How to Survive Karneval in Köln
Last year I missed it. In fact, I missed the entire country. Arguably the most famous Carnival celebration is the one that takes place annually in Brazil. You’ve probably heard of it – the bright colours, outrageous costumes, raucous music, thrilling dances, all accompanied by high levels of debauchery, general shenanigans, and enough alcohol to drown all the curious passersby. Since Canadians have to pay a visa fee to enter Brazil and I didn’t think I would have enough time to explore the country properly during the three months I was backpacking through South America last winter, I postponed it altogether and so absented myself from the Carnival feast.
I may be in Berlin this year, but I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.
Although Rio de Janeiro may have broken World Records for drawing the largest Carnival crowds, the festival has been celebrated in Germany for centuries, particularly in the West German city of Köln (Cologne for all my English-speaking friends). While it is unclear when exactly the revelry began, Carnivals around the world have their roots in Christianity. In fact, the word Carnival comes from the Latin carne vale, which literally translates as “Goodbye to meat!” The idea is that before all the fasting, solemnity, repentance and atonement that characterizes the season of Lent prior to Easter, the people are given a bit of a release, a chance to make some final mistakes. There are no rules during the crazy days of Carnival, no expectations, obligations, work or duty. Instead, from Fat Thursday to Ash Wednesday, Cologne explodes in colour and cheer, a celebration of sin, of life, and most importantly of the city itself.
A typical greeting during Karneval is Kölle Alaaf! (cool-leh all-uff) This phrase doesn’t actually mean anything in German. “Alaaf” sort of sounds like “I love” when spoken out loud, so Kölle Alaaf has come to mean “I love Köln.” This is the first of four important words you will need to survive Karneval in this city. By no means should you greet someone by saying hello. Helau is the Carnival greeting used by Köln’s rival city Düsseldorf. Why the rivalry? Some say it dates back to Roman times; however, the reason I was given by my Kölle friends is that back when Germany was divided following the Second World War, the Federal Republic was required to name new state capitals as well as a new capital for the country itself. Düsseldorf apparently made an offer to Cologne, their close neighbour: “Guten tag, Köln!” the Düsseldorfians shouted. “If you vote for us as state capital then we will vote for you as country capital, ja?” “Genau,” replied Cologne, and Düsseldorf became the capital of the state. But when the time came to vote for the country capital, Düsseldorf broke its promise and instead sided with the nearby city of Bonn (most famous for being the birthplace of Beethoven). “Oh scheisse” Kölners said, and the two cities have been rivals ever since.
The second important word you should know during Karneval is kamelle (kah-mell-uh). Kamelle is the name given to the candies thrown from parade floats both on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) and during the Children’s Parade. Even if you don’t have much of a sweet tooth you should know this word for your own safety. The Germans are tough – they don’t just toss Haribo gummies gently down from on high. No, the Kölners will hurl just about anything at the crowds below them, from hard wafers to pretzels to full boxes of chocolates. If you hear someone shouting kamelle, look up – it could just as easily be a warning as much as a call for candy.
Third is strüβjer (stroos-yeh), which means flower in the Kölsch dialect. Those marching in the parade guard their flowers much more closely than their sweets. In most cases they pick out particular people from the crowd and hand them their strüβjer personally. I felt quite flattered when I received my first until my dashing parade man told me that strüβjer go to those who cheer with the most passion…at least that’s how my friends kindly translated him. (I have a loud voice, what can I say?) Before he continued on his way, my parade man also gave me a bützje (boots-yeh) – a kiss on the cheek. If someone offers you Bützchen it’s considered rude to refuse – my best advice is to just point to your cheek, smile and relax into the Karneval spirit.
Aside from the parades, my Karneval was made up of costumes borrowed from friends, early mornings, late nights, losing my voice and finding it again, and a whirlwind cocktail of Jägermeister, schnapps and Cologne’s native beers, Früh and Reissdorf. If you don’t think you can party for five days straight, I recommend arriving on the Thursday and taking the Friday off. Ease back into carousing on Saturday and give yourself a late start on Sunday. Monday has the big parade and one last night of wild parties, though if you make it to Tuesday you’ll get to see the city set fire to Nubbel, a straw man who is said to hold everyone’s sins. By burning Nubbel the past is erased, and Cologne is ready to get back to work. Karneval’s slogan however is never forgotten, and stays a part of the city fabric long after the last of Nubbel’s ashes are blown away by the rain and wind: Jede Jeck es anders – Every fool is different. During Karneval we are all fools, encouraged to indulge in all the foolishness we can handle, to be silly and frivolous in our own special ways, to be together with our differences and to celebrate our commonalities. No matter your nationality, Köln has a place for you – a place to be accepted by the clowns and to become one of the fools.