Ah, Deutschland. A country where everything makes sense… until it just doesn’t. Already preparations for the Lenten season are underway, and we are over a month away from Christmas. In the United States, we bring in Lent with donuts the day before Ash Wednesday, unless, of course, you celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans; In Köln, we bring it in with Karneval.
Mardi Gras has nothing on Karneval. Called die fünfte Jahreszeit, Karneval is a several-month-long affair preparing Germans for the preparations before das Ostern. Every year, at 11:11 on 11. November, the people of Köln flood the streets to celebrate.
The first day of Karneval is like Mardi Gras combined with Halloween. About half of the city wears costumes, dressed up as anything from bananas and fairytale characters to cowboys and members of the SWAT team. Unlike Halloween in the States, it isn’t just children who wear costumes all day; adults of all ages dress up too!
Above ground Verkehr is rerouted to avoid the mess. For instance, the number 9 from Neumarkt to Universität (my usual route along Zülpicherstraße) shuts down for the day, and for good reason. Even before 11:11, Zülpicherstraße is packed with people, especially toward Zülpicherplatz, all happily downing Bier and tanzen in the street.
Location of Zülpicherplatz marked on map above.
By 14:00, there are plenty of people who need help walking and others who receive medical attention from the plethora of emergency personnel on-hand. Groups of Polizei make rounds through the crowds, ensuring that no one is holding a glass bottle (only cans or plastic cups are allowed for safety).
Die Kneipen are packed, so most people drink their own Bier in the street. Others choose harder alcohol; for instance, I watched a girl dressed as Rotkäpchen pull shots of liquor out of her basket for all of her friends. Many of die Kneipen host DJs all day, blasting music to keep the party alive even outside, and the Karneval attendees, feeling very good by early afternoon, are not afraid to let loose! With so many people, this can get pretty uncomfortable and even dangerous as people get reckless. (Rotkäpchen und Freunde decided to Can-Can in the street and jump around, kicking and hitting a number of participants.)
This party didn’t start at 11:11 with the rest of Karneval, however. Many Kölner folk were out even earlier pre-gaming to make sure they were nice and drunk right at the start of the season. Some places like Heumarkt, which is rather close to die Innenstadt, was already packed with so many people by 09:00, it was nearly impossible to move through the crowd (according to a fellow group member). As I watched from the window of the 18 train (my alternate route), I witnessed plenty of people with beers in their hands. Around 09:30, I even saw a group dressed like sailors drinking from a keg as they walked down the street. Several people also ignored the "Alkoholismus verboten" signs on the trains, risking a 40€ fine.
Location of Heumarkt marked on map above.
The first day of Karneval was indeed insane, but I’ve heard that it is nothing compared to the last week of Karneval. Seven days before Ash Wednesday, the festivities begin again with parades, more costumes, and (of course) more beer.
February should certainly be interesting!
All photographs courtesy of Alexander Sauers.