Die fünfte Jahreszeit hat beendent! Karneval, which began on November 11 at 11:11, has finally come to a close. While I had heard that the first day of the season was nothing compared to the last week, I was not adequately prepared for the crowds, the costumes, the volume, and the fun that ensued just before the beginning of Lent.
Every year, the city of Köln organizes Karneval festivities, most of which take place during the six days before Ash Wednesday. For ticketed events, Karten go on-sale a year in advance; if you go to the Kölner Karneval website, you will see that it is already set-up in preparation for next year's festivities.
If you are in Köln for the last week of Karneval, here is what you can expect (besides not being able to get a seat on the U-bahn):
Karnevalsdonnerstag is start of the end for die fünfte Jahreszeit in Köln. While parties and festival tents have been crowded with beer-drinking folk for weeks, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday is when the city-wide festivities really take off.
For most, Karnevalsdonnerstag is a holiday, and schools are open for a half-day (if at all). At 11:11, places like the der Universität zu Köln practically shut down. In reality, das I. Physicalisches Institut where I work stopped doing science at 10:00 for das Frühstück—Karneval style. The main course at the institute-wide Karneval breakfast was Kölsch Bier, the regional brew served in skinny 0,2 or 0,3 L glasses. Actual food at the das Frühstück included Mett (basically raw ground beef that is mixed with onions and spices used as a spread on rolls), Brötchen, and Berliner (filled doughnuts, usually with marmalade, topped with sugar of a consistency halfway between that of powdered sugar and traditional granulated sugar... somehow so much better than a jelly-filled donut from the states).
In addition to being a day of frühstücken and Bier trinken, Karnevalsdonnerstag is celebrated by some as a women's holiday. At the I. Physikalisches Institut, women took turns cutting off bits of a tie worn by one of their Kollegen (but were nice enough to refrain from also cutting his shoe laces).
Oh, and costumes are not optional.
On Karnevalssamstag, Alex and I took a day trip to Münster, a city about two hours by train northeast of Köln. Although Karneval is generally localized to Köln, Bonn, and Düsseldorf (the latter two without a half-hour train ride of Köln), it still made its presence in the farther reaches of Nordrhein-Westfalen.
When we were there, Alex and I saw streamers of red, orange, and yellow flags criss-crossing the city streets. Store windows were packed with pictures and figurines of clowns, one of the most-widespread Karneval symbols. Just like in Köln, there were numerous food trucks selling Kölsch and Bratwurst, which hung off das Brötchen by no less than 10 cm (four inches) on each side.
A popular Karneval tradition is local percussion bands dressing up in color-coordinated clown costumes (how is that for alliteration?) and performing in the streets. The first group that Alex and I encountered up close was in Münster, in der Marktplatz in front of St.-Paulus-Dom. The music was rather bizarre, but the crowd was having a lot of fun watching the musicians take directions from a very enthusiastic conductor sporting a whistle, purple beret, and thin, curled mustache.
After an exhausting day of walking around Münster, we arrived back in Köln just after the beginning of the Jeisterzoch. We decided that, with the dreary, rainy weather, going home for dinner would be more fun than watching the ghost parade. Luckily, der Hauptbahnhof was full of Kölner folk wearing scary costumes—ghosts, zombies, and all sorts of monsters—so we got to see at least some of the show.
Karnevalssonntag is the first of three days of parades and showers of Süßigkeiten. Because Rosenmontag is the host of the largest parade in Köln, I was surprised to find that the parades on Karnevalssonntag were pretty serious themselves.
Die Promenade I attended was organized by a Kölner neighborhood (not sure which one). Most of the participants were dressed like clowns (matching other members in their given band or organization) and playing instruments very much like the ones I had seen in Münster on Karnevalssamstag. In between hitting instruments, the people threw candy to answer the constant shouts of "Camella!" (which is Kölsch dialect for "candy"). There were also high-rising floats sporting live musicians and funny characters throwing even more Camella and some odder items, like packs of tissues and roses. One person handing out roses from the street even kissed a complete stranger, which I learned is a common tradition among Karneval-goers.
Die Paraden continued on Dienstag, the last day of die fünfte Jahreszeit. These Paraden were much more low-key than those on Sonntag und Montag, but according to Stephan (the head of the research group), they are "the most beautiful."
Like the parades on Sonntag, the Dienstag parades are organized by different neighborhoods. The only difference is that these are put on by local schools, mostly Grundschulen. While some Schüler play musical instruments, most of the parade is silent except for the shouts of "Camella!" Most Schüler enthusiastically throw out candy and balls of popcorn. I attended the parade near Sülz, a neighborhood west of the Universitä zu Köln with Nadine, the post-doc I work with at the I. Physikalisches Institut. She and I both caught enough candy to fill our pockets, but Nadine left with some more interesting loot, too, namely a large box of Magnesium tablets that was tossed into the crowd, presumably by a parent-chaperone who owns eine Apotheke.
Late in the evening, just before midnight (the night was rainy and cold so I went to bed), Karneval came to a close in anticipation of Ash Wednesday. To absolve the Kölner folk for their sins (most of which were probably committed during the last week alone), local bars placed straw figures out into the streets. These figures were said to soak up all of the sins of the past year and were hence burned, giving the people a fresh and pure start as they entered the waiting season of Lent. This measure is probably a good move, seeing as many people had been drinking and partying continuously for about six days straight.
Karneval was like nothing I had ever experienced, but I am ecstatic to have been able to witness it in Köln for myself. Definitely more fun than Halloween in the States (and probably better than Mardi Gras too).