Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Fifth Season

During the period before Lent, Catholics around the world let loose with extravagant celebrations. Brazil has its Carneval; New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. In Europe, the biggest and arguably most famous one happens in Cologne (or Köln, as it's written in German, or Kölle, as it's affectionely called by locals). There, the festival is called Karneval, though elsewhere in the German-speaking world it's known by other names, including Fasching and Fastnacht.

Karneval is Swissy Pie's favorite time of year. He makes plans for it months in advance;
he (nearly) cries when it's over. I wouldn't be surprised if he's made this annual pilgrimmage to Köln ever since he could legally drink. This year, since I was in the neighborhood (sort of), and since I was curious what the fuss was all about, I decided to go up as well.

First, a bit of background. The Karneval season actually begins on the 11th of November at 11:11 am, and plods tamely along until Weiberfastnacht, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, when the Tolle Tage (Crazy Days) begin. From then on, the population of Köln more or less doubles, as impressively costumed people from all over the region squeeze into the city's bars to spend their nights consuming kegs of kölsch (the excellent local beer), bellowing along to songs celebrating Kölle, and flirting with anyone and everyone within shouting distance.

Presumably, everyone spends their days recoverying from the previous night's excesses, though on Monday (Rosenmontag) there's a huge, four-hour parade through the downtown area, followed by smaller neighborhood parades on Tuesday. As in New Orleans, ancient clubs organize the whole thing. They build elaborate floats for the procession, they organize the marching bands and the troupes of dancing girls, they procure the tons of candy and acres of flowers that are showed upon bystanders. Their own uniforms are militaristic Prussian get-ups, but then they make a mockery of it by singing subversive songs, disobeying orders, and generally acting up.

The whole thing draws to a close at midnight Tuesday with the burning of the Nubbel. The Nubbel is the straw-stuffed mannequin that has been placed over the entrance to each bar. It is held responsible for all the sins committed during Karneval. At midnight, after a short comedic mass, during which its crimes are enumerated, it's set on fire. The ashes are then mixed with water and used to mark crosses on bystanders' foreheads. And with that, the holiday is over.

So what was it like?

It's really difficult to describe the mood. On the one hand, it's crazy. People are sometimes at the bar for over 12 hours at a go, which is remarkable considering that they're standing the whole time. Tables, chairs, and anything else that can be removed, are removed, to maximize the number of people that can be jammed in.
People are standing on benches and windowsills. There's scarcely any room to move, much less dance; getting to the bar requires a good deal of shoving. The queues for the women's bathroom are rivaled only by the queues to get in, so perhaps it's not too surprising that you find lots of females invading the men's bathroom. (No one even blinks at this.) Small wonder that these places have to close for a week afterward, to renovate post-Karneval.

On the other hand, there's such a sense of friendliness and familiarity that even foreigners like me immediately feel included. The same litany of Karneval ballads are played everywhere, every night. The songs are written to be very repetitive, so anyone can pick up on the refrain and sing along. (It also helps that many of them have been ripped off from other sources. Gypsy Kings, Frank Sinatra, Negro spirituals, klezmer music... you name it, and it's probably been rewritten as a love song to Kölle.) Strangers link arms and sway together to the music. And people are very well behaved. While it's true that whereever there are drinks, there are jerks, there are a lot fewer than one would expect, given the amount of alcohol being consumed and the crowds.

So Karneval ends up feeling like Halloween, karaoke, and a neighborhood block party, all rolled into one. I now understand why Swissy Pie likes to go. But how he manages to party like that night after night remains a mystery.

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