Following a degree in French and German, Brian Melican decided that, although France is merveilleux, Germany really is wunderbar. He moved there in 2008 as a freelance translator and journalist and started a videoblog called Lost in Deutschland, which has since been published as a book. Three years on, he is still getting to grips with the idiosyncracies of German culture.
One of the times when I feel most at home in Germany, when I almost forget that my Heimat lies in London, is Karneval (Carnival) the festive season leading up to Shrove Tuesday and the beginning of Lent.
Why Karneval? Why does an essentially Catholic tradition which baffles many Germans make me feel so at home? It’s hard to explain but, besides the sheer amount of fun, I think it has a lot to do with feeling like an insider.
I too was caught completely off guard by my first ever Karneval and thought all the people running around in clown costumes and all the women trying to cut off my (rather pricey) ties were absolute lunatics. Three years down the line, though, and I count the days until Rosenmontag and Veilchendienstag, on which Cologne and Düsseldorf, two of Germany’s largest cities, grind to a screeching, hooting and hollering halt to make way for mile-long parades and a street party of epic proportions.
Yes, on reflection, a lot of the attraction of Karneval is initiation. It is, for example, knowing someone in Cologne who has a flat overlooking the route of one of the smaller, less touristy local parades; it is being welcomed by them at eleven in the morning with a party popper, a bottle of Kölsch beer and a big, slightly ironic grin.
We sat on the window ledge with our legs dangling out, waiting for the parade to start. The street started filling up, almost everybody was in some form of colourful, ridiculous or revealing costume. Suddenly, a troop of mock-Napoleonic soldiers dressed in blue and gold rounded the corner and the first float was ambling past. Within seconds, the air was filled with ticker tape, glitter and flying sweets, and the crowd below went wild.
Some of the floats carry a healthy payload of chocolate and miniature plastic schnapps bottles. “Over here! Over here!” we yelled: “Bützje, Bützje! Kamelle, Kamelle!” or: “Give us a kiss and give us a sweet!” We got more than we bargained for, though, as a silo of schnapps slammed into us at high velocity and a 200g bar of chocolate hit Christian in the face, sending him flying back into the room and causing no small level of amusement to one of the girls on the float.
It was completely surreal, a moment of inadvertent comedy timing in the midst of a city in chaos. Yet that is just the point: experiencing a city at its maddest, seeing it drunk, dressed up, from a precarious windowsill is just the way to make you feel like you have lived there all your life.
At the end of the day, though, I’m afraid that I’m clutching at straws trying to describe what Karneval is like. It can only be experienced, not explained. So if you’re missing your initiation this year, put the 20th February 2012 in your diary and start thinking of a good costume.
Information on Cologne’s Carnival is on their official tourism website.