When I told my family’s former exchange student, Isi, that I was applying to spend my year as a Fulbright student in Bonn, Germany, one of the first things she said was: “That’s one of the best places to celebrate Karneval!” My experience concurs!
For those of you that may be unfamiliar, Karneval is pre-Lenten celebration that takes place in several different areas of Germany and the surrounding countries. Traditions vary, even with regions – in the Rhineland, for example, celebrating in Cologne is quite different (or so I have heard) from celebrating in Düsseldorf. Perhaps most importantly, the traditional celebratory shouts between these two areas are different – in Cologne and Bonn you say, “Alaaf!” whereas in the Düsseldorf region you yell “Helau!” My housemate warned me that on no uncertain terms was I to yell Helau, or I might have an angry crowd around me quite soon (I am quite confident this was an exaggeration, but I still made sure to abide by this guidline!)
Anyways, Karneval, or Fasching as it is called in other parts of Germany, is a celebration that dates back to pre-Roman times. It is essentially a time to celebrate and indulge before the fasting of Lent begins. This means lots of sugar! The closest counterpart in the U.S. would be Mardi Gras, but I would argue (at least from my limited experience of Mardi Gras) that Karneval is completely different. Celebrations start on Thursday, Weiberfastnacht or Women’s Karneval Day, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. On the suggestion of many friends, I spent this first day of my experience of Karneval in arguably the best place to celebrate Karneval – Cologne! And what a day! I took the train (about a 20-minute ride from Bonn) with my housemate Felix, grinning and taking in the sights around me. People in costume were EVERYWHERE! In the trams and buses, on the streets. The train to Cologne was PACKED with costumed people laden with bags of (alcoholic) beverages to enjoy throughout the day. The train was crazy full, but we managed to get seats near some dressed-up people playing music, and we shared a few drinks en route! One of them had brought a speaker on board, so we listened and swayed to typical Kölsch Karneval music the entire way to Cologne. (If you’ve never heard this before, you should look some up! Such a characteristic style – rather jaunty – and something I will now forever associate with Karneval and Germany!)
Another of my housemates met us at the Köln Süd train station, and we all walked over to a giant field – absolutely PACKED with people, mostly students – near a stage with a band playing. And there I spent the better part of several hours – meeting new people, dancing, laughing at cool/ridiculous costumes, singing along to songs, and more! That evening was spent rather quietly, with my housemates and I relaxing after a rather long, if exhilarating day. I had, naturally, been in costume; specifically, I was a cowgirl! I chose this mainly because, while I have a fairly limited wardrobe here, I already had plenty of denim articles, a flannel shirt, and a bandana. So all I had to buy was a hat! While the weather certainly was mild compared to February in Minnesota, it still wasn’t exactly warm, and after all day spent outdoors in a flannel and denim jacket – rather than my usual winter coat – tea, a book, and a blanket were just the ticket.
Because the next day Karneval continued on! One of the biggest parts of Karneval – besides costumes and Karneval music and eating and drinking – are parades! After getting in my “Köln Karneval Experience” on Thursday, I spent the rest of Karneval in Bonn, much of it at various parades! These are such a blast! Floats going by throwing out candy, flowers, and other goodies; costumed people running around and scrambling to pick up the candies, grinning and yelling “Alaaf” (Karneval greeting), “Kamelle” (Kölsch dialect for sweets – what we’re a requesting!), “Strüßjer” (said “Streusia; Kölsch for flowers, which are also commonly given out at the parades), and “Fastelovend!” (when I asked what this means, my housemates simply said, “it means Karneval!”) all the while! The parade on Saturday was particularly fun, because we went as a WG, meeting up with several former members of the WG at the parade, and had a great time laughing, playing games, dancing (can-can style at some points), and generally enjoying ourselves before and throughout the parade. Just for fun – and in hopes of attracting higher-value candy rewards (sometimes you can get whole Milka bars, if you’re one of a lucky chosen few!) – I sat on my housemate Felix’s shoulders for a while, yelling for “Kamelle!” from my perch while he danced around. I can’t say I’ve spent much time on anyone’s shoulders in a while, certainly not in cowgirl costume, and that was quite a lot of fun!
Rosenmontag was the last big day of Karneval celebration – and specifically, the day of a HUGE, hours-long parade through Bonn Altstadt. I figured out that holding out my hat was a great way to receive extra candy, and we all collected quite a haul – we still have plenty of bags of Karneval candy sitting around the WG! Besides the candy, it was again lots of fun to look around at other’s costumes, enjoy the music, sing and dance, and generally make merriment – only this time, on a much larger scale! I believe just about all of Bonn comes to see this parade, and we were packed many people deep on both sides of the street!
Overall, my experience of Karneval was an incredible success, I think! There’s really nothing quite like it in the U.S. If pressed, I would say it’s something like a mixture of Halloween, Mardi Gras, and say, the Minnesota State Fair, but really, I think it is best judged as it’s own unique event. I enjoyed myself immensely, in no small part thanks to the efforts of my housemates to include me in everything – from inviting me to parades, to applying the near-requisite glitter to my temples and cheeks! Besides being fun, I truly think Karneval is an incredible way to build community and cultural pride. It was such a great feeling to be a part of and surrounded by all of these people, all celebrating a common cultural tradition together! As long as you had a costume on, you belonged and were a part of things, singing, chatting, perhaps finding new friends, and making merriment in community.
So will I return to celebrate another Karneval in Germany? I may not be able to say precisely when, but I think I can confidently answer that question with a “Yes!”