Last week I had the pleasure of attending Karneval, one of the pillars of the the cultural calendar in Germany. Despite the fact that I live much closer to Düsseldorf than I do Cologne, I chose the latter of the two places for my visit, as I have friends there. Of all the places that celebrate Karneval in Germany and The Netherlands, Cologne is really supposed to be where it's at, anyway - bigger, wilder, boozier, more fun, etc etc etc.
I didn't really know what Karneval was for quite awhile, even when I lived in The Netherlands. I knew what it was in Brazil, and obviously Venice as well, but I had no idea that it even existed in Northern Europe. Essentially, it's exactly the same thing there as it is everywhere else, though - a traditional street festival which marks the entry into Lent, when everyone gets to let their hair down and have fun before the 40 days of fasting, observance and general boredom before you stuff your face with chocolate over Easter. Hurrah! Bring it on.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect though, as I had heard that Karneval could be a bit .... unpredictable. Having already been to Oktoberfest in Munich and New Year's Eve in Berlin, It seemed to me that for a quite conservative, socially and culturally observant place such as Germany, a fair few of the big "moments" on the calendar can get a bit crazy - sometimes in a good way, sometimes bad.
Silvester (New Year's Eve) in Berlin was unfortunately the latter, and it shocked me beyond measure. It was an absolute war zone. It seemed that the entire place just descended into absolute bedlam in the worst possible way with people throwing bottles around, letting off fireworks everywhere, shooting them into crowds of people, letting them off in trains and in taxis, together with a real "who let the dogs out" sort of in-your-face aggression and casual violence. I expected it to be wild-ish, but not quite as destructive, and really didn't enjoy it at all. I went when I was living in London, long before my recent foray into German life, and I'm afraid I returned with some grave doubts about Germany and German people at large. What did it say if people feel the need to break things and throw bottles around to have fun? It was like they had been on their best behaviour all year, with all of the pent-up rage building and building, until they were allowed to let go in a mindless explosion before squeezing themselves back into their too-tight shell for another 364 days. It seemed really unhealthy to me; I was actually more than a little worried for my safety at various stages, and I also just found the whole thing more than a little troubling. It's only been quite recently that people have explained to me that Silvester in Berlin isn't really German, given the huge ethnic populations there, and shouldn't be seen as reflective of the rest of the country on that basis.
Oktoberfest was different - there was a LOT more sex in the air. I noticed it as soon as I got off the train, and it continued when I joined my friends and witnessed my ex-girlfriend flirting outrageously with one of her colleagues. Later on she kissed him passionately in full view of me and despite the fact that she had a live-in boyfriend, to whom she returned to that evening. It was one of the most wilfully base - and I'm afraid to say, erotic - things I have ever seen. I didn't understand it at all at first and was quite confronted by it, but she took pains to explain to me that this sort of thing was virtually expected; what happens at Oktoberfest stays at Oktoberfest, and she held no illusions that said boyfriend was doing exactly the same thing when he went. In the end it made sense to me. The clichés were all there about the brass bands and the busty girls and the men in little shorts - if Oktoberfest isn't about being naughty, then what is it about?
Karneval, I had heard, was a bit of a mixture of the two. A bit of bedlam and madness, a fair amount of sex. In fact, I heard that one of the defining features of Karneval was that it was a time where everyone gets a hallpass, and gets to let off a bit of polyamorous steam without getting in trouble. I even asked a couple about this once, when the topic came up. I wanted to be diplomatic, in case one of them exercised that "right" without the other knowing or something (these things can be complicated), so I asked in as neutral a manner as possible. In my best bumbling, vaguely Hugh Grant manner, I said "er - I've heard that Karneval is sort of, er, about ..... partner-swapping. Is that true?" I wasn't sure what they'd say or whether I would dredge up some bad blood somehow, but the reaction was pretty funny. They both shared a look, giggled, and said to me "yes, that's EXACTLY what it's about".
So what was Karneval going to bring me, I wondered? Was I finally going to get laid, after however long? And if so, was there an ettiquette to it all? I was also going with couples who were all locals - would someone's girlfriend or wife suddenly throw herself at me like something out of "Perfume"? Would my natural studliness cause all of the women in the vicinity to take leave of their senses at some point? How would it all fit together??
I needn't have worried, of course. It was altogetherly much more sedate than any of that. Despite the above conversation I didn't see much evidence of "goings-on" at all, in fact when I engaged one of the locals in conversation at one point she made it very clear that she was married - clearly she hadn't read that manual either. What I did see was a general openness and a willingness to engage with strangers that was really fun, and actually quite nice. We spent quite a bit of time in a bar in the middle of town, which for me didn't seem to serve much of a purpose beyond going to the pub in the middle of the day in stupid outfits, but once I'd had a few drinks I was more than able to get talking to a few local girls, all of whom were really happy to chat. I'm used to the equivalent scene on a Saturday night being pretty grim, where only the tallest, big-shouldered guys carry much cred, but it wasn't like that at all. One foray to the streets outside even precipitated me being bailed up by a sexy policewoman, pirate and Robin Hood, who all apparently took umbrudge to me accidentally bumping into one of their party by flirting with me outrageously and stealing my headgear. Like a complete doofus, I didn't take it any further though and didn't even ask for so much as a phone number. I'm really going to have to work on acting in the heat of the moment if I'm to get myself out of this rut that I'm in!
The purpose of attending Karneval is not just to pick up, of course. It's to have fun. And we did that in abundance. It was the complete polar-opposite of anything I experienced in that Berlin New Year's Eve, either - the whole city seemed to have relaxed into a loud, slightly pissed state - that part of the evening when you're about three or four beers in and everyone is your friend. Thankfully, that feeling lasted from the first drink to the last with me, and together with the street bands, wurst vendors and cheap but good beer, it was a really fun day. These sorts of things are great for my German as well - like a lot of people I speak much better when I'm relaxed, with friends and .... pissed as a newt. Call it "social lubrication". Hopefully there'll be more chances to do similar things in future - it's further evidence that my German experiment is working, and I really hope that I can go again. Two slightly drunk thumbs up!!!