28 February 2007


I apologize for being so very behind on blogging...I left a "to be continued" thing on a previous post that I really should continue. And we've been in two whole different countries since then, and I want to tell you about it. And it is about to be March. I don't know if that is apropos, but it just seems indicative of how FAST everything is moving. I've been married for EIGHT months! I've been living in Belgium for SIX months! And it all still feels so new.

OK, first things first. Two weekends ago, the Sunday and Monday before Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, we took a two-day trip with a couple of friends to Cologne, Germany, to whoop it up at Karneval! I had never been to any carnival celebration before, mostly because in the US it doesn't really exist unless you go to New Orleans. And my preconceived notions about carnival mostly came from pictures, involving the beads of New Orleans, the sparkly masks of Venice, and the feathers and skin in Rio.

Needless to say, Carnival in a cold country is bound to be a different animal. Also, I had imagined that there would be clearly defined boundaries between the participants in costume (the paraders and some locals) and the spectators not in costume (tourists and some locals). Boy, was I wrong. On Rose Monday, as it is called in Köln, I could probably have counted on one hand the number of people who weren't in costume. Including the four of us. M and our friend got scolded by a complete stranger for not wearing one.

And the costumes were incredibly charming and creative, often homemade, often groups of friends or family wearing the same costumes or variation on a theme. Like Halloween, but even better. Here's a group of people watching the parade, at a quiet moment:

Usually, everybody is screaming "karmelle!!!" and waving their hands in the air for the people on the floats to throw them candy or flowers. And they throw good candy! The take is almost as good as Halloween, especially if you work hard at it, lunging for flying sweets, and attracting the attention of the candy-throwers. They like to aim for someone so if you catch their eye... Our group carried an inverted umbrella for part of it, and got three big boxes of truffles! As in WHOLE boxes! As you can imagine, if you're not vigilant, this can be dangerous. M got pegged in the lip by a large chocolate bar, and it left a mark! Here's a picture of the candy-throwers:

The parades were very kid-friendly, and everyone was very friendly in general. Standing in the cold for hours (the parades go on and on) means you should be prepared, and people packed wagons full of food (and, of course, beer; these are Germans we're talking about). The man next to us offered us the cheese snacks they had brought, and despite our obvious touristy-ness (loud and clear, judging by our lack of costume), everybody was eager to tell us how great Karneval was, and thrilled that we were there. There is a huge amount of city pride, as a song and slogan attests, in the local dialect: "Mir all sind Kölle" (We are all Cologners).

The level of insider-ness and tradition, however, was clear. EVERYBODY knew the words to ALL of the songs that were ubiquitous in bars and in the parades. These are soupy, syrupy, oompah-oompah songs that are called "heart music," and as far as we could tell even the young people were cheerfully into them, singing along heartily. There are formulaic introductions to parades and when certain things are said, everybody yells "Alaaf!!!" I'm not sure what it means.

The parades were a wonderful mix of traditional costumes and horseback brigades, marchers in costume, cheerleaders, marching bands, kids and adults, and not overly elaborate floats, including one of Angela Merkel.

We stayed for two days and a night, and that was plenty. We didn't even drink that much compared to the locals, who apparently have unlimited tolerance for loud parades and lots of beer. You see the real diehards carrying beer glass holsters around their necks; all day long and all night long the party continues, for DAYS ON END! I don't know how they do it. I was ready to leave after two days. In those two days, our diet consisted largely of beer, candy, and street food; I don't think I ate anything remotely resembling a vegetable the whole time, unless you count fried potato pancakes with applesauce. This guy, pictured with our friend holding potato pancakes, apparently had an intravenous drip of beer:

We did manage to visit a couple of the classic pubs, where we got into the spirit of things, pounding on tables to the oompah music, and singing along when we could to the spontaneous eruption of patriotic songs. Our favorites were "Viva Colonia," because it was partially in Spanish, maybe, and "yadih yadih yadih yoh, yadih yoh, yadih yoh," because as you can tell, the words were a snap.

So, that was our trip to Cologne. Next time, I just need to remember to bring a costume.

As a parting shot, a group of bunny tough guys hanging out at a pub:

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