A priest, a clown and a guerilla walk into a bar. I was the clown, though a somewhat reluctant one. Not that I had any reservations about my surrounds – a beer was exactly what was needed right now. It was the other aspects of Cologne Carnival that appeared to be some sort of in-joke.
Firstly, there were the costumes. I was surrounded by elephants, Elvises and countless guys in drag, and they’d all gone to way too much effort. Fancy dress parties are one thing, but these people were happy wandering round town all day – nay, all week – in some outrageous getups. Even the most unlikely candidates – grumpy-looking codgers with lots of facial hair – were done up to the nines, and what was worse, they’d come as clowns, and were putting my token effort to shame.
The next problem was the music. Traditional German tunes are, to put it politely, a little slow. And just when you get used to the methodical beat, they go and throw in some bizarre electronic remix. But worse than the music was the dancing. At Carnival, linking arms and swaying apparently constitutes dancing, and no one seems to grow tired of it. Ever.
Suffice to say, it was with significant scepticism that I looked around our chosen venue for the evening, one of the many Carnival balls being held around town. Carnival is Germany’s second largest festival behind Oktoberfest, lasting a week and finishing on Ash Wednesday. Back when Lent was a time of serious fasting, Carnival was an excuse for one last party. Now, it’s a week-long bender of balls, street parties and parades where everyone in town, and hundreds of thousands of visitors, cast aside their inhibitions in search of a good time.
Trying to do my bit for culturally sensitive travelling, I chose not to blurt out how naff our party seemed and instead busied myself drinking kölsch – the local brew – and eating sausage. Ever so slowly, my spirits rose, particularly when the ‘DJ’ (note the inverted commas) came to the end of his set. But then he was replaced – by marching bands, complete with bagpipes.
Thankfully, this was where the aformentioned guerilla stepped in, hijacking our night and promising to show us the real Cologne. A train ride and 15-minute walk later, we’d left the centre of town behind and walked into a tiny pub. Well, squished our way into a tiny pub – the place was packed. Tonight’s a bit quiet,” the guerilla yelled above the din, seemingly apologetic. “Last night was much busier.”
By the time we’d pushed our way to the bar and ordered another round of kölsches, I’d come to recognise several similarities to the place we’d just left: namely, the costumes, music and dancing. Hmmm, thank God we’d escaped to the ‘real’ Cologne. The difference here was that the crowd was younger, and the kölsch was flowing even quicker.
As time passed, the combination of beer and my fellow revellers’ hedonism began to take effect. OK, so they were naff, but they seemed to be having a bloody good time, and their enthusiasm was infectious. I noticed my feet tapping along in time to the music and, the next time everyone linked arms, I grabbed a complete stranger, demanding to be included in their circle. Before I knew it, I’d picked out some words of the local football song (“Viva Cologne-i-a”, not that hard) and was belting it out with my new found friends.
Even a half-hour toilet break (it took that long to push through the crowd) couldn’t dampen my spirits, and before long I was back singing and swaying until 3am.
The next morning, reality reared its ugly head. What the hell had I been doing last night? I hoped there was no photographic evidence of my exploits. A sudden flash of panic waved through me: it hadn’t all been some elaborate German version of Candid Camera, had it?
Walking into the hotel breakfast room, my fears were allayed by a man dressed in six-inch heels and a cone-shaped boob tube. He was the maître d’. Struggling to hold down my cup of tea, I looked across and saw fellow guests knocking back beers. Had these people no limits?
By the time we got into town at 10.30am, festivities were well underway. There was a party being held in the square, and all the usual suspects had turned out: elephants, Elvises and plenty of clowns. Even the marching band on stage looked vaguely familiar. I stood, among groups of women my grandmother’s age who were happily knocking off their Früschoppen (traditional early morning beer), trying to fathom what was happening. It all looked so naff. Then someone offered me a kölsch. The rest was history.”