When I first arrived in Germany, I was informed that every year in Cologne, a carnival would take place where people partied from dusk till dawn. I was even told that “people are drunk before 12”. I’ve never heard of anything like that before. The carnival attracted people from all walks of life. Whether they were people from England, France, America, China or any other country. Tradition has it that everyone is supposed to dress up in a costume for the carnival. I didn’t do it do it though. My excuse: I’m a foreigner. The carnival festivals would have already begun by the time I arrive, but I’ll be in time for Rosenmontag, when the parade is held.
To get to Cologne, my friend and I took the InterCity train. It goes a lot faster than the RB and RE trains that we took before. We reached Heidelberg in 45 minutes instead of the hour and a half it took us before. Every time the train goes through a tunnel my ears went crazy similar to how it feels when a plane takes off. As should have been expected, the train to Cologne was super packed and we spent the better part of half an hour standing until the conductor came by and informed us that there were empty seats near the back of the train. I sat down with a group of Chinese and Taiwanese exchange students. Probably because I’m used to seeing Asians everywhere like in Vancouver, it seemed a lot more normal to me when I sat down with the Asian crowd.
I started a conversation with them in Mandarin since I’ve barely spoken a word of Chinese to anybody except to my parents and asked them where they were from. We all ended up talking until the end of the train ride. I tried my best to speak in Mandarin, but seeing that I barely know the language I often couldn’t understand what was being said and couldn’t express myself. Luckily one of the people in their group spoke Cantonese and was able to translate. Ironically, this was the most Mandarin I ever spoke in my life in a single day. Eventually, we all just ended up speaking English. I suppose thats the way it works when a group of Asians all speak different dialects of Chinese.
One of the girls had a habit of keeping a list of names of everyone she has met with where and when they met. Interesting hobby. In a way, it’s like signing someone’s yearbook at the end of the school year. Before the train ride ended, we all took a picture together even though we had just met. My friend and I thought that was really funny since we and the group of interns always talked about the stereotype where Asians really like to take pictures.
We went our separate ways not long after we arrived at the Koln Hauptbahnhof. When we exited the station, we saw huge crowds of people dressed up in costumes and some were dancing to carnival music with beers in their hands. Groups of people gathered around street performers playing carnival music and looked like they were having a great time. Looking further into the distance, the sight of the Koln Dom struck us. This cathedral totally sets the first impressions for every single person who visits this city. It was taller and bigger than all the churches and cathedrals I saw in the past. I stood about 50 m away from it and still couldn’t get a complete shot of it. My next thought was, “We have to go inside.” Unfortunately, the church was closed because of the carnival. I hoped that maybe we could visit it the next day, Sunday, when people go to church.
According to the tourist info center, almost all of the city’s tourist attractions would be closed for the carnival, which meant there was nothing to see except the carnival. We walked around the plaza where the cathedral was and saw the most unique costumes ever. Even hobos on the street had a costume. Apart from the usual ones like schoolgirls, policemen, and suits of various animals, by far the best one was a group of people dressed up as bulls and Spaniards to reenact the bull festival. Unfortunately, they ran by too fast for me to be able to get a picture of it. The ones dressed up as the bulls literally ran after the others down the street. Everyone heard their yelling and screaming and they definitely attracted a lot of attention.
Prior to coming to Cologne, we organized the trip with other interns at UBC that currently work in Hanover. While we waited for the others to arrive, the only thing to do was to go to our hotel and drop off our things and walk around the city center. As expected, all the shops on the street were closed, except for restaurants, souvenir stores and street vendors. Since we planned the trip late, all of the hotels/hostels close to the city center were either booked way in advance or costed an arm and a leg. We ended up staying at a hotel in a suburb called Wahn, and it took a bus and a train ride to get to the city center.
The hotel gave off a Chinese vibe the moment we went in because the hotel’s restaurant served Chinese food and they hung up Chinese paintings everywhere. I even overheard one of the chef’s speaking in Mandarin to someone else over the phone. The reason I even mention this is because I didn’t think Germany’s Asian community was that large so I didn’t expect something like this. Almost all the Asians I see come to Germany as tourists.
After dropping off our things at the hotel we walked to the train station since we never figured out the location of the bus stop. Along the way, we found the townspeople in the suburb had their own carnival parade. As usual, almost every adult held a beer in their hand. It was nowhere as massive as the celebration in the city center, but the streets were crowded enough such that it took us at least half an hour to walk to the station when it should have taken only twenty minutes. Everywhere I went, I’d always step on glass from people just smashing the shot bottles on the ground when they were done with them. These were everywhere in the city center.
After arriving at the main station again, we met up with the others from UBC. The party began at that point. After all, the Cologne Carnival gives people good reason to party even harder than usual. After buying the local beer, the ten of us went to one of the rooms they stayed at and got our drink on. Before long, a lot of us were tipsy, if not drunk. Good thing for me though, is that I only had 2 beers. I didn’t quite like the taste of Koelsch. Before going outside, we carried as much beer as we could. While outside, we looked for a bar or club. Cologne at night became a totally different place. Everyone outside at night were pretty much people who probably had too much to drink. I know this happens in big cities, but during the carnival, there are just more drunks out than usual. A lot of the drunkards broke out in carnival folk songs, while we as Canadians sang the Canadian national anthem. The people there probably didn’t even know what we were singing about.
Even in our intoxicated state, we still looked at the Cologne Dom in amazement. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I even managed to get some nighttime photos of it. Looking at those pictures, a lot of them were quite blurry. Around the church plaza, we’d hear a group of people just randomly yelling every now and then.
When we got to the old town, there were a lot more people than at the cathedral, and like us, they too wandered around the town looking for a good time. And almost right away, our group separated. It’s quite difficult to keep a bunch of drunk people together I guess. We ended up in several different bars and not really staying in one place for over ten minutes. Nothing super crazy happened anyway. My friend and I stayed out late enough to miss our last bus back to our hotel, so we ended up speedwalking our way back in the freezing cold. That was a very long fifteen minutes. At the time, everything felt great, but once I sobered up the next day, I realized everything I did at the time was completely pointless.
The next morning, we went back into town and went to the tourist information center to see what was open today. While there, I saw two of the Asian girls we met on the train here and they told us the cathedral was open and that they went there already. I was very eager to go inside the cathedral. It’s one of the most amazing works of architecture and civil engineering of the olden times I’ve ever seen. The inside of the cathedral didn’t disappoint either. When I walked in, a sermon was going on so none of the tourists were allowed to freely wander around. But since a sermon was happening, we heard the church organs. The music filled the entire cathedral and everyone probably thought that was the most beautiful church music they’ve ever heard in their life.
I noticed that all the churches and cathedrals I’ve visited follow a similar pattern in their construction. Above the entrance is always the church tower with the bells and the left and right sides of the entrance are usually statues set up to illustrated Jesus’ sacrifice in some way. The windows there always face east west, probably to allow the suns rays to illuminate the entire scene.
The agenda today for the carnival was that there would be a parade featuring the children of Cologne. No offense to the children, but the parade really wasn’t all that interesting or maybe I’m just not a fan of parades. The best thing about it though was that they gave out candy. They grabbed handfuls and handfuls of candy and just threw it at the crowds. At one point they even brought out a catapult. The more candy they threw out, the more candy wrappers ended up on the street. But since the city has been doing the carnival for years, they were quite prepared. The fact that the garbage crews cleaned up the town overnight amazed me. There was almost no more broken glass everywhere, but that all changed as the day went on.
The best part of today was visiting the Rhine River that goes through Cologne. On such a sunny day, the view was amazing. While walking across the bridge to the other side of the Rhine we saw that on the entire length of the bridge couples that just got married would place locks on the fence stating their names and their date of marriage. There were easily at least a hundred thousand locks. We met up with our friends from UBC and together we chilled at a spot overlooking the Rhine, and watched as the sun slowly set.
Almost everywhere we went, we could hear carnival music, either from marching bands, street performers or giant speakers. It really set the mood for the whole celebration.
For dinner, I had a very unique steak sandwich. The steak itself was probably three times the size of the bread. It was about half an inch thick at least six inches in length and width. It costed six euros, but it was definitely worth it.
At night, the same routine as last night happened, but while we were drinking, we heard stories of the night before. All the stories just sounded super outrageous. I heard stories about people randomly smashing a baby carriage, high on weed, falling asleep on the street, eating breakfast with a bunch of probably homosexual Austrians dressed up as band members from KISS, and partying at a gay club. None of that happened to me (which is good), but those stories were definitely fun to hear. Since it was Sunday, the parties were not as crazy as the night before. There were a lot less people out. But we did see a really drunk French person on the street. What was so funny about him was that he kept taking our beer bottles and doing tricks with them like walking around with a bottle balanced on his head. The scary part was that he was really good at it. But like the night before, everything we did seemed pointless the next morning.
The monday of the carnival, known as Rosenmontag, featured the biggest parade of the carnival and is probably attracted more visitors than any other day of the carnival. When the parade started, we were walking on the parade route for some reason, which was kind of strange. Luckily, we weren’t the only ones so it wasn’t as awkward as it was supposed to be. The parade was similar to the previous days’ parade, but there a lot more marching bands that played and larger parade floats. They gave out more candy too. People would call out “kamelle!”, which means “sweets” in order to get the people in the parade to throw candy to them. Some of the floats had political messages about Facebook and Google Streetview denying people of their privacy. On four separate occasions, a chocolate bar hit me directly in the head. One of them impacted directly on my sunglasses and protected me. I ate so much candy that after watching the parade for over four hours that my stomach told me it had enough. I didn’t even eat dinner. In the beginning, we were all excited about catching the candy they threw at us, but four hours later, we thought, “when does the parade end?” At one point we began to dodge the candy thrown at us. We had way too much. Seeing that the parade hadn’t ended for so long, and that we stood in the cold for all that time, we left prematurely before taking the train back to Stuttgart. While walking back, we came across someone throwing confetti and I somehow managed to walk right into a cluster of flying confetti. During the course of the parade, the city turned from something beautiful into a city with garbage laden streets. Most people never took the time to throw their candy wrappers in the garbage. And also like the other nights, broken beer bottles filled the streets. It also didn’t help when people kept throwing confetti into the air.
Before leaving, I took a few more pictures of the cathedral. I kept thinking I needed more and more pictures of it. The architecture just amazed me so much.
On the way back, our IC train was delayed so we got to ride the faster ICE train in order to make our connecting train on time. We didn’t get a seat since there was basically two trains ful of people jam packed into one train. We ended up at Frankfurt Airport as part of the slight detour. The trains that we took were all full of people who had just come from the carnival and were probably still super drunk. They stayed on the train that way and ended up yelling, screaming and banging on the walls for the whole duration of the ride. Public intoxication is a very common thing in Germany, and it’s not only on special occasions like these. After four hours of train rides, we finally got home, and just in time to sleep and go back to work the next day…
My photo album for Cologne