Come this April and I have been living in Germany for four years. I would say I have integrated well (though the language is still my White Demon which I need to conquer) and having a half-German boyfriend has fed me details of the culture. Especially if said boyfriend is from Cologne. You see, legend has it that the Germans from Cologne are the friendliest of them all. And I would not disagree. They live in a city where diversity is just as common as being German. And anything that takes place in Germany, is held in a bigger, nicer, more extravagant manner in Cologne. From Christmas markets to anti-racist demonstrations to the Kölner Karneval.
I live in a small gorgeous university town down south, near the French border, where the summers are divine and autumns polychromatic, right out of a water colour painting. A recent dinner conversation with a Heidelberg commuter opened my eyes to something I had deemed a positive attribute of living in Heidelberg. “It’s like living in a dream” she sighed.
“Oh yes, it’s beautiful.”
“That and the fact that it’s not real” she said surprising me. She went on to explain that she had had a hard time finding people with “normal jobs” among her daughter’s friends’ parents; bus drivers, cleaners, deliverymen…”You are surrounded by a certain class of people.” she explained “either the wealthy or the academics”.
I listened while I twirled my fork in my spaghetti and thought long and hard when she asked how many real Heidelberger friends I have. I came up with “none”.
It is true, Heidelberg is like a dream. It has all the picturesque aesthetic elements while being occupied mainly by students, academics, scientists, physicians and educators. Tourists pour in and out no matter what season and the waves of exchange students each semester make it impossible to get to a point where “you know everyone”.
In the last year I have been frequenting Cologne (or Köln as the Germans call it) since Tim is a devoted Kölner. I was first introduced to the city on a hot spring day, through a Kölsch-infused walk in the city, up and down the Dome, a stroll by the Rhein, a Halber Hahn and some more Kölsch. And since then we have made sure to visit that part of Germany quite often, experiencing a new treat each time.
When Tim’s father told us that he had invited his Spanish friends, a family of 6, to Germany for the carnival, and he wanted me to meet them, I knew the Carnival was a serious event. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what I was about to witness.
You see, Heidelberg also attempts at Fasching festivities each year. But it always leaves observers yearning for more. People in costumes are scarce. To me it had been defined as one slightly bigger fancy dress party. Until I went to Köln.
My fella had been bearing the Scandinavian winter for a fortnight while on a business trip in Sweden and only landed in Germany on the evening before Valentine’s day. Neither of us being big fans of the romantic holiday, we jumped in the car on the morning of V-Day and headed north to his hometown, with two pink bunny costumes packed in the boot. I had been silently hoping to dodge the costume wearing part and participate as a mere observor. “Driving through Köln you won’t see anyone in normal clothes” his mother told me in a comforting tone. She even offered to drag up four bags full of costumes her family had accumulated along the years. “We have everything. Hippie outfits, clown outfites, ninja outfits.” I had secretly wanted to go as hot Persian girl, “not much effort would be needed” I joked.
Tucked cosily in our fluffy bunny costumes we picked up Tim’s sister and brother-in-law, Pocahontas and Bavarian beer drinker respectively, and headed to Tim’s father’s residence where a group of swift-speaking Spaniards worked together to build up two extra dining tables for everyone to enjoy a meal around.
I was introduced to each and every one of them, dressed as Harlequins, black and white paint sitting on their faces. I offered a hand to shake and an “Encantada” (something I had learned to pronounce upon meeting Tim’s paternal grandparents, aka, Yayos). My latter gesture was received better than my former as I was pulled in for a warmer hello, since I learned that Spaniards are cheek-kissers even on the first encounter rather than mere hand-shakers.
After a meal that was washed down with Kölsch (of course, what else?) we headed to a bar where without exaggeration, not one soul was in normal attire. Unless you call an Elvis or a Zeus costume normal, daily apparel. We danced for hours sipping on beer and downing pomegranate shots, to Karneval music (purely German lyrics, lacking depth in content).
I was caught standing back and watching the dancers, drinkers and sing-alongers with wide eyes and a wider grin. I even got asked if I was feeling sick again, since my amused glare looked more like me sufferring from exhaustion (I had been down with a flu and a low immune system for seven straight days right before our trip).
The next day we watched Tim’s mother paint his little brother’s face, giving him the “happy clown” look, don her pirate costume that went well with his stepfather’s outfit and walk downtown where the “Karneval Zug” was supposed to pass, throwing sweets at spectators.
We drove home to a cloudy Heidelberg, no sign of “Karneval Zug”, no costumes and no sunshine. The bunnies were thrown straight into the washing machine where they twirled and span, their faces pressed against the glass in a spooky manner. They will have to find home in one of those four bags, for next year I’m going as a certain former president. Scruffy- looking, in a coat two sizes too big, claims he has a PhD… I think I’ve given it away…
Photography by Alexander Strick