Friday, February 27, 2009

Kölle Alaaf! and Helau!

or, having a blast at Karneval

Click here for images of one weekend in Frankfurt and the next in Düsseldorf and Cologne. I'll put them at the end, too if you want to read on to get more of the scoop before peeking at the end of the tale.

Two weekends ago I took a brief jaunt to Frankfurt with Erin to visit Katie in the largest city in Hesse. We were invited to join Katie and her Erasmus friends for a night in the bars and clubs of Frankfurt. One of the locals was a packed student club that was actually in one of the university's buildings. The coat check involved handing over your garments to a student employee who received them in a white garbage bag. These were then piled in the back to be reclaimed at the end of the night. The system keeps your scarf with your coat, but it makes the entryway an obstacle course of ripped and abandoned bags trying to trip you up.

The club itself was an interesting experience. If you asked me to describe a German club, I would probably think of a Berlin techno club à la Matrix Reloaded with lots of partially clothed people grinding on each other. In this club, even though it was packed, everyone very chastely kept their hands to themselves and bounced to the music. It was vaguely reminiscent of dances at Lakota Ridge Junior High. Except for the beer.

The next day Erin and I visited the Liebieghaus Skulptur Museum in Frankfurt. They had an exhibit of reconstructed Greek and Roman statues that I read about in a Smithsonian magazine my grandfather sent my way over a year ago. The exhibit displays the work of artists and scientists who have used modern methods to uncover the coloration that used to adorn the statues that we think of as solid white marble. Here are some images besides the ones in my facebook album (these are from the Glyptothek in Munich, where the exhibition began). Trying to imagine the Acropolis or the Roman Forum decked out in technicolor is a little difficult, but really makes the Mediterranean seem like an even more vibrant place than I ever thought.

The next excursion was to the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. I may be giving a tour to Erin's host family and friends at some point, so I wanted to check it out before pretending to be the expert on their displays. They have a hall filled with dinosaur skeletons. Not quite as imposing as the real bones on display in Berlin, but still massive and beautiful. The real stars are the Messel and Stohnhofen fossils. I did a little lecturing for Erin, Katie, and Jonathan (an Erasmus friend)'s collective benefit. They didn't seem too bored by the fun facts. We also discovered that Katie is not a fan of dead, stuffed animals. Natural History museums are not her favorite place to hang.

After meeting Miya in Frankfurt for a catch-up dinner and promises to visit Heidelberg, Erin and I passed off our sleeping space on Katie's floor to her and departed for the Rhineland to prepare for Karneval.

As I mentioned in my previous post from last Thursday, the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday (Ashenmittwoch) are a big deal in the Catholic corners of Germany. After partying with the office on Thursday, I struck out for Düsseldorf to meet Marty, Erin, and Marco for the second largest party in the Rhineland (Cologne is arguably the largest Karneval celebration around. It's also the larger city.). We settled in at an Alt Beer (the local Düsseldorfer drink) Brew House and watched the insanity begin as chefs and clowns wandered through the doors.

Thus began a run of days where alcohol never really left my system. Saturday was in Cologne, after meeting Shane, and we began exploring the old part of the city where Kölsch and bratwurst stands abounded, then wended our way to a packed, sweaty club where we met several characters including an awkward Superman and a randy pirate-woman.

Sunday was to be a day off, but after picking up Halley we started a tour of the Altstadt of Düsseldorf that soon became another party. The streets were packed with crazy costumes and revelers. It felt rude not to join in. One of the beautiful aspects of the Karneval street party is that everyone participates. Neighbors and friends meet in the street to finish a keg, sing traditional Karnval tunes (including a "Country Roads" remix), and say hello to the rest of the city. Their kids wander around, too and their grandparents might stop by dressed as Elvis or pirates.

Monday is the largest day for Karneval and could be considered an official holiday in the Rhineland. Businesses shut down and everyone goes to see the Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) parades. The floats are decorated with politically charged caricatures with Napoleonic, Prussian and modern periods. Quite a stir was created in Düsseldorf when a float depicting Pope Benedict shaking hands with a Satanic, Nazi figure of Bishop Richard Williamson.

For our part, we decided to get to Cologne for the largest parade. A million and a half people were expected to turn up, so we left early with a crate of Kölsch ready to go. We had to abandon the first train we tried to board because it was overflowing with men in drag, fuzzy kangaroos, and Amy Winehouses. The next one had plenty of room for us all, and we bonded with other German students who loved that Americans were getting into the Karneval mood. We ended up hanging out with them for the parade as we tried to catch flying chocolate bars and flowers thrown by float riders. If you want a little insight into German political concerns, study the following images taken by Erin:

Putin ready to clobber the world.

Angela Merkel as Germany after getting a little work done.
I can tell you the SPD is a powerful politica party. Can't tell you what's going on though.

The parade ended, the clean-up began immediately and the quest for a club to rabble-rouse in was initiated. Following three Amy Winehouses who were following a confident Superman, we wound through the streets, past packed bars and brew houses, finally settling in extrablatt for the night. We danced and sang, but did not eat much. I will willingly admit it's all a bit hazy, but that's how it's supposed to be on Rosenmontag.

The next day was a real break. We didn't get to bed until the morning had gotten rolling. We went out for hamburgers after a string of very German meals of beer, wurst, and Speißbraten. Halley traveled to Bonn with me. As a International Relations guru, she wanted to see the former capital of Germany in all its quaint glory. Tuesday night, we discovered the party was still going in Bonn, but got home so we could get up early for Ash Wednesday services in the Cologne Dom.

We got our ashes in the packed day chapel, and I finally got back to work on some fossils. I saw Halley off yesterday afternoon after teaching her a little about Rhenish wine and dinosaurs. Now I'm off for a weekend in Brussels. I know I will have mussels, waffles, and, yes, more beer. Gotta experience the culture in full, doncha know. Just not quite sure if the marathon in May is actually going to happen.

I hope you got to enjoy festivities of some kind the lead up to Lent and that the coming weekend offers even more time with friends and family (even if Belgian beer isn't served).

Kölle und Bonn Alaaf!

P.S. Picture link, as promised.

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