While sorting out some old files recently, I stumbled upon an article which I wrote four years ago for the (now defunct) international company newsletter of the (now also defunct) market research company in which I was sleeping at the time. Given that it’s all happening this week, I thought I’d share my discontent with a wider audience …
The Beginner's Guide to Karneval
In Cologne, Karneval has been dubbed die fünfte Jahrezeit – the fifth season. This is a difficult cultural concept to grasp, particularly for those of us brought up in places where distinguishable seasons are a hazy myth. From a market researcher's point of view, the principal days of Karneval are pretty thin pickings: agencies are invariably closed, few interviewers are willing to work, and those who do are likely to get laughed at, belched at and have Karneval songs sung down the phone at them. Questionnaires carried out during Karneval are strictly designed to screen out respondents wearing silly hats or cats' whiskers, since their responses, though representative, can hardly be said to be constructive.
The proceedings kick off at eleven minutes past eleven on the eleventh of November, which, by a staggering coincidence, is the eleventh month of the year. Crowds pour into the Alter Markt – the old marketplace – all decked out in colourful costumes: witches, ghosts and bewildered tourists being particular favourites. Tradition has it that, on a pedestal in florid costume, there should be a Prince, a Farmer and a Virgin to head the proceedings. However, in recent times, these often prove too difficult to locate, and the Prince is forced to perform the ceremony on his own.
February is when Karneval truly takes over. The street parade begins on Weiberfastnacht, when the women of the city take control and prowl the streets armed with pairs of evil-looking scissors, with which they are licensed to cut off any ties that the male population may be wearing. Following last year's fiasco, steps have been taken to ensure that the Cologne Male Nudist Association and the Militant Feminists no longer march next to each other in the parade.
Those who have experienced Karneval and are still willing to live in Cologne insist that, if the following advice is adhered to, one can still emerge with the will to live. Firstly, avoid Kölsch beer: it is deceptively light and refreshing, but side effects include a tendency to lapse into the local dialect, to launch into a belching rendition of Kölle Alaaf or to lynch anyone you see drinking Altbier – the preferred tipple of arch-rivals Düsseldorf. Secondly, steer clear of Karneval music, if there is music in hell, it's probably called "Kumm loß mer danze".
Of course, if circumstances permit, the best option is to leave the country – Karneval is boom-time for travel agencies, with many flight offers out of Cologne, mostly one-way. Antarctica, being about as far away from the Kölner Dom as one can get, is an increasingly popular destination, and is chiefly populated by refugees from Karneval, Munich's Oktoberfest and the Fleadh Ceoil in County Mayo. Alternatively, there is the hibernation method, favoured by Managing Directors of English market research companies, whereby you lock yourself away with a computer, a telephone and a pile of Friends videos.
Personally, though, I’d recommend dressing up in a gorilla costume, dancing up and down the aisles of the U-Bahn and pushing custard-pies into shocked faces. Or better still, wait till Karneval is over – you'd be surprised how much more fun it is.
[Edited at 2004-02-15 17:26]
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