After awkwardly waiting at my friend Janne’s door in Cologne for 20 mins pressing the bell, I hid inside the doorstep, hoping people weren’t suspicious of a shady looking bearded character hovering at a locals door. I wondered if I was going to get in. Maybe Janne was sleeping. Then I started thinking, maybe she slipped over and broke her other foot. What if she’s half dead and I’m just here playing Dickleburgh. Should I climb up the side of the building to make sure she’s ok? Bugger it, I’ll just get a hostel bunk for the night. Just as I had almost given up hope, the door opened, and a grinning, tall, blonde, blue-eyed girl opened the door and invited me inside, where I met Sabine, Janne’s best friend. Here I stayed, the place of weißbeer and pasta, the warm place I called home for the next two weeks.
So, here I was, in Köln, Germany, without the faintest idea that I’d turned up for one of the biggest events of the year – Karneval. From what I can remember from what Fritz, Sabine’s old man told me, Karneval stemmed from the Rhineland area in Germany when the locals used it as a way to mock the occupation of the time. Since then it’s grown into a supermassive carnival of celebrations, marches, music and currywurst. No wait, currywurst is a normal thing. More on that lifesaving delicacy later. I had no idea what to expect except the images that were painted in my head by Janne and Sabine. All I understood mostly was that I was expected to wear a costume of some kind otherwise I was going to look ridiculous. I didn’t relate to this until I wandered down the street for Geisterzug – the anti-christ of the main parade.
Currywurst. German perfection. I used to look at currywurst signs and think, seriously that sounds like a curried sausage, who in their right mind munches down on that? Being a bloke of new designs, I gave the old currywurst a whack. Then I averaged at least two currywurst everyday thereafter. Absolute glory. It’s not just a sausage. It’s… an extreme street food experience. The simpleness of a curry drawled out over a sliced sausage with a bread roll on the side to soak up the hot, spicy curry leftovers. This is a food that could end wars and bring world peace. It’s like a medication for your emotional and mental health, realistically it should be sold as ‘immense satisfaction’.
After walking down a local street (I was borrowing a laptop for a week from Janne’s friend) on yet another grey, windy, rainy day, I saw some nuns. Hairy nuns with beards and nose piercings. A pirate wandered off in the same direction drinking a beer, with some clowns trailing in his wake. A bedraggled giraffe wandered miserably up through the rain, tail dangling sadly between her legs while Johnny Ramone came out of a cafe with a beer tucked under his arm and grin on his face. Nanny ghoul was walking baby hulk up the road to the haunted house, and old ‘where’s wally’ and friends were running away from a smoking bin. Everywhere I walked, vikings touched my beard, bleeding nurses ate currywurst and anyone dressed in civilian clothing stuck out more then a busted thumb. Karneval had begun.
To escape the initial throes of Karneval, Julia (a friend of Janne’s), Janne and I decided on a road trip to Maastricht, in the south of Holland. The beauty of europe is that everything is just a short drive away, and within just over an hour, we were in little Maastricht. Funnily enough, escaping Köln only meant that we were exposed to a smaller version of Karneval inside the small dutch city. All the city streets had been prepared, light towers had been erected throughout the main parts of town, bars, pubs and cafes were absolutely covered in balloons and streamers in colours of all sorts. Traditional Karneval songs could be heard bumping out over speakers, the old ‘oompah-pah’ richoceing off the city walls while we munched on our herring and onion rolls. Slowly the crowds began making appearances, coming in dribs and drabs as they finished work, dressed minimally compared to the raging costumes of Köln.
Stopping by the butcher to pick up some Rookwurst (dutch sausage), we got a dinner tip off the butcher – Witloof, a Belgian restaurant. Where to start… my gods, the sauerkraut and bacon croquettes. If there is a more imaginative, intense, gorgeous croquette in the world, let it be named. We all melted in front of the mouth watering, handcrafted goodness. Knee shaking pork cheeks came next. Was it Holland we were visiting, or France? Punch me in the nose and call me a princess. Fondue sprung up next. I had fondue many times as a child with the family. This was a memory jerker. Insanity on a stick. This glistening golden cheese fondue covered everything we could get our hands on – fries, pork cheeks, bread, vegetables… all complimented by tears of laughter. One of the best meals I’ve had in years. Don’t even get me started on the Dame Blanche (hot chocolate sauce poured over ice cream)…
Back to cologne in time for the Geisterzug parade, I roamed up the packed streets with other zombies, crying bananas, 10 foot tall monsters and something that looked like a nose boogie, all moving to the beat of shaking maracas, beating drums and cold beer. Germans are fun. Ending the March with another beer, and my 207th currywurst, we waited in line for our chance to enter Jorbörg – the home of the drunken sailor. Inside I quickly stripped off my essentials, the thermals I had on were roasting me alive, especially in a packed German pub with sailor leaping germans sipping on tiny glasses of beer, singing passionate songs about Cologne, their home. Not understanding a word, I just did the old ‘fake it ’til you make it’ thing. It worked like a charm.
We parted ways with Sabine the beer slayer, not before another currywurst and krakauer roll, and hopped onto the underground – a sardine can full of fairy men, colonialists, zebras and rioutously bleeding innocents. Drums were played and songs were sung. Young priests sprinkled karneval blessings on us all with bags of potato chips and cans of holy beer. Fairy grandmothers peering at the crowded joyous insanity sung along and cast laughing spells on us with their sparkling wands. Ah, Karnival…
If you want to make some new friends here’s an idea on how to get it done – dress up in a shiny silver skirt, with a pair of bashed up boots and a load of Princess makeup on your face. Make sure beard is well brushed and full. Confirm hairy legs are in good form. Then, proceed to walk up the middle of the main street which is packed to the rafters with German locals, waiting for the local parade to begin. How to make friends 101. I had all age groups of ladies blowing me kisses, a bundle of sorts chatting me up and locals coming over to shake my hand and introduce themselves over miniscule glasses of beer in between mouthfuls of candy thrown from the floats of the parade. For the first time in my life I completely understand why Scots wear kilts – they must be the most comfortable things ever. Ultimate freedom some would say. I concur.
I was privileged enough to be invited to Fritz’s place, Sabine’s old man, for soup and… SAUSAGE! What a dude. What a city. What a country. A country which holds a record breaking amount of amazingly friendly and hospitable humans. Germany! – Sausages and beer for everyone! I downed a delicious second portion in zero seconds flat before heading out to sing cologne songs and drink beer. It was an amazing atmosphere really, tucked into a small hall, sipping on the tiny beers, arm in arm, the whole hall singing to the awesomeness of cologne. I knew some words from the previous nights escapades so was able to fake it a little less. Complete strangers became my bosom buddies for the night. Karneval atmosphere in Cologne really is something to be experienced. I’ve seen nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
So, post karneval kicked in. A few days of slumming it in bed recovering for most of the day, with a few lazy walks around the corner for tastebud rattling falafel and Turkish ice cream. It was also cooking time – one of the things I missed about home the most. Janne and I worked together in her tiny kitchen over the next few days, recreating our own versions of Dutch Stammpot with Rookwurst, Polish Bigos, home-baked bread and Italian pasta auli’olio, complimented by my now favourite weißbeer – Paulaner. Legendary for 1 euro a pint. I was a well fed hog in Cologne, as evidenced by the large amounts of currywurst that were disappearing from supermarkets and local carts.
Despite the delicious food, supreme beer, cat chasing and good company I was in, I had a niggling itch in my feet – it was time to move onto the next leg of the journey. With a few days left, I organised my pack, which now weighed a normal 12kg from the staggering 19.5kg I had left home with and booked my train ticket to Brüssels. I exchanged goodbyes with Janne and her cats Paulie and Clintje (both whom had taken to sharing the comfortable couch with me for two weeks). I received a hug from Janne, Paulie juse sniffed at me and Clintje peed in my pack. Based on the cats reactions, I’d say the kitties were positively pissed off with me for leaving them minus a snuggle buddy. Tchüss!…