It’s that time of year again. New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Venice has the Carnevale, Rio has the Carnaval and in Germany we have Karneval. Or, as it is known in Bavaria and Swabia, Fasching. Every year the five days up to Shrove Tuesday are an excuse for dressing up, drinking too much and generally making a fool of oneself.
It all starts on the Thursday, which is known as “Weiberfasching” – women’s carnival. There are dozens of different regional names for this day, but they all amount to the same thing – women are in charge on this day. In order to reinforce this message there are a couple of simple traditions. First off, the women are the ones who ask the men for a dance on this day and secondly if they see a man wearing a tie, they are entitled to cut it off. For my first ten years in Germany I didn’t need to wear a tie to work, so I was aware of the tradition but never actually a victim. When I changed jobs and moved to Stuttgart to work for an English firm, the auditors from Ernst & Young flew in at just the wrong time. They turned up smartly in suits and ties and were somewhat surprised to be approached by our otherwise reticent bookkeeper, Frau Ferger, who proceeded to cut their ties off while laughing and smiling. Most Germans will either wear an old tie they don’t mind losing or none at all, and Frau Ferger probably assumed that the tradition was international. Well it isn’t and 3 Armani silk ties met a premature end that day. After I explained that this was a uniquely German tradition, Frau Ferger turned bright purple and the auditors took it in good spirit. I expect they put the ties on expenses anyway.
I am no longer bothered about going out during Fasching. In fact the forced jollity gets on my nerves a bit these days. They have a word for people like me, though – Faschingsmuffel. When I first moved to Germany I was an enthusiastic supporter of any excuse for a party and was excited to find out that there was going to be a big event in our village on the thursday night. It was fancy-dress only (which is the norm) and was called the Vollstrecker Ball. I didn’t have a costume so I asked around and someone lent me a Pipi Langstrumpf mask, pigtail wig and dress. I was assured that cross-dressing is all the rage during Fasching (which did turn out to be true) and so after a few beers I confidently marched into the party. Only later did I discover that Vollstrecker Ball means “Executioners’ Ball” and the theme was very dark – blood and gore. It is fair to say that I did stand out a little, but everyone knew who I was after that day. Later in the evening somebody lent me a plastic, blood-stained axe so I could at least be a psycho-killer version of the beloved Scandinavian children’s book heroine.
The parties continue over the weekend and on Monday, Rosenmontag, there are lots of Parades. The parades involve various people ambling down the road behind a marching band in different costumes slowly getting drunk. Kids like to watch this because lots of sweets are thrown into the crowds lining the streets. There will generally be stands set up serving drinks. It’s a bizarre spectacle really. Standing around in February watching a bunch of people walk down a road isn’t that spectacular – which is why I expect they added sweets for the kids and alcohol for the adults.
The strange thing about Karneval is how different it is by region. In East Germany they don’t really bother with it at all. In Bavaria it’s worth a party but not much more. In the Black Forest and the South West corner of Germany which borders with Switzerland and France they have the so-called Alemannische Fasnacht. For some reason this involves wearing scary wooden carved masks and dressing up as witches. It looks like no fun at all to me, but it takes all sorts I suppose.
The most famous Karneval city is Cologne. Here the city basically closes for business for 5 days and goes crazy. I have been to Karneval there a couple of times and it is hard going. I was once invited to the annual Women’s Carnival party in the offices of a large insurance company. Usually, this office is about as dull as you could imagine. 2000 insurance bods going about their daily business and number-crunching. But on that one day they go crazy. It starts at 11.11 in the morning (when the first glass of Kölsch beer is served) and everyone is in fancy dress. There are no exceptions and no rules. As I was well on the way to being tired and emotional (at about 3 in the afternoon) I remember chatting to someone with the exaggerated enthusiasm that alcohol brings and subesquently finding out that he was the Chief Financial Officer. He was dressed as a pirate – with a parrot on his shoulder – and I was an Indian brave. I met him in a business meeting a couple of years later, but decided against admitting that we’d already met when we did the round-the-table introductions.
Fasching in Schönaich is a low-key affair. There is a fancy-dress party for the kids on Sunday in the village hall. Thankfully our girls have now grown out of that sort of thing so I will be spared another afternoon watching the worst clown in the world only managing to hold the kids’ attention because they know he’ll be chucking sweets into the crowd at some stage. The weather is cool but sunny at the moment and I don’t have any pressing work to do tomorrow so I will probably go for a walk and then slob around in the afternoon. Much better than Fasching.