It's the fifth season in Germany: the time for revelry, the time when we shake off our winter's sleep and comfort each other with a kiss, a promise, that Spring will come again and this snow on our hearts won't last forever.
Americans have very little familiarity with carneval, unless they've read about it in The Count of Monte Cristo or visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I grew up very near New Orleans but we always avoided visiting during Mardi Gras due to its reputation for wildness. When we planned to go to Cologne (Köln is the German spelling) for Carneval, or "Fasching" as it is called here in Baden-Württemburg, we worried this would not be a kid-friendly celebration. We weren't too keen on the idea of our children being exposed to breast-flashing or all-out mob debauchery. I am happy to say we were pleasantly surprised; Cologne's pre-Lenten celebration is exactly what it should be: a colorful light-hearted salute to culture and tradition. Carneval is similar here to the festivals in Italy, where revelers wear costumes and party hard before the fasting season of Lent arrives. Not being Catholic, I enjoyed the partying without having to worry about the fasting! Cologne was filled with fresh brew on tap, the local specialty being Kölsch, which is one of the best beers I've tasted in Europe. Street vendors sold us hot kartoffel salat (potato salad) and bratwurst and pommes frites, typical German food that hits the spot. Everyone, and I do mean, EVERYONE, was in costume. If you weren't, you looked like a tourist who accidentally got off the train at the wrong place. We bought some random wigs, hats, face-paint and accoutrements from street vendors and joined in the fun. Fasching begins a week before Ash Wednesday, so by the time we arrived on Sunday, festivities were in full swing. The main event in Cologne is the parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), though we stumbled upon a smaller parade replete with candy and flower-throwing on Sunday when we arrived by train. Sunday night the pubs were wonderfully jolly, filled with revelers singing German songs and dancing when the mood struck. We loved the happy atmosphere which was surprisingly free of any sort of violence or indecency; these were merely very happy drunken Germans. We never feared for our kids at the amazingly LONG parade on Monday, the locals allowed our kids to push to the front of the line and enjoy an unimpeded view of the floats and bands. They would help our kids catch candy and then stuff it into the hoods, pockets and fronts of our kids coats! (Mental note: always bring a bag to hold all the candy, toys and flowers thrown to the crowd) After a while, the kids tired of the craziness and biting cold and we were forced to retreat to a cafe for cappucinos and gelato. Large amounts of alcohol are a necessity to sustain persons when standing outside in zero degree (Celsius) weather; our kids were definitely feeling the cold of the inches of snow piled up everywhere. The revelers wore a lot of clothing or very little, it mattered not, they were happy, they were scaring away the Schaiachperchten, or evil winter spirits, and saying goodbye to the Rauhnächte (rough winter nights).
We highly recommend carneval to all, unless you are offended by public drunkenness or anxious in large crowds! We were glad we went, though going sans children would be ideal. Thankfully, our friend, "Uncle" Larry was along for the ride and he helped us navigate the craziness and not lose any kiddos or bags!
Traveling back to Heidelberg by train, I stared out at sleepy snow covered fields and marveled at the beauty. Travel by train is such a romantic experience. Maybe I feel this way because I grew up watching films like Murder on the Orient Express and Night Train to Kathmandu, or as an adult, seeing Trans-Siberian. Scary things happen on trains, but magical things happen too, and I encourage everyone to travel by train some, for it gives you a perspective of the countryside that is hard to get any other way. Our train snaked along the Rhine for many miles, giving us stunning views of snow capped castles perched above the famous river. I felt transported; literally and figuratively :) The Rauhnächte was becoming lovely to me, finding its way into my heart, and I didn't wish to be anywhere else, Spring could come when it pleased.