Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Day the Germans Changed...

I'm writing this with a large blue "VIP" ink-stamp on my left wrist which I was unable to wholly scrub off in the bath, the remains of a large pot of very strong black coffee by my side, and a huge grin on my face. I'm so glad I came back from Berlin to experience carnival (Fassenacht) here - I was having such a good time that I was sorely tempted to prolong my visit, but had I not seen yesterday's shenanigans with my own eyes, I don't think I would have believed in them!

Even before I left for my trip to the capital, things had been building up for a while. Oddly-dressed characters wandered chanting through wine bars, drumming was heard at odd times, balloons and banners started to appear on random balconies, and the department stores opened special areas full of fancy-dress costumes, wildly-coloured wigs and sparkly false eyelashes. The culmination of the carnival here, though, was yesterday, on Rosenmontag or Rose Monday, and I was determined not to miss it.

From first thing in the morning, wild syncopations of percussion filled the air, interspersed with increasingly alcohol-fuelled shrieks of the traditional greeting "Helau!" The good people of this city, who had always appeared to me to be solid, respectable and law-abiding citizens (although I was rather unreliably informed at one point in the afternoon that I had been associating with all the wrong people!), came out in their thousands, resplendent in their costumes (anything from Prussian soldiers, in reference to the city's history, through polar bears to scantily-clad and sequinned showgirls, although how the latter managed at first, considering the snowflakes gently falling from the sky, I have no idea) and with previously unimaginable wild glints in every eye. I was kissed by two complete strangers just walking down my street into the centre of town, and things just got wilder after that! I was glad I'd brought my hot pink flamenco ensemble with me to Germany (it hadn't had an outing since I got here); I'd added a red underskirt and cardigan, a red rose in my hair, and bright red eyeshadow, which appears to have got rather lost in the picture above; I was glad I'd made a bit of an effort, as the whole place, once I got to town and caught up with the huge parade of funny, satirical or just plain weird floats, simply exploded into colour and noise: balloons, flowers, beer bottles, chanting men, flashing lights, singing, sweets and streamers hurtling through the air from the floats, horns, dancing, laughter... and once the parade had passed through, the party continued in full flow well into the early hours.

I had initially arranged to meet up with a friend, and more and more people turned up as time whizzed merrily past. Conversations whipped in and out of German, English and French, although I do remember being taught a naughty phrase in Hungarian at one point, and I forgot the names of more people than I'd previously met all year. Sustenance, mainly in the form of garlic with added seafood, mayonnaise or meat, was partaken of at a Portuguese restaurant (this did not however deter the random kissers!), and beer flowed generously enough for me to finally give in to the entreaties of the party and launch into one of Carmen's arias. This established me as our group's secret weapon for getting into a heaving nightclub (which I'd previously visited in its daylight incarnation as a rather nice café); thus the ink-stamped wrist, and a surreal moment of climbing in through the kitchen window, helped up by the beautiful red-satin-clad proprietress - I'd agreed to sing Happy Birthday to someone special to her, as our guarantee of entry. All very, very enjoyable, and a million miles from my normal experience of this city. (Not to mention, proof that all those years of horrifically-expensive voice training have not gone to waste...)

As I eventually made my way home, in something probably slightly less than a straight line, I was serenaded by three separate groups of young men, the last of which all fell on their knees around me, it occurred to me what had actually happened: the Germans, just for one crazy night, had, despite the laws of language and probability, transmuted into Italians!!

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