Deutschland – Köln – Karneval

This past weekend we headed up to Cologne for the Carnival celebration. Those in the US think of New Orleans for Mardi Gras – Cologne’s Carnival is the German equivalent. On Wednesday night of last week I had run into downtown Stuttgart to buy a suitable costume. I held it in my hand Friday after work as I set off for the train station, bound for Cologne.

The ICE train was relatively crowded, and I noticed I was not the only party-goer aboard. A few people were already sporting costumes and many others held brightly colored bags. I had no seat reservation but was lucky enough to find an open seat after wandering through 5 or 6 completely full cars, so I took it and before long we were on our way.

The train passed through Frankfurt, though I didn’t look outside much as I had an aisle seat. I slept on and off through the 2 hour ride, and after a couple of brief naps I found myself in a loud, bustling train station downtown in Cologne. I didn’t wait around at the station or explore much, as I was meeting friends at an apartment we’d rented north of the city. I caught a tram nearby and rode it 30 minutes north towards the sleepy little town of Dormagen.

Exiting the station at Dormagen, I realized I was about 45 minutes ahead of the friends I was supposed to be meeting. The apartment was 4km away. While my friends had offered to pick me up, I decided I had nothing better to do, so I set off walking towards the apartment and asked for a pickup along the way. I walked for maybe 10 minutes through the town which was nearly silent on a Friday night before I met the sudden end of civilization and found myself walking on a path next to a highway in near total darkness.

Those who worry among you may be concerned that I was walking alone at night in the dark in a country where I don’t speak the language well. I’d like to remind you that 1) I had a working cell phone, 2) there is less violent crime in Germany than America and 3) that I was updating my friends on my whereabouts. Disclaimer aside, I enjoyed my walk as I hadn’t done any stargazing in awhile – I was far enough away from town that you could clearly make out several constellations. After walking along the road for a few kilometers, my friends stopped and picked me up close to the hostel. After checking into the apartment we hung out as a few more cars arrived but didn’t stay up too late as we wanted to be up early on Saturday.

The next day I woke up to a strange sight: someone being handed a beer in bed. Karneval was here, and people were eager to party. I got up and played a few drinking games in the morning. I’m not big on drinking but I decided I didn’t want to be a poor sport, and wanted to join in on the fun. We played some card games and a few other drinking games before we left the apartment at around 10AM.

We caught a train to get downtown. As soon as we stepped out of the train we were faced with a bustling crowd of people, all decked out in costume. Clowns were popular, as were military outfits. Jumpsuits from Top Gun were popular with guys, for reasons no one could explain when we asked. A few people had “boxed wine” as their costume, complete with a working spout others could drink from.

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Marchers in the streets

After strolling through crowded streets for awhile, we grabbed a quick lunch at a pasta place that reminded me a little of Chipotle. Not in the way things tasted, but it had the same atmosphere of simultaneously feeling like fast food and a normal restaurant all at once.

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Mobs of people celebrating in the streets

We left and headed for a busy bar street near some of the local universities. There, we met up with an intern from Bosch whom many of our group had met in the US. We spent the next few hours barhopping, dancing and enjoying the festivities. Eventually around dinner time we started to tire ourselves out, and the group split up. I went with a few people who were looking to see that night’s attraction: the ghost parade. We took a long walk to make our way over to where we thought the parade was taking place. Turns out that the parade was over an hour late and only about 5 or 6 people were doing it. So we didn’t stick around. After a long day of too much alcohol, we headed back to our apartment to get some rest.

The next morning we cleaned up, grabbed some breakfast, and headed back to Stuttgart. I had been planning to stay Sunday and Monday, but I wasn’t too excited at the prospect of drinking more and it didn’t seem like there was a major cultural experience to be had here. I decided to save a little money and a vacation day.

Oh. You’re probably wandering what my costume looked like. I’m proud to say I was a full-blown American:

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The Karneval celebration was not my favorite weekend of this trip. However, I think I walked away having learned a lesson: not everyone wants to experience things the same way you do. You can compromise and go along with someone else’s plan, or you can have the experience you want, or fall somewhere in the middle. Often this means that others may not want to travel with you, or that you have to split off from a group travelling to do something on your own.

This trip, I opted largely to follow the crowd. But the trainees I am here with have a lot of different interests and values than me, and this weekend that meant we spent more time in clubs and bars than I would have liked. We missed seeing major sights like the river and the Cathedral (though we quickly walked by), and spent our time drinking overpriced beer in crowded, smokey, and loud bars.

I have been living independently for well over a year. While it’s nice to travel with familiar faces, I am not super-close to any of the trainees and in the future I will shift my priorities closer to making sure I do the activities I want to, rather than being a crowd-pleaser. This may mean I don’t travel with as big of groups, but I would rather experience Europe the way I want to.

On that note, I headed home Sunday morning, took care of some chores, and went for a nice run into downtown Stuttgart in the afternoon. Here are a few pictures from that outing:

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Chess players on a Sunday afternoon

This coming weekend I have a more independent adventure planned. Stay tuned for details, until then:

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

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