I left Brussels on the 7:28 am train headed for Cologne. During the train ride, I noticed a group of friends dressed up in matching superhero outfits. I started to become concerned that attending carnival by myself would be like sitting on the bench at a soccer game - spectating but not participating.
Arriving at the station in Cologne, was like arriving at Universal Studios. To my left was a storm trooper and Jake Sparrow, to my right a guy in a disco uniform and in front of me a group of Smurfs. The klang of percussion and brass instruments beckoned from outside of the station. Impromptu bands littered the 200 meter concrete block between the train station's front doors and, opposite to it, the magnificent cathedral climbing high into the sky. I also smelled the telltale signs of a festival - bratwurst, hot dogs and french fries. The party "stimmung" (mood) enveloped me. If you didn't know there was a festival going on, I imagine it would be a real shock to arrive at a train station filled with 1,000s of people in random costumes.
I left the train station and made my way to altermark, where, according to my research, there was a free event with the Dreigestirn (three officials of Carnival, the prince, the farmer and the virgin) to Kick Off the crazy days at 11:11am. Turns out that the Kick Off event is not free, it costs 20 euros, and guess what, it’s sold out. I was able to convince a security guard patrolling the party entrance to let me in by telling him I would only need five minutes to take pictures. Inside, the grandstand area was filled with jecken, or clowns. These jecken didn't necessarily look like traditional clowns. Instead, it looked like some had dug deep into their grandparent's closet and put on the most colorful, mismatching clothing they could find.
After snapping a couple of pictures from the lower area, I headed up to the grandstand to get a better view. I was still feeling a little uneasy about being out of costume. All of my fears were put to rest when an older lady took me by the arm, inviting me to join in on what the Germans call schunkeln. Basically, you just interlock arms and sway back and forth to the music. Really the easiest dance I've ever done. From that point on, people in the area wanted to know more about me. Where did I come from, what did I do, did I want a Frikadele? With mustard? Why of course I do. Do you want some prosecco? I didn’t drink out of this side of it. Why not? It turns out that I had a lot of pictures to take. I ended up staying two hours. Hey, it’s carnival!
The rest of the day went like this. I needn't have worried about being a spectator. If you can schunkeln, you will never be left sitting on the bench.