Setting the scene
For many in Cologne, the Rosenmontag Parade is the highlight of carnival season. Over one million people pack themselves in like matchsticks to see the 6.5 kilometer long parade snake through the city center. Candy, branded individually by each of the clubs who create the floats, comes down like sleet on the spectators starting from 10:30 am on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, when the first float departs. (2014 Route here and more Parade stats here)
The air was filled with the distant sound of horns as I arrived at 12:30. The first float wasn't even to the midway point of the parade route yet. The parade slugs along, so you needn't worry about waking up super early to fight off the hangover from Koelsh beer you drank the night before (what a relief). I picked out a relatively good spot at Hohestr. and Brueckenstr. behind and to the left of two small Turkish-German children and their parents and waited for the parade. To the left of me were two petite Japanese women and an older German couple. About 20 minutes later, a group of students from Hungary and Brazil staked their claim behind me. The whole thing was quite multicultural; local Koelle and tourists united by costumes, beer and desire for candy and flowers.
Not a good day for Politicians
After another 10 minutes and a little bit of jostling to assert my position among the other spectators, a group of pre-parade participants came rumbling around the corner of Hohestr. Pre-parade because they are not in the official Rosenmontag parade - but it appears they missed that memo. They are still dressed to the nines, decked out in elaborately themed costumes and some with the floats to match. One group stood out from the rest. If you think Germany isn't still pissed off about the whole NSA spying on Angie thing, you would be mistaken. The best thing about them? Their subtlety.
Let it Begin
Eventually the tell tale sound of drums ushered in the official Rosenmontag Parade in Cologne. The official parade continued with the political program, mostly inward facing on national politics. One float, "Spass Ghetto" (Fun Ghetto), depicting smokers, drinkers and uhmm, ladies of the night, locked up in a cage, caught my eye. As the motto of this year's carnival was Possibilities for the Future (loosely translated) I assumed the float creators were poking fun at how far restrictions on "fun" could go in the future. I just liked the juxtaposition of the words - its not very often that you see the words fun and ghetto right next to each other.
In the three pictures above, Angie straddles the Spass Ghetto. On the left, in a decidedly older theme, she is depicted as the Mona Lisa with the phrase below her "Billions stand behind me" and logos of DAX companies plastered beside her (including my old company!). On the right and fitting better with the 2014 theme, Buzz Merkel Intergalatic Chancellor.
Candy and Flowers - fighting words?
In the packed spectating area competition for "Kamelle" (Candy) and "Strüssjer" (Roses) was high. The two short Japanese girls, both about 25 years old, were raking in the candy and roses, to the annoyance of the German couple next to them - especially when the girls would shout “Hallo” instead of “Kamelle”. The couple repeatedly rolled their eyes and even slyly threw candy to the side of the girls so they could establish a few more inches of territory when the girls moved to scoop them up. When the girls left after two hours, the woman from the couple said "Thank God they're gone. They didn't leave us any candy or flowers!"
Look out below!
In general, you have to watch your head, because candy will fly from all directions, bouncing off awnings, roofs, the ground and other people’s heads to ultimately zero in on your eyes. I got knocked in the head a couple of times - mainly because I had my eye in my camera's view finder the whole time.
Darwin strikes again?
As the parade progressed, my keen powers of observation detected something interesting about flower distribution. Actually, it wouldn't be that hard to guess it - the prettiest girls get the most flowers. In return for the flower, the guy gets a kiss, so the whole thing is pretty Darwinian if you ask me. Even the cops are competition - they are prized targets of the more confident guys.
It seems all women love flowers. The father of the two Turkish-German kids caught a flower and gave it to his wife, who immediately began to beam. The little girl looked pleadingly at her mother - she hadn't gotten a flower all day. The mother said "Nein, dieser ist fuer Mutti" (No, this one is for Momma). But alas, the carnival Gods smiled on the girl only five minutes later. She was handed three small rose buds that hadn't yet bloomed and now she also beamed like "Mutti".
Participation is the name of the game
As the day wrapped up, I started to reflect. I really enjoyed the entire atmosphere of the parade. Not only were the participants decked out in costumes, but so were all the spectators. In some places you weren't sure where the parade ended and the spectators began. The Rosenmontag Parade in Cologne is unique in that you truly feel like a participant at all times. More than the floats, this carnival is about the interaction between people!
Parting thoughts and tips
- Don't worry about being at the parade right at 10:30 am. The first float doesn't make it to the final leg until around 2 pm. Getting there around 12 pm will let you sleep in and still allow enough time to get a good spot further down the parade route.
- There are several areas along the parade route that have live announcers. Of course, they will be speaking German, but then again, you can ask someone what they are saying. The Koeller don't mind and it gives you an excuse to make some friends.
- A tip to get more candy. Try standing back from the crowd (if you are in an area that has enough space for it). The people in the floats will be able to easily pick you out and they like the challenge of hitting a target that is a bit farther away.
- Know the lingo: Bütze = Kiss, Kamelle = candy, Strüssjer = Flowers, Koelle Alaaf = a Carnival Greeting in Cologne dialect
- Bring a bag for candy, otherwise you will end up stuffing your pockets full until they almost burst. Even if you aren't going there for candy, it is almost unavoidable not to come home with a pound or two.