Old Lady at Cologne Carneval (Alt Weiber)

Cologne Carneval celebrations are in full swing and for the first time ever, I actually joined in the fun instead of heading for the hills. I’m not a huge fan of drunken shenanigans and my image of Carneval in the past has always been tainted by having to dodge puke and broken Koelsch glasses on the sidewalks the morning after, so after my first year here doing just that, I avoided the city during Carneval as much as possible.

This year, a mixture of strange circumstances had me locked in the city for the long weekend so a couple of friends insisted I take part in the six-day costumed circus. Boy was it fun (it’s not over as I write this, but I for one, am done)!

You can learn a lot about a city by the way it parties. While the Bavarians are all sitting around in old-fashioned leather pants and checkered shirts with feathers in their hats, drinking foamy beer out of glasses bigger than a man’s forearm, and every so often getting up to do a polka, the Koelners are all caroling down the (mostly) car-free streets while dressed in red and white striped clown costumes or elaborate marching band uniforms, sipping from “klein aber fein” short, thin phallic-looking glasses and chatting up every person they meet on the street.

This video, of a very well-contained Carneval party made by a very popular local band, should give you an idea of just how different the festivities in Cologne are than those in Munich at Oktoberfest (a couple hints: costumes, music, age of the revelers).

I’m told Koelners are considered the friendliest Germans and while I can’t really compare, I generally think it’s true. I’m also told that during Carneval, you will meet boatloads of people because everyone is so damned excited to be getting drunk and listening to bad rock songs in a dying dialect. It was impossible to not be excited at the prospect of — gasp! — a complete stranger actually joking with you on the street in Germany. Whereas two months ago in the US, I was straight up scowling at all the Amis wanting to do the same, I was totally stoked on the idea of laughing with a bunch of Germans and watching these Germans undo all stereotypes of stiffness.

And wow. Wow. No stiffness at all, unless you count what was happening to the men beneath those Gladiator robes.

You see, the most important thing to know about Carneval — the real reason it is such a damned popular event to take part in — is that the six-day affair has a reputation as being both a place to meet your life partner and as a swingers’ style meat market. There’s a saying that goes something like, “If you’re in a costume, it doesn’t matter who’s behind the mask” and supposedly, that doesn’t exclude the old marrieds.

I have no idea how it came to be this way. Traditionally, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday marks the start of Carneval partying in Cologne (not the start of Carneval, which is marked on 11.11. because of the legend of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who saved the city). Thursday’s known as Weiberfastnacht (Ladies Fasting Night), or even better, Alt Weiber (Old Lady) and ritual has it that woman are in control on Thursday. The Wikipedia entry I just linked to is a very tame, formal explanation for what actually occurs. Tradition has it that women go around snipping the ties of men… emasculating them in the process. For stealing the man’s penis, the woman needs to plant a kiss (a buetzen). Over the years, this ritual has evolved into something akin to the mysterious Venetian masked ball. Wear a costume and anything goes, they say, and on Thursday, the ladies are in charge.

In reality, this has led to seriously Rome near the fall of its Empire debauchery. Everyone dresses in costumes and it is no-holds-barred strutting for sex. People begin drinking — both in bars and out on the streets — at 8 a.m. and despite the freezing weather, the goal when choosing a costume is to reveal to potential partners just how much action you want to see (I’m also told these reveal what kind of action but I’ve yet to find an explanatory list similar to, say, the white pants explanation on Urban Dictionary, so I can’t even guess what wearing a cowgirl outfit says about your preferences. Oh wait, maybe I can. Never mind). Often, this means the women look as though they are about to freeze to death trying to imitate Greek goddesses while the men stroll around dressed in air force fatigues. I, for one, chose to go as a boxer, hoping like hell my biceps would be enough to make the duds run.

What amazed me the most about all this was how much this one night made all the cultural anthropology I had been doing in recent months, trying to figure out the completely mysterious GerMan brain, go completely topsy-turvy. Cat calls? Check. Random acts of eye contact? Check. Being hit on by married men? Check. Dudes buying ladies drinks in a bar!?! Check. Check. Check. For a second there, I thought I might’ve been transported back to America, where the smell of male desperation to be laid wafts thick and the guys view women as nothing more than a fish and they just need a few minutes to figure out how best to filet you.

It’s like Thorsten and Horst have finally decided to put the Ordners back up on their shelves for just a few days, traded their Schwarzbrot for Koelsch and too-tight suits for too-loose clown trousers and decided that this, my dear, this is *the* day, *the* way to get laid. Except they’re out of practice and getting old and think that because, hey, that lady looked at me and I’m totally wasted, there’s been a geniune connection. Not interested is not an answer. Neither is: Sorry, I’m married.

I’ve gotta say, I’m glad I decided to dress down that evening. Because even with a fake black eye and the most unattractive knee socks I’ve ever worn, I still got hit on more in one night than I have in all seven years I’ve lived in Germany combined. Something to be said for sexpectations, I guess. I’m just glad I don’t have any. Only, you know, morals and standards.

Honestly, as much as fun as this has all been, I’ll be glad when all this blatant “need to get laid but I’m too wasted to even stand up” nonsense is over and I can go back to the whole, previously ueber-annoying game of How the Fuck does one flirt in Germany, otherwise known as, oh my dear lord I am never going to get a date if I don’t initiate it and I just can’t do that. Turns out, I really do like being the one in control. At least if it means Thorsten and Horst aren’t knocking on my door.

Oh, and in case you missed it on my Facebook page, here’s the perfect example of what a typical Carneval Missed Connection looks like. There’s an English translation on my Facebook wall, so head on over there if your German isn’t rich enough to get the whole bloody awesome joke in this:



6 thoughts on “Old Lady at Cologne Carneval (Alt Weiber)

  1. San February 11, 2013 / 1:55 am

    It’s quite entertaining to read about the Cologne Street Carnival from a perspective of an American. While, yes it’s true, during Carnival there is a notion that “everything goes”, I do think it’s often more of a game-play than actual getting laid action (but hey, that’s just coming from someone who has never participated that much in the street carnival in the first place.) LOL

    • Steven February 21, 2013 / 11:07 am

      While, yes it’s true, during Carnival there is a notion that “everything goes”

      I’d also been told this sort of thing, from someone who grew up near Hamburg. It’s fascinating to see the varying opinions about the place.

  2. Steven February 21, 2013 / 11:06 am

    You’re not the first person to mention to me that the Köln carnival is a great place to get your noodle waxed. I hadn’t heard that it has a reputation for being a place to find your life partner, though. I can’t imagine that. Great post!

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