Today is Altweiberfastnacht in my part of Germany. I’m not exactly sure what this word means, but literally translated, it’s "Old Woman Fasting Night." It’s part of the Rhineland’s Carnival season, which culminates Ash Wednesday. Today, women march into government buildings and take them over, and roam through the city kissing men. Oh, and they’re also supposed to cut the mens’ ties in half, for some reason. According to the local newspaper, which today features a huge photo of a bare-breasted woman on its front page, on Altweiberfastnacht "Everyone’s thinking about Sex!" (Really? Even the 1-year olds? Even the monks? Why do German newspapers constantly tell me what "we" or "Germans" or "Berliners" are thinking?).
I admit, I’m not such a big fan. I go to the occasional Karneval party, and watch the occasional parade, and try always to catch the Tuntenlauf, but that’s about it. There are several reasons for this. First, the music is horrid. Thumping, unsyncopated, mass-chanting anthems that all sound alike. Second, the sense of forced, frog-marching ‘fun’. I’m with Roger Boyes on this one. Instead of behaving like paper-souled middle managers 359 days out of the year and then going apeshit on the remaining 6, shouldn’t people try to integrate a little fun, a little subversion in to every day?
And finally, speaking of going apeshit, let’s talk about the public expulsion of bodily fluids. Every single time I’ve gone out to have a bit of fun on Karneval, I am brought face-to-face with one of the most sordid aspects of modern northern European existence: people who cannot hold their alcohol. These people gather in city centers on holidays like this one, and after about midnight, they begin to stagger, to burp, and then, finally, to spew like shaken-up cola bottles. (Remember, they’re trying to stuff an entire years’ worth of drinking into 6 short days.) The truly disastrous part is: they don’t even try to find somewhere private. They don’t scurry behind a trash dumpster or into a thicket of bushes. They don’t even try to find a bag or a purse or a hat, like a decent Englishman. They just begin right there on the street, or in the train.
I will never forget one night, coming back from Cologne to Duesseldorf on a packed post-Karneval train at around 3 am. One young man in a group next to us began doubling over and letting go of some of the 5 gallons of beer sloshing around inside him. Just like that, no warning, no attempt to find a quiet corner (which was available), just spla-a-a-a-t! Everyone had to begin shifting to try to avoid the spreading pool of vomit (although some people were too drunk even to notice). After most of the damage was done, his companions seemed to realize it might be nice to have him vomit into something, rather than onto everyone else in the compartment. They asked around for some sort of plastic bag. None was available, but a bystander in a nurse costume gave them some latex gloves. For the next 20 minutes, his buddies held the slowly-filling plastic bags up to his mouth whenever one of his fits appeared to be coming on.
If you’ve never seen a vomit-filled latex glove before, you are lucky.
I am generally against taboos, but if there’s a taboo I am strongly in favor of, it’s the one against puking in public. Because that taboo has been foolishly overcome in Germany (we’ll leave Britain out of this for now) I am not Karneval’s biggest fan. I’m not alone, though. Last year I went to an Andy Warhol exhibition, and read his diaries. He happened to visit Duesseldorf on Altweiberfastnacht and was horrified when a gaggle of drunk women approached him and began demanding that he put on a tie, so they could cut it in half. His German hosts chuckled, which infuriated him all the more. Eventually, after convincing the women he really didn’t have a tie, they pulled out his shirt-tail, and cut that off. Traumatized, he vowed never to return to the Rhineland.