Confessions of a Karnevalsmuffel

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.

7 thoughts on “Confessions of a Karnevalsmuffel

  1. “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.”

    Ummm, Andrew? I live in the UK and can assure you otherwise. Quite often I find myself on local trains late friday nights. Open public ralphing is fairly common in such places. As are public insults yelled at passers-bye when the night is still young. I can understand getting drunk off one’s legs – but at 7 PM Friday night?!!!

    The mediterranean countries (Italy, France, Greece, Spain) seem much less fond of public displays of binge-drinking and the inevitable consequences.

  2. Actually it is “Weiberfastnacht”, not “Altweiberfastnacht”. It is a common mistake, perhaps people confuse it with “Altweibersommer”. That’s the time in late summer/early autumn where you can see lots of cobwebs in the morning dew everywhere in bushes and shrubs.
    I can understand your dislike for Karneval. I share it and at the moment I’m beginning to regret that I’m going to meet a friend on saturday for a hopefully nice shopping tour in Düsseldorf. Maybe we should have waited for another week.

  3. Andrew, do yourself a favour and never come to Munich around the Oktoberfest time. In these 2 and a half weeks, I try to avoid public transportation after 8pm. Horrible.
    BTW, Oktoberfest is one of the rare occasions where you can observe dead drunk Italians in large quantities.

  4. Yeah, it’s “Unsinniger Donnerstag” here in Dorfen, a day when people let their wild-n-crazy out thusly: they all dress in identical white nightshirts and striped stockings, and wander around town drinking. Germans, having “fun” in lockstep. Definitely not my favorite time of year.

  5. I wouldn´t travel many miles to take part of a carnival celebration. But, you know what´s the best thing about carnival? When I am on the mood for it (like this year) I go and enjoy it. If I happen to be quite bored at this time of the year, I just lock myself up home, read some books our rent some DVDs to watch in my cosy bedroom.

    About german carnival: I got deep into Cologne´s carnival, when I was there.The music is crap, the floats are “nothing” comparing to Rio´s Carnaval and it´s quite strange to see all that bunch of germans suddenly “happy”. On the other hand, it´s a democratic party: anyone is allowed for free to go to the streets see the parades and hang around with friends in wacky costumes.Thus: the Cologne Carnival kept, somehow, that old romantic image of small town carnival´s parties that I´ve heard from my grandma´s time.

    Anyway, greetings from Brazilian carnival for you all: Nope, I´m not going to pay a fortune to dance halfnaked on the “Sambódromo” and be broadcasted by TV stations from all over the world, nor get grabbed and kissed by at least 50 drunk sweaty men in the streets of Salvador while I am trying jump and breath in the middle of the crowd. But if someone wants to join me tonight to a carnival ball with old classic carnival chants(yes, they are silly!), some samba, some good caipirinhas and the most important: friends that are fun all over the year, you are truly invited!

  6. Precisely my sentiments, Andrew. Your description of the music and the enforced group jollying hits the nail on the head. An acquaintance visits a monastery for the duration of festivities and always returns completely refreshed. I may well join him next year.

    That said, I did see photographs of some floats (Schroeder cupped in the hand of a giant Putin) that were really well done. A little fantasy and subversion isn’t such a bad thing, and better three days a year than none at all.

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