The train doors opened and an explosion of color hit me like a confetti bomb. I turned towards the quiet, gray cabin where I had just spent the last five hours sleeping. The doors closed abruptly. No way to move but forward. I hoisted my backpack on my shoulder and waded through a sea of clowns, devils, pirates, and indiscernible characters clad in sequins and top hats.
“I don’t think I’m in Lapland anymore,” I laughed.
Far from it. After spending the better part of the last month in the middle of nowhere with more reindeer than humans, I had just arrived in Cologne, known for having the biggest Carnival celebration in Germany, the evening before the famous Rose Monday Parade.
Carnival begins every year in Cologne on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at eleven eleven in the morning. Superstitious much? Though the celebrations continue throughout the winter, they truly erupt a week before Ash Wednesday, with the celebration of Women’s Day.
This year, Women’s Day fell on my birthday. But I wasn’t in Cologne. I got to Helsinki on the night train from Lapland, spent the night drinking with friends until my early morning flight to Berlin, and toured Berlin like a rockstar in only 48 hours, before I finally arrived in Cologne.
Fresh off the train, I dropped my bags at my hostel and met up with DJ, a fellow travel blogger and all around lovely human being, who lives about an hour outside of Cologne with his husband. He waved to me from the street across from the Deutzer Bridge, wearing a cape and devil horns, surrounded by empty bottles of sparkling wine and his costumed friends.
Apparently people in Cologne have always known how to party. For centuries inhabitants have celebrated Carnival, making its tradition nearly as old as the city itself. That makes it around 2,000 years old.
The ancient Germans celebrated Carnival through ceremonies in honor of Winter Solstice, to eradicate the demons that lived in the darkness. As Christianity spread, they applied a new language to essentially the same practice. Carnival became the time to celebrate and indulge in sin before sacrificing those vices during Lent. Easter represents the resurrection of Jesus Christ, another way of describing the advent of Spring, light, and new life.
As I looked around me, in the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, drinking Prosecco out of a plastic cup, things looked pretty lively already. That is, with the exception of my own drab attire. I had broken the cardinal rule of Carnival, and shown up without a costume. My mind wandered to the year when I had no Halloween costume in Costa Rica; I walked over to the jungle, picked some leaves, wrapped them around a bikini, bought an apple, and voila I was Eve. I didn’t think that would fly in Germany in winter.
Some of DJs friends stuck a plastic crown on my head, wrapped me in a silk cape, and I drew on a mustache with eyeliner. I fit right in. Funny how important a costume always seemed when I lived in the US. We’d spend months planning, making sure to have the most unique, scariest, sexiest costume imaginable. In Cologne all that mattered was that you were having fun. In fact, most of the costumes were completely unidentifiable. They just looked silly. I guess that was the whole point: no ego, just fun.
We spent the rest of the night at a local bar called Lotta, which was packed to the gills and played exclusively Cologne Carnival songs. Everyone sang in unison, and DJ and I, likely the only foreigners, just shrugged and danced. One of his friends occasionally shouted over the music to translate the lyrics.
“This song says ‘if you’re married, and you sleep with other people, your husband won’t get mad, because it’s Carnival!’ And some people really live like this. In Carnival, anything goes” she yelled over to me.
It was hard for me to imagine a world where that might be true. Though I also never imagined myself dancing on a beer soaked floor wearing a crown and a cape in a smoky bar in Germany. DJ handed me a glass of beer, “It’s called Kolsch,” he shouted “it’s the beer of Carnival! Drink it!”
The next day, a little hung over from too much Kolsch, I took the underground to get to the famous Cologne Cathedral, where tens of thousands of people were gathered for the Rose Monday Parade. Even the metro at 11am felt like a party, with human sized chickens, pigs, and bananas, shouting random things to me in German.
After navigating the congested streets blocked by the parade path, I arrived at a much tamer party at the tourism office. I sipped crisp white wine and stared at the madness through the big glass windows. Occasionally I stepped outside onto one of the balconies to get a better look. I pointed my lens and groups of people smiled and waved like they were on the teletron at a national sporting event.
Usually big events combined with alcohol leads to a violent sort of chaos. Laughter and celebration coupled with public pissing and puking. But Carnival in Cologne was nothing like that. It had all of the good with none of the bad. No matter how crowded or congested the street got, people smiled and embraced one another.
Apparently Cologne has a strong reputation for being an extremely tolerant city. At an event like Carnival, tolerance seemed to make the difference between knife fights and bear hugs.
During the parade, I stood on the balcony beside a local journalist, who shot the spectacle with his massive lens. I shivered and asked him every question I could think of, occasionally extending an arm to snatch a flying piece of chocolate, thrown by the troops in the parade. He explained that Carnival is all about indulging in your vices. Drinking beer, partying with friends, flirting with everyone, and having decadent treats like chocolate. He continued that Carnival is a time to not take anything seriously.
Back out on the street I felt like I was in a party hostel. Everywhere I turned there was a new friend to be made. I chatted in Spanish with a nineteen year old Colombian transplant on the subway, drank airplane bottles of schnapps with the Super Mario Brothers in the street, and took about a hundred selfies with strangers.
When I got to Zulpicher Strasse in the heart of the student quarter, I saw costumed twenty somethings for blocks. The bars blasted music and people spilled into the street. I met up with the Vagabrothers, and we drank boxed wine mixed with coca cola, a cocktail they adopted while living in Spain.
Every few blocks men in cow and pig onesies filled makeshift urinals. As a woman I had less luck. I scanned the street looking for a bar offering a bathroom, and waited in a line that snaked up the stairwell. While I waited, I chatted with the young bathroom attendant.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Turkey, and you?”
“Oh… very bad country. Angry country,” he shook his head.
I considered his response and then said, “Perhaps. But I believe in something beyond religion and government. I believe in something beyond your body and my body. I believe that beneath the walls of our physical forms we are all energy, and that energy is all the same. That energy is all love.”
Granted, I was completely wasted from the boxed wine cocktail, but I meant what I said.
“That’s beautiful,” he replied.
We hugged. I used the toilet. I told him goodbye and ran back out to the street, to party with the people in costumes.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. Rather, embracing the true essence of Carnival, I let myself go completely. But just like Carnival, it was about more than that. It was about living in the present moment instead of acting from old stories. It was about listening to someone else’s’ story without writing my own about it. At the heart, it was about acceptance and tolerance. Not only accepting myself, but accepting someone else. I suppose they’re one in the same, really.
The next morning I hardly recognized Cologne. Without the colorful costumes, the streets appeared gray and vacant. Sequins and streamers on the sidewalk remained the only evidence that Carnival had even happened.
I noticed my Carnival high had also waned. I snapped back to “reality” and spent the day working in front of my computer inside of a Starbucks, the only place I found with wifi. My mind wandered to the connection I felt the night before, but logically I knew it didn’t belong to me anymore.
That night I heard drums from my window, signaling the final celebration of Carnival. I walked out into the street, where a gang of costumeless locals carried a life size cotton doll. Crowds holding candles gathered round and a man dressed like a female nurse, with a bad wig and lipstick, stood on a podium.
He shouted things in German and everyone laughed. I had no idea what he said. What I did know, was that this celebration, referred to as the Burning of the Nubbel, was part of the Cologne “Alternative Carnival” and happened in the final minutes before Ash Wednesday.
They lit the doll on fire and everyone cheered as it burned in the street. People began throwing their candles onto the doll one by one. Admittedly, it disturbed me. The scene reminded me of the Salem Witch Trials and women being burned at the stake. Not a vision I particularly enjoy, especially since I consider myself a witch in my own way.
A local girl standing behind me asked me what traditions in my culture people might find bizarre. I laughed, because the more I travel, the more I see most of the traditions in my culture as bizarre. She told me that after the wild parties of Carnival, they burn the “nubbel” as a sacrifice for their sins. Throwing a candle onto the doll represents the relinquishment of one’s own vices.
I quietly considered what I would place in that fire. While “sin” doesn’t live in my vocabulary, I decided to liken it to anything that blocks me from my inherent light. If in Christianity, sin forms the separation between man and God, in my truth, fear of unworthiness forms the separation between myself and love. It’s therefore not the sin itself that keeps us from God, rather our belief in sin at all.
Despite this awareness, pockets of me did believe in sin. Pockets of me believed I had sinned during Carnival. Reflecting back on the night before, and the hope I had the months preceding it, I began to feel low. I judged myself for surrendering to my greatest vice of all. Despite proclaiming that my heart was so open it would only attract other open hearts, I let in a closed one.
I felt a familiar twinge of self-judgment that I knew could easily erupt into a full spasm. “Camille, we’ve gone through this. We thought you were over this?” I turned away from my ego and looked to my highest self, “I’m still learning.”
True, I had a glimpse of an old pattern. But like the indulgence in Carnival, perhaps instead of resisting it, I needed to lean into it. To metaphorically take a puff after all the effort I put in to quit. Perhaps I needed to taste the bitter smoke to know that I wanted sweeter nectar instead.
For a moment I asked myself if I could place the blame onto someone else. Of course not, I knew. The reality is that not all people feel safe being naked all of the time. That’s why they need Carnivals and costumes and a few beers. Just like me, they have layers to let go of to shine their light. It doesn’t make any of us sinners. It makes us students.
Hoping to lift my low energy, I went back to my room at the hostel and meditated. One word rose above the chatter.
A word I’ve come to know as loving people with no expectation for them to change. Loving people without any hope that they might become more like me. Letting people live whatever way they choose without labeling any of it as good or bad, disillusioned or enlightened, happy or unhappy. Loving people even if they don’t love themselves. Loving people even if they don’t love me. Accepting everyone so that I can in turn accept myself.
Accepting the reality that lives beyond my costume and yours, without forcing you to take yours off.
I turned to my nightstand where I had burned a stick of Palo Santo the night before. I held the wood between my index finger and my thumb and closed my eyes. I pressed the ash to my forehead, and I drew two intersecting black lines.
Thank you to the Cologne Tourism Board for hosting me during Carnival, and to Hostel Koln for the cozy bed and huge breakfast to help me shake off my sins. As always, this post was written from the heart, with as much nakedness and authenticity as my ego will allow.