I’ve just lived through my first Karneval as an honorary Kölner, and nothing else I have seen thus far so perfectly exemplifies the strange contradictions that make up German culture.
Germans are known to be efficient, direct, and somewhat humourless. They are known for their powerhouse economy, a bunch of scientific and artistic achievements, trying to take over the world twice, and beer. Less well known, but equally valid, is their intense eye contact, innate need to explain jokes after the fact, and a propensity for Jack Wolfskin outerwear.
Now that I’ve lived here for two years the German view of the world, and how it affects every aspect of their lives, is beginning to slowly make sense, and I will attempt to explain it here:
Germans never show up late and always follow the rules of a party. Meaning if the entire city is invited to a giant costume party where everyone is supposed to sing the same songs and get drunk in the streets, they show up promptly, in their costumes, already hammered.
Germans do everything with a single-minded intensity, which means they work hard, and play equally hard. Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, other dressing up and drinking holidays in the States – one day. Karneval? THREE MONTHS, ending in one WEEK of constant madness.
Germans have very serious faces. They just have resting intense-face. Which makes it particularly fun when they wear clown noses and/or dress like a giant banana.
Germans answer questions honestly. Respected adults can (and do) answer questions like, “What did you do last night?” with “I drank twelve beers and threw up in a plant outside the bar,” if that’s what they actually did last night.
Germans do not feel cold, as exemplified by all these people outside, because it was super damn cold.
Germans don’t mind trashing the streets. They are totes fine with waking up super damn early and cleaning it all up again by 9am.
Germans are unfazed – unless you start singing Kölle Alaaf, in which case everyone will immediately stop what they’re doing and sing. (This works similarly with a certain specific kind of hooting – my theory is that this is the secret German mating call.)
Germans view drinking like child birth and grocery shopping – it’s just another part of life. The aforementioned respected adults have no problem talking about their drunken exploits, or dressing up in costume and drinking madly in the streets. The whole American drinking culture is wrapped up in shame and prejudice – either you’re a ‘cool’ young kid drinking irresponsibly, you’re a slightly more responsible young person still drinking to be ‘cool’ or to find someone to have sex with, or you’re middle-aged and drinking is reserved for family gatherings or alone at home. German drinking culture is consistent whether you are 17 or 77 – they go to bars, they go out on the streets, they sing songs and yell and laugh, then stagger home.
I couldn’t get over how serious everyone was followed by such reckless abandon – but watching them, I began to realise. The beauty of the contradiction between the dignified, hard-working German and the masses of costumed fiends in the streets is that it is not a contradiction at all. We as Americans have a tendency to prioritize appearance over substance, form over function. Germans are the opposite of that in every way. Germans say what they mean and mean what they say. They do with a similar bluntness and lack of shame. They cut straight to the truth, and if the truth is that you are good to your family or good at your job, whether it be as a janitor, student, account executive, or politician, it doesn’t matter how you look or how drunk you get in your free time.
Is it not the appearance that matters, it is the truth – which makes the Karneval tradition of silly disguise a much deeper, more interesting topic than the drunkfest it first appears to be.