Mel's Place

Published: Wednesday April 16, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 16, 2014 MYT 11:11:02 AM

Carnival time in Cologne

Melinda with her sister-in-law Dani (in tiger costume) and her family in safety jackets and fun hats.

Melinda with her sister-in-law Dani (in tiger costume) and her family in safety jackets and fun hats.

What began as a bittersweet journey turned into a celebration of life.

iT’S been just over a month and I can still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach that accompanied me on the train ride from Paris to Cologne. I was going to pay my last respects to Mr E L (Dirk’s dad).

I can’t help thinking that the timing must have been a sign from Opa for me to finally witness the carnival that takes place around this time of the year (about 40 days before Easter). I had heard many stories from him and Oma (what my kids call their German grandmother) about this carnival, but had never been able to experience it myself due to my schedule.

When I arrived at the train station right next to the Cologne Cathedral, it was clear that I had stepped into a full-scale celebration. There were “crazy” people everywhere on the streets of Cologne – a man dressed as Snow White with 10 dwarfs following him, rabbits, superheroes and pirates ... And not just for a day, but a whole week, during which the town declares a public holiday!

I’m glad that Max, too, got to witness the Carnival. He arrived with Dirk the same day I got to Cologne. When Dani (Dirk’s sister-in-law) told us that they’d be visiting the carnival the next day, Max was over the moon, as he would be able to collect chocolates and goodies. Needless to say, he was very enthusiastic when it came to choosing his costume and joining in the fun.

The celebration actually begins as early as November the year before, but it is only in March that the street carnival starts. From Weiberfastnacht on Thursday till the following Wednesday (known as Ash Wednesday), thousands of people party in pubs and in the streets whilst watching the parades.

The whole of Germany celebrates the carnival but it is particularly lively in the Rhine area, in cities like Cologne and Düsseldorf. There is music everywhere – the latest tracks as well as traditional music from carnival bands, the favourites being the Höhner, Brings, Bläck Föös and the Paveier. As much as I enjoy the music, all the songs are in German, so I have difficulty understanding the lyrics.

But it was a good time to improve my German vocab. Three words I caught over and over were: Bützjer which means kisses on the cheek due to the “Declaration of the freedom to kiss” that lasts till Ash Wednesday, Kamelle, which refers to the sweets that are thrown during the parades; and Strüssjer, to mean flowers, which are also thrown.

A piece of advice if you ever get to witness this carnival – take a bag (or two!) to carry the sweets, candy, chocolates and sometimes even bananas and carrots that are thrown as the parade progresses. Max went fully prepared and by the end of two days, he had filled a bag with 10kg of carnival goodies from Refrath and Bergisch Gladbach (hometown of supermodel Heidi Klum, who used to be one of the highlights of the parade).

The official carnival with its parades and stage shows (Sitzungen) is run by the Cologne Carnival Celebration Committee, founded in 1823. There are also many autonomous carnival events throughout the city’s bars, clubs and local communities, including “Stunksitzung”, a leftist comedy show caricaturing the official carnival Sitzungen in style while poking fun at both the conservative aspects of the carnival as well as politics and politicians.

The Cologne carnival is truly something. It attracts more than a million spectators for the Rose Monday parade every year, making it one of the largest street festivals in Europe. Having witnessed this, I wonder what some of the other carnivals around the world are like. I’m sure there would be some very interesting ones out there – we’ve all seen photos of the Rio carnival, for example, with plenty of its own stories to tell.

All in all, my adventure in Europe was accompanied by a mix of emotions. Although I love travelling, it’s not easy to be away from my young children and family for an entire month at a stretch.

I am going to try to save future globe-trekking ventures for a time when my children have grown up and are more independent.

And while the carnival was fun, we couldn’t help but feel sad that Opa was not there to witness it with us. But I’m sure he would have wanted us to enjoy it because he believed in making the most of life.

Life is short, so make the most of all the opportunities and joy that come your way. Cheers to you, Mr E L, and I hope you get to live it up wherever you are now. Know, too, that you will always be in our hearts.

> Award-winning fashion designer Melinda Looi tries to marry consumerism and materialism with environmental consciousness. She believes her greatest creations are her children. Send your feedback to

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, melinda looi, column

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