In the Heat of the Moment

by Zarina Kadirbaks (United Kingdom (Great Britain))

Making a local connection Germany

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I’ve been in Cologne, Germany, for barely half a day now and already find myself arm-in-arm with a bunch of complete strangers. We're gathered here, sober and in broad daylight, at the edge of the small Ostermannplatz square in Cologne's historic part of town. As our bodies sway side to side, moving to the gentle humming of our own voices, our intimate circle closes even tighter. While I do like meeting new people whilst travelling, I usually don’t go around dancing with individuals I haven't yet exchanged a single word with. At least not without a beer in hand, let alone in some desolate side street. But being drawn in an almost meditative trance, we're oblivious to decorum and the quizzical looks of occasional passers-by. Because in this fleeting moment, all that exists is our indescribable bond. An overwhelming connection that breaks as soon as we unlock arms and open our eyes again. This remarkable scene takes place at the end of the Freewalk Cologne city tour. For the last three hours, our passionate guide Enrico has shared his favourite spots in the city with us, all brought to life thanks to Enrico's knack for compelling storytelling. He just made us huddle together to illustrate his most memorable experience during his first Cologne Carnival. The location for our group embrace is no coincidence as we're stood right next to the Ostermann Fountain. The striking figures adorning this triangular monument are depictions of characters from the songs by local lyricist Willi Ostermann, whose music is still a vital part of carnival, even over 80 years after the singer's death. Originally hailing from southern Germany, our charismatic city guide has the perfect insight into what sets Cologne apart from all those other vibrant and fascinating German cities. He tells us that Cologne is sophisticated – don't expect to be served those stereotypical gigantic beer jugs in the bars here – with an incredibly open-minded and welcoming culture. But what makes this 2,000-year old city – founded as a Roman colony as revealed in its name – truly unique, is its unconventional 'fifth season of the year'. Through Enrico's moving recount I get a taste of Cologne’s biggest annual event, one that is supposed to bring out the innate hedonist in even the most seemingly modest Kölner. Having grown up in the south of the Netherlands, an area famed for its abundant carnival celebrations, the description sounds both familiar yet also slightly mythical to me. I'm especially fascinated by the ceremonial finale of the 6-day booze-fuelled extravaganza, when the famed 'crazy days' before Lent end in collective obedience and sorrow. Enrico tells us how on the closing night of the festivities, locals congregate around the huge bonfire in the Kwartier Latäng district. Centre of attention here is the effigy of Nubbel, a life-size straw doll. In order to cleanse themselves of the sins they committed during 'Karneval' – a reiteration of the pagan Greek and Roman spring bacchanal – surrounding revellers transfer their sins to this poor straw figure by blaming him for all the regretful things they've done, upon which they burn him. And as Nubbel turns to ashes, the confessed immoral deeds dissolve with him. While the party-goers grasp onto the last hours of the hedonic festival, you’re bound to witness the wildest scenes at the bonfire, says Enrico. He’s seen people jumping over the fires and even a young man, overwhelmed by emotions in literally the heat of the moment, propose to his girlfriend. But as the flames dim, the crowd clasp arms in the same fashion we just did, hang their heads down in lament and hum their melancholic tune. Because they all know that in the morning they’ll wake up to the reality of everyday life again. And with that vivid retelling of the seemingly frivolous street festival, our surprisingly touching Cologne city tour comes to an end. Almost. Because the full Cologne experience wouldn't be complete without an introduction to the illustrious Kölsch beer, typically served in humble 0.2-litre glasses which, according to hearsay, keep getting topped up as by magic, leading to all sorts of adventures. But that's another story for another time...