Helau!

Yesterday was easily my best day here, and very unexpectedly so.

Four of us met up this morning to head to the train station to spend the day in Frankfurt. We get free train rides within the state of Hessen as students in Marburg, and I figured if we didn’t have anything better to do, why not bum around Frankfurt? It doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in Germany as an exciting, scenic place to visit, but I know there are some parts of it that are kind of pretty, and again, it’s not like we were paying anything to make the trip. Plus, it only takes about an hour.

Confetti bursting in the air, with the Römerberg in the background.

We got into Frankfurt at about 10:30 a.m. and just started walking with a vague sense of direction, which eventually proved to be faulty (shock). I was trying to get us to the Römerberg, Frankfurt’s old city, but I was ultimately unsuccessful in these efforts. We worked our way back toward the train station to find a Starbucks so I could use the wifi to look up a map on my iPod.

On the way back, we kept noticing people dressed up in costumes, which seemed a bit odd.  We also began to hear loud music and noticed increasing crowds of people – clearly, something was up. There were barriers that had been set up along the roads that we thought had been left from a previous event, but we began to realize that something was actually happening today.

I began to figure that Frankfurt was probably having a Karneval celebration, something the city of Köln/Cologne is best known for, but which other cities and villages also celebrate. We immediately realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a uniquely German celebration, and we abandoned our plans of wandering around, instead finding a place along the barriers to watch the parade.

It was pretty cold out, and we stood for a LONG time – I would guess a total of 3 ½ or 4 hours – but it was incredibly fun. It’s not clear to me exactly who made up the parade participants, but it seems that there are hundreds of organizations throughout the city who create their own floats and performances for the parade route, dressing up in silly costumes, handing out candy to children and playing traditional Karneval songs. Many of the songs were well known by the parade watchers, who would sing along. Apparently Sweet Caroline is a popular Karneval tune, and we heard it several times during the parade.

One of the many, many floats in the parade.

In addition to the traditional songs, all the parade participants would constantly call out to the parade watchers, “Frankfurt! Helau!” to which the crowd which shout back, “Helau!” I guess this was some sort of traditional Karneval greeting – we thought they were saying “Hello!” but we eventually realized it was different.

One aspect of the parade that I thought was interesting was its use of some racial imagery in ways that would never be acceptable in the US – there were groups done up in blackface with images on their floats depicting caricatures of blacks that would be offensive to most in America, and other dressed in ponchos and sombreros as part of an overall Mexican theme. I realize that different societies will have different taboos, and it’s certainly not as though the parade participants themselves were entirely white, but I just thought it was interesting that what some Americans might find deeply offensive apparently doesn’t even register with Germans.

Other highlights of the day included: trying currywurst, a bratwurst chopped up with some sort of sauce poured over it and curry powder sprinkled on it; trying Glühwein, a hot spiced wine that is absolutely phenomenal on a cold day; and making friends with Patrick, who currently lives in Frankfurt and works as a dog trainer (he had an adorable dachshund with him and his parents trained German Shepherds – how German!).

It was just such an unexpectedly fun day – we were going down because we had nothing better to do and I wanted to get more familiar with Frankfurt’s train station, since I hope to be making many more trips during my time here. Yet instead we stumbled on a uniquely German celebration, essentially a giant party in the middle of Frankfurt. We didn’t quite make it to the old city today, but this was absolutely a day well-spent in Frankfurt. And hey, it’s not like we can’t come back another time.

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