Stereotypes may portray Germans as being punctual, practical and lacking in humor, but they clearly overlook German carnival-goers. A million of them flock to Cologne's famous festivities for five days and nights.
Carnival: License to be goofy
Cologne's carnival wouldn't be the same without music from celebrated local band "Black Fööss." Jecken, or carnival-goers, sing along -- usually drunkenly -- in their local bars. Often called the "fifth season," Carnival is a time of wild parties, satirical theater, elaborate parades, hand-made masks and costume balls.
It officially starts in early November. But festivities are low key until the Tolle Tage -- "crazy days" -- which kick off with Weiberfastnacht -- "Women's Carnival Day" -- on Thursday. From the stroke of 11:11 a.m., women acquire the privilege of cutting off men's ties without retribution.
Getting ready for Rose Monday: A carnival float depicting US President Bush and German opposition leader Merkel
The festivities and masked balls carry on uninterrupted until Monday. For many who've partied through the five days, the huge Rose Monday Parade, televised live across the country, is the highlight and the last big bang before Lent starts.
For the kids
Families with young children often prefer the parade on Sunday, the Schull- und Veedelszoch -- school and neighborhood parade -- showcasing floats from carnival groups, sports clubs and schools. Kids ride the floats, tossing candies and flowers into the crowds of bystanders.
"The Schull- und Veedelszoch is a bit more natural, a bit nicer," said one carnival-goer. "It's not so professional, more original."
Fifty such local parades traipse through the streets of Cologne alone. One of the biggest, in the city's Ehrenfeld district, attracts around 300,000 people. Many of the locals start building and designing their floats and costumes in October.
On "Ladies' Carnival," Cologne's women took over the town on Thursday
While the rest of the country continues without a break, Jecken in Germany's Catholic regions cast aside their work for five days, provoking the scorn of many an uncomprehending northerner. Apparently, you have to be in the thick of it to learn to appreciate the tradition. "When I first came to Cologne as a student I though Carnival was terrible," one man said. "But then I saw how much fun people had and that really impressed me. That most people enjoy spending weeks making things and getting ready. Then they're virtually unapproachable for five days -- they're just full of joy."