Sweltering Berlin gears up for culture fest | Scene in Berlin | DW | 25.05.2012
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Scene in Berlin

Sweltering Berlin gears up for culture fest

It’s Pentecost weekend, which means it’s carnival time in Berlin. The annual 'Karneval der Kulturen' celebrates the city's multicultural flare. The food and music are a far cry from those of earlier carnivals down south.

I was a carnival virgin when I moved to Germany a few years ago. I don't think stuffing myself with pancakes every Shrove Tuesday with the rest of England really counts.

I was living in the Rhineland (before fleeing to Berlin) where carnival is THE occasion of the year and from which there is absolutely no escape. For four days a year - of course when temperatures are invariably below zero and when most normal people prefer to hibernate under the bed covers - the Rhinelanders go crazy.

They dress up as clowns, cowboys and pirates, down liters of Kölsch, Bönnsch or Alt beer depending on where exactly they live, sing boisterously at the top their voices, go wild on the dance floor and kiss as many strangers as they can. If their hangovers allow them to get out of bed during the day, they shiver as they watch the carnival procession go through their streets, and if they’re lucky they avoid getting hit by flying candy. Till the next year…

Vor dem Dom in Köln feiern Narren am Donnerstag (16.02.2012) Karneval. Mit der Weiberfastnacht beginnt am Donnerstag der Straßenkarneval. Dazu werden in den rheinischen Hochburgen schon ab morgens Zehntausende kostümierter Jecken erwartet. Foto: Oliver Berg dpa/lnw +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Some 'jecks' in front of Cologne Cathedral

The first time, I must admit, I had a great time (thanks presumably to the right amount of beer and schnapps) but the novelty soon wore off. There was none of the music that makes Rio's carnaval so special, or the masks and costumes that bring more elegance to Venice during carnevale.

Carnival in the Rhineland is an unruly, primitive affair, so when I moved to Berlin I heaved a great sigh of relief. February in the German capital is all about the film festival. To me it makes thorough sense to spend this grey month in the heated movie theaters rather than outside.

From Mongolia to Madagascar

Traumatized, I avoided anything vaguely close to carnival the first few years I was here, but now I have overcome my fears and am ready to try again.

The Karneval der Kulturen seems to be another matter completely, not least because of more favorable weather conditions. Taking place in May during Pentecost (although considering 60 percent of Berliners do not adhere to a religion, this is incidental), the weather is bound to be considerably more agreeable. This weekend, it is likely to be roasting.

Children in Kreuzberg

Karneval der Kulturen welcomes children and elderly people alike

The fact that this carnival does not hark back to medieval customs and does not pride itself on anti-Prussian and anti-French sentiment, but was born out of a desire to bring together all kinds of cultures also makes it much more attractive.

Just under a third of Berlin's inhabitants boast a "background of immigration," almost 500,000 carry a foreign passport (from almost 200 different states). Most are Turkish or Polish but some hail from such far-flung places as Malaysia, Mongolia or Madagascar.

The Karneval der Kulturen was created in 1996 to promote the idea that integration in a multicultural society can only arise if there is mutual respect and understanding for cultural and religious plurality. In the tradition of more established carnivals, it was also about breaking bounds and temporarily escaping daily reality. It prides itself on being open to everyone of all religions, ethnic groups, age and gender. As one of the co-organizers, Vasiliki Gortsas, told DW, the only groups not allowed to take part are "right-wing extremists, evangelizing religious groups and political parties."

From cumbia to calypso

She was excited about the number of visitors expected to turn up this year. "1.3 million!" That seems a lot to me and has made me slightly apprehensive. The event has become so popular it is almost off-putting. "It's awful," a friend of mine told me. "So many people that you can barely move - I’m staying well away."

"It wasn't like that in the early days," another friend said wistfully. She recalled the wonderful atmosphere when the carnival was still an "insider tip" and it was very relaxed. “Once we were pulled onto a float where an extremely talented band was playing," she reminisced. "It turned out it was Seeed before they became so famous."

Kölsch beer

It doesn't take long to down a Kölsch

Who knows if Germany's next greatest reggae band will be playing this year but what’s certain is that there will be non-stop music catering to Berlin's eclectic tastes emanating from four stages representing all four corners of the earth - "Bazaar Berlin," "Eurasia," "Farafina" and "Latinauta."

The organizers promise satisfaction, whether you’re into raï, calypso, techno, cumbia, electronica, samba, chanson, blues, folk, reggae, rock or jazz. I’ll just be glad not to hear "Viva Colonia" once!

An acrobat at the procession

Acrobatics and juggling are part and parcel of the fun

And moreover I’m looking forward to tucking into all the mouth-watering food -dolmades, falafels, tacos, quiches, kebabs, manioc fritters, pumpkin pancakes, böreks, gözleme, veggieburgers, waffles, ice cream, strawberries, fondue, corn on the cob and more…

Definitely more exciting than the rye bread and cheese you eat by the bucket in Cologne. And the drinks selection also stretches further than beer to exotic cocktails or salty Tibetan tea.

For children and teetotalers, Viva con Agua, a Hamburg-based organization that campaigns for clean drinking water worldwide, will providing free water throughout.

Not being either, I look forward to sipping a few caipirinhas in the shade of a linden tree before hitting the dance floor. Now that, my friends in the Rhineland, is how carnival should be done!

Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Jessie Wingard

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