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‘It’s absolute chaos’: Does Düsseldorf host Germany’s best carnival celebration?

Germany’s Karneval season is in full swing. We spoke to Düsseldorfers ahead of Rosenmontag to find out about political statements, bad music, kissing and how to survive the festivities.

‘It's absolute chaos’: Does Düsseldorf host Germany's best carnival celebration?
Greta Thunberg shown in a Düsseldorf float in 2019 with the motto: 'finally doing something about the climate catastrophe'. Photo: DPA

When it comes to floats that pack a punch there’s probably no better place to find them than Düsseldorf, which is expected to pull in a million visitors at this year's Rosenmontag celebrations on Monday.

And when the 'Rose Monday' parade comes around (this year on February 24th), Düsseldorfers, as well as other Germans and many across the globe, will be looking out for the creations of Jacques Tilly. 

Nothing short of a legend, Tilly turns politics on its head to produce figures that get everyone talking – from Trump to Thunberg – the artist is not afraid to make people gasp. 

Tilly, who's been creating the carriages every year since 1984, said: “Jester's licence means the right of fools, the high lords, the authorities, to be allowed to tell an uncomfortable truth without being punished for it. Carnival is not conceivable without the jester's licence, it is its very essence.”

READ ALSO: 'It caused a real shitstorm': Meet the man who skewered Trump at the carnival

Revellers during last year's carnival season in Düsseldorf. Photo: DPA

For local Franzi Brundell, 32, who has attended Düsseldorf Carnival since she was a child, the political side of it makes the festival stand apart from other German celebrations.

“Cologne is more traditional and focuses on the traditional side of carnival, which is also great, but what I like about the Düsseldorf one is it’s very satirical and political,” she told The Local.

“It’s not the biggest one in Germany but it’s the most political carnival in Germany,” added Hans-Peter Suchand, spokesman for the Düsseldorf Carnival Committee.

“We take politicians like Mr Trump or Brexit or other events that we find ridiculous and turn them on their heads – everyone smiles about the caricatures.”

READ ALSO: The freedom of fools: How did Germany's carnival become a political event?

Brundell, a German and English teacher, said Tilly’s creations are a talking point every year.

“I think he always tries to find the right tone to portray what’s going on in society,” said Brundell. “He’s not scared. He’s very out there and provocative.”

In recent years his depictions of Brexit have been particularly, ahem, on the nose.

A float depicting Brexit from 2019. Photo: DPA

Brundell explained how she’s been discussing with friends about possible themes that will come up this year, such as the Thuringia voting scandal.

“People are waiting for what’s going to happen and whether he will pick up on very recent trends,” she said.

This week following the shootings in Hanau, it was announced that Tilly would design another float paying tribute to the victims of the terror attack, meaning 13 floats by Tilly will run on Rosenmontag instead of 12.

When and what is Karneval?

Carnival, also known as the 'fifth season' is celebrated in many places in Germany, from Cologne to Mainz and Cottbus, and each festival has its own unique selling points.

Depending on where you're celebrating it in Germany, it's known as Karneval, Fasching, Fastnacht or Fastnet. The festival has its roots in Catholicism and many countries across the world have their own versions.

The below graph gives an overview of the estimated numbers attending Rosenmontag parade across the country.

Graph translated by Statista for The Local Germany.

READ ALSO: From Cologne to Cottbus, where to celebrate carnival in Germany

In Düsseldorf carnival celebrations kick off at 11:11 am on November 11th, when the Carnival spirit Hoppeditz awakes.

The street festival lasts five days in February. It launched on what’s known as Fat Thursday with “Altweiberfastnacht”, which is known as being very wild and involves women in costumes storming into the town hall and cutting off the mayor’s tie, symbolically taking control over the city.

Friday is a time for some rest and to get your costumes sorted for the coming days. There are lots of family events on Saturday and Sunday. 

The celebrations culminate in the Rose Monday Parade, also known as the Shrove Monday procession. The end of the season is midnight on Shrove Tuesday (February 25th this year), the day before Ash Wednesday when the 40-day Lent season begins.

To add to the drama, the effigy of Hoppeditz is, rather disturbingly, burned on Ash Wednesday. The remains are then symbolically buried, and the carnival is laid to rest before the next season.

'Canadian Santa Claus Parade mixed with Halloween'

Rosenmontag is the highlight of the festival for many.

“That’s when most people go and celebrate,” said Brundell, who this year will dress up as a bubble gum machine. “The other days are also important but Rosenmontag is probably the most famous day.”

Around a million spectators line the streets of Düsseldorf, donning costumes to watch decorated floats flow through the city. 

Franzi Brundell in carnival face paint. Photo courtesy of Franzi Brundell

Those on the floats throw sweets (Kamelle) and trinkets at the locals and visitors lining the streets. There’s lots of dancing and singing. And you might hear locals cry out “Helau!” to each other often as they get into the spirit.

But Brundell warned that the music, which she says is a mix of traditional German music with “weird lyrics” can be really bad. “I can’t listen to it apart from at the carnival,” she said. “It's even worse than Schlager.”

READ ALSO: 10 words you need to know at Cologne's carnival

The whole Karneval experience can be a lot to take in – especially for non-Düsseldorfers. 

Toronto-born Jenna Davis, 28, whose first Karneval experience was in 2015, said: “The first year was quite overwhelming and exciting all at once. 

“As a newcomer to Düsseldorf, I guess I hadn’t realized just how big the event really was, and that it wasn’t just over the course of one day, but almost an entire week.

“My initial thought was ‘how amazing is this! It’s like our Canadian Santa Claus Parade mixed with Halloween – the best of both worlds – candy, costumes and parades down every street!”

But Davis, who runs expat website Life in Düsseldorf, says everyone can enjoy the party atmosphere even if they don’t attend all the events. 

“The great thing about this 'fifth season' in Düsseldorf is that there really is something for everyone – the party goers, the families, the schools, the LGBT community, etc.

“The Karneval atmosphere is chaos, absolute chaos! I don’t think there is a single “calm” experience during Karneval, but if you’ve got the energy to celebrate, it’s awesome.”

IN PICTURES: Rosenmontag celebrations go ahead despite storm

It's also a huge boost to the local economy to the tune of €200 million per year, according to Suchand.

“It’s a large part of our culture in Germany, especially in North Rhine-Westphalia,” he added.

Kissing and costumes

So just how do you survive it? Well, be prepared for anything.

For example, don't be afraid if lots of people talk to you or even try to kiss you.

If you do receive a smooch from a stranger, the greeting is called Bützchen.

“The spirit of carnival is to welcome each other, to have a drink, to hug and that’s just part of that,” said Bundell. “It's not meant in a weird way.”

The mayor of Düsseldorf receiving a kiss on Thursday. Photo: DPA

Davis said first timers should get ready for a whole week of festivities.

“If you really want to go all in, feel free to bring a costume for every day of Karneval, many people do,” she said.

“Bring the energy. Karneval is the craziest week of the year in Germany filled with too much candy, too much beer and an extreme amount of people from all over North Rhine-Westphalia and Germany.

“Most importantly – pace yourself and plan out your week – where you want to go and things to want to experience.”

Brundell said it’s important to remember it’s not all about drinking alcohol – although that can be a big part of it for some. 

“It makes me sad that people think it’s just an excuse to drink,” said Brundell. “I know some people take all year to make their costumes, their mini floats – they have five different costumes for their one year old.”

For Brundell it’s about inclusiveness, making friends and everyone being together no matter their background. 

“Be open, embrace it and don’t be scared,” said Brundell. “It can be wild but at the end of the day it’s a welcoming thing.”

“It’s a fabulous scene for everyone,” added Suchand.

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‘The pandemic made people want to grow stuff’: How a Berlin balcony project led to a chili revolution

The pandemic helped fuel an interest in homegrown products – and has resulted in hundreds of chili farmers across Berlin. Now a new festival is shining a light on locally-sourced products and the chili revolution.

'The pandemic made people want to grow stuff': How a Berlin balcony project led to a chili revolution
Jonathan O'Reilly and Neil Numb collecting ingredients for the Berlin hot sauce. Photo courtesy of Neil Numb

Edinburgh-born Neil Numb is a long-time comedian, show producer and promoter in Berlin. And now he's also a chili farmer.

The 47-year-old has always had plant culture in his blood – both his parents are botanists – so he's been curious about growing chilis for years.

“When we were growing up we always had chores in the garden, so I’ve always been good at growing things,” he says. 

Last summer he decided to buy chili seeds online, and quickly found himself sharing his flat with massive plants.

“I didn't expect them to do so well,” he says.

At the same time, Numb had always been thinking about how Berlin's balcony space could be utilised better to grow more food.

He began discussing ideas with Jonathan O'Reilly, who runs hot sauce firm Crazy Bastard Sauce in Berlin.

The pair are both supporters of locally-grown produce, and decided they could sell the chili plants at market stalls.

“And then things just escalated when coronavirus happened,” says Numb.

READ ALSO: 10 mouth-watering foods you have to try while visiting Germany

Neil Numb in amongst his chili plants. Photo courtesy of Neil Numb

They were no longer able to sell the plants at markets, such as the popular Sunday Mauerpark flea market, due to the coronavirus shutdown.

“I had 600 chili plants in my house at this point, there were 1,200 in total,” says Numb.

“Suddenly we couldn't sell them at the market because of coronavirus. I couldn't do my job at Cosmic Comedy. I had all this time and my OCD insists I have to have something to promote or my brain will fry. So I decided to sell these plants anyway.”

'I was the postman of chilis'

The pair wanted to get people growing the plants and then O'Reilly could buy back the chilis and he'd have local produce.

“Jono has to buy chilis from all over Europe, there's no local chilis,” says Numb. “Jono’s problem and my project collided.”

The Berlin Super Hot Chili Project was born at the perfect time.

People were stuck at home with nothing to what better time to tend to chili plants?

“The whole thing went mad,” says Numb. “People were stuck at home and they said: 'let's grow things'. People were buying compost because there was nothing else to do.”

Numb found himself delivering plants all over Berlin.

“At the beginning we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “I was just churning out chili plants. I was the postman of chilis, going out and delivering them all over Berlin. I was leaving them at their doorstep. Chatting to people three or four metres away with social distancing.”

Word of mouth even stretched across Germany. “People in Hamburg were asking if I could send them there,” says Numb.

File picture swhos a Carolina Reaper chili. Photo: DPA

Community of chili growers

In total about 450 people are now looking after 1,200 plants on balconies, allotments and in gardens across the German capital.

Seedlings cost €4 each and a packet of seeds is €3. O'Reilly has been buying up the chili peppers from individual growers (although not every plant gets fruit) for about €20 per kilo cash or €30 in Crazy Bastard credit.

The seeds in question are Carolina Reapers, officially the world’s hottest pepper plant.

A whole community has grown around the project, online through the Berlin Chili Growers Group and in real life.

“I was at my local pub on Saturday night and 10 people were sitting round the bar talking about chilis and showing each other photos of their chilis,” Numb says. “I thought: 'What have we created?'”

And why has it captured the imagination so much? Numb things there's a few reasons behind it.

“Chilis tap into something in people’s brains,” he says. “You get emotionally attached to it. There’s a payoff at the end. It's also a bit dangerous – you need gloves to touch the Carolina Reapers. Berliners love a bit of danger.

“They’re beautiful plants to grow and people are into hot food. Especially in Berlin where it’s quite hard to get good spicy food.”

Then there's the pandemic, which Numb compares to the feeling of a Zombie apocalypse at the beginning “when no one knew what was going on”.

“Growing food is one of the tribal things in our brain we do for survival,” says Numb. “When we are pushed into a serious situation, people are worried, it makes people want to grow stuff.”

'You're into chili for life'

On Saturday September 26th, the project will be celebrated with the first Berlin Chili Festival being held at Jöckel Biergarten in Neukölln.

There will be competitions, including one to find the best homemade sauce, and live acts. The aim is to bring people together to drink beer, talk chilis, and try hot sauce.

The first batch of the '100 percent Berlin Grown Hotsauce' will be released at the festival, costing around €6. It is literally the fruits of Berliners' labour.

Hot off the press – the first batch of the Berlin hot sauce. Photo courtesy of Neil Numb

Ireland-born O'Reilly, who set up Crazy Bastard Sauce in 2013, says the interest in hot sauce and growing chilis will only increase.

The people with chili plants now will be able to grow more with the seeds they get.

“If you’re into chili, you’re into chili for life,” he says. “It’s not something you get into and out of. It’s a lifelong thing. Chili lovers only increase – and in Berlin there’s so many.

“There’s tons of chili festivals around Europe, even in German cities like Hanover. Berlin needs a chili festival and has done for years.”

Numb is now eyeing up places where he can build a chili farm in Berlin. He's also set up an online shop selling chili and vegetable seeds as well as other super hot-themed products.

“For me it’s always about a conversation about local food production,” Numb says. “The hot sauce project starts a conversation about localising food.

“Making a few bottles of hot sauce isn’t going to solve anything about what we have to deal with as humans with climate change. But it’s good to talk about it.”