It was at about 2pm on a stormy Sunday as I sat next to a group of people dressed as pirates downing mini bottles of Schnapps when I wondered if I was destined to live in Duisburg.
I had been stuck in the train station of the western German city for over an hour as I tried to travel from Berlin to Düsseldorf.
Heading west to celebrate Karneval for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be a very wet and windy experience – but one I’ll never forget thanks to the enthusiasm of the locals whose spirits could not be dampened by any amount of rain.
After being kicked off the high speed train in Duisburg because of the storms, I wandered around aimlessly, pondering how I’d get to my final destination. Eventually, I followed the pirates onto another train.
“The carnival celebrations in Duisburg have been cancelled because of the weather so we are going to Cologne,” said one of the revellers dressed as a Victorian gentleman.
There were plenty of people getting into the festival atmosphere. One thing I’d been warned about in advance of carnival was the music – and, dear reader, it was so, so bad. Think Schlager but even worse if that’s possible. And the same songs are repeated over and over and over and over…
But it’s strange – the more I listened to it, the more I began to warm to it. Carnival fever was catching on.
Ok I probably live at Duisburg station now, there’s no way out. pic.twitter.com/y1cYvrZImV
— Rachel Loxton (@RachLoxton) February 23, 2020
'What's your costume?'
It was only when I was actually in the Rhineland, far away from grey Berlin, that I realised just how serious a business carnival is. People love it and embrace it completely.
It’s a huge event in Germany’s Catholic regions where the so-called “fifth season” brings out millions of revellers every year.
Traditions differ depending where you live: people say Cologne has the biggest party, while Düsseldorf has long been known for putting on the most controversial satirical displays.
One thing that’s certain: you need to wear a fancy dress costume. I’d already failed at the first hurdle, believing that adding a bit of colour – my yellow raincoat – was enough.
“What’s your costume?” one of the pirates asked me. I told him I didn’t have one, that I was an amateuer.
“Are you Greta Thunberg?” shouted a friendly Ghostbuster, as if there was no way that I could have come without a costume. Apparently, some people spend a whole year planning what they're going to wear for the street festivals during Karneval.
“I guess I am,” I said, pointing to my raincoat and hat which had a vague Thunberg vibe.
They thrust a beer in my hand and turned up the music.
We stopped on the tracks and, after a long wait, the train conductor said a tree had blocked the line and we had to go back to Duisburg.
The stormy weather was getting worse and it looked like I’d never make it to Düsseldorf. I should probably make an appointment at the Bürgeramt and register in Duisburg, one person joked on Twitter after I shared some tweets about the journey.
We started moving but a tree fell on the tracks so now stuck on the train listening to Karneval music and celebrating with a bunch of folk who asked if I’d dressed up as Greta Thunberg
— Rachel Loxton (@RachLoxton) February 23, 2020
Back at Duisburg I had no idea what to do, but eventually followed some people to the S-Bahn. I found one that went to Düsseldorf and hopped on along with what felt like the rest of the city.
The carnival music played for the whole hour-long journey, cementing it in my mind forever.
After nine hours of travelling I arrived in Düsseldorf, four hours later than expected.
On Monday I was ready for the big event – the Rosenmontag parade. I had been invited to join the Düsseldorf Tourism Board float where I would throw Kamelle (sweets) to the crowds lining the streets.
Taking inspiration from my Duisburg train friends I braided my hair and decided I would attend Karneval as climate activist Thunberg.
However, I didn’t really need to bother: there were colourful clown wigs waiting for us on the float.
I spent the first part of the day checking out the floats and speaking to locals.
Sonja Weyers and her friend Katharina Pitzer, who both looked amazing in clown make-up told me how important it is to get dressed up.
“You have to have a costume, it’s part of carnival,” said Sonja.
“That’s what the fun is all about. If you don’t wear one you’re the odd one out,” added Katharina.
Katharina Pitzer and Sonja Weyers. Photo: Rachel Loxton
From babies who'd been transformed into bees to men dressed up as pregnant women and all other types of outfits in between, the Düsseldorfers went all out.
Ultimately, the spirit of carnival is about community.
“Rosenmontag is the highlight of our carnival session, everyone comes together and celebrates together, it doesn't matter where you’re from,” Sonja said.
If there’s one thing you have to be ready for at the carnival, it’s to shout the war cry “Helau!” possibly a million times during the course of one day.
“In Düsseldorf we say Helau!” said Sonja and Katharina.
— Rachel Loxton (@RachLoxton) February 24, 2020
Düsseldorf is known for its biting political floats, made by creative genius Jacques Tilly. No topics are off limits, from the coronavirus to the far-right, Brexit and Trump.
A sculpture depicting Thuringia's AfD leader Björn Höcke and the election debacle in the German state. Photo: DPA
One float was dedicated to the victims of the Hanau shooting attacks with the strong message that words can become actions emblazoned across it.
Ole Friedrich, managing director at the Düsseldorf Tourism Board, said: “There are so many people in a good mood, everybody is happy and we have these special wagons. We are proud of it because these will go out to the entire world.
“We are the only Rose Monday with such satirical, strong political wagons.”
Melvin Böcher and Ole Friedrich. Photo: Rachel Loxton
After a few hours, our float began moving through the crowds and the sweet-throwing started. Children (along with quite a few adults) got really excited to catch some treats.
We travelled through the city and I was able to see some of the sights, such as the old town hall, while listening to carnival music and shouting Helau!
We finished the route just as it was beginning to get dark. The sun didn't come out the entire day but that didn't bother anyone in Düsseldorf one bit.
Melvin Böcher, of the online community Travel Dudes, summed it up: “The weather’s shit but it’s an amazing atmosphere.”
Rachel stayed at Hotel Friends Düsseldorf during her visit.