Germans wearing bells and masks on the train. Is it Chinese new year? They seem to be wearing felt, hand stitched scales and the masks seem to be of the traditional Chinese dragon face - with the lolling tongue and wide staring eyes - but I try not to stare too much as there's a goggle eyed girl who already used up everyones polite stare-time. At Markelfingen a group of witches board the train. Most irregular. I might impulsively follow them when they get off the train. Or, I should maybe miss my stop to Uni when it comes and see what's happening... I begin writing excitedly about it when abruptly they all vacate the train at Allensbach. It would not be cool to leap up and follow them now, and I'd prefer to be accepted as a passer by that potentially lived in the area rather than the truth - a culturally oblivious procrastinating English student looking for a diversion.
I accept my fate, and alight the train at the University stop. I wait at the bustop for some minutes thinking about how silly I was to write off my Erasmus year after rencountering a few road bumps. Ok road blocks. While I'm happily thinking of more and more extended traffic and diversion metaphors I notice that I've been getting some pretty sceptical looks from the youths on the busstop over the road from me and it clicks that I've been waiting a comparatively long time. I wait until they board their own bus and check the time table. Of course - no busses to Uni on a Saturday, or at all from this bus stop. Elated, I cross the tracks and wait for the return journey to Allensbach, accompanied by a family of scaled, jangling Dragons.
Should I ask them what is going on? Do I know how to do that? "Warum sind sie... dragons?" One of them is a bear! And I can see pirates. Though the dragons seem the favoured costume. Actually, the new family that have also just arrived, I mistook for dragons but they appear to be, on closer inspection, a kind of Norweigan wood elf with bells on. Bells seem important. They cross characters. I decide not to ask and ruin the mystery, I may lose the impetus to follow them if I know. Plus, it will definitely blow my cover of casual commuter.
I can also tell it is a repeated tradition as the costume are pretty serious and mostly hand made. Someone has now arrived at the train station wearing a Swiss cow bell attached to his arm and is handing out wreathes of Chinese bells for people to hang around their necks. Presumably to the unfortunate bell-less. I wonder if there will be dancing. Individual groups have started to establish themselves now and within the groups they all wear the same theme of costume. Maybe they are like clans. The Norweigan Wood Elves have bundles of fur with them and bells on their legs and drawn on tree symbols. They wear hand sewn felt jerseys of overlapping leaves and identical brown and white striped hats that end in a plait strung with -of course - miniature bells. The group I mistook for pirates are actually... not. They wear large red, white and black feathers in their wide brimmed black hats, long black coats or coats bucked with a leather belt and heavy black boots. From the belt hangs a number of essential items - horns made from bone, wide bottomed vials stopped with a cork, pewter tankers - and fake blood drips down their faces.
As I board the train suddenly there are too many varieties to keep track of. My carriage is mainly dominated by rainbow scaled people with wooden donkey heads. Some carry wooden "clacking sticks" and the prospect of dancing now seems inevitable. I am seriously confused at this point, but as I disembark the train I follow the jangling crowd up a hill I finally break cover and ask two rainbow donkeys what is going on.
It's a Carnival! Of course, though I didn't think it started until February. Oh Germans, early to your own party. Apparently it's on slightly different days according to when Ash Wednesday falls. I can tell they are slightly uncomfortable with this level unpredictability "but it can't be helped" they sigh. They tell me that some say its for welcoming in the Spring, but one waves this off dismissively. When I say happily, "Ah, it's just for fun then!" I am dealt a look of offense - "No! It's a tradition". Ah. Of course. The muti-coloured overlapping strips also have a significance - they harken back to when the carnival first started and the poor peasants would sew any old scraps of fabric they had together in this particular way to make a "costume". Very important, Carnival. No really, they are absolutely MAD about it here.
I buy a beer - in my best German - which leaves the poor woman stricken and confused until the transaction is carried out as culturally agreed. "English sprachen!" she exclaims, shaking her hands to rid the bad air of bad juju as I leave. "Ja, ja", yeah, yeah. I've found myself in the pre-procession street gathering which is largely (totally) for the people involved in the procession but I wonder along, regardless. People have set up shop outside their houses and several different brass bands are all playing at once. There's even a rooftop DJ and an oversized novelty Reindeer "float" which pumps forth German Europop in it's wake. Little pilgrim witch children eye me with suspicion as I sit costume-less and alone outside a tombstone salesman's garden. The family - similarly witchily dressed - begin dealing with me much in the same way white blood cell eradicate bacteria or foreign bodies from blood. They gradually increase in number and slowly encroach upon me until I am almost swallowed by the mass. I am forced to move lengthways along the granite wall, hauling beer and bag, and immediately I hear a satisfied, "Ahhh," as a German lady plomps herself in my recently vacated seat. The ranks close around and I am happily forgotten about, though the youngest daughter gives me a weak smile, but to be honest it was kinda half arsed so I return the favour and go buy a bratwurst.
Te actual procession was as you might expect - like a village Chinese spirit procession but with Germans and a brass band playing Mambo Number 5. Strange fish faces led the procession - on a float boat - (and after I noticed a statue with the same fish face on. Maybe some sort of mascot of Allensbach? Will take photo and endeavour to find out more info.) Some of the costumes were truly terrifying - hideous demons that stormed down holding firelighters - and some were just bizarre - wrinkled masks of half crying half sneering droopy nosed old men. It all lasted about 30 minutes and was brilliant. I was standing next to mothers with two children so I really had the opportunity to come to terms with my own fragmented memories of carnival as a child. Carnival is literally an excuse to freak out children. During day to day life you have to be "sensible" around children - but during carnival - sure! Peer into strangers child's face as a devil and caress their face - it's hilarious! The parents love it! Come a-bounding and a-jangling and a-clanging from across the road, terrifying the mother in the process and lob sweets at the prams. Totally acceptable.