Gunpowder smoke filled the room. Pang. Pang. Pang. Shots. More Shots. And still more. Their echoes bouncing from wall to wall in the low basement room. A battle in a box. And we were in it. Invisible to each other behind the curtains of smoke. Firing. At point blank range into the clouds. Nonstop. Like crazy. This is one of my first conscious memories. I must have been around five years old. So where the others. It was carnival. And this was the party. Because guns were allowed. In school they hadn't been. So all they brought was what they got. Handguns. In all forms and sizes. Yes, there too were the costumes. Cowboy, Chieftain, Pirate, Sailor, Bank Robber, Zorro–for boys, those were the options. But dressing the kid up was for the parents to get excited about. What mattered to us was the type of firepower that came with the outfit. A proper six-chamber revolver? Or one of those cheap Chinese plastic guns you could feed rolled up paper strips with tiny gunpowder patches that gave you up to 100 shots? Lots of duds though. And honestly didn't look like the real thing. So I had opted for authenticity and gotten (my mother to get me) a faithful pirate pistol replica. Two barrels. Heavy. Beautiful. But it only fired two shots at a time. I had failed to consider that. So while everybody was hammering out the shots, I spent half of the party fiddling with the stupid thing, reloading it, unspeakably angry with myself for putting looks before function. So next carnival, the year after, I got a browning snub-nosed handgun, Bogarth private eye style: great design, maximum functionality, very satisfying. What costume I wore with it? No memories.
Creativity put an end to this first joy of carnival. It was the year before I hit puberty. And I had foolishly decided to let my father bond with me over designing a costume. He had no idea what Sand People in Star Wars looked like and quickly got carried away by his own ambitions to construct the perfect alien face mask helmet for his son. The result looked more like the heavily plated head of a Triceratops dinosaur. Sculptural. Impressive. So I went for it anyhow. With a tunic. Moroccan belt. Spear. Desert planet style. Excited, and again oblivious to some vital technicalities, it was only when I got to the party in the big school gym and proudly put the thing over my head that I realised: a) the eye holes were so far apart and away from my face that I could look either out of the right or left and would hence have to work hard on not bumping into people and things b) the breathing slits on the side were neither good for communication nor for the intake of food or drink c) which was OK because this way I didn't have to talk to any of the cowboys, sailors and bank robbers (etc.) around and say what the hell I was supposed to represent. So I spent my last big pre-purberty carnival party, silent and still, like a lonely alien temple guard by the gym wall, clutching my spear, in splendid isolation inside a piece of helmet art.
After that I grew up enough to understand that adults have carnival to get drunk and fool around. Which in the region I was born and raised in, the Rhineland, near Düsseldorf and Cologne, is practically what entire cities prepare themselves for every year. It is, uncontestably, the most important event in the cycle of the seasons. This is why it is considered one in its own right, the fifth season. Officially, it begins on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at eleven minutes past eleven. People start meeting for events and parties. The season reaches its peak three weeks before Easter. For six days carnival is taken to the streets and spreads through town. This period starts on Fat Thursday. People dress up. Women cut off men's ties. And in some places storm the city hall, to commemorate the 1824 insurrection of the Wash Women of Bonn Beuel who had formed the Old Lady's Comity to claim the right for women to join the carnival and get the day off work. This is why the date is also know as Altweiber and, locally, the start of the festivities is marked by the mayor publicly handing power over to costumed women representing the carnivalist crowd. The season ends on Ash Wednesday. Then you go to confession and fast for three weeks to get in shape for the resurrection. But just before that, on Rose Monday and Violet Tuesday, the big parades happen. All across town everybody gets dressed up, even if it's just some face paint, or a wig. It's everywhere. And it's organised. Us, Germans, we don't just have a Verein [registered society] for Sport, Kunst or Musik but also for Karneval. Locally entire villages are networked through the Karnevalsverein. People partake in the community's power to put itself on stage.
It's fun. Until you get alienated: Because conservative are what they are. Not less but more so when they wear what they think is funny and when drunk get filthy. Which they do. For real. And whatever filth local Punks may contrive in subcultural attempts to shock the bourgeoisie pales by comparison to what can germinate inside a petite bourgeois head and is released when the lid goes off during carnival. No moral complaint. It just comes as a shock to you, as a teenager in the throws of hormonal confusion, to be confronted by vivid evidence of the fact that your typical law-abiding adult citizen is even more desperately horny than you yourself. And if you saw it once, during carnival, you see it everywhere, throughout the year. E.g., in the looks of the family fathers, reclining outside the Tennisverein, beer in hand, after the game, comfortably ogling your classmate on the court, in her short Tennis skirt. Some looks are so sticky they have the consistency of spunk. If they become the social glue of small town carnival, would you still join in?
For tactical reasons, perhaps. For one thing you grasp, as a child, is that putting on a mask doesn't just permit people to do what they ostentatiously forbid. The mask can also protect you from playing the game at all, even when you're right in the middle of it. You can momentarily go invisible in the heat of the action. Collective transgression is the perfect cover for staying sober. While all loose their heads, you go ahead, execute the plan, move in on the target, change life: I had prepared it all during the months before, acquired the black clothes and pointy shoes, and performed my identity-switchover, from baby boy to Teenage Goth, during carnival. On Ash Wednesday I just kept the rebel costume on. And had my first identity. First love was the year after. Same procedure. We stayed together after Wednesday. For seven years. On planet Anti-. Until we both left suburbia and moved to cities in Germany where the locals stuck to four seasons only.
Since there is no real reason for going back, I can't even say whether I miss the fifth season. But I do think Berliners would be more bearable if they had it. Those Prussians. In the conglomeration of army barracks they call a capital. Just because there's enough heavy stone buildings? And wars started in Berlin by militarists who believed they where Prussian enough to win them? As if winning wars was a question of principle… As if for that matter living life was subject to principles and imperatives, categorical or otherwise…Which, coincidentally, is what Rhinelanders traditionally hold against Prussians and show, still, by means of a standard element in the modern carnival routine. During Karnevalsverein's parades and banquets, the royal threefold (matching the face cards of a card deck), the Carnival-Prince, Virgin and Jack are flanked by the Prinzengarde, the official carnival garrison, men in 19th Century army uniforms, loosely by recognisably based on the attire of the Prussian army. Throughout most of the 19th Century, the Rhineland had been under Prussian rule. Not much to the liking of the local population who had difficulties warming up to the codex of diehard discipline and truth to principle Prussia had built its military supxeriority on. What to do with people who think they're something better? You show them what bigots they are by making them have the kind fun no bigot, including yourself, could say no to. So the Prinzengarde comes with its own girl squad, the ‘Funkenmariechen’ [Sparky-Marys], young women performing can-can inspired chorus line dance routines in Prussian uniform tops and very short skirts below.
So truth is told, from bigot to bigot: You're one too. Because you like the Marys, don't you? And, did it ever occur to you that the guy who taught you principles was the one who put the gun in your hand and now wants his orders to be followed to the bitter end? You want that? Or life? Choose life. Come around to the carnival way of thinking. It's a joke. Not an argument. Still it is the point of the mockery. And the bottom-line of much truth-telling during the carnival. Rafts during the parades feature big papier-mache figures caricaturing the obscene stupidity of current political affairs. Apart from bad jokes about married life, many of the speeches delivered during the banquet events give you pointed political satire. They are delivered in verse. Not to elevate the speeches. On the contrary, speakers contend over finding the most disarmingly dumb rhymes. It's deflationism put to practice. Humour becomes the great leveller which spares no one and forces all to admit to their bigotry. Countering the Prussian regime of uncompromising consistency, Rhineland carnival inverts bigotry into a truth principle, to which all cannot but submit and hence must drop any false pretences. Carnival is the license to ill. A free for all. But it is also where you get called out on how you abuse that license. You, bigot you. During carnival people thus rehearse an ethics in which double standards are accepted and expunged, at the very same time. Habitually rehearsed, this ethics becomes part of the culture of everyday life. Rhinelanders are notorious for being double – but not afraid of taking the truth, when spoken through a mask. For them the fifth seasons practically never ends.
Not even on Ash Wednesday. The church ceremony to commemorate the end of carnival is so sensually pagan that it feels like it continues rather than terminates the feast. At the end of the service line up to have an ash cross rubbed onto your forehead by the priest. The ash is soft. You feel the thicker grainy bits stick on your skin as the priest's thumb presses and slides across it twice, swoosh, swoosh, and then your aching head is adorned by a holy dirt mark. You wear it all day. To show you repent? Sure. But also to confirm you got burned. The ash won't redeem you. It's just part of the make-up of life. On Ash Wednesday the priest puts in on you. On Rose Monday your mother did. To get her little pirate/cowboy/robber ready for the parade, she would paint a moustache above your lips. Using the black from the box of carnival make-up paint sticks that held all kinds of colours. Thick waxy colours that felt pasty on the skin when applied, like the ash, really. And not unlike eyeliner when you smear it around your eyes, to look like Siouxsie in her signature owl eye face paint. I broke my eyeliner during the first attempt. And stood helpless before the bathroom mirror, Friday night, at the disco. When this tall skinny goth, crown of hair, long flowing black gown, before the mirror next to me, leaned over and said: "Here, take mine." It was like being knighted. With an eyeliner pen. And it was a lesson learned. Never go out without a sharpener. You may need one. To keep the black sharp when you put on an owl face. Or stop your writing from drowning in unreadable smudges of grey when the pencil goes soft at the end of the page. So, from paint on face, through ash on skin to graphite on paper, something continues, regardless of licences and dates: a trail of marks made in moments of abandonment to the profane mystery of letting the body signify.