“Kölsch ist die einzige Sprache, die man trinken kann”
All over their country, Germans from different regions take pride in their local traditions and dialects. All things Kölsch are all things that define people from Cologne. Kölsch is the name of their dialect and their local beer, hence the saying above, “Kölsch is the only language that one can drink.”
So here I am in Cologne, or Köln, discovering the idiosyncrasies of Kölsch culture. One of my send-offs was, “Good luck with understanding Kölsch dialect!” Luckily for me, I have only directly been confronted with it once so far, when speaking with my significantly older German landlord. Fortunately, my young German flatmate was able to swoop in and help me out. Older generations seem to have more of an affinity for the Kölsch dialect whereas the students that I am surrounded by at my university, whilst undoubtedly fans of Kölsch beer, may only have notions of it. Kölsch tradition seems to play a small role in their daily lives – that is until Karneval comes around.
Karneval is particular to Cologne and is first celebrated on the 11th November, or Elfter Elfter, and marks the beginning of the Karnevalssession. For young people nowadays, Elfter Elfter is a day of fancy dress, drinking and singing traditional songs such as Kölle Alaaf, understood to mean ‘Nothing beats Cologne.’ It certainly felt strange to partake in this activity as I am so used to the 11th November being marked as the more sombre Remembrance Day. Nonetheless, a year abroad is for ‘cultural immersion’ and, since all my university classes had been cancelled, I got involved and decided to dress up as ‘Remain’ – that was before realising that politically inclined costumes are not really the norm. Most people, it seems, like to dress up as aliens, as mermaids or simply in animal onesies as it is quite cold (a good example of the Germans living up to their stereotype of being practical people).
Fast-forward to February and the celebrations recommence on the Thursday before Lent and last a whole week as opposed to one day. Rosenmontag, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, is the highlight as locals go out in fancy dress. An official committee set up in 1823 organises parades and various shows, yet the tradition of Karneval has been running as far back as the 16th century.
Steeped in history, a big marker of Kölsch tradition is the incredible Cologne Cathedral, or Kölner Dom, which, since 2007, boasts a beautiful stained-glass window by Gerhard Richter. The foundation stone for the cathedral was laid in 1248 and has been a popular subject for German literature, poetry, and art through the ages. For just 2€ (as a student) you can climb the cathedral and have the most wonderful panoramic view of the largest city on the Rhine.
Lastly, with Christmas just around the corner, Cologne’s world-famous Christmas markets, or Weihnachtsmärkte, pop up all over town. With markets erected in nearly every available square of Cologne city centre you are spoilt for choice. Queuing for a warm glass of red (or white) glühwein is a must as you listen to O Tannenbaum being played by an instrumental band on a lavishly decorated stage as people bustle around browsing beautifully handcrafted Christmas gifts. I have a feeling that from now on it will be hard to attend German themed Christmas markets in the UK without constantly comparing them to the truly traditional and beloved Kölsch ones.
By Grace Morales