By Amy Formolo
Photos by the author
The word is strange enough, but I recently learned how these six little letters can stir a whole region to party the day away in true Germanic style.
I thought I knew roughly what to expect in terms of German traditions and festivities. I was familiar, of course, with festivals like Oktoberfest and Weihnachtsmarkt, and with traditional victuals like cabbage and wurst. But little did I know I had yet to discover one of Bremen, Germany’s most unique traditions–one centered on green cabbage, a mysterious meat product called Pinkel, and plenty of alcoholic spirits.
It’s called “Kohlfahrt” (translation— “cabbage tour”) and recently I was told what this festival was all about.
Kohlfart is a tradition practiced only in Northwest Germany, and is a beloved annual ritual in the Bremen area. The idea is that a group of friends or colleagues assemble on a Saturday afternoon in January or February, load up a “Bollerwagen” with an assortment of schnapps, whiskeys and beer, and amble through the countryside playing wacky party games and replenishing liquor at every opportunity. The event is organized months in advance by the group’s Kohlkoenig and Kohlkoenigin— the cabbage king and queen. After a couple hours of walking, when the participants’ bladders are full and their stomachs growling, the group descends on a pub or restaurant to enjoy the culmination of the day’s festivities–a meal of Kohl und Pinkel (the Kohl is green cabbage and Pinkel is something along the lines of bacon, oats, lard and spices packed together). And then they dance the night away—literally. I never knew the Germans loved to dance so much, especially to cheesy ’80’s cover bands. Although I will admit I hit the dance floor for several numbers (who can resist the Abba and AC/DC tribute?).
I didn’t know much about Kohlfahrt going into it, but once our group was assembled, and we were handed pretzels (sustenance is crucial) and plastic scientific sample vials to wear around our necks (it really is a cheap and logical way to hold liquor), I knew we were in for some surprises. It only got more interesting when our first two games tested who could maneuver a spoon down their shirt and pants the fastest, and who could throw a teabag the farthest using only their teeth.
Kohlfahrt was definitely worth experiencing for the sheer fun and folly of it all. But it’s a serious business here in Bremen, as evidenced by the multiple Kohlfahrt parties we passed on the road, some of which sported Bollerwagens decked out with flashing lights and loud speakers. The restaurant resembled more of a banquet hall, with about 100 long tables full of rosy-cheeked Kohlfahrters, swaying arm in arm and singing along to “Que Sera, Sera.” It’s experiences like these that remind me how different some things are here than in the States. Germans have no open container law to contend with and are perfectly free (and encouraged, in this case) to walk around toting shot-glass necklaces, singing songs, and pulling a wagon full of alcohol.
Although my observation is that even during the public inebriation and silliness of Kohlfahrt, Germans still manage to act fairly civilized. But civilized or not, it was obvious that everyone was having what seemed like the best Kohlfahrt ever. Until next year, that is…