Friday, March 2, 2012

Being Less a Blogpost Than An Essay on Marching Around with Flames and Cultural Governance

The annual Fasnacht celebration in Basel, Switzerland was highly recommended to us because in contrast to the Faschings festivals we’ve seen in southern Germany, it’s longer in duration and oriented around music.  From the parade of fire, to the subsequent days (it’s three full days long) of costumed Baselers of all ages marching day and night to solemn drums and piccolo bands, it was a revelatory lesson in letting your hair down, communally, in accordance with traditions, and confirming the rule of law.

Credit for the photos goes entirely to my DH, who snapped hundreds of pictures during our two days in Basel.  I took photos too, but they don't hold a candle to his!

Thousands of Basel residents belong to “cliques”:  the first time I’ve ever heard this word used in a non-derogatory sense.  Some cliques have been established for centuries, others began recently.  They spend the year prior to each festival planning and making their costumes, and thinking about the topic on which they will all comment with long, wry poems in their local Germanic dialect, with their costumes, with their “float”, and their “laterne”.  This last is a lantern: each clique has one large artist-painted lantern reflecting this year’s subject topic, and a lot of similar smaller lanterns which fit onto the tops of their oversized masks with attached wigs and hats.  The cliques also spend time together regularly during the year practicing the music they’ll perform during their marches.  The more traditional groups have a piccolo section and a drum section which play mostly traditional, melancholy tunes and rhythms.  Others are marching brass bands who played many tunes familiar to high school bands the world over:  “Spanish Eyes”,  “Happy Days are Here Again”!

The costumes are outlandish, funny, and/or scary, simultaneously.  Many are variations on clown suits, and there’s a lot of cross-dressing for extra hilarity.  The masks are huge and grotesque, with big noses and wigs.  Some aimed at scariness with skeletal death’s heads, and others at light-hearted fun with beany babies and flowers on their hats and garments.  Costumes festooned with trash or fashioned from recyclables offered social commentary. The costumes, the floats, and the gifts of candy and flowers to onlookers were all we saw in common with the Catholic Church centered Faschings parades in Karlsruhe and Stuttgart.  This was an occasion to share with their fellow citizens the hard work done all year and to celebrate together the wonderful things we can create when we follow tradition and work hard together.

Shortly after we arrived on Sunday afternoon, we took another train ride (just 15 minutes) to Liestal, which while close to Basel is the governmental center of another state.  By the time we arrived around 5 pm, the town had already withstood a long, loud and messy parade, leaving the cobbled winding medieval streets an inch deep in confetti, candy wrappers and plastic cups.  Fire fighters from many nearby towns wearing full gear were busy setting up hose connections and establishing firewatch points on roofs high and low.  We settled ourselves to wait for darkness to fall to view the “Chienbase” or “Fire Parade” starting just after 7.  We were determined to be in the front row, and we succeeded.   However, we were not unscathed by this proximity to the parade.
First came the bands with their lanterns lit, piping and drumming eerily.  As the darkness intensified, the first of the fire troops arrived:  first, a dozen or so marchers hoisting very heavy “brooms” of two or three dozen sticks of firewood wired to a small tree, and blazing, preceded a wagon, packed fully and carefully with firewood, and blazing high.  The aim was to process through the ancient town gate, threatening the town with a real danger of destruction, but to maintain order while playing this game of elemental chicken.  As each group of broom bearers came along, their blazing wagons were burning with increasing ferocity, and the heat in the front row became nearly unbearable.  I had to turn my back when the marchers had to pause in front of me, and my DH wrapped me in his raincoat to shelter me.  After I’d done this a couple of times I looked down, and some children who’d stood near me had joined me under the coat!  The wagons often had to pause for several minutes near us until the firefighters at the town gate were ready for them, and as the blazes intensified and roared, I had to force my way several people deep into the crowd.  My DH stayed in the front, fascinated as ever by flames, and other small people near him took shelter under his raincoat.  One woman looked up at him and said, “You’re a hero!”  His new raincoat bears some burn holes in testimony of his courage.

When the fire parade finally ended, the street party began and we refueled with grilled sausages and cold beer.  We were pretty tired out, and jumped on a train back to Basel, having spent about five hours witnessing the elemental power of fire, celebrated, and contained.

We were too exhausted by the nighttime fire parade in Liestal to get up in time for the 4 am commencement of festivities in Basel with the “Morgestraich” (stroke of morning) parade of lanterns and bands.  It’s supposed to be an unforgettable sight, when all the lights in the city are shut off simultaneously, but we just didn’t have it in us to miss sleep just to see it, when we knew the parades and performances would continue for the duration of our stay in Basel.

We explored Basel’s medieval inner city and even climbed the tower of the Cathedral on the Rhine (like I needed something else to scare me to death).  The streets were narrow and windy, some so steeply hilly that they turned into staircases.  The old town is beautifully preserved and maintained.  We positioned ourselves on the oldest bridge over the Rhine to watch the afternoon parade, which featured probably thousands of marchers, lasted for almost two hours, and went both ways along the street.  Candy, flowers and fruits were tossed or handed carefully to onlookers, and we were showered with confetti more times than we could count.  My DH was often used as a target, being taller than others, and had confetti shot into his nose and ears!

Once the official parade (which may have involved judging) ended, the groups took breaks, and then put their masks back on and processed, piping and drumming, as they wished until they needed another break.  We finally gave up for the day at 10 pm, and bands were still roving and playing all over town.  We saw some extremely tired child members of cliques, just barely clinging to wakefulness on their way home.

Tuesday proved to be Children’s Day.  Bands of pipers and drummers, in different costumes than on Monday, roamed at will, and groups of children in wagons, costumed to match one another as clowns, animals, and fairy tale characters, traveled through the streets thoughtfully or fiendishly distributing candy and confetti.  We took a break for a couple of hours to visit the beautifully designed historical museum which illuminated for us the Celtic, Roman and Germanic origins of Basel, its medieval affluence, and the changes in governance from church to state. Then we followed bands up and down hills, winding along the narrow old streets, for some hours before we had to start making our way to the train station.

This was no Mardi Gras; no binge drinking or lewd eroticism.  This was a community, family affair like nothing I’ve seen before.  The cliques had members of all ages, teens and retirees piping and drumming together, discussing and composing their gently humorous takes on local and national issues, sharing their labors with fellow citizens, and celebrating their ability to express themselves and not self-destruct.  With this tradition, Baselers teach their children how to be an individual within a group, to build a community, and to ensure the survival of their culture for the next generation.  My one-dimensional preconception of the Swiss as hard-working, good-looking, fit and trim athletic watchmakers has undergone a transformation and a deepening. 

Oh, and I ate some really great sausages and quiches there too!  Sometime I’ll share about Flour Soup (really, it’s brown gravy sprinkled with grated Emmental cheese), a traditional food for Fasnacht in Basel.  The lessons of cuisine here were completely overtaken by the thought-provoking lessons of culture.

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