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Fasnacht in Basel, Switzerland, 2002. Morgenstraich, 4 a.m. in Muensterplatz.
We stood in the midst of a colorful crowd whose hand-painted lanterns were aglow on top of their masks, lifted high on sticks, or even (the largest) carried by multiple people. The towers of the gothic cathedral were visible in the light of the activity below and the cool moonlight from above. Then, the cobblestone square went dark. We all counted down in Swiss-German - and then the sound of church bells rang out at 4 a.m. Brilliant oranges, fiery yellows and reds, and every color of the rainbow came to life around us on the masks and costumes of the Waggis, marching in time to the sweet, high dance of the piccolos and the powerful beat of the drums. The magnificent solemnity of ancient tradition held the hand of another generation of creative celebration, and everyone was a friend. Formality dropped among the cobblestones as we fell into step behind a group of Waggis, exchanging warm smiles and enjoying a quiet comraderie as our hearts beat along with the drums and soared in the sky with the piccolos. Then, wandering from one street to another, we changed groups like dance partners, sometimes switching to the exuberant guggemusik bands. We danced along to the blaring of golden trumpets and tubas, we boogied to slightly off-tune but recognizable versions of songs like "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" or even "Born in the U.S.A."
A Swiss-American, I am happy to be the descendant of a Basler and have visited family there fairly often. But I had not participated in Fasnacht since I was a child, and seeing it as an adult gave me a fresh sense of awe. All year long, Baslers prepare for Fasnacht, painting masks and lanterns, sewing costumes, building floats for the parades, accumulating huge bags of confetti and gifts to be enthusiastically distributed, and more. In 2002, my mother and I collected different colored bags of Fasnacht confetti, and at my California wedding in December of that year all our guests reveled in throwing fistfuls of confetti at us as we tried to make our way to our car. The confetti continued to fly long after we had driven away! I am so proud of my Swiss heritage, and Fasnacht is an important and visible symbol of the yearlong beauty and creativity of my mother's hometown, country, and most of all, its people.
Basler Fasnacht: A topsy-tury world
Although I now live in the United States, my hometown is Basel, and I make every effort to attend the Morgenstreich and the rest of the Fasnacht activities whenever I can. During carnival time, the world is very often upside-down, and there is one particular story, in this regard, that is worth retelling.
On a Wednesday morning—before the carnival parade (Corteges) began, I made a short visit to my grandmother’s grave at a local cemetery. It is a somber place with ancient yews and imposing gravestones. As I was leaving the grounds, I saw a man walking down a narrow gravel path of the graveyard carrying a iron ball which was chained to his ankle. He was hobbling along in traditional black-and-white striped prison garb. It was a rather surprising, if not absurd and grotesque, sight. But then I remembered that this was carnival time.
In less than a minute, I had caught up with this “convict.” But so had an elderly lady. Agitatedly, she approached the man with the iron leggings. And what followed still puzzles me to this day.
The lady was certainly a native Basler because in prefect local dialect she directed some rather blunt questions toward the convict: “And what are you doing here? What is your role here? How do you explain yourself? Do you have permission from the authorities to wander about?”
The “prisoner” was rather taken aback. But he explained very politely that he lived and worked at the cemetery, that he was participating in the carnival activities, and that there just was no other way from him to catch the bus into town than to walk through the graveyard from his caretaker’s house wearing his costume. The lady was totaled befuddled: “Do the police know about this?” For her, this was some escaped criminal.
“I’m awfully sorry,” he repeated as he slowly walked on and left the baffled senior standing on the path.
I struck up a conversation with the “criminal,” and we rode into town on the bus together. He also could not explain why this lady did not seem to know that it was carnival time. And he even apologized to me for upsetting the solemnity of the cemetery by walking through it in his outfit.
Last year, he explained, there was a robber who had broken into a prison to steal valuables from a safe in one of the offices. His carnival group saw the irony of someone trying to break INTO a prison. “This was to good to pass up,” he said. “As far as I know,” he explained, “most people attempt to break OUT of prison.” So the group decided to make this break-in the satirical topic (Suject) of their costumes and of their cartoon lantern. And, sure enough, I saw the group later in the day marching in black-and-white prison uniforms playing drums and piccolos, each with an appropriate inmate number as well as the customary ball and chain.
Prisoners loose in the cemetery; people confusing make-believe with reality; individuals breaking into prisons! I am certain my grandmother would have enjoyed this story, for whenever something bizarre or strange happened, she would often remark: “Waisch, Peter, es isch a vercherti Wält! (You know, Peter, it is a world that’s upside-down”).
A carnival story from Basil, Switzerland
For several years I got the New Mexican Journal. I was pleased to see that in your exhibition about Carnaval you also mention the "Basler Fasnacht". I am from Basel but I also lost my heart in New Mexico about 30 years ago. Therefore I was proud to know that a very special part of Basler culture is shown in my other favorite city.
Thank you for that.
Fasnacht has already been over for some time but nevertheless I would like to send you some short impressions.
I wish you great success with your exhibition and send you best regards from Basel.
A carnival story from: Arequipa,
What I enjoyed most about Carnaval growing up in Arequipa,
was filling up water balloons until we had several buckets full.
Then we would go out to the front door, and throw water balloons
to friends and strangers as they passed by. If we were lucky,
our father would take out the truck, we would all climb in the
back with our water balloon buckets and drive around downtown
throwing the water balloons. Of course we also got soaking wet
because people were throwing balloons at us. When they ran out
of balloons, it was just buckets of water, even from their balconies.
Everyone expected to end up soaking wet on those hot summer
days. I guess you could say it was like a city-wide snowball
fightonly with water balloons.