Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wake Up Early

And I mean early. 2:30am alarm. Party starts at 4am; you do what you gotta do. I don't think there is a way to describe what it's like to attend Basel's Morgestraich, part of Fasnacht. The city prepares all year for this, and when it is over everyone is sad and starts counting down to next year. I can give you many details about the events that unfolded, but if you didn't get out of bed between 2:30 and 3am yourself, it'll be hard to feel it.

Wake up too early, bundle up, and head into town while the streets are empty, quiet, and dark. As we walk closer to the city center we see gathering crowds, and then we come to streets lined with spectators. Marching band troops in outrageous costumes and masks are waiting to start the march. Each individual has a small lantern on their head. As a group they carry or roll a large lantern describing timely commentary on society or politics.

Team prep

Big Lanterns

In the above images, notice that there are street lights on and things are pretty well lit. The gathering is just getting set up. This party goes on for miles. The streets, at least the main streets, are full of people. It is just before 4am and town is packed. 

Erwin, again our trusty host, takes us to the street in the photos above. He disappears around a corner to check out the center of the center of town, Marktplatz, where a large street goes through a large plaza below a church. He comes back and tells us that there is a better view over there, because we would be higher up. Not as much detail, but a great overview of that particular pathway through the crowds. 

The parade is much less organized than you might think, this being Switzerland. Really, this is the moment when hundreds of marching bands, with only tom-toms and flutes, sometimes only flutes, start marching through the streets in any direction they please. Tonight they wear any costume they want, perhaps from past years or even the first year they participated. Over the following three days, they will wear this year's costume and all members of a single group will be identical. But tonight each costume is unique. Some of the small, hat-style lanterns are from the 1980s, 1970s, and I even saw one from 1929.

Actually, this is the moment: the city turns off every light and a cheer goes up from all around. The only things we can see are lanterns. And from every direction we hear the start of tom-toms pattering and flutes whistling. I assume this is akin to a pre-dawn call to war, one, two, four hundred years ago.

The marching bands are overwhelming at times. The high pitch of the flutes combined with rat-a-tat tom-toms is moving and startling. The marching bands are all around and not playing in unison. In fact, when we move to a complex intersection, the parade is going in both directions and barely moving at all. Some groups are crossing on cross streets, others are joining or leaving - all of it happening in every direction.

Our new vantage point allows us to see some of the larger lanterns up close - Erwin did his best to explain the significance, but there were so many. Some are about big news stories, like old women conceiving babies. Others are focused on politicians who are in the pocket of some corporation, or newspapers that are secretly owned by politicians, or politicians as puppets - that is a somewhat common theme.

This marching goes on for three days.

Below is a lantern full of trash. Environmental commentary, no doubt.

We walk down to the river to see what we can see. Black Rhine. On the way we walk past a place where you can get a snack and some gluh wine, or mulled wine kind of. It is probably 5:30am and definitely time for a hot drink. The Rhine is black and there are barely any lights on in the rest of the city. The sky is still completely dark. The marching bands are piping and tom-toming from different directions, but it's a little quieter at the river.

We decide to head towards the Münster and walk up a steep, tiny alley that is completely dark. Along the way we have to stop a couple of times to let marching bands pass. They probably can't see much because of their masks, so everyone lets them through. In a pitch black street a group of just two flutists passes and they are one of the nicest bands by far.

The tradition is to enjoy some flour soup for 7am breakfast - 3 hours after things start. We head towards a restaurant where Erwin has eaten before, but he assures us that flour soup is as good as it sounds no matter where we go. Not really a delicacy, more a sign of things to come (lent, perhaps, or whatever Christiany things people do leading up to Passover).

We feel lucky to find a table in a warm restaurant. The building used to be the guild meeting house of key makers and locksmiths. The hot flour broth tastes... salty. It is delicious. We have coffees, enjoying more heat after our three hours wandering the cold, dark, busy streets of Basel. Plenty of marchers are also taking a break. Many of them are wearing ridiculous, baggy clown onesies, but they leave their masks in the hall.

Just enough morning light to realize it's going to be day soon.

We stay so long that when we emerge from the restaurant, things are different. But similar.

Not tired.

Evidence of soup eating - lollipop lanterns resting:

and for posterity - a bicycle:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rites of Passage - Swiss Style

Switzerland is one of the countries we have enjoyed most. The bike infrastructure, the clean rivers, the free drinking water in every town, and now the fire festival. Liestal, Switzerland is the 13,000 resident sister town of Sacramento, CA. Why? Probably not because once a year they carry and pull burning things through the town in a most spectacular spectacle. On the Sunday night after Mardi Gras, the town parties with confetti, beer, raclette, and of course burning bundles of wood.

Erwin, Thomas' dad, took us to Chienbäse and hold on because there are a lot of photos in this post.

When I say bundles of burning logs I mean... a lot of wood.

You don't get to use your tractor for the actual "parade", somebody, or some people, do the pulling. The group below was dressed in a team outfit that was kind of... dark. You'll see some brighter versions soon. Also, note the way the street is colored in many colors. And someone is stooped over grabbing a good handful of street. No doubt she threw that at her unsuspecting friend on the cell phone. 

Those colors, that entire street? Confetti.

I nailed Joshua. He didn't think I'd do it.

Joy in a bag. 

A group of kids was pelting a lady with yellow confetti. We're assuming she was their teacher or something.

This trailer has been used before. Each group is called a clique - and I'm guessing that once you're in, you're always in. The folks practice and train all year round for this evening. Below, a good shot of the wheel. Notice how everything about this "trailer" is metal? Remember that.

And it's not just burning wood they practice. They also have marching bands. A lot of them. They march through town, with small crowds following along behind. The daytime bands are full bands and they play pop songs and rock the party. The more traditional groups have just tom-toms and flutes. No matter what, they are in team costume. 

Many of the costumes involve large, hideous, terrifying masks. Luckily, I am not afraid of masks.

Masked team on the right. Dudes with wood on the left.

Below is my highly professional video of this scene. Marching band.

Yeah, I was thinking "that must be heavy, but I guess you get used to it" too. What I didn't think about is how much lighter the wood bundles would be once they were on fire.

A/V team clearly got set up early. Just waiting for the show now. 

Yup. That guy. With the witch hat. And the smaller wood bundles. And the wool jacket. That guy is going to light that shit on fire and run down the street while thousands of people watch and try not to get sparked on. Some people (carrying fire) wore colanders as helmets.

And possibly the best part (not even close) is that they come down this little street, through that little archway. Yeah. 

Francis, you want a soda? Yeah, me neither. Forgot my Lire anyway.

Why go to the bar when you can just bring one with you? These guys just kept moving when someone needed more space in the street for giant rolling carts full of wood.

Note the masks in the windows. Also, how tall the pile of wood is in the photo below. Think they'll sit in the windows when that wood is burning? Nope. No they won't.

This band. Pink clogs. They are both the marching band and the football team. You can see one helmet held by the guy with green hair, right behind the giant, white tuba. They had helmets and huge faces. They played with their helmets on, but on a stage and I didn't get a good picture. The bands took turns on the stage. 

Normal street scene. This week.

Typical Liestal residents.

Joshua might be looking up at that mural and he is definitely not terrified, even if I caught him with the flash. He's completely happy because he is eating a cheese pie and drinking Quöllfrish. A number of people came up to Joshua throughout the afternoon and evening, warning him that having a beard like that was dangerous in this town. They joked and said he would get home 1 kilo lighter - because the sparks would burn his beard off. Funny. One guy started talking to Joshua in Swiss-German and when Joshua said he didn't speak German (in German) the guy responded (in English): "Oh, I thought you were from the mountains. With that beard."

The best cheese pie ever. Or, as the Swiss say: Chäs-chüechli

What would a Swiss street party/religious/pagan tradition be without giant sausages?

It's getting darker... this is another street, just for the record.

Okay, not enough light for my underwater camera. The green glow is coming from the last marching band that walked down the street. Everyone was lined up to watch at this point. The festivities start at 7:15pm, so people are ready at 7. Those lights above the street, as well as the rest of the lights in the city, were turned off shortly after this photo was taken. Two elderly couples on the third floor of the building across from us still had a light on, and everyone in the street and in other apartments yelled at them to turn off the lights. We all cheered them when they finally turned them off.

The above is with flash. There's a parade happening. Flute marching band walking by with lanterns. Don't worry, the next post will be full of them. The point of this photo is to show you how dark it was.

And finally the fire:

Individual insane really tough people carrying their burning bundles. 

Our viewpoint, from behind a few rows of people. We were hot. This was a small one.

Below is our view looking up the street towards the tower. Um. Is that a fire? On wheels? Remember, they are human-powered now. 

Oh, here it comes.

 Did something just explode up there?

The firemen - the ones who are there in case something (else) starts burning - stood between the front row and the cart. They had everyone turn away to protect their faces, not that the spectators needed coaching. There were fire hoses all around. Just in case the three story high flames...

They came singly and in packs. They would pause, smile for the cameras, then they'd do some yelling and take off running.

oh fuck. really?

It was a cold, dark night - between burning carts. There were more individuals than carts overall.

remember this one?

The above was the tallest. Almost got the street lights strung above.

Erwin, our host

warmed and lit by flame

After the show was over, the party went on. We had some raclette and I just could not get a good photo. That is half a round of cheese. The guy roasted the top, open edge with a raclette roaster and then once it was melted and browned enough he scraped the top layer onto a piece of bread. We ate them with pickles and pickled onions and special raclette spices.

That was the night. It was all over by about 9:30pm and after our cheese bomb late-night snack we headed back to the house to catch some sleep before we woke up the next morning at 2:30am. That'll have to be the next post.