By Nancy T. Lu
The best thing about knowing a native of Basel was getting invited to experience the Swiss carnival called Fasnacht.
Long before sunrise one nippy morning in early March years ago, I found myself motoring from Zurich to the happening city of Basel. At an unholy hour when most individuals elsewhere were still snugly curled up in bed, people were pouring out into the picturesque streets for the carnival opening called Morgestracht.
On all streets leading to the center of Basel, pins embossed with classic images of carnival mainstays Alti Tanti (Old Aunt) and Waggi were being sold. The proceeds from the sale of the souvenirs serving as entry passes to the action area were earmarked for Fasnacht (carnival) expenses.
Swiss precision being what it was, all lights went out when the cathedral bell pealed to announce the stroke of four in the morning. The beautiful lantern parade commenced shortly.
Like fireflies in the night, the colorful creations of Swiss craftsmen snaked their way through the crowded streets to the solemn sound of piccolos and tin drums. Mardi gras it certainly was for the thousands of costumed participants who flaunted a heady razzmatazz of colors to add to the festive atmosphere. But the difference was that the traditional music associated with the opening of this carnival – a last fling before the start of Lent – did not whip the public into a frenzy. The spectacle only invited quiet viewing. At 5:30 a.m., the queues in restaurants were already very long. Everyone could not wait to slurp the steaming hot thick soup and to gorge on the served onion tart.
For two days, several bugle and drum corps led by towering Alti Tantis played repeatedly an identical tune. Men and women with uniform papier mache masks marched in big groups, attracting with their music a following among the unattached merrymakers. Others preferred to go around in pairs, trios or quartets. For some, it was a family affair.
Squares were jampacked. Human traffic from every direction resulted in bottlenecks at every turn. Loners got lost in small alleys. Only the faltering beats of their drums announced their isolated presence in the neighborhood long after the rest had put down their musical instruments.
The parades complete with confetti got everyone in the mood for revelry. Confetti by the sackload landed on unsuspecting victims.
Each entourage chose for the occasion a theme – a closely guarded secret until the time of the carnival – meant to convey the spirit of the Basel tradition.
Years ago, some Waggis fancied a spoof on the Walkman fad as most timely and appropriate. Others rode on the popularity of Rubik’s cube. The avalanche of Japanese goods in the Swiss market then also called for a commentary by one group dressed like geishas. In more recent times, a Chinese theme would perhaps dominate the street show.
As the floats carrying ubiquitous Waggis toured the city at a snail’s pace, mobs excitedly reached out for the goodies being thrown. Clementines in season were sent flyig in different directions. So were candies. Revelers who approached the floats were generously rewarded but not always with edibles. Naughty clown-like Waggis stuffed gaping mouths of women especially with fistfuls of confetti.
The display windows of shops were dressed up in accordance with the Fasnacht mood. Alti Tanti dolls were on sale. So were scrumptious Waggi marzipans. Department stores offered props for instant masquerades.
A gamut of sights vied for attention everywhere. One bedroom linen retail outlet had a façade redecorated to resemble a venue for peep show or stutzli (one Swiss franc) sex. Voyeurs saw through the narrow slits a Queen-size bed. On it was a sign serving notice that the bedroom performance was being suspended because of the Fasnacht.
During the carnival in Basel, the natives were permitted to poke fun, criticize or condemn events and personalities prominently in the news in the last 12 months. Take, for example, the controversial advertising poster of Rifle jeans then. Swiss authorities in Basel banned a few months earlier the revealing of bare bottoms in the publicity campaign of the jeans brand. More than one carnival float made spoof statements about this.
Lanterns which cost a tidy sum to make also zeroed in on the river pollution question bothering the residents of the center of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries in Switzerland. The sex orgy temple patronized by Swiss nationals in Poona, India, was likewise satirized. So was a famous seeress who could not protest the parody about her during the carnival.
The lanterns, hundreds of them, were examined at close range in the exhibition hall. Scribbled on them were witty punch lines and messages more readily understood by local
residents. But the words gave onlookers an insight of the stories behind the designs which were competing for prizes.
In the end, the Alti Tantis and the Waggis who put up a remarkably good show must disband and make their exit from the confetti-littered Basel stage. The costume ball was over. Once more, sobriety returned to the city. But the combined sound of piccolos and drums continued to haunt those privileged to have experienced Fasnacht.