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Swiss Carnival Tinged With Bizarre Traditions

February 02, 1992|ANDREW COWIN | Cowin is a free-lance writer living in Heidelberg, Germany.

BASEL, Switzerland — It's nearly 4 o'clock in the morning and your mood is, to put it mildly, anything but festive. Overcome by a mixture of leaden numbness and nervous irritability, you heap bitter epithets on the absurd idea of beginning a carnival celebration at this wretched hour. To add to your sorrows, you note that the keen winter breeze, which is coursing over the chill, murky depths of the Rhine and weaving through the alleyways of Basel's old quarter, has begun to insinuate itself aggressively up your trouser legs. A minor consolation is that the thousands of fellow "revelers" are presumably enduring comparable torments.

Your dimly flickering thought processtries to assure you that something interesting must be about to happen. A more cynical inner voice suggests that the Swiss simply have an odd notion of what constitutes fun or, more specifically, a carnival that begins during Lent rather than in the traditional manner--as a prelude to it.

But then several church clocks begin to chime the hour, and all of the city's street lights are extinguished. The sudden darkness is startling, and in the ensuing few seconds of tingling silence, the crowd's apparent torpor and apathy are transformed into a tense, almost feverish expectancy. This sudden surge of emotion brings the thrilling, if somewhat alarming, feeling of being on a volcano that's about to blow.

What follows is not just the start of a magical spectacle, it's the moment when the energies pent up over months of preparation and waiting can at last find explosive release. Thus, far from building to a climax, the annual Basler Fasnacht (Basel Carnival, this year set for March 9-12) opens with its high point: an emotional eruption of such intensity that it takes three days before the last tremors die away.

From all over the city, thousands of piccolos burst into an eerie, shrill chaos of intertwined melodies underpinned by the shifting staccato of countless drums. The sound is said to cause the most hardened Basel citizen to break out in goose bumps, but even more extraordinary is the sight of the spectral masked bands emerging from the dark recesses of narrow side streets and alleyways. Preceded by enormous painted lanterns, each ghostly clique--or organized group whose sole purpose is to participate in Fasnacht--sports a baffling collection of bizarre costumes and masks, ranging from the deadpan comic to the downright grotesque, the ghastly to the utterly silly.

The Morgenstraich (morning serenade in the Basel dialect) has no fixed route: The marchers just wander about as the fancy takes them, plunging through the spectators or abruptly darting off down side streets as they work themselves into a somber, self-absorbed trance.

A good place to watch the start of the proceedings is up by the medieval cathedral (Munster) on the west bank of the river. From there you have an enchanting view of the old bridge (Mittlere Rhein Brucke), where the myriad electrified torches resemble a swarming army of glowworms. Alas, it must be said that the charming effect is not enhanced by the constant barrage of camera flashes.

For the remaining four hours until dawn, it's best to avoid the crowds that congest the bridge, main roads and squares. Rather, you should sneak into one of the narrow, almost deserted alleyways on the west side of the Rhine. Standing in the pitch darkness, you won't have long to wait before a dimly lit detachment of ghouls heaves into sight. As the huge, monstrous heads with their frozen expressions approach, the confined space transforms the melancholy sounds of the piccolos--playing numbers ranging from "Scotland the Brave" to a sort of syncopated "Colonel Bogey"--to a strident, deafening squealing before they again trail away into the gloom. Similarly, the muffled tidal beating of the drums becomes an ear-splitting crackle of gunfire before receding into the background cacophony.

As you will have already noticed, this is all a far cry from the idea of carnival as a setting for innocent buffoonery. Indeed, although not without its comic or joyful elements, this is not fun in the conventional sense. And it's not a show, either. Rather, you sense that the participants and many spectators are deep within themselves, drifting in a trance-like state. Also, perhaps owing to the unaccustomed hour, nerve ends that are normally shielded by a sheath of habit and routine are unusually exposed, alive and tingling. It's an emotional high that will carry many through the next three days of celebrations with only a few brief snatches of sleep.

As the sky begins to lighten and the spell begins to weaken, it's a good moment to battle your way into a cafe or bakery to grab a bite of traditional Fasnacht fare: a bowl of creamy flour soup ( mahlsuppe ; not as bad as it sounds) and a wedge of onion pie ( zwiebelwahe ) .

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