31 July 2010


"Morgestraich, vorwärts, marsch!" is the battle cry usually heard at 4am, on a Monday morning in late February, in the Swiss city of Basel. All the lights in the city go out, and for the next 72 hours Basel is in the firm hold of the traditional cliques, the carneval groups. For many Baslers, these are the three most beautiful days of the year, and they follow a very traditional sequence of events, which after the early morning procession includes afternoon street parades, and of course the Schnitzelbank recitals at night. Schnitzelbank is not a food, but a particualar type of verse, satirically written in Basel's local dialect, poking fun at events and personalities of the bygone year. More often than not, Zurich and its residents are the butts of the jokes - the traditional rivalry between the two cities seeming even more accentuated during Fasnacht than at any other time of the year. When I was once invited to attend the Fasnacht with a Basel friend of mine, I was beseeched not to speak, for my dialect would have given me away as one of the loathed Zurichers - and by consequence put my local friend into dire straits.

Far away from home, of course, such petty differences melt away. And so it was with great enthusiasm, and a sense of privilege, that I donned an authentic Basel Fasnacht costume the other week, responding to a message from the Swiss Consulate in Montréal. It, in turn, had been invited by the organizing committee of Le Grand Charivari, Montréal's summer carneval, to showcase Swiss Fasnacht culture as the guest nation this year. (You would think that they'd rather go for the sparsely-clad Rio de Janeiro variant, but no....)

What I had expected to be a somewhat half-hearted affair turned out to be a professionally organized and apparently very well funded event. With what must have been a generous portion of the Swiss mission's cultural budget for the year, a container full of costumes and props was brought in from Basel, along with a batch of live Fasnacht musicians. The cliques in Basel have generously lent out their 2010 costumes for us to parade in, and along with the other Swiss expatriates of all ages showing up that Sunday afternoon, I quickly recognized the themes and people that were made fun of. However, as we started to get dressed as Lybian soldiers, bankrupt UBS bankers and ruthless pharmaceutical researchers, doubts started creeping up inside our Waggis helmets. Would the Montréalais "get" the jokes? Or would they just wonder why exactly an oversized camel with a weird face was being paraded across downtown?

Little did it matter, for the Swiss group was the first, but only one of many in the entire parade. Following us through the crowded avenues of the city's center at nightfall was a multitude of Montréal borough groups, which had taken the Basel concept of satire to heart, and applied it to local themes ranging from BP's oil spill to excessive credit card spending and even city government corruption. Oh, wait! That last topic was actually banned by... city authorities. Maybe, then, it wasn't so bad that the boldness of the Swiss statements was not fully understood!

Either way, we certainly had a blast and I must admit that I was strangely touched when, at dusk, the sound of drums and piccolo flutes led the way through the streets of what is now my home town. The local spectators were enthusiastic (amazing what a few chocolate and Ricola giveaways will do), but the biggest compliment came a few days later from Basel itself, in the form of a TeleBasel broadcast approving of the event!

And for those of you not mastering Swiss German, or rather the particular form of it these weird people in Basel speak ;-), here are a few impressions without words:

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