Monday, February 18, 2008

Hard Day's Night, Part Two: Night

(...we join our heroes, back home in Strasbourg after a long Sunday of cycling through rural Germany).

After a not-nearly-restful-enough two hour nap, we were roused just before midnight by the electronic yelping of our alarm clock.

“Do we have to go?” asked Amynah, drowsily.

“Well, we should,” I replied, unenthusiastically.

“We could just call and cancel,” she suggested.

“Maybe we could have a bite to eat, then see how we feel,” I replied.

Tearing ourselves from the soft, warm embrace of our bed, we wolfed down some food. At 12:15 AM we looked at each other: were we really going to do this, even as every fibre of our being begged for rest? Not believing what I was seeing, I watched my hand – oh, treacherous hand! – grab my coat. We were on our way.

Twenty minutes later, we were at the Gare central where we met the rest of the dazed dozen assembled by my French teacher Danielle. Our destination: Basel, which was celebrating its famous Fasnacht.

Like Venice’s Carnivale or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Fasnacht is a giant masquerade, with parades, music and street food. Unlike those cities, Basel’s Fasnacht starts at 4 AM, and roughly a week late, neither of which is very Swiss. There are a few different stories as to why this is; theories include a hangover from not changing to the Gregorian calendar, or a meeting that ran long.

Do I look fat in this?

We picked a spot near Basel’s cathedral, eating some of the flour soup and onion tart from a vendor that is traditional for the event.

Just before four o’clock, every light in the city went out, and the massive crowds were thrown into near total blackness. Within a few minutes, the city night was pierced by the sound of hundreds, then thousands. of fifes and drums. Elaborately costumed musicians began marching in tight formation through the narrow medieval streets, illuminated only by handmade lamps mounted on their heads.

It's hard to fully capture how eerie this is - you could feel the whole city burst into life, with the faint rattle of distant drums mingling with fusillades erupting from closer quarters.

To better appreciate the event, Danielle told us to dive in; once a group of marchers passed us, we fell in behind them. There was no set route, so one masked platoon would cross paths with another, or two would need to squeeze past each other in a narrow alley, while onlookers pressed themselves against the walls.

It sounds chaotic, and it was. But, surprisingly, it did not feel quite as joyful as one would expect. More than once, as my ears were battered by three different percussion ensembles keeping their respective flocks of tin-voiced harpies in check, demonic faces menacing from every corner, I felt a sense of unease, even dread. It was rather like we were following the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and wherever he was taking us was not going to be pleasant.

As the sky began to lighten, the cacophony lessened somewhat, as marchers dropped out and headed to the impromptu restaurants in people’s cellars serving sweet, crispy pastries and, presumably, coffee (though we were at that hour where a beer might have been appropriate). Amynah and I ducked out early, along with a couple of PhD students from her lab that were actually intending to get an early start on the day. Sunrise found us in Strasbourg, insensate, ears ringing even in our dreams.

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